I put the phone down and sit up straight, staring into the darkness. By the side of my bed the alarm clock flashes 02.45.
People always say that when the phone rings in the middle of the night you know it’s going to be bad news. But the funny thing is, when I was woken up by the sound of my mobile, the first thing I thought was that a friend was out drinking and wanted to know if I was in town – either that or they wanted to share a drunken ‘I love you’ experience. God knows I’ve put my friends through enough of those myself.
‘You know what,’ I’ll slur to whoever I’m with at the end of a night out, ‘I think you’re brilliant. I really really love you.’
But I shake the words out of my head. No, this time it isn’t that. It isn’t that at all. Although right now I wish more than anything else that it was.
I stand up and pull on my dressing gown. If I quickly pack my things and leave London now I can be back in Bolton by the start of the day.
I pad into the kitchen and fill the kettle. As I take out a mug and drop in a teaspoon of instant coffee, I suddenly feel a twist of frustration. It’s been months and months since I was last home; there are so many unhappy memories there and so many relationships I’m finding it difficult to deal with. But yesterday, as if from nowhere, I finally found myself wanting to go back. I suddenly felt homesick and wanted to reconnect with my family. I wanted see the very people I’ve been running away from.
Then this happened, one of the things I’ve been dreading most for my whole life. And now I’m being called home for a completely different reason, a reason that makes me feel sick with fear – fear that, after all this time staying away, I might just have left it too late to go back.
My love story begins during a time when little boys want to grow up to be Michael Jackson and little girls want to be just like Princess Diana. I’m at an age when the most important thing in life is remembering my Green Cross Code, never trusting strangers and making it through the mental arithmetic test my teacher sets every Friday – because, as she’s so fond of saying, when we’re grown-ups we won’t be able to carry a calculator around all the time.
It’s my ninth birthday and we’re having a special tea to celebrate. Only my close family are there as we’re having it at home, in our box-shaped 1960’s pebble-dashed semi in a suburb of Bolton. I sit at the kitchen table with Mum, Dad, Grandma and my brother Joe and can feel the happiness warming me up from within as Mum leans over to light the candles on my cake. She’s made me a big Victoria sandwich with my name iced on the top in big letters – Charlie. She’s particularly proud of it as baking isn’t her forte and she’s never attempted anything as complicated as piping a name onto a cake before, even if she has misjudged the spacing so that the ‘i’ and the ‘e’ are both squashed up at the edge. I don’t care though because I know how hard she must have tried.
‘What do you think, love?’ she asks, brightly.
‘I love it, Mum,’ I tweet. ‘It’s the best cake I’ve ever had.’
Dad stands up from the kitchen table to turn the lights out so that everyone can sing Happy Birthday. As I listen with glee, my feet jiggling away under the table, I try to decide what to wish for. The problem is there are far too many things I want. I’m very pleased when I eventually work out how to narrow everything down to just one wish – to get loads and loads of presents. And then I blow out all nine candles.
‘Hurray!’ everyone choruses. ‘Hip, hip, hurray!’
After we’ve demolished the cake, we go through to the front room so that I can unwrap my presents. The main living space of our home has a heavily-patterned shag carpet, walls that are painted bright orange, and a stripy purple three-piece suite, although Mum’s recently started to complain that the room needs to be modernised. Even though we’re a good few years into the 1980s, in Bolton the new decade is only just beginning and the 1970s still cling on to most areas of life; in our front room they’re still visible in the framed photo of Mum and Dad on their wedding day that stands on the mantelpiece next to a shot of me and Joe as toddlers dressed in flared polyester dungarees and matching red and brown polo-neck jumpers. In front of the fire stands an enormous Bell’s Whisky bottle that’s been emptied of booze and is now filled with so much of Mum and Dad’s loose change that it reminds me of a pirate’s treasure chest. And finishing off the room are several of Mum’s much-loved houseplants, including an enormous cheese plant and an overgrown ivy that trails around the skirting boards on all four walls.
Although at the moment our front room is dominated by a huge stack of presents that stand piled up in the centre. I bowl in and begin to unwrap them with the crazed desperation of a starving animal hunting for food. I’m delighted to find boxes of felt-tip pens and art materials as well as several Star Wars figures and an elaborate Ewok Village from The Return of the Jedi. Joe looks on, wide-eyed – he’s two years older than me and obsessed with Star Wars. I’m chuffed with the presents I’ve got but even more chuffed that for once I’ve managed to impress my big brother.
As tends to happen when it’s my birthday, I also get a few presents I don’t really want; this year these include two packets of plastic soldiers, a Bolton Wanderers football kit, and an electric boardgame called Computer Battleship. I always feel like this kind of present has been bought for a different boy to me, or the boy some people want me to be, but I can’t bear the idea of upsetting anyone on my birthday so pretend to be pleased. Besides, I don’t want to appear ungrateful; as Mum’s fond of saying, some children at my school don’t get any presents at all, such as Steven Spriggs, whose dad has just lost his job in one of the town’s last cotton mills, or the Pickup sisters, who don’t celebrate birthdays or Christmas because they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. So if I open a present I don’t like, I simply say thanks and put it to one side, hoping nobody will notice if I abandon it later.
And anyway, I’m being bombarded with far too many brilliant presents for me to feel even remotely disappointed. My favourite of all has to be a brand new Soda Stream. Ever since I saw this advertised on telly I’ve desperately wanted one. It looks so modern and so much fun that for months I’ve fantasised about concocting colourful cocktails as the kids from school look on with envy.
‘Get busy with the fizzy – Soda Stream!’
Every day for weeks I’ve left the Argos catalogue lying around the house, strategically opened on the page with the coveted Soda Stream. In the kitchen, in Dad’s tool shed, even on the toilet seat. I’m thrilled to see now that my persistence has paid off.
‘Oh thanks a lot!’ I beam as I unwrap it. ‘This is the best present ever!’
Once my excitement has died down, Dad helps me set it up behind the mini-bar. ‘It’s just like being down The Flat Iron,’ he approves, in his strong Lancashire accent.
‘Very snazzy, love,’ agrees Mum, her accent equally broad. ‘You look like a proper little barman.’
I can’t quite believe I’ve been given such a grown-up present. Until now, the most grown-up I’ve ever felt is when Mum gives me a new twenty pence piece and sends me to the shop on my own to buy her a Walnut Whip. I’m overjoyed and make a big show of reading out the different flavours and then serving everyone a drink.
‘I’nt it marvellous?’ Grandma coos as she looks on. ‘And to think that in my day we had to make do with Corporation pop.’
‘Hey Charlie,’ yaps Joe, ‘can I have a go?’
I pretend to think it over. ‘Oh go on then. But only if you let me play with your Millennium Falcon.’
‘How about trying on that Wanderers strip?’ chips in Dad. ‘Or you and me having a game of Computer Battleship?’
I’ve no idea how to reply; I’m not remotely interested in playing war games and surely my birthday’s the one day in the year when I don’t have to worrying about liking things in order to impress my dad? Isn’t the rule that you get to do whatever you want on your birthday?
‘Urm, do you mind if we do it later, Dad?’ I attempt. I watch his smile wilt and my heart sinks like a knackered lift.
Thankfully at that moment our attention is distracted by the sound of the front door opening and the arrival of my Auntie Jan.
‘Coo-ee! Where’s the birthday boy?’
I jump up and bounce over to greet her. Auntie Jan is Mum’s younger sister and I think she’s ace. When she babysits she lets me and Joe stay up late to watch Magnum PI and, if we’re really lucky, Cagney and Lacey. She listens to music by Duran Duran and Culture Club and everyone says she looks like the blonde one out of Bananarama. All the kids in the street think she’s dead trendy – today she’s wearing a cerise pink rara skirt with a banana yellow off-the-shoulder top, electric blue leg warmers and white stiletto heels. Auntie Jan’s well ace .
‘Hiya!’ I squeak.
‘Hello, sunshine!’ She gives me a kiss and as usual smells of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit. ‘Many Happy Returns!’
‘Thanks. Have you brought me a present?’
‘By ’eck, Charlie, let me get through the door first!’
Once she’s settled and has been served a Sasparilla from the Soda Stream, Auntie Jan takes my present out of her bag. I rip off the paper and find two pairs of towelling socks – one luminous green and one luminous pink.
‘That way you can wear them on odd feet,’ she chirps.
‘Oh mega, thanks!’
Underneath the socks I notice that there’s something else. I tug away the wrapping paper and pull it out. It’s a 7” single, the first one I’ve ever owned. I wipe the smudged fingerprints off my glasses so I can take a proper look. On the cover there’s a bare-shouldered woman wearing bright pink lipstick and a big crucifix in her ear. She has black rags tied through her bleached blonde hair and her arms are almost entirely covered in plastic bangles. The look on her face is one of arrogance and a defiant sexiness. I’m too young to understand any of it but am intrigued and want to know more.
‘She’s called Madonna,’ explains Auntie Jan, as I read the name on the front of the record sleeve. ‘And the song’s called Lucky Star. I heard it at Ritzy’s last week and thought it was dead good.’
Dad isn’t so keen. ‘Flamin’ ’eck Jan,’ he says, ‘I don’t know who this bird is but she looks like one of them girls down Shifnall Street!’
‘’Ey Frank, you be quiet in front of the kids,’ says Mum.
‘Dad,’ I say, ‘where’s Shifnall Street?’
Mum rolls her eyes. ‘Now look what you’ve done!’
‘Oh please tell me where it is. Please, please, please!’
‘It’s nowhere, love. It’s just some place naughty girls go to play kissy kissy with bad boys.’
I’m fascinated. ‘Have you ever been, Auntie Jan?’
‘No I have not!’ she pants.
‘But Mum said you always play kissy kissy with bad boys.’
‘Did she now?’
Mum’s neck starts to flush red. ‘Honestly Frank, I wish you’d keep your trap shut sometimes.’
Jan folds her arms. ‘Anyway,’ she says, ‘your Dad’s talking rubbish – this woman’s American and I reckon she’s going to be a big star.’
I look again at the picture on the front cover. I may be too young to appreciate what goes on in Bolton’s red light district but I can tell there’s something a bit naughty about this Madonna. For some reason though, I really like it.
‘Mum, please can we play my new record?’
She looks relieved that I’ve changed the subject. ‘Course we can, love.’
There’s an excited silence as we all gather round the record player and wait for the song to begin. As I hear the opening notes I can honestly say it’s love at first sound. By the time the vocal comes in I can feel the edges of my mouth brighten into a big grin. Madonna starts singing about a man she calls her lucky star, someone who’ll shine on her all the time and be there to guide her through life, whatever happens. Straight away I think this is a lovely idea.
And Auntie Jan’s right; the song is dead good. In fact, it’s dead, dead good. And it has the added bonus of making Dad forget all about that game of Computer Battleship. Unfortunately the rest of my family don’t see the appeal.
‘Are you sure it’s on at the right speed?’ asks Dad. ‘Her voice sounds a bit high.’
‘God Frank,’ sighs Jan, ‘that’s what she’s supposed to sound like!’
‘By ’eck,’ says Mum, ‘you’d think she’d got hold of one of them balloons and swallowed a gobful of helium.’
I pay no attention and listen away. As Madonna’s vocals bounce around our front room, I become aware of something stirring inside me. Somehow I understand that I’ve just found my own lucky star. And I feel energised. I feel uplifted. I feel happy.
If only the rest of my family could feel the same.
‘She sounds like she’s got a peg on her nose,’ says Joe. Everyone falls about laughing.
I hate it when Joe sides with Mum and Dad. Whether it’s because he’s older then me and considers himself more grown-up or genuinely agrees with them rather than me I don’t know but all the same I hate it; it makes me feel like the odd one out in my own family.
‘Eeh, she’s not a patch on Gracie Fields,’ says Grandma. ‘Now there were a proper singer.’
Dad agrees. ‘You mark my words lad, this Madonna’s nothing but a flash-in-the-pan. She’ll be a has-been by Christmas.’
I take no notice. My foot’s tapping and I’m hooked already. As soon as the song finishes I ask to listen to it again. We have a rule in our house that if it’s your birthday you can choose whatever telly or music you want all day. Needless to say I drive everyone mad with repeated plays of Lucky Star for the rest of the evening.
A couple of hours later, Auntie Jan and Grandma have both left, as have a few other friends and members of the family who arrived later in the evening. I’ve had my bath, brushed my teeth and put on my pyjamas. I’ve even managed to sneak in another piece of cake Mum saved, after which I had to brush my teeth again. And at the end of all this, Madonna’s still playing – and, as I’ve learnt the lyrics, I’ve started singing along. Mum announces that she just can’t take it anymore. ‘Come on Charlie – it’s past your bedtime and you’ve got school tomorrow.’
‘But Mum, I’m not even tired yet!’
‘Your Mam’s right,’ booms Dad. ‘Get up them dancers before Wee Willie Winkie gets you.’
I give a big sigh but decide not to argue. I don’t actually mind that the day’s over. It’s been brilliant and I couldn’t feel happier. I say my goodnights and thank Mum and Dad once again for their presents. All in all, I’m pretty sure it’s been my best birthday yet.
I lie in bed gazing up at the luminous stars Dad’s stuck onto my ceiling. I don’t feel sleepy at all and in my head I can still hear the lyrics to Lucky Star. I’m nine years old and I’ve just fallen in love. Little do I know it’s a love that will influence the rest of my life.
Dress You Up
La Isla Bonita
Open Your Heart
Papa Don’t Preach
Who’s that Girl?
Crazy for You
Into the Groove
Justify My Love
You Must Love Me
Ray of Light
Causing a Commotion
Don’t Tell Me
Like a Prayer
Live to Tell
Like a Virgin
Nothing Really Matters
The Power of Goodbye
Give it 2 Me