TV times – A party invitation
Our house … in the middle of the street
After we’d said our rather drunken goodbyes to Withnail we made our way back to the flat. It was early evening and the weather was dark and cold. Spots of rain were dripping off Millie’s umbrella and splashing onto my face as we huddled together along Kentish Town Road. Needing cash for dinner, we stopped at the building society hole-in-the-wall on the corner. I solemnly removed my card from my wallet, kissed it in a spiritual gesture and silently prayed that the great god of cash machines would grant one last request for £10.00. Another £10.00 beyond my overdraft limit. Oh well. I convinced myself I would pay it all back in one foul swoop once the big money started to flow in.
-‘Your request is being processed…’
This was the bit I hated. It was twist or bust time. Sink or swim. Or in our case, Chinese food or cornflakes.
-‘Please remove your cash and wait for your receipt…’
My prayers were answered, and I gratefully swiped the crisp, clean ten-pound note. I told Millie to go on back to the flat while I nipped into the takeaway. I hadn’t eaten anything since lunchtime, and after all the beer I was feeling distinctly uneasy and light-headed. I ordered several vegetable pancake rolls, a portion of egg fried rice and a bag of prawn crackers and sat down on a bench to wait for the meal to arrive.
The obligatory TV set on top of the counter was showing a house make-over programme, whose title I couldn’t remember, there were so many of them on the telly these days. I’d actually thought that these shows were a good idea when the first one had aired a few years back. It seemed like a reasonable notion – do up someone’s house with a lick of paint in an otherwise un-thought of colour scheme and a few trendy accessories thrown here and there. But now the general premise had worn thin, and I swore I could hear the sound of a barrel being scraped in TV production meetings, as new ideas and variations on a common theme were being discussed.
-‘How about a make-over show where we get women to do the carpentry, and men do the sewing?’
-‘Great. A stupid idea but we’ll do it!’
-‘What about a series where each week a different celebrity is called upon to decorate the home of a person who lives in a town that has the same name as the celeb?
-‘It’s crap but it’ll do. Any suggestions for who we can get?’
-‘Well, we could get Lester Piggott to do up a house in Leicester, and maybe Lesley Grantham can go and sort out a place in Grantham.’
-‘Oooh, and Sarah Lancashire. She’s good and she could go anywhere in that county.’
-‘Tony Blackburn. David Essex. Jayne Mansfield.’
-‘She’s dead, isn’t she?’
When we got back to the flat Millie opened a bottle of cheap, Chilean wine, which we had been saving since Christmas. I set down the takeaway on our wobbly coffee table and began unwrapping the foil containers, while Millie poured a generous glass each and then flicked on the TV.
-‘Is there anything on?’ Millie asked, helping herself to rice.
-‘Well, it’s either EastEnders,’ I said, ‘as it’s Tuesday. ‘Or…’
I hesitated, and searched for the TV guide, hidden under the bowl of prawn crackers.
-‘…or a documentary on the life of Samuel Arkwright, who in 1706 invented Arkwright’s Wobbling Machine. Channel Four are showing a repeat of the Robbie Williams concert … AGAIN! And ITV have got ‘Who Wants To Look Like A Complete Idiot.’
-‘Oh put that on,’ said Millie, lazily.
-‘Welcome to tonight’s ‘Who Wants To Look Like A Complete Idiot’, oozed Chris Tarrant. ‘In the hot seat tonight we’ve got Donald Carter from Doncaster, who last night – as you may remember – was stuck on 300 pounds with only one lifeline left. In the audience with him is his wife Shirley. Wave at the camera like a speed freak on acid Shirley. Lovely. And watching at home are their two children, Chloe aged nine and Thomas aged six, who are probably watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on DVD while the babysitter and her spotty, Burberry-wearing boyfriend give each other Thrush on the sofa. Are you ready to look like a complete idiot, Donald?’
-‘Yes Chris,’ bleated Donald, sweating profusely under the blazing studio lights, hot in his zig-zag patterned Marks and Spencer’s pullover.
-‘Right. Question for 500 pounds. ‘Under what name do we usually associate John, Paul, George and Ringo? Is it A – The Tolpuddle Martyrs. B – The Jackson Five. C – Manchester United. or D – The Beatles?
Millie and I both shouted at the television.
-‘Can I ask the audience Chris?’ said Donald.
Millie threw her fork at the set. We were both so frustrated. Was this all that life could offer us? A cheap takeaway meal watching crap telly in a grotty first floor flat on a cold and damp Tuesday in February and no record producer any more. I finished my food and gulped down my wine in one go.
-‘Right,’ I said, slamming down the glass on the coffee table, sending the pile of empty food cartoon sliding onto the floor. ‘I think we’d better call this Splash fella.
-‘Got the details?’ Millie asked, picking at a dubious looking piece of egg fried rice.
-‘Somewhere in my pocket,’ I said, fumbling in my semi-sodden jeans. ‘It’s a bit soggy.’
-‘Still see the number?’
-‘Yeah. Just about.’
You got my number … why don’t you use it
I unravelled the piece of paper and peered at the ink-soaked page. Holding the phone under my chin I cautiously dialled the number. I heard it ring, two, three, four times. Then a click and a voice answered, in a thick, south-London accent.
-‘Oh hi. Is that … er … Mr Splash?’
-‘Right. Good. This is Jon Dempsey. I got your number off Michael Wardle. He says you can help us out.’
-‘Michael Ward….er, Withnail.’
-‘Can you help us out?’
Blimey, I thought, this bloke doesn’t say much. I took a deep breath and explained our situation.
-‘It’s like this. We’ve got this record producer. He told us he really liked our stuff and wanted to work with us.’
-‘So we say ‘okay’ and he gives us this spiel about putting us in The Mission House to do some tracks.’
-‘Mission House! Nice.’
-‘So that was six months ago.’
-‘And he calls us every couple of weeks saying he’s got to work with Jake Beckford and then …’
-‘No, never ‘eard of ‘im.’
-‘You know. Boyband. Joyride. The ‘cute’ one. Sang ‘Girl I’m Missing You’ and that awful song that was number one for ages, the one on the Colin Firth movie, ‘If Only I Had A Dream’.
-‘Oh yeah. Shocking production. Sounds like the drums were programmed by a bloke with no ears.’
I’d never heard that phrase before and was stunned into silence.
-‘You still there?’ asked Splash.
-‘Oh, sorry. Anyway, what with one thing and another, this Beckford messing everyone about, our producer has now decided to work with Mickey Dunn’s sister.’
I heard Splash coughing.
-‘What, that pramface!’ he spluttered.
-‘You know her?’
-‘Know her! Worked with the silly cow a couple of years ago. Can’t sing a note. Nice arse though.’
-‘I had to be honest. Mickey Dunn had offered up a load of wonga. I needed the bread. Usually I don’t care. I’ll take the cash and nod and smile and say ‘that’s great’. But his sister took the biscuit. After three days of the worst singing I’d heard since the last Atomic Kitten record my ears couldn’t take any more and I gave Mickey his dosh back.’
-‘Well, our bloke wants to do the track.’
-‘Good luck to him,’ said Splash.
-‘Leaves us a little stranded,’ I said.
-‘I know. I ‘eard. Withnail told me your bird sorted ‘im out.’
Good old Withnail. Seems he’d already briefed Splash.
-‘So can you produce us?’ I asked. ‘Or do you know of someone we can contact?’
I waited for some kind of enthusiastic response, like, ‘Sure, I’d love to help. I own a big record company and you can come to my big studio and I will make you big stars’.
Instead the comeback I got left me confused and a little bewildered.
-‘Come to Maryon Park on Saturday night. I’m having a party. You can come as my friends. 9 o’clock. I’ll see you there. Bye.’
With that he was gone. The phone clicked dead and buzzed in my ear. I was a little startled by Splash’s abrupt nature and held the phone hovering in mid air.
-‘What did he say?’ asked Millie, her mouth still full of vegetable roll.
-‘He wants to meet us at Maryon Park,’ I said, thinking hard.
-‘Maryon Park!“ I repeated. “I know it. Somewhere down near Greenwich. Isn’t that where they filmed Blow Up?
-‘Search me,’ said Millie. ‘You’re the sixties film buff.’
-‘Yeah, that’s it. You know, the one with David Hemmings prancing about with a camera like some kind of idiot. Remember? He accidentally photographs a murder in between having loads of free love with anything breathing in a pair of day-glo tights?’
-‘Sounds really fab and groovy,’ Millie said sarcastically, wiping her lips with a paper towel.
-‘Come off it. After all, a party’s a party.’
-‘A party! Oh well, that makes all the difference,’ she said, her face lighting up. ‘It’s about time we went to a party. I’ll need to find something to wear!’
-‘What about those things you bought today?’ I asked. ‘That top and the shoes?’
-‘Oh I can’t wear those!’ said Millie, incredulously. ‘I need to look like a pop star if we’re going to a party. You just don’t understand do you Jon?’
No, I didn’t, but it wasn’t worth arguing with her when it came to what she wore. Millie played tricks on me. ‘Girl tricks’ I called them. You know the sort of thing. Blue dress, red dress. ‘Shall I wear the blue or the red?’ The red. ‘Why, what’s wrong with the blue?’ Or, ‘Shall I wear my hair up or down?’ Up looks good. ‘What’s wrong with down? Are you saying it looks crap, down?’ No, not at all. ‘Oh I think I need to wash it again now!’
-‘You never know who we might meet,’ she continued.
-‘Don’t you think it’s a bit weird, though?’ I said. ‘Most people have parties indoors. Especially in the middle of February.’
-‘Anything’s possible if this Splash is any friend of Withnail’s,’ she guessed.
-‘What? You mean strange hippy types and alternative thinkers.’
-‘Alternative dressers!’ she quipped.
-‘He could be I s’pose. Doesn’t sound like it though. He talks like a right wide-boy. More of a second-hand car salesman than a top-notch record producer.’
-‘Yeah, well, Withnail knows all sorts,’ she said. ‘I mean, remember that guy Ripley he was always hanging out with?’
-‘The one who was the son of the British Ambassador to Thailand? Lived in some swanky place in Chelsea.’
-‘Right. And the next minute he’s on first name terms with all the homeless outside the soup kitchen in Arlington Road.’
I nodded in agreement. You had to hand it to Withnail. He transcended all barriers – race, gender, class, age, income, hairstyle.
-‘Look,’ I said. ‘Withnail wouldn’t have given us this guy’s number if he didn’t trust him. Fair enough, people in Buckton Heath don’t have get-togethers outside in February in a creepy park, but this is London. And the music business. We’ll have to just go with the flow.’
-‘Okay,’ Mille agreed. ‘But this will mean another shopping trip tomorrow.’
-‘Another one?’ I sighed.
-‘Too right. Have you got any more cash?’
-‘No, we spent it all on the Chinese.’
-‘Damn!’ said Millie, examining her purse and counting out the loose change. ‘Three, four, five pounds seventy. Less bus fare. No way is that enough.’
-‘When’s your next shift in the café?’
-‘Friday evening,’ she said.
-‘Can’t you get an advance?’
-‘S’pose. If I call in tomorrow, maybe Federico’ll give me the day’s wages up front.’
-‘Course he will,’ I grinned. ‘He loves you, doesn’t he?’
I’d got used to Millie being adored by just about every red-blooded male in London. Jealously never came into it. ‘As long as they buy the records’ I assured myself, day in, day out. Millie gave me a withered look.
-‘Ha, ha!’ she said, sarcastically. ‘I’m doing this for the band, don’t you know.’
-‘Yeah, I know. And I’m grateful.’
-‘Why don’t you ask Neil for a pay rise?’ she suggested.
-‘Because the wanker hates me,’ I replied. ‘Oh, and because I keep taking too many sickies.’
-‘What about that promotion you mentioned before Christmas? What happened to that?’
-‘You know full well there’s no way I’d have kissed Neil’s arse to get that job,’ I protested.
-‘The money would have been nice,’ she said.
-‘You forget. I didn’t move to London to have a career in a fuckin’ financial services. I don’t want to get sucked in by promises of promotions and extra responsibilities. Next minute I’ll be talking about cars, mortgages, Fantasy fuckin’ Football and going on paintball weekends with all the other tossers who work in my office.’
Millie laughed at my desperate protestations. She knew how much I hated office life.
-‘And the next thing,’ I continued. ‘Is that I’ll develop an unexplainable taste for Keane and Snow Patrol records. Then you’d better watch out.’
-‘Why?’ she giggled.
-‘Well, instead of taking you to see The Trashcan Sinatras we’ll be sitting in our mortgaged seats to see Sting at Wembley and eating fondue and shopping for matching pine furniture!’
Millie smiled and gave me a hug.
-‘Calm down Dempsey,’ she said, smoothing my hair with her fingers. ‘We won’t.’
-‘How can you be so sure?’
-‘Because I won’t let us,’ she said.
I wished I had Millie’s confidence. She was determined our band would succeed, come what may.
-‘We can’t afford to fail,’ she continued.
-‘Why?’ I asked, looking deep into her eyes.
-‘Because then there’d be no point,’ she said, enigmatically.
I decided to let the conversation drop. We both had university degrees but like so many people in our position we were struggling along, doing shitty jobs with shitty people in shitty places. The dream was there all right. It’s just both of knew how easily dreams can turn into nightmares.
-‘Let’s go to bed,’ I suggested. ‘You can try and get some cash off Federico in the morning and then get yourself something to wear for Saturday.’
-‘Okay Jon,’ Millie sighed, stretching her arms and stifling a yawn. ‘We will be all right, won’t we?’
It was the question she asked most frequently.
-‘Sure,’ I said, kissing her gently on the forehead and squeezing her hand. ‘Of course we’ll be all right.’