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She pictures his feet thumping across the plush Persian carpet, and the swathes of peach silk that drape the windows of his hotel room. (No. Not room. Suite of rooms. She can see a four-poster bed through the open door behind him.) She watches him pace, turn, and march back clasping his hand to his head, clutching his hair. He’s ignoring the television for now, but it’s switched on, blurting out the same adverts that jangle along in the Sixth Form Common Room: Shake n’ Vac putting freshness back; a man stripping in a launderette to wash his jeans; a finger of fudge being just enough to give your kids a treat. She knows why he’s ignoring the adverts. She knows that he, Oliver Stone, is plagued by a crisis. He’s racking his brains trying to think who – who on earth – could play that role in his next film. And as the daydream plays out in her head, Em realises Abigail could do it. She really could.
The Sixth Form Common Room stinks of fruity Body Shop products, teenage sweat and the salty smell of prescription spot cream. Upper sixth-formers oust the Lower Sixth from the best seats. Standing room only. Em leans against the wall. She should have gone home. Abigail’s watching it at home. Her mum wanted them to watch it together. (Apparently.)
Everyone knows what happened at the audition. (Obviously.) For weeks, younger girls have been running up to Em screaming “willow” in her face. Now, she must watch Abigail Fawcett appear on telly in her place and she knows what will happen next. Abigail will get spotted – by Oliver Stone or George Lucas, someone like that – and be catapulted into a career of fame and fortune.
The music begins. Drums skitter. Girls scream, “It’s starting! It’s starting!” Space letters fill the television screen, shimmer and change, whirl and explode.
“Everyone shut up!”
Strange that Em even heard about the audition, given how little she listens in Assembly. So strange in fact that, when she thought about it afterwards, it seemed that it was meant to be.
At first, that Assembly had been no different to any other. The sun had filled the school hall, highlighting the shine on Sister Assumpta’s pale stretched skin and warming up the gym mats, so that the place smelled of old rubber and old sweat. Assembly was always tedious (obviously), so it was impossible not to lose herself in fantasies about the life she was destined to lead. A life where she’d be interviewed on chat shows like Wogan.
Sister Assumpta’s voice had faded out as Terry Wogan’s warm Irish lilt faded in: So Em tell us how you were spotted? She imagined herself smiling a perfect smile. Was it George Lucas who saw you walking down the street?
Was it George Lucas? She couldn’t decide. It had been George Lucas yesterday, and the day before, but that morning Em decided she didn’t want a Princess Leia type of role. She thought she might be grittier than that. David Lynch?
She’d read in magazines about girls breezing round London and being spotted by talent scouts. New actresses were often discovered peering through shop windows in New York. It happened all the time (apparently). And it might happen to her too if, say, a film director popped into Woollies one Saturday and saw her flicking through the records. Trouble was, not many Hollywood types passed through the small market town where she lived.
It was this disappointment in her daydream that made Em tune back into the world around her: the school hall; the whisper of a rumour being passed; the rattle of a suppressed giggle as Sister Assumpta paused to check her notes. “The television programme, Blockbusters, is looking for contestants. I thought some of you girls might like to apply.”
Fidgeting, whispers and coughs ricocheted round the hall, but all Em heard was Terry Wogan asking her, Was it David Lynch who spotted you on the quiz show, Blockbusters? And turning to face the audience, he asked Wouldn’t you all like to see that first television appearance? Wouldn’t you now? as imaginary Em blushed and laughed at the young innocent girl she once had been.
When the day came, she didn’t want to look like she’d made an effort for the audition. (Obviously.) So she tried on everything: ra-ra skirts, bangles, stripy onion-seller tops, big necklaces with fat plastic beads, scarves. Her hair took an age to spike up. All that soap lather. And gel. And back-combing. And gel. And more soap and back-combing. And finally, hairspray. Then she had to change again until she got the look right. A bit Dexys Midnight Runners, she thought, checking her reflection, adjusting the strap on her dungarees and twisting her foot to get a better look at her leopard-print baseball boots. Not bad! She added hoop earrings, a trilby and grabbed her trench coat on the way out the door.
Outside the station, Em leant against the wall. Her fag looked ace burning between her black nail-varnished fingers and when she caught her reflection in a shop window, her first thought was record sleeve. Her second was perhaps magazine cover, but it would have to be a really cool magazine. She pouted a little, tried a surly attitude. The new it girl: classic good looks twinned with effortless casual chic. Casual chic? Did she just invent that herself? If she invented it, she must define it. (Obviously.)
A car pulled up and Abigail jumped out, a shrill voice wishing her good luck as she shut the passenger door. She strutted towards Em, dressed in a blue wool trouser suit with shoulder pads.
Em dropped her fag. “Is that what you’re wearing?” she asked.
Abigail stopped still and gazed down at her sleeves and shoes. She looked up at Em gaping and said, “Do you know? It appears I am!” before striding into the station to study the departures board.
Em wasn’t fazed by the sarcasm and followed Abigail into the station. “Shoulder pads?”
“Indicate I mean business,” said Abigail, crinkling up her nose and squinting through her glasses. “Now, which P do we need to board our train?”
Abigail smiled and, when Em didn’t smile back, examined the ticket in her hand. “Doesn’t do any harm to practise, does it?”
From up high the train must have looked tiny – a mere sliver of a thing snaking through hills and under trees, passing down the scarred torn-up country. It hurried through industrial wastelands, under the low white sky. It passed boarded-up factories and houses, phalanxes of riot police, hordes of angry miners and twisting turning dole queues. Its black corrugated roof was wet with the battering rain. The lozenge-shaped carriages mindlessly trailed behind the diesel engine. Em leant back in her seat and pictured her mum, ironing with the radio on in the background: Desert Island Discs, Michael Parkinson saying So it all started for you when you appeared on the television quiz show, Blockbusters. Isn’t that right Em?
“Wake up!” Abigail was leaning across the table and shaking her arm. “The game’s afoot!”
“They won’t take either of us if we’re no good.”
“It’s a quiz show, you idiot!”
Abigail shrugged theatrically. “And your point is?”
“You just said it was a foot.”
Why Abigail laughed, Em had no idea, nor did she care to find out, even though Abigail was still chuckling as she pulled a dictionary from her bag and started flicking through it. “Here’s one,” she said, “What T was invented by Logie Baird in 1924?”
“I don’t know. Who cares?” Em rummaged in her bag for her cigarettes. “Let’s just take it turns to answer. We can go on as a team.”
Abigail snorted. “I think they’d see through that. Then we’d both end up with F for disappointing lack of success.”
It seemed better not to say anything, not to encourage Abigail, so Em stayed quiet and lit up. But Abigail wouldn’t let it go. “Come on, Em, please. I need this.” Smoke tumbled towards Abigail’s navy blue shoulder pads and tidy hair. Her nose screwed up as she wafted it away. “I’ve got an au pairing job this summer. I need the fare to France. My mum’s broke.”
“Yes, looking after children while improving my French. This is the only way I can get the fare to France. There aren’t any paper rounds are there? Not for girls. Saturday jobs? Not round here. Babysitting? I don’t know anyone with a baby who can afford to go out. What else is there?”
Em shrugged and smoked her fag.
Em wishes she was smoking now, but that’s not allowed in the Sixth Form Common Room. Instead girls dunk biscuits and slurp tea while presenter, Bob Holness chats to the contestants. Two cocky boys, who’ve been winning for ages loll behind their huge teddy bear mascot. The boy on the left, in the pink stripy shirt, explains he’s hoping to work in the City one day.
“Look at his teeth!” Someone yucks from the front.
“Yeah and his acne. He’s gross.”
His sidekick claims to be sporty, has his Duke of Edinburgh Gold already, and runs, rows, plays cricket and rugby at both school and county level. He wears a Lacoste t-shirt.
“Thinks he’s God’s Gift.”
“I wouldn’t turn him down.”
“You wouldn’t turn anyone down.”
“You shut up!”
The challenger looks about ten, hasn’t been in the game long and so far has only won twenty pounds. “Well you’ve got a chance to up that score today, haven’t you?” says Bob Holness as the boy shrinks back into his seat.
The game begins. Bob Holness lobbing questions thick and fast: What L…? What R…? What U…?
The cocky boys answer and grin, answer and grin. The challenger doesn’t get a look in. Abigail Fawcett is about to come onto their television screens when one of the Upper Sixth shouts, “What B describes a female dog and a smug swotty know-all?”
This is hilarious. (Apparently.)
Em hadn’t realised the TV lady was a TV lady until Abigail Fawcett stood up and shook her hand. So while Abigail walked along beside her, ponytail swinging as she answered questions about school and exams and stuff, Em trailed behind like a saddo.
She was always wrong-footed like that, especially by the likes of Abigail who was now listing her A-level subjects and outlining her plans for the future. “Hoping to go to Oxford!” she said, holding up crossed fingers on both hands.
The TV lady grinned. “Really? Which college? I was at…!”
So, the two of them were getting on great then. Em seethed as she followed them down one beige corridor after another. It was one of those plastic hotels. Hunting scenes from yesteryear hung on the faux wood panelling. The carpet was patterned with thousands and millions of fleurs-de-lis extending through endless corridors, only interrupted by the occasional set of double fire-doors. When they’d first arrived, Em had been sure it was the wrong place. “Why would a TV company hold auditions in a grotty chain hotel on the outskirts of town?” she’d asked in a come-off-it-and-admit-you’re-wrong tone of voice.
But Abigail had used the same tone to reply. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s convenient for the station so candidates can find it easily. Refreshments are available twenty-four hours a day. No doubt they were able to block book rooms for their staff. Need I go on?”
Em watched Abigail’s ponytail swinging like a pendulum as she sauntered over the fleurs-de-lis. And as for the TV lady! She’d been a great disappointment. Em had been expecting someone with charisma, someone glamorous, not some dumpy short-haired woman in beige trousers with a clipboard. When they finally arrived at the right room, they were pointed towards a couple of chairs and each given a big black buzzer. The TV lady perched on the edge of the bed and shuffled a deck of outsize cards with BLOCKBUSTERS printed on the back.
“Right!” she said grinning, her face spreading wide. “I take it you both know the rules of the game!” Abigail laughed as if this was an in-joke, so Em thought she’d better laugh as well, but it came out too loudly, sounded too fake. She was sitting there, regretting the laugh and wondering why it had gone wrong, when the TV lady started reading questions off the cards.
Em knew this one, looked down at the buzzer and watched her finger hover, ready to press the button, but Abigail’s buzzer sounded first.
She knew that one too, but Abigail’s buzzer went off before she had a chance.
The questions kept coming. Abigail kept buzzing, getting all the answers right. Em knew the answers. They weren’t difficult questions. But Abigail was quicker on the buzzer. Buzz quicker, that was it. If Em could buzz quicker, she’d get to answer a question, be in with a chance of pulling herself up into the game. She waited for the next question, staring the TV lady straight in the eye, her finger resting on the button, ready to press.
Yes! She did it! She buzzed first. She did it. She did.
But Em had been concentrating so hard on buzzing first, she’d forgotten to listen to the question. Now the TV lady was waiting for the answer. And that’s when everything became more vivid. The beige of the TV lady’s trousers and the magnolia walls glowed with a new warmth. The flowers on the bedspread seemed to come alive. And the TV lady’s eyes were the brightest blue.
For Em, time slowed, had gone soupy. She considered escaping, imagined slamming the door behind her, pictured herself running back down the endless corridors, surrounded by clouds of floating fleurs-de-lis to flee the plastic hotel. Problem was she couldn’t move. So her mind rummaged through the memories and miscellaneous information she’d acquired in her sixteen years and that’s when it came to her: something about always having a go. Answer the question, even if you don’t know the answer. Just take a guess. A dim echo of the question replayed in her head. Was it something to do with trees?
As they left the hotel, Abigail put her hand on Em’s arm and grimaced. “That was rough!” she said. “Are you all right?”
Em shook her head. “Desperate for a fag to be honest!”
There was time before their train so they ambled round the strange town, found an off-licence and a local park, and sat on the grass: Em with a bottle of Diamond White cider, chain-smoking a pack of Embassy Regals; Abigail with the sandwiches her mum had given her and a packet of crisps.
Em relived her ordeal. “What T is a metal for making cans with? What T! Why did I think ‘tree’?”
“Because it rhymes with T,” Abigail told her, munching on a Quaver.
“A metal for making cans with! And I said ‘willow’.” Em sighed as she laid back on the grass. “I really wanted to be on telly. Now I never will be.” The branch of a tree spread out above her head, its leaves flickering in the breeze, breaking up the cloudy sky. Perhaps it was a willow tree, she thought, then chuckled and said, “At least it’s a funny story.”
“What? You’re not going to tell people, are you?” Abigail scrunched up her empty crisp bag, as well as her nose. “Not people at school?”
“Don’t, Em! You’ll regret it.”
“It might get a few laughs!”
“Only at your expense! School is a cesspit of bitches who’ll use it to persecute you whenever they can. That’s how it goes. Rules of the game!”
This seemed a bit far-fetched. For a start, Em was nowhere near as unpopular as Abigail Fawcett. In fact, she wasn’t even unpopular. Perhaps misunderstood? A little aloof? Definitely too cool for the others. (Obviously). But it would have been mean to point this out. So Em just knocked back some cider and told Abigail not to exaggerate.
Watching Abigail appear on telly now, she thinks back to that afternoon in the park: how Abigail had coughed when she’d tried to smoke, and how drunk she’d got on not very much cider at all. Then those blokes had come along, ugly bastards, and sat down on the grass beside them. One had put his hand on Em’s leg. It was Abi who’d got rid of them, jumped up and leapt forward with a karate chop. Later, on the train home, she’d admitted she’d never done karate. It was all completely fake. “Gave him a bit of a fright though, didn’t I?” she’d laughed.
Em had turned maudlin. “You’re a really good actress, aren’t you Abi? Really good! Good at everything. You’ll probably get onto Blockbusters and be spotted by David Lynch.”
“David Lynch?” said Abi. “God I hate his films! So misogynistic!”
Em didn’t know what that meant nor did she care to ask. She was lost in her cidery fug of sad thoughts: there was no escape; she’d never be on telly; and she’d be stuck forever in the small market town. She was reaching for the last of her Embassy Regals as Abi said, “Hang on a sec! Do you seriously think Hollywood film directors watch Blockbusters?”
What could she say? It probably did seem silly to someone like Abi, whose blurred scrunchy face was frowning at her now, who seemed to be wearing two pairs of glasses? It might seem silly to her, but then she didn’t read magazines did she? As far as Em knew, Abigail Fawcett only ever read books. And half of them were in French!
But Em must have nodded or something, because Abi shrieked so shrilly and so loudly other passengers glared disapproval. She collapsed as if the force of the laughter was taking all her strength. And she was still laughing minutes later as she dragged her head off the sticky plastic train-table and sighed, “God I wish we had more of that cider!”
Screamy whoops and cheers, American style, from the audience in the Sixth Form Common Room. And shouting. “There she is! There she is!” As if it needed announcing. “Oh my God she’s in uniform!” The cackling drowns out Bob Holness’ introduction. “Sad!” “Why’s she wearing that?” “Abigail Faw-swot!”
Nobody, not even Michael Winner, would cast her now.
Bob Holness welcomes new challenger Abigail, who turns the colour of that boy’s pink shirt.
“Bet she fancies him!”
“Who? Bob Holness?”
“No, God’s Gift!”
“She’s not even wearing make-up!”
“Why doesn’t she get contacts anyway? Especially for the telly!”
“’Cos the glasses help hide her ugly face.”
Bob Holness asks Abigail the name of her school. When she answers the two boys smirk and the audience titters. (People always snigger when you tell them you go to the Convent of the Holy Virgin.) Bob Holness tries to deflect attention onto Abigail’s unusual mascot – a model of the Eiffel Tower. This seems to put Abigail at ease and she confesses to being “a great Francophile”. Bob Holness encourages her to talk about this, which she does. “Novels mostly,” she says, “Balzac, Flaubert, de Maupassant. All the usual suspects!” She grins thinking she’s on safe ground, as perhaps she is until she adds, “I just love doing French!”
God’s Gift opens his eyes wide and grins stupidly. A hoot of laughter in the audience seems to puzzle Abigail. The boys smirk behind their teddy bear. Bob Holness is keen to get on with the game. “Well, let’s not waste valuable time. What A is to kidnap?”
Even as Abigail buzzes fast and says “Abduct”, Em sighs and thanks God she failed the audition. It’s not as if no one’s bitched about Abigail before today, but “I just love doing French”? She’s never going to live that down.
Bob Holness has moved on, is impressed with her speed. “Very quick off the mark Abigail!” he says, “Well done! And which letter would you like now?”
“S please Bob.”
“What S has a cathedral with the highest…?”
There’s no stopping Abigail. She knows that the N served in Chinese restaurants are noodles, the R signifying a distance to be focused is a range, and the B at the bottom of a river is a bed. Not so cocky now, are you, boys from whatever school? Sixth-formers perch on their seats, comment with each right answer: “Bloody know-all!” “She’ll never get laid.” “Swot!” And yet the naffest game show of all time has got them hooked. Abigail is racking up the cash. She’s doing well – really well – and Em is silently rooting for her.
Trouble is Abigail can’t get across the screen. The boys keep blocking her. They’ve upped their game using her trick, buzzing before the end of each question. The blue hexagons are flashing in a broken line. One question to go. If the boys get this, it’s all over for Abigail.
“Very exciting round!” says Bob Holness. “You know what this means? Let’s see who can get to the buzzer first!”
He picks up the card, pauses to milk the tension. The camera zooms in on the contestants. Abigail is pale, holds her breath as Bob Holness asks, “What I is water hanging from a roof solidified by…?”
A buzz. Abigail’s light flashes. She’s going win!
But then she says, “Iceflow.”
The younger girls don’t bother Em anymore. They’re too busy running up to Abigail and shouting “iceflow” in her face.
Worse still, the idiots from the boys’ school nearby keep asking Abigail if she likes doing French. When she ignores them they call her “Icy, the icy iceflow”. It happens a lot at the bus stop after school. It makes the convent girls laugh, which, Em reckons, is why the boys do it. No one ever sticks up for Abigail. Why would they? She’s always needed taking down a peg or two. (Apparently).
It’s ages before Em gets the chance to ask her what happened. The locker room is damp and foetid after hockey. Abigail is wiping the steam off her glasses. She shrugs. “You know what it’s like.”
“Yeah, but you could have won.”
“Doesn’t matter, Em. It’s only a game. I got what I wanted out of it. I won enough to cover the coach to Dover and a one-way ferry ticket.” Abigail shuts the door of her gym locker, fiddles with the padlock then turns to Em and smiles. “It was fun getting drunk with you by the way. I enjoyed our afternoon in the park.”
“Yeah!” says Em. “It was a laugh. You and your fake karate!”
She briefly wonders if they might hang out again sometime, pictures the pair of them flicking through the records in Woollies one Saturday. But Abigail turns to go. “Well, if you’ll excuse me,” she says with a grin, “I’m off to do some French!”
Em watches Abigail hurry down the corridor to class, ponytail swinging behind her.