HeroI wish I was somewhere else. Anywhere else. A Polar expedition maybe, or a trek up Everest. Anywhere other than this queue for autographs at the Mega-Stars Science-Fiction Convention. The poster-lined, door-sized panels that screen us from the main hall do nothing to deaden the hubbub of a thousand conversations, and there’s an all-pervasive smell of sweaty T-shirts and old trainers. The air conditioning seems to have surrendered to the crowds of eager fans.
But next to me, my kids are bouncing up and down with excitement and, as we shuffle forward another few feet, Jamie grabs my hand and squeals, ‘I can see him, I can see him!’
‘Where? Lemme see!’ In an effort to avoid the fearsome-looking female Klingons standing in front of us, Jack steps on my foot as he pushes across to try to catch the same glimpse of their hero as his brother.
‘There, look – that fat girl in the Gryffindor uniform is standing in front of him.’
‘Woah! Awesome! I can see his shoulder – and his arm!’
‘Are you going to say “hello” to him, dad?’
‘Yeah, like, do you think he’ll recognise you?’
I remember kicks and punches, homework trampled in mud, and I give Jack the best smile I can muster. ‘I suppose he might remember me,’ I manage, ‘It’s been a long time.’
If only I’d kept my mouth shut all those years ago, when I first saw Will Jeffries on TV. But I’d been so startled – it’s not every day you see someone you know getting bumped off in the opening moments of Midsomer Murders – and besides, I’d just started going out with Ellie. I thought it would impress her if I said, ‘I was at school with him, you know.’
‘Who? The body?’ She’d moved her head to a horizontal position to get a better look at the prone form on the screen. ‘Ooh yes, very tasty.’ There was a light of approval in her eyes as she’d straightened to look up at me. ‘What was he like then? At school?’
‘I don’t really remember.’ A lie. I remembered all too well. ‘I mean, we weren’t friends. Just, you know, in the same class.’
On the TV, Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Troy had arrived at the crime scene, and I’d deflected her attention back to whodunit.
Over the years, Will appeared on the telly more often, in increasingly good roles, and every time Ellie would point him out with a ‘Look, Pete, it’s your mate from school!’
‘We weren’t mates,’ I’d mutter, but it never made any difference.
And it wouldn’t have mattered, if only he hadn’t landed the second lead in a new science-fiction show. My boys loved it from the first episode, and they weren’t the only ones. Despite the best efforts of the critics to wipe it from the screen, it’s become a bit of a cult, with adults as well as children tuning in.
There are Twitter discussions, Facebook pages, clips on Youtube, and an official monthly magazine that I’ve had to subscribe to for my lads.
I suppose I wouldn’t even mind all that, if only Jamie and Jack weren’t so enthralled with Will’s character. They can take or leave the others, I think, but I’ve had to break up fights when they both want to play at being brave, dependable ‘Commander Bax’, and it’s Will’s face that glares down at me from the posters on their bedroom walls.
Even Ellie started watching the programme, and she hates science-fiction. ‘He looks good in uniform, your mate,’ she said, leaning on the ironing board one evening, while the neglected iron hissed and steamed at her elbow. Then she winked at the boys and said, ‘Has your dad told you he was at school with him?’
You can imagine the excitement and the questions – ‘Is he really like Bax?’ ‘Have you got his address?’ ‘Can you email/phone/tweet him?’
Then the disappointment when I couldn’t – wouldn’t – come through with any personal anecdotes, or contact details. How could I? All I remember are the threats and the violence, the pinches and punches in the dinner queue – embarrassing, shaming memories, not the sort of thing I’d want to share with my boys. Or with anyone else for that matter.
It was Ellie, of all people, who found out about the Convention, courtesy of a glossy spread about Will in one of her Women’s magazines. Once she’d finished admiring his beautiful wife’s lovely outfit, and cooed over his too-cute-to-be-true twin toddlers, she passed the article over to me. ‘Look, it says at the end he’s going to be at some special event in February. Look it up on the internet, Pete, see if you can get tickets – the boys would love it.’
‘It’ll be expensive,’ I said, grasping at the first excuse I could think of. ‘And you know they’re cutting back at work. I’ll be lucky if I’m not part-time by Christmas.’
But I went online anyway, and checked the prices, because she was right – the boys would love it. Though the thought of facing Will again was painful, I reasoned that the chances of him recognising me were pretty slim, what with my balding head and expanding waistline.
I wish I’d thought of disguising myself as an alien - there are enough extra-terrestrial costumes around here that I wouldn’t have looked out of place. Oh well, too late now.
The queue eases forward. I hear Will’s voice, joking with the battle-armoured women that they’ve beamed into the wrong franchise and, despite the chill that washes over me, I find that I’m sweating. For a moment I’m back in the playground, running and yelling…
Then the Klingons grunt ‘Qa’pla!’ and move away, and Will’s right there in front of me, curly-haired and handsome as he smiles at Jamie and Jack. The folding table he’s sitting behind looks cheap, but he doesn’t, in his black leather jacket and designer-label polo shirt. Nice tan too, he obviously didn’t spend his New Year waiting for buses in the rain.
‘Hello,’ he says, ‘Nice hats.’
The boys giggle. They are both wearing black baseball caps with Commander Bax stitched in gold across the peak. Cost me the best part of forty quid, and I daren’t think what Ellie might be spending at this moment on sweatshirts and replica plasma guns in the merchandise area.
Will pulls two publicity photos from the pile at his elbow and readies his pen. ‘So, who’s first?’
‘Me!’ they shout together, and giggle again, suddenly shy.
I step between the two of them, and place a hand on each of their shoulders. ‘They’re Jamie and Jack,’ I say, relieved that his attention is still on the boys.
‘Alphabetical order then,’ he says, and begins to sign the first photo.
‘Go on, dad!’ Jamie’s shoulder nudges my hip. ‘Say hello.’
Jack joins in on the other side. ‘Yeah, dad, go on!’
They jostle me, disbelieving perhaps of my stupid boast, now that I’m standing there not knowing what to say.
‘Jack?’ Will holds out the signed picture in my direction, obviously unsure which boy is which.
‘Thank you.’ As Jack takes the photo, he blurts, ‘Dad says he was at school with you,’ and Will looks first at him, and then up at me.
There’s no edge in his voice, no inflection, just a simple statement of fact; but I read cool contempt in his blue eyes.
‘Hey, Will. It’s… um… been a while,’ I manage.
Will glances at the boys, who are waiting open-mouthed for his next utterance, and all the hurtful phrases I’ve imagined him saying to me tumble through my head as I wait for him to reply.
But all he says is: ‘Yes. It has.’
Then he’s signing Jamie’s photo, with the same bold flourish as he did with Jack’s, and I find myself staring down at his watch as he holds the picture steady. It’s a Cartier, a real one, not the kind of knock-off copy I once picked up at Camden Market.
‘There you go, Jamie,’ says Will. He hands him the photo, then pushes a leaflet across the table at me. ‘Special offer,’ he says, as I reach to pick it up, ‘Five per cent off the cover price of my book for everyone getting an autograph today.’
I stare at the leaflet, which has a photo of Will at the top, and a book title in block capitals: ‘Will Jeffries – The Story so Far’.
There are a couple of paragraphs of marketing blurb underneath, but the only words I see are in the first sentence: ‘…from bullied schoolboy to TV success.’ My stomach takes a side-step, and I fumble with the neck of my shirt, feeling suddenly way too warm.
‘Cool!’ Jamie pulls the leaflet from my numb fingers, and addresses Will. ‘Is dad in it?’
‘That would be telling,’ says Will, winking at him. ‘Buy a copy when it comes out next month and see.’
My mouth has gone dry, but somehow I manage to say, ‘Come on, boys, there are other people waiting,’ and we move away from the autograph table and back into the main hall.
Though they are both hugging their signed photos to their chests, Jamie still manages to read aloud from the leaflet, while Jack uses his free hand to try to snatch it from him. It’s obvious they’ll be wanting a copy of the book.
Oh, dear God! What will they think of me, if Will has named his tormentors? What can I possibly say? Why did we even treat him so badly? From my adult perspective, Will was a nice kid – quiet, arty, not much good at sport. Why did we single him out? What did he ever do to us?
Somehow, I’ve steered the boys to the café, where Ellie is already waiting, and they rush across to her, anxious to show off their autographs and tell her all about their meeting with their hero.
‘… and he remembered dad’s name, mum!’ I hear Jack shout.
‘He really, really knew him! Isn’t that, like, the coolest thing ever?’