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.
It wasn't that far from home to work: sometimes she cycled, or even walked, but she needed petrol so she'd come in the little car she owned. By using the supermarket's supply, she got bonus points and a staff discount! Although she was of course well-known in the store, she didn't usually shop for herself on the days she was working.
It was Wednesday, so Shirley had a couple of days to think about and prepare for her date with Neil Anthony. As she was living on her own, she didn't always bother to cook for herself after work, but she knew that there was plenty of salad stuff in the fridge for later if she wanted it.
She had been fortunate enough to be allocated a council flat in a nice area after her divorce from Alan Gilbert ... once their house had been sold and the mortgage was paid off, there wasn't much left to split between them. They had no children, so they agreed that he shouldn't have to pay her anything in alimony, if she could have most of the household furniture and fittings. There was more than enough to furnish her two bedroom flat, and she'd made a few pounds by selling the rest.
Today she did what she usually did on getting home from work: she ran herself a hot bath! There was nothing better than a nice soak, she thought: just lie in the hot, soapy water, close your eyes and drift away!
Afterwards she towelled herself dry and walked into her bedroom. She always moisturised after bathing, and today she stood in front of the full-length mirror as she did so. Shirley was thirty-two, and in not bad shape, if she said so herself! She had let herself go a bit while she was married; but since her divorce she'd eaten more healthily, started swimming once or sometimes twice a week; and except in the cold, winter months, she got up early every day to run through the streets for up to an hour. No kids, so no stretch marks. No cellulite either yet, thanks to exercise and moisturising regularly, and still quite shapely bum and boobs, she thought!
She hadn't dated since the divorce. Although she'd had offers, she never accepted them. It was true what some people say: some men think widows and divorcees are either desperate or easy, or both, and she definitely wasn't! She wasn't a prude, and she'd had some good sexual experiences in the past ... and that certainly wasn't the problem with her marriage ... she just believed that it was usually better for her if she cared about the person that she was with! And of course this started her thinking of Neil Anthony!
Shirley had no plans to go out, and she didn't wear pyjamas, so she pulled on her sweatpants shorts and a baggy T-shirt, then she made herself a sandwich and a mug of tea and prepared to settle down in front of the TV until bedtime.
Neil was also thinking about Friday. He lived a little further out than Shirley did, and as he had to drive somewhere to get to one of the big supermarkets, he tended to always go to the same one. He hadn't lived in his house long ... about eight months ... but he liked it. Having always previously lived in a city, he now preferred the semi-rural tranquillity. In England you were never very far away from a fast connecting road, so he was not disadvantaged at all by distance.
He was now categorised as one of those minor celebrities who television companies often call on when they want someone vaguely famous, but who isn't an expensive, so-called, 'A-lister' and perhaps not even a 'B-lister'! How would he describe himself then ... a curiosity, perhaps! Every now and then he came across someone like Shirley who remembered him from his heyday; but most people ... most women ... still looked at him because he was a not-unhandsome bloke, and not because of what he once was. And he had to admit that that suited him!
Had he chosen to still play the former pop star role, he could have had plenty of women: but he never had; not even during his few fleeting years of fame. While his career was still in the ascendancy he was still a kid and too young for that sort of thing. Most of what he did was stage managed: he was told what to do and he did it. He'd wanted the fame and the adulation, and those people that controlled his life knew how to get it for him.
Neil used to have a ... quote... 'normal life': he went to normal schools and he had normal friends: but once he started down the rocky road of stardom all that changed! He was bright and he understood the reasons why he couldn't go to his old school any more ... these being primarily, at least two minders and the paparazzi who camped outside the school gates everyday! He was now public property as far as the world was concerned. So private tutors came to his parents' home everyday, or on the tours that his managers booked for him.
But once his career was in decline ... when the little girls stopped screaming and buying his records in vast numbers ... he was more or less left to fend for himself. Thank goodness for his trust fund, he told himself; he dreaded to think how far down the slippery slope he would have slid if he'd had access to all his money! There were lots of girls, but they weren't girlfriends, and they were more interested in being seen with someone ... anyone ... famous than the person they were seen with! He took them to parties, where they invariably met and went off with someone currently more famous than him.
However, he was way past that stage of his life now. He wasn't mega-rich, but he wasn't poor either. Each year he moved, figuratively, further away from all the people that he once knew. He didn't even have an agent any more, but there were a few people in the industry that he liked and trusted, who knew how to get in touch with him if someone wanted a 'curiosity' for a day or two's work!
He remembered going into the supermarket that day and seeing Shirley for the first time. It wasn't love at first sight, or even lust at first sight: but even in her unflattering work clothes, and with her hair worn simply and without make-up ... there was something ... He was ready: he'd been out of a relationship for quite a while, and as he'd told her, that wasn't on his shopping list! But she was nice, and natural, and he'd decided that day that he would take a chance. Who knew that she'd remember him, or better still, that she was a fan! But he wasn't going to rush: he'd wait a week or two to see how the wind blew. What he hadn't anticipated was that he found himself wanting to go in there every day to see her, and that it had taken a lot of self-control not to! But now the deed was done ... he was going to get to know her better, and perhaps his life was about to take another, positive, turn!
Shirley wasn't expecting to see Neil on Thursday; although she thought that he might ring, as he said he would; but he appeared in the store at just before four-thirty again. He found the checkout that she was working on and stood nearby until she saw him, then he pointed to himself and then held up five fingers. Shirley nodded in acknowledgement. Neil grabbed a basket and then filled it with items selected almost at random and he got back to her checkout as her customer was filling the last bag load. Standing in front of her, he unloaded the basket.
"Is there something wrong?" she asked him.
"No, I just wanted to see you and have a quick word ... coffee?" Shirley smiled and nodded:
"A very unusual basket you have there, Mr Anthony, if you don't mind me saying so!"
"I know ... we really must stop meeting like this!" he said, as he bagged the items and as she handed him his receipt. "Shall I see you in the cafeteria!"
"All right! I won't be long!"
Shirley sat down opposite him.
"Thanks for the coffee! I thought you might ring tonight!"
"I was going to, but then I thought I'd pop over instead: I'm not a great fan of telephones; I prefer face-to-face conversations if possible. Phones have their uses, but don't you think that this is much better!"
" ... Mmm ... the only person I ever really talk to on the phone is my mother ... and that's usually better than having to go and see her! We get on okay, but she still treats me like a kid sometimes! At least on the phone I can make an excuse to hang up!"
"I also thought that I could ask you about tomorrow," he said, "What sort of food do you like?"
"I don't mind about the food ... just not one of those really posh places, please! I have a couple of nice dresses at home; but I won't have time to go out and get something new!"
" ... I wouldn't expect you to! I'm sure that whatever you choose will be fine ... I only planned to wear smart-casual. I think you go out to enjoy the food and the company; not to show off your fashion sense! I also need to know where you live, so I can pick you up."
" ... Well ... I don't have my car today, so if you wouldn't mind, you can run me home and see for yourself!"
"My pleasure! As soon as you've finished your drink!"
Neil drove a nice car, as she expected he would: black and shiny and German.