A Night to Remember

france

The night I had been looking forward to since before Christmas had arrived. My ticket had been tucked behind the carriage clock on the mantelpiece for an absolute age and my packed bag had been sitting in the hallway since lunchtime.

I enjoyed an early supper washed down with two, or maybe three, glasses of sherry. It is so very easy for one to lose count. I sat patiently until 6 o’clock when Felicity was due to pick me up. I no longer drive due to an unfortunate misunderstanding with the constabulary several years ago which I would rather not talk about. The high pitched beep of the Ford Ka’s horn alerted me to the fact that Felicity had arrived so I emptied my glass then picked up my surprisingly heavy bag and left the cottage.

We had allowed an hour to get to the venue, just in case there were any traffic problems, although it normally only takes half an hour. Due to our increasing excitement, Felicity was even more chatty than usual and we caught up with village gossip, who had been up to town, and for what purpose, the health issues of various friends and neighbours and which sought after cleaners and gardeners were taking on new clients.

As it was still relatively early, we found a space close to the entrance and Felicity spent several minutes parking, almost clipping two cars in the process. Felicity is my closest friend but she is a distracted driver and even she would admit that parking is not her strong suit. Breathing a sigh of relief that a calamity has been averted, we walked into the cinema, ignored the concession stands full of sugary treats and presented our tickets to a taciturn young man. There is normally a policy of checking bags for contraband at this cinema but I have noticed that this is waived for an event such as tonight’s live showing of Les Liaison Dangereuses from the National Theatre. As the price of admission is higher, the audience is deemed to be more respectable and therefore considered less likely to smuggle in food and drink.

We were handed a mimeographed sheet of paper with information about the play, including a grainy photograph of Dominic West which didn’t do him justice, but as I had forgotten my reading glasses, I didn’t bother to read it. I peered at my ticket to see which screen we had been allocated, saw a large number 11 and directed Felicity to that screen, which luckily didn’t involve a long walk to the end of the corridor.

All was dark when we entered, which I thought a little unusual, but when we reached our seats in the middle of row H discovered people already sitting there. I leaned across and politely asked them to move but they rudely ignored me. I asked them louder and they told me to go away. I threatened to get the manager if they didn’t move so they finally got up and pushed their way past people at the end of the row who scowled and tutted at having their cinematic enjoyment spoiled. The couple showed me their tickets and it was then I realised my error. The reason the room was dark was because a film was already playing and a vast snowy landscape illuminated the screen, not at all the interior of an 18th century French noblewoman’s house.

Felicity and I departed with as much grace as we could muster, shut the door gratefully on angry mutterings and worse then went next door to screen 10. We found our seats without any further excitement and settled in to watch a play beamed live from the West End to a provincial cinema for our entertainment. Oh, the wonders of modern technology!

The large auditorium gradually filled up and I recognised a few of my neighbours, calling out and waving to them but they turned away and didn’t seem to notice me. Felicity and I chattered away amiably as the lights dimmed and the preamble to the main production started. We highlighted points of interest to each other and mentioned which future plays we would like to see, a Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It being at the very top of my list.

The excitement was palpable when the lights were finally extinguished and Felicity pointed out a few shadowy figures moving around on the dark stage, just in case I hadn’t noticed. Chandeliers containing real candles were lit providing a lovely soft light by which we could see actresses playing cards. We marvelled at the sumptuous dresses and the daring amount of décolletage on display.

All this was a mere precursor to the main attraction and when Dominic West appeared in tight breeches my heart skipped a beat. He is my favourite of the new rash of actors with quality backgrounds who attended good schools. I have watched almost every programme he has been in, except The Wire which was about drug dealers in an urban part of America and was completely incomprehensible. Dominic’s character in the play is a charming womaniser and utterly without morals, making him completely irresistible.

The first half of the play went by in a flash. Felicity and I dug in our bags for our interval necessities – olives, antipasto, pate, bread, cheese and a hip flask of amontillado, the finest sherry of all. Felicity helpfully called out numbers from the clock in the corner of the screen which was counting down to the end of the interval. Unable to share the contents of the hip flask with Felicity, as she was the designated driver, I managed to drink all of it myself. I do find that sherry accompanies any foodstuff so perfectly.

The lights dimmed as the second half of the play started. I became somewhat confused and as Dominic’s behaviour worsened, the more angered I became. He seduced an innocent young girl and I informed him he was a cad. He made a pious woman fall in love with him then broke her heart so I gave him a piece of my mind. I was rudely shushed by the woman sitting next to me and Felicity nudged me in the ribs with her elbow. I quietened down and struggled to keep my eyes open after consuming such a delicious repast.

I awoke at the sound of applause and blinked owlishly at Felicity who was standing up and putting her coat on. “Marjorie, you fell asleep and missed the end,” she informed me. I gathered my belongings together and Felicity helped me down the steps, slowly so I wouldn’t miss my footing. I felt very tired and somewhat emotional as I concentrated on walking carefully back to the car. I folded myself in and tucked my now empty bag by my feet. My last thought as I closed my eyes was that she really is my very best friend and I don’t know what I’d do without her.

 

Needs and Wants

ice cubes

Nicola sits at her kitchen table, with a bottle of cheap vodka and an ice cube tray fresh from the freezer. Needing to feel something, she touches the hard plastic of the tray and her soft skin adheres, ever so slightly, to the ice. She feels the coldness start to burn and holds on until discomfort becomes pain. Only then does she slowly withdraw her hand and watches in fascination as the skin peels away, the ice a jealous lover who refuses to give up its hold on her. She prods the newly released fingers with her other hand and they don’t feel like they belong to her. Now those fingers are numb, just like the rest of her.

It is 9.57 in the morning and she is waiting for the digital clock to reach 10 o’clock. Nicola has only a faint idea what a yardarm is but has recently decided that this is the new time for the sun to be over it. Occasionally she can resist taking her first drink until later but not today. 9.58. Nicola is struck by a twinge of guilt as it is a Wednesday morning and she should be at work. Nicola has a migraine, or so she told her boss at the call centre, and they’re becoming more frequent. When sober, she worries that he will comment on these increased absences and what she would do if she was confronted and lost her job. 9.59. Nicola drums her fingers impatiently on the rustic oak table, then runs her fingernail along the grain whilst fighting against the voice inside her head which yells, “POUR THE DAMN DRINK NOW!” 10.00. Nicola deftly unscrews the lid off the bottle and pours a generous measure of the clear liquid into a glass. She adds three slippery ice cubes and sips steadily, fighting the urge to gulp. By her second drink, the voice has calmed and her worries have started to fade.

Ignoring the ice cubes which are forming little puddles of meltwater in their compartments, Nicola takes the half-empty bottle to the sanctuary of her sofa and flops down. She doesn’t have to go out today as she has six bottles of vodka, with names like Cossack, Romanov and Gulag, from a variety of supermarkets. She lies with her head propped on cushions at a suitable angle for sipping. There are many worse things to be addicted to, she thinks, gambling for one, or heroin. At least her vice doesn’t harm anyone but her.

Nicola drove along the road shouting at the Today programme. Evan Davies was interviewing Michael Gove who was spouting his usual nonsense about education. There had been a lot of traffic that morning as it was raining heavily so cars had been crawling down roads she’d usually zip along. She steered the car sharply into a residential side street and congratulated herself on knowing a few sneaky shortcuts. An electronic beep interrupted her tirade about Gove being Cameron’s ventriloquist’s dummy and Nicola rummaged in her capacious handbag whilst trying to keep one eye on the road. She tapped the screen of her new Samsung Galaxy a few times and her eyes flicked between the text message and the road ahead. Bugger. Ali had cancelled on her again. How was she going to get fit if her gym buddy kept bailing? In frustration, she threw her phone back in the bag but missed and it slipped down the side of the passenger seat. Worried that it might have been damaged she felt around in the small gap, ignoring the fussy little voice in her head. She grasped the phone triumphantly and was just checking it was OK when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. A lad of about 8 wearing tell-tale white iPod headphones darted out between the parked cars without looking and Nicola didn’t have time to swerve, let alone stop in time. She hit him squarely and watched as he was propelled up the bonnet where his head hit the windscreen in front of her with a sickening thud, before he slid to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Nicola stalled the car and stared open-mouthed at the tracery of cracks in the glass with a smear of dark blood and matted hair at its centre.

The boy has lain in a coma for the last fourteen months, his parents and sister unable to move on with their lives. Convicted of dangerous driving, Nicola spent ten months in jail and lost her licence for a year which is irrelevant as she’ll never sit behind the wheel of a car again. She couldn’t continue working as a teacher, as no-one would employ her with a criminal record and anyway she couldn’t bear seeing all those kids day in, day out. In a bid to wipe the slate clean and start afresh, she moved to a different part of the country, away from all those who crossed the road to avoid her and huddled in whispered enclaves. She will never escape the events of that day and will carry the regret with her forever. With a blank expression, she draws a little smiley face in the condensation of her empty glass before wiping it away and pouring another drink.

Reunion

reindeer

Rudolph called order, shouting to be heard above the discontented grumblings of his fellow reindeer. This was the inaugural meeting of Reunion, the newly formed reindeer union, and someone had already mentioned going on strike.

The reason for this talk about industrial action was Father Christmas’s recent behaviour; Nick, as he urged everyone to call him, had become an entrepreneur. Tired of having to fly around the world on Christmas Eve, delivering presents to children and eating more mince pies than were healthy for a man with his cholesterol level, Nick had decided that Father Christmas should become a franchise.

Santa plc would sell franchises to portly, white-bearded, ruddy-cheeked men with their own reindeer, provide them with presents to deliver to their town and they would earn money by doing personal appearances in department stores during December. Nick thought this was a genius idea as he would be able to stay at the North Pole drinking a lovely bottle of Shiraz instead of all that horrible sherry.

The only thing he hadn’t considered was militant reindeer. If Nick had his feet up on Christmas Eve what was going to happen to them? Either they would be made redundant and put out to pasture or they would have to be sold to another Father Christmas©. If this happened, would their current terms and conditions be honoured? Out of this uncertainty, Reunion was formed.

Rudolph, as newly elected “grotto steward”, approached Nick with a list of conditions and if he failed to meet them, the reindeer would go on strike for twenty four hours beginning at 6pm on Christmas Eve. As Nick read the list, he become more and more red in the face until Rudolph feared his head would explode.

An hour later, Nick was starting to come round to seeing things from the reindeers’ point of view. He agreed to ensure their terms and conditions were retained if they were transferred and offered a reasonable redundancy package if they were let go. The one thing they couldn’t agree on was whether the reindeer should be given double the amount of carrots they currently received as they worked the night shift on a bank holiday. Rudolph and Nick carried on arguing long into the snowy night.

Lunacy

luna 3There is a carnival atmosphere in the small coastal town. Shops selling buckets and spades and other seaside paraphernalia are still open despite the lateness of the hour and revellers spill from cafes and restaurants, clutching glasses of wine and beer as well as each other.

The sea is audible but it is too dark to see the waves gently lapping on the shore. The night sky is black and soft as velvet and no stars puncture the darkness. Street lamps illuminate the esplanade with pools of bright orange light and moths flutter like a halo, mesmerised by the counterfeit sun.

The evening is warm so I buy an ice cream from a teenage girl with blue hair and wander further along. Jumping down onto the soft, silvery sand, I venture towards a group of people gathered on the beach. Most are reclining in deckchairs and a swarthy young man winds his way amongst them taking their money. Others who have been before or are more frugal have brought their own chairs, mostly of the folding type, although one man has carried a wooden rocking chair from his apartment and is moving rhythmically back and forth, keeping time as well as any metronome.

The spectators sit expectantly before a lectern which stands incongruously on the beach. A black cable snakes from the nearest cafe, over the path, down the wall and across the sand like a sidewinder before ending abruptly at a black box with a lever embedded in it. A jowly man with large ears and sad eyes steps up to address the assembled throng, gripping the wooden podium with both hands. His resemblance to a beagle is startling and made even more so by his gruff voice and ginger and white hair.

“Good citizens of Luna Sea!” the man booms. “I am proud to be your mayor and privileged to be here tonight.” He waits for the polite ripple of applause to cease, raises his hand and all the lights go out. The darkness is absolute and there is some uncertain high pitched giggling. “Without further ado, I declare the Festival of Luna open!” The mayor throws the lever and switches on the moon. It flickers for a moment then hangs like a pearl button stitched to the cloth of the sky. The full moon is large and creamy and the good citizens blink like owls at its brilliance. Their shadows leap behind them, startled at being materialised so abruptly.

An elderly man strikes up a merry polka on his accordion and everyone jumps up out of their chairs and pairs up. My hands are grabbed by an older lady wearing a floral dress, who beams at me as brightly as the moon and her eyes twinkle mischievously as she swings me round and round.

The chant starts up once everyone is twirling and spinning on the beach, quietly at first then louder as the whirling makes the festival goers giddy. “La Luna! La Luna! La Luna! LA LUNA! LA LUNA! LA LUNA!”

Submarine Dream

underwater

I wake not sure where or who I am then feel a sense of relief wash over me when I realise that the dream wasn’t real.

I dreamed that I had four limbs and moved around on two of them, feeling that I was going to topple over at any moment. My head consisted of two eyes, several holes and with peculiar flaps on either side. Strange gurgling sounds emanated from the largest hole which must be how I communicated. Most bizarrely, I was partially covered in some sort of fur whilst the rest of me was smooth and pink. Two of my limbs ended in long protuberances which I used to grasp, lift and carry. They waved around when I made noises which I assumed aided communication.

Most worryingly, there was a large expanse of blue above me which went on forever and was like nothing I’d ever seen before. In the dream I picked up a round object and threw it for a furry four limbed creature that made a very loud sound at sudden intervals but who ran after the sphere and brought it back to me. Only then did I realise that nothing floated, the round object hit the ground and bounced before it was caught by the fluffy thing.

I shake my head in wonder and promise myself I will never, ever eat sea urchin again before sleep as it always gives me weird dreams. Deciding that it’s time for breakfast, I unfurl my tentacles, all eight of them, and go off in search of a lobster pot to raid.

Time After Time

wristwatchThe young man fidgets nervously as he waits in the cavernous train station, checking his tie and fiddling with the carnation in his buttonhole. Red, of course. Beams of sunlight reach towards him across the marble floor as he checks his watch for the umpteenth time. It is a beautiful timepiece with an open face so the intricate cogs and gears are visible. An heirloom from a grandfather he never knew who died in an infamous battle before his father was even born. He checks his watch again. She’s late. Very late. The young man paces across the concourse, becoming increasingly agitated. He lights a cigarette and draws deeply from it which seems to calm him momentarily. He hears staccato heels on marble and whips his head round to greet her. The disappointment shows on his face as he doffs his hat at the girl who isn’t her and bows slightly. Too young, too fair, too tall.

As agreed, he waits until ten past the hour then strides towards the Rue de Dunkerque. He hurries to the drop point and leaves a message commending Madeleine as a strong, courageous woman who gave her life for the Resistance. Pulling his hat down and shrugging his collar up, he turns and flees the City of Light without a backward glance.

In Dreams

My brother and sisters reacted as though I had brought home a sea lion. They had seen one recently at London Zoo and the box I held in my arms looked as alien and out of place in our sitting room as that sleek sea mammal would have.

I cleared a space on the sideboard and reverently placed the box down. Shirley, my youngest sister, clutched a paper bag in her hands and carefully lifted it up to sit alongside my new acquisition. The tension in the air was palpable and my siblings took a step forward in unison as I approached the machine. I lifted the lid, opened the bag, slid one of the glossy black discs from its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. Everyone held their breath as I switched one lever to the on position and another to 45rpm then carefully placed the stylus on the record.

There was no sound at first then a noise like a helicopter increased in volume until an unearthly tune played on a groundbreaking electronic instrument erupted from the machine. It was like nothing we had ever heard before and sounded so futuristic it could have been 1988! The song was Telstar by The Tornados and it was 1962.

I had bought the portable record player and a selection of 45s with the money from my first wage packet. I was fifteen and had landed a job as a messenger delivering telegrams all over Brighton. It would be a year until I could get a motorbike, a BSA Bantam like all the other blokes rode, so I went everywhere on my trusty bicycle, bearing messages of good news and bad in the days before most people had a telephone.

I was the eldest of five and cemented my role as the cool older brother by bringing the record player into our home. Dad worked a lot doing something boring that he never talked about and Mum spent most of her time in the kitchen so we were able to worship at the altar of pop music without interruption as long as we didn’t play it too loud. Those first 45s I bought are engraved on my memory – Twistin’ the Night Away by the late, great Sam Cooke as well as Ballad of Paladin by Duane Eddy, another instrumental, and Del Shannon’s So Long Baby.

I’d come home from work to find Billy and the girls lying on the floor in the sitting room having spent every minute since they got home from school listening to our growing record collection and squabbling over whose turn it was to get up and change the disc. They earned pocket money doing chores and would club together to buy a record every few weeks. One hot Saturday in July they brought back The

Loco-Motion by Little Eva which I swear wasn’t off the turntable for that whole summer. By September they had created and perfected dance moves of their own and Mum was humming the catchy tune whenever we ventured into the kitchen.

I enjoyed listening to rock ‘n’ roll when I was a kid but as I grew older, pop music became the soundtrack to my life. Inspired by singers like Billy Fury and Joe Brown, I bought myself a guitar and learned how to play, making so many mistakes at first but then growing in confidence. The following year Ready Steady Go!, a whole programme devoted to pop music, aired on ITV so we could watch our idols singing live rather than just listening to their records. The year after that Radio Caroline started broadcasting from the North Sea and BBC launched Top of the Pops. The age of the music-obsessed teenager had arrived.

That year was a decisive one for me. I was seventeen and, although I enjoyed racing around on my bright red motorbike, I had started to think about the future. I was a good looking lad, everyone told me, so I couldn’t see myself getting promoted into a management role like all the old guys at the post office but what did the future hold for me?

It all started with Roy Orbison. I’d been aware of In Dreams, his hit from the previous year, but it hadn’t made it into my collection. I heard It’s Over when I’d just split up with my first girlfriend, Sissy, and as my heart was bruised, if not broken, and the lyrics spoke to me as much as The Big O’s plaintive vocals. This time it was me listening again and again; the kids would roll their eyes and leave the room whenever they heard “the soppy song”.

I made my decision and in May I started my new job as a Redcoat at Butlins in Clacton, ready for that year’s summer season. It was the first time I’d ever been away from home and I relished it. There wasn’t much freedom for the holiday makers, let alone the staff, as the Butlins camps were run with military precision and every minute of your day was accounted for. According to Billy Butlin, if you weren’t doing something, you weren’t having fun.

I organised knobbly knees and glamorous granny competitions during the day and by July had made it on stage as part of the evening entertainment. I sang and danced my heart out and was eventually approached by the entertainments manager who asked me to perform solo singing the latest smash hit, Oh Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison.

It was late September, the end of summer was round the corner and I was wondering what to do next when I received a telegram from Harry Parnell. The Captain, as he was known, was a music impresario who managed a stable of young, photogenic male pop stars who had heard wonderful things from his scout and was keen to meet me. I travelled to London a couple of days later and found my way to the address in Mayfair I’d been given. I was shown into the Captain’s office by a stunningly gorgeous girl wearing the shortest skirt I’d ever seen.

The Captain looked me up and down as he walked across the plush carpet to greet me then shook me warmly by the hand and offered me a seat. He asked a few questions about my family and whether I enjoyed being a Redcoat then asked me to sing for him. I’d never sung unaccompanied before but hoped that The Big O would continue to be my good luck charm and sang It’s Over, trying to evoke as much emotion as I could in three minutes.

The Captain smiled and clapped his hands together once and invited me to take a seat again. He said he’d like to represent me and produced a contract for me to sign, which I did without really reading it as I was so excited. The conversation then turned to names as Ian Johnson was deemed too ordinary for a fledgling pop star. We were searching for something as catchy as Billy Fury or Georgie Fame and eventually settled on Charlie Starlight which I felt hit the right note of working class romantic.

The next few weeks went by in a blur as interviews with teen magazines were set up before I’d even played my first gig. My background had been livened up with tales of Nordic ancestors to play up my blond good looks and before long I was being touted as the Next Big Thing in the music press. My first single, Love Me for the Last Time, received a lot of airplay and went straight in at number 3. The Captain had organised some experienced session musicians to form my backing band and we became Charlie Starlight and the Moonbeams.

The opening night of my sell-out tour arrived on a frosty evening in December. I was nervous about playing my first gig at such a large venue and I was exhausted from working flat out on my album in the studio and rehearsing. Although I hadn’t written them, I was proud of the songs. The Captain had wanted my gig to contain only new material but I had put my foot down and insisted that I sing one cover version as a finale – It’s Over by Roy Orbison.

I stood in the wings wearing a shiny silver suit with my hair styled in a quiff and listened to the girls screaming. I tried to calm the butterflies in my stomach and when I heard the Moonbeams start playing the long intro into Love Me for the Last Time, I walked onto the stage. The bright lights almost blinded me and the screaming reached fever pitch.

As I stood waiting for my cue, I knew that whatever happened after this, whether my career lasted a long time or was a flash in the pan, I would always remember the moment my dream came true.

Dear Barbara

Attached is a draft of the first chapter of my autobiography. I am pretty happy with it but if you feel the need to employ a ghost writer to “tidy it up”, then please do so. I’ve really enjoyed taking a trip down memory lane and am looking forward to writing about my exploits in the Swinging 60s. I’ve got some stories to tell about the time that Mick Jagger … ah, but I’d better save it for the paying public.

Yours sincerely

Charlie Starlight