By Chris Milner
My life has led me past all sorts of places, roles and people and, as a complete optimist, I’ve found the good in most things. Now living in Northumberland with my wife, I enjoy regularly playing Grandpa and taking my past into my stories.
It happens a lot, actually.
She grabs my wrist, pulls towards me, her face alight, hugs me hard, all the while breathlessly squealing to her friend, “Oh, it is you! Lizzie, look, look, it’s Jenson. Jenson! Oh, wow!”
It’s always women of a certain age, people like Lizzie and her friend. They feel they know me, feel I bring back a bit of their youth. Sometimes, they’ll tell me how they saw Westwipe in Aberdeen or in Barnsley or Cardiff, way back in the day, and how fabulous it was and how sorry they are and all that.
But what can I do? I reckon it’s much the best to let people believe what they want to believe – be considerate, let them dream, don’t stamp on their memories – and always, always, leave them smiling.
So, I turn to Dens and give her my favourite Patient Suffering face. Then I enjoy the embrace, thank Lizzie and friend for their love, wish them well and wave goodbye like the star they think I am.
Dens is cool with it all. She’s new but she’s alright.
Later, when we’re on the train, when I’m comfortable no-one else is trying to catch a sneaky look at me, or whispering to their friends, or pointing, I tell Dens my great idea.
“I’ve had this great idea for a story, Dens. A real blockbuster.”
“Yeah. It’s about an upper-class twit who’s got a bunch of mates who all get married one by one, leaving just him, and in the end he dies. Five weddings and a funeral. What do you think?”
“It’s been done.”
“Yup. Big success. Pity you didn’t think of it before.”
We fall silent and I concentrate on the view, watching all suburbia slipping past the carriage window. Everywhere here looks the same – short narrow gardens behind overgrown trees or the wires fencing off the railway lines, running up to shabby little terraced houses, curtains all drawn, lights all off.
“No-one home, Dens.”
“I guess not.”
“Where are we going?”
“Wokingham. To see an old friend.”
As the train slows and pulls lethargically into Virginia Water station, there is something about the trees, their shadows and the glimpses between them to somewhere beyond. It makes me think I’ve seen these views before.
“This looks familiar, Dens. I think I’ve been here before.”
“You have. You had a place here before you went to Afghanistan.”
“I did? I don’t remember going to Afghanistan.”
“No, pet. That’s where everything changed and you…”
“Hey Dens, I’ve had an idea for a great story.”
“Oh, yes?” She has that smirk some carers will give you. “Is this where an ordinary upper-class twit has a bookshop in North London and this glamorous American film star comes in one day and falls for his simple upper-class charms?”
“No! That’s amazing! You read my mind. How did you…?”
“Just a hunch. You’ve told it to me before.”
“Oh, bugger!” What else is there to say? “Bugger, bugger, bugger!”
The train is one of those sort of rattling toytown trains. They don’t go fast, probably can’t. They look quite new, probably are. The seats are too small, probably so they can pack in the punters.
Maybe they should make it okay to sit on other commuters’ laps once all the seats are taken. It could revolutionise rail travel, double passenger numbers overnight.
I think of telling Dens about my idea but I’m not sure I want her telling me again that it’s already been thought of, that they’re already doing it all over the country. Anyway, we’re pulling into a station and Dens is getting the bag down, a sure sign it’s time to get off.
“This is Wokingham.”
“No shit,” I reply, just to show her I’m not so stupid.
We have to wait while the train guard sets up the little steel bridge to let my wheelchair run onto the platform. He’s one of those kind but brusque sorts, gives me a big smile but not one that screams Westwipefan, just a smile.
As we make our way down the platform, a large guy in a leather jacket comes out of the entrance and makes his way towards us, grinning wide. He’s certainly recognised me.
“Hey, Jenson!” he calls from way off. This guy is huge and he’s getting huger with every step.
I look at Dens and mutter, “Here we go again,” and give her my Patient Suffering face mixed with an improvised For Goodness Sake Look at the Size of this Guy face. It’s hard to pull them both off together, but I think I manage it.
He hugs me hard.
“Good to see you, Jenson! Looking good, my man!”
“Thanks,” I say. “Very nice to meet you,” staying as limp as I can in his giant embrace.
“It’s Bobby, Jenson,” says Dens. “Remember Bobby?”
I’m not sure where to start. Remembering Bobby, or wondering why Dens has now started thinking I’m Jenson too.
“Sure, you remember, don’t you, buddy,” says big guy. “Oh, we had some great times, didn’t we? And some great tours. All except that last one, of course.”
He’s suddenly stopped in his oversize tracks, looking distant. “Forces concerts. They never really warn you, do they.”
But then he’s hugging Dens and she’s all flushed and beaming. That’s a new one. Not so cool now, are you Dens.
“And those crowds, Jenson. You can’t have forgotten that gig we did at the O2. Those girls, all those girls!”
He laughs aloud to encourage me, so I look at him and smile.
Whoever these crazy people are, they’re obviously in this together. I’ll play along for now and slip away later. Like I say, best to let people believe what they want to believe – be considerate, let them dream, don’t stamp on their memories – and always, always, leave them smiling.