CHAPTER ONE. Portal to Another World
On that forty-five minute train journey to London I transformed from fifteen-year old Maggie Mitchell into eighteen year-old Maggie de Beer like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. I would be eighteen for about six years after that.
It hardly seems worth lying about where or when I was born any longer, not in these times of Heat Magazine and the bloody Internet, when everyone can find out everything about you at the touch of a button. No chance of retaining an air of international mystery and glamour these days, which is what I was trying to do when I used to tell people I was a child of the Empire, conceived in Monte Carlo after a successful night for my parents in the casino, born in India and brought up in Kuala Lumpur. I used to talk about how my father was in the diplomatic service; ‘all terribly hush-hush,’ I would say, ‘not even Mummy was allowed to know what he did’.
In fact my father worked for the council in Haywards Heath, inspecting things, and the closest we ever got to lives of international mystery was a couple of package tours to Majorca in the 1960’s, the stress of which seemed to almost blow my mother’s entire nervous system. But I could hardly build a career as a global superstar and icon from those beginnings, could I? So, I changed everything about my past the day I sneaked out of the house with the best family suitcase while my mother was having her after-lunch rest with the bedroom door closed, and dragged it to Haywards Heath station. As I stood on that dreary, draughty platform for the last time it seemed like my portal to another world.
It was 1970 and London was the centre of the universe – or so it had seemed from watching television and making the occasional visit to the cinemas of Brighton. I had watched both the Beatles’ films and seen news footage of the Rolling Stones playing a concert in Hyde Park. I’d stared for endless hours at magazine pictures of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy and read everything I could possibly find about David Bailey and Vidal Sassoon, Tommy Nutter and Leonard of Mayfair. My parents’ lack of interest in the whole swinging London scene stunned me. My father couldn’t even bring himself to watch Top of the Pops, preferring to ‘potter in the garden’ or read his newspaper ‘in peace’, so he certainly wouldn’t have understood the importance of Hendrix’s recent death in that London hotel basement, or the reason why I had to escape from their gloomy, claustrophobic little home.
My mother made a point of not reading newspapers unless Dad actually pointed something out to her which he could be sure wouldn’t upset her. She seemed frightened of the outside world that they reported on, a world she avoided going out into at every opportunity. It was as if she wanted to hide away from every bit of bad news there was, even the bits that I thought were fantastically interesting like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull being arrested for drugs at Keith Richards’ House, or John Lennon and Yoko Ono holding ‘bed-ins’ for peace surrounded by hundreds of cameras and reporters, or April Ashley changing from a man into an unbelievably glamorous woman. Mum would literally cover her eyes or her ears if there was any chance she would have to read or hear such stories. It annoyed me at the time, but I only really realised how odd it was when I thought back many years later. Not that I thought about her that often once I’d left, and I certainly never talked about her or Dad to anyone I met in my new life.
Obviously Mum had to leave the house sometimes, like picking me up from school or for some emergency shopping trip that couldn’t wait till Dad got home, but she would always avoid making eye contact with everyone we came across, and would scurry back to safety, dragging me reluctantly behind her, the moment our business was done. She was always happier if Dad was there and he would automatically do all the talking to people in shops or anywhere else, leaving her standing in the background with her eyes on the ground. Strangers seemed to like Dad in these casual encounters, but I just thought he was embarrassingly dull, his conversation ridiculously insincere and full of clichés, as if that was his way of covering his own lack of confidence.
Mum got the most ridiculous bees in her bonnets about things which I didn’t think she knew anything about at all. She had been clucking and tutting for about six years about a couple of ‘good time girls’ called Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies and their role in bringing down the Conservative government and ‘ruining England’s reputation in the eyes of the world’. Even though I was only nine or ten at the time of the Profumo scandal and hardly understood a word of what was being talked about I heard the tone of my mother’s voice, saw the strangely glamorous photographs plastered over the front pages of the daily papers in the shops and immediately wanted to know why these pretty young women were causing such a stir and making my mother feel so threatened. All I could think, when I managed to find out more details from Dad’s discarded papers, was how much I wished I had been at those stately home parties at Cliveden, swimming naked with Lord Astor, meeting spies and ministers. I envied them all the front-page attention and flashing cameras that I imagined must follow them wherever they went. It all seemed infinitely preferable to my mother’s tedious daily routines around the house. Whereas Mum appeared to see the outside world as a dangerous and threatening place, it seemed to me like a treasure trove of potential adventures and I wanted to dive straight in at the deep end.
Mum was almost as disapproving of Jackie Kennedy for ‘marrying that awful Greek man’ after her first husband was shot, but I just saw pictures of yachts and nightclubs and headlines about stupendous wealth. I couldn’t think of anything better than being an iconic figure for millions of ordinary people, although I would have admired her more if she’d had a career of her own first, like Princess Grace of Monaco. What could be better than to be a great film star and then marry a Prince with his own Principality in the sun? Mum even hated the idea of Monte Carlo, ‘a sunny place for shady people’, she would mutter if she caught me staring at pictures of the fairy tale castle and harbour, obviously having heard someone else saying it first. But in any of the films or pictures I saw it looked pretty much like heaven on earth. Mum even seemed to shrink away from sunshine, not liking to open the curtains at the front of the house if she could help it. It was like she was frightened of the light.
‘I don’t want people knowing everything about our lives,’ she would say if I asked why we couldn’t open them and let the sun in.
I couldn’t imagine why anyone walking by would want to spare even a passing glance for our ordinary little house, and even if they did they wouldn’t be able to see through the net curtains, which formed a secondary barrier behind the chintz. She had also nagged Dad into planting a couple of trees in front of the house, which more or less obliterated the downstairs windows during the months when they had leaves on.
If someone rang the doorbell unexpectedly, like a postman or meter reader, she would be peering through the nets to check who it was before she would even open the door a crack to them, like they might be mad axemen out to rape and pillage innocent householders. I couldn’t understand why Dad put up with it, except that I supposed it gave him a quiet life because she never asked to be taken out and never wanted to invite anyone into the house. He was always amazingly tolerant about the whole stupid pantomime, making me feel all the guiltier about my own impatience with her irritating ways.
Both my parents thought I was stupid for plastering my room with Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn posters and fretted about the marks the Sellotape would leave on their precious wallpaper, while I was anxious to cover every hideous square inch of it with these glossy, perfect images from my dream world. How could they not understand why these women were goddesses stalking the earth amongst mere mortals, and that I was destined to walk amongst them? My mother would mutter about Marilyn being ‘no better than she should be’ and ‘no wonder she came to a sticky end, playing the sort of games she was playing’, and Dad would complain that ‘the woman never made a film worth watching’. The woman was the greatest film star ever, for God’s sake, and slept with kings and presidents! Mum wasn’t quite so down on Audrey, although she would swear that she couldn’t see ‘what all the fuss was about’ and thought she was ‘far too thin for her own good’. It wasn’t even worth arguing with such ignorance, so I sulked, sighed and rolled my eyes a lot instead.
Eventually my silent insolence must have worn away the last bit of patience my father was clinging to. In the heat of a row about how little homework I was doing and how I was going to end up ‘in the gutter’ at the rate I was going, he ripped my posters down off the wall and scrunched them up before my eyes. I could see that he immediately regretted losing his usual iron self-control, and making marks on the wallpaper, but he couldn’t back down then and ended up stamping my precious heroines into the carpet like he was trying to extinguish dangerous flames. Seeing their beautiful faces crushed and crumpled like that broke my heart. It felt like he was physically attacking the stars themselves and I was left breathless and dry eyed with grief as he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
So, you can see why I had to escape and why I was drawn to the magnet of the King’s Road the moment my train drew into Victoria Station and I hauled the best family suitcase out into the late afternoon sunshine.
CHAPTER TWO. Arriving in London.
Despite the fact that I was nervous about how long my meagre savings were going to last me, I bought myself an A to Z book of London maps on the station concourse, which immediately became my most precious possession, and a packet of expensive white tipped St Moritz cigarettes, which I thought would make me look more grown-up and sophisticated. They were mentholated, which helped to take away some of the roughness of the smoke hitting my young throat as I struggled to learn how to inhale without choking. They also had gold bands around them too, which I thought spoke for itself. I decided that I would make up for this extravagance by walking to the King’s Road rather than getting on a bus. I studied the densely printed pages of the A to Z with a growing rumble of excitement building inside me at the sight of so many exciting street names waiting to be explored.
Once I had plotted a route I set off down the side of the station. Only able to move a few yards at a time before having to put the suitcase down and rest my aching arms, I laboriously made my way up to the grandeur of Eaton Square, a location which was about to become famous in Upstairs Downstairs, a series I’m sure my mother must have absolutely approved of; such good manners and all that certainty and everyone ‘knowing their place’ in the world. The imposing, solid calm of the houses towering above my head made me feel increasingly small and poor as I inched my way past their grand gates and entrance steps.
By the time I got to Sloane Square all the workers were leaving their offices and piling into the tube station and onto the buses, leaving the King’s Road to prepare for its night time business, which meant restaurants and pubs filled with people wearing the clothes they had bought from the shops that were now closing up for the day. Even though I had only ever been there before in my dreams, I felt like I was finally coming home.
I had planned my running-away outfit meticulously. I had been working in Woolworths in Haywards Heath ever since my fourteenth birthday in order to have enough money for this day and part of the budget had gone on clothes from boutiques in the Brighton Laines. I wouldn’t have looked out of place performing on Top of the Pops in what I was wearing, nor would I have been out of place in a market in the back streets of Marrakech. It didn’t matter what I looked like; what mattered was how I felt and I felt like I owned the whole world, even if every muscle in my body was screaming from the effort of dragging the suitcase, which now felt like it weighed as much as a small house. I could tolerate any amount of physical pain because in my heart I was certain it would only be a matter of days before I was posing for David Bailey on the instructions of Vogue, acting alongside David Hemmings or Terence Stamp, or being interviewed on The Simon Dee Show.
The image of David Hemmings as the photographer in the film, Blow-Up, straddling the supermodel, Veruschka, with a camera as she writhed about on the studio floor, had penetrated so deeply into my soul that I almost felt like I had actually been there with them. It was the same with Julie Christie in Darling. I had connected so completely with her character, Diana Scott, and with Julie’s own fabulous rise to stardom that I could hardly even remember where one began and the other ended. Was it Julie or Diana or me who had won the Oscar? Was it Julie or Diana or me who had had affairs with Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey?
In the excitement of executing my escape from the house I had forgotten to eat any lunch and the smells from the restaurant kitchens as I inched my way down the King’s Road were making me hungry. I wasn’t entirely sure how much it would cost to buy a restaurant meal since I’d never done it before apart from the odd budget visit to a Wimpy Bar after school with friends, but I was already becoming nervous about my money, most of which was scrunched up in the toes of my shiny white boots for safety. The worst possible thing would have been to run out of money in the first week and to have had to slink back home like some silly little schoolgirl who wasn’t capable of looking after herself in the real world.
With all the confidence of ignorance I was completely certain that I could ensure that never happened with the sheer force of my own will. I’d read a few American self-help books about positive thinking by then and I believed that if I concentrated hard enough on my goals they were bound to come true. I had convinced myself that when I did finally return home it would undoubtedly be as a great star and Mum and Dad would both have to admit that they had been wrong to discourage my ambitions and to predict that I would end up ‘in the gutter’. They would have to admit that they had underestimated my talents and shown their own small mindedness with their constant harping on about the importance of homework and exams. They had never understood that I was destined for bigger things than A levels, that I didn’t need the ‘safety nets’ that they kept going on about because I was perfectly capable of balancing on the high wire of mega-stardom.
The biggest dream they could come up with was for me to get into some dreary university somewhere, so that I could end up with a job a few notches further up the council hierarchy than Dad. How ridiculous such ambitions would seem when I reappeared at their humble little door in my chauffeur driven limousine, dripping in furs and jewels, neighbours coming to the windows and pointing and sending their children over with autograph books. I could picture the scene perfectly and knew that I had to get there. Gritting my teeth I kept on pulling the suitcase towards my vision, lost in my own thoughts and trying to ignore the escalating hunger pains.
‘Hi, we’ve met before, haven’t we?’
The voice at my shoulder made me jump, waking me from my dream. The man had emerged from Picasso’s, an open fronted Italian restaurant, with a broad, friendly grin on his handsome face.
‘No,’ I said, blushing pathetically, ‘I don’t think so.’
I walked on as quickly as the weight of the case would allow, covered in confusion, wishing I’d thought of something smarter to say. Audrey Hepburn would have been able to come up with a better line than that if she’d bumped into Cary Grant unexpectedly, but my mind was a blank. How could we have met before? He didn’t look like the sort of man who would even know where Hayward’s Heath was, let alone go there.
‘Let me guess,’ he said, strolling beside me as I struggled on, apparently completely unbothered by my brush-off. ‘You’re a Pisces.’
‘How did you know that?’ I stopped, ridiculously impressed with his astrological skills and grateful for an excuse to let go of the case for a few seconds in order to unbend my bloodless fingers.
‘I can just tell,’ he shrugged. ‘I am too. I felt a vibe. When’s your birthday?’
I told him, and asked him when his was and to my amazement it turned out to be the same day. What were the chances of that? It had to be a sign that this meeting was more than a pure co-incidence.
‘Let me buy you something to eat,’ he gestured back towards Picasso’s. ‘Pasta or something.’
I hesitated for a few seconds. I could envisage all the warnings my parents would dole out about accepting a meal from a complete stranger and I immediately wanted to do it just to prove to them that the world was not nearly such a threatening and evil place as they imagined; that I could handle it even if they couldn’t.
‘Okay, why not?’ I shrugged, as if I did such things all the time. He put his arm round my waist with a comforting gentleness and steered me back, not offering to relieve me of the weight of the suitcase.
Inside the restaurant was busy enough for me to feel safe and now I looked at him more closely he looked very presentable, possibly even rich. His clothes were trendy but immaculately clean and well pressed, like they could have come straight off the racks of a neighbouring boutique that day. His hair was long but as well cut as any woman’s, with slight flecks of grey which looked like highlights. I wouldn’t have had any idea how old he was. When you’re fifteen, anyone over twenty-five looks old. He could have been thirty, but he could just as easily have been forty. The hair and clothes made his age seem irrelevant. He had that sort of ‘cheeky chappy’ look that David Essex would ride to fame on a few years later. Not only was this a man from the world I wanted to be part of, this was also a man who was offering pasta just as the hunger pains were starting to bite and somewhere to sit down after the gruelling trudge from Victoria.
‘My name’s Neil,’ he said, shaking my hand in a strangely formal way, holding it for a little longer than I expected and staring deeply into my eyes as if searching for my soul, forcing me to look down and blush again.
He guided me to a table right by the window and I managed to wedge my case underneath, scrunching my legs up uncomfortably but not wanting to draw attention to the fact that I had just got off the boat, so to speak. It would have been so much cooler to have been able to stroll into the restaurant empty handed like he did, rather than having to drag all my worldly belongings with me. Neil must already have been sitting there, having ordered a meal, when he saw me go past and ran out to talk to me because he already had a bottle of wine on the go. A waiter was bringing him a lasagne as we sat down and he gave it to me, ordering himself another without asking me if that was what I wanted. He seemed to know everyone in the restaurant, both staff and customers. Other people came and went while I ate, none of them taking much notice of me as they greeted one another, shaking hands, kissing cheeks and moving easily from table to table. It seemed a fabulously grown-up world. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, staring around me with wide-eyed wonder once I’d cleaned my plate, with no real idea what anyone was talking about, smoking one cigarette after another to give myself something to do with my hands, trying to look like I was relaxed while feeling faintly sick from the mixture of smoke, red wine and excitement.
‘Do you want to go to a club tonight?’ Neil asked once we’d both finished eating.
The wine was giving me a warm glow now, lowering any inhibitions I might have had when talking to him in the street. Part of me felt safe with him.
‘Do you want to change?’ he asked, gesturing at my clothes, immediately making me wonder if I had chosen badly for my London debut.
‘Everything I have is in here,’ I gestured to the case under the table.
‘Where do you live?’
‘I’ve got to sort something out.’
‘You can change and leave your bag at my place if you like,’ he said. ‘It’s not far.’
‘Okay,’ I meant to sound like none of this was a big deal, but my voice cracked unexpectedly. It probably gave away how out of my depth I was but Neil didn’t say anything and put his arm round my waist again as I lugged my case out from under the table, banging into all the people milling around the entrance as we went out to find his car. No one seemed to expect him to pay for the meal, everyone shouting ‘ciao’ as he left, waving casually to his public.