It was 1987 and nine year old Shirley Mansell was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV. It was the one night of the week that she really looked forward to, and tonight was going to be that extra bit special. She was oblivious to everything going on around her ... a bomb could have gone of in the street outside and she wouldn't have noticed, or been interested. Then...
... It's still number one, it's Top of the Pops!
Shirley liked most of the songs in the show that week and the half-hour soon passed ... it would be on soon ... her favourite:
... We have a brand new number one this week, the familiar DJ presenter announced, with his very first hit record, My Baby Loves To Dance ... it's Neil Anthony...
Shirley couldn't help smiling as the fair-haired, blue-eyed, teen heart-throb mimed the song that the radio had been playing regularly all week. Nine year old Shirley Mansell was smitten!
After that July evening, most of the birthday and pocket money that she got she spent on his records and memorabilia. However, like so many pop stars before him, her love affair/infatuation lasted longer than his career, and by the time Shirley started secondary school he was fifteen, his voice had changed and he had lost some of his 'cuteness'. He still made records, but they sold in far fewer numbers, and he no longer had number one's in the chart.
But Shirley's affection and fidelity were constant, and as they both got older she still got those little pangs of envy and/or jealousy whenever he appeared in the newspapers ... usually on the tabloid gossip pages, with yet another beautiful girl ... where he was now merely labelled as 'former eighties teen heart-throb'.
Shirley still cut out and saved the press clippings; but instead of the pictures going on her bedroom wall, they went into a scrapbook and as more time passed, the cuttings stopped coming, while Shirley's priorities changed and her life moved on.
In 2010, Shirley Mansell ... since her marriage, Shirley Gilbert ... was working on the checkout in her local supermarket. It was nine in the evening, but almost as busy as some daytime shifts. People who had jobs during the day often came in at this time of the evening, rather than the weekend. Shirley liked it: the customers tended to be younger, knew what they wanted, paid with credit or debit cards, and didn't dither like some older people did.
Tonight she was on the 'ten items or less' checkout ... perhaps her favourite of all. As she turned to take the items out of the basket, she looked at the customer. It was, wasn't it! His fair hair was now light-brown, but it was definitely him! He smiled at her and she was nine again. Shirley smiled back, only it was more out of terror than happiness! A quick glimpse of the name on the card confirmed it: N Anthony. There was no one waiting behind him.
"I ... I was a big fan of yours, Mr Anthony," she managed to say, nervously.
"Thank you! Will it sound like a cheap line if I say you don't look old enough!"
Her smile was warmer this time ... as was she ... but his card was cleared and she could see someone approaching the checkout.
"Thank you ... Shirley!" he said again, reading her name tag just before he walked away.
Aw! Still as lovely! she thought.
She looked every night after that: every time there was a new customer waiting to pay, she hoped it was him. It was her weekend off and the following week she was back on days. Shirley thought about him over the weekend and promised herself that she'd try and look out those old scrapbooks, but she didn't really know where to start to look ... it must be fifteen years since she'd seen them last! But once back at work she put it out of her mind again.
It was lunchtime on Tuesday. She was on one of the belt checkouts, scanning a line of items, and she hadn't even looked up as the customer walked past her to start filling bags. Only as the last few items were scanned did she look. A brief smile passed her lips.
"How are you today, Shirley! So you're on days this week!"
"Yes, we rotate. Some of the part-time staff have to fit their hours in with family commitments, but full-timers move around ... I've got a few weeks on days now." He pushed his card into the reader. She handed him his till receipt.
"Then I'll look for you next time I'm in here!"
"Do you remember Neil Anthony, the singer?" Shirley said to her friend and colleague, Bev Stanley, at break time.
"Hmm ... vaguely!" Bev replied, "Eighties, wasn't it? He was quite pretty if I remember rightly!"
"He still is!" Shirley said, "I've seen him in here twice now, he must live locally."
"Sounds like you've got a bit of a thing for him, Girl!"
" ... Used to have ... big time! But I grew out of it ... it was just a surprise seeing him after all these years!"
The next time Neil Anthony came into the store it was about four-thirty in the afternoon. He had walked up the row of checkouts until he saw her. Shirley hadn't expected to see him at that time of day and she was tired and looking forward to getting home. The person in front of him had a lot of shopping, but he waited patiently until he could put his items on the conveyor belt. Shirley saw him and smiled: good, he would be her last one of the day!
"Hello! You're just in time! My shift is nearly over."
"No coincidence ... I tried to time it!"
"Oh! Why's that?" she said, innocently. Neil looked at her and smiled:
"I wondered if you might like a coffee before you go home..."
"Oh! I ... er ... okay!" In truth, she wasn't exactly sure what was happening! "You'll have to wait while I clock out..." She saw Bev waiting by the time clock.
"He's here ... and he's taking me for coffee!" Shirley said excitedly. Bev laughed softly:
"Good for you, Girl! I hope you're wearing nice underwear!" Shirley laughed:
"Oh, stop it! I'll see you in the morning!"
" ... But can't I at least walk back with you ... I want see him for myself!"
" ... Okay ... but behave!" Shirley said, mindful of her friend's playful nature. They walked back through the store until they saw him waiting outside the refreshment area:
"Mr Anthony ... this is my friend, Bev ... she isn't joining us!"
"Hello, Bev ... and it's 'Neil', Shirley!" Bev said goodbye, grinned at Shirley, and then walked towards the entrance.
The in-store cafeteria was still quite busy, but they found a table and sat opposite each other with their coffees. Shirley was still a little overwhelmed ... she remembered all those times in her teens when she lay on her bed looking up at the images of the same, only much younger, face on her bedroom walls. Even back then she couldn't imagine ever meeting him in person; let alone what she'd do if she ever did. And now she was lost for words. He took the initiative himself.
" ... Attractive woman, wedding ring on wrong hand: that usually means divorced. However, that doesn't mean there isn't a boyfriend in the picture!"
"Yes, and no," she replied, " ... divorced two years ... no replacement lined up."
"That's good on both counts then!" Neil continued. "I was, too ... divorced, I mean. I expect you remember seeing the sorts of women I used to attract as I got older: well, unfortunately I ended up marrying one of them! Needless to say it didn't last ... and such was my popularity by that time, it didn't even make the papers! And, no, in case you were wondering, I don't make a habit of trawling supermarkets looking for bargains and women; but you looked nice ... still do!" Shirley felt more relaxed.
"I had a really big crush on you, even when you got older. I was in your fan club and everything! I've often wondered if you really signed any of those photos, or read any of the letters that girls wrote to you! I had a photo, but I never wrote!"
" ... I'm ashamed to say that I signed some of the early photos, but it got to the point where someone else always did it later! And this sounds mean, too; but the girls in the office where the fan mail got sent to, used to laugh at them! I never actually saw many of them; but if it's any comfort to you, I'm sure that in the end they used to laugh at me, too!
"But that's show business for you: people are just commodities, like washing machines; and when they break down you throw them way and get a new one! Don't get me wrong, Shirley, it was good while it lasted. I made a lot of money, and my parents weren't greedy like some, they put most of it into a trust fund and gave me pocket money, probably like your parents did, only more of it!"
They sat there for nearly an hour. Shirley somehow didn't seem as tired as she usually was at the end of her shift, but as pleasant as it was sitting there, after two cups of coffee she had to go.
"Are you driving, or do you want a lift somewhere?" Neil asked her.
"I have a car, thanks!" she said, desperately wishing that she hadn't.
"Okay, Shirley ... I don't even know your other name, but can I see you again. Maybe dinner, or something!" Her heart was pounding.
"That would be nice, Neil! Do you want to arrange a time and date now, or ring me later?"
"Well, how about Friday ... unless you're working Saturday. But you can still give me your number!"
"Yes, Friday's fine! Do you want to put it straight into your phone ... and it's Shirley Mansell. I was 'Gilbert', but I don't use my married name any more!"
"All right, then! I might see you here before Friday, but I'll definitely ring you before then!" He leaned in and kissed her cheek and she felt the heat rise in her face.
.... There is more of this story ...