The Star Witness
If you know me at all, you will know me as a liar.
That is almost certainly the perception you will have of me. There is absolutely nothing I can do about that. I lied, that is public knowledge. But the lying is only one small part of my story – a story that needs telling, if only so I can come to understand it better myself. So I’m going to present myself to you warts and all, or as my friend Mac describes me, 95% warts. And I’m going to tell the story as I lived it, in the here and now, stumbling from moment to moment, mostly with my heart in my mouth and with very few opportunities for perspective.
So, where to begin? With my character? Maybe. Maybe I should start in my childhood, or the rapids of adolescence, but there was nothing exceptional about my upbringing; so I think that this story begins more recently, at a critical choice, at a tipping point.
It begins with a fork.
I am sitting in a restaurant with a beautiful young woman with impossibly blue eyes and there is a forkful of lamb suspended in mid-air a few inches from my mouth. And that’s where it will stay. I can see myself now, a frozen frame, the first bad decision. I should have kept eating, it was just a crass remark, I should have let it go. If only I had let it go.
She is waiting for a response to her latest observation, but I could ignore it, God knows I’ve ignored all the others. She’s already come out with several potential fork-stoppers. Almost as soon as we arrived – as the head waiter led us to our ‘special guest table’ – she hit me with the first one.
“Irony is dead,” she announced, flicking her hair back out of her eyes. “That’s what my mate Keir says, he says audiences aren’t interested in ideas any more, they want emotions, he’s doing an article about it – ‘Sincerity Is The New Irony’.”
I let that one go.
I’d known many beautiful women who talked rubbish; having to listen to them was the price you had to pay.
And so I had let her babble on. There was the occasional diner, I noticed, who was staring at us, but that was normal.
All through the evening, she kept them coming. As we finished our miniscule entrées, she had told me that fashion was basically just literature written in clothing. I waved that one through. When she had said that if Sophocles were alive today he would be writing for Hollyoaks, again, I gave no response – not the barest flicker.
But slowly, as the meal wore on, something deep, deep down inside me had begun to recoil. I had been listening to this kind of drivel for months now, trying not to wince whenever she expressed an opinion. So why the hell was I still seeing her?
At one level, the answer was simple. She was stunning. Also, she was 24 and I was 52, so do the maths. My ego – fairly swollen to begin with – had grown to the size of a cathedral because this beautiful young woman found me attractive, even though I was old enough to be her considerably older brother. But our conversations had become... well, I knew that my passivity was demeaning and that was making me angry, I suppose, deep down. Looking back, I see that now. But, at the time, I think I told myself – heigh-ho, she was what she was. We were what we were. So, the evening would probably have passed without incident if she hadn’t finally come out with an absolute belter; she looks up from her plate and says: “Of course, many people feel that the blacks in South Africa were better off under apartheid.”
That’s the one.
The one that stops the fork.
I have a choice. I could eat my lamb, or I could change the subject, but instead, after quite a pause, and with an edge of disdain, I hear myself say that fateful word.
I put down my fork, unaware that I am stepping towards an abyss.
“Many people feel the blacks were better off then,” she recaps, with a breezy smile.
“Many people?” I echo, flatly.
“Many people... as in who?”
“Well, y’know, commentators... observers.” She pauses for a moment, losing confidence. “Commentators,” she repeats, a little too loudly, “y’know, Africa-watchers.”
“Well, like my friend, Janine.”
“Right, Janine’s a journalist, is she?”
“No, she’s an estate agent.”
“An estate agent.” There is a coldness creeping into my voice that I can do nothing about.
“In Putney,” she adds, as if that fact was significant.
“And where does she get her detailed knowledge of South African history from?”
“She’s from Johannesburg.”
I pause to gather my thoughts; my head now jangling with irritation.
“She’s a white South African.”
“So she’s not really an ‘Africa-watcher,’ is she? She’s more of an Africa-leaver.”
Her cheeks are starting to redden as she chases a lentil around her plate.
“I don’t quite get the point you’re trying to make, Kevin, perhaps I’m being thick.”
I try to smile. “All I’m saying,” I begin, carefully, “is that maybe your friend, Janine, is not the best qualified person to – ”
Bang! In she comes! “Well Janine happens to be a very bright woman, actually.”
“Well she can’t be that bright if she’s an estate agent, I mean, all the really clever South Africans get to be dental hygienists.”
Her lovely mouth hangs open for a few seconds, then she goldfishes for a few more, before straightening her shoulders and telling me that I am a racist.
I laugh, a lot. I can’t help it, this is like shooting fish in a barrel and, shamefully, I am starting to enjoy myself. She leans forward in an attempt to keep the conversation private.
“It is very racist of you to write her off just because of where she’s from.”
“Yeh, yeh, OK,” I sigh, dabbing at my eyes with a napkin. “But if God had intended us to like South Africans, he wouldn’t have made them sound like that.”
Cheap, flip and easy, but it feels good. Her voice has a little crack in it now and she is starting to sound like a ten-year old.
“You are so prejudiced.”
“All right, Jade, lighten up, it was just –” And then, suddenly, up they pop, from nowhere, two of them, a man and a woman, middle-aged, sort of drab.
“You’re him, aren’t you,” says the man, pointing at me like I’m an exhibit.
“Yes.” I give him the standard smile. “I’m him.”
“I said you were him, we’re sitting over there, my wife said you weren’t him, but I said you were him. I knew you were him.”
He turns to Jade. “And you’re her.”
“That’s right, yes.”
“The new one. That was a good cat-fight you had with his ex. She had it coming.”
Before Jade can answer, he’s turning back to me. “So what have you got planned for this one, eh? Are you going to do the dirty on her like you have with all the others, you dirty monkey, eh?”
His wife is trying to intervene now.
“Leave them alone, Barry.” (It might have been Gary or Harry.) She tugs gently at his elbow, but he is still leering at me. “So what have you got planned, eh? What’s going to happen?”
“I’m afraid that, contractually, we’re not allowed to divulge the storylines of future episodes.”
“Oh go on, you can tell me.”
“Well yes, but then I’d have to kill you.”
“What, and stick me under the patio along with that drugs baron who tried to frame you for the raid on Bobby’s health spa?” He swivels back to Jade. “You’re too good for him, er... what’s your name again?”
“No, no, no,” he says, with a dismissive flap of a hand, “not your name, her name.”
“Yeh,” he chuckles, “Melanie’s too good for you.” He’s aiming his finger at me again now. “You bad dog. She’s got morals. And a kiddie.”
“Leave them be,” sighs the wife.
“A kiddie with a life-threatening illness.”
“They’re having their dinner. I’m sorry, he’s being annoying, isn’t he?”
“No, not at all.” My smile is starting to hurt now.
“All I’m saying, Joan, (Jean? Jane?) is that he won’t run rings around her, like he did with all the others. Especially the last one, she just cried all the time and shouted at her gay brother. But this one, she’s clever and independent-minded.”
“Well her character is,” I say, fast, a reflex. He stares at me for a moment, blinking slowly, like a character out of the Simpsons.
“Well, her character... Melanie... is clever and independent-minded, but in real life she gets all her opinions off estate agents.”
The wife is looking at the floor, embarrassed, and Jade is staring at me with her jaw hanging slack. If only I hadn’t said that too. It was just a moment of casual cruelty, the kind of smartarse remark that I must have made hundreds, even thousands of times.
I shouldn’t have said it. If it all began with that first “what?”, then this was the next nail in my coffin. And I am sitting there with a smug grin, oblivious and empty.
The man’s wife is the first to speak.
“Right... well, nice meeting you both, come along love.” She leads him away. He calls over his shoulder to Jade: “Keep your eye on him, Melanie! And stay away from the canal!”
“Bye!” calls the wife.
I give her a playschool wave. “By-e.”
Jade is still staring at me, stunned, her big blue eyes filming with tears. I feel awkward. I try to lighten the mood.
“Well, that’s our audience, hanging on to reality by their fingernails, makes your blood run cold, doesn’t it, eh?”
She’s still staring.
“This wine’s not bad.”
“... for house plonk.”
Finally, she half-croaks the word “Why?”
“Why? Why did you feel the need to say that about me just now?”
A bloody good question, as it happens. After all, if you’re going out with someone and you feel the urge to humiliate them in front of total strangers, then that’s probably a bad sign, isn’t it? True, some relationships thrive on routine humiliation but that’s usually inside marriage.
Anyway, the depressing, inescapable truth was that this relationship wasn’t thriving. It was no fun anymore. And yet it had started out as a lot of fun, seven months ago, when we first met in Make-Up.
It was a Monday in August sometime, or it could have been September. I know it was warm, because I can picture the sweat on Polly’s face as she powders my forehead.
Nigel, the First Assistant, is bustling around behind me talking anxiously into a mouthpiece and coughing intermittently, a horrible lung-scraping cough that makes everyone wince. I can hear the sparks shouting at each other – ripe jokes about Wayne Rooney – and the clang-and-rattle of moving lights. The runner, Avril (or is it Alice?) charges past, breathlessly looking for a lost actor and I’m about to take my first aspirin of the day when suddenly Pam arrives with a continuity Polaroid. Within moments, Pam and Polly are primping and preening me.
“Leave me alone, you pair of harpies.”
“Be-have,” says Pam, whacking me on the back of the head with a comb.
“What are you doing?”
“My job. Shut up and keep still.”
Now Simone from wardrobe has arrived and they’re all consulting the Polaroid.
“You know my theory about women who work in make-up and wardrobe...”
“Not interested,” Pam mutters.
“I reckon they’re all girls who didn’t get given any dolls to play with as kids. I’m just an adult doll.”
“You’re not an adult anything.”
They giggle, as Simone gets out a different set of Polaroids.
“Scene 38B? He should be in the blue shirt. OK, shirt off, Kevin. That one’s wrong.”
Nigel trundles back, still shouting at someone down his mouthpiece.
“What do you mean his car didn’t pick him up? He’s due on set now.”
“Morning Nige,” I say quietly.
“He wasn’t home? Well where the fuck is he?”
“Morning Kevin, how are you,” I reply on his behalf.
“Eh? What? Oh, yeh, sorry, morning, Kevin.” Then he coughs, long and hard.
“Can you die somewhere else, Nige? We don’t want your germs.”
But he doesn’t respond. He’s listening to something he doesn’t want to hear through his earpiece, his forehead folding into yet more creases.
“What?... You are joking. Tell me you’re joking.... he said he was going to Spain?” His head drops forward in defeat.
“Gavin?” I ask, knowing the answer.
“Yeh, totally AWOL. I dunno, it was a lot easier before he went into rehab, ‘least you knew where he was... blacked out on his bathroom floor.”
Then he’s shouting down his mouthpiece again. “Have you rung his moby? I really don’t need this. He’s in five scenes today, without him we are totally upgefucked.”
The shouting triggers his cough again. Pam and Polly shake their heads. A passing stagehand mutters: “If he were a horse, they’d put him down.”
A different runner beetles past, work-experience girl, out of breath, looking for the caterers because there are no plastic cups. A sound man (Del? Mel?), who has the beginnings of Nigel’s cough, arrives to mike me up. But Simone is pulling me out of my shirt and Pam and Polly are moaning that everything’s being done in the wrong order this morning and the Health and Safety man is shouting something about some cables and amid all this mayhem I slowly become aware of a beautiful young woman standing nervously on the fringe of the make-up area. She has enormous, blue, Disney eyes, long, naturally blond hair and a smile that carries a hint of apology.
“Hi,” I say, as Simone rams me into a new shirt.
“Oh, sorry, sorry,” Nigel flusters, “this is Jade. Everyone? This is Jade. Jade’s playing Melanie, the new character.”
“Hi everyone,” she says with a little-me wave.
“Welcome,” I say, as Simone tugs at my collar.
“That’s normal. On my first day, I threw up in the dressing room.”
“Well you still do that,” sighs Simone. Pam and Polly cackle.
“Ignore this lot, Jade,” I say, “they’re full of hate.”
A couple of crew step forward to shake Jade’s hand, but everything is drowned out by Nigel’s coughing. In between coughs, as he fights for air, he is imploring the producer down the phone: “You have to do something, Louise, you have to lay it on the line for Gavin, a final warning or something.”
The sound guy starts coughing as well. I can see Jade is looking thrown.
“The crews on soaps are always ill, I’m afraid. It’s the schedule, it’s relentless, long hours, up at five, not home till ten, it kicks the crap out of the immune system.”
Her face has dropped.
“But the actors are OK. It’s the performing, means we’ve got enough adrenalin to see off the bugs. Well, till we stop filming, then we’re sick as dogs.”
“Right,” she says, raising perfectly arched eyebrows.
Then Nigel ups his volume. “Look, Louise, Gavin has to be put on notice... Well, I dunno, can’t you have a word with the writers? They could put him in a coma or something... drop a bit of viaduct on him.... again.”
I step closer to Jade. She smells of apples.
“Have they told you where your storyline’s headed?” I ask her.
“Um, well, as far as I know, I, um, I sleep with you... obviously.”
“Yeh, that’s compulsory for all the female characters.”
“And then my kid’s going to get sick with some disease.”
“Oh, what fun.”
We talk for a bit. She laughs at all my jokes, although it’s too early to tell whether she’s a woman who always laughs at men’s jokes. After a few minutes, Nigel starts clapping his hands.
“Listen up, everyone, be quiet, listen... LISTEN... thank you so much. OK, so Gavin’s a no-show, stop groaning, Gavin’s a no-show, so my lovingly-crafted schedule gets flushed down the bog, and we’re pulling forward scene 21, Melanie’s first encounter with Lenny, sexual chemistry, bla-blah-blah, up until she storms out, everyone got that?”
Jade puffs her cheeks. “Straight in at the deep end then. Crikey.”
“You’ll be fine,” I tell her.
“Yeh, I’ll be OK once we start to rehearse.”
The make-up girls giggle. “Rehearse?” says Simone.
“Oh, bless,” sighs Nigel. “OK, so it’s scene 21 final checks, we’ll be going straight for a take.”
When the lunch break arrives (only 15 minutes late) I head for the canteen and grab a table by the window, waiting for the new girl to appear. But instead, Gavin appears from nowhere and plonks himself down opposite me. He has no plate of food, just a pot of yoghurt.
“Where were you?” I ask. “You were supposed to be in every scene this morning. It’s been pandemonium. They said you were in Spain.”
Gavin mumbles into his yoghurt. Something about nobody understanding, his eyes flickering around, like those of a small, cornered mammal.
“Are you alright?” I ask, although I don’t really care.
“I can’t handle this new schedule, Kevin. It’s too much. They’ve added twelve hours to the filming week, I can’t function like that.” He pushes the yoghurt carton away. “It’s making me ill.”
“Then get a doctor’s note. Get signed off.”
“... Not that kind of ill,” he says, bleakly.
We sit in silence for a few moments. Some sparks suddenly burst out laughing on the table behind us, which makes Gavin jump. Then he lets out a deep, long, attention-seeking sigh.
Where is Jade? Perhaps she brought sandwiches.
“I’m going to make a formal complaint about this new schedule, because it is ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Gavin, it is ridiculous.”
She might be eating in the make-up truck with the harpies.
“If I make a written complaint, will you sign it as well? Perhaps you could persuade the rest of the cast. No-one will listen to me.”
He’s right, they won’t.
“If we said we felt it was in the best interests of the show, then Louise couldn’t just ignore us, could she, especially if you...y’know...”
Oh God, he’s casting me as Spartacus.
“...I mean, if people get exhausted emotionally... how are we supposed to act? It’s self-defeating. They at least owe us some input. No artist can work in this kind of environment.”
Alright, that’s it. I put down my knife and fork and look directly into those hunted-looking eyes.
“OK, Gavin, listen ... what we do here is not Art. This is fundamentally a sausage-making factory and we are the mechanically-retrieved meat that goes into the sausage-making machine. All that they are interested in is banging out more sausages for the buck. So, please don’t use the word ‘artist’ again, or I may just throw up. All anyone wants from you is for you to turn up, on time if at all possible, say the lines, collect your cheque and bugger off and leave us alone. No-one wants your input, nobody owes anyone anything, you are just a piece of sausage.”
Suddenly she’s there, tray in hand.
“Can I join you?”
“Be my guest,” says Gavin, as he picks up his yoghurt pot.
“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
“No,” he replies, with a half laugh, then he rises and leaves.
“Gavin, this is Jade,” I call after him, but he doesn’t turn.
“Oh dear... was it me?” she asks.
“’Course not. You’re perfect,” I tell her, and her whole face lights up.
For the next few days, I did not come on too strong, I just engineered as many friendly chats with Jade as possible. And, as part of that charm offensive, I am fetching tea from the big urn in the corner of the studio when I feel a familiar chill at my shoulder.
“Making tea for two, Kevin?”
“Yes, Louise, I’m getting Jade a cup.”
“That’s nice,” she says, with a thin twitch of a smile. “It’s lovely how you always make the new actresses feel at home…actually... (Here we go. I recognise that pause)… I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you. (Yes I knew it. This will probably be about the waiting time on my cars)… I… um… I was watching a first cut of the scene you filmed on Monday – the one where Lenny finds out that Gary’s gone to the police… (Eh? Where’s she going with this?)… And I felt… (Yes?)… I felt… well, nothing really… not a thing… and that was the problem.”
“And did you expect to feel something, Louise?”
“Yes, of course. I mean Lenny’s just discovered his brother’s betraying him. I want to experience his rage.”
“Really? That doesn’t sound very healthy.”
Her eyes flicker towards the ceiling. “You know perfectly well what I mean… I want to see him feel the anger.”
I start pouring the second cup of tea. “Lenny’s anger is inside… where no-one can see it.”
“Well that’s not much use to the viewer, is it, Kevin.”
The urn coughs out hot water in fits and starts.
Louise takes a breath and ploughs on. “It’s your job to make us feel what his emotions are.”
“But Lenny never shows his emotions. That’s what makes him so interesting. (She’s hooding her eyes, it’s so annoying how she does that while you’re talking). I’ve always played him… internalised.”
“Yes well there’s a difference between internalised and autistic.”
She’s pleased with that, I can tell, but I’m not prepared to give her the satisfaction of seeing me fray. So I decide to be frivolous, because I know she hates that.
“Perhaps he is autistic, Louise. Perhaps that’s been his problem all along.”
“Très drôle. (Ooh, French, she’s really narked, bullseye). The thing is, Kevin… (come on, baby, give it your best shot)… we pay you a lot of money (debatable)… and for that money we expect you to deliver (yeh, deliver, like groceries)… and that isn’t happening.”
As Louise drones on I find myself wondering how much mental energy I expend heckling her like this. And it’s not just her. These days it feels like I’m watching everyone from the back of the stalls. She’s wearing a pained smile now, while she assesses my performance in the Christmas episode. What a waste – for such a highly intelligent woman to be overseeing a show like this. There are so many worthwhile things she might be doing, instead of trying to constantly win more and more viewers at less unit cost.
“Am I boring you, Kevin?”
“No, not at all, Louise. I’m just surprised that there’s any concerns over my performance. None of the many directors you employ have mentioned anything.”
“They’re too busy staying on schedule. I… I’m just saying that I think you could give it a bit more.”
Should I let that go? Probably. But I’m not going to.
“… I give it as much as it needs, or deserves.”
She straightens slightly. Time for me to leave. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Jade’s tea is getting cold.”
As I shape to move past her, she steps closer and lowers her voice. “I want to see more emotion, on screen, Kevin.”
“Fine, just ask the writers to indicate which emotion you want in the stage instructions at the top of the scene… in that helpful way of theirs.”
“Since when did you get so cynical, Kevin? (Oh this is rich, from the most cynical person on planet Earth.) The writers are giving it 100%. (No they’re not… what would be the point?) I’d expect a little more solidarity from you. You used to write, yourself, didn’t you? .... Once upon a time.”
There is a twinkle behind the eyes that tells me she feels she has drawn blood. But I’m not going to show her anything.
“That was a million years ago, Louise. In a previous existence.”
I start to move away with the teas. She’s got nothing left. She can’t fire me and she knows it. So why is she walking alongside me?
“This… schtick of yours, Kevin. You need to be careful. Because sooner or later… it will all catch up with you.”
“What exactly will catch up with me?” She doesn’t reply. She just gives me a short, cryptic smile.
“Well I hope you’ve taken my observations on board.”
Across the studio, I can see Jade leaving the set, heading towards me, luminous and expectant. Louise turns away and starts to glide towards the scene dock. I call after her.
“It’s duly noted, Louise. You think I’m phoning in my performance.”
“Darling.” She calls back, without a glance. “I think you’re phoning in your life.”
But it hardly registers, because Jade is taking the tea from me and telling me, wide-eyed, that I’m a lifesaver.
I liked her then, in the early days, I liked her a lot. I liked the nervousness in her. The way she would pull a face and say “Crikey.” There’s something very attractive about a woman who’s permanently bewildered.
In the first few weeks, Jade and I had to do a lot of kissing scenes, as Melanie and Lenny began their on/off, love/hate relationship. Kissing someone on a hot, brightly lit set while being watched by lots of fat technicians is not remotely arousing. It’s very un-sexy, you ask any actor, that’s what they’ll tell you. And they’re all lying bastards. Of course it’s arousing, we’re not made of stone. Yes, you’re trained and professional but your hormones aren’t. And, as for the stuff about it being impossible to get sexually excited kissing someone you don’t really know in front of dozens of people... two words... ‘office’ and ‘party’.
So, pretty soon, Jade and I were a couple, of sorts. Admittedly, on my side, the relationship was a little bit penis-led, but that’s how many relationships begin, isn’t it? Well, most of mine. All bar one, in fact. I can’t actually remember what we talked about in those first weeks, but I don’t recall any conversations about feelings or families or the dreaded “where is this going?” Just a lot of sex and conspiratorial intimacy; sly glances and brushing fingers. She was fresh and she was fun, and most important of all, she stopped me from feeling bored. On set, we were discreet and professional and we did a very good job of keeping everything quiet, until the Daily Star printed photos of us snogging in a lay-by.
They weren’t very good photos, they were taken from a long way away. On a mobile phone. By a twelve year old girl.
So, accepting the inevitable, Jade and I went public; and the public all became shareholders in our relationship. The programme’s publicity department had a multiple orgasm. To begin with, I refused all their requests for us to do joint interviews, but Jade argued that we might as well do one and get it out of the way.
Looking back, it surprises me that I gave in to her. Why did I do that? It wasn’t like me. Perhaps I felt more for her than I realized.
So one morning, we find ourselves waiting nervously in a green room lined with large photos of toothy presenters.
“Crikey,” she says, “this is scary.”
“Hey, come on,” I squeeze her hand, “how bad can it be?”
Half an hour later we’re sitting side by side on a sofa, live, on daytime TV, being interviewed by a shiny two-headed creature called MattandWendy.
Wendy trills, like a budgie “And we’re very excited now, yes, we are, aren’t we?”
“Well, you’re excited,” simpers Matt.
“Well, you’re excited too.”
'Yes I’m excited too, but I’m not bouncing around like a two year-old, missy.”
We have to sit there like lemons while these two fuckwits continue this display of sexless flirting until Wendy gives him a playful presenter’s whack on the shoulder and hisses: “Stop it, you!”
She turns to camera two. “He is awful, isn’t he, no but seriously though, we are very excited because joining us now are soapland’s hottest couple, Melanie and Lenny, also known as actors Jade Pope and Kevin Carver. Welcome to you both.”
We mumble our thank-yous.
“Now let’s cut to the chase,” bobs Wendy “because we understand that, like Melanie and Lenny, in real life, you are an item, is that right?”
“An item?” I reply, with a professional twinkle. “You make us sound like something in a supermarket.”
Matt and Wendy laugh, way too much.
“Two for the price of one,” Jade adds. They laugh, we laugh, everyone’s laughing, this is horrible. Already I’m regretting it, every fibre of my being is screaming “Get out now! While you can,” but I just keep laughing.
“Seriously though,” says Wendy, as if those two words had some transforming power, “you are together, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I reply, “we are together,” although for some reason the word together comes out sounding like it’s in quotation marks.
Matt leans forward, aiming for ‘earnest’.
“Is that difficult? Y’know, having a romance which is sort of mirror-imaging the romance you’re having in the show’s storyline-”
“- which is great, by the way-”
“- oh yes – we’re all-”
“- totally hooked.”
“Totally, but is it a problem? The mirror-imaging thing?”
I breathe deep, to buy myself a moment where I can suppress my irritation.
“Well it’s not really a problem, because, y’know, the show is just acting, whereas me and Jade...”
“…we’re not acting”, says Jade.
“No, that's right.”
“The two of us...” she leans against my shoulder “...that’s real.”
“Yeh, keep it real, man.”
Matt and Wendy laugh like idiots. I laugh though inside I’m wondering why the fuck I just said that. Matt echoes “keep it real” with an attempt at a black-power, clenched-fist salute and Wendy giggles some more, but stops suddenly when she spots the Floor Manager, in mime, cutting his throat. For a moment, I get an urge to mime cutting my throat as well. Suddenly, Wendy sits up straight.
“Well, don’t go away, you two, because after the break we’ve got Britain’s Bravest Child. He’s undergone 14 major operations and I know he’d love to meet you.”
I had sat on the sofa of death many times before. (As Louise the Producer was prone to pointing out, it was a contractual obligation.) But I’d never had to fake quite that hard. Somewhere, in the dark at the back of my brain I could hear the faint tinkle of an alarm bell and, as we ride back in the taxi, it starts to get louder.
“I thought that went quite well,” she says.
A beat. Was that irony? Not sure. “Did you?” I reply.
“Yes. Didn’t you?”
“No, it felt like torture.”
Her shoulders stiffen. “Oh... I see... well, it was good for profile.”
She turns away to look out of the window.
“Yes, you, me, the show... everyone’s.”
I look out the window and watch the ant-heap of the rush hour. For a minute or so, I sit there feeling a growing sense of discomfort. Eventually, I can’t take it any longer, it has to be said.
“What the fuck is ‘profile’ anyway?”
She looks at me as if I’m an idiot.
“Profile,” she says, slowly, “is buzz.”
“Profile is buzz?”
“Yes, buzz, it's important... it’s why I’m doing that photo-session for Loaded.”
“I’ve got a good body, why should I hide it?”
“Did I say you should hide it?”
“It’s what you didn’t say.”
“Oh, so now I’m also being held responsible for the things that I’m not saying, that leaves me a bit wide open, doesn’t it?
Jade then launches into a long, over-detailed justification of how the photoshoot will be ‘empowering’ and, as she chatters, I begin to realize that this is a very different girl from the one that I had met a few months ago on the set. This girl has acquired a strategy.
If I had had any guts I would have pulled the plug on our relationship there and then; and none of this would have happened.
But, instead, I wait four months, until the moment when we are sitting in that restaurant and she hits me with that unanswerable question.
“Why did you feel the need to say that about me just now? About the estate agents... in front of that couple.” Her eyes are cloudy and tears are brimming the lids.
“You showed me up, completely, in front of them, why?”
“I’m sorry,” I shrug, limply.
“You’re not an easy man to be with sometimes, Kevin, do you know that?”
“Yeh, I know.”
She starts to ferret inside her bag for a Kleenex and I decide that this – now – is the moment.
“Listen, Jade,” I reach across the table to take her hand, but I can see she is already alarmed by the new tenderness in my tone. “Erm.. look, there’s no easy way to tell you this....”
“You’ve found someone else?” she blurts.
“Good grief no, no, there’s no-one else, it's just that, y’know, we’ve had a great time, but I feel... well, it’s just this isn’t working, is it, not really, not if we’re honest, maybe it's the age gap...”
“That’s not bothered you before.” She holds the Kleenex against her eyes.
“W-ell, I dunno it’s... it just feels like we’re going through the motions, I mean, at times, it feels like we don’t even like each other that much anymore.”
What happens next is truly awful. She seems to physically shrink before my eyes; shrink and fade away, like I had pierced her. Her voice becomes hollow and tiny.
“... I like you.”
“Oh... right.” I can’t think of what the hell to say. “Well,” I falter ...”maybe you shouldn’t.”
Her head drops, then she mutters: “But I do.”
I feel my face flush, as I stumble over my words. “Well it’s just too... too difficult, it’s...y’know, I just think it’d be the best for us, y’know, ‘cos, ‘cos it’s very difficult coping with this.. mirror-imaging thing.”
I know. Pathetic.
All right, yes I could have handled it a little better. But it’s never easy to avoid being trite in these situations because they are trite situations.
She doesn’t say much during the rest of the meal. I can’t eat. So that forkful of lamb just sits on the plate. She drinks. She drinks a lot. Very fast. I offer her a lift home and we head, in silence, towards the car park.
When we get to my car, she turns and fixes me with bleary intent; her head wobbling, loosened, on her neck.
“So, when did you start pretending?”
I pretend not to understand the question. She totters forward and then catches herself. She straightens up, trying for an effect of dignity, as if the totter had never happened.
“When... when did you start pretending,” she over-enunciates. “When did you start ly-ing... that you liked me... last week? Three months ago? From day one?”
“Don’t be silly. Jade, I -”
“Tell me when!” She starts shouting in my face. “When?! WHEN?!”
Suddenly, she gives me a slap. Across my face. Now this was not the first time I’d been hit by a woman, because my wife – ex-wife – once broke my nose in a tea-room in Bexhill, but this was the first time I’d been hit by a woman and half-expected it. Because if people are divided into two sub-species, dumpers and dumpees, then I suspect Jade had always been the former. From her reaction in the restaurant, I sensed that she had never been on the receiving end. Beautiful women rarely are. She was clearly very hurt and very raw, and so the slap is not a surprise.
The second one is, though. And the third, fourth and fifth. Now it’s a problem, she’s raining slaps on me faster than I can think, she’s screaming, she’s out of control, think, think, the slaps are getting faster and harder, I try to grab her hands and now she’s kicking, kicking my shins, once, twice, so I push her and crack, her head has hit the kerb!
That’s how fast it happened, in a blink. I didn’t push her hard, I swear, I just pushed her away. I didn’t expect her to fall, but she dropped so fast. She didn’t even put her hands out to save herself, at least I don’t think she did. It was so quick, so fast, one push, then she’s on the ground, like there’s a bit missed out, like a bad edit.
For a moment, she lies there, groaning, and the thought flashes across my mind that I might have fractured her skull. I bend down and pull her up into a sitting position, which is not what you’re supposed to do, I know, but I can’t think straight, I just want her to be OK.
“My God, that was one hell of a clout, are you all right?”
“I’m OK,” she mumbles.
“You might have broken something.”
“I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”
“You could be concussed.”
“I could take you up the hospital.”
I look to see if there’s anyone else around, but the car park seems empty. Shakily, she pulls herself up on to her knees, her head slumped forward.
“We should get you looked at.”
“I’m taking you up the hospital.”
“No, it’s OK, you’ve done enough, thanks.”
Oddly, I find the sarcasm reassuring, it suggests that she is going to be all right.
“I... never meant for you to... I was just trying to stop you hitting me. I’m so sorry. Let me take you up the hospital, you can’t be too careful with bangs on the head.”
“I said I’m fine.” Suddenly her voice has a metallic cut to it. “Just take me home... please.”
So I did. Nothing more was said. She seemed OK. Silent but OK. I watched her as far as her front door. She went inside. The lights went on. I went home. That was it.
When I got home the answerphone’s red light was flashing and, for some reason, I remember hoping that the message would be from my ex-wife. I pressed play.
“It’s me, you old bastard, give me a ring, doesn’t matter how late, I’ll still be up.”
It was Mac. He’s my oldest and best friend for reasons that I have never really been able to comprehend. We first met in the early 80s in a left-wing theatre group that toured the country performing agitprop musicals about capitalism that, for some reason, always involved juggling. Mac wrote the lyrics for the songs.
“Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher,
Wait until the people catch yer,
Your crimes will come to haunt you.
Hey, hey, Maggie, your time will come.
Bye, bye, Maggie, imperialist scum
Maggie, Maggie, Maggie
Good – byyeeee.”
That was one. Well, we were young and we didn’t embarrass easily. Mac still doesn’t. After a couple of years, I packed it in. For some reason, we hadn’t managed to overthrow Mrs Thatcher and I was fed up with waking up stiff-necked on someone’s floor. I started hankering after a few luxuries, like an income. But Mac keeps rolling along, perpetually joining Socialist theatre groups until the inevitable happens and they fall out over money.
I ring his number.
“Hello,” answers a voice so Glasgow you can smell the sticky pub carpet.
“Is that the HQ of the Scottish terror group Mac-Quaeda?”
“Hey, about time, tosspot, where have you been?”
“I was watching you earlier.”
“Really, what was I doing?”
“You were setting fire to your restaurant for the insurance. Then you were telling that wee girlie with the sick kiddie that you were ‘there for her.’ The dialogue was ex-cre-ment-al. I couldn’t bear to listen to it.”
“Yeh, well, I just say it, I don’t have to listen to it.”
Down the line, I hear the tearing of a ring-pull.
“So, are you still going out with the wee girlie actress?”
“Um... as of tonight, no.”
“She dumped you?”
“Oh, I see... were there tears?”
“Yeh, and blood.”
“Long story, are you working?”
“Aye. I’m touring with a musical about asbestosis.”
“Listen, pal, I’ve got some good news.”
“Good ne... oh no, you’re not getting married again?”
“This one’s the one.”
“So were the last three.”
“I want you to be best man.”
“Fine. Can I use the same material?”
“Everything except the anecdote about the Amsterdam transvestite and the Hoover.”
We hadn’t been in contact for the best part of a year, so we had a good chat. We did all the old favourites.
How the Labour Party was going down the toilet.
How the England football team were a bunch of overpaid tossers.
What pointless arseholes critics were.
How the BBC was going down the toilet.
How all comedians now had to be gay and/or Welsh.
How there are no real footballers any more.
How useless Producers were.
How useless Directors were.
How everything was now dominated by marketing.
How unengaged young people had become.
How Twitter was a form of masturbation.
How Simon Cowell now owned everyone.
How the Murdoch Empire owned everyone.
How arrogant cyclists were.
How various presenters should be taken out and shot.
Once we had finished our playlist of topics, I told him the joke I’d just heard about the skeleton who walked into a pub and asked for a pint of lager and a mop, and then he told me a dirty joke about Superman, Catwoman and the Invisible Man which I realized I knew just as he reached the punchline.
Then we dredged through our list of mutual friends, skimming over their successes and relishing their setbacks. Then Mac spent 15 minutes or so telling me how unbelievably fantastic his new woman was. Then he put me on the spot.
“So why was there blood?”
“You and the wee girlie... when you broke up... why was there blood?”
“Oh, she had an accident, a fall, it’s OK, she’s fine.”
Then we did one more round of who should be shot and said goodnight.
I love Mac. He never changes. His wives change but he’s always the same. Permanent. He’s not just a friend, he’s a geographical feature, like Arthur’s Seat. To my surprise, I find I have been chatting with Mac for nearly two hours and now I am gripped by this overpowering impulse.
Her voice sounds foggy.
“Hi,” I say, apologetically.
“Je-sus, Kevin, what time is this to ring for Christ’s s... Jesus, it's quarter past two.”
“Are you pissed?”
“Bloody hell, Kevin, the main reason we got divorced was so you wouldn’t wake me up in the middle of the night to have stupid conversations.”
“What makes you think this is going to be a stupid conversation?”
There is the clatter of something being knocked over, followed by some swearing.
“Mac’s getting married,” I say. She gives her throaty chuckle.
“And this one’s ‘the one’?”
More throaty chuckle. “Right. When’s the wedding?”
“Two weeks’ time.”
“The eleventh. He said you’ll be getting an invite.”
“Right, the eleventh, yeh, I can do that. Will it be plus one?”
“Dunno.” Should I ask? I had to. “Are... are you plus one then?”
“...Might be... what about you?”
“No... no. I just became a minus one.”
“Don’t give that ‘ah’, I hate that ‘ah’.”
She laughs her full laugh, the one that sounds like a child being tickled.
“I’m sorry, Kevin, but it is sort of funny. I saw you both being interviewed on that morning show. Your body language was hilarious, was that sofa made of barbed wire?”
She laughs some more and I find myself laughing as well. My God, how long since we did this?
“Has Mac asked you to be his best man?”
“But of course.”
“Don’t do the Amsterdam stuff.”
I must have chatted with Sandra for about twenty minutes and afterwards, as was often the case, I found that I felt calmer. I made myself a peppermint tea – rock-and-roll – and headed for bed.
I felt sorry about how I’d handled things with Jade, but deep down I felt relieved. That little knot in my stomach had gone missing. Work was probably going to be a little awkward, but work was work and everyone would be professional. Then my thoughts drift back to Sandra.
Before I know it, I am reliving the night I first set eyes on her. It’s August, 1994. Mac is leading me in through the door of a converted lighthouse (yes, that’s right, a lighthouse). It’s the last week of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and we are gatecrashing a party full of young, glossy people who have yet to crash into the shit-mountain that is life (Mac’s words, not mine).
We are both already very pissed and the problem with the lighthouse is that it is mostly steps: windy, uneven steps. As a result, Mac is ricocheting around the staircase as he tries to climb, spilling people’s drinks, and belligerently banging into stone walls.
I, on the other hand, am amiably drunk and, I feel sure, only mildly impaired. I have found a niche on the ground floor and have wedged myself into a corner with a bottle of Riesling and a paper cup, and I am dispensing bon mots to luminous young women, all of whom (I can see) are entranced by me. I start quoting Camus. Then W.B. Yeats. Then Groucho Marx. How metropolitan I am. Met-ro-pol-it-an. I am on fire tonight. On fire.
Mac comes tumbling backwards down the stairs, giggling.
“Whoops-a-fucking daisy,” he cries. “Don’t know what happened there.”
He levers himself to his feet and lurches towards the young ladies I am in the process of fascinating.
“Whoa! La-deez, form a queue,” he exclaims. I only have the one cock.”
The women scatter like startled deer.
I remonstrate with Mac but all he can say is: “Heigh-ho, it’s off to pastures new.” Then he meanders away looking for a refill (he doesn’t like Riesling), while I lean against the wall and start to wonder how I will be getting home.
And then I see her.
Quite simply, one of the most beautiful women I have seen, floating, at the bottom of the stairwell like an angel. An an-gel. That’s what she’s like. She’s like – I tell you who she’s like – she looks uncannily like Catherine Deneuve.
I glide through the crowd towards her. She is talking to a young man in a leather jacket, but I can see he is boring her. As I arrive, they are talking about the plays of Racine, so I regale her with a few quotes from Phèdre. I have surprised her, so the advantage is mine.
The young man in the leather jacket fails to realise that he is now wasting his time and insists on trying to chip in to our conversation –although most of what he says is boring stuff like ‘You’re spilling your drink, mate.’
She, I can tell, is hanging on my every word. I am bewitching her. Now she is gazing at the floor, in an attempt to hide how attracted she is. At last, leather-jacket-boy gets the hint and moves off. I step towards her, so that we are close, ve-ry close.
I ask her if anyone has ever told her that she looks like Catherine Deneuve. She replies that they have. Well they are right, I tell her.
“My name is Kevin,” I say, suavely. “Kevin Carver. I am an actor-slash-writer-slash-director.”
She goes to tell me her name, but I interrupt her with a raffish wave of my hand.
“No, no need to tell me, I already know who you are.”
Of course, she is intrigued.
“You,” I proclaim, “are the future Mrs Carver.”
We talk some more. She is shy and needs some prising out of her shell, but I will take my time, because I am a craftsman. Her ambition is to work in theatre, so I am able to give her the benefit of my experience. In detail.
But I don’t want to intimidate her, no, no, no, no, no. So I start telling jokes. Then I admire the shiny watch she is glancing at. It’s from her boyfriend, she says, but he is not here right now. Besides, he is her ex-boyfriend. I tell her again, because she doesn’t seem to have heard the joke-slash-truth.
“He is your ex-boyfriend?” I reiterate.
“Why do you say that?” she asks.
“Because he just is,” I quip.
The repartee carries on for a while, with me setting the pace. Suddenly Mac looms into view.
“Mrs Carver,” I inform him.
He sniggers and rocks around a bit.
“Be careful of this one,” he tells her, jabbing his forefinger in front of my nose, “because he is promiscuous.”
“That’s not true,” I reassure her.
“Yes, it is,” Mac persists. “He is so promiscuous that he’s got a cauliflower penis.”
This is an old line of Mac’s and I can see that she is offended by his vulgarity, so I give him his marching orders, and he totters away, via more walls. What a state to get himself in! I apologise to Mrs Carver and attempt to lighten the atmosphere with a very funny joke about an Irish labourer but apparently I have told her this joke some minutes earlier.
This surprises me, but I don’t let it affect my stride. I start a discussion about children, to show my softer side, which I can tell is – hang on, leather-jacket-boy is back! What’s he doing here? He’s leading her away. What the – that’s not the – that’s, whoa, my head suddenly feels very light and the room is beginning to move and I – oh no – head for the door, the front door, where the fuck is the front door? What kind of moron holds a party in a lighthouse?! The front door! I’ve spotted the front door, I plough through the throng, buffeting and bouncing – oh God, I’ve got about ten seconds – out of my way – there’s that feeling in my throat – a matter of seconds – the door, I’ve made it, I’m through the door, the cold night air smacks me in the face and I am violently sick onto a gravel path.
Oh God, I hate being sick. I can hear people laughing. There is stuff going up my nose. I hate myself.
After several painful heaves, I am standing bent-double, knees trembling and soaked through with sweat. My eyes are streaming and snot is hanging from my nose. And I am breathing deep, long and hard, like an old man struggling on a winter’s day.
Then I hear a soft voice.
“Here’s a glass of water.”
I look up. A young woman with a pageboy haircut and NHS glasses is offering me the glass.
“Thanks,” I rasp, before gulping it down. “What’s your name?”
“Sandra,” she replies.
And then she smiles. She actually smiles. Presented with a glass-eyed idiot, standing in his own puke, she smiles.
Why on earth did she smile?
What did she see?