This morning I became Alan Bennett. It wasn’t a chance event but a mystery prize from one of those television game shows where the right answer sets off a klaxon and you win a pampering weekend for two in a Nottinghamshire spa – or in my case A Day as Alan Bennett.
The activating pill which lasts twenty four hours looked much like a paracetamol but with an A on it, and a smaller one with B would deactivate the process should I want to call it off.
It’s not every day one expects to behave in ways other than those one has grown used to and are comfortable with, and my new persona was soon put to the test by our postman Richard who has delivered to the neighbourhood for as long as I remember, his youthful appearance suggesting he can barely have been out of shorts when he first started, if indeed he ever has been, going by the Post Office variety he wears come snow or shine.
‘Sign there please,’ he said, holding out the electronic gadget.
‘Just here?’ I asked.
It must have been the soft Yorkshire accent that triggered his reaction, the bundle of letters destined for numbers seven to fifteen and neatly secured with a strong elastic band falling from his grasp.
‘You’re, you’re …’ he spluttered.
Not wishing to disappoint him one way or the other I nodded reassuringly and invited him to have as good a day as he’d offered me. It seemed only polite to linger on the doorstep and reciprocate his thumbs-up gesture as he turned from time to time to catch a further glance before disappearing round the corner eager no doubt to tell others of his discovery.
Keen to exploit my new identity I thought it a good idea to travel into town to show myself off, as it were. Walking to the bus stop into low winter sun reminded me of the West End stage or playing a Talking Head under the bright lights of a BBC studio. I found passers-by staring at me for longer than one normally dares, and if I looked round after they’d gone by they too were glancing back, much as you do if you like the look of a person and want a further viewing without being too apparent.
The bus driver too seemed baffled, happy that the photograph on my pass matched the face in front of him but unable I imagine to read the name without glasses.
‘Mind if I join you?’ I asked an elderly lady with a kind face and blue hair.
The intake of breath down the bus would have graced a reputable community choir such was its exact unison, and the usual hubbub of unintentionally malicious gossip and exchanges of medical diagnosis quickly died down. The lady with whom I’d sat went into a sort of trance, like a pheasant in front of a moving vehicle unsure where to go or what to do, her eyes glossing over and protruding in a way they might not have done since her more productive days.
‘Aren’t you, aren’t you …’ she stammered.
From across the aisle and two rows back another woman who apparently thought she knew better called out,
‘You’re whatisname, aren’t you? On the telly.’
I glanced round with a celebrity smile.
‘Alan Partridge!’ a man shouted from one of the rear seats in a way that, were one to have a conversation with him, there might be many points of disagreement. I nodded and shook my head like a toy dog on the back shelf of a car, neither denying nor acknowledging his claim. No-one was quite able to put their finger on who I was despite the bold initials A.B. on the cover of the notebook in which I jotted reminders.
Once inside the bus terminus it was no easy matter forcing my way through huddles of mesmerized shoppers.
‘I don’t think it is Alan Partridge,’ said one voice.
‘Sugar,’ said another.
‘Shall we follow him?’ said what sounded like the man from the back of the bus, upon which I scurried through the exit thinking it imprudent to encourage stalking even though it might provide handy material for a play.
With the novelty of celebrity wearing off I bought a woollen hat, rendering the stallholder unusually speechless, and with the removal of my spectacles and a large upturned collar thereby gained some degree of anonymity.
Browsing Waterstones shelves, my appearance provoking sideways glances as if I were a commercial spy for a rival book chain or was about to pocket some paperbacks, I became curious about a panting noise beside me, and found a young woman barely four foot in height jumping up and down, hands above her head as if performing a fitness exercise. Had she not been gasping I’d have had little notion she was there.
‘Are you all right?’ I asked, causing the usual turn of heads.
‘I’m trying to reach that book,’ she said, pointing to a shelf at least twice her height. ‘The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.’
‘Good choice,’ I said, feeling somewhat relieved that the book appeared more important than any hunch that the author was present. Much as I was tempted to offer my signature I decided there was more to be had from staying incognito and watching her pore over the sleeve, and that to sign it on the premise of a one-day passport would not in any case be quite in the spirit of the arrangement.
With the books shelved alphabetically from the top and Bennett positioned poorly out of reach, I wondered if I should stay on to help others of this height who might call in for my books between now and closing, which would in turn help towards my royalties – at least mine for the time being.
In the event I found a quiet bench by the river to review my notes, before ordering a much needed hot chocolate in a side street cafe offering sufficient privacy for me to remove my hat and coat. Perched at a narrow eating bar the kind of which is widely used by cafes to make the best of their seating and which usually offer a view of the street or occasionally a wall with local paintings for sale I was disturbed by a lady whose debilitated state reminded me of Miss Shepherd, the lady in the van.
‘Have you been waiting long?’ she said, presumably meaning the hot chocolate that hadn’t yet arrived.
Mindful of Miss Shepherd it looked as though this lady, who’d levered herself onto the stool next to me, did not herself have long to wait, leading me perhaps unfairly to reply,
‘Eighty-one years. How about you?’
‘That’s a long time for a drink and a biscuit, dear,’ she said, playing me at my own game. ‘You’re Alan Bennett aren’t you?’
‘Only for the day,’ I said, ‘but I’m really enjoying it.’
‘Oh that’s good dear. It’s nice being someone else sometimes.’
Late in the evening with my story almost complete and bed looming I considered staying as Alan Bennett overnight since the prize had been for a full day. The thought of delving into his dreams and learning his night customs was tempting, but in the event I felt it more respectful to leave that side of things for him alone to know. I finished writing while the A was still working, swallowed the B and went to bed.
I bumped into the postman on his rounds earlier today.
‘Hello Richard – nice and mild.’
‘Morning Paul,’ he called out cheerfully – as he went on his way.
Copyright © Paul Costello December 2015
Paul Costello – Writer Website: www.paulcostello.me Twitter: @PaulCostello8