Part 7 - How we came to this
Part 6 is here
Part 5 is here
Part 4 is here
Part 3 is here
Part 2 is here
...and Part 1 is here
Before anybody had a chance to forget why they were really there, it came time to announce to all present exactly what you’d been doing for the past 20 years. Ronnie was relieved not to go first. There was much talk about being non-judgmental, but he knew that when it came to his life story, people would not be able to resist asking questions: not about himself, but about Marianne, sometime global superstar.
Hazel went first; it was her party. Instead of going to university, as planned, she said she left home after a huge row with her parents and went to live with an aunt in Brighton. Lucy piped up that she remembered seeing her there once. Hazel said that she worked in her aunt’s shop for about a year, then went to college to do a catering course, a complete change of tack for her. After a couple of years of that course, she went to a cookery school in Paris for a further year, which is where she met Didier. Didier held up his hand and everybody cheered. They both got jobs as sous chefs in restaurants, before deciding to start their own quiche restaurant in the Vendée, with help from Didier’s parents, who lived there and owned property. The quicherie hadn’t been a great success, but had evolved into the successful holiday lettings business.
There were murmurs of thanks and approval at that; then Didier said he had nothing to add to that story except more wine.
More was poured, and the next to go was Jane Hinchcliffe, one of the most recent arrivals. jane and her husband had arrived with their three children, and the kids had already been packed off to bed in the largest cottage. Ronnie looked Jane over. She was slim and still attractive, her previously mousy-blonde hair was now lighter, and streaked with grey. He’d liked her a lot when they were teenagers; but he had a terrible habit of rejecting anyone who showed the slightest bit of interest in him, reserving his energies for the pursuit of girls who either wouldn’t give him the time of day, or happened to be in relationships with his best friend. Because Jane seemed to like him, he’d manufactured some reason to be mean to her, and that, at the age of 14, was that. Ronnie spent the next 3 or 4 years regretting it, but he never really got close to her again.
Jane took a sip of her wine and a deep breath.
“After fucking up my ‘A’ levels,” she began, and everybody laughed, remembering. In the final year of sixth form, Jane got very distracted by a secret boyfriend. Nobody knew who he was, especially Jane’s parents, but everybody knew he existed. Jane had finished school with just one ‘A’ level, E grade, and then went to further education college, at her parents’ behest, to retake the exams. With better grades, she went to a Polytechnic and did a vocational course in business management. “Then I landed a plum job with a building firm called Hinchcliffe & Sons.” Everybody laughed again.
It was well known, Ronnie remembered, that Hinchcliffe, Jane’s father, had three daughters and no sons, the name of his firm being wishful thinking from the start. After working for her father’s firm for 10 years, Jane suddenly inherited the whole business when he died suddenly. She was now married to her right-hand-man, James, the son her father never had, and he managed the business while she was taking time out to spend with their children.
So it went on, round the table, ever closer to Ronnie and Lucy. The quick potted histories, the gentle laughter, the self-deprecation. Doug Kinross was working in some high-powered risk assessment job, complete with his own private plane and several european properties. He was divorced, no kids. Dave
was unmarried and had been working in his stop-gap job, in the Customs and Excise, for nearly 20 years. But he had plans, he said, to take a career break and travel the world. Ronnie seemed to remember him saying exactly the same thing 10 and fifteen years before.
Donna was working in publishing, editor in chief of a teenage music magazine. She was on her second marriage, obviously proud of her younger man.
Then it came to Lucy.
“Some of you might remember,” said Lucy, “that I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself when I left school.” She looked first at Ronnie, then at Dave. “There was the option of going to work for my dad, like Jane, but I didn’t really want to. Nobody in my family had ever been to university, and my parents weren’t very supportive of that. I almost went to the same catering course that Hazel did, small world, but in the end, after a couple of years of not doing anything much, I went to work for the Ordnance Survey.
“I was just an office assistant, but they encouraged me to develop my career, so I did eventually end up going to university, but instead of becoming a cartographer, I’m actually a lecturer.” A self-deprecating smile. “I originally went to university to do one degree, but I ended up with three. So I’m a PhD in geography, yay, and I teach and do research.”
“What are you researching right now?” asked Ronnie.
“Well, for years really, I’ve been doing research on coastal erosion and land reclamation,” she said. “So I can spend a lot of time at the seaside,” she added.
Ronnie’s turn. He wondered how quickly he could get through it.
“As some of your might remember,” he began, with a smile in Lucy’s direction. “I left school before the official end and went off to live in London with some friends, and we started a band. We messed around for a while, and then we got a contract and made a record, but nothing really came of that. So I went to the States, and I’ve really been there most of the time, playing guitar on other people’s records and writing songs for other people to sing.”
“Like Marianne Duff,” said Donna with a smile.
“Like Marianne, yeah, and others.” Ronnie took a deep breath. “Married three times, no kids. After my last divorce, I decided to give up on the States and move back to England.”
“Why?” asked Lucy.
“I’d been working in Nashville, mainly,” said Ronnie. “And being married to Marianne, and seeing all that success, that was great, but it blinded me to something. And after we split up, and I married Josey, I started to realise that all the people I really liked in Nashville, all the singers and musicians that I enjoyed working with the most, they’d nearly all of them left town. Most of my favourite people couldn’t get a record deal, so they’d gone off to places like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon, I’ve no idea why, and they were doing their own thing, small scale, and they were no longer around for me to hang out with.
“I looked around and realised that I didn’t have any friends in town, and I suddenly felt… homesick.”
“What about Marianne?” someone asked.
“Well, she lives in Swizerland now, and we speak through our lawyers, mostly."
“What was that like, being married to her?” Lucy again.
“Odd, but it all happened so gradually, I barely noticed. I supposed that was the problem. She started to get all these offers, and began to want to do things we’d always laughed at, you know. I was just pootling along living my normal life, and suddenly realised we hadn’t seen each other for about six months. It was over and we hadn’t even had an argument.”
“Did you make a lot of money?” Doug Kinross.
“Well, Doug, let me put it this way. I’m comfortably off. But most of the time I was just earning a wage. So think of the Marianne thing as my pension fund. It’s about as exciting as that.”
“Who are the people you miss?” Lucy again.
“Musicians? Singers mainly, people whose records I liked to play on. There was a string of beautiful redheads, all of them fantasically talented. All of them made about three records and then got dumped by their labels. They’re all just running little web sites now. I can play on their records over telephone lines, but we’re all living in different places now.”
After Ronnie's story, there were just a couple more. Then an infection of yawning went round the table, and soon enough the sleeping arrangements were being discussed. By some miracle, or forward planning on her part, the last two to be allocated beds were Lucy and Ronnie. There was one small cottage left – with a double bedroom and an extra fold out sofa bed in the living area. Hazel handed Lucy a torch and she led the way across the grass in the moonlight.
Ronnie’s heart was about to burst through his chest wall.