Old School Ties – Excerpt

Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.
– John F. Kennedy, 1960

Do you really want to hurt me?
– Boy George, 1982

Tracey Mortimer rules the skool and the world 4ever and ever! OK!
– Tracey Mortimer, The door of Cubicle 3, girls’ toilets, Humanities Block,
Crawley Park Comprehensive, June 1984

Chapter 1

27 Sunnyside, Bracewell New Town, Berkshire, April 2001

Last night, when the third gin and tonic finally knocked the sharp edges off my day, I dared to look in the mirror. And there, just below the problem family of white hairs breeding in my fringe, were the eyes of Tracey Mortimer. The most popular girl in the school.

I thought she’d gone for good.

When I was Tracey Mortimer, the whole year group belonged to me. Kids gossiping on the bus would say, ‘Guess what happened in Tracey’s year…’ One parents’ evening, a teacher took my mum aside and said, ‘We’re all hoping that Tracey’s year is a bit of a hiccup. Half the staff room would be applying for early retirement if we thought this was the way kids were going to behave from now on.’

If we’d had a yearbook, like they do in America, I’d have had a mention on every page, and I’d definitely have been voted the girl most likely to succeed. I’m not boasting. Look at me now – plain old Mrs Dave Brown – and maybe it’s hard to believe, but I really was top dog. Not swotty – I would never have been head girl, but then we didn’t have a head girl, it wasn’t that kind of school.

What I had was the knack of being at the centre of everything, without pissing people off. Saying what everyone else was thinking, but making it loads funnier. Knowing how short we should be wearing our school skirts, or how thick we should be tying our hideous ties, way before the latest trends hit the pages of Jackie or Just 17. And, of course, giving the teachers just enough of a hard time to wind them up, but not enough to get detention more than once a month… And I even made detention fun.

Those were the bloody days. They really were.

I poured myself another drink, and took it to bed with me (unlike Dave, a G and T doesn’t answer back). I propped his pillows on top of mine, nestling down in the hope that some tipsy memories might send me off into sweet dreams. His smell drifted up from the pillowcase, and I imagined him lying alone in his lodgings, a sad smile on his face, thinking of me…
But I wasn’t drunk enough. Before I could stop it, my imagination revealed the freckly back of some Irish girl lying asleep next to him.

And as the taste of the tonic turned chemical on my tongue, I realised. Everything since school has been shit. How I failed to notice for so long is a mystery, but then I’ve been busy marrying a bastard and having two of his kids. Life’s like having no grey hair. You only know what you had once you’ve lost it.

I sat up in bed, trying to compare the good bits in my first sixteen years to the good bits in the last sixteen; it was so obvious. The sodding Youth Training Scheme, the endless nights on a fruitless quest for Mr Right, and the getting excited about getting engaged and getting married and then getting wise to the reality that all it means is more ironing, and having someone apart from my mother shouting at me.

As for the fulfilment of motherhood, it’s a con. Sure, my two are the most beautiful children alive. But the other mums? OK, I had a few laughs in the antenatal group, though they were a dopey bunch compared to class 1G, too easily led for my liking. I used to enjoy a challenge. The only challenge that gets the new mums going is the race to finish knitting another pair of pink bootees. And now Kelly’s started school, it’s like salt in the wounds. She hangs on to me like a strip of Velcro in the mornings. I try to shoo her off, but she hates every minute of it.

You know those films, Big and Freaky Friday? That’s my dream, to swap places, like Tom Hanks or Jodie Foster. Kelly would love to sit at home doing the dusting, watching daytime telly, eating biscuits and playing with Callum, and I’d give anything to be at school again, recruiting myself with a little gang, kissing the boys and making them cry. I want to go back in time. And I bloody can’t, and I bloody hate it.

At least, I didn’t think I could. And now, you know, I reckon there might just be a way…

Smart Alec Productions, Beak Street, Soho, Central London

Jenny had known even before it started that this was going to be one of those meetings.

Alec hit pause on the remote control, then threw it across the table. A still frame of a bespectacled man with receding hair hovered on the widescreen TV at the end of the production company meeting room.
‘What an idiot. Do you think he’s actually got any old school friends who’d want to meet him ever again?’ Alec sighed. ‘Can you explain why this is so hard? Reunions are the new sex, aren’t they? Everyone’s at it, shuffling around to Spandau Ballet and eating Spangles. It’s not rocket science to find me a single decent case we can follow, is it?’

Jenny bit her lip. ‘Alec, we’ve got half a dozen reunions in the file—’

‘Yes, but I’m not looking for dysfunctional retards with issues. I want feel-good people. This isn’t Panorama, you know.’

Better to let him finish when he was having one of his hissy fits – she’d learned that much in the last year at Smart Alec Productions.

‘The clue’ – he was now banging the file up and down on the desk to emphasise certain words – ‘is in the commissioning document. It’s entertainment. Go on, hazard a guess. What do you think that means we want the programme to be?’

He waited, but Jenny knew it was a rhetorical question. Annabel, the new researcher, had her mouth open to answer, and Jenny kicked her under the table.

‘It means’ – Alec had dropped the file on to the floor, and was speaking as if to an ill-disciplined child – ‘that it should be entertaining!’

Annabel seemed to be blinking back tears.

Jenny took a deep breath. ‘Alec, I know you’re frustrated, but you’re being a bit harsh. Annabel and I have been out every night meeting candidates. We’ve got one tonight, four over the weekend. But getting the right people takes time.’

Alec stared at her. ‘Time, Jenny, is precisely what we don’t have. If the BBC get their reunion show on air before us, it’ll be my head on the block.’ He paused before giving her a vindictive look. ‘And yours, of course.’

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