The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer

The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer

A Chapter by Andrew Crofts
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Maggie runs away from home at 15 to become famous. It takes 30 years and doesn't happen quite as she expected.

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CHAPTER ONE. Portal to Another World

 

 

On that forty-five minute train journey to London I transformed from fifteen-year old Maggie Mitchell into eighteen year-old Maggie de Beer like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. I would be eighteen for about six years after that. 

   It hardly seems worth lying about where or when I was born any longer, not in these times of Heat Magazine and the bloody Internet, when everyone can find out everything about you at the touch of a button. No chance of retaining an air of international mystery and glamour these days, which is what I was trying to do when I used to tell people I was a child of the Empire, conceived in Monte Carlo after a successful night for my parents in the casino, born in India and brought up in Kuala Lumpur. I used to talk about how my father was in the diplomatic service; ‘all terribly hush-hush,’ I would say, ‘not even Mummy was allowed to know what he did’.

     In fact my father worked for the council in Haywards Heath, inspecting things, and the closest we ever got to lives of international mystery was a couple of package tours to Majorca in the 1960’s, the stress of which seemed to almost blow my mother’s entire nervous system. But I could hardly build a career as a global superstar and icon from those beginnings, could I? So, I changed everything about my past the day I sneaked out of the house with the best family suitcase while my mother was having her after-lunch rest with the bedroom door closed, and dragged it to Haywards Heath station. As I stood on that dreary, draughty platform for the last time it seemed like my portal to another world.

     It was 1970 and London was the centre of the universe �" or so it had seemed from watching television and making the occasional visit to the cinemas of Brighton. I had watched both the Beatles’ films and seen news footage of the Rolling Stones playing a concert in Hyde Park. I’d stared for endless hours at magazine pictures of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy and read everything I could possibly find about David Bailey and Vidal Sassoon, Tommy Nutter and Leonard of Mayfair. My parents’ lack of interest in the whole swinging London scene stunned me. My father couldn’t even bring himself to watch Top of the Pops, preferring to ‘potter in the garden’ or read his newspaper ‘in peace’, so he certainly wouldn’t have understood the importance of Hendrix’s recent death in that London hotel basement, or the reason why I had to escape from their gloomy, claustrophobic little home.

     My mother made a point of not reading newspapers unless Dad actually pointed something out to her which he could be sure wouldn’t upset her. She seemed frightened of the outside world that they reported on, a world she avoided going out into at every opportunity. It was as if she wanted to hide away from every bit of bad news there was, even the bits that I thought were fantastically interesting like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull being arrested for drugs at Keith Richards’ House, or John Lennon and Yoko Ono holding ‘bed-ins’ for peace surrounded by hundreds of cameras and reporters, or April Ashley changing from a man into an unbelievably glamorous woman. Mum would literally cover her eyes or her ears if there was any chance she would have to read or hear such stories. It annoyed me at the time, but I only really realised how odd it was when I thought back many years later. Not that I thought about her that often once I’d left, and I certainly never talked about her or Dad to anyone I met in my new life.

     Obviously Mum had to leave the house sometimes, like picking me up from school or for some emergency shopping trip that couldn’t wait till Dad got home, but she would always avoid making eye contact with everyone we came across, and would scurry back to safety, dragging me reluctantly behind her, the moment our business was done. She was always happier if Dad was there and he would automatically do all the talking to people in shops or anywhere else, leaving her standing in the background with her eyes on the ground. Strangers seemed to like Dad in these casual encounters, but I just thought he was embarrassingly dull, his conversation ridiculously insincere and full of clichés, as if that was his way of covering his own lack of confidence.

     Mum got the most ridiculous bees in her bonnets about things which I didn’t think she knew anything about at all. She had been clucking and tutting for about six years about a couple of ‘good time girls’ called Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies and their role in bringing down the Conservative government and ‘ruining England’s reputation in the eyes of the world’.  Even though I was only nine or ten at the time of the Profumo scandal and hardly understood a word of what was being talked about I heard the tone of my mother’s voice, saw the strangely glamorous photographs plastered over the front pages of the daily papers in the shops and immediately wanted to know why these pretty young women were causing such a stir and making my mother feel so threatened. All I could think, when I managed to find out more details from Dad’s discarded papers, was how much I wished I had been at those stately home parties at Cliveden, swimming naked with Lord Astor, meeting spies and ministers. I envied them all the front-page attention and flashing cameras that I imagined must follow them wherever they went. It all seemed infinitely preferable to my mother’s tedious daily routines around the house. Whereas Mum appeared to see the outside world as a dangerous and threatening place, it seemed to me like a treasure trove of potential adventures and I wanted to dive straight in at the deep end.

     Mum was almost as disapproving of Jackie Kennedy for ‘marrying that awful Greek man’ after her first husband was shot, but I just saw pictures of yachts and nightclubs and headlines about stupendous wealth. I couldn’t think of anything better than being an iconic figure for millions of ordinary people, although I would have admired her more if she’d had a career of her own first, like Princess Grace of Monaco. What could be better than to be a great film star and then marry a Prince with his own Principality in the sun? Mum even hated the idea of Monte Carlo, ‘a sunny place for shady people’, she would mutter if she caught me staring at pictures of the fairy tale castle and harbour, obviously having heard someone else saying it first. But in any of the films or pictures I saw it looked pretty much like heaven on earth. Mum even seemed to shrink away from sunshine, not liking to open the curtains at the front of the house if she could help it. It was like she was frightened of the light.

     ‘I don’t want people knowing everything about our lives,’ she would say if I asked why we couldn’t open them and let the sun in.

     I couldn’t imagine why anyone walking by would want to spare even a passing glance for our ordinary little house, and even if they did they wouldn’t be able to see through the net curtains, which formed a secondary barrier behind the chintz. She had also nagged Dad into planting a couple of trees in front of the house, which more or less obliterated the downstairs windows during the months when they had leaves on.

     If someone rang the doorbell unexpectedly, like a postman or meter reader, she would be peering through the nets to check who it was before she would even open the door a crack to them, like they might be mad axemen out to rape and pillage innocent householders. I couldn’t understand why Dad put up with it, except that I supposed it gave him a quiet life because she never asked to be taken out and never wanted to invite anyone into the house. He was always amazingly tolerant about the whole stupid pantomime, making me feel all the guiltier about my own impatience with her irritating ways.

     Both my parents thought I was stupid for plastering my room with Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn posters and fretted about the marks the Sellotape would leave on their precious wallpaper, while I was anxious to cover every hideous square inch of it with these glossy, perfect images from my dream world. How could they not understand why these women were goddesses stalking the earth amongst mere mortals, and that I was destined to walk amongst them? My mother would mutter about Marilyn being ‘no better than she should be’ and ‘no wonder she came to a sticky end, playing the sort of games she was playing’, and Dad would complain that ‘the woman never made a film worth watching’. The woman was the greatest film star ever, for God’s sake, and slept with a president! Mum wasn’t quite so down on Audrey, although she would swear that she couldn’t see ‘what all the fuss was about’ and thought she was ‘far too thin for her own good’.  It wasn’t even worth arguing with such ignorance, so I sulked, sighed and rolled my eyes a lot instead.

     Eventually my silent insolence must have worn away the last bit of patience my father was clinging to. In the heat of a row about how little homework I was doing and how I was going to end up ‘in the gutter’ at the rate I was going, he ripped my posters down off the wall and scrunched them up before my eyes. I could see that he immediately regretted losing his usual iron self-control, and making marks on the wallpaper, but he couldn’t back down then and ended up stamping my precious heroines into the carpet like he was trying to extinguish dangerous flames. Seeing their beautiful faces crushed and crumpled like that broke my heart. It felt like he was physically attacking the stars themselves and I was left breathless and dry eyed with grief as he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

     So, you can see why I had to escape and why I was drawn to the magnet of the King’s Road the moment my train drew into Victoria Station and I hauled the best family suitcase out into the late afternoon sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO. Arriving in London.

 

 

Despite the fact that I was nervous about how long my meagre savings were going to last me, I bought myself an A to Z book of London maps on the station concourse, which immediately became my most precious possession, and a packet of expensive white tipped St Moritz cigarettes, which I thought would make me look more grown-up and sophisticated. They were mentholated, which helped to take away some of the roughness of the smoke hitting my young throat as I struggled to learn how to inhale without choking. They also had gold bands around them too, which I thought spoke for itself.  I decided that I would make up for this extravagance by walking to the King’s Road rather than getting on a bus. I studied the densely printed pages of the A to Z with a growing rumble of excitement building inside me at the sight of so many exciting street names waiting to be explored.

     Once I had plotted a route I set off down the side of the station. Only able to move a few yards at a time before having to put the suitcase down and rest my aching arms, I laboriously made my way up to the grandeur of Eaton Square, a location which was about to become famous in Upstairs Downstairs, a series I’m sure my mother must have absolutely approved of; such good manners and all that certainty and everyone ‘knowing their place’ in the world. The imposing, solid calm of the houses towering above my head made me feel increasingly small and poor as I inched my way past their grand gates and entrance steps.

     By the time I got to Sloane Square all the workers were leaving their offices and piling into the tube station and onto the buses, leaving the King’s Road to prepare for its night time business, which meant restaurants and pubs filled with people wearing the clothes they had bought from the shops that were now closing up for the day. Even though I had only ever been there before in my dreams, I felt like I was finally coming home.

     I had planned my running-away outfit meticulously. I had been working in Woolworths in Haywards Heath ever since my fourteenth birthday in order to have enough money for this day and part of the budget had gone on clothes from boutiques in the Brighton Laines. I wouldn’t have looked out of place performing on Top of the Pops in what I was wearing, nor would I have been out of place in a market in the back streets of Marrakech. It didn’t matter what I looked like; what mattered was how I felt and I felt like I owned the whole world, even if every muscle in my body was screaming from the effort of dragging the suitcase, which now felt like it weighed as much as a small house. I could tolerate any amount of physical pain because in my heart I was certain it would only be a matter of days before I was posing for David Bailey on the instructions of Vogue, acting alongside David Hemmings or Terence Stamp, or being interviewed on The Simon Dee Show.

     The image of David Hemmings as the photographer in the film, Blow-Up, straddling the supermodel, Veruschka, with a camera as she writhed about on the studio floor, had penetrated so deeply into my soul that I almost felt like I had actually been there with them. It was the same with Julie Christie in Darling. I had connected so completely with her character, Diana Scott, and with Julie’s own fabulous rise to stardom that I could hardly even remember where one began and the other ended. Was it Julie or Diana or me who had won the Oscar? Was it Julie or Diana or me who had had affairs with Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey?

     In the excitement of executing my escape from the house I had forgotten to eat any lunch and the smells from the restaurant kitchens as I inched my way down the King’s Road were making me hungry. I wasn’t entirely sure how much it would cost to buy a restaurant meal since I’d never done it before apart from the odd budget visit to a Wimpy Bar after school with friends, but I was already becoming nervous about my money, most of which was scrunched up in the toes of my shiny white boots for safety. The worst possible thing would have been to run out of money in the first week and to have had to slink back home like some silly little schoolgirl who wasn’t capable of looking after herself in the real world.

     With all the confidence of ignorance I was completely certain that I could ensure that never happened with the sheer force of my own will. I’d read a few American self-help books about positive thinking by then and I believed that if I concentrated hard enough on my goals they were bound to come true. I had convinced myself that when I did finally return home it would undoubtedly be as a great star and Mum and Dad would both have to admit that they had been wrong to discourage my ambitions and to predict that I would end up ‘in the gutter’. They would have to admit that they had underestimated my talents and shown their own small mindedness with their constant harping on about the importance of homework and exams. They had never understood that I was destined for bigger things than A levels, that I didn’t need the ‘safety nets’ that they kept going on about because I was perfectly capable of balancing on the high wire of mega-stardom.  

     The biggest dream they could come up with was for me to get into some dreary university somewhere, so that I could end up with a job a few notches further up the council hierarchy than Dad. How ridiculous such ambitions would seem when I reappeared at their humble little door in my chauffeur driven limousine, dripping in furs and jewels, neighbours coming to the windows and pointing and sending their children over with autograph books. I could picture the scene perfectly and knew that I had to get there. Gritting my teeth I kept on pulling the suitcase towards my vision, lost in my own thoughts and trying to ignore the escalating hunger pains.

     ‘Hi, we’ve met before, haven’t we?’

     The voice at my shoulder made me jump, waking me from my dream. The man had emerged from Picasso’s, an open fronted Italian restaurant, with a broad, friendly grin on his handsome face.

     ‘No,’ I said, blushing pathetically, ‘I don’t think so.’

     I walked on as quickly as the weight of the case would allow, covered in confusion, wishing I’d thought of something smarter to say. Audrey Hepburn would have been able to come up with a better line than that if she’d bumped into Cary Grant unexpectedly, but my mind was a blank. How could we have met before? He didn’t look like the sort of man who would even know where Hayward’s Heath was, let alone go there.

     ‘Let me guess,’ he said, strolling beside me as I struggled on, apparently completely unbothered by my brush-off. ‘You’re a Pisces.’

     ‘How did you know that?’ I stopped, ridiculously impressed with his astrological skills and grateful for an excuse to let go of the case for a few seconds in order to unbend my bloodless fingers.

    ‘I can just tell,’ he shrugged. ‘I am too. I felt a vibe. When’s your birthday?’

     I told him, and asked him when his was and to my amazement it turned out to be the same day. What were the chances of that? It had to be a sign that this meeting was more than a pure co-incidence.

     ‘Let me buy you something to eat,’ he gestured back towards Picasso’s. ‘Pasta or something.’

    I hesitated for a few seconds. I could envisage all the warnings my parents would dole out about accepting a meal from a complete stranger and I immediately wanted to do it just to prove to them that the world was not nearly such a threatening and evil place as they imagined; that I could handle it even if they couldn’t.

     ‘Okay, why not?’ I shrugged, as if I did such things all the time. He put his arm round my waist with a comforting gentleness and steered me back, not offering to relieve me of the weight of the suitcase.

     Inside the restaurant was busy enough for me to feel safe and now I looked at him more closely he looked very presentable, possibly even rich. His clothes were trendy but immaculately clean and well pressed, like they could have come straight off the racks of a neighbouring boutique that day. His hair was long but as well cut as any woman’s, with slight flecks of grey which looked like highlights. I wouldn’t have had any idea how old he was. When you’re fifteen, anyone over twenty-five looks old. He could have been thirty, but he could just as easily have been forty. The hair and clothes made his age seem irrelevant. He had that sort of ‘cheeky chappy’ look that David Essex would ride to fame on a few years later. Not only was this a man from the world I wanted to be part of, this was also a man who was offering pasta just as the hunger pains were starting to bite and somewhere to sit down after the gruelling trudge from Victoria.

     ‘My name’s Neil,’ he said, shaking my hand in a strangely formal way, holding it for a little longer than I expected and staring deeply into my eyes as if searching for my soul, forcing me to look down and blush again.

     He guided me to a table right by the window and I managed to wedge my case underneath, scrunching my legs up uncomfortably but not wanting to draw attention to the fact that I had just got off the boat, so to speak. It would have been so much cooler to have been able to stroll into the restaurant empty handed like he did, rather than having to drag all my worldly belongings with me. Neil must already have been sitting there, having ordered a meal, when he saw me go past and ran out to talk to me because he already had a bottle of wine on the go. A waiter was bringing him a lasagne as we sat down and he gave it to me, ordering himself another without asking me if that was what I wanted. He seemed to know everyone in the restaurant, both staff and customers. Other people came and went while I ate, none of them taking much notice of me as they greeted one another, shaking hands, kissing cheeks and moving easily from table to table. It seemed a fabulously grown-up world. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, staring around me with wide-eyed wonder once I’d cleaned my plate, with no real idea what anyone was talking about, smoking one cigarette after another to give myself something to do with my hands, trying to look like I was relaxed while feeling faintly sick from the mixture of smoke, red wine and excitement.

     ‘Do you want to go to a club tonight?’ Neil asked once we’d both finished eating.

     ‘Sure.’

     The wine was giving me a warm glow now, lowering any inhibitions I might have had when talking to him in the street. Part of me felt safe with him.

    ‘Do you want to change?’ he asked, gesturing at my clothes, immediately making me wonder if I had chosen badly for my London debut.

    ‘Everything I have is in here,’ I gestured to the case under the table.

    ‘Where do you live?’

    ‘I’ve got to sort something out.’

    ‘You can change and leave your bag at my place if you like,’ he said. ‘It’s not far.’

     ‘Okay,’ I meant to sound like none of this was a big deal, but my voice cracked unexpectedly. It probably gave away how out of my depth I was but Neil didn’t say anything and put his arm round my waist again as I lugged my case out from under the table, banging into all the people milling around the entrance as we went out to find his car. No one seemed to expect him to pay for the meal, everyone shouting ‘ciao’ as he left, waving casually to his public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE.   The Man in the Bath.

 

 

Half an hour later we were driving in Neil’s red and white Mini to a square a few miles up the road in Earls Court. The block he parked in front of was grand and old, built of red brick with big sash windows shadowed by mature trees. I hauled my case up the steps, over the chequered tiles of the hall onto deep red carpeting. The lift that Neil had summoned had expanding metal double doors, like noisy trellis-work that clattered shut behind us, allowing us to see the passing floors as we lurched upwards to the top floor.

     Neil had a room in a flat that seemed to be shared with dozens of other people, most of them milling around in the rather cluttered and grubby kitchen as he led me in. Neil greeted everyone and they all seemed as pleased to see him as the people in the restaurant had been. It felt good to be with someone who was obviously so popular and highly thought of by everyone.

      I could see by the harsh light of the naked bulb that hung from the kitchen ceiling that he was older than any of the others in the room but he still seemed to fit in as if he was one of them. No one took any notice of me as I hovered behind him, waiting to be told what was going to happen next. Neil didn’t bother to introduce me, which was a bit of a relief in some ways, allowing me to remain a spectator on the scene while I tried to work out what my place in it should be.

     Someone was playing Cat Stevens’ album Tea for the Tillerman very loudly in one of the bedrooms as we walked down the corridor to Neil’s room, which I guess would have been the main sitting room when the flat had been originally built and inhabited by one family.

     The windows of this bed-sit looked out over the tops of the giant trees coming up from the square below, making it feel like we were somehow floating above the city. Unlike the communal kitchen, everything about the room was as neat and clean as Neil himself, particularly the meticulously made double bed which stood like a showpiece beneath its beautiful Indian quilt in the centre of the room, between the two windows. The scent of his aftershave hung pleasantly in the air. Against the far wall were stacks of boxes, some already opened to show the piles of denim packed within.

     ‘I’m in the rag trade,’ Neil said when he saw my eyes flicker over the goods. ‘Help yourself if you want anything. What size are you?’

     He rummaged through the boxes until he found a dress he thought would suit me, and showed no sign of leaving the room while I changed into it. I didn’t want to seem prudish so I stripped off the clothes from my old life and pulled on the new, despite the fact that he was watching my every move, smiling contentedly and approvingly. I knew my figure was good because boys had written things about it on the walls at school, but that didn’t mean I was comfortable about showing my underwear to strangers yet. My feminine curves still felt almost as new as the clothes he was lending me.

     I’d caught a glimpse of myself in the full length mirror coming out of the bathroom at home a few months before and had been shocked and thrilled by the beautiful woman I saw looking back at me, stunned and excited at the same time. I had always been very self critical up till then, not happy with the way I looked, but even I had to admit that I had suddenly become a sexy woman. I feel I can be boastful about it now that that beauty has mostly disappeared with time. In the following minutes that I spent in the bathroom staring at my new reflection I had realised that there was now a possibility I could start making all my dreams come true. The image I saw of myself reinforced the certainty I had always felt that I wasn’t just a silly schoolgirl fantasising about a life that could never be mine, as my parents believed I was. I actually did look like a model, or possibly even a film star. It had come as a shock, but a very nice one, creating a knot of sheer joy in my stomach as I realised I now had the raw materials I needed to set out on my chosen career path.

     I liked the idea that Neil would be impressed with what he saw, despite the fact that I still felt nervous about the possible consequences of igniting his interest so blatantly. Mum was always talking about girls ‘getting what they deserved’ when they flirted with men. I had told myself it was more of her usual nonsense, but her often stated fears and prejudices must have left traces deep inside my head.

     That night Neil took me to the Valbonne for the first time and I was deeply impressed to know that I was standing just a few yards from the legendary Carnaby Street. I remember flaming torches above the entrance and Neil knowing everyone on the door, shaking more hands, slapping people on the back and getting in free, like he was some sort of VIP. He never seemed to be asked to pay for drinks in places like that.  I’m pretty sure there were go-go dancers in cages and I definitely remember a giant goldfish pond in the middle of the club. The manager came out from the back to see Neil when he heard he was there and our banquette was soon surrounded with people all laughing and drinking. It was like every kind of heaven I had ever dreamed of.

     ‘She’s going to model,’ Neil told people if they showed any interest in me being there, as if it was a decision already made by the Gods of Swinging London, ‘just until her singing and acting take off.’

     He was actually saying those words out loud as if they were a definite fact and the people who heard them were accepting it as if it was the most natural thing in the world. If anyone had said anything like that at school or in the house everyone would have exchanged knowing looks, raised their eyes and tutted, as if I had just announced I was going to marry Prince Charles and become the next queen of England. These people didn’t think I was a silly little girl who should be starting to grow out of her foolish, childish fantasies. They didn’t think I was going to ‘end up in the gutter’ and they were the ones who were already living the big-city dream, who knew that anything was possible if you were young, beautiful, talented and ambitious. To them it seemed perfectly reasonable to imagine that you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve, make any dream you wanted come true. My heart was racing with the sheer joy of being amongst so many like-minded souls.

     By the time we got back to Earls Court I must have been very drunk because when I woke up the next morning I couldn’t really remember much of what had happened after about midnight. I was naked and in the bed, and a bit sore between my legs, so I assumed I had lost my virginity, but it didn’t seem that big a deal. At least I hadn’t had to spend my first night in London sleeping rough, or squandering precious money on some depressing, scuzzy backstreet hotel.

     Neil was already dressed and blow drying his hair on the other side of the room as I surfaced, staring at himself in the mirror with a look of intense concentration. I just lay watching him for a while, wishing I could remember more of the night. I had never seen a grown man blow drying before, Dad was more one for a quick lick of Brylcreem and a comb through each morning. He would no more have picked up a hairdryer than he would have pulled on a pair of women’s shoes.

    As Neil left for the King’s Road with a box full of jeans he gave no indication as to whether he expected me to still be there when he got home. It was almost as if he’d forgotten I was there at all. Once I heard the front door of the flat slamming behind him I slid out of bed, wrapped myself in his sweet smelling towelling robe and went to the bathroom. The door was standing open so I walked boldly in and screamed like the stupid schoolgirl I was trying so hard not to be.

     ‘Hi, I’m Q,’ the boy in the bath said.

     He was just the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. If you can imagine David Cassidy’s daintier younger brother you would pretty much get the picture. I knew I had to stop staring at his face, but I didn’t dare move my eyes too far down in the bath so I found myself focussing on the loosely packed joint he had between his fingers.

    ‘Help yourself,’ he said, passing it across.

     I took it from him and tried to inhale without choking as it flared up between my lips, loose flakes of glowing ash drifting out over the bath water. I had worked hard on my cigarette technique all through the previous night, but this smoke was much stronger and definitely not mentholated. I had to hold on tight not to cough, which made it look like I was storing the smoke in my lungs like a real pro. I passed it back.

     ‘You a friend of Neil’s?’ he asked, taking it from me.

     He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get me out of the room so I relaxed, pretending that it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be talking to a strange and beautiful man in a bath, when in fact it was an absolute first. I didn’t have any brothers and my father would never have dreamed of leaving a door unlocked and risking such an intimate encounter with me or Mum. I sometimes wondered if either of them had ever seen the other naked.

     Q invited me to sit on the edge of the bath and we chatted like we were the oldest friends in the world. He told me he was eighteen. I told him I was eighteen too, but I’m pretty sure he was telling the truth. Just like me he had disappointed his parents by not going to university, but he seemed to have managed to stay on reasonable terms with his family, while I had no wish to speak to mine ever again, at least not until I could go back as a star and prove them wrong. He told me he had been brought up in Tunbridge Wells, which sounded a lot like Hayward’s Heath to me, and I gave him my new vague spiel about my father being in the diplomatic corps and having been posted to Siam. I had recently been watching The King and I and it seemed about the most exotic place I could imagine. He seemed to be satisfied with that. His grasp on geography was probably just as shaky as mine. He said his father was something in the city, a stockbroker I think. He’d obviously been to a private school; he had that air of confidence they all have whether they know it or not, even the ones who try to hide their posh accents. I wondered if he thought I had too.

     ‘Q,’ I said after a few more puffs on the joint had loosened the last of my inhibitions. ‘Is that your real name, like the bloke in the James Bond films?’

    ‘God, if only,’ he grimaced. ‘It’s actually Quentin.’

    ‘Q’s cool,’ I assured him.

    ‘What’s your name?’

    ‘Maggie,’ I said. ‘Maggie de Beer.’

    ‘Sounds French,’ he said, ‘or are you something to do with the diamond people?’

    ‘Probably,’ I shrugged. ‘Daddy has relatives all over the world. I never pay much attention.’

     He didn’t seem surprised by my apparent lack of knowledge about my own family.

    ‘I’m about to get out,’ he said, gesturing at the bath. ‘Do you want my water? There may not be that much hot in the tank at the moment, I’ve been in here quite a while, topping it up with hot.’

    ‘Okay.’

    He climbed out of the bath without the slightest glimmer of self-consciousness, apparently used to being admired, and I could see that he assumed I would strip off and take his place in the water while he sat on the edge in a towel and continued to talk. This, I told myself, was what ‘Swinging London’ was all about. The funny thing was it did seem completely natural once I was enveloped in the slightly scummy but reassuringly warm water. The bathroom door was still standing open and I could hear other people coming and going, doors opening and closing to allow snatches of music to escape, a bit of T-Rex’s Ride a White Swan here and bit of Pink Floyd or Bridge Over Troubled Water  there.

     I didn’t have to tell Q any more lies about my past life because he really only wanted to talk about himself and his own dreams. He had plans to be a media big shot and he was almost evangelical in his mission to create the stars of the future. He didn’t care if they were actors or singers, politicians or call girls; he wanted to make everyone famous. He said it was ‘the future’.

     ‘Anyone who has something to sell benefits from being famous,’ he explained. ‘A famous hairdresser can charge ten times as much for a haircut as an unknown one. It doesn’t matter if he’s any better at cutting hair. A gardening expert who has appeared on television can become a millionaire whereas a better gardener who just stays in his potting shed will earn virtually nothing. It’s all about packaging and hype and selling yourself. I can do that for people.’

     Everything he said made perfect sense to me. I completely bought into the whole philosophy and wished I could have explained it as eloquently to Mum and Dad as he was explaining it to me. Even though he had only been in London for a year or so, he already had a few clients and when we finally left the bathroom and went to his room he showed me a portfolio of cuttings from newspapers that he had managed to obtain on their behalf. By this stage he had caught my full attention, despite the fact that the joint, on top of my hangover from the night before, had made my head feel a bit fuzzy. He didn’t need to work too hard to convince me of the attractions of fame. He had one client he was particularly interested in, a woman called Judi Bloom who ran a modelling school and agency in Bond Street. I’d read about Bond Street and seen documentaries about it on the telly. I knew it was where the super-rich did their shopping, and the word ‘modelling’ made me feel almost physically sick with excitement.

     ‘You should model,’ Q said when he eventually ran out of things to say about himself and turned his attention back to me. It was like he had just read my mind.

     His room was much smaller than Neil’s. He was lying on the single bed, still wearing nothing but a towel, while I was curled up in the one and only armchair, which would have looked like something from my grandmother’s flat if it hadn’t been draped in an exotically scented Indian print, similar to Neil’s bedspread.

     ‘Do you think so?’ I said, as if the idea had never occurred to me, and even though Neil had been going on about it at the Valbonne the night before.

     ‘Yeah, definitely. You should go and see Judi. Tell her I sent you.’

     ‘I haven’t got any money to pay for a modelling course,’ I admitted.

     ‘You wouldn’t need to pay. She would put you on the agency and deduct the money from your earnings later. They only charge up front to people they can see haven’t got a chance of getting any work.’

     I’d only been in London one day and already it felt like I was on my way. It wouldn’t be long now, I told myself, before I would be swanning home in the limo to rub Mum and Dad’s noses in my success, like David Hemmings cruising around London in that open top Rolls in Blow Up, or Peter Sellers driving Goldie Hawn down to the Riviera in Girl in My Soup.

     The rest of the day drifted by with us talking and listening to music in Q’s room, smoking till the air was thick and stale. He didn’t make a pass at me out of respect for Neil so we had a lot of time to get to know each other instead. I was a bit worried that Neil would come home and find me in his dressing gown in Q’s room and jump to all the wrong conclusions, but Q didn’t seem to think it was a problem and I didn’t want to say anything in case I showed myself up for being incredibly unsophisticated.

     As it turned out he was right. When Neil did eventually get back he had obviously completely forgotten that I existed and seemed deeply surprised and puzzled to find me still there, which was a bit embarrassing. He had another girl with him, who looked about the same age as me. It turned out when I talked to her later that they had met outside the Picasso in exactly the same way we had. They even shared a star sign too, although it wasn’t the same as mine. Neil must have been ‘on the cusp’ I decided, but thinking back now he probably didn’t even know when his birthday was any more having spun that line to so many different girls.

     I didn’t want to seem like I wasn’t cool, so I didn’t let on that I had been waiting for Neil all day and tried to act like Q and I now had a thing going together.  Neil seemed perfectly happy with that and once my suitcase had been dragged down the passage to Q’s room, he disappeared into his room with his latest conquest. I stayed the night squashed into Q’s single bed, which was okay because we were both pretty skinny and being pressed close to a body as perfect as Q’s was certainly not a hardship. Neil didn’t even think to ask for his dressing gown back. My feelings weren’t hurt or anything; well, maybe mildly, but I was mostly anxious not to appear stupid. I wanted these dazzling creatures to think that I was one of them, that I understood the way the game was played, when actually I didn’t have the faintest idea what was expected of me.

     Q and I did have sex that night, but to be honest I don’t think he had ever done it before, or not properly anyway, and it was all a bit of a disaster. Neither of us cared though, we just laughed, had another joint and a cup of tea and talked some more about our dreams and ambitions until we eventually fell asleep. I was very grateful to him for providing me with a bed in my hour of need and something told me I had made my first really good ally on my journey to fame and fortune.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR. Model School.

 

 

 

The next day I took his advice and went to see the Judi Bloom School of Modelling. I started to feel young, poor and inadequate again the moment I turned into Bond Street and found myself walking amongst the truly rich as they shopped in establishments guarded by impassive faced, military looking commissionaires in uniforms. I hovered by one or two of the windows but nothing had a price and none of the commissionaires reached to open a door for me, or even looked in my direction. I was invisible and unthreatening to the population of this rarefied universe.

     By the time I walked into the school’s reception area, which was all decked out in turquoise velvet and red netting, I felt ready to curl up and die. What hope was there for a provincial teenager in a place like this? I had made a terrible mistake and my parents were going to be proved right after all.

     The girl behind the desk was half Burmese, although I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that she was the most perfectly beautiful creature I had ever seen in my life. If a girl like that was having to work on a reception desk, I thought, what chance did I have of making it as a model? I was on the verge of apologising for disturbing her and slinking straight back out again when an older woman, groomed and tailored to a whole other level, appeared from a door behind the desk with a neat folder of files. She looked like a cross between Princess Grace and Jackie O and I was rooted to the spot with my jaw hanging open like the daft little schoolgirl I still was.

     ‘Do you have an appointment?’ the doe-eyed, honey-coloured receptionist asked before I was able to gather my thoughts enough to flee.

     ‘Quentin James said I should come and see you,’ I said, trying to give off an air of self- confidence but probably just sounding cocky.

    ‘Oh, you’re the girl Q was going on about,’ the older woman, who I now realised was Judi Bloom herself, said, looking as if she had noticed me for the first time. The thought that Q had already put in a call about me knocked the breath out of my lungs for a moment, leaving me struggling for suitable words. I immediately felt like the hottest new thing in town. My fears diminished a little as my self-belief bounced back with astonishing speed. It suddenly felt like nothing and no one could stop me now.

     If there is one thing you have to learn when you step onto the bottom rung of the show business ladder it is that you will be forever swinging back and forth between elation and despair. Every scrap of encouragement, whoever hands it out, makes you heady with excitement, while every rejection or failed audition sends your spirits plunging back into the pit. It’s an abrasive process, wearing away your soul behind the brave smile that you have to keep pinned to your face at all times, never allowing anyone to glimpse the pain behind the artifice. The secret of success lies in learning to cope with both extremes and recognise that they will always pass quicker than you believe at the time. At fifteen I was still far too young to understand any of that. I just knew I was intoxicated with excitement.

     There followed a lot of form-filling, measuring and a sort of audition with a television camera, which allowed me to see my face on a screen for the first time ever. I was startled by how grown up and beautiful I looked in black and white; I photographed even better than I had looked in the bathroom mirror at home. The interviewers poked me and prodded me, looked at my teeth and my nails and I felt like I was in paradise. I don’t think I had ever had so much attention paid to me in my entire life, and everyone kept saying such encouraging things, even though they were talking about me as if I couldn’t hear them.

     ‘She needs to get some photographs done.’

     ‘We should send her to see Barry, he would love her.’

     ‘Stephen needs to do something with this hair first.’

     It turned out that Q was completely right. As soon as I confessed I hadn’t got any money they said they would train me for free and I could pay them back once I was earning. They were even willing to help me pay for my photographs and index cards, which was something they explained that every model had to have before they could start going on their ‘rounds’ of the photographers’ studios. By the time I emerged back onto Bond Street an hour or two later I was unable to stop the tears of joy and relief from springing into my eyes and I walked briskly away in case anyone going into the school saw them. Nowadays wannabe stars are encouraged to sob uncontrollably whenever someone gives them a break or a kind word, even when they are on camera, but things were very different then, we all found other people’s tears an embarrassment and politely looked the other way until they stopped.

     At that moment I felt like I owed Q my whole life. He had also managed to get me a permanent room of my own in the flat with him and Neil. It was even smaller than his room, but it was only going to cost me seven pounds a week and I was able to cover the deposit and the first couple of months’ rent with what was left of my savings and a bit more that I borrowed from Q.

     ‘You’re an investment,’ he said when I made a few half-hearted protests at his generosity. ‘You can pay me back when you’re a star.’ He said it like he actually believed it, obviously unaware of how deeply his words affected me.

      The next day I started earning by doing a couple of shifts behind the counter in the Wimpy Bar in Earls Court Road. If I had found myself working in a Wimpy before meeting Q and Judi Bloom I might have been worried, as it was I knew it would only be temporary, until I had finished my training course and started earning hundreds of pounds a week.

     I didn’t care how small my room in the flat was either, because I now had my own place in London and I hadn’t even reached my sixteenth birthday. I wondered how Mum could find the outside world so scary when I could master it so easily? I felt fabulously pleased with myself. I thought about dropping Mum and Dad a line to let them know that I was safe and things were going well, but then I thought they might come looking for me and force me to go back to finish school, which would have been my worst possible nightmare, so I decided to leave it a bit longer, till I was more established and earning lots of money so that it would be obviously pointless to make me go home.

      The modelling course was actually really good fun, all the teachers being successful models or make up artists or fashion show directors. I soon worked out that I shouldn’t say anything to the others on the course about not having had to pay my fees in advance because most, if not all of them, had had to cough up the full amount before being allowed to start. I felt really sorry for some of them. They had all been told at their interviews that they had the potential to be models in order to persuade them to sign up and pay up. Some of them weren’t bad looking, one or two were quite pretty, but even I could see that most of them wouldn’t have stood a chance of being professionals, being too short or too fat or too old. I could see they were still getting a lot out of the course, learning about posture and hair and make-up and all the rest, but I could also see the school was encouraging them in their delusions about becoming professional models at the end.

     Even the no-hopers were getting to be more confident and better groomed as the days passed, but it was still obvious that if they thought they stood a chance of being top models, which most of them seemed to believe despite the evidence staring back at them from the mirrors, they were heading for disappointment. Maybe they were all thinking the same thing about me, although I don’t think so since several of them told me how pretty I was and how jealous they were of my long legs and big b***s. People kept telling me I was the star of the course, the one who would definitely make it to the top. I would make a few unconvincing protestations but with every compliment my belief in my own destiny grew a little stronger and I walked a little taller.

        The girls I saw coming and going from the office of the Judi Bloom Agency at the back of the reception with their portfolios and make-up bags were like a different species, and when I thought about the fact that in a few weeks I would be one of them my stomach would turn over with a heady mixture of anticipation and fear. I couldn’t actually believe that I was ever going to be able to look quite as immaculate and groomed as they did. Learning how to do the walk and make-up was one thing, but how was I ever going to get the money together to buy the clothes I was going to need, or be able to afford to visit the right hairdressers?

     At the end of the course, which lasted a couple of weeks, there was a full-scale graduation show, where we all had to parade up and down a catwalk in front of friends and family, modelling two or three different outfits of our own. One had to be swimwear, I think, and another had to be eveningwear. One of the teachers choreographed the whole thing to music, throwing a lot of hissy fits in the process, like it was some massive West End opening or something, making us all shake with nerves by the time the big night came round.

     They had three judges. One was a fashion photographer, who the commentator said had worked for Vogue. I’m a bit doubtful about that looking back now but at the time I gave him my full megawatt smile and dreamed that he would be calling the agency the next day, begging them to let me try out for a cover shoot. The second judge was a hairdresser who had just finished work on some film or other and the third judge was Q.

     I have to say it sounded quite impressive when the commentator introduced him as one of London’s leading ‘model publicists’. I could see all the other girls were as overawed by him as they were by the other two judges, but it was harder for me to see him as quite so cool, having shared his bed, his joints and even his bathwater. I tried to force the images I had of him loafing about the flat in his underwear out of my mind. The others were probably imagining him swanning around in a Chelsea penthouse rather than a smoke-filled bedsit in Earls Court.

     It was nice to know someone on the inside of the business though, and I felt an actual glow of physical warmth from being able to peck him on the cheek in front of the others when everyone was mingling around in the foyer at the end of the show, having a celebratory glass of champagne. It made me feel far more sophisticated than the rest of them, who had to make do with being fawned over by their parents or boyfriends or whoever else they had invited from their former lives to be their cheerleaders. It would have been nice to have Mum and Dad there if I could have been sure they would have been suitably impressed, but I didn’t want to risk inviting them and having Dad scoffing at the whole thing, making it seem foolish and shallow and delusional. There would have been no point asking anyway because Mum would never have wanted to come this far from home and Dad wouldn’t have thought it was something worth insisting about.

    Q and I took a black cab back to Earls Court together later that night and I could just imagine all the others having to go home to the suburbs in the back of their parents’ boring family cars. There is something about the London taxi which will always scream ‘Swinging London’ to me; like Piccadilly Circus, Carnaby Street or the Kray twins.  

    I passed the course with a star grade, which most of the other poor girls didn’t, but even at the point of maximum euphoria, when I was opening the envelope with Q at the flat one morning, there was still a frisson of self-doubt niggling at the back of my mind, a worry that the whole thing had all been a bit of a con, that they had been appealing to my vanity and the course wasn’t actually going to lead to any real jobs.  These doubts continued to strike me from time to time for some months, usually in the small hours of the morning. Q kept telling me not to worry.

     ‘You’ll get plenty of work,’ he assured me whenever I expressed my greatest fears. ‘I’ll make sure of that. Look how pretty you are; how could you fail?’

     In my fantasy moments I was still picturing myself on the front cover of Vogue, even though the photographer at the graduation show hadn’t yet called, or at the very least the front cover of Honey or Nineteen or Fab208.

     When she had me in for my ‘agency talk’ once I had graduated, Judi told me that I needed to dye my hair.

     ‘We’ve got more blondes than we know what to do with, Sweetie,’ she purred. ‘Get it dyed dark brown, it’ll suit your eyes better.’

     I wasn’t going to argue, even though I didn’t really have the money to splash out on the expensive hairdresser she sent me to, who also happened to be the other judge at our show. I have to say, though, she was probably right. I did make a better brunette than I had a blonde. It made my eyes look enormous. I started to think more Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O and Elizabeth Taylor and less Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Julie Christie.

     Eager to get away from the heat, the smells and people at the Wimpy bar as quickly as possible, I was prepared to take any work Judi had to offer while I waited for the big photographic assignments to come rolling in. The first thing I got offered was a sales promotion job at a retail trade fair in Birmingham. When I got there I found that virtually every girl on the agency seemed to be doing it, including a surprising number of the more experienced ones who I had been watching wafting in and out of the agency. I was shocked that such exotic creatures were still having to stand around in shiny gold blazers and white high heels handing out leaflets to crowds of small shopkeepers. The client was something to do with Gold Stamps that the shops could use as incentives for their customers. I can’t even remember the details of the whole thing now �" I think it was a bit like ‘Green Shield Stamps’, a sort of early type of loyalty card scheme which was big at the time but now sounds like something from my mother’s grey world of penny-pinching and rationing. Whatever it was it didn’t seem like the glamorous modelling world I had been imagining these girls to inhabit.

     We were all stuck together in the crappiest hotel I had ever been to in my life, (although I have to admit I hadn’t stayed in many by that stage), and there was a good deal of moaning and bitching going on amongst the other girls who believed they should have got further in their careers by then but had been forced to accept the job by their urgent need for money to pay their rent. They all blamed Judi and dreamed of changing agencies, apparently assuming that would be the answer to all their problems. I kept pretty quiet, listening to everything they said and trying to ask questions without giving away my own naiveté about the ways the industry worked.

      One of the things the girls talked a lot about was the pros and cons of doing pin-up work, some of them glancing meaningfully at my b***s as they talked, which was why it wasn’t too much of a shock when Judi asked a few weeks later if I would be willing to go topless for The Sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE. Page Three Girl.

 

 

If they had sprung the idea of getting my top off in public on me unexpectedly I probably would have panicked and got all prudish, but I’d had a bit of time to think about it during the long hours of handing out leaflets in Birmingham with a fixed smile and aching feet and I was ready with my answer.

     These days of course it doesn’t seem like anything, but at that time the idea of being practically naked all over a mass-market morning newspaper was still a bit of a novelty. The Sun had only just launched the concept of their ‘Page Three Girls’ and one or two of the models had already become quite infamous as a result of the exposure. There had been a lot of controversy in the media with the public torn between those who thought it was all a bit of a laugh, (mostly men), and those who thought it was a sign that the whole country was going to rack and ruin. Germaine Greer had just written her book, The Female Eunuch, and there was a lot in the media about feminism and ‘bra-burning’ and how this was typical of the way men ‘exploited’ women. To be honest I think most people thought that putting pictures of naked girls in newspapers was just a sales gimmick which would disappear as quickly as it had arrived. Looking back now it is hard to believe we were ever so naïve and so totally in denial about man’s primordial need for masturbatory material. Within months other papers like The Mirror were following The Sun’s lead.

     ‘You’ve got a good body,’ Q said when I asked his opinion. ‘Flaunt it while you can.’

     As he’d already told me that he had done a photo-shoot himself for some gay magazine when he first came up to London ‘for a laugh’, I didn’t feel he was asking me to do anything he wouldn’t have been willing to do himself. I could imagine that if The Sun asked him to be a ‘Page Three Boy’ he would have had his shirt off and been oiling his n*****s in a flash. It would be a couple of years, however, before men like Burt Reynolds and Vidal Sassoon would lead the way for heterosexual male pin-ups by posing nude for Cosmopolitan, although Yves St Laurent was already preparing to launch a new perfume range with naked pictures of himself on posters. Bolstered by Q’s encouragement I convinced myself that I was right at the cutting edge, testing the boundaries of good taste, just like Andy Warhol was doing in New York. (Q had been educating me about Andy’s work. It was something of an obsession for him to be honest, which I didn’t always quite get artistically but I was attracted to the whole idea of creating a ‘Factory’ of artists and celebrities and film stars).

      I liked the idea that this would shake Mum and Dad up a bit as well. I knew Mum never liked to read any newspaper unless Dad drew her attention to some specific article, and he only took the Daily Express, but I was pretty sure someone at work would take pleasure in telling him if I was in The Sun, and then he was bound to tell Mum. I mean, it’s not every day that you can read about your daughter in a national newspaper, is it? I liked the idea of them being able to see for themselves how wrong they had been to poo-poo my dreams about becoming a great star without me having to do anything as vulgar as having to tell them about it, and this would have the added bonus of shocking them a bit at the same time. Sometimes  Mum had almost seemed scared of the front pages of newspapers, as if their loud headlines were shouting abuse at her personally and I liked the idea of her seeing that not only was I not scared of publicity, I was manipulating it cleverly for my own ends.

     I knew for a fact that Marilyn had done nude calendar pictures when she was starting out as plain old Norma Jean; all the big stars had, I was sure of that, so this could be my first step into the big time. I also needed the money. I still hadn’t quite finished paying the agency off for my course, having spent a lot on the change of hair colour and more than I had anticipated on extra photographs that I was sure would demonstrate my versatility, so the earnings weren’t exactly flooding in yet.

     I was pleased with most of the pictures I’d had done and would be unable to resist going back to have another look at my thickening portfolio whenever I was alone, and sometimes when Q was there too because I knew he would never mistake my professional attention to detail for mere foolish vanity. The pictures made me look wonderfully grown-up, and I was definitely very photogenic, which was a relief, but somehow they didn’t seem to impress the photographers I showed them to on my endless rounds of the studios.

     As I trudged from one address to another on the list Judi had given me, I was constantly hoping to introduce myself to some photographic genius who was going to get me onto a coveted magazine front cover. In reality the ones who weren’t lecherous always seemed rather bored at the idea of having to look through yet another portfolio from another would-be Twiggy. They weren’t rude or anything, at least most of them weren’t, but they certainly didn’t immediately grab their cameras and beg me to pose, which was sort of what I had been hoping for.

     Every morning that I was doing my ‘rounds’ I would set out from the flat full of optimism that today would be the day I would get my ‘Blow-Up’ moment, and by the end of the evening I would just have aching feet from walking all day to save money,  aching arms from the weight of the portfolio and aching face muscles from smiling bravely each time another photographer spent thirty seconds flicking through the big plastic covered pages, took an index card, promised to call if anything came up and went back to whatever they were doing before I interrupted them. Even the ones I agreed to have sex with never seemed to have a job that I was quite suitable for at the end of it, although some of them would agree to do a few ‘test shots’, which just made my portfolio even heavier.

    ‘You’re a very pretty girl.’ Judi assured me when I asked if she thought my pictures were good enough, before ripping the rug straight back out from under me again with, ‘but the magazines are all looking for something different, something more dramatic. It may be you are too traditionally pretty for fashion. Perhaps you should concentrate more on the “girl next door thing”.’

    Most girls would be happy to be told they are ‘very pretty’ by a model agent, but I was so mortified at the thought of being ‘the girl next door’ I barely noticed the compliment. To me that smacked of the sort of Doris Day movies Mum used to watch on Sunday afternoons. That was definitely not what I was after. I wanted to be exotic, dangerous and glamorous. There was a Prussian supermodel called Veruschka, (the one David Hemmings was straddling in the famous scene from Blow-Up), who was now doing the most amazing pictures in the glossy magazines, having her body painted so that she melted into the background and arty stuff like that. That was what I wanted to be like. Her father was a Count and her mother was a former Countess, not ‘the couple next door’. The point was, ‘girl next door’ smacked of Mum and Dad, Haywards Heath and everything I was anxious to wipe out of my life for ever.

     That was probably the moment when I started to seriously elaborate on my back story, building on the lies I had already been experimenting with, inventing an ever more detailed past history and making myself an international woman of mystery. There had been a number one song the year before by Peter Sarstedt called Where do you go to, My Lovely? It was all about some girl from the back streets of Naples who became part of the European ‘Jet Set’.  I’d bought it and played it so often in my bedroom before leaving home that I pretty much wore it out. Part of the attraction was the fact that Mum loathed it and kept begging me to put on something ‘nice’ instead. Now that I had dark hair, and accentuated my eyes each day with lashes the size of butterfly wings, I could easily imagine myself as having once been that beautiful Southern Italian street urchin.

     Q was becoming increasingly encouraging about my plans for getting my top off when we were having dinner one evening in our local Italian, Ponte Vecchio’s, which was in Brompton Road, just round the corner from the flat.

     ‘Page Three girls are going to be the stars of the future,’ he said, topping up my wineglass and gesticulating drunkenly with his King-sized Dunhill. ‘In the Forties and Fifties it was the movie actresses, in the sixties it was the whole fashion and music thing, from now on it will all be about sex appeal; and that is something you’ve got in spades!’

     I’m not going to lie, I would have preferred to have been told that I had ‘star quality’ but at least ‘having sex appeal’ was better than being ‘the girl next door’.

     ‘Millions of people read The Sun every day,’ he slurred on, waving at the waiter to bring another bottle of wine. ‘Your name and your face will be right there in front of them on their breakfast tables all the time. We can build on that, have you photographed around town, get you opening supermarkets, all that sort of thing. Can you sing?’

     ‘Yeah,’ I said, a little doubtfully, ‘I guess so.’

     ‘Maybe we could do a single. You don’t have to be able to sing that brilliantly. Look how well Marianne Faithfull is doing with the whole sex appeal and notoriety thing. I know some songwriters. We’ll get them to write you something.’

     That was what I liked about Q. He made anything seem possible, especially after a few glasses of Muscadet. Deep inside my heart I had always believed I could be a star, ever since I was old enough to understand what stardom was; hearing someone else talking about it as a realistic goal, coupled with the wine, made me almost giddy with excitement.

     In reality, of course, stripping off for the first time in a full sized barn of a studio, with a complete stranger staring at me as he fiddled about with lights and wind machines and God knows what else a few inches away from my b***s, was bloody unnerving. Even now, nearly forty years later, I can still remember exactly how small and young and vulnerable I felt that day. The photographer did nothing wrong. He was a complete gent, or maybe he was gay, but he was a middle aged man and that made me feel like I was being groomed for something ghastly. Davids Hemmings or Bailey he definitely wasn’t.

     ‘Brilliant tits,’ he commented cheerfully. ‘Most of the girls who do this sort of thing have to be taped up to achieve that look.’

     I dare say the fact that I was still only sixteen had more to do with that pertness than anything I had done to them, but I was still pleased by the compliment.

     Once the warmth of the lights seeped through to my bones and the camera started to flash and pop, with the studio’s sound system blasting out the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, it began to feel like I had found my natural place in the universe. I took a deep breath, swallowed my self-consciousness and pouted and simmered and flirted and thrust my newly acquired chest out like an old pro. The photographer kept shouting his encouragement �" I guess he’d seen Blow Up too - and by the end of the session I actually felt a sense of anticlimax as he turned off the lights and music and I had to pull my clothes back on in the dull quiet of what was in the real world just a giant shed full of gear, sign the release forms and stumble back out into the real world.

        Q was right as usual; the Page Three thing went mad. What the editors really seemed to like, apart from my tits and my youth of course, was the fact that I was called ‘de Beer’. When I had chosen the name I had been going for a sophisticated woman of the world image, more like the sort of thing Joan Collins did later in the Cinzano ads and Lorraine Chase did for Campari. What actually happened was The Sun asked me back for more shoots and made me hold foaming pints of bitter up to the camera and drape myself seductively in a range of football scarves.

     ‘Our Maggie loves “de Beer”,’ guffawed the headline.

     I was mortified when I saw it, but Q came to the rescue as always and sweetened the pill by getting me a very lucrative deal with a brewery, to be a sort of mascot for their brands. God knows what would have happened if they had found out how young I was, but luckily no one thought to question my claim to be eighteen. I guess it was as much in their interests to keep up the pretence as it was in mine. It might not have been Cinzano or Campari, but the deal meant I got to go to all sorts of functions and do photo sessions at various pubs around the country. Q negotiated my fees for me, which pissed the agency off a bit and may have been part of the reason why they pretty much stopped sending me for jobs soon after that.

     ‘We never know when you are going to be available,’ Judi said when I asked why I wasn’t being sent for some of the auditions that I knew other girls were going to, and I knew that what she really meant was that she didn’t like sharing me with Q.  

     It’s always so bloody hard to decide how far to let agents and managers demand exclusivity over everything you do. In my long experience of the business I have found that they’ll all promise you the world if you agree to work just with them, and after an initial rush of enthusiasm they forget all about you unless you have managed to instantly become one of their big money-spinners. I can’t see that putting the fate of your entire career into one person’s hands is ever going to be a wise move. It might have worked for Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker, but then again who knows what heights Elvis would have reached if he hadn’t relied on the Colonel for every little decision. Maybe there would have been some better movies and more good music. Who knows? I’ve put a lot of thought into whether I should have done things differently over the years, and come to virtually no conclusions.

     Did I lose credibility in the modelling business because of all the Page Three stuff? Probably. Would I have been able to survive financially without it during those early years? Probably not. Getting my top off and knowing that millions of men fancied me and fantasised about me was a lot better than working in a Wimpy or behind a bar every day in some scummy pub in the middle of nowhere, being chatted up by one or two sleaze bags a day, who were probably Sun readers anyway. All publicity is good publicity; right? That’s what Q always said, anyway.              

      Even though I had changed my name I thought Mum and Dad were pretty much bound to realise that ‘Maggie de Beer’ was their little girl and would be able to trace me through the paper or through the agency if they wanted to get in touch. I often imagined a scene when I was lying in bed at night thinking over my life, in which they would turn up on the doorstep in Earls Court, maybe with a big bunch of flowers, to say they were sorry for having doubted me, telling me how proud they were of me for everything I was achieving. Now that I was sixteen and earning my own money I wasn’t worried about them being able to make me move home or back to school.

     At that stage I thought it would have been quite nice to have them ask me to go back home now and then, maybe for a Sunday lunch or something. I had some fond memories of my childhood, when I had been small and liked the safe feeling of Mum and me being together behind closed curtains, before I realised what an unimaginative prison cell our whole timid little family was. So it would have been nice to go back and remind myself of the good times now and then. But the ring on the doorbell never came.

     I realised, of course, that it was possible they had never heard of Maggie de Beer, darling of the darts and skittles classes, or if they did they never associated ‘the brunette bombshell’ with the little blonde girl they remembered on the day I left the house and never came back. So I kept a record of everything I achieved, imagining that when the great reconciliation eventually took place I would be able to show them exactly how much I had achieved, take them step by step through my ‘incredible journey’, as the weeping fame-babies of today’s reality tv shows like to call it.

     Each time a new picture or story appeared I would cut it out and lovingly stick it in my scrapbook, like an alternative portfolio to the glossy, plastic sheathed modelling pictures, my very own ‘Dorian Gray portrait’. Each time a big new story or picture fattened out the pages of the scrapbook I thought that maybe this time I had made it far enough up the ladder of success; maybe now I was famous enough for Mum and Dad to realise they had been wrong about me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX. A Party at the Dorchester

 

 

 

‘Do you want to come to a party at the Dorchester?’ Q asked casually one evening, having received a telephone call as we sat around the flat, the tone of which had made him suddenly sober up. ‘It’ll be a good one.’

     ‘Sure,’ I shrugged. I think I might already have been a bit drunk by then too.

     When we arrived at the hotel a couple of hours later, Q having overseen my make-up and choice of outfit, I doubt if I made a very good job of hiding my amazement at the sheer luxury of the place. I knew a bit about five star hotels because I remember one particularly disastrous visit with my grandmother to the Grand Hotel on the Brighton seafront a couple of years before. It had been Dad’s idea that we should take her out for tea as a mother’s day celebration. I can remember him and Mum rowing about it beforehand, her saying that Granny would never agree, him saying she would have to come out of her flat sometime, that she couldn’t stay there till the day she died.

     It turned out Mum was right. Although Granny did turn up at the hotel, she had a sort of nervous breakdown when she thought some other guests were looking at her and talking about her and had to be taken home before we had even been given our tea. I remember being pissed off at having to leave because the hotel lounge seemed so grand and I had been happily imagining I was someone famous and that I was staying there. The embarrassment of having to hand the heavy, tasselled menus back to the snooty waiter and of trying to make a dignified exit when I was even more sure than Granny that everyone was now staring at us and judging us, was burned deeply into my heart.  But nothing I had ever experienced before prepared me for walking into the Dorchester’s incredible foyer for the first time. Everything from the ornate ceilings to the hushed voices around me suggested I was entering a cathedral built to honour the gods of money, power and excess.

     I noticed that Q had taken the trouble to spruce himself up even more than usual for this party. He seemed a bit on edge too, but I assumed the gilt, grandeur and glamour was getting to him as well.  He suddenly looked very young and very slight indeed in this mightily grown-up and heavily moneyed world. Although I was overawed, I could see that I didn’t look as out of place as he did as we made our way to the lifts. I noticed there were a lot more women of our age around than there were men.

      Thinking back now, I doubt I even knew where the ‘Middle East’ was in those days. I had seen people wandering around Bond Street and other parts of Mayfair in Arab robes and headgear and I had stared at them with the same curiosity as everyone else, but I hadn’t given too much thought to where they might be from or who they might be. I certainly didn’t understand that these nomadic looking figures were actually the richest people in the world at that time.

     I can’t remember which of the oil-soaked countries the hosts of this party were from, but as we were gliding up to their floor Q informed me that they were members of a royal family, which impressed me just as much as he intended it to. To me the word ‘royalty’ was all about incredibly glamorous figures like Princess Margaret and Tony Snowdon, people who I was pretty sure would know how to throw a good party.  

     When we were let into the suite �" in fact I think they had taken over an entire floor but it was difficult to tell where the royal princes ended and the bodyguards began - all the men looked Arab, but all the girls were around my age and were either western or oriental looking. I noticed that a number of the girls seemed to know Q, at least they all greeted him with friendly little pecks on the cheek like he was their favourite kid brother, before returning to the arms or laps of the men with the bulbous brandy glasses and thick cigars. It was my first taste of life amongst the mega-rich and by the end of the night, as I was driven home with a diamond necklace as a memento of the experience, I was well and truly hooked. 

     This, I thought as the chauffeured car slid me back from Park Lane to Earls Court behind darkened windows, must have been what life was like for party girls like Christine Keeler in the Sixties. I had found my Xanadu, the place where I was meant to be. I was tempted to ask the silent and immaculately uniformed driver to take a detour via Haywards Heath, just so that I could see Mum and Dad’s faces when I turned up for breakfast in a limo. I indulged myself in the dream for a while, imagining how speechless Dad would be at the sight of the car, and what Mum would say when I showed her the necklace. I pictured how magnanimous I would be in my victory. I would resist saying ‘I told you so’ or reminding them how little they had believed in me. I would let the evidence speak for itself.

     I opened my mouth to tell the driver what I wanted him to do, but I didn’t quite have the nerve to get the words out, and I wasn’t even sure how to direct him to Haywards Heath anyway if he didn’t know the way himself. I decided it was probably better to keep it as a dream for the moment, but one day I would show them how wrong they had been about me and how small and miserable their lives were compared with the vistas that were now opening up before me. I’d spent one night hanging out with royalty and I felt like a princess already.

     Q was fast asleep when I let myself into the flat and went to his room.

    ‘What happened to you?’ I asked, climbing in beside him without bothering to undress, not ready yet to fall into my own bed and allow the magical night to end.

     ‘I got bored waiting for you,’ he muttered without fully waking. ‘Did they let you use the limo?’

     ‘Yeah,’ I cuddled up to him happily. ‘It was great.’

     He kissed me gently on the forehead, a bit like I imagine a proud big brother might kiss a little sister, and then we both fell asleep.

     The following day Q escorted me and the necklace to a discreet jeweller he knew in Hatton Garden to discuss how much they would give me for it. I resisted to start with because I thought it was really pretty and wanted to keep it, until I discovered that the man was willing to give me well over two thousand pounds in cash, which was probably about what my father earned in a year.

     ‘We’re opening a building society account for you with that,’ Q told me as we left with the cheque, ‘and you can put it towards a deposit on a flat. You need to start thinking of the future.’

     It seemed like such easy money to me I initially wanted to go out and blow the lot on designer clothes, but the thought of being able to buy my own flat caught my imagination. So much for my father’s predictions when I told him I was going to be an actress that I would ‘starve to death within a year’. How old was he when he bought his first house? A lot older than sixteen, that was for sure �" sorry, eighteen.

      I must have done something right that night at the Dorchester, although I can’t remember showing any particular skill at the required bedroom tasks, because there were a lot more parties like that and a few months later I was invited out to the Middle East for a weekend break. There were quite a few weekends like this over the next few months and I can’t quite remember which country was the first one I went to. It never really mattered because the routine was pretty much always the same. I would be picked up by a chauffeur, taken to an airport and loaded into a private jet and plied with caviar and champagne. The plane would land somewhere blindingly hot and sandy a few hours later.

      There would then be another drive past oil wells and giant building sites to villas the size of palaces, where there would be a lot of sitting around followed by a bit of frantic partying. There was nearly always some sort of clothes shopping involved too, during which I would be allowed to buy virtually whatever I liked.

     It wasn’t always the same guy that I was there to date, but they were all pretty similar. None of them were interested in starting a relationship, which suited me just fine since I wasn’t ready for anything serious at that stage either. I could see that these sorts of men didn’t allow their wives and daughters to have any real freedom at all, so no permanent relationship would have worked out with my career plans the way they were. One or two of the men were a bit old for my taste, but most of them were pretty presentable and the sex was nearly always over in a matter of minutes anyway.  To be perfectly honest, once the novelty of luxury travelling wore off it got to be quite boring, but within a year I had managed to save enough money to buy a small basement flat outright in the next street to the Earls Court flat. I didn’t have to get a mortgage or anything like that, which made it all much easier. I’m not sure how I would have explained my income to a building society manager if I’d had to go for a loan.

     I wasn’t sorry to leave the shared flat by then. I felt I needed more space and a place of my own, tired of watching the endless parade of young girls going through Neil’s room each night. By that time Q had also moved out and rented himself something a bit flash in Holland Park. I was impressed, even though I didn’t want to be. A variety of people came and went in the other rooms of the flat after that and most of them kept very different hours to me so I never got to know them in the same way I had got to know Q. It felt like the right time to move on.

     I had just handed over the money for the flat and was looking forward to getting some furniture after my next weekend away, when the whole Middle East thing blew apart. Some girl I had never heard of sold her story to one of the Sunday papers. She talked about the Dorchester and the gifts and private jets and everything. I recognised quite a few of the men’s faces in the photographs accompanying the story and was surprised to find out they were as important as the newspaper seemed to think. The Arabs immediately cut us all off. I heard they moved on to Paris for a while, leaving London completely until the whole business had calmed down, which left me using old tea chests as coffee tables in my bare flat and sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

     I always suspected that Q was behind the whole newspaper expose. His level of spending seemed to go up dramatically all of a sudden, and he appeared to be developing particularly good relationships with some of the tabloid newspaper editors. He denied all knowledge of it when I confronted him, but that may have been because he could see I was angry that the other girl had got all the notoriety and had got her face splashed all over the tabloids. I was pretty certain that he knew her and was involved in managing her as well as me, but he denied that too. I had to pretend to him that I was relieved that I hadn’t been exposed by name but actually I was disappointed because

     I could just imagine the effect a story like that would have had on Mum and Dad. There was even a Giles cartoon in the Daily Express the following week, which I knew Dad always liked and showed to Mum. It would have rocked their boring little world to its foundations if I had been in a Giles cartoon, but I couldn’t really admit that without sounding like an attention-seeking child stamping her spoiled little foot.

      Although I was pissed off not to get my furniture, at least I had a place of my own, so I felt the year had not been entirely wasted. I had also been able to afford to take a few private acting, dancing and singing lessons, preparing myself for my next assault on show business, and I had enrolled at an escort agency in Knightsbridge in order to keep at least some money rolling in. I didn’t tell Q about the escort agency thing because I now didn’t completely trust him not to blab to some editor about it.

     The agency was run by a girl who didn’t look much older than me, although I guess she must have been. She told me she was a model but by that time I knew enough about the business to understand that she would have missed that mark by about six inches. There were always people around who were willing to tell small women with pretty faces that they ‘could model’ but it usually led to one or two jobs, raised their expectations and then left them with many years of rejection and disappointment. I had just scraped into the ‘possible’ category at about five feet six, but when Judi Bloom had been sending me round to the various fashion houses to audition for their seasons, (the times of year when the designers show their new lines to buyers, supplementing their usual ‘in house’ models with freelancers at inflated rates for a few weeks), I was always one of the latest to get booked, which left me feeling like the last kid to be picked for a school sports team, and it nearly always ended up being for some frumpy, middle aged, mumsy house selling two-piece suits or traditional overcoats, never one of the really glamorous ones, where the six foot Amazons always got the pick of the jobs.

     ‘Height isn’t a problem with escort work,’ my little Knightsbridge agent informed me cheerfully. ‘It’s how you present yourself and your personality that matter. The clients want someone who will make them look good and will be able to act right at social functions. Lots of men prefer small women, believe me.’ She gave me a knowing look, as if she was the greatest expert in the world on the male of the species.

     It wasn’t long before I realised that she had missed out another important ingredient for success in the escort business �" ‘extras’, but I didn’t mind. It was all pretty civilised and not much different from going on a lot of one-night stands, except that you could ask for some extra money at the end of the evening and often got given a tip on top of whatever you asked for. Men are always generous when they are feeling horny, and they are sometimes even more generous when their lust has been sated and all they are left with is a guilty conscience. Quite often I even ended up getting a decent night’s sleep in a luxury hotel bed because the client would have fallen straight to sleep after a speedy bit of how’s-your-father and not woken up again until the morning, by which time he would be in too much of a rush to complain about me still being there. If things went really well I could stay on after they had left for work and order myself a slap up breakfast from room service.

      There was no obligation for us to sleep with anyone we didn’t want to. If the bloke really made your skin crawl you were perfectly at liberty to stop the date at the appointed time and decline any offers of ‘private arrangements’, but to be honest I didn’t feel the urge to do that very often. They were mostly pretty reasonable chaps and I knew that I had to build up my bank account a bit if I was really going to be serious about the acting and singing. I needed to be in a financial position to be able to take whatever work was offered, even if it didn’t pay a living wage. A girl always needs to have a little bit put away for a rainy day, or so that she is in a position to be able to take advantage of a really good opportunity when it comes along.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN. Breaking into Show Business.

 

 

At home I’d always fancied myself as ‘the next Lulu’, singing my versions of Boom-Bang-a-Bang and The Boat that I Row into the bathroom mirror at home whenever Mum had the Hoover on and couldn’t complain about the noise or mock my efforts, stretching what was probably quite a fragile little girl’s voice until it cracked and broke and stuttered to a halt.

    ‘Do you smoke?’ the rather severe singing teacher I had found in St John’s Wood asked me after I had given her a particularly croaky version of Shout, actually making her wince in sympathy with my poor tortured throat.

    ‘Yes,’ I replied, puzzled that she would even need to ask. Didn’t everyone?

    ‘You’ve wrecked your voice already,’ she said, not looking like she cared a jot beyond the fact that I was wasting her precious time, as if she had a queue of budding geniuses outside the door who needed the slot I was occupying.

    Despite this unpromising first meeting we both persevered with the relationship and she managed to teach me a bit of technique to overcome my shortcomings. I was never going to be Dusty Springfield, but I might at least get to somewhere around the standard of Marianne Faithfull or Cilla Black. I could do a really good version of Terry, a camp little number which had been a hit for a girl called Twinkle during the Sixties, (I’m told you can see her performing it on YouTube). It was all about a girl singing to her dead boyfriend after he gets killed in a motorbike accident, asking him to wait at the gates of heaven for her. It was another one I had played over and over to myself at home and it still made me choke up when I sang it, which made for a very dramatic delivery. I was always a sucker for the kitsch, sentimental stuff. (Remember Honey by Bobby Goldsboro? That was another track I practically wore smooth).

      Q would become quite animated whenever we spent time planning my forthcoming pop career. He would have loved nothing better than to be the next Brian Epstein or Andrew Loog Oldham. These days I guess he would want to be Simon Cowell or Simon Fuller if he was still young enough to be impressed by that sort of thing. Usually we would be in Ponte Vecchio’s or somewhere similar, puffing our way through whole packets of cigarettes as we dreamed our dreams.

     We had stopped talking about me being a top fashion model by then, it just didn’t seem to be happening and I was tired of hobbling around London begging for work from photographers who looked at me like I was either something their cat had brought in or something that needed to be shagged and sent on its way as quickly as possible. I was too well known for being a Page Three Girl by then and knew I was never going to be able to make the jump to high fashion now anyway.

     There are certain moments in your life which are seminal in forming your view of the world and how you want to appear in it. I knew I was going to be blown away by Liza Minnelli playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret from the first moment I saw a poster for the film going up while I was waiting for a bus at Piccadilly Circus. This was no ‘girl next door’ crap, this was going to be a great life-changing moment for me, I just knew it, and I was right. The atmosphere of the Kit-Kat Club in the opening scenes of the film and the iconic look that Minnelli created, all that sweaty striving for fame and beauty amidst the smoke and the shadowy clouds of evil and decadence, made me forget to breathe in my excitement as I watched it for the first time, (I have seen it so many times over the years I can practically recite the whole thing word perfect). I felt like I was in heaven from the moment it exploded onto the screen.

     ‘I want to be a club singer,’ I announced to Q in a pub afterwards. ‘Never mind Lulu, I want to be Liza, with a little bit of Marlene and Eartha Kitt mixed in.’

     ‘We’ll get you some bookings,’ he said, as if it would be the easiest thing in the world.

     Q still had a way of making everything seem possible, even though most of his great plans and projects fizzled away to nothing. The thing was, he never let any failure discourage him and because he would pull off spectacular successes every so often he actually was getting on in the world of publicity and public relations. Sometimes his bullshit succeeded in achieving exactly what he predicted it would. We always set out together towards our goals feeling ridiculously certain we would triumph.  

     Going to see Cabaret was one of the last things Q and I did together as mates. It was around then that he got a serious girlfriend, some gorgeous Lucy Clayton finishing school girl called Penelope something-hyphen-something; all long legs in jodhpurs and weekends in the country. He was a bit bashful about talking about her to me, but I knew she was from the same sort of family he came from. The bohemian world was Q’s work, but it wasn’t his whole life, not like it was mine. He kept the two sides of his life carefully apart. I doubt if Penelope something-hyphen-something even knew I existed, or would have been interested if she had.

     They moved in together and bought themselves a weekend place in the country. Although he and I could still meet for lunches and talk on the phone, it was never the same. It felt like he had transferred onto a faster track, which, if I’m honest, left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. I told myself he had ‘sold out’ to the comfortable bourgeois compromise but deep inside I knew he hadn’t; I was actually jealous of the apparently easy way he seemed to be able to progress through life, how effortlessly he seemed to be able to keep on with his career while building a lovely domestic family scene for himself at the same time. I couldn’t see how it would ever be possible for me to achieve that. Who could ever imagine Sally Bowles happily married with kids, spending her weekends in the country? If she tried she would just become another dreary hausfrau, or else would fail spectacularly and become an infamous village s**t, always trying to convince people of her mythical past glories. I told myself I was probably going to have to be prepared to sacrifice all the comforts of domestic bliss if I truly wanted to achieve my dream and satisfy the yearning for the spotlight that constantly gnawed at my insides.

      The grouchy old singing teacher made a pretty good job of rescuing my voice and I would scour The Stage each week for anyone advertising for vocalists. I would go to virtually any audition anyone held. I would offer myself up to be a pop singer, a big band singer, a jazz singer, a cruise singer ...whatever they were asking for I would give it a go. The fact that I was a relatively well known Page Three Girl seemed to put off as many people as it turned on. I had hoped that by dipping my toe into the shallowest waters of the sex industry I would be imbuing myself with a whiff of the exotic ‘Mata Hari’ thing, a bit like Sally Bowles herself, but I don’t think all the ‘beer and football’ connotations helped in that department. There was a sector of the public that saw me as ‘one of the lads’. They liked me for it, shouting jolly, bantering comments out to me from building sites and that sort of thing, but that didn’t work with the sultry-club-singer, woman-of-mystery image that I longed to put across.

      No one laughed me out of any audition rooms, most of them hit on me if I’m honest, and now and then I got a gig, mostly singing in hotel bands or at private parties, doing covers of other people’s hits, things that customers could dance to. It wasn’t a problem. I was always willing to pay my dues by serving time at the bottom of the industry and it was still a great feeling to be standing up in front of bands and performing, whoever the audience might be, but most of the time no one seemed to be paying much attention. I’m willing to bet that when Judy Garland was on stage at Talk of the Town, no one chatted to their bloody neighbours. I would be introducing my next numbers and singing my heart out and most of the punters would be going about their usual business, going on trips to the bar or the toilet, gossiping, pouring drinks for one another or eating their meals with immensely loud cutlery. I always seemed to be having to compete with the clatter of kitchens, waitresses and crockery, or with the antics of idiot party drunks who would turn the dance floors into their own private showcases.

     If some bloke recognised me from The Sun he inevitably plucked up the courage by the end of the night to shout something that he thought was really original and hysterically funny �" ‘get yer top off’ usually. It’s always hard to ignore that sort of thing without making yourself look like a snotty cow.

     I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t able to make them stare at me with the same awe and attention that I always gave to any act I ever went to see. I went to quite a few concerts with Q before he started lavishing his free tickets on bloody Country-Penelope and now and then I would become quite vocal towards fellow audience members who talked amongst themselves or generally didn’t pay due reverence and attention to whoever was performing on stage.

     Whenever I’d had a few drinks during one of my own performances I would work up a barely suppressed steam of indignation about the rudeness of most people, but when I lay awake in bed after another anti-climatic night’s performance I would sometimes feel a chill of fear run through my veins. Was it possible that I just didn’t have the charisma needed to be a star? I knew that if Streisand or Minnelli was standing up with a microphone no one in the audience would be fussing around with their cold buffets or doing their Mick Jagger dance impressions.  They’d have more respect. But those dark moments of the night would always pass and I would wake up with the renewed expectation that this could be the day when everything would finally change, when the big break would come, when my potential would at last be spotted and the Gods would decide that I had ‘paid my dues’ to the business, that the steel of my talent had now been sufficiently forged in the ‘furnace’ of hard knocks and I would finally be welcomed into the pantheon of legends and stars, able  to take up my rightful place amongst my peers.

       Even with the extra cash from escort work, the hardest balancing act was making enough money to live on while I waited for someone to give me the big break I needed. I couldn’t be quite sure whether the break was going to come from the glamour modelling side of things, or from singing or acting, I just knew it was going to come eventually if I kept on slogging away at all of them. I needed to have as many irons in the fire as possible, and there was always sales promotion work available for keeping the money flowing on the days when nothing better showed up.

     One agency that I joined because they promised to get me acting work also managed to come up with a fairly regular supply of ‘extra’ work for crowd scenes and walk-ons in films and television programmes. It was a good way to see how things worked on film sets without having any of the pressure of being the featured artist, as well as being a way of networking and meeting the right people, although most of the time was spent hanging around waiting for some assistant director to order us about like we were cattle.

     I got to know one or two pretty interesting people on those days, although a lot of them were obviously complete losers, sad b******s who believed they were in show business when actually they were no more than part of the scenery. The older ones were the worst, always name dropping and boasting about some past glory. I had no idea whether or not they were making stuff up, but it was depressing either way; if they had actually ‘acted with dear Maggie Smith at Chichester’ or whatever, then it was tragic that they had been reduced to this, but if they were making it up it was even more pathetic. I was able to enjoy these days out on location or whatever, safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t like them. I did have a number of other irons in the fire and sooner or later one of them would burst into flame. I told myself it was alright to be doing this sort of thing on the way up, but it wouldn’t be so funny if I was ever doing it on my way back down. There are some things in life that really are too scary to even contemplate.

      My confidence and self-belief paid off big-time when I became one of the regular girls on The Benny Hill Show, which mostly meant running around in my underwear or a bikini, or wearing something short or low and bending over so that Benny could touch my bottom or ogle my cleavage and then deliver his punch line or pull a funny face. Benny was a huge star at the time; his show had some of the highest viewing figures ever achieved by any comedian. I would get so excited about seeing my name whizzing past at the end of each show, usually over a speeded-up shot of Benny chasing me and a bunch of other girls around a park somewhere, feeling certain that Mum and Dad would be able to see now that I was on my way.

     I would still fantasise about them turning up on my doorstep with flowers, or ringing one evening, apologising for not being more supportive of me in the pursuit of my dreams, admitting that they had been wrong about my talents. I wondered sometimes if I should just send them a note to make sure that they knew I had changed my name because there was always a danger that as I grew older they wouldn’t recognise me, even when I was appearing on a screen in their own front room. There was also a possibility that they wouldn’t watch a show like Benny Hill, thinking it was all too ‘vulgar’. When I thought about things like that I felt all my old contempt for the petty-minded world they inhabited rising back up to the surface. These days I would probably get some therapy to try to deal with all those repressed childhood issues, but things were different then and I relied on gin, nicotine and dreams of eventual vindication to be my psychological crutches.

    Benny was just as keen on young girls in real life as his alter-ego was on the screen. Some of the others were happy to indulge his little whims because he could be very sweet and non-aggressive, in a slightly creepy old man way, but I could never quite bring myself to respond to his advances and the invitations back to his place. It shocked me to realise that fame and money, both of which he had buckets of, actually weren’t always enough to make a man attractive. There just wasn’t an ounce of glamour or sex appeal about poor old Benny.

     I had always imagined that every star would automatically come with a package of charisma and sex appeal and it’s always an uncomfortable moment when it dawns on you that something you have always believed wholeheartedly to be true turns out to be wrong. Apart from the girls, the reclusive, private life Benny led didn’t seem much more interesting than the life my father led in Haywards Heath. I couldn’t understand why anyone would deliberately reject everything that was luxurious and glamorous in life when they were having it offered to them on a plate. I found it was best not to think about it too deeply, to avoid the self-doubts that were constantly circling around my head, waiting for a chance to attack my greatest assets, my precious self-confidence and my belief in my own talent and destiny.

     Some of the other girls on the show became quite close friends with one another during that period, but I never really found a kindred spirit amongst them. They all seemed like they were just passing a few years until they found a man and settled down to do the suburban wife and mother bit. It would amaze me when I listened to them in make-up and costume, talking about how they had turned down bookings for celebrity appearances just because they felt like staying in or because their boyfriends didn’t approve. Sometimes they wouldn’t even bother to go to auditions for parts which they might well have been in with a chance of winning. It made me feel sad to see so much potential talent going to waste, but at the same time it was good to know that I didn’t have too much competition, that few other girls shared my steel hard determination to make the big-time. None of them seemed to have an ounce of ambition in them, which made them very boring company.

     Occasionally I would make an effort to socialise with them, I really would, but it never worked because I couldn’t think of anything to talk about and would end up saying something sarcastic or looking bored with their tedious chatter. I always preferred the company of men if I had a choice; they more often seemed to share my outlook on life.  

     The Benny Hill Show gave me regular money and it got me back onto the mini-celebrity bandwagon, like the Page Three thing had done. Saying I was ‘one of Benny Hill’s girls’ was always good for impressing people at parties, even if it did tend to elicit the same unfunny comments from most people, but I can’t say anyone ever actually recognised me in the street or asked for an autograph, however slowly I walked past them or however broadly I smiled at them. The only time I ever got treated like I was remotely famous was still when I appeared amongst Sun readers at some brewery event or other and whipped my top off in order to have beer sprayed all over my b***s.

     Appearing with Benny, however, had got me a foothold on the ladder which eventually led to me getting parts in a few farces that Paul Raymond was putting on in the West End. I’d known Paul for a while. He was a darling man, so flamboyant with his fur coats and jewellery, a real showman of the old school, so polite, and he was using the money he had made in his world famous strip joint, the Raymond Revuebar, to put on shows at the Whitehall Theatre and The Windmill, (which became famous all over again recently when Dame Judi Dench starred as Mrs Henderson, the woman who put on nude revues there during the Second World War, a bit like an English version of the Moulin Rouges).

     The guy who choreographed everything was a fabulously theatrical Corsican ballet dancer called Gerard Simi, who was rumoured to have once been the lover of Rudolph Nureyev. He was the creative mainstay behind everything Paul put on and had all of us girls eating out of his hand. We all loved him to death. He made it feel like we were at the very epicentre of the London show business universe as we teetered from one venue to another to fill different roles in a variety of exotic and ridiculously flattering costumes, all high heels, feathers, tassels, sequins and animal prints.

      I had first come across Paul when I needed to get an ‘equity card’. One of the biggest problems for anyone wanting to get into acting in the early seventies was that you had to be a member of Equity, the actors’ union. The unions were still really powerful in those days,  (Maggie Thatcher was still a mere secretary of state), and I hated them mostly because Dad always used to go on about how great they were when I was a child. He said they were the ‘working man’s friend’, but even as an adult it seemed to me like they were the most boring thing on earth, power-crazed nobodies who caused the electricity to go off and the rubbish to pile up on the streets. It was only, however, once I tried to break into show business that I really started to hate them for a reason.

     In order to get an equity card you had to have a job, and to get a job you had to have a card. It was a nonsense but there were ways round it, one of which was to work as a dancer. Since my dancing lessons hadn’t been going too brilliantly, I couldn’t join any of the dance troupes that backed singers on television or did the variety shows, so there was no choice but to do a bit of stripping. That was how I first got to find out about the Raymond Revuebar, as it was by far the least sleazy men’s club at the time. Very little danger of getting beer sprayed on your tits there. I had been there a while before Paul saw The Benny Hill Show, realised I could act, and started putting me in his farces as well.  

     I much preferred the term ‘exotic dancing’ to ‘stripping’, but even that doesn’t do justice to the brilliance of being in some of those shows at the height of the Revuebar’s fame. First there was the bustle and excitement of the dressing rooms, the smells of perfumed sweat mingling with those of stage make-up and industrial clouds of hairspray as we all struggled into our fabulous costumes. Striding out onto the stage in heels that made me feel eight feet tall, bathed in light and propelled by the beat of Gerard’s brilliantly chosen music, it made me feel like a goddess. This, I thought, was about as close to the Kit-Kat Club as anyone was likely to get in the real world.

     I knew that during the minutes I was out in the spotlight every eye in the room was on me, desiring me, admiring me, under my spell. If only I could have made people watch me with such rapt adoration when I was singing into a microphone fully clothed I would have been the biggest star in the world, I would have been Madonna ten years before the woman herself even released her first album.

     The success of Paul and his notorious girlfriend, Fiona Richmond, inspired me incredibly. I think there was a time when Paul had more shows on in the West End than any producer in history �" or at least that was what he told everyone. A lot of the farces were put on as vehicles for Fiona but there were always parts for other young actresses who didn’t mind running around the stage having their clothes ripped off for laughs.

     It was proper theatre, mixing the old vaudeville spirit with the traditions of the repertory company. Sometimes I even got to say the odd line or two. I watched every step of Fiona’s rise to fame and fortune. If I had ever managed to catch a producer like Paul I knew exactly what shows I would persuade him to put on with me in the lead roles, everything from Cabaret to Gypsy. I had quite a bit of time sitting around in the wings in my underwear waiting for my cue, which I filled by making lists in my head of parts I wanted to do. I could imagine every standing ovation and every ecstatic review. Actually finding the man who would make these dreams a reality, of course, proved a bit more of a challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT. Joining the Jet Set

 

 

Although I was really glad that Q had talked me into buying a flat of my own, since the great London property boom was already getting under way by then, there were times when that basement got to feel almost as depressingly dark and claustrophobic as my parents’ house. I would visit other people in their penthouses and smart Chelsea Mews houses and then I would have to struggle to keep my spirits up as I went home down those stone steps, leaving practically every glimmer of daylight behind. I managed to make the gloom of the rooms work for me though, dressing and lighting the whole place like it was a theatrical set, imagining what Gerard Simi would do with it if it was his.

      I had a bit of spare money from the Benny Hill gigs at the time that Biba opened their big store up in High Street Kensington. It was billed as being the most glamorous department store ever created and I wouldn’t argue with that. No one had ever seen anything like it before. It was a paradise of dark, dramatic colours, fake animal prints, art nouveau lighting and giant wicker peacock chairs. It was a fantasy of 1920’s flapper style mixed with kitsch old colonial, with Twiggy as their public face. At that stage she had just starred in The Boyfriend, singing, dancing and acting a bit, but mainly being an absolute icon for the times. What would I have given for Ken Russell to have cast me in that part? Only my entire body and soul! But I accepted it wasn’t my turn for the big break just yet, and settled for shopping in Biba instead while I waited.

     The Biba look made the flat very moody and dramatic, but it certainly didn’t do anything to make it lighter, which frequently left me craving a bit of space and sunshine on my blacker days, the ones when the phone wouldn’t ring with news of auditions or bookings and the post brought no spirit-lifting cheques.

     Any man who suggested a trip abroad immediately got my full attention. In my fantasies I imagined myself lounging around in the Caribbean with Princess Margaret and her set, but in reality it was mostly yachts in St Tropez and Monte Carlo or long weekends in Paris, Cannes or Rome.

     If I was paying for myself, which I sometimes did simply in order to top my tan up and to get away from my empty answering machine for a few days, I would head for a variety of Greek Islands, where you could still travel around on smelly old ferries for virtually nothing, sitting through the evenings in cafes drinking cheap wine, eating bad food and wallowing in Demis Roussos music, but if someone else was picking up the bill I always requested a bit more glitz and glamour.

    A huge percentage of my life was dedicated to trying to achieve the perfect suntan. No one knew in those days how bad sunbathing was for you, or if they did they totally failed to convince me. It was all the more crucial after Judi Bloom and her tame hairdresser had persuaded me to go brunette. I could see they were right because it did make me stand out from all the fake blondes in the business, but it meant that if I didn’t have a tan it all looked wrong. I would sleep on the beaches during the day, smothered in oils and creams, and go out at night looking and feeling like a glowing sun goddess.

     I completely fell in love with the casino at Monte Carlo during that period of my life. The whole thing was so ‘Whicker’s World’ and so ‘James Bond’. I had actually auditioned to be a Bond Girl for both Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. They were made during the Roger Moore period, who I had met once or twice at parties and thought was an absolute dish. I got really close to being chosen both times, going back for several recalls. Finding out I had failed to get them gave me two of the most sickeningly disappointing moments of my life, and salt was continually rubbed into the wounds whenever I watched either Jane Seymour of Britt Eckland doing anything after that. I could picture exactly how I would have progressed my career on the back of being a Bond Girl. It would have been a meal ticket forever. I mean who can ever forget the image of Ursula Andress coming up out of the sea in Dr No? Or Shirley Eaton painted head to toe in gold for Goldfinger? 

     Another big eye-opener for me was watching Diane Keaton becoming the darling of the entire world when she starred in Annie Hall. I’ve always loved watching the Oscars and when she and Woody Allan scooped the lot in 1978 I felt a strange sort of euphoria. She had found a man who was capable of turning her into a star, like a global, intellectual version of Paul and Fiona’s relationship, and he had pulled it off. It seemed to me he had taken her basic persona and created a fictional character from it. He had provided her with a showcase and the whole world had stood to applaud. I couldn’t help wondering if I should start going out with a different sort of man. What were the chances of meeting someone like Woody in the type of places I hung out in? How many of the men I went out with had even read a book, let alone written or directed a movie? But where did you find men like that? Some days I felt like I was going to explode with the frustration of waiting for the big break to come. 

            Around 1980 I watched a television show called The Big Time, which took an ordinary young girl from Scotland, Sheena Easton, and made her into a star in front of everyone’s eyes. Something in that programme really connected with me, made me think that with the right showcase anyone with talent could be propelled from obscurity to ‘the big time’ in one move. Things like that give you hope at moments when it seems like you are never going to break through into the light. Looking back now I suppose that show was a precursor to all the reality talent shows that would come later and the hope that I got from watching it was what kept me going for a good few years after that.

     Even if I was hanging out with glorified spivs and businessmen most of the time, when I was in places like Monte Carlo I could console myself with the thought that I was the real thing, a genuine jet-setter rather than some actress pretending to be glamorous for a movie part. I would tell myself that I was exactly the sort of woman that Ian Fleming would have had in mind when he wrote characters in the Bond books in the first place, or Alan Whicker would have been following around in the Swiss Alps.

      I had worked out that rich men were always happy to buy me posh frocks and jewels if they were taking me to places like that, wanting to show off to me at the same time as showing me off to other men. I could scrub up really well on those days. St Tropez had been unbelievably sexy all through the Seventies. Bardot had made it famous first by sunbathing topless, then Mick Jagger and Bianca got married in the town hall and from that moment on it was ‘the place to see and be seen’ until there were eventually so many gawpers squashed into its narrow streets that you could hardly move in the harbour-side restaurants and cafes for the crowds who couldn’t afford more than a cup of coffee but still kept coming in order to stare at the rest of us as we played around on the decks of the yachts. It felt like being on stage all the time and you wouldn’t dare leave your cabin without a full face of make-up for fear that a photographer would catch you unawares.

      When I once heard someone on the quayside saying to her friend, ‘there’s Jackie O’, I have to confess my head was swivelling around like a typical star-struck tourist until I realised they were talking about me in my big designer sunglasses. The realisation sent a flush of pleasure through my whole body so intense that I can still remember exactly what it felt like, even now. I also remember settling down onto a sunlounger at the far end of the deck before the woman had time to realise her mistake.

     I think that must have been a few years after Onassis had died, making Jackie the most eligible widow in the world for the second time. Her career had been an inspiration to me in so many ways, and I had often wondered if I was choosing the wrong path by concentrating on my craft rather than going all out to marry as well as I possibly could while I was at y peak physically. Had I been wooed by either Kennedy or Onassis, would I have chosen the same path as her? Some days it was a tempting thought, and she did go on to have a successful career in publishing afterwards, which was probably quite fun, editing books for people like Michael Jackson and Carly Simon.    

       It was around the turn of the decade that Q rang to say he now had an actual office. Apparently the business had grown too big for him to be able to handle it from the spare bedroom in Holland Park any longer. When he told me it was an address in Bond Street I have to admit that I was impressed, but I think I still expected it to be a cupboard under the stairs that he had managed to rent off a hairdresser or some other contact. It turned out to be on the top floor above the Judi Bloom agency, and it actually was a proper set of offices with a couple of girls working the phones, clients and motorbike messengers coming and going, and Q sitting in an office of his own behind a glass screen, surrounded by rubber plants beneath walls adorned with framed front pages of his various scoops.

     I felt slightly panicked for a few seconds the first time I walked in there; how had he managed to leapfrog so far forward while I was still stuck in a basement flat, seldom having more than a couple of months’ survival money in the bank at any one time? His personal appearance had changed too, with suits designed by Armani, who was about to take the whole world by storm with the suits he made for Richard Gere in American Gigolo. I think at that stage Q was still getting his hair cut by Leonard of Mayfair, and working out in the gym each morning. Every successful gay man I had ever met was in love with him and I knew he exploited that advantage mercilessly, while still managing to cultivate an aloof, untouchable air which meant none of them ever expected to get anywhere with him, they just drooled from a respectful distance and paid him huge retainers to handle their press requirements.

      As I wandered around the office, waiting for him to finish a phone call, I noticed that one of the newspaper cuttings was the story about the Arabs and their parties at the Dorchester that had put an end to that particular stream of income for me. Q saw me looking at it and seemed a bit sheepish for a moment. I didn’t say anything, just gave him a look. There wasn’t anything I could say really. It was a long time ago by then and it wasn’t as if he had ever made a secret of the sort of business he was in, quite the opposite in fact. He was famous for his relationships with Fleet Street editors and reporters and they were all built on exclusives he had sold them, like the one about the Dorchester parties.

     He was constantly taking calls while I was there, leaving me free to stroll around and look at whatever caught my eye. Every surface in the room seemed to be covered with promotional material for pop groups, most of them American.

     ‘Are you going into the music business now?’ I asked in a brief pause between calls.

     ‘It’s all showbiz,’ he grinned. ‘Actors, singers, television presenters, restaurateurs, they’re all going to want their fifteen minutes of world fame now.’

      ‘What?’

     ‘Something Andy Warhol said,’ he explained. ‘He’s not quite right to say that everyone will be able to get fifteen minutes in the spotlight, but I do think everyone is going to want to be famous in order to get rich, and the ones with a real chance need people like me to help them get launched.’

      It was the same basic creed that he had been preaching for ten years, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was still exactly what I needed to get my career to the next level, but I didn’t say anything, just letting him go on talking about his latest plans for global domination. I was beginning to feel a bit self-conscious about my lack of progress in the world over the previous decade compared to his. He was explaining that one of the services he now offered was looking after the clients of movie studios and record labels when they came to London to promote their films or their albums, which meant organising the hotels and itineraries and keeping them entertained as well as handling all the press enquiries.

     ‘Fancy working as a hostess?’ he asked. ‘We should be able to arrange for you to screw a lot of stars and then I can help you sell the stories to the press afterwards.’

     ‘Are you serious?’ I asked, unable to resist laughing at his nerve.

     ‘Absolutely.’ He didn’t even crack a smile, which was a bit unnerving. ‘But if you ever tell anyone I said it I will deny it completely. Their people will pretend to be outraged by the “betrayal” and the “invasion of privacy”, but they’ll actually be grateful for the exposure. There really is no such thing as bad publicity when you’re trying to break a new band or release a film.’

     Q had a way of making all his utterances sound like gospel truths, even when they didn’t stand up to too much scrutiny  morally, but I could see what he meant. It was something I had been thinking about ever since I was a small girl. All the time that my mother kept clucking on about the disgrace that people like Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies had brought down on themselves and their families by being plastered all over the papers, I just kept thinking how much more interesting their lives had been than would have been the case if they had followed the more ‘respectable’ paths that she would have been advocating if they had been her daughters. I could see how the politicians involved in the Profumo scandal might have preferred to keep it all hushed up because they already had privileged lives that they were in danger of losing, but for Christine and Mandy it must have seemed like their ticket to the big time. Who would ever have heard of them if it hadn’t been for those newspaper stories?

     Q was right, the public loved a good story and in most cases they would end up loving the people involved as well, even if they pretended to disapprove for a while. Look how much everyone wanted to read more about how Liz Taylor kept divorcing and marrying and flashing her jewels around the place. Everyone liked to read about people leading bigger, sparklier, riskier lives than themselves, so they could dream about doing it too one day. At least I did and I assumed other people were the same.

      ‘Yeah,’ I said after thinking his offer over for about ten seconds. ‘Okay. That could be fun.’

      It was fun. Over the coming months I was automatically let through the velvet ropes into every VIP area I approached because of the men I was hanging out with. Rock stars or movie stars, these guys were the kings of the world and as long as I was with them there were always photographers bathing us in flash storms of light as we ran past them, whether we were laughing or swearing, waving happily or flicking v-signs. Sometimes my escorts would be high or drunk and would pick fights with photographers who pushed their luck too far, which of course the photographers loved and was exactly the reason why they deliberately goaded them, like bullfighters sticking in their barbs to get a reaction from the enraged bull and make a show which would entertain the public.

     My picture was constantly appearing in the papers, although to start with I hardly ever got a name check. The reporters and photographers often asked for my name, even checking that they’d got the spelling right, and each time they did I thought that this time it might make it into print and my existence would seep more deeply into the public consciousness, but then I would open up the papers again the next day and find myself labelled as ‘a companion’ or ‘a friend’. It was as if all the years of Page Three and Benny Hill fame had never happened.

     I congratulated myself that I was being discreet and keeping a low profile because of the sensitive nature of my job. I was providing a service after all and part of that service was discretion, like a good hotel employee or chauffeur, who would never dream of selling their stories to the papers, fearful of losing jobs that they looked upon as ‘privileges’ rather than tickets to fame for themselves.

     That was what I told myself but I was lying and I knew it. I actually envied my escorts their fame and the attention it brought them so deeply that it sometimes gave me a physical ache in my chest. I envied them the fact that when they walked into a party everyone knew who they were and wanted to be their friend; I envied them the looks they got from passers by, the whispers that were exchanged in their wake as people pointed them out to one another, excited to have seen an event as rare as a passing star. I even envied them the fact that I envied them.

     I kept accepting the invitations and I kept providing the expected services because I wanted to get some of the stardust to rub off onto me, and in a way that was exactly what was happening. Every time I slid under the sheets to administer a blow job, or knelt obediently on a hotel bedroom carpet with my pert backside in the air, my clients were blessing me with a touch of their magic, passing me a memento of themselves that, with Q’s help, I was able to turn into cash as surely as the necklace I had received on my first night at the Dorchester. I was doing everything exactly as Q advised and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t making me more famous. I even complained to Q about it sometimes.

    ‘Patience, Darling,’ he purred. ‘It’s all part of the master-plan. It will work.’

    I have to admit there were times when I thought he was conning me, when I actually thought he was lying to me in order to keep me on the hook, to make sure I would always be available to answer the calls from the various airports and hotels, willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice and dash off on some madcap and sometimes dangerous new adventure.  Then, just when I was about to despair of ever being able to force my name as far into the national consciousness as I needed to, Q’s promised plan clicked into place.

     Maybe I had reached a sort of ‘critical mass’ or ‘tipping point’ of stories, having appeared often enough to start to register on the editors’ radar as a news story in my own right, because it was like the media were finally willing to accept that I had paid my dues as a foot soldier in the Fame Game and some of the stories started to feature me at the centre; the star rather than the walk-on. It wasn’t just one story either, each new revelation seemed to feed off what had come before, creating a snowballing effect which took me quite by surprise.

      It was such a simple formula. Every time one of Q’s acts came over to England I would go out with them. We would be photographed in all the right places, rumours would be started about us and then Q would concoct some sort of story about one of us dumping the other, or one of us catching the other being unfaithful or whatever he had thought up that day. The editors would then all be ringing him and begging to buy my exclusive story, digging through their files to try to find the photographs they already had of me with other stars, as if they were doing some sort of important investigative journalism. I couldn’t believe that they kept on falling for the same thing. In fact they wanted to buy the stories even more than we wanted to sell them.

     I think we pretty much invented the concept of ‘kiss-and-tell’ during those years, I was certainly credited with it by some journalists, (mainly women), who disapproved of the way things were going. People actually started to recognise me from the stories. I became ‘The Kiss-and-Tell Queen’ and it was opening all sorts of doors for me. But there was a scary side to it too, because if you are too well known for one thing, it can be hard to ever convince the world that you can do anything else. I wanted to be seen primarily as a star in my own right, an entertainer rather than simply a good-time girl and I was unsure how we were going to achieve that jump in the public consciousness.

     ‘It’s all good,’ Q would assure me whenever I questioned whether we were doing the right thing for my career long term. ‘It means that you don’t have to explain who you are when you go to auditions. Producers will know that you have a profile, that if they cast you they will be bound to get publicity; that it won’t be like hiring an unknown and having to create a whole media profile for her from scratch.’

     It all made such good sense when he explained it to me, and it certainly got me a lot of meetings with record producers and show producers and television producers. I did lunches and dinners and castings and auditions and there was a lot of talk about releasing a single. I also got a great part in a pantomime with Danny la Rue, who had been an immense star during the late sixties and early seventies. It could only be a matter of time, I told myself, before one of these things turned out to be the lucky break that would propel me to the next level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER NINE.  The Bill Gibb Dress

 

 

 

You might be wondering about what was going on in my private love life during these years. The emotional side of things, I mean, rather than the purely sexual. I appreciate that I have been skirting round the subject a bit but I do realise I am going to have to grasp the nettle and talk about personal things however difficult I might find it, which means going back a few years to the mid-seventies.

    When the Knightsbridge escort agent first rang with the booking from Martin it sounded like it was all going to be pretty typical.

     ‘The client’, she said, ‘wants to meet you in the Rooftop Bar at the top of the Hilton in Park Lane.’

      A lot of them liked it up there. I think it made them feel like they were part of the Jet Set or something, hovering above London, swathed in a warm soup of dimly lit, heavily upholstered comfort as they gazed out across Hyde Park and the rest of London, looking down on Buckingham Palace in every sense of the phrase. It was fairly anonymous too, not as much of a statement as places like the Dorchester or the Ritz.

     When Martin came over and introduced himself, however, I immediately realised he was a bit different to the usual travelling businessmen who used the services of the agency to fill their empty evenings. He was slim, in his forties and immaculately groomed. He was dressed like a businessman with the usual well fitted suit, silk tie, expensive Italian shoes and neat hair, but there was something a little bit glossier and more sophisticated than usual. I have to admit my first instinct was that he must be gay and that maybe he needed an escort as a cover at some business function. I actually felt a tiny bit disappointed at the thought because I fancied him from the first moment I saw him walking towards me with a broad, unaffected smile.

     He had a firm, bony handshake and he looked me straight in the eye without saying anything at all leery or suggestive, which was unusual too. We sat and chatted for a while and he told me he was chief executive of one of those big, anonymous holding companies, which happened to own a lot of famous fashion brands.

     ‘Like what?’ I challenged him, used to being given a load of bullshit by guys who wanted to impress me and usually turned out to work for really boring corporations. ‘Give me some names.’

     He smiled rather sweetly and reeled off a list of designers, cosmetics queens and perfume names, all of which I knew and many of which I had spent a fair bit of money on over the years. I realised that if he was telling the truth, which he certainly seemed to be, he was a very serious player indeed and I began to pay even more attention.

     ‘I have to go to a lot of industry functions,’ he explained later as we ate dinner at one of the window tables, ‘and it would be useful to have someone I could take with me.’

     Apparently he had ‘auditioned’ a few other girls who had looked right in their agency photographs, but they hadn’t quite lived up to their promise in the flesh.

     ‘As well as looking good, they would need to be able to make intelligent conversation to lots of quite dull people sometimes,’ he said, ‘which requires a fair degree of social skills.’

      He said he thought I would be great for the role and I hoped he wasn’t just being polite. He was so charming I found myself forgetting that we were involved in a professional engagement and started trying to make him show a bit more of a physical interest, straightening his tie unnecessarily, dusting some imaginary lint from his shoulder, brushing knees under the table, that sort of thing. As the evening wore on and he still didn’t respond to my flirtation techniques, which I had prided myself on having pretty much perfected by that stage, I found myself working harder and harder to be attractive and to sound like an intelligent and interesting person rather than just another escort bimbo. The more I talked, however, the more stupid my words sounded inside my head.

      When he finally took me downstairs to ask the doorman to find a taxi, and pecked me ‘good night’ on the cheek, I caught the subtlest whiff of his aftershave and it was all I could do to stop myself from dragging him into the cab with me and taking him straight home to bed. I think I may even have blushed and giggled as I got in and he closed the door behind me, like some stupid little schoolgirl. I guess I must have been about twenty by then.       

      As I lay awake that night I found myself worrying so much about whether Martin would call again or if he had just been being polite and that I had failed the test like all the other auditionees, that I actually felt physically sick. Over the following few days I couldn’t get him out of my mind; his smiling face, his manicured hands, the sound of his voice and smell of his skin. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for more than a few seconds at a time. The anxiety over whether I would ever see him again was agony.

     ‘There are plenty more where he came from,’ the agent assured me when I rang her for about the hundredth time to find out if he had been in touch about a follow-up booking, or whether he had asked to try out any of her other girls.

     ‘Sure,’ I said, knowing in my heart that that one word was the biggest lie I had ever uttered.

      When she finally phoned a couple of weeks later to say Martin had booked me to attend a function with him the following evening I felt a jolt of joy deep inside me unlike anything I had experienced before, like an electric current passing through my  soul.

     I prepared for the evening like I was going on a real date, determined to make him fancy me this time. The dinner was to be at the Grosvenor House, the next hotel up Park Lane from the Dorchester, but Martin offered to come and pick me up from the flat. That seemed very promising, especially when he arrived on the doorstep in his dinner suit with a bunch of flowers. As I invited him into the sitting room I was horribly aware of how scruffy and humble it must look to him. He was far too polite to say anything but anyone looking through the window would have been able to see that he was visiting an alien planet as he perched precariously on the edge of a peacock wicker chair, nursing a cocktail in a glass with a stem in the shape of an Art Deco woman. This was not the sort of place where a man as immaculate as Martin belonged.

     ‘It’s an industry dinner,’ he said apologetically, ‘I hope you won’t be too bored.’

    It was actually some sort of awards ceremony, packed with models and make-up artists and fashion world celebrities. The hotel ballroom had been done out like a Venetian Festival and everyone was given elaborate masks to wear as they went in. Martin seemed to know everyone and whisked me round, introducing me as ‘his friend’ as if he had known me for years. It was obvious that he was someone of importance in this world, he moved through the crowd like a prince. Several times during the evening, particularly when the awards were handed out and people were making what seemed like endless speeches, I felt his eyes on me across the table. If I glanced at him he wouldn’t look away, just smiling contentedly and approvingly, as if we both understood what was happening between us.

     There was dancing at the end of the evening and he was brilliant, whirling me round the dance floor like I was Ginger Rogers, and we emerged out into the small hours of the morning still laughing at everything and wide awake.

     ‘Thank you so much,’ he said, ‘it has been a marvellous evening. I’ll drop you home.’

     He waved down a taxi and as we sank into the seat our hands seemed to automatically find one another and we sat all the way back to Earls Court in a companionable silence with our fingers entwined. When we got there he climbed out and held the door for me, but he didn’t close it behind us or go to pay the driver. Instead he pecked me on the cheek like before, slipped a wad of money into my hand and stepped back into the cab. I was stunned, but not quite stunned enough not to hear the address that he gave the driver. It was in Wilton Place, which I knew was one of the grandest of Knightsbridge addresses, just down the road from Harvey Nichols, a store that I spent many happy hours browsing around without plucking up the courage to actually buy anything very often.

     It requires a few minutes to recover when your life suddenly takes an unexpected turn. I had completely pictured that the night would end with us in bed together and suddenly I was clacking down my basement steps on my own yet again, unable to work out what had happened or what I wanted to do about it. Did I want to be grateful for the chance of getting a good night’s sleep? Or did I want to put a sad Roberta Flack tape on and have a bit of a weep? I decided to compromise and make myself a powerful gin and tonic and take it to bed with me, after looking up Wilton Place in my A to Z, staring at the page as if trying to beam myself across there. I needed some time to work out exactly what the fluttering feeling in my stomach was. Was it excitement? Was it depression? Was it the result of a long evening of heavy food, drink and cigarettes?

     The following morning I was no nearer to solving the mystery, but I did manage to take the decision that I needed to go to Harvey Nichols for something. I’m quite sure that I didn’t need to do that, that I could have got whatever it was in Boots in the Earls Court Road, or at least in Harrods, but at the time it seemed imperative that I went to one of the swankiest shops in town, and it also seemed perfectly reasonable when I came out with my purchase, whatever it was, that I strolled back to the tube station via Wilton Place, even though it meant going a fair distance in the opposite direction first.

     It wasn’t hard to work out how the numbers ran and I was able to identify Martin’s house at least fifty yards before I drew parallel with it on the other side of the road. I slowed my pace, trying to look casual but drinking in every detail as I cruised past, feeling like a stalker but not able to stop myself from staring. This was obviously a big-money house.

     A sudden movement around the basement steps made me jump and look away for a second, bringing my heart rate to a gallop, but it was just a Filipino maid fiddling around with the dustbins. I went back to staring. The exterior of the house was in immaculate condition and each of the giant windows was dressed with heavy looking drapes. Bushes neatly clipped into perfect spheres stood symmetrically on every balcony. A highly polished Mercedes hovered by the curb outside and just as the Filipino girl disappeared once more underground the front door opened and a shockingly good looking young man appeared, apparently in a hurry. He slammed the door behind him and ran down the steps to the car door that the chauffeur held open for him. It looked like he was late for something.       

      That must be it, I decided as the car drove away and I took one last hard stare at the house before walking down to the crescent at the end of the road, Martin must be gay and that must be his boyfriend.

     The realisation brought with it a confusing mixture of emotions; first there was relief at having worked out a reason for why he hadn’t pounced on me, which didn’t reflect badly on my powers of attraction. Next came a feeling of disappointment at the thought that there was probably little I could do to change the situation. But by the time I had walked all the way round the block to the station I had remembered the looks I had caught him giving me at the Grosvenor House the night before and it occurred to me that maybe I would be able to turn him on to the pleasures of women’s bodies. Or maybe he was bi-sexual anyway. Sitting on the tube on the way back to Earls Court I was wondering whether I could face having a bloke as a love rival, but once I was back inside the flat and uncorking a bottle of wine that had been in the fridge for a few days and needed drinking up, I was finding the idea of the challenge quite exciting.

       Over the following days, while I was trying to work out what to do, I filled my time with a bit of research and managed to find Martin’s office telephone number. All my female instincts told me that I should ring him and show him I was interested, but then there was the professional side of my character which was telling me that that would be appallingly inappropriate. He had, after all, never behaved in anything but the most courteous and professional manner towards me, and here I was teetering on the edge of becoming a mad stalker.

     By the time I’d emptied the bottle of wine I had decided that I was going to have to keep my cool and wait for him to book me through the agency again. The thought that there was even the slimmest possibility that he might not call and that I might never see him again made me feel physically sick, so I opened another bottle of wine and rolled myself a joint as well in the hope that one or other of them would numb the rising tide of sadness that was threatening to swamp me. If only I could have thought of one person I could have rung and talked with about him it would have been easier, but there was no one now that Q was so hard to reach. I thought of how often I had listened to other women in dressing rooms or on location endlessly prattling on about their broken hearts or unrequited crushes and thought they were being ridiculous. Now I realised I had misjudged them.

      Realising that led me to thinking about whether those same women had been right all along when they set their sites on finding men who would be able to support them. Despite Q selling my kiss-and-tell stories to the papers for what felt like grotesque amounts of money, I still seemed to be struggling to make ends meet. It was a mystery to me how other people managed to survive. I was working at something virtually every day but I still never seemed to pull ahead financially. There always seemed to be bills to be paid or flights to be booked or clothes to be replaced.

     Image is incredibly important in show business because so much is to do with first impressions, and it was crucial that when I went to any audition or any social gathering I looked glamorous and successful. Any sign that I was struggling or down at heel would have sent all the wrong signals. That meant I had to go to a good hairdresser very regularly, and I had to stay fashionable, which was never cheap. Nothing gives the game away as much as a cheap hair cut or a worn down heel.

      I admit I was probably drinking and smoking a good bit more than I should have been as well, but I still wasn’t spending anything like the sort of money other women I met were on jewellery and handbags and cars and all the rest. Although it was great having my own flat it seemed to eat money. One time I tried sitting down with a calculator and actually working out my regular outgoings, but it was impossible to remember everything and the sums just didn’t make sense when I saw them in black and white. I remembered all the times that Dad warned me to do my maths homework because ‘one day it will come in useful’, and I slammed the calculator into a drawer, practically breaking it with my vehemence, and poured a strong gin to console myself.

      If I hadn’t been doing the escort and stripping work there was no way I could have survived on the acting and singing bookings that I was getting at that time. I had about four different agents ringing me with interviews and auditions, but still I was worrying all the time about where the next cheque would be coming from. Whenever cheques did arrive they always seemed to be for much less than I had been imagining because of all the various deductions from middle men along the way like the agencies and Q.

     Then the bloody taxman wrote and enquired how come he hadn’t heard anything from me and could I please submit a set of accounts. My initial reaction was a sort of grand fury at the thought that some dreary little bureaucrat was daring to demand that I account for myself. I could imagine a grey little man like my father sitting in an office somewhere, reading about me in the papers while he ate his sandwiches at lunchtime and deciding to bring me down to his level.

     That white hot burst of indignation kept me going for a while, but once I had come down off my high horse I felt a nasty chill of fear gripping my insides. Was it possible that these petty-minded officials would be able to destroy the independence I had worked so hard to achieve? Was I going to end up having to get a full-time job just to pay them off?

      In the absence of any evidence of my earnings apart from whatever accounts the various agencies had submitted, the authorities had taken a guess at the figure they thought I owed them. I had to read it several times before I could work out exactly what they were telling me, and then I realised they were asking me for an amount that was pretty much double what I had actually earned throughout the previous year. People who write those sorts of letters have a knack of keeping their language very polite and businesslike, while at the same time giving you the distinct impression that if you don’t send them a cheque by return of post they are going to be locking you up and throwing away the key. It was at moments like that that I always felt most alone and wished I had a partner I could share my worries and fears with; a man to give me a little cuddle and assure me that I didn’t have to worry, that he would take care of it for me.

     In a state of abject panic I rang everyone I could think of who might know anything about the subject of tax and they all said the same �" ‘get an accountant, fast’. It was Q who actually gave me a name and address. I thought that once I had talked to an accountant and he had explained everything to me I would feel better about the whole thing, but actually the boring little man Q had sent me to was so horrified by the state of my finances and book-keeping that I actually left his office in an even worse state of panic and depression at all the things he had told me I had to do and all the information I had to put together for him, most of which I didn’t even understand.

      I’m only telling you all this because it might explain better why I burst into tears the next time I saw Martin. In fact I had also burst into tears when the agency told me he had booked me again and that he wanted me to go to see a designer friend of his to be fitted for a dress before the date, but he didn’t know that. I got close to tears whenever I thought about him, to be honest, which was an extremely uncomfortable state to be in.

     The dress his designer friend came up with was fantastic and I couldn’t believe that I was actually being given something so beautiful to wear for free. All the agency knew was that Martin wanted to take me to a film premiere and an after-party where there would be lots of photographers and he wanted me to be wearing something by this designer. All the way through the fitting, as the man fussed around me with pins and clips, I was wondering if he and Martin were lovers and if that was why Martin was helping him to promote his clothes.

      On the evening of the date I had spent several hours getting ready before Martin was due to pick me up, much of which had been spent on getting my face right, so the last thing I wanted to do was burst into tears and ruin the whole effect. But that was exactly what I did. He couldn’t have been sweeter. He gave no indication that we were under any pressure to get to the event on time, he just sat me down with a box of tissues and let me pour out all my financial woes. He then promised to send his own accountant round to see me the following day so that I could get the whole thing sorted out, and dispatched me back to the bedroom to rebuild my ruined face.

     An hour later I was walking down the red carpet on his arm, telling every photographer and reporter the name of the designer while Martin stood in the background beaming proudly. We had spent so much time together by that stage that on the way home I felt it would not be too unprofessional to ask him a personal question, just to get the subject out into the open and let him know that it didn’t bother me if he was gay. I quite liked the idea of being introduced to his boyfriend by then anyway, so that I could assess the competition.

     ‘So, how come you’ve never married?’ I asked, as casually as I could manage.

     ‘Who says I’m not married?’ he asked.

     For a moment I was flustered, not wanting to admit that I had been spying on his house.

     ‘You never mention a wife,’ I said quickly, ‘and you don’t have a ring.’

     ‘Ah,’ he looked down thoughtfully at his bare ring finger for a moment. ‘Yes. I suppose I should really. I just never got round to it.’

     ‘So you are married?’ I completely failed to hide my shock at the news.

     ‘Indeed,’ he smiled. ‘We have a son of about your age.’

     The boy I had seen coming out of the house was his son? This was more information than my brain could process at once. He wasn’t gay, which was great, but he had a wife, which definitely wasn’t good. He must have seen that I was looking confused and put his hand on mine as if to still my fears.

     ‘I’m sorry, I should have told you. It’s a difficult thing to talk about.’

     ‘It’s okay,’ I said, remembering that I was, after all, being employed as an escort and he had no obligation to explain himself to me.

     ‘No it’s not,’ he said. ‘We’ll go to my house and I will explain everything. I owe it to you.’

     He leant forward and told the driver to turn round and head for Wilton Place. I felt a surge of excitement at the thought of going to his home, and trepidation at what sort of domestic row I might be about to walk into. The driver dropped us outside and by the time we had climbed the steps and reached the door it was being opened by a formally dressed Filipino man, who inclined his head respectfully as we came in.

     ‘Is my wife still awake?’ Martin asked.

     ‘Yes, Sir,’ he nodded. ‘I believe so.’

      Martin took my hand and led me to the staircase. Everything about the interior of the house was as immaculate and underplayed as him; soft colours, gentle lighting, thick stair carpets that made our feet silent as we walked up. There was a clean, rich, subtle perfume to the air, maybe emanating from the mighty fresh flower arrangements which seemed to be everywhere.

     ‘It’s very late for us to be intruding,’ I protested, unsure what game he was playing, frightened of how his wife was going to receive a visit from me in the middle of the night. ‘Does she know about me?’

     ‘It’s all right,’ he assured me. ‘Don’t worry. Trust me.’

     I did, but that still didn’t stop me from feeling nervous.

     We had reached a door on the second landing which he was opening quietly. It was darker inside but in the gloom I could still see the woman who I had spotted dealing with the dustbins on the morning I walked past. She was dressed in white like a nurse and moving quietly around the room, tidying things up as if preparing to withdraw for the night. There was a bed in the middle of the room and I could make out the shape of a body under the covers. There was no sign of movement.

     Martin nodded to the woman who smiled back and continued about her business. He led me to the bed and bent over the prone figure.

     ‘Hello, there,’ he said gently. ‘I’ve brought someone to meet you.’

     He pulled me forward by the hand.

     ‘This is Maggie. I told you about her. She’s been helping me with some of the social engagements.’ He turned to look at me. ‘Maggie, this is my wife, Grace.’ 

     I stepped forward and now that my eyes had adjusted to the dark I could see the beautiful face lying on the pillow, staring back at me.

    ‘Hello,’ I said, shyly, but she didn’t respond and I was embarrassed. I couldn’t blame her for hating me; after all I was going out with her husband.

     ‘She can hear you,’ Martin said quietly, ‘but she isn’t able to speak.’

     ‘Oh.’

     I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, so I just stood and watched as he leant over and kissed her on the forehead, saying good night before steering me back out of the room with his hand gently pressing the small of my back. I think that was the moment I admitted to myself that I was totally in love with him and probably always would be. We walked downstairs in silence and he took me into a beautiful sitting room, indicating that I should sit on one of the pale silk-covered sofas while he poured us both drinks.

     ‘There was an accident,’ he said, eventually breaking the silence as he handed me my glass. ‘It was my fault. I was driving much too fast when I was tired, showing off to her. I walked away with no more than a stiff neck but she ended up like that.’

     ‘How long ago?’ I asked.

     ‘Ten years now,’ he said.

     ‘Will she ever get better?’

     ‘At the moment the doctors say no, but you never know what advances they will make, do you?’

     ‘And you plan to look after her until the end?’ I asked.

     ‘Of course I will.’ He looked surprised that I even needed to ask such a question and I wished that I hadn’t. ‘Marriage is “for better or worse”. I’m lucky that I am able to afford to hire good people. It would be harder if I had to do the nursing myself.’

     The sheer goodness of his dedication and loyalty made tears come to my eyes and at the same time, deep in the darkest, most wicked corner of my heart I cursed my own bad luck. How could I ever hope to compete with a love as strong as this? In all the dates we had been on together he had never given the slightest indication that he was the sort of man who would ever betray the trust that his wife put in him, even though I was desperate for him to do so and had given him every opportunity.

     I had never met a man I couldn’t get into bed if I wanted to, and the first time it happened it had to be the man who was turning out to be the love of my life. Once I had calmed down enough to think rationally, which wasn’t until several days later, I told myself it was actually good luck, because it meant that I was never going to be put in the position where I would have to choose between a man and my career. By falling in love with someone who was totally unattainable I had left the path clear so that I could focus totally on my rise to stardom.

     Over the coming years there must have been many people who saw us together and assumed that we were lovers. Neither of us ever tried to disillusion them because he and I, and Grace, knew the truth, and that was all that mattered. Don’t get me wrong, I would have been his lover in a second at any point, and I certainly stayed in love with him. The fact that he behaved so honourably towards Grace, and was able to exercise such total self-control, just made him all the more attractive. On top of which he gave me many of the most magical experiences of my life.

     The designer who he had sent me to for the dress I wore that night at the premiere was called Bill Gibb. I never really understood what their exact business relationship was; all I knew was that we got to go to lots of Bill’s shows and parties and Martin would buy me anything I wanted from the showroom and sometimes would commission Bill to make me something to order. They were the most wonderful fantasy dresses in the world at the time. There was one in particular that made my heart soar every time I looked at it, which was an intricate concoction of feathers and beads sewn onto pieces of silk and lace with the most incredible attention to detail. It was more like a dream than a frock, something a fairy queen would wear in a fantasy film and I adored it in a way no one should really adore any inanimate object.

     In 1977, Bill staged an enormous ten year celebration at the Albert Hall, where all his best customers were asked to model the dresses he had made for them. Since most of us were well-known actresses or models, or stick-thin socialites, it was bound to be a fantastically glamorous affair from the start; even Twiggy was in the show. But it was my dress that was featured in all the papers the next day, and which finally got my picture into Vogue.

     For the few weeks around the night of that show it felt like I was at the very epicentre of the world, part of the most beautiful and talented crowd of people alive. When the smoke of the publicity finally cleared I was left with a few press cuttings, some fabulous memories and a dress that I wrapped as carefully as a baby and hung reverentially in my wardrobe.

     My bedroom was my sanctuary from the world in those days, and the place where I kept all my most precious possessions, like my press cuttings and photograph albums, and my clothes. I didn’t even allow people to smoke in there I was so paranoid about keeping everything pristine, like I was a curator building an archive dedicated to my life, a collection that needed to be kept in perfect condition in preparation for the day when I would finally get my big break and everyone would be clamouring for pictures and stories and details from my past.

     I knew I needed to preserve everything for the day when I would be writing this autobiography, when I would need to be able to dig out every scrap of evidence to show how beautiful and full of promise I was at that time, and how different I was from all the ordinary people who I had grown up living amongst and related to. As I packed the dress away I imagined myself taking it out in fifty years time to send to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of a show featuring all the fabulous frocks I was going to be accumulating in the coming years as I became more and more famous.  

     Martin had a way of making me feel like a princess whenever I was with him; always immaculately polite and attentive while never overstepping the boundaries of our professional relationship. He was the only man I ever met who truly and consistently believed that he had hired me as ‘an escort’; that it was a business relationship and that I had also become his friend, but nothing more.

     Once or twice, usually when I had imbibed a few glasses of champagne on top of maybe taking something else less legal to bolster my confidence, I would slide a little closer to him than was completely professional, or would lean in so that he could easily kiss me if he chose to, and every time he made it seem like he hadn’t noticed and gave me the space to withdraw with dignity. Everything he ever did made me love and respect him more deeply, and turned the screw on my internal agony.

     So, that was what had been happening in the private life during those years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

CHAPTER TEN. The Baby.

 

 

Despite the fact that I was a member of Equity and had been in countless Benny Hill sketches and Whitehall farces, the acting work became harder and harder to find as the years ticked by and we moved through the nineteen eighties. Even the escort bookings became less frequent and Martin seemed to be going to less and less functions where he needed me on his arm, which quite often made me feel sad when I had time to think about it. Most of the time I managed to distract myself by rushing around, coming up with other ways to support myself during the quiet times.

      I tried working in casinos as a croupier, remembering how glamorous it had been in Monte Carlo and thinking it would give me another way of meeting some truly wealthy men and revisiting my Bond Girl fantasy. Some of the punters would make passes at me and with one or two I even agreed to go away for holidays. In most cases they ended up falling in love with me and asking me to marry them, and I have to say there were moments when I was tempted by the thought of never having to worry about money again, but in my heart I knew it wouldn’t work, that I would never want to give up my hopes and dreams simply to grab at a bit of security.

     The thought of ending up stuck in a house like Mum, waiting for Dad to come home before she had any company, still haunted me, even after so many years. I sometimes found myself wondering if anything would have changed for her after I had gone, but I was pretty sure she would have sunk into an even more peaceful routine without me there to interrupt it and make the house untidy.

     The other problem was that whenever another man suggested any sort of permanent relationship I would immediately think of Martin and the fact that it would never be him asking that question, and that would make me want to cry. Mostly I could control the tears, like the professional actress I was, but once or twice they got the better of me. Each time the poor deluded saps thought I was crying because of the strength of my feelings for them and I didn’t disillusion them, telling them that it broke my heart to have to say no, but I was going to have to anyway. Sometimes they would keep on nagging and whinging for a while and I would end up having to be quite brutal to shake them off.

     Standing at the gaming tables every night, no matter how gorgeous the dress that they would give me to wear, I still knew that I was only a background artist. It was the punters who were the stars here, especially the high rollers. They were the ones everyone whispered about and fawned over and lavished free meals and drinks on. I longed to be back in the spotlight, like I was whenever I was booked at the Revuebar and like I had been during the years when I was making personal appearances in my Page Three days. I yearned to feel all the eyes in a room on me and to hear the roar of applause and whistles of appreciation coming out of the darkness around me. Even though the croupier work was better paid, I constantly found myself being drawn back to real show business, answering every audition ad in The Stage, pestering every agent I could get to, begging them to take me onto their books. Often they would agree but then I would never hear another word from them.  

     By that time I had learned that the secret of success was simply perseverance. There were thousands of pretty girls in London trying to achieve the same things that I was, but gradually they gave in to the temptation of security along the way, taking full-time jobs in order to afford mortgages, or marrying men who could take away all their money worries. The only sure-fire way to win big-time was to have more staying power than everyone else, to still be in the race after the competition had all dropped out.

     Joan Collins had proved that by starring in The B***h when she was nearly fifty, re-inventing herself as a bigger star than she had ever been when she was young, making herself unique and charismatic and newsworthy. I hoped I wasn’t going to have to wait another twenty years before my big break came,  but at least I knew that you never needed to despair because it was never too late to get a breakthrough. Not that Joan hadn’t been pretty famous in her younger years as well, and she did have a sister who was able to write the part in The B***h for her, but I reasoned that that was all just a result of having stayed in the game long enough to have enough irons in the fire that one or other of them were bound to pay off for her eventually. The important thing was to know that you must never let go of your dreams. If you want to be a star you mustn’t let anything distract you. Joan was a huge inspiration to me at that stage.

     Alan Parker’s film, Fame, came out just after The B***h, and it almost felt like a sign from God, telling me never to give up on my dreams, to keep on working and hoping and eventually I would break through into the big time as long as I was willing to keep on taking the knock-backs and keep on honing my skills and talents. 

     Even after Paul’s theatre shows had all closed his Revuebar was still a sporadic source of income for me when things got tough elsewhere and I often found myself back there whenever I needed to earn some quick money and there was nothing available at the casinos. It was a safe place to work and you could be confident that the punters wouldn’t be allowed to come near you while you were on stage. Although the shows became a bit repetitive if you had been there as long as I had, there was still a buzz to be had from walking out into the spotlight when there was a good, responsive audience. Stag nights and groups of businessmen always livened the place up because they would usually have had a lot to drink in order to have lost any inhibitions they might otherwise have felt at being in a place like that.

     Sometimes Paul or one of the other front-of-house staff would introduce us girls to customers after the show and we would have a drink and a laugh. It usually never went further than that and it was nice to unwind in some easy company before heading off home alone. The atmosphere was never threatening. Most of the punters were blokes who thought just going to a strip club and talking to the dancers was a daring night out, so they were hardly going to have the nerve to do anything else. Some of them already seemed to be feeling guilty about the wives and children they had left back at home in order to take a peek at life on the wild side. Every now and then, however, still high on performance adrenaline, I would click with one or other of these men and we would go back to their hotel room or wherever for a bit of private partying. That was pretty much how I came to meet Paddy.

     There is no way I can explain why I chose to sit next to him and not one of the others in that particular stag party. He wasn’t the best looking one there by any means, but he did seem a little quieter than the others, and a little less drunk and stupid. A bit serious even. He was very pale, with freckles over his nose and just a hint of ginger in his long, thick hair. There must have been chemistry at work between us because I immediately felt comfortable pressed up against him on that overcrowded couch. He didn’t try to paw me, which was what sometimes happened the moment we came out from behind the curtains, and he tried very hard to make a normal conversation despite the background noise and his obvious embarrassment at being there at all. Maybe some things are meant to be. I’ve never been much into all that spiritual stuff, but I can’t think of any other explanation as to why I took Paddy home to Earls Court with me that night other than that it was part of some higher plan.

     He obviously had no money and there was absolutely no possible advantage to me in starting up any sort of relationship with him. We talked and laughed a bit in the taxi and I snuggled up close to him, as if I had known him for years, trying not to think of Martin, which was what usually happened whenever I was with other men. It almost felt like we were already a couple as he put his arm round my shoulders and held me, without even trying to kiss me.

     Despite the fact that I had been with a fair number of men by that stage, very few of them had ever been back to the flat. Even Martin never got any further than spending a few minutes in the sitting room when he came to call for me. Although on balance I liked the familiarity and security of living in the same place for so long, I never felt that the flat reflected the sort of image I needed to project in order to attract the right opportunities. But I knew Paddy wouldn’t judge, that he probably wouldn’t even notice his surroundings. I didn’t feel that I had to impress him in order to get something from him or to ensure that he got a certain impression about me. To be honest, that was a bit of a relief.

     As we made love that night there was a tiny part of my brain that thought perhaps I had met the right man at last. There was absolutely no reason why I should have thought that because he could not have been more ordinary and the sex was no different to most, (I kept reading in Cosmopolitan about these women who were having thousands of orgasms all over the place, but I didn’t seem to be having much luck in that department) .

     We fell asleep when we finished but he still left without staying for any breakfast or anything. I got the distinct impression that he was feeling guilty about the whole thing and was rushing back to a wife or whatever, but I didn’t question him about it or try to stop him. The strange thing was I did give him my telephone number. I can’t be sure if I was just being polite and didn’t think he would ever ring anyway, or whether I was hoping that he would call again.

      I was always dashing around in those days, so I didn’t have time to think about him much once he’d gone, but when he did ring a few days later it all seemed very natural. He came over for the afternoon and we had a burger in the Earls Court Road before going to bed and then I had to get to work at the Revuebar and he disappeared off to wherever he had come from. I still knew nothing about his life. God knows what we talked about but we somehow steered clear of any personal information that might have punctured our little romantic bubble. Perhaps I could sense that it would be a minefield and I just didn’t want to go there and risk triggering an explosion.

     We went on having these strange but uncomplicated trysts for a few weeks and then I realised that I had missed my period. I could be almost completely certain that if I was pregnant it would be his because there hadn’t been anyone else for a while.

     It was not the first time this had happened to me, but on all the previous occasions the men involved had had the money for me to be able to slip into a private clinic in Welbeck Street and have a quick termination. Each time they had given me a guilt-induced pay-off of some sort which had allowed me to take a holiday and recover from both the physical and emotional toll of the experience. I would like to say that I was never troubled by these interludes, that I was always certain I was doing the right thing by not attempting single motherhood, but nothing is ever that certain, is it?

     This time I was a bit more nervous because I didn’t think that Paddy looked like the sort of man who could afford to pay for private medicine and I didn’t fancy the idea of throwing myself on the mercy of the National Health System. Not that I imagined for a second that I could keep it once it was born. I had been to a spate of auditions in the previous few months, several of which seemed extremely promising. They were doing some casting for a touring version of A Chorus Line and there was a good chance that I would get a part, plus I was up for a couple of commercials. I had seen A Chorus Line when it first arrived in the West End a few years before and had been totally blown away by it. Apart from the fact that it had some really spine tingling musical numbers, it also perfectly encapsulated the horror of traipsing from one audition to the next for year after year, constantly having your hopes raised, only to have them callously dashed again by someone who couldn’t even remember your name without looking it up on a list. It felt like this was the production I had been waiting for ever since I arrived in London. 

     There were moments when I felt my career was finally coming together and like I was on the brink of breaking through into the big time and this was one of them. The last thing I wanted was to be saddled with a baby, even if Paddy offered to do the decent thing and marry me or support me or whatever. He was a really nice guy, but I could see that life with him wouldn’t be that different to the life my parents had lived. If I kept this baby all my dreams would be over and I knew that wasn’t even an option. 

     I wouldn’t have believed that Paddy could have gone any whiter than he already was when I told him, but he did. He actually looked as if he was being taken physically ill as he absorbed the news.

    ‘Are you sure?’ he asked, sinking awkwardly down into the Habitat bean bags in the corner of my sitting room.

    ‘Pretty sure,’ I replied.

    ‘But we took precautions,’ he said, apparently having difficulty getting the idea straight in his head.

    ‘They’re never a hundred percent,’ I said. ‘One of them must have split or something and you didn’t realise.’

    To his credit he didn’t get angry and try to blame me or anything like that, he just seemed totally devastated.

    ‘I’ll do whatever I can to help you support the kid,’ he said, his voice shaking. ‘But I’m not a rich man, Maggie. It’s going to be hard.’

     ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to have it,’ I assured him. ‘No way. We just need to find the money for a termination, that’s all.’

    ‘An abortion?’ He wasn’t pale any more; a flush of red had risen up from his neck with surprising speed. I didn’t know him well enough to realise that it was anger. He had never had any cause to be angry with me before.

     ‘It’s not the end of the world,’ I assured him. ‘I’ve done it before.’

     ‘It’s a mortal bloody sin, Maggie, is what it is. You’re not going to be killing any child of mine.’

     ‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ I snapped. He might as well have been talking in a foreign language for all the sense his words made to me. ‘Don’t turn this into something it isn’t. Why would you want to say something like that?’

     ‘We’ve made a child, Maggie.’ He seemed to be exercising enormous self-control not to shout. ‘We have to do our best for it.’

     ‘I’m not even going to discuss this.’

     I was feeling sick. I didn’t want to have to justify my decision because I knew I couldn’t. In my mind having a termination couldn’t be the same thing as killing a kid, otherwise I was going to have to face up to being some sort of mass murderer. I couldn’t afford to think deeply about what I was suggesting we do, I just had to get on with it.

     ‘This isn’t the f*****g My Lai Massacre,’ I said, wanting to take control of the discussion and end it as quickly as possible, ‘it’s just birth control, no different to using a f*****g condom.’

     I wasn’t prepared for the punch coming because I had never been hit by a man in my entire life, even though I had seen it happen to a few of the girls I’d worked with over the years. I had certainly never witnessed anything like it as a child because Dad would rather have cut his hand off at the wrist than raise it to Mum, however much she might have infuriated him sometimes. Paddy’s fist caught me full in the eye, sending me spinning across the room. He leapt after me and had his hands round my throat, pinning me to the floor and shaking me so hard I was sure I could feel my brain rattling in my skull, his face was burning red and spittle was spraying from his mouth as he shouted and shouted. I don’t remember the exact words; all my concentration was going into trying to stay alive and conscious. I guess my lack of response confused him because he seemed to suddenly gather himself together and let go, allowing me to slump to the floor.

     I stayed very still, fighting to get air back in through my throat as he sank down onto the cushions, holding his head in his hands as he wept. We had never talked about religion on any of our dates, but I realised as I watched his despair that he was a Catholic and that I had triggered God alone knew what sort of guilt bomb inside his head. If he had been feeling bad about using contraception already, then an abortion was going to be way beyond anything he was likely to be able to go along with in silence. I wished I’d never told him; that I had just broken up with him and then sorted the baby out myself. But it was too late to take it back now. One thing was for certain, I could never have a man like this in my life; he could ruin everything with his violence and his demands. He would expect me to turn my whole life over to him and his child. It would be the end of everything. We were both silent for a long time before I felt it was safe to speak again.

     ‘Paddy,’ I said, as gently and reasonably as I could manage through the shaking that was convulsing my whole body. ‘I would make a terrible mother. And I would make a terrible wife for you too. Your life would be an absolute misery if you were tied to me. I have so many dreams that I still have to fulfil. I can’t abandon my destiny now, when it is all just about to come right for me. Maybe if we had met in five years time I would be in a better position to settle down and have a baby. Maybe then I would have the money to be able to employ nannies and all the other things you need if you’re going to combine a career with having a child, but I’m not ready to do that yet.’

     ‘It’s not about you,’ he said, lifting his head from his hands, ‘or me. It’s about this little kiddie.’

     ‘I’m not marrying you, Paddy,’ I insisted.

     ‘I know you’re not marrying me,’ he shouted, making me cower away from him, fearing another attack, ‘because I’m already married you stupid cow. I already have a family.’

     I don’t think I was particularly surprised, and in a way I was relieved because I thought that this would make it easier for me to win my battle, but it didn’t. He made me promise him that I wouldn’t do anything until he came back to see me the next day. He told me he was going to have to confess everything to his wife.

     ‘It won’t make any difference,’ I snarled, angered he would think that this woman I had never met should have any say over my future. ‘I can’t afford to lose six months income because I’m too fat to work.’

     ‘We’re not killing this child, Maggie,’ he said, standing up and looking like it was still taking every ounce of his self control not to punch me again, and I lowered my eyes, wanting him to go so that I could assess the damage to my face and try to work out what to do.

     ‘Even if I have it I’m putting it up for adoption,’ I muttered, like a sulky child determined to have the last word, however unwise that might be.

     ‘Don’t,’ he shouted, pushing his face close to mine and making me flinch back in fear, ‘do anything until I get back here tomorrow.’

     He stormed out, slamming the front door and leaving me shaking on the floor. I wasn’t sure what to do next. Half of me wanted to go straight to the doctor and get everything sorted immediately, leaving the flat and going into hiding until it was all over, but I had an audition for another commercial the next morning, which I didn’t want to miss, and I was going to be working that night, so I couldn’t see how I could realistically do it. I did also feel that I should give Paddy at least a day to digest the news, reasoning that once we thought about it, and once he told his wife, he might well come round to seeing that termination was the most sensible and practical solution to the problem. I imagined his wife would have some pretty strong views about the whole affair. I wondered if I should expect a visit from her too, and the thought made me shiver.

      Pulling myself up, I went into the bathroom. My legs were shaking so badly I could hardly support myself and when I saw the mess that he’d made of my eye I couldn’t stop a low moan of despair from escaping my lips. Never in my entire career had I missed an audition or a booking. It was like a point of honour. Only amateurs missed auditions or shows for personal reasons. The show ‘must go on’ whatever the personal cost.

     I packed ice onto my cheek and eye for the rest of the day and that night wore a cat mask for my performance at Raymond’s, which covered the top half of my face. No one said anything in the dressing room because they all knew exactly what must have happened. They had all been there themselves at some stage. It was good to have somewhere to go and something to do for a few hours, to take my mind off the conflicting emotions that were raging around inside me.

     Even though I was exhausted by the time I got home I still couldn’t sleep. Paddy had managed to make me actually think about the child I was now carrying inside me. He had made me see it as a person, which I had always managed to avoid doing whenever these accidents had happened in the past, and now it was going to be a hundred times harder to do what had to be done. I tossed and turned for hours, unable to get into a proper sleep, which I knew I needed desperately if I was going to look half way decent for the next morning.

      The audition turned out to be complete crap, an absolute cattle market of girls being lined up, examined and insulted by some rude pricks from an advertising agency who obviously thought they were the coolest guys on the planet for being able to humiliate a bunch of desperate, out-of-work actresses. They thought nothing of mentioning the bruising and swelling around my eye which no amount of make-up had been able to hide.

     ‘I fell over,’ I said, ‘but the marks will have gone by tomorrow.’

     It was obvious from their faces that they didn’t believe that any more than I did and there was no way they were going to take the risk of booking me when they had options. So I wasn’t in the best of moods when Paddy rocked up half way through the afternoon while I was trying to get at least a couple of hours’ sleep before going back to the Revuebar. He looked completely shell-shocked by whatever had happened to him in the intervening hours and I would have felt sorry for him if I wasn’t so apprehensive about whether he was going to make a big scene out of the whole thing or lay into me again. I was determined to do nothing to aggravate him into hitting me again; I simply couldn’t afford to take on any more cuts or bruises. Imagine if he had broken my arm or something and I was out of action for weeks; how would I survive then? He had succeeded in making me genuinely afraid of him, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t allow him to bully me into doing anything that would endanger my career long term.

     ‘I talked to Joyce,’ he said, standing awkwardly in the door of the sitting room as I made myself a gin and tonic and lit a cigarette, trying to disguise my shaking hands.

    ‘Joyce?’

     ‘My wife.’

    ‘Ah. So, how did she take it?’

    ‘Pretty bad to be honest. She’s a good woman though. Better than I deserve.’

    I didn’t bother to interrupt. If he wanted to beat himself up like this it was up to him. I just wished he would hurry up and tell me what he was thinking.

     ‘We talked almost the whole night,’ he went on, ‘and we’d like to put a proposition to you?’

    I think I might have raised an eyebrow at that stage, but I still managed to hold my panic in check. ‘What kind of proposition would that be then?’

    ‘We’d like to adopt the child, Joyce and me. We’d want to bring it up as one of ours, with its brothers and sisters.’

    I have to admit that that little announcement had both my eyebrows going up, despite the bruising.

    ‘She’s willing to adopt a kid you’ve sired with a stripper? Is she bucking to be the next Mother F*****g Teresa or something?’

     ‘Watch your mouth,’ he snapped and I saw a hint of colour rising from his throat again. I wasn’t sure if he was taking objection to me bad-mouthing the blessed Joyce or the sainted Mother Theresa, maybe a bit of both. I drew heavily on my cigarette, sucking the calming smoke deep into my lungs and exhaling slowly to stop myself saying anything else that might trigger an explosion.

     ‘Joyce is the innocent party here,’ he went on. ‘She deserves some respect.’

     I wanted to say ‘she’s not the only one,’ but I controlled myself.

    ‘That still doesn’t solve the problem of how I’m going to make a living for the next few months,’ I said after a few moments.

     ‘I’ve got some savings,’ he said. ‘I understand it’s not the sort of money you’re used to earning, but it would be something.’

     ‘You and your wife are willing to pay me to have your baby? This is getting really weird.’

     ‘You should be able to keep working for another couple of months, and then maybe you could do some modelling for maternity dresses or something,’ he went on, ignoring my interruption.

     ‘So now you’re an expert on the modelling world?’ I said, although I could see there might be something in what he was suggesting.

     ‘Will you do it?’ he asked again.

     ‘How much is there is this savings account?’ I asked cautiously.

    ‘About three grand. It’s not a fortune for someone like you, I understand that, but maybe I could work some overtime as well to buy you a few extras.’

    ‘Tell Joyce,’ I spat the name out as contemptuously as I could, ‘that I will think about it.’

    ‘Okay,’ he nodded, as if reluctantly accepting that this was the best response he could expect under the circumstances, and left, giving me a number that he said I should call when I had made up my mind or at any time I needed anything. He made no mention about hitting me or about the state my face was in. Maybe it was just an every day occurrence to him. I wondered what sort of a life poor Joyce was forced to lead, trying to imagine how she had become such a total doormat.

     I have to admit that once he’d gone I did ring round a few of the agents I knew to see if they thought there would be any work for a pregnant woman, and they were actually quite encouraging.

     ‘Mother and baby can be useful too,’ one of them said.

      I didn’t respond to that suggestion. I couldn’t imagine that even the wonderful Joyce was going to be too happy about letting me borrow my baby back for photo sessions.

    There were moments over the next few days when I thought that perhaps it would be nice to have a baby, but then I would look around the flat, or work out how much it would cost me in baby-sitting fees every time I wanted to go out in the evening, and I realised it was a totally impractical idea. I was just on the verge of breaking into the big time, having worked at it for nearly fifteen years and having a baby to look after would set me right back to square one. I would have to get a regular job and a washing machine and God alone knew what else. Just being pregnant for a few months was going to be bad enough. Worst of all, I would be tied to a man who thought nothing of punching a woman for answering him back. What would happen the first time he thought I was not bringing the child up properly? What if he insisted I gave up work in order to be a full-time mother? It was all too horrible to even contemplate.

     Now that I had started to think of the foetus as an actual person, I was finding it hard to imagine going to a doctor and asking him to get rid of it for me. I actually started to get nightmares about all the other terminations I had gone for, seeing the babies floating around looking at me all reproachfully. I was thirty years old and I guess even I had some sort of biological clocking ticking away inside me that wanted to create a little mini-me for posterity, even if I didn’t want the responsibilities that would go with it.

     I came to a decision at about three o’clock in the morning a few days later, after coming home from a long night at Raymond’s to find a telephone message from an agent telling me that I hadn’t got the part in A Chorus Line after all. Pouring myself a huge gin and tonic to drown the all too familiar and sickening surge of disappointment, I decided I would go ahead with the birth, making sure that Paddy contributed his fair share to compensate me for my loss of earnings. I told myself I would then let him and Joyce take care of the baby for a while, just until I got my big break, when I would be in a position to pay for a permanent nanny, or maybe I would be able to persuade this angelic Joyce to come and work for me full time. The baby would then know its mother and get all the perks of being the offspring of a star, and I would have fulfilled my destiny, both as a mother and as a performer. By the time I had emptied the gin bottle it actually started to look like a really good option. Once I’d had this baby I would never need to have any more. I would be able to switch the biological clock off once and for all.

     ‘Okay,’ I said when Paddy came round for my answer, ‘I agree.’

     ‘Good,’ he smiled, seeming genuinely relieved and pleased, which made him look quite boyish and attractive. ‘There’s one more thing.’

    ‘What’s that?’

    ‘Joyce says that you have to stay away. She’ll bring the child up as her own, but not if you come round interfering.’

    ‘You’re going to lie to the child, tell it Joyce is its real mother?’

    ‘Joyce thinks it’s for the best.’

    I nodded. I knew he was right. This Joyce sounded like she was a wise old bird. It would probably all work out for the best. It occurred to me that once I was a star they would be powerless to stop me making contact with my baby if I chose to, that this agreement would mean nothing in any court, but I didn’t say anything. I decided I would keep that option open by not mentioning it.

     The deal was sealed, and although there were moments over the following months when I regretted it, for whatever unexplainable, hormonal reason, I never seriously considered changing my mind for more than a few moments at a time.

     Looking back now, of course, I realise I failed to do most of the things that doctors advise pregnant women to do. I didn’t give up smoking or drinking, and I kept working nights at the Revuebar until the bump was so huge I couldn’t find a costume that would disguise it, and I even went on a few escort dates.

     I didn’t go to any mother and baby classes or whatever it is that women usually do at that stage. I dare say most expectant mothers want to mix with other people in the same condition so they can talk about the whole experience as much as possible but that was the last thing I wanted to do. For a start I knew there would be loads of pressure to give up smoking and drinking and I wasn’t at all sure I could get through the whole ordeal without lashings of gin and nicotine. I also knew they would want to talk about the baby thing in colossal detail and I could find virtually nothing interesting about the pregnancy or birthing processes at all, apart from the fact that it had been bloody uncomfortable so far and I was very much afraid it was going to get a lot worse before it was all over. As a result I managed to ignore it for almost the entire gestation period.

     Paddy would come round most weeks with gifts and little bits of advice that Joyce had given him to pass on. He even asked if I would like to meet her, so I would know the woman who was going to be bringing up my baby, but I declined that kind offer as altogether too weird, even for me. I could tell Paddy was a good man, despite the fact that he had a bit of a temper on him and was a bit handy with his fists. I was confident that he wouldn’t trust his children to a woman who wasn’t up to the job so there was no need for me to vet her.

     I could just imagine how this saintly earth mother would look down on me if we actually met. I was realistic enough to be pretty sure she wouldn’t be impressed by the fact that I had a celebrity past and was soon going to be a star in my own right. It always mystified me how anyone could fail to see how fabulous it was to become famous and to be adored by millions but I was realistic enough to know that lots of people did. That had been the thing that had most annoyed me about my parents and ever since coming to London I had tried to avoid anyone with similar prejudices. I was pretty sure that Joyce would be one of them.

    I found myself thinking about my parents quite a bit during those months. Would they like to know that they were going to be grandparents? They wouldn’t be impressed that it had been fathered by a man who was married to someone else. And they certainly wouldn’t like the idea that I was going to be giving their grandchild away the moment it was born. They would probably want to visit it and make a fuss of it, just to show me up, ganging up with bloody Joyce and Paddy and bad-mouthing me behind my back. I couldn’t face it, not on top of all the other stresses involved in giving your baby away at birth.

     I realised they would probably be hurt that I hadn’t told them if they ever found out, but they had never bothered to try to find out where I was in the last fifteen years, so why should I worry about their feelings now? I decided they didn’t deserve anything from me, which made me feel better about my decision to continue doing nothing about contacting them. 

     All these thoughts were spinning round and round in my head as my body continued along its bumpy hormonal journey.

     The baby was due a week after Christmas and arrived on January 2nd, 1985. That meant I couldn’t go away for the festive season, which was what I always tried to do. Who in their right minds wants to be at home at Christmas if they haven’t got any family?

     When I first came to London I could usually find other unattached friends like Q who didn’t want to go back to their families for one reason or another, but as they got older they started to marry and have children and the whole family Christmas thing became a bore and an embarrassment for me unless I was in a pantomime or a show that would run throughout the holiday.

     This year there was no escape; and adding the discomfort of being colossally pregnant onto that meant it was a couple of weeks of hell, which I am sure I would not have got through without my gin and nicotine crutches. 

     Maybe I should have gone to a few classes, or read a book or something, because giving birth to that baby girl came as a bloody terrible shock. In fact I don’t even want to dwell on the horror scene long enough to write about it. But once all the blood and s**t and screaming was over I had to fight hard to resist the urge to ask the nurses if I could see her. It must have been the hormones putting up one last struggle.

     If I had let them put her into my arms at that moment I believe I might actually have felt some sort of a maternal urge to keep her. I couldn’t take the risk, so I shouted at the nurses when they suggested it, and ordered them to keep her away from me, probably giving the impression that I was a mad woman and the baby wouldn’t be safe with me anyway. Being absolutely realistic, maybe she wouldn’t.

     They told me she was an entirely healthy and beautiful baby, which just goes to show that most of the stuff that the so-called health gurus spout about healthy living is a load of crap.  Just as well I hadn’t told my parents, or anyone else for that matter, because they might have encouraged me at that stage, when my resistance was at its lowest ebb, to try to keep her, which would have been a disaster for both of us.

     As it was I cried a good bit more than I would ever have expected when Paddy came to the hospital to take her, and once I got back home the empty flat seemed especially dark and silent and lifeless. I immediately turned the television on and threw open all the windows to let some street noise in, anything to distract me from the sick feeling in the pit of my sagging stomach. It was a long, horrible night when I really could have done with a friendly shoulder to weep on.

     The next morning I started making calls, determined not to let any sort of depression creep in and drag me down. I knew from experience that blue moods always pass if you take some positive actions. I made an appointment to see my aerobics teacher, who was a bit of an all round health nut, and we worked out a plan for getting my stomach flat again so that I could go back to work at Raymond’s. These days I probably would have gone straight to having a tummy-tuck, but plastic surgery wasn’t nearly as advanced then as it is now. I was going to have to put in a lot of sweat and pain if I wanted to eradicate all signs of what had happened.  Jane Fonda had made a ‘pregnancy recovery workout video’ which I played almost incessantly at home, going for ‘the burn’ over and over again, determined to get back to where I had been before the whole disaster occurred no matter how much it hurt.

     It’s times like these which sort the winners from the losers. It would have been so easy for me to have given up on the struggle to make it and to have opted to become a single mum, transferring all my dreams and ambitions onto little Stephanie.

     I knew that was her name because Paddy sent me photographs and little letters about her to start with. I doubt if Joyce knew he was doing that. I never replied and once I read them I buried them deep in the bottom of the wardrobe. He gave up after a while. He probably got so used to Joyce looking after her along with the others that he forgot I even existed. To be honest it was a relief when the childishly written envelopes stopped arriving because they always brought mixed feelings to the surface which I preferred not to have to fight.

     Out of curiosity I went to have a look at the place where they lived. It was a bit of a shock. I always prided myself on being cosmopolitan and all the rest of it, having watched plenty of classic films like Kathy Come Home, A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, but in fact I had only ever lived full time in Haywards Heath and Earls Court and had always travelled around picturesque resorts. I had never actually been brought face to face with the really ugly aspects of life at the bottom of the economic pile.

      Paddy and Joyce lived on an estate in the middle of South London somewhere, which was just a collection of tower blocks in a windswept concrete desert. Luckily I’d dressed down for the expedition, not wanting to draw attention to myself otherwise I probably would have been torn limb from limb by feral teenagers the moment I got there. I sat around on a graffiti covered wall outside the entrance to their block for a while, chain smoking and trying to look hard, but I never saw anyone that I could be sure was them.

     It was a pretty threatening atmosphere and I hurried back to the safety of bustling and prosperous West London after an hour or two. I felt I had been a bit pathetic and went back once or twice more, but it was hopeless and I have no idea what I thought I might achieve. Most of the kids hanging around were black or Asian or somewhere in between, so I imagined that a child as blonde as Stephanie was in those early photos would have stood out like a sore thumb. I don’t know what I would have done if I had seen her. It was a sort of madness to go there at all really, probably something to do with my recovering hormones. I didn’t do it often. I knew I had to concentrate on my career more than ever now, so that she would be proud of me if she ever discovered Joyce wasn’t her real mum and came looking for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN. The Penny Drops.

 

 

I was still able to dance at Raymond’s for several years after having the baby, but even I could see that the other girls were getting younger and younger and to be honest I often thought I couldn’t bear to listen to all their crap in the dressing rooms any longer. They all thought they were just about to break through in some show or other, pinning all their hopes on the latest audition they had been to or the latest bit of bullshit they had been fed by some man who just wanted to fuel his own dreams, or get inside their knickers. It took all my self-control not to scream at them as they prattled on.

     I wanted to tell them that they still had to ‘pay their dues’ to the business; that everyone had to. They had to put in the years buying The Stage each week and then experience that sinking feeling over and over again when they saw there was nothing being advertised that they were suited for, knowing that they were going to have to wait at least another week until the next edition came off the presses. Now and then they would experience the excitement of spotting a potential way in to everything they dreamed about, a hope that would usually be extinguished at some humiliating cattle call of an audition a few days later.

     That was what I wanted to tell them, but I knew they wouldn’t take any notice, that they would just think I was being bitter and twisted because I hadn’t made it myself, and I no longer had the energy to keep telling them about my days as a Page Three star and about the whole Benny Hill adventure. I had caught myself telling stories to them about my times with Danny la Rue without explaining who he was and suddenly realised they were all staring back with blank expressions. Poor, darling, Danny would have died a thousand deaths if he’d realised there was already a generation growing up who didn’t know who he was.                                                                            

     I was also becoming increasingly aware of the differences between the other girls’ bodies and mine. Don’t get me wrong, I was still in great shape thanks to Jane Fonda and all the rest, but I wasn’t going to see thirty again and as well as having a baby my body and my skin had seen me through a few thousand cigarettes and God knows how many bottles of gin. The other girls were increasingly starting to look like rather voluptuous children to me, as well as sound like them. I was beginning to think that it was time to move on.

     I didn’t want to give up the hostessing work though because I knew I was good at it, and what these girls might have in freshness and firmness, I could more than make up for with character and experience. What could any of them possibly have to say that would interest any man for more than ten minutes? A man like Martin, for instance, would never want to spend time with any of them. I had so much more to offer than they did, I just had to find the best way to market my hard won skills, apart from the casinos which had, I had to admit, become a bit boring.

      There were other hostess clubs where a bit of maturity and sophistication were considered a plus for the job, where the lighting was a little less bright and where I could wear slightly less revealing clothes, like the Stork Club. The management were thrilled to have someone of my calibre coming to them and within a few weeks of making up my mind I was giving my final performance at the Revuebar and preparing to start the next act of my life with a mixture of sadness at the passing of time and excitement at the thought of what new adventures might now lie ahead.

     Although there were depressing elements to growing older, there were compensations too. The main one was that there simply wasn’t as much direct competition around once you hit thirty. London was packed with pretty girls in their teens and early twenties but most of them had given up and married by the time they reached their early thirties. Around this time Joan Collins went on from her successful re-launch in The B***h to create the part of Alexis in Dynasty and became the highest paid actress in television. The other women in the series weren’t that much younger than her, just like the main players in Dallas, the other big television series of the period. It was the perfect time to be a glamorous older woman and I was in exactly the right position to take advantage of it when the moment was right. Just like Joan and the others I had the experience, both professional and personal, necessary to bring something special to the parts that were being cast.  But I still needed to earn a living while I waited for the right opportunity to come along.

     I went to a lot of major auditions over the next few years and I knew I had made the right decision about the baby. I needed to be able to respond to any opportunity that came up. One agent flew me out to the West Coast to try out for a pilot hospital show. He had sent a whole load of my cuttings out ahead of me and they were desperate to do a screen test. As far as I could make out it was a lead part and they really wanted a British actress, someone who could bring the same sort of authority to the role as Julie Walters might. (She had done a brilliant job for British actresses in general a few years before with her performance in Educating Rita, getting nominated for virtually every award in the book).

     As my limo drove me in from the airport to my hotel and I looked out at the passing palm trees I felt for a few minutes like I had finally arrived at my life’s destination. The hotel was legendary and I was treated like a star from the moment I arrived to the moment I was ferried back to the airport in the limo. If my parents could have seen me on that trip I wouldn’t have had to say a word because it would have been obvious that I was on my way to the very top.  

     I didn’t get the job, but I was close and if I had been tied with a small child the whole fabulous trip would have been very hard and stressful to arrange. I might not have been able to do it at all if I couldn’t have organised childcare in time. It wasn’t as if I had parents I could turn to for help at moment like that. I would never have been able to swallow my pride enough to go back home and admit I needed their help with anything. The whole point in leaving home had been to show them that I was a grown-up and perfectly capable of looking after myself.

     I don’t think that particular pilot ever got picked up by the networks. If it did I certainly never saw it. Maybe if I had got the part things would have turned out differently for them. So much in show business depends on luck. Imagine if they had never made Dynasty; would Joan’s career have fizzled back out again?

     The Stork Club was a good experience too because I got to meet such a wide variety of different people. There was ‘The General’ for instance, a fantastic old character who had been given early retirement from the Army after some terrible indiscretion which had got into the papers briefly but then been hushed up very quickly by Q, who by then was running the most notorious publicity company in London.

     The General had been important in the Falklands campaign and was a favourite of Mrs Thatcher’s, apparently. Quite a few of her favourite men were getting into trouble around then for misbehaving in their private lives and most of them would turn up sooner or later at the parties I went to through people I met at The Stork.

     Although Q was best known to the public for making people like me infamous through the tabloids, most of his income now came from keeping people like the General out of the papers. The more people I got to know the more I realised that just about every big business man or politician who liked to live a bit had used Q’s services at some time in order to stay out of trouble.  

     The sequence of events was nearly always the same; a tabloid would get hold of a picture or a story from a girl or boy who had decided to cash in and Q would do them a deal, offering the story-teller something else if they left his client’s name out of their tale. If he couldn’t buy them off in that way he would then try to do a deal with the editors, offering them something juicier in exchange for dropping the story about his client.

     If the worst came to the worst and neither of these tactics worked, he would bring in the lawyers, but he never liked to do that because that meant there would be other vultures dipping their beaks into the money pots that he preferred to share with as few people as possible. If all these measures failed and the stories still got out there, he would then go into damage-limitation mode, and would help the newly villainised VIPs to haul themselves out of whatever cesspit they had fallen into with as much dignity and humility as possible. I have to say he was brilliant at the whole thing and seemed to be making more money than he knew how to spend.

     Sometimes these scandals worked to everyone’s advantage. There was a well known footballer who used to come to the club and who took me for a holiday in Marbella, neglecting to tell me he had a wife and kids somewhere up north. Not that I would have been interested in hearing about them, or particularly surprised to find out they existed.

     Someone snapped us on the beach and the story went so huge that Q was able to get me several thousand pounds to tell all in the News of the World. That was the first time that I saw myself described as ‘infamous vice-girl, Maggie de Beer’. The footballer’s wife got a much better divorce settlement as a result of all the publicity and he became a household name for being a bit of a stud and got all sorts of lucrative advertising and marketing deals that he wouldn’t have got otherwise. On top of that the editors all got a boost to their circulations and Q made a small fortune out of his share of everyone’s fees. Like I say, everyone got to win. 

     ‘Is “vice-girl” a good image?’ I asked Q over lunch at Langans once the furore had calmed down and the paparazzi had moved on to fresh meat. ‘It sounds a bit cheap to me. I would rather have been labelled “actress”.’

     ‘Wasn’t so long ago the two were interchangeable.’

     ‘You’re giving history lessons now?’

     That riposte may have sounded a little bit more irritated than I had intended but Q knew me well enough not to take any notice.

     ‘You used to tell me you wanted a bit of the excitement that Christine Keeler enjoyed,’ he reminded me. ‘How do you think she was described by the media?’

     Apart from being surprised that he had remembered me saying that all those years before, I was also shocked into a temporary silence at the thought that I might actually have become like my childhood heroine. It didn’t give me quite the same frisson of pleasure as being mistaken for Jackie O in St Tropez had, but it was encouraging all the same. I wondered if the pictures of me avoiding cameras, my eyes tantalisingly hidden behind Raybans, would be stimulating the imaginations of another generation of young girls in the privacy of their suburban bedrooms, making them long for fame and stardom in the same way the Profumo scandal pictures had triggered my ambitions.

     Mellowed by a good lunch, I experienced a twinge of pride to think I had achieved my teenage dreams and, as I always did at moments like that, tried to imagine what my parents would be saying about me now. Were they shocked by the bohemian and sophisticated world that their daughter had moved into? Did they keep their connection to me a secret or did they now boast about me to neighbours and work colleagues, cutting out and collecting all the articles as religiously as I did? I hoped it was the latter and that I had been able to bring a little glamour and excitement into their dull lives.

     For years Q had been saying that ‘there was no such thing as bad publicity’, and I guess that I believed he was right on the whole, even though he now spent so much of his time working to keep his more distinguished clients out of the papers, which seemed to undermine his argument somewhat. But there were some articles written around that time which made me feel a bit sad. There was one in The Times, which referred to the story about me and the footballer, (but didn’t use my name, simply referring to me as ‘the other woman’ which wasn’t much use publicity-wise), that suggested people like me and Q were marriage wreckers, deliberately setting out to destroy other people’s families for our own advancement. 

     ‘If a guy is willing to have an affair with you his marriage can’t have been in that great shape to start with,’ Q said when I asked him what he thought. ‘Maybe you should look on it like you are providing a service for the wife, opening her eyes to the fact that she is living a sham. The truth is often painful to face, but it’s still the best option available. That’s all we are; the truth-tellers.’

     Sometimes I was amazed by the confidence he had about everything and the way he could summon up a solid-sounding opinion to suit virtually every occasion. I’d seen him doing it on television once or twice, against some pretty formidable interviewers, and he always seemed to win all the arguments.

     It was hard to imagine that he was the same person as the pretty boy I walked in on in the bath all those years before. His looks were changing quite dramatically by then. His hair had receded and he had put on quite a bit of weight despite his rigorous regimes at the gym, but he compensated for the loss of beauty by being immaculately groomed every moment of the day. I never saw him when he didn’t look newly shaved and his shirts and suits didn’t look like they had just come back from the cleaners. He never appeared creased or ruffled, even in the heat of some horrendous media storm or other, which I guess was reassuring to his clients, who usually found themselves in his office at moments when they were feeling distinctly creased and ruffled themselves.

     I can’t pretend our lunches were that frequent any more. Q’s diary was pretty much blocked out months ahead for meetings with editors and clients and television executives and who knows who else. I couldn’t wait for the day when he would be the one ringing me for a lunch date, and I would be able to wave for the bill and pay for it like an equal, instead of always having to pester his secretary for a space in his diary and then having to thank him yet again for picking up the tab.

     It was a constant mystery to me how some people managed to pull ahead of the game financially in the way Q had. I worked every hour that I could and I had always been totally focussed on my career but I only ever seemed to be able to make just enough money to keep afloat and out of debt. How did you get to the stage where you had enough cash behind you to be able to wave your credit card at any bill that passed without having to think how you would pay for it later? How did you get to the stage where you never had to think twice before hopping into a taxi even though there was a perfectly good bus or tube service available to the destination you were heading for?

    One or two of the men I had been out with over the years had offered to take away all my money worries, but I knew that they meant they would take away all my ambitions and dreams as well. That would be the price I would have to pay if I was going to be a kept woman. It would be like having a lobotomy in order to get rid of a nagging headache. Life might be painless after the operation, but what would be the point of merely living without pain if there was nothing good to replace it with?

      I never got invited to Q’s home once he was married. I never even got invited to the wedding or to meet the bride. He said it was because she was very insecure about his old girlfriends because she was an unambitious woman who felt that career women like me were looking down on her. I could understand why it might be uncomfortable for her, given what a long history Q and I shared, so I didn’t push it. He could always be relied on to take my calls when I had a story to sell, which was all I really needed.   

     As I progressed through my thirties there were several instances at auditions when I thought I noticed people exchanging glances as I stepped up to do my pieces. There was a definite air of smirking around once or twice, which left me feeling disquieted and puzzled. I wondered if it was because some of the younger men had been readers of The Sun during the years when I appeared virtually every week. I could imagine it might be daunting for them to be meeting a woman who may well have been one of their earliest fantasy figures. Or maybe some of the girls thought that topless modelling was a bit naff, although I liked to think that once they actually saw my audition pieces they would realise that it would be a mistake to dismiss someone as a talentless airhead just because she had chosen to make ends meet in the past with a bit of pin-up work. I liked the idea that I was confounding their expectations and challenging their prejudices.

     The moment when the penny finally dropped as to what was going on was at an audition for an independent film being made by a group of student types. I always like meeting these sorts of young, experimental people because sometimes they do more interesting and exciting things than the more established directors who are working with big budgets and having to answer to the money-men. Plus, you never know which of these young guys is going to turn out to be the next Spielberg in years to come and will remember that you did them a favour at the beginning of their careers. Anyway, the auditions were being held in this room over a pub in Kentish Town. There were a couple of other girls up for the same part that I wanted. We all did our pieces and the atmosphere was very friendly and everything. Then this director guy asked me if I would be interested in a bigger part than the one I was auditioning for.

     ‘Sure,’ I said, experiencing that familiar combination of hope and excitement rising inside me, but trying to sound casual. Was this finally going to be my big break?

     ‘The mother is really the centre of the film,’ he went on, ‘and I would guess she would be about your age.’

      F*****g hell! It was like being punched in the head. I think I actually had to sit down in order not to fall down.

     ‘You think?’ I asked, trying to work out the correct response to this shocker and doing the maths in my head.

     I had read the script and I knew that the girl I had been reading for was about eighteen, and that her mother had had her young. Oh, my God, I actually was old enough to be the mother of these other two actresses. Although I had accepted by then that I was not the same generation as the other girls at the Revuebar, I hadn’t allowed myself to think through the full ramifications of this fact.

     I don’t know if I was more shocked to realise that I actually could have an eighteen year-old daughter, or that this young man was able to see that I was that old when I thought I was doing such a good job of disguising it. Men were always flattering me and telling me that they would never have guessed I was more than in my early twenties, but then they were usually after something at the time. It was dawning on me with a horrible clarity that maybe the whole world had been looking at me through the same eyes as this kid director for years, and that they had just been being polite.

      Being a professional I kept my cool and had a go at reading the mother’s part there and then. But my voice was shaking because I was trembling from the shock, which wasn’t what the part called for, so they left it with the all too familiar, ‘we’ll give you a call.’

     For once I didn’t care if they called or not. I had more important things to get my head round. Most of all I wanted to get back to my flat, close the door and lick my wounds. The worst thing was that the entire route home seemed to be paved with reflective surfaces. I couldn’t help staring at the image I saw in every window, from the one opposite my seat in the tube to the shops of Earls Court Road. For nearly twenty years I had held a picture in my head of the fifteen year-old girl I saw in the full-length mirror coming out of my parents’ bathroom. Every time I painted myself up to go out I had been pleased with the result, but I can’t have been really truly concentrating on the image looking back at me. Now, even in the gloomy lighting of the flat I could see the enormity of my mistake. The face in the mirror wasn’t a young girl at all. It wasn’t just the face of a thirty-five year old woman either; I looked even older than that.

     The sudden dose of realism left me feeling physically sick. I couldn’t even find the energy to cry. I sat for about four hours, just smoking and staring into space with the lights of the flat turned out, as if I was trying to save any more wear and tear on what was left of my youthful beauty, trying to work out what I should do. My whole game plan had been based on the fact that I was a sexy young girl, the image that I had so happily watched running around the screen being chased by Benny Hill, or the image in stills from the shows at the Revuebar and theatres which had so often been blown up in gorgeous Technicolor in the foyers.

     I knew I was still in good shape physically and with plenty of make-up, wigs and lights I could still put across a sexy image to an audience, but how long would that last? Now I had realised that the fabric was crumbling I wondered if I would ever get a glamour part again. And even if I did, how long would it be before I looked like my mother walking out on stage in six-inch heels and a few strategically placed feather boas?

     I lay awake that night with the same thoughts churning round and round in my head and at about four o’clock in the morning I decided that I needed to act positively and have a complete image make-over. The next day, I told myself, I would go to the hairdressers and re-think my make-up and wardrobe, the whole thing. I was going to have to go for the sexy older woman look, be more like Anne Bancroft when she had played Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. Even though she had been 36 at the time of filming, she had been a lot more interesting and sexy than Katharine Ross, who had played her daughter. Maybe that was why my career hadn’t taken off quite as I had wanted it to in the past, maybe my time was coming now. I had to keep reminding myself how spectacularly Joan Collins had pulled it off, and that men still fell madly in love with Charlotte Rampling whenever she was on screen and she was ten years older than me. I eventually fell asleep feeling slightly better about things.

     The hairdresser must have sensed the edge of panic in my voice when I rang and agreed to squeeze me in the next day, even without an appointment. He suggested I go back to blonde and opt for a shorter style. I agreed to the change of colour, but I wasn’t ready to lose the long hair that had always been my crowning glory. Going blonde was a shock, but actually worked well. The whole brunette thing had grown tired with the years and was too hard for a face that was beginning to crack and sag.

     The visit to the beautician wasn’t so cheering. An impossibly smooth-skinned young woman basically told me that because I had been chain smoking for twenty years, and cooking myself in the Mediterranean sun for days on end every year, I had turned my skin into leather. Since cigarettes and sunshine were two of the things that kept my spirits up in difficult times and I knew I was never going to be able to give up my addiction to either,  I emerged from her room laden down with a sack full of hideously expensive creams and lotions instead, feeling even more deeply miserable.

     What depressed me even further was the knowledge that twenty years earlier, maybe even ten years, I would have been able to give up anything if I had thought it would help my career. I had even been able to give up my baby five years before. If I wasn’t able to give up either smoking or sunbathing, was I losing my focus? Was my ambition waning?

     I knew enough about the business to be certain that without focus and ambition I would never break through into the big time. So, did that mean I was never going to make it? Were my best days already behind me, crushed between the yellowing pages of my scrapbooks? It took a fair bit of gin and nicotine to get me through the next few weeks as I rethought my plans. It was like my eyes had suddenly been opened to the glaring realities all around me. I could see that the other girls at every audition I had been putting myself in for were mostly ten to fifteen years younger than me, and those who were close to my age were a pretty sad bunch of losers.

     I stopped going for auditions that were obviously looking for sexy young girls and I gave up the Stork Club, wanting to get my resignation in before they sacked me and damaged my self-confidence beyond repair. The casinos were a better bet and I started working almost full time at the Ritz Hotel. I could make myself look a lot more sophisticated than most of the younger croupiers and I hadn’t noticed any fewer tips being surreptitiously slipped into my hand or my cleavage. There was still a high percentage of punters who would slide their hands over my thigh or arse if they were given half a chance, making me feel a great deal better about myself.

     Whatever I might think of my own fading charms, I was still never short of men calling for dates or offering weekends away or holidays, which was reassuring, but I didn’t enjoy the trips in the way I once had. I found I spent an unhealthy amount of time on beaches or around swimming pools eyeing up the bodies of younger women and worrying that mine was starting not to compare so well. I now completely understood that sunbathing to excess was going to harm my skin long-term, but a decent tan made me look so much better and richer and more confident that I still never turned down any opportunity to spend a few hours on a sun-lounger, and if I couldn’t do that I would seek out a sun bed in a gym somewhere, talking myself into believing all the promises that the manufacturers gave about how they were making these machines safer. Settling onto those glowing beds, pulling the lid down to within inches of my face, still felt a bit like I was climbing into my own coffin but it was strange how comforting that could feel for a few minutes, until the sweat started to puddle up around me.

      Although I could still get away with being glamorous in real life, I knew that under the glare of the spotlights and the close scrutiny of the cameras, the lines in my face were starting to be too visible to deny. I could tell when I went on ‘background’ jobs I was no longer being singled out from the anonymous crowd and pulled to the front. I was moving into the area where I could see I was going to be considered  for ‘character’ work, rather than ‘juvenile leads’ or ‘love interests’.

     In a funny way it was sort of liberating not to have to worry about being gorgeous every second of every day. Sometimes I would turn up on a location to be part of some crowd scene and I wouldn’t even have bothered to put on any make-up. I noticed that nobody minded; in fact they didn’t even seem to notice.

     Who am I kidding? It wasn’t liberating at all. It was all bloody horrible, partly because in my most sober moments I knew things would only get worse from here on. I needed a miracle if I was going to make the big-time now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE. The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride

 

 

I can’t pretend that I didn’t think about the baby I had given away at any time during the following twenty years, and sometimes I would experience stabs of regret that were like actual physical pains in my chest.

     Usually I could quell them with a strong gin and tonic or two, but the everlasting Christmas breaks were always a particularly bad time, even if I managed to get a panto booking somewhere, because I would remember that terrible week of preparing for her birth all on my own. I would try to tell myself that I was being stupidly sentimental and that I had done her a favour by handing her over to her father and the saintly Joyce, but that still didn’t stop me from constantly calculating her age in my head and trying to imagine what she might look like now.

     Every year the anniversary of her birth seemed to go on forever however many plans I might lay to distract myself till it was over and the world went back to work, providing welcome distractions. The trouble with being in panto in a strange town is that during the many hours each day when you are not on stage and distracted, you are usually sitting on your own in some dismal bed and breakfast establishment, or wandering around a town centre you would never normally choose to visit, trying to pass the time, surrounded by frantic but cheerful Christmas shoppers and families.

     I didn’t make any more trips to the tower block where the McBride family lived after the first few months. I told myself that for all I knew they had probably moved by then, but I suspect it was more to do with a fear that I would do something stupid if I saw her, like going over and introducing myself. The thought of the rejection that such a foolhardy action might lead to was unbearable. I understood that she would have every right to hate me, more right than I had ever had to hate my own poor, harmless, annoying mother.

     Sometimes I tried to imagine what my relationship with Stephanie would have been like by the time she was fifteen, the age I had been when I made my break for freedom, and I liked to believe we would probably have got on pretty well. She would have liked having a glamorous mum to show off to her friends, someone a bit different to the average. It would have been our early years together that would have been more difficult because I would never have been able to be around as much as she would have wanted; not always there at the school gates at pick up time, or able to read her a story at night and tuck her in. Most of the time I managed to put it out of my mind, telling myself there was no point in brooding over what might have been.   

     When it got to her sixteenth birthday I felt a strange sense of relief, as if she was finally off my hands in some way. She was grown-up now, past the age I was when I went off to London to start my career and become self-supporting. I no longer had to feel that I should be looking after her, that I was shirking my maternal duties by leaving it all to Paddy and Joyce. She was old enough to look after herself now, just like I did at that age.

     I wondered if I should try to make contact with her to see if we could be friends now that she was a grown-up. It would have been nice to have at least one relative in the world that I was in touch with. But if she had been told that Joyce was her real mother, maybe it wasn’t my place to disillusion and unsettle her after so long. I decided it would be better to wait and let her come to find me if she wanted, if she even knew I existed.

      Then again, if she was under the impression Joyce was her real mother, maybe she would like to know the truth. I would have absolutely loved to discover that Mum wasn’t my birth mother and that I had actually sprung from the DNA of a mysterious and scandalous actress and showgirl. If I had come to London all those years ago and discovered I had a mother like me I was sure we would have become the best of friends.

     All through my childhood I had tried to convince myself that no one as boring as Mum and Dad could be my real parents, that I must have been left on their doorstep by some wonderful, beautiful princess with a tragic personal story which had resulted in her having to secretly hand over her beloved baby to the simple couple who could bring her up in safety.

      Since Mum and Dad had never bothered to come looking for me I had lost touch with Granny, my aunts and uncles and cousins. I didn’t even know which of them was dead or alive. As I got older this was beginning to give me the odd pang of regret, but when I thought about possibly mending some bridges and trying to make contact with any of them the task seemed so monumental and potentially embarrassing I abandoned the idea almost immediately. I could imagine only too easily how the conversations would go.

     ‘So, what have you been doing with yourself all these years, Margaret?’

     ‘I’m an actress, and I was a singer for a while, and a model.’

     ‘An actress? Really? What might we have seen you in?’

     ‘Well, I was in a lot of Benny Hill shows, and nightly at the Raymond Revuebar, and of course there were my many tabloid appearances as “a vice girl”.’

     I could picture the mixed looks of pity and embarrassment that would appear on their faces, none of them understanding how show business worked and the importance of serving a long apprenticeship before the rewards started to come in. They wouldn’t understand that the stars they had heard about had been the exceptions to the rules, the ones who had been in the right place at the right time and managed to get the one big lucky break that catapulted them to the top of the heap ahead of their turn.

     Those sorts of breaks could happen at any time, but an actress who had put in years working away at the coal face was always going to be in a better position to take advantage of the opportunities when they presented themselves, having had years to work on her techniques, perfecting her craft. I knew that however hard I might try to explain that concept, sheltered people like my family would never understand, they would just think I had failed to achieve my dreams and they would feel smug about their own sad little achievements by comparison.

    And supposing one of them decided to come and visit me in my dingy little basement? I knew that it gave off all the wrong signals to anyone who couldn’t understand how important it was for any artist not to encumber themselves with too many worldly possessions.  

     To the casual glance it hardly suggested that I had made a startling success of my career so far, and I could imagine how hollow it would sound if I tried to explain to them that I might look like I was down on my luck now, but tomorrow I might land a part that would transform my life and have me on the next plane to Beverly Hills, and that I needed to be free of material encumbrances in order to be able to grab those sorts of opportunities with both hands. I had discovered all too often that people who don’t live lives of perpetual hope never seem to be able to understand those of us who do.

     No, it was better that I stayed in my own world, amongst people like Q who were familiar with the business and knew the value of serving an apprenticeship, of ‘paying your dues’. People like my family, (‘civilians’ as Liz Hurley would memorably call them), would never understand.

     In fact I wasn’t seeing much of Q any more, not since the affair with the footballer quietened down. There had been a bit of talk of me writing a book at the height of the publicity, but no publisher actually got as far as putting any money on the table, even though we went to a lot of meetings full of very enthusiastic people. After that Q was so busy he hardly had time to return calls, let alone do a leisurely lunch. I think maybe he got a lot of grief at home too for hanging out with girls like me. I must have looked like a bit of a threat to someone chained to the home by children and household responsibilities. Maybe if I had been seeing more of Q he would have filled me in on more of the hot gossip and I wouldn’t have been taken so completely by surprise by what happened next.

      I’ve never been a huge fan of television myself, preferring to appear on it than to watch it, but during those years a programme called The Towers became the most successful soap opera in the country and there were times when I did get quite hooked  on some of the plotlines. It would come on at about the time I was getting ready to go to work at the casinos or the Stork Club, so I would have the television on in the background while I was getting ready and having my first g and t of the evening. It’s strange how those programmes seep into your head over time.

     The series had probably been running for ten years or more by the time the character of ‘Nikki’ appeared. She caught my attention almost immediately, partly because the character was supposed to be working as an escort girl, a business I knew a fair bit about, and partly because the actress was very, very good, able to convey a hundred different emotions with the subtlest of facial movements and vocal intonations. I’ve auditioned for a lot of soaps in my time, and even had a few walk-on parts now and again, and I know that the standards of acting aren’t always the highest in the world, even amongst the leads.

     There were a lot of times when I wouldn’t have minded a nice comfortable soap job with a steady salary and a guarantee of a starring role in a pantomime each Christmas instead of a bunch of glorified crowd scenes with the odd line here and there. But the right part never quite seemed to turn up. It wasn’t always easy to see why they chose the people they did. You can have actors who have been in the Royal Shakespeare Company playing opposite kids who have come straight from school.

     This girl, however, was incredibly watchable and really seemed to know what she was doing. She was also interesting to look at, being extraordinarily pale, flawless and other-worldly. Her hair was so blonde it was almost white. There was something about her that was familiar, so I assumed I must have seen her in other things without realising, which was surprising, given how striking she was.

     I don’t know how long it was before I noticed in the credits that her name was Steffi McBride, but I do know I was a fair bit behind the media zeitgeist at that point in my career. I had pretty much lost interest in tabloid newspapers by that stage, unless I was checking them to see if there was anything about me, and I hated all those celebrity magazines that had sprung up, making it look like it was so easy to become famous, like anyone with a pretty face or body could do it. I didn’t mind selling them stories, of course, but I resented actually paying to read them, so I missed some of the initial fuss about her.

     At the exact moment that the name sunk in and I made the connection I came closer to actually fainting than I think I ever have in my life. I felt dizzy and sick and excited and horrified all at the same time.

     I knew that Paddy’s surname was McBride, although I have to admit I had almost forgotten, and I knew that he and Joyce had been planning to call my baby Stephanie. I just don’t think I had been running the two names together in mind up till then. Maybe in my mind she was more ‘Stephanie de Beer’ than Steffi McBride. When I did put the pieces together however, and when I made a quick calculation and worked out that this actress was exactly the right age, I realised why she was so familiar. It was because she looked like me. There was a definite family resemblance, or at least I thought so. Once I had got my breath back I phoned Q, shocked to find that I was crying as I tried to blurt out my discovery to him.

     ‘There’s an actress in The Towers,’ I said, my voice shaking, ‘called Steffi McBride.’

    ‘I know,’ he said, as if everyone knew about Steffi. ‘What of it?’

    ‘She’s my daughter.’

    ‘You have a daughter?’

    ‘You’ve forgotten?’ I was shocked. ‘Don’t you remember us having lunch when I was so huge I could hardly get through the door at Langans?’

    ‘Good Lord, I’d completely forgotten. That was twenty odd years ago. What happened to the baby?’

    ‘She went to live with her father and his wife. I never saw her again.’

    ‘Do you realise what a huge star she is?’

    ‘Well, I know The Towers has huge viewing figures …’

    ‘My God, Mags, you really need to get out more. She’s the hottest celebrity in the country at the moment. She’s in every tabloid virtually every day of the week.’

    I could tell from his tone that he was becoming excited. He had sensed a big story and he was already thinking of ways to exploit it.

    ‘Come in to Bond Street and we’ll work out the best way to exploit this.’

     I was in his office first thing the following morning, even before any of his staff had shown up. Q was always the first one in and the last one to leave. I guess that was probably the secret of his success more than anything else.

    ‘This is amazing,’ he said before I had even sat down. ‘I’ve been trying to persuade Steffi to let me work for her ever since she first started appearing in the media. I’ve been telling her that if she sold her story now she’d be virtually able to name her price.’

     ‘Really? She’s that big?’

     ‘She’s huge. If you play this right, Mags, this story could be your pension.’

    I don’t know if I winced visibly, but I certainly felt the ‘pension’ barb find its mark in my heart. I might have been able to adjust to the idea that I didn’t look eighteen any more, or even thirty-eight, but I certainly didn’t think I was close to having to worry about things like pensions. I had never even thought about starting a real one, telling myself that when my big break finally came it would provide me with all the money I needed for a comfortable old age. I didn’t like the suggestion that a poxy little cheque from a newspaper was going to be the last big pay-out of my working life, but I didn’t want to distract Q with a petty argument at such a crucial moment.

     ‘You have to decide pretty quickly.’ I realised he was still talking, even though my thoughts had strayed for a moment. ‘You can’t tell how long she’s going to stay at the top. If she left The Towers tomorrow your story would be worth half as much in a month.’

     ‘Okay.’ Something told me that selling a story about a child you had given away at birth was not morally the greatest thing to do, but I could see it was too good a chance to miss. You have to grasp every opportunity that fate offers you if you want to get the big prizes in life. I’d been around long enough to know that better than most people. ‘Arrange it. I need enough money to pay for a decent facelift.’

     Q was already on the phone by the time I left the office to go in search of a strong coffee. I didn’t want to be there while he was actually bartering with people over how much the story of my failure as a mother was going to be worth.

     An hour later in Café Nero I noticed that my heart was banging more than I would have expected from a couple of shots of espresso, and I realised I was actually excited at the prospect of getting in touch with my long-lost daughter. I was experiencing a strange glow of pride at the thought that my flesh-and-blood was a celebrity, a chip off the old block. I felt a longing to meet her and talk to her about the business, compare notes maybe, and give her the benefit of my experience. There were so many potential pitfalls she needed to know about, and I had been through just about all of them, but still lived to tell the tale. I was so completely lost in a dream of how our reunion would go and how we would fall into one another’s arms that it was a few seconds before I realised my phone was ringing.

    ‘Hello?’ I answered cautiously.

    ‘The deal is done,’ Q said. ‘Half a million from the News of the World, but they want the story right now and I’ve promised you won’t talk to anyone else. You need to come back to the office now.’

    ‘Okay,’ I said, immediately jumping to my feet, banging against the table, making the crockery rattle loudly enough to attract people’s stares as I hurried out.

     I seemed to be sleep-walking, working on automatic pilot. I was trying to get everything clear in my head. Half a million pounds sounded a lot, but I knew from past experience that Q would be taking half of that. I couldn’t begrudge it to him. If I had gone to the papers direct I probably would have got ten thousand at the most. It was an incredible amount of money and I was surprised to find that I was still more excited at the prospect of making contact with Steffi than I was with the thought of getting rid of at least some of my financial worries for the future.

     ‘Congratulations, Darling,’ Q said as I came back in, hugging me with the sort of spontaneous excitement I remembered him showing when I first met him thirty-five or more years before. ‘This could be the start of something big for you if we handle it right. I’ve got to make some calls but I think there’s a documentary deal in this. It could be immense. We’ll have you in “The Jungle” with Ant and Dec before you know it.’

      At that moment I knew for sure I had done the right thing. It almost felt as if all the years behind me had been leading up to this moment. Some invisible force must have brought Paddy McBride to the Revuebar that night in order to create this perfect platform for drawing the eyes of the world onto me, giving me the chance to show them exactly what I was capable of and giving me a gripping back-story at the same time. I imagined how impressed my mother would have to be that not only had I built my own career with no help from her or Dad, I had been able to create a talented daughter as well, just as she had done.

     ‘We have to wait for them to ring back with a location for you to go to,’ Q was explaining as he ushered me to a seat and signalled for one of the posh girls in the outer office to bring more coffee. ‘I had to agree not to let you go home until you have signed and they have the material they want. Is there anything you want Clarissa to get for you while we wait? Toiletries or anything?’

     ‘What do you mean? Why can’t I go home?’’    

     ‘They’re frightened another paper will leak the story before them. They want to hide you away in a hotel somewhere with a minder until they have the deal all sewn up and the material ready to print. It really is a jungle out there.’

     I was already feeling disorientated and the following twenty-four hours made it a thousand times worse. It was like some strange caffeine-filled, sleep-deprived torture session. Clarissa, the posh girl, was dispatched to Fenwicks to buy me a few essentials, like a change of underwear, and two journalists arrived at the office, the man looking more like a plain clothes policeman, or possibly a nightclub bouncer, the woman like someone who might have a job on a trading floor in Canary Wharf. They had a car waiting outside with its engine ticking over, ready to whisk me away to a hotel called Gravetye Manor in the middle of the countryside, (not that far from Haywards Heath, which added to the surreal feeling of the whole exercise).All the way there the man was driving and the woman was already asking questions, trying to be charming and convince me she was my friend and that the whole exercise was a favour they were doing me.  

     It was a really nice hotel and I wouldn’t have minded being there for a weekend break with someone nice, but this was a work session like I had never experienced before. Sometimes when I was doing background filming work I would be up on night-shoots which would last all the way through to dawn, but they were nothing like as gruelling as this ordeal.

     The newspaper had hired a suite, but of course it was no smoking, which meant I had to go for endless walks round the garden, on which one or other of them had to accompany me in case any of their rivals were hiding in the herbaceous borders with a long lens. I wasn’t allowed to use my mobile phone and they kept making me go over and over every detail of the story, right down to whatever I could remember of what I did in bed with Paddy. It was over twenty years ago and they expected me to remember that? I tried to convince them that I couldn’t remember but they kept on and on dripping the same questions into my ears until eventually I made something up. Luckily my acting skills are so good they completely believed every word of it and rewarded me with a room service meal.

     I have to admit the food was fantastic, and they both tucked in merrily, but I was too wound up and exhausted by then to be able to manage more than a few mouthfuls of each meal before I needed another cigarette break or more caffeine to keep me going.

      I must have filled about twelve hours of tape for them in the end before they finally agreed to let me sleep. The woman then went to bed in another room in the suite, while the man went back to London with the tapes to start transcribing them. The next day another of the posh girls from Q’s office came down to share guard duty with the journo. The women seemed to be there basically to make sure I didn’t talk to anyone else and to liase with the photographer who turned up the next day.

     They spent several hours getting pictures of me in the suite. Relieved to have something else to think about I got well into the swing of the session and agreed to do some quite provocative shots in fancy lingerie, sprawled across the bed, pouting away for dear life. I hadn’t done any modelling for at least twenty years by then, but it came back to me like it was yesterday and I enjoyed the feeling of being in front of the camera again.  

     ‘Do you want me to go topless?’ I asked when they seemed to be running out of ideas. ‘I don’t mind.’

     The photographer glanced at the journalist who gave an almost imperceptible nod, like she couldn’t believe her luck in having such a professional on her hands.

    ‘Okay,’ the photographer said, ‘that would be great.’

    I liked the idea that if the other guests downstairs in the hushed, sedate, elegant restaurant and lounges had had any idea what was going on upstairs they would have freaked. I imagined people like Mum and Dad coming out for their once in a blue moon treat, eating their dinner in an overawed silence, oohing and ahhing over every course just to give themselves something to talk about, while a few yards away I was making mega money telling my story to the world.

    It had been so long since I had been the centre of attention like this, pushing the boundaries, being creative. I loved it. At the back of my mind was the thought that I wanted to show Steffi what a looker her Mum was, to show her where she had got it from, to make her proud of me.

     They drove me back to London, dropping me outside the flat late on the Saturday evening, once they were sure it was too late for any other paper to get the story out of me. In a few hours’ time it would be on the streets but by that stage I had lost all sense of time and place and I just wanted to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN. Meeting Steffi.

 

 

By the time I woke up it was nearly lunchtime on Sunday and my phone was blocked solid with messages from people who had already read the story, including one from Q.

     ‘Brilliant, Darling. Best one ever. The editor’s thrilled and more than happy to pay up the rest of the money. I have also got some exciting news; ring me as soon as you get this.’

     I went quickly to the newsagent on the corner and bought a copy, suddenly eager to see what they had made of it. It had been a long time since I’d been able to anticipate a major story in the media and it was pleasant to feel the thump of excitement in my chest again as I approached the rack of newspapers.

     So often in the past that feeling had been quickly followed by disappointment when I found that a story which I had been promised would be on the front pages had been relegated to some inside page and cut down to no more than a few paragraphs. That definitely hadn’t happened this time.  

     It was splashed all over the front page and across two double page spreads inside. I was impressed, despite myself, at the amount of space Q had managed to persuade them to give to it. I guess they wanted to get their money’s worth. They had used a lot of the pictures of me posing in the room, although none of the topless ones, which surprised me. In fact I felt a bit disappointed about that. They had, however, dug out topless Page Three ones from the past, which looked pretty damn good, though I say it myself. I felt a slight pang of sadness at the thought that I was no longer as young and beautiful as the brunette girl with the big eyes staring out of the pages at me.

     There were a lot of pictures of Steffi too and I felt an unfamiliar ache in my heart when I looked at them, which wasn’t altogether unpleasant, just a bit scary.

     When I had reached the end of the article I rang Q back.

     ‘What do you think?’ he asked.

     ‘Brilliant,’ I said, ‘what was the exciting news you had to tell me?’

     ‘You know you said you wanted enough money for a facelift?’

     ‘I was joking,’ I snapped, horrified to think that he could even have thought I was serious. Why would he think I needed a facelift?

     ‘Well, I’ve done better than that. I’ve sold a programme idea to a production company; a documentary re-launching your singing career. It’s going to follow the whole revival and make-over process, maybe have you reunited with Steffi if we can get her people to agree, and then climaxing with you giving a concert, looking like a million dollars. It could even include cosmetic surgery if you want. We’re going for the Jane MacDonald market.’

     ‘Jane MacDonald?’ I was shocked. ‘She does daytime television and f*****g cruise ships, Q. She’s not exactly Liza, is she? You’ll be suggesting we bring back Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields next.’

    ‘Well, maybe Jane Macdonald meets Marianne Faithfull.’

    That was slightly better, but still not exactly the self image I’d been carrying in my head all these years. Never mind, I told myself, getting the programme made was the important thing. Once the public had seen me perform and heard me sing they would decide for themselves who to compare me to, and it wouldn’t be Jane f*****g MacDonald!

     ‘Could you come into the office tomorrow afternoon, about five o’clock? There are things for you to sign and people to meet.’

    To be honest it was quite hard having to wait a whole day before going in, and I had to use all my self control not to turn up ridiculously early. The thought of being in a meeting where everyone was talking about me and about my career created the best feeling imaginable inside me. Even if my parents had missed the News of the World article, Dad being more of a Sunday Express person, they would hardly be able to miss a television make-over programme with all the attendant publicity that was bound to stir up.

     I wondered if any reporters from other papers were following up the story and had gone knocking on doors in Haywards Heath to try to find out more about my past. With the help of a strong g and t, I built a whole fantasy scene in my mind of Mum and Dad answering the door and being bombarded with flashbulbs and questions about their famous daughter. I was pleased to think that I would be able to share a little bit of the glory with them as well. There was no point in still feeling bitter after all these years about their lack of encouragement. Maybe, I thought, their lack of interest in my dreams was the spur I had needed in order to keep going until I achieved them. Maybe I wouldn’t have got to the top if they hadn’t made me so determined to prove to them what I could do.

      My daydream was rudely interrupted by an unexpected thought; what if they weren’t alive any more? What if they had both died and because I had been out of their lives for so long no one knew anything about me and so hadn’t been able to inform me? The thought that they might have checked out without knowing about everything I had achieved made me feel physically sick. It took a couple more drinks to make the feeling go away.

     When I got to Q’s office it was quarter to five, but there was already a whole bunch of people there, including a camera crew and a photographer, both of whom sprang into action the moment I walked through the door, before I had even been introduced to them, immediately recognising who I was. Although it was still nice to be in front of the cameras again and to be the centre of attention, it felt uncomfortable not knowing exactly what was expected of me.

     There were people in Q’s office from the production company who wanted to make the documentary and Q was signing contracts. Everyone was very over-excited and there was a real buzz in the air, which Q was obviously stoking up, not wanting to give anyone a chance to reflect on the deal that he was bulldozing through in his normal way, including me.

     We talked a bit about the concept of the programme as Q thrust bits of paper in front of me for signature, and the producers, (who didn’t look much older than Steffi to be honest, but sounded like they knew what they were talking about), explained to me what it was they hoped to achieve.

     ‘We want to create a programme that will become a genuine talking point, a “water cooler moment”. Viewers will be able to see your career taking off in front of their eyes,’ a hyperactive young man was saying while everyone around him nodded earnestly. ‘They will be able to feel they have discovered you for themselves, which will really hook them in.’

     ‘We want you to have an album ready and waiting in the shops for the day after the programme airs, and a load of tour dates booked,’ Q added. ‘We’re auditioning musicians to be your backing band.’

    It was all such a fantastic high that after an hour of this whirl I hardly even heard when he said. ‘Steffi’s going to be here in about half an hour, so we probably need to wrap this meeting up and get you ready.’

     ‘Steffi’s coming here?’ I asked when the words finally soaked through to my brain.

     ‘Absolutely,’ he said, avoiding catching my eye. ‘She’s looking forward to meeting you.’

     I felt physically sick and I couldn’t work out if it was a feeling of anxiety, shock, excitement, joy or pure fear.

     ‘I have to have a cigarette,’ I said.

     ‘Come through to the other room,’ Q said, ‘we’ll make a special dispensation for you, as long as you promise not to tell the thought police.’

    I wasn’t able to even raise a polite smile at such a feeble little joke, too lost in my own thoughts as he led me out and across to a conference room which was clearly visible through the glass screens. I felt like I needed the bathroom, but didn’t want to ask on camera. I was aware I couldn’t say anything without the risk of it making it into the final cut.  

     The camera crew followed, silently watching as I lit up, recording, waiting for something dramatic to happen. Pulling the smoke deep into my lungs I calmed down a bit. The cameras were beginning to get on my nerves because I wanted to check my appearance in a mirror but knew that would make me look insecure and vain. I had always understood that there was a price to pay for fame and I thanked God that I knew how to act like a professional now that the big moment had arrived.

     I saw her walking past outside the room and going into Q’s office and I could hardly even breathe. She looked so beautiful and young and vibrant I was suddenly horribly conscious of how old I must appear to her. In my mind I had been imagining we would look almost like contemporaries, now I could see just how deluded that idea was. I could see that she was glancing across at me as Q talked to her. She had a big man with her who looked kind and was obviously in love with her, the sort of man a mother would want for her daughter. My God, was I really thinking thoughts like that already?

     Q came out of his office and walked into the room where I was waiting.

     ‘She’d like to meet you without the cameras,’ he said. ‘Is that all right, guys? Maybe you could go out for a second, just to make her feel more at ease.’

     I glanced across at Steffi through the glass screens. She looked more angry than ill at ease to me.

     ‘Sure,’ the cameraman spoke for the first time since I’d arrived, switched off the camera and led his colleagues out.

     Q went back into the office and said something to Steffi and her boyfriend. They were coming in. I wondered if I should stand up to shake her hand. Or should I kiss her? Should I hug her like the long-lost daughter she was? What if she rejected me? What if she didn’t want anything to do with me? In the end there was no choice because my legs had frozen anyway and would never have taken my weight, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I couldn’t even get my face muscles to smile.

     ‘Steffi,’ Q was saying, ‘this is Maggie.’

     ‘Hi,’ was all I could manage.

     ‘Hi.’

      She was just standing there, staring down at me and I hoped she liked what she saw. I wished I had taken more trouble with my appearance now. If I’d known she was going to be there I would have.

     ‘Would you guys like us to leave you alone?’ Q asked.

     ‘Yes,’ I said, my voicing sounding sharper than I had intended.

     ‘No!’ Steffi said, even more vehemently.

     She was a strong character and I liked that, even though I felt a little intimidated. As the mother who had given away her child, I realised I was at a considerable moral disadvantage in the scene and would have to take whatever treatment she was planning to dole out.  

     The silence became awkward again as everyone hovered around, not knowing what to say.

     ‘What made you decide to speak out now?’ she asked eventually.

     ‘Q thought it would be a good idea,’ I said, pleased to be given something to say.

     ‘What made you decide to come and see him then?’ she asked, unable to mask her contempt for both of us.

     ‘I needed advice on the best way to handle the situation. I wanted to make contact with you.’

    She turned on Q angrily. ‘That was your advice? A woman comes to you saying she would like to make contact with the baby she gave away at birth and you suggest she does it through the News of the World?’

    ‘Maggie is my client,’ Q replied, cool as a cucumber. ‘I had to advise her as to what would be in her best interests. The story was worth more if there was a surprise factor. I did contact you, if you remember, but you didn’t want to listen.’

     ‘You really are gutter slime, aren’t you?’

     I was shocked by how angry she was. She obviously needed some time to come to terms with the whole thing.

     ‘Money’s a bit of a problem,’ I said, desperately trying to appeal to her at a personal level, wanting to lighten the atmosphere but surprised by the sound of my own words. ‘I’m getting to an age where I have to think about how I’m going to survive. Show business doesn’t always provide a pension. You’ll need to bear that in mind if you’re going to stay in the business. You can be all high and mighty about it now, but you’ll need the help of experts like Q if you don’t want to end up in some home for retired beach donkeys one day.’

     I was shocked that I even had an image like that in my head. I had never allowed myself to admit that a fate like that could lie in store for me but it must have been in my subconscious all the time, spurring me on to do each humiliating new audition, to agree to sell each humiliating kiss-and-tell story.

    ‘I still don’t get it,’ she said.

    ‘I’m really proud of you,’ I said, horrified to feel tears welling up. I looked away, the private side of me thankful that she had sent the cameras away while the professional side was aware that it would have made good television if they had been there. ‘I wanted you to know that.’

    ‘Thanks,’ she snapped. ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got a meeting.’

     I doubted if she had, but I was grateful to her for finding a way for us all to escape the room and regroup ourselves. As she and her friend strode out the television crew appeared in reception again.

     ‘Turn that f*****g camera off or I’ll kick your bollocks up between your ears!’ she shouted and disappeared from sight.

     ‘So, that’s my long-lost child,’ I said to the room in general, noticing that my hands were shaking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN. Bonding and Baftas

 

 

I don’t know how well the next week or so would have gone if I’d had too much time on my own to think about things. There was a lot to take in and to be honest I didn’t really want to dwell on most of it. So it was fortunate that the television company took up virtually every hour of every day filming my re-launch.

     Not that the filming wasn’t traumatic, because it was. I basically had to get up at the crack of dawn each morning in order to go out and be told by a load of so-called experts that I looked a hundred years old, that I had let myself go and that I needed tens of thousands of pounds worth of work done.

     A hairdresser I’d never heard of told me my hair was totally the wrong style for my face and in terrible condition; a cosmetic dentist told me he would basically have to start again in my mouth and a plastic surgeon said it was almost too late to do anything because of all the sun and cigarette smoke I had abused my skin with, but then bravely announced that he would give it a try.

     ‘It’ll be a bit like re-upholstering a well built old sofa,’ he said, and it was all I could do to stop myself from tearing his heart from his chest with my bare hands and devouring it in front of the cameras.

     The only good bit about the whole thing was that at least I got to buy some new clothes at someone else’s expense, with a very sweet stylist who did seem to know what he was talking about. He was a half Chinese guy called Gok who I hadn’t heard of but who turned out to be something of a celebrity on the street. Everywhere we went people would point at him and shout out and come over for autographs or kisses, leaving me standing around like a gooseberry wondering which of us was the bloody celebrity.

     ‘I thought this programme was supposed to be about me,’ I complained to Q when he rang for an update on how things were going. ‘Gok seems to be the bloody star here.’

    ‘That’ll all change once the programme is aired,’ he promised glibly. ‘We’re going to make you bigger than Britney.’

    I knew he was being ironic, but I still detected a tremor of excitement deep in my heart at the thought of what this programme was going to do for my career. It looked like this was going to be my breakthrough into the very big-time.

    ‘At least that’s better than Jane MacDonald,’ I said, hoping I didn’t sound like I was taking his promises completely seriously.

    When I went back to film at the hairdresser’s salon, he cut my hair to a virtual short-back-and-sides. I wanted to cry as I watched it falling to the floor, but I knew I had to be strong for the camera, to show I was a trooper, an artist who could rise above mere vanity. With my veil of hair gone there was no longer any chance that I could kid myself that I wasn’t a middle aged woman; everything was laid bare, all illusions stripped away. I told the camera that I was thrilled with the result, and staggered into bed that night feeling like I’d been mugged.

     All my thoughts and emotions seemed to have become confused. Nothing was as clear as it had once been. For the first time in my life I was beginning to question whether I had chosen the right path in life, and it looked like the answers were never going to be anything other than uncomfortable.

     I am ashamed to say that when I read in The Stage that Steffi had been nominated for a BAFTA for her part in The Towers my first feeling was a fierce rush of jealousy; she had been in the business all of ten minutes and already everyone was falling at her feet telling her how wonderful she was. After all the years of struggle and rejection …. Then I took a hold of myself. I should be happy for my child. And anyway, her success could only reflect well on me. Wasn’t it my genes that were up for the award, almost as much as hers? The more famous she became the more relevant my documentary would be and the more people would watch it. I had a vested interest in her being as big as possible; it was like we were working as partners, although she probably wasn’t ready to see it like that yet.

     However hard I tried to rationalise it away, though, I still couldn’t quite get rid of every trace of envy, but the whole thing was wiped clean out of my mind by the sheer agony of the face-lift. They all assured me I was only going to undergo minor procedures, but they didn’t feel minor to me. It was pain like I had never known and then they sent me straight home in a taxi once the filming was over, looking like something from a bad Egyptian Mummy film franchise. My minders on the production team faked a bit of concern for my well being while I was with them, but I could almost see the relief flooding through their faces as they packed me off home.

      I was completely doped up on pain-killers that evening when Steffi came knocking at my door unexpectedly, I may even have been half dozing on the sofa. It was a long time since I’d had a visitor so I assumed it was a deliveryman or someone who’d got the wrong address as I fumbled with the locks. The moment I opened the door and saw the shock on her face I remembered what I looked like, my skin peeled and raw, the various nips and tucks carefully taped up. My eyes were scarred and puffy and bloodshot too, but I was resting them behind dark glasses, even though it meant I could barely see a thing inside the flat.

     ‘Hi,’ she said. ‘It’s Steffi.’

     ‘Christ,’ I said, immediately regretting that I hadn’t been able to think of anything wittier. ‘You’d better come in.’

      I could see her looking round as she walked through the hall into the sitting room and for a horrible moment I saw the place I had called home for so many years through her young eyes. It did not look good, even through dark glasses.

     ‘If I’d known you were coming I could have warned you,’ I said, gesturing at my face.

    ‘What happened?’

     ‘Nothing happened,’ I laughed. ‘Self inflicted. Finest plastic surgeon in Harley Street, or so he tells me. I’m having a makeover. It’s part of Q’s plan to re-launch my career.’

     ‘A televised facelift?’

     ‘When I did the story I told him I needed enough money for a facelift and he said he could do better than that, said he could arrange for a documentary which would mean I would get paid and they would pay all the expenses; plus I get the exposure on prime time telly.’

     I could see she wasn’t as impressed by the deal as Q and I had been so I didn’t say any more. One day she would be in her fifties and she would understand better what I was talking about. I waited for her to protest that I hadn’t needed a facelift in the first place, but she didn’t pick up on that cue.

     ‘Hope it’s all right of me to pop in like this,’ she said.

     ‘Of course,’ I was surprised to find I actually meant it. ‘I hoped you would.’

     I remembered Q saying he was trying to persuade her to give me another chance, but to be honest I hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly.

     ‘Do you want a drink?’ I asked.

     ‘Okay,’ she said and I made us each a g and t, grateful to have a distraction from the awkwardness.

    ‘Has Q got any other plans for you, then?’ she asked as the atmosphere became a little more comfortable.

    ‘Plenty,’ I replied. ‘Listen, I know it looks like I’m cashing in on your success …’

     I waited for her to jump in and deny it but she said nothing so I had to keep going.

     ‘But you can see that things are pretty desperate. I don’t have many more chances to make it.’

     ‘He seems a bit of a sleazeball to me,’ she said, still not contradicting me.

     ‘I’ve met worse,’ I shrugged. I didn’t see why I had to defend Q’s honour. I thought for a second about telling her how beautiful he had been thirty-five years ago, but thought better of it. ‘Hell, I’ve gone out with worse. Q and me, we go back a long way together. More than once he’s helped me raise money when it looked like I was just about to go under.’

     ‘You’ve sold stories through him before?’

     ‘Q knows where all the skeletons are hidden.’

     I was beginning to wish I hadn’t started on this tack. I had an inexplicable urge to open my heart to her, but the hinges on that particular organ were a good deal too rusty to yield smoothly.

     ‘How did you meet Dad?’ she asked. 

     ‘I was working in a place called the Raymond Revuebar. It was the best strip joint in London, probably in Europe at the time, world famous. Big shows with costumes and proper choreography.’ I couldn’t believe that my own life was coming out sounding like a history lesson, but I soldiered on. ‘Sometimes Paul Raymond would introduce us to the punters after the show. Nothing was expected, unless you wanted to arrange it yourself. Your dad was there with a stag party. They were bloody drunk, but he was a good looking guy and we sort of clicked.’

     ‘Did he tell you he was married?’

     ‘Not the sort of thing that would come up in conversation at a place like that.’

     ‘No, I suppose not.’

     ‘Anyway,’ I went on, ‘there was chemistry and we got it together. He took precautions, but it must have ripped.’

    She winced and I realised I had gone too far with the honesty and sharing thing. The idea of two old people having sex, especially her own birth parents, was obviously not an attractive image.

    ‘Where did you go?’ she asked. ‘A hotel?’

     ‘Good God, no. Neither of us could have afforded a hotel. He came back here.’

     It must have been a shock to her to find she was sitting in the place where she was conceived. I watched her for a moment as she took in the news. She really was very beautiful and I could see why the media and the public had taken to her. She had a sort of magical quality to her, an aura of stardom, something I knew I had never achieved, even at my most beautiful. I felt another flutter of envy but it wasn’t directed at her personally. I wondered if any of the feelings I was experiencing as I stared at this pretty child were what the experts would have called ‘maternal’.

     ‘So,’ she said eventually, ‘it was just a one night stand?’

     ‘Not exactly, but once he discovered I was pregnant he got all pious and Catholic on me. I would have had an abortion if he’d been willing to pay. Sorry,’ I wished I hadn’t said that, ‘but I would. He said that would be a sin, gave me the whole spiel; said he would bring you up himself. I didn’t think he was serious, I certainly didn’t think his wife would agree. When she did it seemed like the perfect answer.’

     ‘And they paid you?’    

     ‘I had to live and I needed to stay healthy till you were born. There’s never a big demand for pregnant strippers.’

      The only other people to whom I had talked about my life like this were the jaundiced and cynical reporters at the hotel. Now that I was explaining it to my own daughter I had to admit it didn’t sound too good.

     ‘How old was I when you handed me over?’ she asked

     ‘They took you away immediately. I never even saw you. All I knew was that you were a girl.’

     ‘And you never wanted to get in touch, find out how I was doing?’

     ‘Sometimes, but I’d made a deal, promised not to. I even came over and sat outside your block once or twice, hoping to catch a glimpse of you, but you never came out while I was there. I sort of felt sure I would recognise you if you did. I was pretty busy after that, getting my career going again. I read in The Stage that you’re nominated for a Bafta. That’s a hell of a good break.’

     ‘Yeah, thanks. There’s no chance I’ll get it. They must have been short of people to nominate this year.’

     ‘Don’t put yourself down,’ I said, probably sounding like a mother for the first time, ‘you’re a talented actress. It’s in your genes.’

     ‘Thanks.’

     ‘What will you wear?’

      ‘I don’t know, everyone asks that.’

      ‘All the designers will be on to you, wanting to lend you stuff.’

     ‘Yeah, my agent has told me. I’m not really into all that. I like vintage. I’ll probably pick up something in Camden Market.’

     ‘You like vintage?’

     ‘Well, Oxfam mostly.’

     ‘Ever heard of a seventies designer called Bill Gibb?’

     ‘No.’

     ‘Same period as Zandra Rhodes and that lot, but he died early. His stuff was always in Vogue; magical, beautiful designs. I modelled for him once.’

     ‘Yeah?’

     ‘At the Albert Hall. It was this huge charity production.’ It was a relief to find a neutral subject of mutual interest. ‘I was dating this guy who was one of Bill’s patrons or backers or something. He gave me several of Bill’s originals, had them made to measure. There was one in particular, real couture perfection. Everyone modelling that day was wearing their own Bill Gibb originals; all the most beautiful actresses and models and society girls. Everyone loved Bill, they were all happy to do it for him. It was a fabulous night.’

     ‘Pity you don’t still have it.’

     ‘I do. Do you want to see it?’

     ‘That would be great.’

     I led her through into the bedroom, wishing I’d made the bed that morning. I could see her glancing at it and I wondered if she was picturing the moment of her conception. I think I may even have blushed beneath all the plasters. I took the dress out of the wardrobe and threw it onto the bed. I could see she was genuinely knocked out by it. It had been many years since I’d looked at it myself and I had to admit it was still a wonder to behold.

     ‘It was the one that the press liked,’ I said. ‘We were on the front of all the papers the following day; even Twiggy didn’t get as many column inches. I’ll show you the cuttings.’

     ‘It’s beautiful,’ she said, caressing the material as if it were a living creature.

     ‘Do you want to try it on?’ I asked. ‘You look about the same size I was then.’

     ‘Oh, I don’t know.’

     ‘Go on, I dare you!’

     ‘Okay.’

     I helped her into it and she looked fantastic.

     ‘You should wear it to the Baftas, I said. ‘That way at least you’ll get the press coverage, even if you don’t get the award.’

     ‘Sure, if you think it will help.’

     I could see she was actually pleased by the idea, more pleased than she was letting on with her guarded reactions, and I felt a strange tremor run through me; a mixture of excitement and pride, I guess, at being able to hand something on to my daughter that impressed her. How many mothers get to do that? Personally, I would rather have cut my own legs off than have worn anything that had ever been in my mother’s wardrobe.

     Steffi kept the dress on for a while as we chatted, swishing the skirts around and taking surreptitious little peaks at herself in the mirror, obviously enjoying the feel of the material. Watching her swirling around the little room reminded me how wearing it had made me feel like a princess too.

     ‘Q was wondering if you would fancy appearing in this make-over programme,’ I said casually when the conversation seemed to have warmed up.

    ‘Sure,’ she gave a sweet little smile, like she thought it would actually be fun for us to work together and I felt ridiculously touched.

     The moment she had left I texted Q, telling him to firm up the arrangement quickly while she was still keen. I’d had enough deals go sour on me over the years to know you have to be proactive if you want anything serious to happen. Then I cried, even though the salt of the tears hurt the cuts around my eyes.

     The following week the dentist did his bit on reconstructing my mouth, under the full gruesome glare of the cameras and lights, and I have to admit the result was pretty stunning. The teeth were whiter and straighter than anything nature had ever given me. I couldn’t stop flashing them at everyone and I even vowed on camera that I would give up smoking, so I would never turn them as yellow as the old ones.

     I was still uncomfortable about the hairstyle they had given me and I have to admit I had lapsed back to using some of the wigs I’d had made over the years, just to tide my confidence over until I was completely ready to deal with the new style that they had given me. The puffiness and pinkness had subsided around my eyes, although you could still see where the surgeon had made his little cuts. When I was around the house, however, I didn’t mind taking the shades off, which was how Steffi caught me when she turned up again unannounced.

    I wished I had thought to put the dark glasses on before opening the door, because when I saw the flowers she had brought for me my eyes watered up uncontrollably. I tried to brush it off as a side effect of the surgery but I don’t think she was fooled for a second. Taking the flowers from her and searching for a vase that would fit them, made me realise just how long it had been since anyone had given me any. It had probably been ten years at least, and they were probably from the lovely Martin, saying thank you after some function or other I had escorted him to.

    Except maybe he brought flowers on the night of ‘the proposal’. It was hard to remember anything clearly from that night, hard to think about it at all without becoming really flustered and confused and sad. It was about five years before and Grace had finally died. I went to the funeral to support the man who had really been my best friend for more than twenty years by then and I was genuinely moved by how devastated he and the rest of the family were by their loss. I wish I could have known Grace before the accident because she must have been a hell of a woman to engender that much loyalty and affection in people for so long.

     Martin left it a decent amount of time, ‘sorting out his affairs’ as he put it, before coming round with his suggestion. We went out to a nearby bar and he told me he had been doing a lot of thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Not having Grace to support any more he had decided he didn’t need to work so hard. He had given up the job, which meant losing the house in Wilton Place, and had moved full time down to the country. He wanted me to marry him and live on his farm in Sussex with him. He even knelt beside me when he produced the ring and popped the question, which got a bit of a cheer from the other drinkers but looked slightly ridiculous.

     ‘I fell in love with you the first night I met you,’ he said, ‘and that feeling has never faded. I know Grace would approve, and I know I can make you as happy as I would be if you said yes.’

     If he had asked me to marry him and live in Wilton Place five years earlier I wouldn’t have been able to resist. He was still at the peak of his powers then, in charge of a giant company, attending every fashionable event as a VIP. I loved him more than anyone I had ever met, but in the few months after Grace died something had changed; he had grown old and tired looking. The grey hair that had looked distinguished when teamed with a sharp Savile Row suit just looked grey next to a tweed jacket.

     Maybe part of the attraction all through those years had been that he was unattainable. The moment he became just one more man on his knees, proffering a diamond ring, some of the magic evaporated. At least part of me thought that, and the other part longed to just relax and say ‘yes’, knowing that if I did I would never have to think about  money again even if I lived to be a hundred. I guess years of habit must have got the better of me because I funked it and opted to keep my independence. You can see why I didn’t like to dwell on the event if I could help it, for fear of finding I had made a terrible mistake.

     I managed to justify the decision to myself most of the time. I guess he must have been 70 at that stage and I could envisage myself nursing an old man in a few years. Even if he stayed fit and healthy, what would I do in the middle of the country? I had a lot of irons in the fire in London at the time and I would have been constantly travelling up and down, which would have been a nightmare. I felt pretty pissed off by the end of it, to be honest. Why did these things always come too late for me?

     To his credit, Martin took no for an answer with all his usual modesty and good grace. He said he completely understood and hoped we could still be friends, but I guess he didn’t come up to London much after that and I certainly didn’t have any reason to go to the country. Although it was comforting to know that he had loved me as much as I had loved him, I still wished he hadn’t proposed because he forced me to make a painful decision and saying goodbye to him that day left me feeling like a part of my own body was being torn off.

     It seemed like Steffi had come back to ask me a few more probing questions about why I had decided to give her away at birth. I guess she had been brooding over some of the things I’d told her before. I would have preferred to stay off the subject, but I was keen to keep her on side for the programme and I could see she had a right to a few answers before I pleaded the Fifth Amendment.

     I tried to explain why I had never married, why I had never found a man who I thought would allow me the freedom to pursue my career and my ambitions, which were always the most important things to me. I told her about some of my acting experiences, knowing she would be interested. I could see she perked up when she realised I’d been in an episode or two of  Casualty as a car crash victim, although I knew she wouldn’t have remembered seeing me because of the bandages they had wrapped me up in. I could see she was wondering what it would be like to work with me in The Towers, so I made a bit of a joke about it, so she would know it would be all right to put in a word with the producers if she wanted and that I wouldn’t be offended.

     She seemed interested in how I had managed to get the ‘vice-girl’ tag in all the papers. I guess it was partly because of the part she played in The Towers, which wasn’t a million miles from the sort of life I had led for real at times. She asked some pretty pertinent questions about where I stood on the whole moral thing of sleeping with other people’s husbands. Luckily it was something I had talked about a million times with Q over the years, so I had all my answers ready to roll out, but I was still anxious to get the conversation off my back-story and onto hers. I’d been doing a bit of reading up about her on the internet and had found a tabloid story about some old boyfriend of hers going for her with a gun in the street. I had assumed it was a stunt by whoever her equivalent of Q was, but it still gave me something to deflect her questions with.

     ‘What was the story behind the boy with the gun?’ I asked.

     ‘Pete?’ she smiled, looking more like a little girl than a big star and I felt the funny lurching sensation in my chest again. ‘He was my first love, my childhood sweetheart, but he got too much into the drugs, frazzled his brain. He was sweet though.’

     ‘Yeah, but a gun; f*****g hell, Steff…’

     I remembered the forbidding tower blocks that I had sat amongst, hoping for a glimpse of her when she was a baby, and then remembered my own family home in its quiet, leafy street. For a fleeting second I could imagine why my mother might have wanted to barricade herself away from a hostile and threatening outside world behind a locked door and tightly drawn curtains. I dismissed the thought instantly, shocked that it had even been able to get into my brain at all.

     ‘I know,’ she said, ‘But it’s all calmed down now. Quentin’s trying to get him a music career.’

      I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. ‘That man never misses a trick. With Q behind him it just might happen.’

     I knew there were rumours about her with some boy band member as well. ‘And what about the pop singer?’ I asked.

     ‘Luke? I’ve been in love with him since I was twelve.’

     ‘Ah, so you have fantasies too. Or is it a dream come true?’

     I remembered my own crushes on stars when I was twelve; Davy Jones of the Monkees was probably the first. For a second I imagined what my life would have been like if I had actually ended up going out with him, like it seemed she had with this boy. Would it have been any different? After all, who knew what had happened to him after the Monkees broke up? Maybe he would have been able to keep his career alive on my coat tails; we’d never know now.

     I snapped back to Steffi from my daydream when she asked if I was serious about her borrowing the Bill Gibb dress for the Baftas. I assured her I would love her to have it and I felt we had really bonded for the first time.

 

 

On the night of the Baftas I did something really weird, something I had never done before. I went along to stand in the crowd in order to watch the celebrities trooping past. Even a year earlier I would have died rather than associate myself with the people behind the crash barriers instead of those on the red carpet, which was where I had always been used to being when I was out on Martin’s arm, or attending some event in my own capacity as a Page Three girl or a Benny Hill or Paul Raymond ‘Lovely’. I told myself I was doing it to support my daughter at this important time and dressed myself right down so that no one would recognise me, especially her, or any of the paparazzi who were bound to be prowling around looking for stories that the rest of the pack were missing.

     There were thousands of people crammed into the paved street outside the Palladium, filling it all the way from Oxford Street down to Liberty’s. Although I felt slightly dirty and disgusted with myself for pretending to be a normal celebrity tourist, I have to admit it was quite exciting as the familiar television faces strode past waving, grinning with teeth just like my new ones, and sometimes stopping to sign autographs for the arms clamouring out to them over the barriers. Once or twice I caught myself actually craning my neck up to catch a glimpse over the crowd of someone smaller than the rest, trying to guess who they were.

     It felt like the anticipation in the fans was growing around me with every star that appeared. The organisers must have told them what order to arrive in, a bit like planning a running order in a variety show, with the biggest act coming on last. I was pleased to see that there as no sign of Steffi yet. They obviously thought she was a star attraction.

     I overheard one or two of the anoraks around me asking where she was and it was all I could do not to tell them that I knew her, that she was my baby.

     I was beginning to feel less sure about the Bill Gibb dress. Had it been a mistake? Would the crowd laugh at her in something so strange and fanciful and over-the-top? I wondered if she was feeling as nervous as me. Was this what it was like to be a ‘stage mother’? I wished I could have shared my dreams with my own mother like this. It would have been so nice to have thought she and Dad were watching proudly from the sidelines and enjoying my successes with me. I would have liked to think I had brought some sparkle into their boring little lives.

     It had grown completely dark and flaming torches lined the spot-lit carpet by the time I finally saw Steffi appearing at the far end. In fact, I heard her arrival before I saw it because it was greeted by a sort of Mexican-wave style roar of approval from the crowd. None of the other stars had been greeted like this and for a moment I wondered if I was just being the proud Mum, if I had imagined the whole thing, but I hadn’t.

    The man with her was the same one I’d seen in Q’s office and to be honest he did not look like a natural in a tux, but it didn’t matter because it was Steffi they were all shouting for and holding out their arms to, like she was some sort of saint and they were begging her to bless them. The paparazzi were all screaming for her to look in their direction, the reporters shouting stupid questions in the hope she would throw them a headline for the next day’s papers.

     It didn’t look from the expression on her face as if she fully comprehended what was going on. As the dress shimmered in the lights, the breeze ruffling its many layers, it looked as good as it had on me at the Albert Hall nearly thirty years before.

    I was so stunned by the sight of her walking towards me that it was a few seconds before I realised that the pressure was building up around me, a physical force, pushing from behind as the entire crowd strained forward towards the couple on the carpet. Everyone was shouting their names now. I could see the police were suddenly alarmed and were rushing to reinforce the parts of the barrier which looked like they were going to give way and allow the people to gush through. Then something did give and the mass of bodies surged as one, knocking me off balance and carrying me forward like a wave, dashing me across a painful shingle of elbows, knees, bags and eventually trampling feet.

     I wasn’t the only one down on the ground because I saw the news footage later, after the paramedics had picked me up, dusted me off, given me a cup of tea and ushered me into a taxi. When I saw the film on the news I could see that Steffi and her friend, who I now discovered was a cameraman called Gerry, had been rushed swiftly into the sanctuary of the Palladium’s foyer while I was struggling for my life under the heels of the crowd. It was a sobering scene.

    In the same newscast they showed Steffi receiving her Bafta a couple of hours later. They even played part of her speech. My heart gave another of those funny little flutters when she thanked ‘her mum’, but within a millisecond I had realised she wasn’t referring to me. She was still talking when the news moved on to the next item so I’m guessing she went on to say something about me lending her the dress later. I wondered how many of the women watching the reports would remember it from its first moment of fame at the Albert Hall show all those years ago. I didn’t take in much of anything for an hour or so after that, lost in my own dream world as I imagined what it must have felt like to be up on that stage with all those people listening and applauding, and all those cameras turning in your direction.

     I felt desperately proud of my little girl and tried to suppress the urge to envy her for getting there before me. But at the same time I felt a glow of anticipation for all the glories that were about to be mine. The documentary was nearly in the can and once that was out, coupled with all the publicity that Steffi was getting, I would be safely on my way. Maybe this time next year it would be me up on the stage, making the speech and hugging the prize to my chest. I wondered if it would be a good stunt to wear the same Bill Gibb dress myself. Q would know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN. The Big Time

 

 

Over the next few weeks I was kept busy enough to take my mind off my constant craving for nicotine. I was covered in patches and drinking enough caffeine to fix a race horse and somehow I was managing to keep most of the longings to fill my lungs with lovely, soothing smoke at bay.

     As the last of the cuts healed over on my face the producers began to plan the final scenes for the film. Q, who seemed to have taken over as my full-time manager as well as my publicist, had suggested that they stage a live singing showcase for me as a finale. I didn’t say anything, but I was touched that he had that much faith in my ability to carry it off, especially as I wasn’t sure if he had ever actually heard me singing himself. Unless, of course, he was thinking that a disaster would make for good ‘theatre of embarrassment’ anyway, like the auditionees who manage to make such prats of themselves on the reality talent shows. Q had a knack of creating ‘no lose’ situations for himself.

     ‘The live performance will give you a dramatic point to work towards,’ he explained over a working lunch at the Wolseley, ‘something to keep the viewers tuned in because they will either want to see you triumph and become a star, or they will want to enjoy you making a complete mess of the whole thing. When you triumph, after everything you’ve been through, it will be a double whammy, a double pull on the heartstrings.’

     ‘Cheers,’ I muttered, feeling an uncomfortable knot of fear in my stomach.

     What if I did mess it up in front of millions of people? What if my parents were tuned in in some old people’s home somewhere and witnessed me being laughed or booed off the stage? They would think my whole life was one giant mockery, that they had been right all along.

     ‘Don’t even think about it,’ he said, obviously seeing the fear in my eyes. ‘You’re going to be fabulous. They are going to love you. You’re a star, Mags, you always have been. You just needed the right moment to shine.’

     He had been keen to get the reunion scene with Steffi in the can as quickly as possible, in case she changed her mind or her schedule became too full. So, the moment my face was healed well enough for the make-up artist to do her work effectively, a date was set for us to get together at one of those boutique hotels in Kensington that have become so fashionable.

     The production team were all there; hairdresser, stylist, presenter, make-up artist, a whole room-full of them, all babbling away on their mobile phones as they worked, and I pretty quickly realised that the last person any of them wanted to hear from was me. It was lucky for them that they were dealing with a professional who had so many years of experience under her belt because I knew I just needed to let them do their jobs and work their magic. They didn’t want to hear anything I thought about anything they were doing.

     Keeping quiet was the right decision; even though there were a few tips I could have given them along the way on how to get the best from my figure and hair. The result they produced a couple of hours after I arrived was stunning. They hadn’t let me look in a mirror all the way through the process so that they could film me seeing it for the first time when the transformation was complete. I was all set to act surprised and amazed, but actually I didn’t have to act at all. I did look amazing. The stylist had put me into slim-line jeans and a long silk top, which was much more informal than I would have thought appropriate, but actually it did work and I looked like I still had the figure of a twenty year-old, (not that I had ever let myself go in that department). The hairdresser had worked a miracle on my hair, giving me a gamine look somewhere between Annie Lennox and Mia Farrow at the time when she was married to Sinatra. I could have been auditioning for the lead role in Peter Pan. It was a total image change from the sophisticated sex-bomb and pin-up thing that I’d had going ever since I arrived in London. It was the most intense mirror-moment I had enjoyed since seeing my adolescent self emerging from the child just before I left home.

     Having had this revelation sprung on me, I was already quite emotional as the very hyper presenter took me through to another room in the hotel, followed by the cameras, to meet Steffi. She was obviously shocked by just how good I looked too. I hadn’t exactly been looking my best at our previous meetings and it was a nice feeling to see her expressions of surprise and pride at how sexy her mum was.

     When she hugged me I started crying, which must have looked like I was acting but actually I don’t know where it came from. I was as shocked by the tears as everyone else. The cameraman obviously loved it because he was getting in really tight and I hoped that I wasn’t streaking the make-up. Steffi was crying too and I wanted to comfort her at the same time as composing myself for the scene. Maybe there was still a slither of maternal instinct lurking in the most primitive recesses of my brain, who knows? Maybe, I thought, I should do one of those in-your-face with a psychiatrist or psychologist shows, talking to Pamela Stephenson or someone about all the stuff I’ve had to repress over the years. Q could probably set that up. The problem would be finding the time for all the projects I wanted to get started on now that I had the opportunity.

     The producers were fawning all over Steffi as if she had done us all a tremendous favour by even turning up, which I suppose in a way she had. She could just as easily have said she wanted nothing to do with me from the start and I was proud of her for being bigger than that about the whole thing. I liked to think it showed that she understood why I did what I did when I had her. We were both professionals and knew that the show had to go on, whatever the personal costs might be.

     Although I had learnt to use the Internet in recent months, I was by no means skilful at it and sometimes didn’t look at it for weeks on end. I suppose most people of my age have someone young around the house to help them get linked up and work it all out. So when people told me they had seen ‘pirated’ versions of our tearful reunion on YouTube I had to take their word for it. At first I thought ‘pirated’ sounded like a bad thing, like we had been robbed of something, but Q assured me it was good, that is was ‘viral marketing’ and that it showed there was an interest out there which the programme would build on.

     He was putting a lot of effort into the staging of my live comeback concert. They had decided to put it on at Madame Jo-Jo’s, which made the event all the more nostalgic for me because it was just round the corner from the Raymond Revuebar and had been part of Paul’s property empire. Mostly it had been famous for staging drag acts in its hay-day, but sometimes they would use some of us older girls to pad out the numbers in the chorus. It had always reminded me of the Kit-Kat club in Cabaret, even more than the Revuebar itself had, and I liked the idea of going back there, even though times had moved on and Paul was no longer on the scene. He was still alive at that stage but living pretty much like a hermit in his apartment just down from the Ritz. I don’t think he ever really recovered from losing his beloved daughter, Debbie, from a drug overdose. It was all very tragic and now that I had Steffi back in my life I had a much better idea of how devastated he must have been by the loss.

     I would have liked to have had more say in how the show was staged, after all I had had many years of experience of this sort of thing, but there were far too many people involved already and everything was so rushed no one seemed to have time to consult me, or to listen to anything I might have to say. I knew Q had his eye on all the arrangements and decided to leave it in his capable hands. It was going to be a full-length cabaret show and they were going to film it straight through, with a view to possibly screening it in its entirety at a later date, if the make-over programme did well. They were going to be taking out about ten minutes of highlights to act as the finale to the make-over show.

     The audience was going to be filled with Q’s celebrities and music business contacts, with Steffi being given a table right at the front, close to the stage. She arrived with her friend, Gerry, who seemed to tag along behind her wherever she went, hardly saying a word as everyone fussed around my little girl, making sure she had everything she could possibly need, cameras surrounding her every move. There were more hairdressers and make-up artists hovering around her than there were around me, even though it was going to be me standing in the spotlight.

     The designers did the place out like an old-fashioned nightclub, with little red shaded lamps and champagne bottles on the tables. They gave me a Gucci dress and as I slid into it I realised how long it had been since I had worn anything really expensive and new.

     Q and I had spent an evening at the Ivy brainstorming about songs to sing and decided to go for half a dozen or so covers of Sixties classics like Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain and Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do you Go To My Lovely?, add in a few country and western classics and then finish with Pearl’s a Singer which Elkie Brooks had had such a big hit with. They were all songs that were well within my vocal range and evoked an era that would be familiar to many people and hopefully interesting to younger people in a retro-way. Q kept using the word ‘retro’, which I guess was a polite way of saying he understood that my niche in the market was as an old-fashioned kind of all-round entertainer.

         As I waited backstage while the rest of the audience was brought in, listening to the band warming up while I was being fussed over by everyone, I felt a strange sense of calm settle over me. My stomach was still tight with nerves, and my hand was shaking so much the ice in my glass rattled every time I lifted it to my lips, but inside my head everything seemed light and right, like this was the moment I had been working towards ever since I walked out of my parents’ house nearly forty years before.

     I had paid my dues and earned my stripes and every other show business cliché and now I had reached a place where I had something to say that people were going to want to listen to. I wasn’t some manufactured little pop star thrown up by a television freak show with nothing more than a pretty face and tuneful voice. I was a true star in the old fashioned sense of the word. I’d had a hard life, drunk and smoked and lived a great deal more than I should have done and the public would be able to identify with that. I was like Piaf and Judy and Marianne and Liza and all the other hard living bohemians. I had a history, a back story and now I had a platform too, so nothing was going to stop me from becoming the legend I had always deserved to be.

     Everyone else went about their business, leaving me to prepare myself and suddenly they were moving me towards the red velvet curtains that I was to make my entrance through. The lights were dimming, the cameras were rolling, the music was building and suddenly I was out in the warm glare of the spotlight. It felt like I was flying. Every fibre of my body ached with happiness as the room erupted into applause. Every eye was on me, even the waiters and waitresses became still as they watched and listened to me perform. Every song made them all cheer with pleasure as soon as they recognised it and then fall silent in admiration at the emotion I imbued the lyrics with. I could see Steffi sitting in the front, staring up at me with wide, astonished eyes and I felt like the proudest mother in the whole world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN. The General.

 

 

A few nights after the show was recorded Steffi invited me to have supper with her at her apartment. I have been inside some fancy places in my time, and this one was well up near the top of the scale, with panoramic views out over the river. It was a million miles from the dingy little hole I had been living in for the previous thirty five or more years. I knew that now things were going so well I was going to have to do something about finding somewhere more befitting my star status, I just hadn’t had time to get my head round it yet. I wondered if perhaps I should think about finding an assistant who could take care of such practical details.

     ‘Did you ever work at a place called The Stork Club?’ Steffi asked as we sat in the sofas after eating, staring out at the view of the silently passing boats and the lights on the other side of the water.

     ‘The Stork Club?’ I was a little taken aback. It wasn’t a part of my life I would particularly have wanted to talk to my daughter about. ‘There’s a name from the past. Why do you ask?’

     ‘A friend of mine said he thought he knew you from there?’

     ‘You have a friend who knew the Stork Club?’

     ‘Robert Lewis,’ she said.

     ‘The General?’ Now I was genuinely shocked. ‘You know the General?’

     ‘He’s Luke’s grandfather.’

     I remembered that Luke was the young pop singer she’d had her name linked with in the media. They had won some celebrity television singing competition together and then gone on to be an item for a while. She hadn’t given me any more detail than that, but something told me this boy meant more to her than she had been letting on. I had absolutely no idea that the General had a grandson who was a pop singer. I found it hard to imagine such a thing. In the days when I had known him he wouldn’t have known any pop song from any era beyond Sinatra and the Rat Pack.   

     ‘Is he? My God, what a small world. He was a character. Everyone knew the General.’ I couldn’t help but smile as pictures from the past slid into focus. ‘He knew how to spend money. I think the family had to get the lawyers out to cut him off in the end before he ruined them all. What a character.’

     ‘Did you sleep with him?’

     ‘Mind your own business, young lady.’

      I was shocked by the question. I wanted her to think of me as having a mysterious and interesting past; I didn’t want her to think I was some sort of sad old slapper who jumped into bed with any man who bought me a drink. I tried to laugh off the fact that she had obviously made me uncomfortable with the question, and changed the subject quickly. I had plenty of other things to talk about with everything that was going on in my life.

     My make-over and re-launch show was aired a couple of weeks later. There was a lot written about it in the papers during the days before transmission, and a number of television critics had highlighted it as one of the best programmes of the week, so I knew there was going to be a sizeable audience, I just didn’t know how they would react. I liked to imagine that families would be calling one another to come to sit in front of the screen as it was due to start, settling down into a respectful silence, preparing themselves to be entertained. But I knew that in reality it would be background music in most of the homes where the television was switched on, played out behind meals being prepared and eaten, baths being taken and homework being done. I pictured how the attention of the whole viewing nation would be won over by the time I stepped out from behind the curtains at Madam Jo-Jo’s. Every so often I felt a wave of sickness at the thought that there were so many millions of people who I wanted to reach but that they might not be watching or concentrating at the crucial moment.

     I watched it at home on my own, not wanting to be with anyone who might talk at inappropriate times, or make comments that might crush the moment for me. I wanted to concentrate my full attention onto every second of it. I’m not sure I even breathed through most of it.

     Even while it was still playing, as I sat on the sofa, hugging myself tightly, I knew that it was good. I knew that if it had been about someone else it would have had the same effect on me as Sheena Easton’s first appearance in The Big Time or even, dare I say it, the first time I saw Liza stalking onto the stage at the Kit-Kat Club in suspenders and bowler hat.

     It was a classic showbiz, feel-good, star-is-born story and I was faultless in the lead role. Before I had even had time to read the reviews the next day, I knew how good it was because of the calls that started coming, both to Q on my behalf and some of them finding their way straight to me, reigniting the telephone that had been so quiet for so many years. Everyone wanted a piece of the action, to be part of the buzz.

     Within a month of the show going out, during which time there were positive stories about me in every newspaper every day, Q had managed to get a publisher to commission my autobiography, which meant I then had to spend exhausting hours talking to a ghostwriter, constantly having to think of what it would be a good idea to talk about and what I would definitely want to keep hushed up.

     Going over the years in my head, fishing out old diaries and cuttings books, was a cathartic experience. When I came across the General’s phone number scribbled inside a book of matches with the Stork Club logo on I remembered my conversation with Steffi. For a moment I toyed with the idea of phoning him and then decided against it since he must now be a hell of an age and I didn’t want to get trapped into having to spend hours listening to an old man’s ramblings.

     To my amazement I received a letter from him a couple of days later. It was like there had been some sort of telepathic connection between us. The brusque tone of the letter suggested that there had been no deterioration in the General’s mind.

 

Dear Mags,

 

I had the pleasure of lunching with your delightful daughter the other day. You must be very proud of her. You probably know that she and my grandson, Luke, have been seeing one another and there seems to be some sort of a hitch in their relationship. How would you feel about meeting up for lunch to chat about old times and to gossip about the young things?

 

Yours as ever,

Robert.   

 

Since he was obviously so keen, I thought it would be a useful idea for the book to refresh my memory of the time I had known him and rang to accept. He sounded exactly the same as I remembered and suggested that we should meet at Rules in Covent Garden. We had lunched there a few times in the old days. I vaguely remembered that we had dinner there with John Betjeman, the poet, once. I think he was something to do with the General’s family. It all seemed like a million years ago.

       When I got there he was already seated at the same corner table I remembered with a large whisky in front of him and he rose to give me a genuinely warm hug as the head waiter escorted me over. The old boy was just as handsome and charming as I remembered, and seemed to have fallen almost as deeply in love with Steffi as his grandson apparently had. He was obviously very fond of Luke, seeing much of his own rebellious spirit in the young singer. I got the feeling that rest of the family were not sure what to do with either of them.

     ‘The two of them should be together you know,’ he said once the contents of a good bottle of Claret had settled comfortingly in our stomachs. ‘The boy is dripping around the house like a wet weekend and I know it’s all about your girl, although he denies it of course, trying to save face. It seems she’s dumped him for this cameraman chap. Is it serious?’

     ‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. ‘She doesn’t talk about the cameraman as much as she talks about Luke. And they don’t seem to live together or anything.’

     ‘Hah!’ he barked. ‘There you are, you see. We should do something about bringing them back together. It’s all too easy to let the years slip by on these things and end up regretting missed opportunities. We both know that. They should be grabbing life while they can.’

     I knew exactly what he meant, although I was surprised to hear him say it, since he had always struck me as a man who had never let any of life’s opportunities slip by him.  At the same time, I wasn’t sure that I could see what the advantage would be for us to meddle, but I didn’t say anything and we parted after the meal vowing that we would both put our thinking caps on as to how we might effect a reconciliation. The General was quite keen for us to take a hotel room for the afternoon, but I declined, despite the fact that I was feeling pretty romantic after so much rich food and pleasant reminiscing. I was horribly aware that if anyone in the hotel recognised me the story would be all over the media the next day and that could lead to them raking up both our back stories, which would cause an unnecessary distraction from my star-is-born scenario, and confuse my image in the minds of the public.

     I didn’t think much more about our discussion until a couple of days later, when Q told me that a television company was making a Meet the Real Steffi McBride programme. The audience was going to be stuffed with his celebrity clients and he asked if I would be willing to do a duet with her at the end of the show.

     ‘I’ve got an awful lot on at the moment, Q,’ I protested. ‘And I don’t want it to look as if I need to lean on Steffi for my entire career.’

     As well as working on the autobiography I was also making an album of country music covers; Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, all the standard weepies, giving them a bit of a clubby, jazzy edge, and there was a tour being organised to promote it.

     ‘These ‘Meet the Real…’ shows get a lot of viewers,’ Q said. ‘It would be a good chance to plug everything else you’re doing. I’m going to try to engineer a surprise reunion for Steffi with Luke Lewis at the end. That should guarantee us fantastic coverage in the press.’

     ‘Okay,’ I sighed. If it helped to put bums on seats during the tour then I could see the point of it. ‘I might be able to help with the Luke Lewis thing too if you like. I had lunch with his grandfather the other day, and they are quite close.’

     ‘The General is still around?’ Q laughed and I thought I detected a note of genuine fondness in his voice. ‘How is the old stoat?’

     I’d forgotten that the two of them had had a professional connection when the General first tarnished his reputation.

     ‘Still an old stoat,’ I said, unable to suppress a smile of my own at the thought.

     ‘Good for him. That would be brilliant. The approach would be much better coming from you than me. I think he always saw me as a necessary evil, a bit like one of the gamekeepers on the family estate.’

     With those few careless words I found myself being sucked into yet another of Q’s schemes, even though I really didn’t think Steffi’s career or love life needed any help from me.

     I rang the General later that day and told him what Q was planning. He duly spoke to Luke, who apparently jumped at the idea. I guess he needed all the help he could get to save his career from sliding away and saw his grandfather and me as his last chance. Or maybe he really was in love with Steffi; men can be pathetically romantic and needy sometimes, especially the young ones. I’ve lost count of the number of men who announced they were in love with me after one date. If the relationships developed beyond the first night they all seemed to end up asking me to marry them within weeks, even the ones who were already married. The trouble was the moment they started behaving like that I lost all interest, never wanting to tether myself to losers. I guess that’s almost the definition of a ‘Catch 22’ situation, like never wanting to be a member of the sort of club that would have people like me as members, (a quote from Groucho Marx, I think). It sounded like Luke was just as soppy as the rest of them and I couldn’t help thinking the General needed to teach his boy a few of the golden rules about how to keep the interest of a woman as feisty as my Steffi.

      Q seemed to have fingers in virtually every slice of the pie surrounding my success. As well as getting me a book publishing contract, he had managed to get one for Paddy McBride as well, with a serialisation deal in one of the tabloids telling all about his appalling childhood in Ireland, justifying why he had ended up beating up Joyce and generally being a bit of an old drunk by the end. It seemed the public suddenly couldn’t get enough of stories about me and my family.

     I had always been a bit nervous about Paddy’s violent streak, ever since the punch he landed on me when I suggested the termination, wondering if I had delivered my child up to a man who would beat her about. I had cautiously broached the subject with Steffi at the dinner in her apartment and she had assured me that he had never touched any of the children, although he had frightened them often enough with his drunken shouting and attacks on poor old Joyce. I prayed she wasn’t lying to me in order to protect her dad.

     ‘I hope you know what you are doing, Q,’ I said when I found out about Paddy’s deal. ‘We don’t want to saturate the market and bore people to death with the story before my book has even come out.’

     ‘The public loves you,’ he assured me. ‘Your family is media royalty now. Just relax and enjoy it.’

     I decided he was right, partly because I didn’t have the time to think about it and partly because I was enjoying almost everything that went with overexposure. For every person who shouted abuse at me in the street for giving Steffi away at birth, there were half a dozen others who would shake me by the hand or ask to have their pictures taken with me, telling me how much they admired me for being a survivor and how happy they were that Steffi and I had been reunited. They seemed to identify with my story, particularly women of a certain age. I think it’s a bit like that Gloria Gaynor song that they always identify with when they’re drunk, lurching around singing ‘I will survive’ at the tops of their voices. Or maybe it’s more like Frank Sinatra’s ‘I did it my way’ song.

     Being constantly recognised and stopped in the street was beginning to get on my nerves a bit to be honest, but I know you have to put up with that sort of thing when you’re in the public eye, if you don’t want to get a reputation for being a snotty cow. I had put too many years into getting to the top to take any risks with my reputation now.

     The General seemed to be thrilled skinny that we were going to engineer a reunion between Luke and Steffi and kept sending me little bulletins on how Luke was doing. I was amazed at how adept the old boy was at texting. I had got one of the girls in Q’s office to do a bit of research into this prospective son-in-law and I have to say he was a nice looking lad. I could completely understand why Steffi would have had a crush on him when she was a girl, along with several hundred thousand others.  I even remembered some of the numbers that he and his group had had hits with, although they hadn’t exactly been my sort of thing. I don’t think I really got into another boyband once the Monkees split up, although Robbie Williams had looked briefly as if he was going to develop into something interesting.

     The idea of the ‘Meet the Real’ series was that celebrities were invited to sit in the audience and were allocated questions that they would feed to the star on the stage, Steffi in this case. Her answers would then lead into rehearsed anecdotes or songs. The gun-toting ex-boyfriend was also going to be guesting and then she and I would do three numbers as duets.

     I have to admit that during the rehearsals I was very impressed by how quickly she picked things up considering what a short time she had been in the business. Her singing voice seemed to be pretty much pitch perfect, which mine certainly isn’t any more, and we made a nice noise together.

     The plan was that our last number would be a song she and Luke had had a hit with when they were going out together and then Luke, who would have been hidden away behind the scenes somewhere, would come on stage and take over from me, surprising Steffi and the audience and giving the tabloids a cute story for the next morning. I didn’t know what they would do if Steffi wasn’t pleased to see him. The song was A Little Time, which is that Beautiful South number about a guy messing the girl in the relationship around, saying he ‘needed some space’, which Q said would be particularly poignant because the pubic knew about their relationship and the fact that they had broken up.

     ‘I don’t think that is quite what happened,’ I said. ‘I think he’s pretty besotted with her, he just wanted her to do things with her career that she didn’t agree with and it all escalated out of control.’

     ‘The details don’t matter,’ Q said. ‘The press will make up whatever they want to say about them anyway. The important thing is to create a big dramatic scene with plenty of pictures, which will make people want to watch the show. If the reunion can be set to music as well. even better.’

     ‘Whatever you say.’ To be honest I was losing interest in the details myself by that stage.

      I could see that there were going to be a lot of angles in the show for the press to latch on to as well as the romance thing. The producers and Q had even managed to persuade Paddy and Joyce to be in the audience with their other children and Paddy had agreed to ask one of the questions, which sounded like a potentially excruciating moment to me but everyone else seemed to like the idea. I even got a chance to meet the sainted Joyce just before we started recording.

     She was pretty much everything I had imagined her to be; a big, smiley woman apparently without an evil bone in her body. I don’t know why I was surprised to find she was West Indian, it just hadn’t ever occurred to me. Looking at the state of her figure and the way she dressed it was hard to believe we were the same age but I guess when you have spent your life looking after children and being smacked about by your old man you don’t have much energy left for keeping yourself in shape. I was well aware that if I had made a few different decisions that could easily have been how my life turned out. I believe she had a full time job as a social worker as well.  I dare say she was a little overawed to finally be meeting me and I made a point of thanking her for the great job she had done in bringing my baby girl up. She mumbled something or other inaudible but I was being swept off to make-up at that stage and didn’t have a chance to get her to repeat it.

     I watched a lot of the recording of the early parts of the show on the monitors in the make-up room, aware that there were lots of junior members of the production team sneaking Luke around behind the scenes while Steffi was out front. They were all being so serious about it, like they were planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament of something. At one stage he asked to be introduced to me, which I thought was sweet and earned him a good few brownie points as a potential boyfriend for my baby. In the flesh he was very good looking and I could see traces of the General’s charm in him. I could understand even better why Steffi was interested, but I couldn’t help wondering how long it would be before she outgrew him. I wasn’t going to say anything obviously. Kids have to learn from their own mistakes, don’t they?

     After what seemed like an age of re-takes as various celebrities fluffed their lines, it was eventually time for me to go out and join her, and I could feel a wave of love coming up from the audience when they realised I was actually in the building. I could see there were cameras circling around Paddy and Joyce as they rose to their feet, filming them applauding wildly. Their children didn’t look quite so enthusiastic but I guess they’re not old enough to really appreciate my sort of material. Steffi’s face was a picture as she beamed proudly and we went into the routine. I got so emotionally involved in the songs I actually forgot all about Luke’s surprise interruption and so it all worked really spontaneously.

     Steffi looked genuinely shocked when she heard his voice cutting in over mine. For a second I was afraid she was going to lose her control on the stage and start weeping like some reality show winner, but her professionalism won through and she managed to continue singing after missing no more than a couple of beats. Luke looked so happy to be there I thought he was going to melt on the stage in front of all of us. Not wanting to steal any of their thunder I backed quietly into the wings and allowed them to bask in the moment.

      I could see they were whispering to one another at the end of the song, their words covered by the applause, and I guessed that Luke was telling her that I had been involved in the plot because she looked across to where I was in the wings and mouthed ‘thank you’, which made my eyes water up too. The audience was cheering fit to burst as I went back on for the finale with all the other guests and we sang ‘There’s no business like show business’ as I walked down to the front and encouraged everyone to sing along with us. All those years in panto had taught me exactly how to work a live audience.

      Overall the show seemed appallingly corny to me but everyone appeared to be very happy to be there, particularly Luke and Steffi. They walked off together at the end like a pair of real love-birds. The poor lumbering cameraman-boyfriend was waiting in the Green Room with a huge bouquet of flowers and there was a horrible moment as he saw Luke and Steffi walking in with their arms entwined, both obviously oblivious to everything else going on around them. I felt very sorry for him.

     Mission accomplished,’ the General barked down the phone to me the next day. ‘Romeo and Juliet safely reunited.’

     We chatted for a bit and he suggested we might go for a little weekend break. ‘A little stroll down memory lane,’ as he put it.

     ‘That would fun,’ I said, and actually meant it, ‘but I really am on a tight schedule. I have this tour on.’

     ‘Give me your dates,’ he said, ‘and I’ll pop along to one of your shows and take you for a slap up dinner afterwards.’

     It seemed there was a great deal of life in the old dog yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN. Celebrity Ancestors.

 

 

 

‘There’s a programme called Celebrity Ancestors,’ Q said when he called me late one night just after I had come off stage. ‘Ever seen it?’

     ‘I’m aware of it,’ I replied, trying to get my make-up off with one hand and hold the phone to my ear with the other. It was great that I was now getting calls from him virtually every day, rather than me always being the one doing the chasing, but sometimes it was hard to concentrate fully on what he was saying because of the pressure of everything else going on around me. ‘I can’t say I’ve studied it in depth. Most of the people they pick seem to be pretty deadly.’

     ‘It’s a programme in which celebrities trace their ancestors on camera,’ he continued as if I hadn’t spoken, ‘and the producers try to turn up something interesting from the past. They want you and Steffi to do one together. What do you think?’

     Several people were talking to me at once by then and I was keen to get him off the phone.

     ‘Yeah, okay,’ I said, ‘if you think it would be a good idea.’      

     I then forgot all about it because we were on the road first thing the next morning, until I received the contracts to sign and I realised the full significance of what I had agreed to so casually. It could mean that I would be getting in touch with Mum and Dad again, if they were still alive. For a few seconds I felt physically sick with fear at the thought of such a reunion, but with the help of some deep breathing exercises my personal trainer had taught me I began to calm down and think more logically.

     If my parents were still alive this would provide a perfect excuse to reconnect with them before it was too late. Not only would they be able to see just how successful I had been in my own career, they would also be able to meet Steffi and see what a brilliant child I had created. I found myself becoming a little bit excited at the prospect. It could actually be quite nice to spend some time talking about my childhood with someone who knew me before I arrived in London. It all seemed so far away now; more like a dream I had once had than like a part of my real life.

      I realised they must be well into their eighties by now and it might all be a bit overwhelming for them. I would have to make sure the producers were discreet and considerate in the way they approached them. It wouldn’t be very good publicity for me or Steffi if her grandparents dropped dead from heart attacks in front of the cameras because we had turned up on their doorstep unannounced, having had nothing to do with them for close to forty years.

     The next chance I had I phoned Steffi. She and Luke were doing a shoot for OK! in her apartment so she was happy to alleviate the boredom by taking my call.

     ‘How do you feel about this Celebrity Ancestors thing?’ I asked.

     ‘Okay, I think,’ she said. ‘I asked Mum if she would mind.’

     I felt an annoying stab of pain in my heart when I realised she still called Joyce ‘Mum’, even though she now had me back in her life, but I managed not to say anything. The last thing I wanted to do was put any sort of wedge between them. Joyce had earned her place in Steffi’s affections and it was a small price for me to pay for all the work she had put into bringing her up. The poor woman deserved some breaks in life.

     ‘What did she say?’

     ‘I think she was okay. She would never stand in my way with something like this. She always puts our feelings before hers in anything.’

     I managed not to give a snort of derision. It was hardly surprising everyone used Joyce as a doormat when she virtually lay down at their feet.

     ‘I haven’t been in touch with my parents since I left home at fifteen,’ I reminded her. ‘They may want nothing to do with us. Or they may be dead.’

     ‘It would be cool to find out, wouldn’t it? I’d like to get a whole new set of grandparents.’

     ‘Okay then,’ I said, temporarily enchanted by her innocent enthusiasm. ‘Let’s do it.’

     Although I was really busy on the tour Q had set up for me, I still found the idea of the programme playing on my mind, even more so when the researchers told me that Dad had recently passed away.

     I have to confess I had a bit of cry when I got the news, which took me by surprise. I don’t think it was anything to do with grief, more disappointment that I was never going to be able to hear him say that he had been wrong about me and that he was proud to see what a success I had made of my life. I would have liked him to meet Steffi too. I dare say seeing her would have brought back a lot of memories for him of what I was like when I was young. Dads are always a bit soppy about their baby girls, aren’t they?

     Once I had got used to the idea that he had gone, however, I started to feel myself becoming quite excited about the prospect of seeing Mum again. Maybe without Dad there to indulge her in her phobias and paranoia, and with Steffi as an added incentive, we would be able to form a new relationship. Dad had always been so protective of her, constantly fussing over her and letting her get away with hiding away in the house and not going out to face the world. I sometimes thought her reclusive nature suited him because it meant he could rely on her always waiting around for him, always with his dinner on the table when he got home from work. Maybe she would turn out to be one of those women who suddenly blossoms in widowhood, having lived under the shadow of their husbands for years.

     I tried to get the researchers to give me a bit more information about her before Steffi and I actually met her in front of the cameras. I could tell they were shocked by the fact that I knew nothing about my own mother, but they resolutely refused to say any more, wanting to ensure maximum surprise and dramatic tension on the day. Q informed me that there were clauses in my contract forbidding me from making contact with her in advance of the filming. Television people can be heartless b******s sometimes, although in a way it worked to my advantage and let more off the hook as I was working flat out on the tour and I don’t know how I would have found the time.

     ‘Don’t you think my mother and I should at least speak on the phone before we meet for the first time?’ I suggested as the time of filming drew closer.

     ‘We think it would be more dramatic if we could film the actual reunion,’ the producer said.

     ‘Does she know who I am?’ I asked, wondering why Mum wasn’t wanting to call me if she knew I was willing to get in contact. Was she going to be difficult about the whole thing?

     ‘No. All we’ve told her is that her daughter wants to make contact with her. She didn’t even know that you were still alive. It will make incredible television.’

     I had stopped listening, too preoccupied with the realisation that my parents had known nothing about any of the things I had achieved. All the time I had spent wondering what they would make of this headline or that television appearance, and they had been blissfully unaware of the whole thing. It must have suited their purposes, I thought, to imagine that I was dead because then they could forget all about me and get on with their own closeted little lives. I had always felt like I was an inconvenience to them anyway, especially to Mum.  

     The first thing I found out when the car came to pick me up on the initial day of shooting was that Mum was still living in the same house, which didn’t surprise me at all. I could just imagine how her daily routines had continued after I had left, exactly the same virtually every day of every year.

      We picked up Steffi on the way and the cameras were rolling as we chatted all the way down the M23. She was as excited as a kid on her way to a favourite theme park. It was quite infectious, even though I could have done with a bit more peace and quiet to gather my thoughts and prepare myself for the ordeal to come. I don’t know how people manage to live with kids twenty four/seven. How do they ever get any time to themselves to think?

     We drew up in front of the house and I peered out through the tinted windows. The houses all down the street looked exactly as I remembered. Aware that the camera was recording my every expression I put my dark glasses on in order to be able to stare wherever I chose with impunity.  Maybe the house was a little smaller than I recalled, but that could have been because the trees Dad had planted in the front garden to screen Mum from the world had grown to the top of the roof, their leaves no longer covering the windows.

     The most amazing thing was that not only were the curtains open, the nets appeared to have been disposed of as well. Had I not been so preoccupied by everything that was going on around us in the car I would have been able to see straight into the house. In most other respects it looked just as uninteresting as I remembered it, although there was a small, sensible car parked in front of a newly built garage extension. Not much to show for nearly forty years, I thought.

     ‘Is this the house you were brought up in, then?’ Steffi asked as we got out.

     The cameraman was circling around us as we moved towards the front door.

     ‘Yes,’ I nodded, worried by the way the word had somehow stuck in my throat. I hoped I wasn’t going to make an exhibition of myself with tears on the doorstep.

     ‘It’s nice,’ she said.

     I stared hard at her to see if she was being sarcastic, but she wasn’t. I remembered the bleak tower blocks where she had been brought up by Paddy and Joyce and looked again at the leafy little street that I had rejected all those years ago, remembering lugging my suitcase up to the station without so much as a glance over my shoulder. I could imagine that the colourful, well tended front gardens and the quietness that hung over the whole street would make it seem attractive to someone raised amongst harsh concrete walls and aggressive graffiti. I didn’t say anything. It would be too hard to try to explain why it had felt like a prison at the time.

     When Mum opened the door I was shocked by how little she had changed. Obviously she was older, her hair grey and her neck and limbs thinner, but she was still totally recognisable as the woman who had brought me up. She had worn incredible well. No one would ever have guessed she wasn’t still in her sixties.

     ‘Margaret?’ she said, staring hard at me. ‘Is that really you?’

     To my horror I realised that not only was she crying, she was also intending to fling her arms around me, something I had no recollection of her ever doing when I was a child. The camera was whirring away so there was nothing I could do to stop her and feeling her light frame sobbing as she clung to me started me off crying, despite the fact that I still felt as embarrassed by her as I had when I was thirteen.

     ‘We thought you were dead,’ she sobbed. ‘We thought you were dead.’

     ‘Why did you think that?’

     I couldn’t think what else to say. The cameraman was focussing in tightly to pick up every word and every tear.

     ‘Your father spent five years searching for you, visiting homeless shelters, walking around the streets at night in different cities, asking every homeless kid he came across if they knew you, showing them your picture. The police told us that we were wasting our time because hundreds of young girls disappeared every year, but he wouldn’t give up. Neither of us could bear to give up hope.’

     ‘I was okay, Mum,’ was all I could think to say. ‘I was okay.’

     ‘You never wrote or rang to tell us you were all right.’

     The rest of the television crew were standing back as silent and still as they could be, like they were filming some rare species of wildlife and were terrified of reminding us they were there in case they frightened us away or made us rein in our emotions. Eventually Mum pulled back, remembering there were other people there, wiping her eyes and turning to Steffi.

     ‘This is my daughter, Mum,’ I said. ‘Steffi.’

     She was staring at her granddaughter with a puzzled expression.

     ‘You look so familiar, Stephanie,’ she said.

     ‘Steffi is on television a lot too,’ I said. ‘She’s in a soap called The Towers.’

     My mother clamped her hand across her mouth to try to smother her own little squeal of excitement, like she was imitating some stupid teenage girl at a pop concert.

     ‘You’re Nikki,’ she squeaked, ‘aren’t you?’

     ‘That’s right,’ Steffi grinned as her grandmother launched herself at her, clinging on like she had to me.

     ‘All the times that we watched you on the television and had no idea that you were our granddaughter. Your grandfather was a great fan of The Towers. He watched a lot of television towards the end because he was stuck in his bed most of the time. He always said you were one of his favourites. He would be so proud if he knew you were his granddaughter.’

     That set Steffi off as well and the two of them clung to each other beneath the stare of the camera, giving me a chance to slip off my dark glasses and repair a little of  the damage with a tissue.

     ‘Come in, both of you,’ she said eventually, holding Steffi’s hand to guide her through the front door.

     The outside of the house might have looked exactly the same as I remembered it, but the inside was totally changed. Where once there had been a painfully neat and orderly little home, there was now a chaos of paperwork and computers. It looked like a cross between a very old fashioned office and a library store room. It didn’t look like Mum had ever cleaned the place since I left. Behind the chaos I could make out the occasional familiar flash of curtain or upholstery patterns that I remembered from my childhood; apart from that I wouldn’t have known it was the same house.

     ‘They tell me you’re an actress and singer too,’ Mum said to me, like she was making polite conversation to a stranger, which I suppose she was really.

     ‘Yes,’ I replied, not knowing where to start but wanting to keep talking to make sure she didn’t get a chance to ask what she might have seen me in. I was pretty sure Dad would never have been a fan of the Benny Hill Show, even when he was lying on his deathbed. ‘I’m on tour at the moment. And I’ve got an album coming out.’

     ‘What might I have seen you in then?’

     I tried not to sigh or roll my eyes. How many times had I been asked this question after telling someone I was an actress?

     ‘Do you remember the Benny Hill Show?’

     ‘Oh, yes,’ she smiled kindly, ‘I remember him.’

     ‘I was a regular on that. I was in Casualty quite a few times.’

     ‘I don’t follow that one.’

     ‘Mostly I do West End theatre work.’

     ‘I’m afraid I have never been a great one for the theatre,’ she admitted and I felt like she was letting me off the hook of justifying any further what I had been doing for the last thirty-five or more years.

      The cameraman had been wandering around in search of telling details and had found a picture on the wall which he was zooming in on. My curiosity piqued, I moved closer. It was a picture of Mum and Dad. He was wearing a top hat and morning suit and she looked like she was dressed for a wedding. They were both holding up medals for the photographer.

     ‘That was us at Buckingham Palace,’ Mum explained, ‘getting our OBE’s from the Queen. It was a few months before your father got ill for the last time. He was so proud of that medal but I know he would have given it all up to be here now; to know that you are alive and that he has such a beautiful granddaughter.’

     ‘OBE?’ I could hardly make out what she was talking about; this was so far from anything I had ever imagined. ‘Why did you get OBE’s?’

     ‘Because of the charity.’

     She obviously assumed I would know what she was talking about.

     ‘Charity?’

     ‘The charity your dad founded.’

     She passed me a brightly coloured newsletter from the top of a pile which stood in the corner of the room. It was full of pictures of smiling children but I couldn’t work out what I was looking at. She must have been able to see my puzzlement and came to my rescue.

     ‘Once we realised you weren’t coming back we needed something to fill our lives,’ Mum said, realising that this was all coming as news to me. ‘Dad had to retire from his job in order to search for you, but he had enough of a pension for us to be all right. We wanted to do something that would help other people but we weren’t sure what. Then we saw a television programme where that Anneka Rice went down to Romania and showed all those orphans who had been tied up in their cots for years on end. Terrible sights. The next day we bought a couple of air tickets and went down there to have a look for ourselves, to see if there was anything we could do to help since we had so much time on our hands, and the rest is history.’

      ‘You and Dad started a charity for Romanian orphans?’ I was still having trouble taking the whole thing in.

     ‘Well it grew to be a bit more than that in the end,’ she said. ‘We have branches all over Eastern Europe, and we do a lot in Africa too. Within about ten years we had a dozen people on the payroll and a full time office. I think we are going to be raising about twenty million pounds this year. I’m surprised you never knew. There were lots of articles written about your dad, and quite a few television programmes. He was always being interviewed on Radio Four.’

     I thought of all the times I had flicked away from television channels whenever they threatened to show me documentaries about orphans and charity workers. It had never been a subject that had interested me, always seeming like too big a problem for me to be able to get my head round. I imagine a lot of people are like that, too busy struggling to keep themselves out of poverty to have any energy to spare for saving the rest of the world. Maybe if I had been able to sit back and know I had a regular pension coming in I could have done more, but I always assumed that once I was a major star I would be able to devote  more time to raising money for charities, become a UN goodwill ambassador even.

     How often during the past years had I been just a few seconds away from seeing my own parents on the screen? They had become celebrities in their own world and I hadn’t even realised. Since I was now completely lost for words, entangled in my spinning thoughts, Mum was doing all the talking.

     ‘I’m afraid this programme is going to let all sorts of cats out of the bag,’ she laughed happily. ‘Cupboards full of skeletons clattering out all over the place.’

     Steffi must have been able to see that I was swaying a little on my feet and steered me towards one of the few chairs that wasn’t covered in piles of paper. Mum busied herself making tea for everyone while the camera crew set themselves up for the next shot, which was going to be of her showing us some old scrap books and photograph albums. Everyone else seemed to have a much better idea of what was going on than I did. I was having trouble trying to adjust to the idea of Mum as this dynamic, extrovert little old lady. All the old timidity that I had hated so much seemed to have vanished but I wasn’t sure I liked what had replaced it much either; do-gooders always made me feel uncomfortable.

     ‘You may be able to see better without those smart glasses, Margaret,’ Mum said when she finally sat down next to  me where the director told her, with a scrap book on the table in front of her, and for a second I felt a sharp flash of the hatred I had carried for her as a budding adolescent. Reluctantly, however, I did as I was told and took the glasses off, realising that they were not appropriate in the changed situation.  She opened the scrapbook and the camera zoomed in on a yellowed newspaper cutting           

     ‘What are these?’ I asked. ‘I don’t remember ever seeing these.’

     ‘They came from my stepmother when she died,’ Mum explained. ‘She thought I would like to have them because of my father. They never had any children themselves. She was the most self absorbed woman I ever met, so she kept everything that was ever printed about her.’

    I thought of all the books I had of tabloid stories and photographs of myself, but thought better about saying anything. I was still puzzling over the stepmother comment.

    ‘I didn’t realise you had a stepmother,’ I said, trying to think back and read the article she had opened up at the same time.

     ‘We didn’t talk about it in front of you when your grandmother was alive in case you let something slip,’ she said, without looking at me. ‘Children do sometimes speak the truth at unfortunate moments.’

    I was about to follow that up with a snap of sarcasm, but remembered the camera was running and thought better of it. The article was beginning to come into focus in front of me and I realised that it was about my grandfather. It looked like it was a huge news story, a main front page from the Daily Telegraph. It looked like he was enormously famous.

     As Mum turned the pages more articles appeared about him, and there were pictures of a beautiful woman as well. Some of them were formal portraits but others looked like shots snatched against her will, as if she was trying to cover her face from the prying lenses. I was turning the pages of the scrapbook myself now as Mum continued talking. I was trying and failing to make sense of the piles of articles that I could see filling the pages while attempting to listen to what she was saying at the same time.

     ‘Your grandfather did some terrible things during the war,’ Mum was explaining. ‘He was a very wealthy man. There was a bank which he had inherited from his father, which had been established by his grandfather and great grandfather. All through my childhood he was running a pension fund for the widows of British servicemen and just at the end of the war he absconded with all the money. It was a terrible scandal, one of the worst ever. Can you imagine? All those poor women and children left with nothing when their husbands and fathers had died so gallantly. The fraud was only discovered after he had run away to South America with Imelda.’

     ‘Who was Imelda?’ Steffi asked. She appeared to be getting to grips with this quicker than I was.

     ‘Imelda was the woman who became my stepmother,’ Mum said. ‘She was a dancer from Rio de Janeiro. Only a few years older than me. My father met her at a club in Paris, I think. He was there for a meeting with Churchill and de Gaulle and all sorts of important people, and he never came back. The first my mother knew about it was when the police turned up asking where he was. That was when they started to realise the full extent of what he had done. There were millions and millions of pounds missing.’

    ‘And where was he?’ Steffi asked.

     ‘He and Imelda had run away to Rio together. He was very much in love with her.’

     ‘Why did you never tell me any of this?’ I protested, feeling like I had been hit by a car.

      ‘It was a terrible scandal,’ Mum said and I noticed her hand was shaking a little as she smoothed down the edges of the article the book was open at. ‘We had death threats against all of us. We had bricks through our windows, slogans painted on the walls of the house during the night, and people spat at us in the street. We had to go into hiding. My mother changed our names back to her maiden name, and once I met and married your father there was no reason for anyone to know anything about us. My brother, your uncle, killed himself because of the shame.’

     She fell silent for a moment, fighting against the croak that was invading her voice and no one else spoke or moved until she had composed herself enough to continue.

     ‘It was years before I felt safe going out into the streets. I still don’t like going to places like London, always afraid I’ll meet someone whose parents my father swindled out of all their money. It’s stupid, I know. No one would care any more and why would they blame me anyway? I was just a child. But there it is. It’s all so long ago now. I realised that when my mother died and there wasn’t even a mention of it in the papers. Everyone had forgotten. It’s just history now, isn’t it? Once I’ve gone there will be no one around who remembers it. Which is why I thought I should talk to you about it before it was too late.’

     I realised the camera had been holding on my face for some time and that I was staring at her with my mouth hanging open as everything fell into place in my brain. Suddenly I could understand the drawn curtains and the frightened little sorties out into the outside world. I remembered the disastrous afternoon at the Grand Hotel, when Dad had tried to coax my grandmother out of her flat for tea and the way in which she had crumbled when she felt some strangers were staring at her and had to be hurried back to the safety of her home. If only they had explained to me why they had wanted to live the way they had I would have felt completely differently about everything. If I had known what a vast drama I was part of it might have made it seem more like a game, more worthwhile, more exciting.

     ‘How come you have agreed to all this now?’ I asked, gesturing at the film crew.

     ‘Working with the children in Eastern Europe and Africa with your father all those years helped me to see what was really important and to get a better sense of perspective on life,’ she said. ‘I saw so many acts of courage from people who had so much more to fear than I did. I thought this programme would be good exposure for the charity. I hope it will get people to take a look at our website and maybe feel they can help a little. The most important thing is to raise as much money as possible for the children, and any publicity for the charity is good.’

     Was I hearing right? Was my mother actually saying that there was no such thing as bad publicity after all the ridicule and contempt she had lavished on my childhood heroines?

     ‘Did you or your mother ever see your father again?’ Steffi asked.

     ‘No.’ Mum dabbed at her eyes even though they looked completely dry to me. ‘He and Imelda lived a very different life to us. There were so many rumours. I read in one paper that they used to meet up with Edward and Mrs Simpson when they went into exile, holidaying together, that sort of thing. But maybe a reporter made that up on a day when there wasn’t much news. I know the Duke and Dad had been friendly before the war, just after the Abdication.’

     My heart was thumping like the drumbeat of some mighty rock anthem. So I was the product of a great and exciting family after all. I had scandalous blood flowing through my veins, just as I had always believed. Mum had been forced into hiding with Dad in order to protect me from the ‘terrible’ truth. All the years that I had been making up stories about my family history and now I discovered that the truth was actually a hundred times more interesting and exotic.

     ‘What was Granddad like?’ I asked.

     ‘He was a very handsome man,’ she gestured towards the newspaper photographs, ‘as you can see. You reminded me of him in so many ways with all your silly dreams and schemes.’

     ‘I wish I’d known him,’ I said, suppressing the irritation I felt rising at the put-down. ‘I’d love to have met Imelda before she died.’

     ‘I think it was rather a sad end,’ Mum said, in the same voice I remembered her using when she was disapproving of Christine Keeler or Jackie Onassis. ‘All the money was gone pretty quickly after my father died. They had lived such a grand life and of course they had to pay money to all sorts of unscrupulous people in order to stay safe. I think she ended up living in some horrible little basement flat in the backstreets of Rio somewhere.’

     I said nothing, picturing my own little home in Earls Court. I could imagine just what my grandfather and Imelda would have been like too. I had met dozens of men like him over the years, outwardly charming, handsome, confident, fabulously successful but dishonest, useless and dangerous at the core. I could imagine Imelda too because I had met dozens like her as well, pretty moths attracted to the bright light of glamour and notoriety. It was like someone had suddenly switched a light on in my head and I could see my whole life clearly for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN. Pay-Back Time.

 

 

The public reaction to the Celebrity Ancestors programme when it was broadcast was extraordinary. I had no idea so many people were interested in other people’s family histories.

     The production company’s publicity machine went into overtime during the week before it was broadcast, able to put out stories that would appeal to Steffi’s fan base as well as mine, and to cash in on all the good work that Mum and Dad had been doing in the charity world. It appeared that my parents were a great deal better known and more highly thought of than I could ever have imagined, and no one seemed to be too upset that we were all descended from a man who had basically stolen millions of pounds off people who could ill-afford to lose it.

     They may have been spitting at my grandfather’s family in the street at the time, but sixty years later he had transformed from being viewed as a slimy little fraudster into a glamorous high society rogue. In some of the newspapers journalists actually wrote pieces along the lines of ‘they don’t make crooks like that any more’ and ‘even the fraudsters were more elegant in those days’.

     There were suggestions that he and Imelda might have been friends with some of the Nazi leaders who escaped Europe for South America, but I think they were just guessing. One of them even said they had helped to hide Lord Lucan in the Seventies when he first disappeared after the murder of his family nanny.

     I’m sure at the time the same newspapers who now found them to be such a fascinating story were once baying for his blood and decrying the falling standards of probity in public life.  It was amazing what a difference a bit of perspective could make.

     The viewing figures for the programme were so good that the same producers suggested Steffi and I went out with Mum to one of the children’s homes that she and Dad had founded in Africa, to make a programme about the work that the charity was doing. I have to say the thought filled me with a fair bit of horror, as I really didn’t have time in my schedule and I was worried that I would catch a bug that would lay me up for weeks, but somehow word of this programme came to the ears of Richard Curtis, (I think he and Steffi had been talking about doing a film together), which changed everything. As well as being a film director he is also the genius behind Comic Relief, and he asked if it would be possible for us to include the film as part of the whole Red Nose Day thing. Richard Curtis is hardly someone you can say no to, and I told myself it would be nice for Steffi to be able to spend some quality time with her long-lost mother, that it would be a good bonding exercise for both of us.

     Steffi was also incredibly keen to go, so I couldn’t really decline without looking like a heartless monster, even though I could ill afford to lose three days and risk coming down with some sort of revolting disease. I could see, once Q pointed it out, that this was ‘payback time’ for all the lucky breaks I had recently been given. He had also managed to talk Richard Curtis into letting Steffi and me record the official Comic Relief song.

    ‘Have you got any suggestions of what you would like to sing,’ he asked over a late breakfast at the Wolseley one day.

    ‘Do you remember that old Dave Berry hit in the Sixties,’ I said, ‘Mama?’

    ‘Yeah,’ he laughed. ‘I remember. Bit corny, don’t you think?’

    ‘Isn’t that the point? Don’t you want something that will tug at the heart strings of the general public and make them shell out money?  Also,’ I was warming to my own theme now, ‘it would be even more poignant because everyone knows I gave Steffi away at birth, and that I ran away from my own mother at fifteen. If we are singing it together, with my mother being filmed as well, that would give it a whole other layer of meaning.’

     ‘I guess,’ he said, and I could tell from the distant, thoughtful look that had come into his eyes that he was already seeing a potential hit.

     ‘Plus,’ I kept going, ‘it would emphasise the fact that all these kids in the orphanage have lost their mothers to Aids or whatever. We could be filmed singing in the orphanage with them all around us, which will give Comic Relief a video that they can use to raise more money.’

     As it turned out I’m glad that I did go to Africa because it was very moving to see how grateful the children were for everything we were doing for them. They were so amazed and honoured that people like us had taken the time to travel all that way to see them. And they were so joyful about every little thing, despite the fact that they had nothing in life and little hope of that situation ever changing. Moments like that can be very humbling, and can make you think about things very differently.     

     Obviously Mum had been there before and they all recognised her and swarmed around her like little bees round their queen, but as soon as they found out that Steffi and I were related to her they swamped us just as excitedly. The little girls couldn’t get over how pale Steffi was and kept wanting to stroke her skin and her blond hair, as if imagining it would feel different to their own. She was very natural with them. I suppose having been brought up on the estate with Joyce and Paddy she was more used to seeing poverty than I was, although I did notice her doing a piece to camera at one stage in which she was crying like a baby.

      She and Mum seemed to be bonding in a way that Mum and I had never been able to, which left me feeling a bit out on a limb at times.

     On the second day Steffi and I sang Mama, with the children forming a spontaneous backing choir, which brought tears to everyone’s eyes, even the battle hardened camera crew. I could see how much pleasure it was giving Mum to spend this quality time with her daughter and granddaughter, clapping along with a couple of tiny urchins on her bony lap as they sang their hearts out. It all made for great television.

     Spending time with Steffi made me think of all the years of her life that I had missed, times when I could have been a good friend to her as well as a mother. I knew I was being selfish because I could never have given her as much as Joyce had, but it still made me sad that I’d had to sacrifice so much in order to achieve my dreams, and it made me realise how hard it must have been for Mum and Dad during the years when they thought I was dead. Mum had been separated from me for close to forty years, almost twice as long as I had been separated from Steffi. For those few days in Africa I realised what it must feel like to have a family that loves you. I was so proud of both of them, and so grateful that they were so forgiving of the things I had been forced by my destiny to do to both of them.

     I had to fly back to England first because of recording commitments and I felt more alone than I could ever have imagined was possible as I said goodbye to them both at the orphanage, before climbing into the Land Rover and being whisked off to the airport. I had been fighting for so many years to be independent and not to need anyone else. I realised now that I had excluded all these people from my life in order to stay focused on my goals, but now I had achieved them maybe I could relax and enjoy some of the rewards. I was a star for all the world to see and I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone any more. Now I wanted to be part of a family again, but I could see Mum’s time was completely taken up with the hundreds of children she and Dad had taken on to replace me when I left, and Steffi also had her own life with little time for me in it.

    Thankfully I didn’t get ill and the week after I got back I was recording a new album of ballads and country and western classics, which we were going to launch with a television special. The deep sadness that I was feeling after the whole experience must have come through in the quality of my voice because the producer was actually crying at one stage of the recording.

     ‘You’re bringing more feeling out of these songs than I have ever heard any artist put into any recording,’ he told me at the end of the week, and I knew he was right. I had truly been singing from the heart. ‘We’ll easily sell a million. The Americans will lap it up.’

    Once the recording was over I was back in the flat in London with a couple of days to myself. I thought I would be relieved to get a rest, but I wasn’t. I hated the flat now. I had been to see a few new ones over the previous few months, some of which had been really beautiful, but I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about any of them. The thought of uprooting myself just in order to live on my own in a different place seemed too much to think about. The idea of living the rest of my life on my own was not appealing, particularly since the trip to Africa where I had felt like part of a family for the first time in my life.

     All my dreams of stardom had come true and I had never felt so miserable in my entire life. I knew I was going to have to do something radical to pull myself out of it.

    

 

I didn’t ring Martin to tell him I was coming, in case I changed my mind on the way and ended up raising his hopes for nothing. I still had enough misgivings to be feeling physically sick about the decision I was trying to make.

      I booked a car for the day and gave the driver the address of Martin’s farm, still not certain, even as we drove through South London, that I wouldn’t tell him to turn round and take me back home before I got there.

     Once we were through the seemingly endless suburbs and past the M25 ring road, the world outside the windows of the Mercedes grew green and lush. I remembered how arid it had been in the scrubland around the orphanage in Africa, and felt a strange lightning of my spirits, as if perhaps I was coming home after all.

     I remembered going out with friends into the countryside when I was small and being startled by the beauty, although it had never been enough to lure me from my ultimate passion for the bustle and bricks of the city with all its promise of adventure.

      The driver had satellite navigation, which was just as well as I doubt if we would ever have found the farm without it as we snaked down the narrow country lanes that the post code led us to.

     The smartly painted white entrance gates stood amidst woods on the crest of a hill and as the car purred through them the valley below appeared as if by magic. On one side stood a farmhouse so perfect it could have been an illustration from a biscuit tin, and on all the other sides of the valley lay neatly manicured fields, divided by strips of woodland and white fenced paddocks full of peacefully grazing sheep and expensive looking horses. It looked like a Ralph Lauren brochure and I couldn’t help myself from thinking it would make the most perfect location for filming the videos I needed to go with the country album.

     As we drew up in a brushed and gleaming stable yard beside the house I saw Martin approaching along a bridle path, mounted high on the most beautiful horse I had ever seen. He was dressed in jodhpurs and boots and his thick white hair contrasted dramatically with his tanned, relaxed face. I could see he was staring at the car as he trotted towards us, trying to work out who his unexpected visitor might be. I climbed out and waited for him to reach me.

     ‘I changed my mind,’ I said as he pulled the horse up beside me.

     ‘I’m very glad,’ he said with a smile that made my legs tremble. ‘I promise you won’t regret it.’

 

 

The Comic Relief film was an even bigger hit than we had expected. The song went to number one for weeks. They played the video of the three of us singing in the orphanage quite early on in the evening of Red Nose Day, and the public response was so enormous they had to repeat it four more times during the course of the show. Donations went through the roof during the showings and for a few minutes afterwards. I’m told that the organisers reckoned we had contributed well past a million pounds to the total pot for the day.

     Mum’s charity also saw an enormous rise in donations thanks to all the publicity she was getting from being linked to me and Steffi.

      My phone rang unexpectedly one day while I was taking a break during the recording of the television special, while they fixed a glitch with the sound.

     ‘Hello, Margaret?’

     ‘Hello, Mum.’

     I knew it was her because no one else ever used my full name.

     ‘I hope I’m not interrupting anything important.’

     ‘No, it’s okay. I’m on a break, but I may have to go back into the studio in a second.’

     ‘That’s all right dear. I won’t take a minute.’

     ‘Are you okay, Mum?’ I felt my heart sink at the thought that she might be ill. I didn’t know how I would be able to fit hospital visits into my schedule at the moment.

     ‘Oh, yes Dear, absolutely fine. I just wanted to say thank you so much for everything you have done for the charity. I appreciate how hard it was for you to find the time and it has made a huge difference.’

     There was a long pause as she sounded like she had something else to say.

     ‘That’s no problem, Mum,’ I said eventually. ‘It was fun to spend some time with you.’

      ‘I’m so proud of everything you’ve achieved, Margaret,’ she blurted. ‘And I know your father would be too if he was here.’

     There were people signalling at me to go back into the studio because the glitch had been fixed and the clock was running again.

     ‘That’s very sweet of you, Mum,’ I said. ‘Thanks. I’ve got to go now. They’re calling me.’

     ‘That’s all right, Dear. Ring me when you have a chance.’

      A few minutes later, half way through singing that Sinead O’Connor song, Nothing Compares to You, the full impact of my mother’s words sank in. My voice croaked as my throat closed up and I started to sob uncontrollably because I knew I had finally made it.

    

          



© 2012 Andrew Crofts


Author's Note

Andrew Crofts
Maggie gives her child away to become famous. Can you forgive her? Can you understand how she could do it?

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Added on July 26, 2012
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Tags: Fame, Celebrity, acting, singing, dancing, modelling, reality teleivision


Author

Andrew Crofts
Andrew Crofts

Horsham, West Sussex, United Kingdom



About
I am a full-time author and ghostwriter. I have published more than 80 titles, a dozen of which have spent many weeks at the top of the Sunday Times best seller charts. My books on writing include .. more..

Writing