Although my very early life could be viewed as idyllic, my life from teenage years onwards was like a slow-motion car crash. First, the family business started to fold amid arguments, embezzlement court cases and recriminations. Then my dad, who’d been the powerhouse of the company and the family, got ill with lung cancer (he’d always smoked).
I felt his agony, his desperate efforts to try to rally, to raise cash to keep the company going; and nothing seemed to have any point after that, least of all education. So I failed the 11 plus exam and ended up in a sink secondary school instead of the grammar school everyone expected me to attend, was bullied mercilessly, and left with 1 O level – English.
Dad died and the firm collapsed. The family home was seized by the banks, and my mum & I ended up on a rough council estate, bricks coming through the windows and being sworn at in the street because we were perceived to be ‘posh’.
THEN I RAN
Something seemed to snap inside my head at that point: I fled to London, thinking that there had to be a better life out there somewhere. I crashed on a friend’s sofa and got a job washing pots in a restaurant. In my free time I wandered around the capital, unable to believe that I was actually here. London and all that it had to offer seemed like magic, another world.
THE BRIGHT LIGHTS
In break times we went around the Soho bars and clubs in Greek Street, Old Compton Street, Dean Street, Frith Street and St Anne’s Court, and started to make friends with the people who worked there. The atmosphere in the clubs was glamorous, smoky, racy, very exciting for a quietly-raised innocent from the sticks. And the girls who worked in them had a chic worldliness that I coveted for myself.
AND THEN CAME ‘PRECIOUS’…
In one of the clubs I met a fabulously beautiful stripper called Joanna (not her real name), who formed the basis in Ruthless, one of my Annie Carter books, for Precious, the super-bright and warm-hearted girl our heroine Layla Carter befriends. Didn’t she hate this work, I asked her. ‘I keep my mind on the money. I’m getting out of here soon,’ she always said.
Joanna was intelligent and friendly too, with ambitions far beyond the (then) seedy Soho world, with a photographic memory and a hunger for learning. She wanted to be an actress, and I wanted to be a writer. We spurred each other on, and for a while everything seemed wonderful.
BUT REALITY BITES…
I slowly became aware that the glossy world I was now inhabiting had a nasty and dangerous underbelly, only barely hidden. My friend was mixing with a very shady crowd of pimps, deadbeats and flashy hustlers who took her to dinner and made her extravagant (always empty) promises of fame. One of the deadbeats became my first boyfriend, a car thief who quickly got himself arrested and then sent me begging letters from prison. And then one day Joanna turned up at my friend’s flat in tears with a black eye. I started to feel uneasy, like I was walking too close to an edge. Which I suppose I was.
After three months in the city, I’d had enough. I was worried about and missing my mum, so I decided it was time to leave London. We said we’d keep in touch, Joanna and I, but the letters got fewer and fewer, and then I received no more. I often wonder what happened to her, did she leave the bad boys behind and achieve her dream, like I finally achieved mine? I hope so. And she gave me a wonderful character for my book, so I’m eternally grateful to her for that.