Call it devilry if you must but part of me was actually glad that it had happened.
Ainsley Harriott has been something of a byword for upward mobility since he rose to stardom a few years ago. He’s an unusual beast in the world of celebrity and one from whom you would be wise to keep a measured distance. That distance is usually measured inches longer than the reach of his tongue, which he is more likely to use when greeting you than he is likely to shake you by the hand. It has worked remarkably well for him. From stirring noodles on BBC2, he moved on to conquer America before he came back home last year and returned to Ready Steady Cook where he can be found, five days a week, leering towards cameras and sticking out his twenty seven inch tongue for ‘the ladies’.
This deep background is my way of introducing the fact that he moved into the area just before Christmas. Yesterday was the first time we’d had chance to set foot inside his house.
‘Come on, Richard,’ said Judy after she’d found me at noon sitting in the middle of the living room zapping aliens on the XBox 360 that Stephen Fry bought me for Christmas. ‘You’ll become a vegetable if you play those games much longer.’
‘Hmmm,’ I said as I slipped out from behind a docking crate and hit a bug between the eyes with my sniper rifle.
‘Ainsley’s having a few friends over to his new house,’ she said. ‘He’s invited us around for a New Year’s drink.’
‘Ah,’ I replied, most eloquently, I thought, as a laser blast seared a hole in my virtual spacesuit.
‘Well? Are you coming?’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, dropping the controller as Fry’s onscreen presence began to dance over my dead corpse, his cape, emblazoned with the Fry crest, flapping in the solar wind. ‘You know, I’m not over this cold and Stephen has just pwned my arse…’
She raised her fists and set them on her hips. ‘Must you do everything that Stephen says? Get changed this minute, Richard Madeley. For once, you can actually do something for your wife. And the fresh air will do you some good. I’m sick of hearing you sniffing.’
I was not in a fit enough state to argue. I got changed, shaved off two weeks of beard, and met Judy at the car. This isn’t to say I was feeling well. In fact, by the time we were pulling up at Ainsley’s house, I was feeling pretty nauseous. A bright pink mansion with yellow decoration will tend to do that to a man, especially when it’s also been covered with bright blue Christmas lights to spell ‘Alright ladies?’
‘Richard! Judy! How lovely of you to come,’ said Ainsley, meeting us at the door. He stuck a kiss on Judy’s cheek before he the turned and licked me across the brow. ‘Hello Richard,’ he drawled before he smacked his lips together as considered the flavour. ‘You’re a mite tasty. But you’ve not been getting plenty of greens over Christmas, you naughty man! Your iron is low.’
‘I’ve had flu,’ I explained.
‘A mild cold,’ muttered Judy.
‘Oh,’ said Ainsley, ‘a marital dispute! Well don’t let me stop you two from arguing.’ He wiped a fleck of something from my shoulder before he gestured us into an adjacent room. ‘Come on in and meet my friends. They’re just dying to meet you.’
Walking into the room felt like I’d been slipped into BBC2’s afternoon schedule. Anne Robinson was holding a competition with a walnut cabinet to see who could maintain the tautest frown. Watching the two of them with professional delight was the David Dickinson wannabe, Tim Wonnacott. You probably don’t know the man as he’s one of the BBC’s cult stars. I always think he has a look of Terry Thomas had the great man been hit across the chin with a frying pan. Also in the mix was the face of upper-crust wildlife, Ben Fogle, and the face of pretty much everything else, Cheryl Baker.
‘Hello Judy,’ chirped Cheryl (you’ll find she always chirps). ‘Richard. You’re looking well.’
‘I’ve had flu,’ I said.
‘A mild cold,’ said Judy.
‘I was once a big star in America,’ said Robinson, who has the peculiar habit of starting every conversation with this disputed fact. ‘There’s a horrible bug going around. We had to cancel the Christmas Weakest Link because of it.’
‘Well at least it’s good to know that it’s not all bad,’ I muttered as I settled myself in a chair next to Tim and Ben.
And that was pretty much it from me. I listened to the group chatter about the business. Ainsley couldn’t stop telling us about the famous people he had licked. He could describe them down to their fat content and how must salt they have in their diet. I confess, he was doing a pretty good job at getting on my bad side and my mood went from petulant to glowering at the half-hour point when he turned to me, put his hand on my knee (I hate it when people do that), and said ‘oh, Richard, you look gloomier than when I told Robert de Niro that he tasted of fish’.
‘Not gloomy,’ I said to him. ‘Just a touch of indigestion.’
Which was the truth. As tired as I was of listening Ainsley’s tongue talk, I was more worried by the increasingly sharp pains grumbling in my left side. They were the warning signs that experience had taught me to heed.
‘Ainsley, could I use your bathroom?’
‘Of course, Richard,’ he said, stroking my knee. ‘Up the stairs. First on the right.’
He set me on my way with a pat on my bottom. I can’t be sure that he didn’t do so with his tongue. I didn’t stop to check. Even heeling it all the way to the bathroom, I barely made it in time.
The flu left my body in a spectacular display that the BBC should have filmed in high definition and shown on the stroke of midnight on New Year. After fifteen minutes of stomach cramping agony, I was done and feeling unbelievably well. I really can’t describe how a good purge revitalises the Madeley system, though what it had done to the atmosphere in Ainsley Harriott’s bathroom I really can’t describe. A pig farm on a warm summer day would be a picnic site by comparison.
I brushed myself down, wiped the hair from my face, which I splashed with some cold water, before I returned to the living room. I found Tim Wonnacott sitting by himself reading a copy of ‘Which Cooker & Hob’ magazine.
‘Feeling better?’ asked Tim.
‘Much,’ I said. ‘It’s been a bad virus.’
‘I hear it’s going around,’ he said.
I looked at the empty chairs once occupied by a Robinson, a Fogel, a Baker, and a Judy. Not to mention a man called Harriott with a twenty seven inch tongue.
‘Where’s Judy?’ I asked.
‘She’s with the rest of them,’ said Tim. ‘Ainsley wanted to show them the improvements they’ve had done to the house.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Well I suppose it is an impressive pile.’
‘Bit too modern for me,’ said Tim. ‘Though I hear that the new bathroom suite is something to behold. Specially imported Italian marble.’
‘It is,’ I assured him. Having spent fifteen minutes with my ears stuck between my knees there had been plenty of opportunity to examine the quality bathroom suite. ‘I should bet it cost him a fortune.’
‘Oh, well, don’t let Judy bully you into buying some,’ joked Tim.
‘Hopefully she won’t see it,’ I smiled.
He lowered his magazine. ‘No chance of that,’ he replied. ‘You don’t think Ainsley wouldn’t be off showing them that? They were looking at his new bedroom first and then they were going to the bathroom.’
Normal legs would have taken the steps one or two at a time. A newly purged Madeley did it by the threes and fours. And yet I was still too late. I met the group coming back from the bathroom. The upstairs landing was crowded by looks of mortification. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a look of disgust on Judy’s face quite like the one I saw when she lowered the handkerchief from her mouth.
What could I say?
The four of them brushed past me and left me standing there. A moment later, Judy appeared at the bottom of the stairs, her handbag hung ominously over her shoulder. She pointed to the front door.
‘Are we going then?’ I asked.
She just pointed.
She only broke her silence five minutes later in the car.
‘You could have opened the window,’ she said.
‘I couldn’t work the latch,’ I explained. ‘I swear he’s had them specially made to open with his tongue. You can’t hold me responsible for that.’
‘I’ve been ill.’
‘I’m sure that excuses everything.’
‘Well it’s not as though you don’t already know that this happens. It always happens when I’ve had a bad cold. Does it not matter that I’m feeling better?’
‘Feeling better has nothing to do with it,’ said Judy. ‘Ben Fogle said it reminded him of an incontinent camel he once rode across Libya.’
‘And what did Ainsley say?’
Judy flicked me a look. ‘That’s all he said. He licked his lips and said “pickled onions”.’
‘Ah,’ I replied, nodding. ‘Well, I happen to like pickled onions.’
‘And do you know what Italian marble costs?’
I remembered Tim’s warning. ‘Don’t get any ideas, Judy.’ I said. ‘We can’t afford a new bathroom suite. Not with the Channel 4 contract coming to an end this year.’
‘Don’t worry,’ she moaned. ‘We’re not having Italian marble if it can be discoloured so easily. He says he’s going to have it steam cleaned but I don’t think it will make a difference. Honestly, Richard, I know that you’re a man on many unique and enviable skills, but I never thought you’d be able to turn Italian marble brown.’