Over the months with Keith, I got better at talking I must admit, but we had no choice but to get comfortable with each other. In the early days we worked on our admitted, and observed, weaknesses – creating little tests for each other to improve our lot, the Dale Carnegie way.
‘It will only work if we’re completely open about everything,’ Keith said right at the very start, ‘however personal and shaming,’ and so the first thing he did was to impose this rule whereby our, err, mmh, bathroom activity had to be declared in an original and accurate way, as soon as we re-entered the room. It meant facing up to excruciating embarrassment whilst at the same time promoting the use of pithy extemporary observations – very good for sensitive flowers like me with a low shame threshold. One of the other tests, which we designed for a variety of reasons, but whose primary purpose was to train me into being a more fluent conversationalist, was to reproduce the entire Radio 4 schedule from eight ‘til eight for an entire week. In that time, we had to remain faithful, without ever coming out of character, to the programme-by-programme output from Radio 4 as best we could remember it; comedy shows, documentaries, no matter – the backdrop default to certain lives. The only time we could check whether we were on the right track, or which show was scheduled next, was in the news breaks where we allowed each other the concession of counting our own personal situation as news to be covered; or when we acted as continuity announcers, which we did jointly – where we pressed the mute button to allow us to cough, but which we really used to check our bearings.
It is hard now to imagine now how we kept that up for an entire week without begging to be released from its torture, but it seemed to matter to see such things through. It worked to an extent too, though I don’t look back on my performance in The Reed Cutters of the Camargue with particular pride. Nor that when I was interviewed for Desert Island Discs – me first, on Sunday; him, on what would have been the repeat, the following Friday.
He was friendly but probing. Yes, that’s the way to put it, but he would sing my discs to me between questions. Contractually obliged to, actually.
‘And that was Four in the Morning by Faron Young. So, the young Richard White, you say he was unhappy at the Home and Colonial?’ That’s the name I gave my sixth form college – have I told you that yet? It’s because it was 90% open-plan cafeteria, 10% school, like the Home and Colonial café above Liptons, where I used to go with Dolly when I was
‘I became an underachiever.’
That sort of thing. He had this technique which just invited you into a large space, which you then felt obliged to fill.
Suddenly, he started singing less of the songs, sometimes barely more than the introduction, before he was into me again, as if he had a mission to get to the bottom of whatever it was I was. And then, he went off-piste and started asking me questions from a questionnaire in one of the magazines that Sweet and Sour had dropped off with us. Oh yeah, since Keith arrived, we started to get the occasional magazine, and sometimes two or three cigarettes from the end of his packet. Neither of us smoked, well we didn’t, but now, as soon as he leaves the room we race over to the cigarettes on all fours, like dogs chasing a morsel of food that someone has dropped.
I imagine him looking back through the keyhole, like the sadist Alan Turnbull laughing at us in our desperate misery. But still, we do it, because it makes for a change as much as anything else, and chasing desperately for the almost empty pack has become part of the ritual. If there’s enough of them, we save one or two, then we guess when it’s 5.00 pm, like we used to when we came back from the shore with Dolly; then we’d have one, as if we were having a cocktail. We’ve even started calling it cocktail hour.
Makes you realise actually, that you don’t have to drink, or smoke, or whatever it is, you just have to do something that takes you out of yourself at a certain time every day. Then, no matter how desperate things are for you, you can start to build your day around that moment. I imagine some people do this without thinking about it – like having supper or whatever. It could be anything though: dancing, masturbating, cleaning out your earwax. Now that I think about it, it’s an enormous subject, worthy of its own dedicated session of thought. But just before I sign off on it for today – what about this? Heroin abusers are weaned off the drug by attending a daily Scottish Country Dancing lesson? Got legs, hasn’t it?
Anyway, back to the point. Keith started reading out questions from this celebrity interview instead of thinking up his own within the accepted Desert Island Discs format, as agreed. Don’t worry, I planned to tackle him about it at top of the hour all right – but during the show he just went into: do you believe in an afterlife, name your favourite river, what would you have done differently, who was your mentor, what matters more talent or ambition, tell me about an animal you have loved? A classic arsehole’s trick by the way – starting easy, getting the participant all excited, then making him cry by the end. Then what did he do? I’ll tell you, he saved his last question until I’d started sobbing, then asked, ‘what score would you give your life, out of 10?’
I answered, “One”, obviously, but then he came back at me, wanting to know why I’d given it such a low mark.
‘It’s a high mark,’ I protested, still crying.
‘No, it’s not, it’s one above zero,’ he said, ‘that’s not high.’
‘One is infinitely higher than zero,’ I shouted at him. I mean, I admire his probing but sometimes he’s really thick‘
‘Why,’ he kept asking, ‘why so low?
Eventually I said, ‘because I have a very good sense of humour.’
Then he got really upset, thinking I wasn’t taking it seriously enough. We had gone into the news by then, so he was allowed to come out of character, and he said, ‘if you can’t take it seriously, you can keet it,’ and he threw the magazine at me.
But did you hear that? He said ‘keet it’ like Harry Satterthwaite, who was a real live authentic village idiot from Beacham. Well, he wasn’t actually, he was a bit of an idiot-savant, all stupid and cunning at the same time, with orange teeth and a face like a Toby Jug. Like cocktail hour stimulants, he’s worth a post of his own. I might do it next, or after the one about the Home and Colonial. Soon anyway – we’ll leave it at that for now.
Кстати, I wasn’t trying to spoil our game, or make fun of the format of Desert Island Discs – I was unhappy with him for having done that, like I told you.
All my instincts told me to reach out to him, to explain what I meant, to bring him back to the game. But I resisted. I’ve being doing that all my life, and look where it’s got me. He could explain his stupidity to me; I was no longer going to beg for the chance to enlighten someone else. So basically, we wrote-off Woman’s Hour that day and replaced it with music on hold. Good actually, I didn’t fancy Breast-Feeding during the Menopause and it was my turn.
In the next break he said, “So, what was all that about?”
And I replied, “I have been blessed with a good sense of humour Keith, so for the times I’ve laughed, I will give my life a score of one out of ten.”
After the eight o’clock news that night, we read for a while, then had an early night.