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As I sipped my glass of Harvey's Bristol Cream, a compulsory tradition on Christmas morning at my parents' home in Hampshire, I watched the torrential rain crash against the kitchen window and imagined I was lying on a sun-kissed Caribbean beach with George Clooney. I was jolted out of my delicious fantasy when my mother said to me as she surrounded the turkey with soggy brussels sprouts: "I'm worried that you are slipping into middle age without having achieved your potential." It had taken less time than I'd expected to wish I'd stayed in London for the yuletide festivities.
I heard my kid sister, Julia, take a sharp intake of breath as she stifled a gasp. While I pondered my response, I looked back through the window and watched my twenty-year-old son and eighteen-year-old daughter who were supposed to be helping their grandfather carry garden chairs in from the garage but were otherwise engaged in rolling their own cigarettes. I shook my head in disappointment as they lit the cancer sticks and blew smoke rings, while they pretended to be interested in the detailed account of their grandpa's recent game of golf.
It really upsets me that they smoke. But they claim that as they are now adults they can smoke if they want to and hinted that they wouldn't come to Mum and Dad's for Christmas if they weren't granted grown-up status.
"Only in the garden," I'd compromised back in London.
"Deal," they said, and we shook on it.
"I am not middle-aged! I am only forty-one. And I'm not exactly a failure. I have raised two pretty amazing children. They are not heroin addicts or serving time in one of Her Majesty's prisons, which is quite an achievement these days. My daughter is training to be a hair and makeup artist. My son has set up an independent record label and I am a journalist working for one of the biggest and most respected television news organizations in the world, even though they don't pay much," I finally said to Mum, trying very hard not to sound devastated.
Mum waved the smoke away from the roasting tin that she'd just pulled from the oven. "You only work night shifts. It's no wonder you haven't got a boyfriend."
Julia, who is only thirty-three and hasn't got a boyfriend either, refolded the napkins and tried to look invisible. I said: "Mother. Just because my marriage ended in divorce doesn't mean it was a failure. I was only nineteen when I got married." I ignored Mum's "I told you nineteen was too young" look. Mothers can say so much with the twitch of a nose, the raising of an eyebrow, or the purse of a lip.
"Mia is settled in college and now that Max is moving into his own place I shall be open to all offers from suitable gentleman callers."
"I don't know why you got divorced in the first place," Mum mumbled as we carried the turkey with all the trimmings through to the dining room.
My brother, Mark, his wife, Lisa, and their two angelic, adorable, perfect, young daughters were already seated at the dinner table. They are a cross between the Waltons and the Partridge Family-almost too good to be true. Dad struggled to open a bottle of wine with the fancy new corkscrew I'd bought him for Christmas. Things weren't going too well for Dad this Christmas. He'd already set fire to the sleeve of his new shirt as he leant over a candle to pick up the wine bottle. He put his arm in the water jug and the flames were soon out.
My two were fighting over a Christmas cracker. Mia said to Max as they wrestled over the paper hat: "You're so gay."
Max said: "Fuck off."
Luckily Dad didn't hear the gay reference as he takes a very tough line on masculinity. He thinks that men who wear wedding rings or cologne are "poofs." Mum didn't hear the "F" word either or there'd have been trouble. She doesn't believe that anyone who shares her DNA would ever say fuck, let alone do the dreaded deed outside of marriage.
In a bid to change the subject, Lisa said I looked pale. "Is it your period?" she asked sympathetically as she helped herself to gravy.
Mark guffawed. "Women her age don't still have periods."
"At least I've still got all my hair and I don't have a beer belly," I retorted.
He said: "Yes, that's true. You've got a beer bum. You know you really should lose a few pounds if you want to get a boyfriend. And your roots need doing."
Dad pointed the carving knife at Mark and me. "Play nicely or there'll be no television."
The rest of the meal went without a hitch. Julia told us about the latest songs she's written and of her hopes for a new record deal. She lives in Santa Monica, California. She's the youngest in the family and by far the nicest and most successful. Mark is in between.
While Mum was in the kitchen setting fire to the Christmas pudding, Dad tapped his glass with a spoon to gain our attention. He announced: "Tomorrow night your mother will be performing in the chorus of the Hayling Island Operatic Society's production of Oklahoma! I expect you all to attend. No excuses and no giggling during the performance. It'll mean a great deal to your mother if all her family is in the audience."
The next night, as we took our seats in the village hall, Dad and Julia sat between Mark and me to separate us, because we are the ones most likely to embarrass the family and bring shame to our door. As the orchestra began the overture, I knew we were in for a rough ride. The curtain opened to reveal a large cast of enthusiastic amateur thespians.
I knew it would be all over if I glanced at Mark so I fixed my gaze on Mum's gingham dress, which she made herself. She used to sew into the early hours to make the many outfits that Julia had to wear for her tap and ballet concerts. Mum didn't have a sewing machine then. Thank God Mia never wanted dancing lessons. Perhaps if she'd dreamed of being a ballerina instead of a hairdresser, she wouldn't sport such exotic hairstyles. Still, this year's mint humbug stripes are an improvement on last year's shocking pink.
It was Dad who cracked up first. His shoulders were shaking up and down uncontrollably. I started laughing despite not having a clue what had caused such mirth. He eventually managed to point out that the male lead singing "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye" at the top of his voice was casting a giant shadow on the wall at the back of the stage. The end of his belt, which was swaying around as he gesticulated, looked like a three-foot penis. Dad and I couldn't take our eyes off the man's shadow and its enormous knob.
I finally managed to explain to my appalled sister what was making Dad and me laugh so much. Soon she too lost it; and then, one by one each family member was let in on the secret until we were all biting our knuckles in a desperate bid to stop howling. No one else in the audience seemed to notice the hysterical shadow, or perhaps they did and just didn't think it was funny.
Mum was not amused. "I've never been so embarrassed in all my life," she said back at the house after the show. "I can't possibly go to next week's audition for the chorus of The Sound of Music after this." We all hung our heads in shame and guilt. Then Mum made a dramatic exit to the kitchen to make tea and sandwiches.
When everyone else had gone to bed, Julia and I squeezed another cup of tea out of the pot and pondered the meaning of life.
"Now that both kids have left home, I wonder what the rest of my time on planet earth is going to be like? If I am middle-aged, which I'm not, I don't want Part Two of my life to pass me by without getting some juice out of it. I want adventure and excitement. I want to try something new."
Julia nodded. "You want to be like the mountaineer who died on Mount Everest. She said she'd rather live one year as a lion than a lifetime as a sheep."
I thought about this for a moment. "I wouldn't go that far," I said. "I was thinking more of a change of scenery, not an exhausting and dangerous battle with the elements; besides, I hate the cold. I wouldn't mind a bit of pampering, and I'm sick of being broke all the time."
Then Julia had what was to become my epiphany: "Oh my God! Why don't you come and live with me in California for a year? It's lovely and warm there. You could finally write your book, and you'll stand a much better chance of meeting George Clooney."
"Are you serious?"
"Never been more serious in my life."
Max and Mia thought it was a fantastic idea.
"You go girl," said Mia.
"If anything happens to me while you are gone, please tell my real mother that I love her," said Max.
"Very funny, you little sod. This is serious," I said.
Then Mum walked in and smacked me on the bottom. "Watch your language," she scolded.
"Mum, I'm forty-one not four!" I screeched. Max and Mia howled with laughter.
"I think you should go with Julia," said Mum. "It's time you started thinking about yourself for a change. Before you know it you'll be sixty and these opportunities will stop coming your way."
"Don't let me stop you," Dad said to Mum from behind his newspaper.
Dad also said that I should go but he didn't sound convinced and spent the rest of the evening looking uncharacteristically sad.
That night I dreamed of George Clooney. How could any woman resist him after he saved that boy from the flooded tunnel on ER? Later, I saw George interviewed on television and he was so handsome and smart, and handsome and funny, and handsome and stimulating, and handsome and dynamic, and handsome. I was smitten and wished all men looked like him.
Then he successfully made the giant leap from small screen idol to movie star. Once I saw George's perfect naked body in Out of Sight, no other actor stood a chance in my book.
In my dream, George walks toward me wearing a white coat with a stethoscope casually draped around his neck.
I look gorgeous in my figure hugging, freshly laundered white uniform and cap. It's ridiculously short but I don't care. I look up from the tray of instruments I am sensuously toying with.
"I need you in cubicle three right away, Nurse Fordham."
"Anything you say, Dr. Ross."
Even though I was going to California for a year I decided to travel light. I gave myself two weeks to sell or give away most of my worldly goods and booked the next available flight to Los Angeles. Once I had made the decision to go, I was fearless and filled with excitement about my new adventure. Hollywood here I come.
I am experiencing a few communication problems with Americans. No one seems to understand anything I say, yet I speak the Queen's English clearly and succinctly. I ask for a cappuccino and I get a cup of tea, made with lukewarm water. Whenever I speak, people say: "Excuse me?" And I'd have a much nicer day if every American I meet didn't ask me if I am Australian.
Despite the language barrier, I love my new life. I live on the prettiest street in Santa Monica, in the cutest little house, right by the beach, and someone else is paying the rent. Julia is in the enviable and unusual position of being a musician who earns a good living but can still go to the supermarket without being recognized. Not that she goes to the supermarket anymore, as I do all the shopping. It's the least I can do.
If we're not going out, I cook. Thursday night is our favorite night to stay home as it's a good telly night: Friends, Will & Grace, and ER. Life is grand. So long as I can see my kids every three months, everything's going to be just fine. Perfect even.
Now the last thing you do if you live in California is admit to anyone that you are forty-one, because here, I've discovered, age is all important. Thirty-five, my new Californian friends tell me, is more acceptable, but not much. New mantra: Forty is the new thirty. Forty is the new thirty.
I'm having three months off, then I will get into work mode. Our neighbor, Suzanne, who claims to be twenty-nine, told me: "Most writers here (and who isn't a writer in LA, honey?) head for Starbucks or Peet's with their laptops for a coffee midmorning and make it last all day. Then they stare at their computer screens until their foreheads bleed, hoping for inspiration."
"I've always found the fear of poverty inspiration enough," I said. She then looked around to make sure no one was in earshot and confided, "Coffee shops are great pick-up opportunities but be sure and avoid the advances of the really good-looking men. They are usually in SA."
"Sex Addicts Anonymous."
Has Julia told everyone in California that I'm looking for a boyfriend?
"Listen honey, there are no secrets on Baxter Avenue," warned Suzanne.
That's true. I've only lived here a few weeks and already I know that Suzanne is an actress who hasn't worked since a six-week recurring guest role on Nash Bridges, and has never fully recovered from the disappointment of losing the part of Rachel in Friends to Jennifer Aniston. Bitter? You bet.
When I left England for my Californian sabbatical in search of my destiny, I vowed to stop buying so many "things" in Part Two of my life. I brought my Delia Smith cookery book collection with me and the few possessions that I consider precious: my photograph albums; the leather Gladstone bag that my friends in Dorset clubbed together to buy me when I left for London; the box of cards and letters that my children have given me over the years; their baby teeth; and the handwritten Christmas cake recipe my mother gave me more than twenty years ago.
I really ought to know it by heart after all these years. Actually, I do know it by heart already but getting it out and ticking off the list of ingredients is all part of the ritual. It is the thing that defines and connects us. Mum has no idea how much it means to me. Mia can barely rustle up a sandwich so I doubt she'll give a tinker's cuss about the family Christmas cake recipe that's been handed down over generations.
The food here is excellent although the portions are absurdly large. People are either fat or thin in California; there's no in between. Bisexuality seems to be quite fashionable. Some women are so bored waiting for a suitable bloke that they have a relationship with another bird! How thoroughly modern is that? Suzanne told me over lunch at the Broadway Deli on Third Street Promenade about a recent night of passion she'd enjoyed with another woman.
I said: "I didn't realize you are a lesbian."
She said sadly: "I'm not. I'm just lonely."
I said: "I may not have had a date for what seems like an eternity but I'm not ready to start putting from the rough."
Excerpted from PLUS ONE by CLAIRE FORDHAM Copyright © 2005 by Claire Fordham. Excerpted by permission.
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