Among the many remarkable properties possessed by half quarts of cheap spirits left over from Christmas is the ease with which they manage to sneak their way into the garden shed at some point during the New Year. Some might describe it as uncanny, the way they always seem to find men more than willing to loosen sobriety’s belt buckle.
One such man had spent his Sunday morning replacing the garage’s automatic door mechanism with the engine he’d stripped out of an old hover mower. It was a job I’d been intending to do for weeks. As it turned out, the space of a lunchtime was all it took for things to go horribly wrong.
Judy arrived back from the hairdressers around noon and, as normal, drove her car right up the garage door. The moment her front wheel broke the infra red beam the door snapped open in rather brisk 0.1 seconds. Truth to tell: it was probably a bit too brisk. It proceeded to rise a further meter before it met resistance in the form of the garage roof. In less than the time it takes me to write ‘bent metal’, twenty four square feet of corrugated roofing had been peeled back before the electric motor had freed itself explosively from its bearing and gone sailing off in the direction of Dale Winton’s bungalow. It was about this time that I had retired to the workshop I maintain in the garden shed and this is where the liquor sought me out not long after.
It only takes the sound of fire engines rushing to the scene of a blaze in a camp celebrity’s bungalow for a man to appreciate what it means to share a bottle with Ronnie Corbett’s cat. Mr. Brucie often comes and sits in the shed for a little warmth. And so it was yesterday. We shared a few sad stories, Corbett’s cat and me, and then we each promised undying friendship to the other before one of us passed out.
I awoke at four o’clock to find that I’d emptied the bottle to within half-an-inch of its life and that Mr. Brucie had already broken our pledge of loyalty. Alone, I stumbled back to the house and plagued by the thoughts of my Monday interview at the local job agency, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I retrieved a box of matches and the manuscript to ‘Fry, Oddie & Me’ from my office, and then proceeded back outside where I dumped the pages in the barbecue pit. Swaying slightly in the cold air, I stood over it as I doused the whole lot with the last of the spirits.
‘This is it,’ I said, looking at my collected outpourings of the last few months. ‘It’s been fun while it lasted old friend but we knew it we could never go on like this. Goodbye cruel world! Tomorrow, I becomes a normal man.’
And with that, I struck a match and leapt back to protect my eyebrows as five hundred pages of my closely typed wit and wisdom began to blaze where summer bangers usually sizzle. I imagine this is how many of the great unpublished books met their end: with pages flipping and turning in a drunken heat. The force of inebriated flames pulled the manuscript apart, wantonly ripping off the odd page to send it hot and flighty into the sky.
As tears began to trail down my face, there was a movement in the shadows of my attention and I felt somebody come to stand next to me.
‘Is there a sight more likely to make a grown adult weep than watching a melancholic talk show host consummate his passion for wretchedness?’ asked the familiar voice.
‘Stephen?’ I said, wiping a few sooty tears from my eyes.
‘Ay,’ said the Great Man, brushing back a veil of that floppy hair some of us love so much. ‘’Tis I, Fry, with you at the end.’ He put his great paw on my shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze as we both gazed at the blackening pages, rolling in the flames like my tortured dreams. ‘You intend to go through with it then?’
‘Bill’s coming with me tomorrow morning,’ I said. ‘It’s always good to have an Oddie on hand.’
‘He’s the perfect man for the occasion,’ said Fry. ‘Were I just a little less famous, I might have accompanied you to your interview.’
‘You think I don’t know that?’ I smiled. ‘But I wouldn’t want you to see me like that. I’ll be wearing a bad suit.’
He seemed to understand the gravity of the moment for the first time.
‘You mean it won’t be bespoke?’
‘As unbespoke as they come,’ I said.
‘And am I to assume that it won’t be in some shade of gaudy showbiz orange?’
‘It will be very grey. It even came with a small plastic bag containing the spare buttons.’
‘Not buttons for you to stitch on yourself?’
‘The very same,’ I replied. ‘There’s not even room for a cape.’
To that he gave an audible shudder. ‘Shudder,’ said Fry.
‘Oh, don’t be down, Stephen. I’ve had a good career.’ I said this reassure myself as much as him. ‘These next few months will be bitter but at least I’m taking steps to get myself a proper job.’
But now I turned to see tears streaming down Stephen’s face. ‘Oh, forgive me, Dicky,’ he spluttered. ‘To think that you’ll be one of the hoi polloi in a matter of hours… It’s almost too much to bear. What will become of us?’
‘Not to worry,’ I said, taking his hand in mine. ‘Why don’t we go back into the house and have ourselves a jolly game of Scrabble? I’ll give you a ten tile lead.’
‘Include a blank and you’re on,’ he smiled through his tears.
That I certainly did. Half an hour later, I had just overcome Stephen’s ten tile and a blank lead with a cunning use of a ‘Q’ on a double word score. I was about to follow it up when the doorbell rang.
‘I’m not expecting anybody,’ I said as I stood and headed for the front door but Stephen just waved me away. Now recovered from his emotional outburst, he was clearly preparing to run me through with a ‘X’ he was eying for a triple letter.
It was a threat I would have to postpone for later because standing on the welcome mat was Sir Clive James. We’ve not been on speaking terms since he kicked me out of his house during an interview. It didn’t appear that he had recovered. He was red faced and he was waving a singed sheet of paper.
‘What’s this?’ he asked, pushing the page into my face. ‘Comes flying through my window. Is this your name on the top?’
I took a look at paper. ‘Ah, my story about Terry Nutkins and the squirrels!’ I said, recognising the style. ‘Made it all the way to your place, did it? That’s miles away. It couldn’t have got there quicker than if I had tied it to a squirrel and a blazing one at that.’
‘Bad prose travels quickly,’ was all that Sir Clive said, displaying the sort of wit that earned him few friends inside the BBC.
‘I thought it one of my better efforts,’ I answered.
‘Better efforts?’ laughed Clive. ‘Only such a stunningly crass effort could destroy the manuscript to the new book of poetry it has taken me ten months to get right! Every single verse had been rhymed to perfection before this came through the window.’
‘Pftttt,’ said a voice high above my shoulder. It was Stephen. I’d thought him anxious to get on with his triples but there was poetry to discuss and that rarely keeps him out of a fight.
‘What the bloody hell did that mean?’ asked Clive.
‘It meant, my dear squat friend, that there’s a new polymath in town and you are certainly not he.’
‘You think not?’
‘Look you two,’ I said, standing between two of the greatest minds of our age. ‘Can’t we calm down?’ I turned to Clive. ‘I’m afraid you’ve caught us at a bad moment. We’re in the middle of a game of Scrabble.’
His face changed. ‘Scrabble? You play Scrabble?’
‘We both play,’ said Stephen. ‘Care for a game? We could fight for the title of the “Nation’s Favourite Intellectual”.’
Clive stuffed the sheet of paper back into my hands and brushed me aside. ‘Out of the way, Madeley,’ he said. ‘Sir Clive James never says no to a challenge.’
And that was it. The last evening of my showbiz career was taken up with serving drink and food to a pair of insatiable Scrabble addicts fighting for the right to call Radio 4 their own. The night was abound with rare words, with scatterings of ‘x’s and ‘z’s. ‘Zouave’ matched ‘nuzzler’, ‘zonk’ with ‘zoom’. I could only gaze on the scene as one o’clock struck. Such a happy scene, yet mixed with he certain dread that it might be the last. Could I really give up my friends? Could I change the life I knew so well? Would I print out a new copy of my manuscript?
I closed the study door on a friendship newly found and I made my way to bed. Stephen would play until the early hours given a man foolish enough to encourage him. Sir Clive James was clearly that man. To the sound of their mutual laughter, sharing a joke in Spanish, I climbed the stairs. Perhaps I’d see them again before I left for town in the morning. Perhaps I wouldn’t. The only thing that matter was that peace reigned and I would soon be asleep, eased their by the gentle orange glow from the still smoldering ruin of Dale Winton’s bungalow.