–What’s the matter?
–You’re acting funny.
–What is it?
You must be familiar with this conversation. And of course there will come a moment when the Jack must pop from the box: you admit what the matter is, and face up to whatever consequences will follow.
Within a year of us getting together, Jols worked out that my optimum ‘pop’ moment is after seven ‘What’s the matter’s. Fifteen years later I’m making progress. These days it’s more like three.
I’m sitting in the Lowlander bar/brasserie in Covent Garden, with a burger and a paddle of three Belgian beers sitting in front of me. I should be in heaven, but I must admit I’m struggling, once again, to explain what the matter is.
This weekend break in London is the only holiday we’re getting in 2012, and our second evening is now leaking away. I’ve not said anything for the last half hour, and I’ve looked through Jols as she has pointed at all the lovely things in shops.
For once, I know exactly what’s up. But it’s just too embarrassing to admit to.
Let me tell you what the problem is. I know I can trust you.
The previous night we’d been out, had a few drinks, and were wandering back to our hotel, at around 11pm. The hotel was situated a short way along from the Novello Theatre, where Derren Brown was performing his show ‘Svengali’. And would you know it, just as we walked past the doors, two men emerged. The first of the men, dressed in a raincoat and flat cap, ran past us and off down the street. I didn’t see where he went, but as he passed us I saw that it was Derren Brown himself. Exciting!
The second man remained standing in the doorway of the theatre, but he caught my eye as we passed, and he smiled and nodded.
Yes, he seemed to say. That was Derren Brown.
—That was Derren Brown, I said to Jols.
We were both very excited, and we added him to our list of Mike Leigh, Sue Perkins and Ralph Fiennes of ‘star spots’ we’d managed so far.
Today, on our way to look round the shops and go to Lowlander, we passed the theatre again. We walked round a corner, and were immediately accosted by a tall posh man holding a microphone. Next to him was a camera man and a busy-looking director (or whatever). The tall posh man stopped me.
—Do you have a moment to answer a few questions about Derren Brown?
—Sure, I said in a most uncharacteristically relaxed and expansive manner.
—Great, he said, and cued the camera man, who adjusted his broadcast-quality camera to get Jols and me in frame. —So, are you a fan of Derren Brown?
—Yeah, I like his stuff. His TV shows and everything, he’s really good.
—What do you like best?
—I really like his sort of Victorian Music Hall stuff, and all that stuff where he places subliminal messages for people to see in their everyday life, and then gets them to act on it.
—Oh right, great. Have you seen his latest stage show?
—No, no. I’d love to, but we’re just off to see a Hitchcock film across town.
—Sure. And would you ever want to appear on stage yourself?
—Me? Oh, no, no. I just don’t have that performance gene.
Just as I was saying this, a group of schoolkids drifted into shot behind me, and one outgoing lad decided to shout ‘Blooauraghwagglewagglewahh’ right in my ear as he went past.
—Okay, said the posh man, —thanks very much for your time. It’s a shame that kid just did that, really.
Jols and I continued on up the road and into the shops.
—You spoke very well, said Jols with mild surprise. —I just stood there and went redder and redder.
As I walked though, several things began to revolve in my mind. How come I’d been so unnaturally (for me) calm, and confident in answering all of those questions?
What did he mean ‘would you ever want to appear on stage yourself’? Does this mean I’m going to find myself hypnotised and emerging on to the stage in the Novello theatre at the end of the show tonight, to be laughed and pointed at by a thousand people?
A ridiculous thought. Ridiculous.
And that kid was weird. Why did he pass me and say ‘Blooauraghwagglewagglewahh’? What, was that some kind of trigger or something?
And… last night. Derren Brown fixed his eye to the distance and ran past me; quite strange. And then that second man looked me in the eye, and smiled, and nodded. ‘Yes,’ he seemed to say. ‘That was Derren Brown.’
It was at this moment that I was passed by a short, rotund, but dapperly dressed man with silvery hair. He didn’t look at me, but I looked at him. He looked –not exactly like, but substantially similar to– Alfred Hitchcock in one of his movie cameos.
Ridiculous, ridiculous for me even to turn the handle on this idea that was currently tensing up in my brainbox.
We wandered into the Orla Kiely shop and Jols pointed out a few things.
–Ooh, look at that, isn’t that lovely?
–Mm? Yeah. Yeah.
My voice was too loud in my own head, like I had my ears covered. I paced around the shop trying to walk off this miasma. I couldn’t admit to it, could I? Walk it off, walk it off.
As I gazed at the workmanship in the floorboards, I became aware of someone standing near me. I looked up to see a very tall man, maybe 6ft 5in, looking quite intently at me. I moved away. I moved downstairs. And I must admit I began to sweat it a little. It seemed less ridiculous now.
The man followed me downstairs.
I went upstairs, and I left the shop, and the man did the same. He wasn’t following me as such, just— doing the same.
This is where Jols found me, outside the shop, looking pale. The tall man was met by a woman at that moment, and they strolled unhurriedly down the street.
I can’t really remember what happened between that moment and now, with us sitting here in Lowlander, but I was essentially hyper alert and ultra receptive to just about everything that was happening around me.
Jols was getting increasingly hacked off with my silence and lack of interest in anything she had to do or say. Anything except of course in her (quite stroppy) suggestion that we go to Lowlander. She knew I liked it there.
So, here we are, and I have finally summoned up the will to tell her all this.
I’m expecting an ‘awww, don’t be such an egotistical moron’ from Jols, but that wasn’t what I got.
—Oh my god, she says. —That’s actually really freaky.
From the corner of a packed restaurant, a group of men painted head-to-toe in orange and carrying brass-band instruments get up and pick their way with some difficulty over to the front door and leave.
This is true. This actually happens.
—Look, I say. —I’ve ruined their little game. They know I know.
They are totally off to find another victim.
Ah, so anyway: we go to see the Hitchcock movie, which is great, and we return to the hotel at about 10:30pm. Just as a thousand audience members are pouring out of the Novello Theatre.
—Quick, mutters Jols.
We put our heads down and rush into the hotel, up to our room, and lock the door.
Derren Brown must get this a lot.