The day started well enough. I woke from a dream in which I had won an international advertising competition with the slogan “Andrex – Own The Throne” but things had gone rapidly downhill from there. London was very foggy, which gave it a looming Dickensian drear. I thought of a friend who dislikes the Gershwin song “A Foggy Day” because of the line “The British Museum had lost its charm.” He never really thought it had any in the first place.
Gradually, foggy, charmless feelings descended on me, too. I had been at a party the night before where it became clear that 80 per cent of the guests were invited to a dinner afterwards, held in a swish new restaurant nearby. About every five minutes someone said to me, “Are you going to the dinner?” “Will we be seeing you later?” “Let’s sit together at the restaurant!”
The funny thing was, when I modestly shook my head or said a simple “No”, the other person didn’t seem to be able to handle it at all. Their faces contorted with alarm as if something horrific had happened and it was all I could do not to whisper to them, “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!”
As a nation, we are finding it increasingly impossible to answer a Yes or No question with a Yes or No. No one can bear it.
When I ask for a coffee in the mornings, the person behind the counter sometimes says, “No worries, not a problem, not a problem at all.”
“May I have a cappuccino?”
“You really mustn’t blame yourself.”
Try as I might, I just couldn’t think of a graceful way of saying I hadn’t been invited. I attempted evasiveness: “I’m doing this new thing where you can’t eat midweek.” At one time I even heard myself mumble, “I have to go to a meeting at the Aldwych”, which sounded awfully unlikely at 8pm on a Wednesday.
Suddenly my doctor appeared – he was going to the dinner – and I chatted to him for a spell, successfully quashing my desire to say, “You probably don’t recognise me with my clothes on.” But I did murmur something a bit dim, along the lines of: “The bad thing about my enjoying good health is that we never see each other.”
“Well yes,” he said, “you have faced your demons and sent them all packing and that is the best thing one can do for one’s health, in my opinion.”
I don’t know why this felt insulting, but it did. Had my demons been invited to the dinner too?
The next morning I just kept repeating to myself “onwards and upwards”. I wrote my book. I drank my coffee. At 3pm I had a dentist’s appointment and in the middle of the treatment I burst into tears. The dentist was beside himself.
“I am so sorry,” he said. “Was it very, very, painful?”
“Grrwawuulph,” was the only reply I could make. It was so embarrassing. How could I explain to him that somehow every occasion on which I had ever been passed over or excluded was dancing round my head, mocking me? When I was replaced as goal shooter in the netball team, for half a term, by a six-foot tall new girl. When the part of Ariadne in the school play was snatched from me because I was chatting when I shouldn’t have been. (Having the role of an abandoned person taken from you is particularly poignant.) And these, of course, are just the iceberg of rejection’s more palatable tips.
I could see that I needed a miracle cure. I thought with longing of the white mink bag with my name on it in Harrods. With a bag like that no one could EVER leave me out, I just knew. But the price was so high ...
As luck wouldn’t have it, that night I had agreed to read at the South Bank, a story I wrote about two antique film stars in an old folks’ home. It was too late to get out of it. Forlorn, I made my way to the Royal Festival Hall. Marigold and Gloria, the women in the story were called. One minute into the reading, I realised it was going unusually well. I got more and more involved, doing all the voices, even adding gestures. At one point I think I sang.
Suddenly I really was one of these old ladies: “So I came back one evening from London – my mother was bad and I had gone to see what could be done – and Hines let me in, and I remember hearing Marigold tell the decorator, ‘Oh, do use the red silk velvet, you know, that intense throbbing crimson, like in Gigi!’ And I remember thinking, Lord we’ve come an awfully long way from the Dudley Hippodrome!”
The applause and laughter that came back at me was nothing short of tumultuous. At the end, some stood and cheered, some even cried. All thoughts of the previous evening’s slight evaporated. I was as happy as a person could be. It was strange.