Charlie Matthews’ love story begins in a pebble-dashed house in suburban Bolton, at a time when most little boys want to grow up to be Michael Jackson, and girls want to be Princess Di. Remembering the Green Cross Code and getting out of football are the most important things in his life, until Auntie Jan gives him a gift that will last a lifetime: a seven-inch single called ‘Lucky Star’…
On his ninth birthday, Charlie discovers Madonna, and falls in love. His obsession sees him through some tough times in life: being persecuted at school, fitting in at a posh university, a glamorous career in London, finding boyfriends, getting rid of boyfriends, and family heartbreak. Madonna’s music and videos inspire him, and her fierce determination to succeed gives him the confidence to do the same – and, ultimately, to let go of his idol, and find his own voice.
I’d like to thank Matt Cain, Unbound nooks and Anne Cater for including me in the blog tour for The Madonna Of Bolton.
Today I’m excited to bring you an excerpt from The Madonna Of Bolton …
Dress You Up
‘Charlie Matthews and Shanaz Gulati – you’re on next!’
I can feel my heart thumping in my chest. Flippin’ ’eck I’m nervous!
I’m in my final year of primary school and about to take to the stage for the first time. To me, my school’s enormous, even though it only consists of one dirty redbrick building, a concrete playground with a football pitch, and a 1960s prefab where we all go for parties on Pancake Tuesday and St George’s Day. At the centre of the school is the main hall, a room so important that we use it for loads of different things – assem- bly, dinnertime and even games of rounders when it’s too wet to do PE outside.
Right now the hall’s full of schoolchildren and their families, all their eyes trained on the stage. I peek through the curtains and look at them. Sitting on the front row is the headmistress Miss Leach – or Miss Bleach as everyone calls her because she’s so strict. Miss Bleach’s favourite expression is ‘Woe betide’ and whenever she gets cross, she screams and shouts until the veins stick out on her neck like the Incredible Hulk or Deirdre Barlow on Coronation Street.
Sitting just a few seats away is Vince Hargreaves, someone who terrifies me even more than Miss Bleach. Like me, Vince is
THE MADONNA OF BOLTON
in the top class and everyone knows he’s the cock of the school. For some reason he’s taken a particular dislike to me – he’ll steal my glasses so I can’t see anything at playtime, give me Chinese burns whenever he feels like it and, if he’s in a really bad mood, throw my satchel onto the railway line next to the playground. Right now he looks in my direction and I’m pretty sure he catches my eye. I quickly shut the curtains and fart with fear.
Every Christmas in my school, the top class put on a show for their parents and the rest of the children, singing and dancing along to their favourite pop songs. So far this year, Marina Broadbent and Lucy Drury, who both have fringes so long you can’t see their eyes, have bounced their way through Wham!’s ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’, and Steven Spriggs, who always seems to have a hole in his trousers and a cold sore on his top lip, has pulled off an uncannily accurate impression of Shakin’ Stevens. Right now, Damian Bradley and his girlfriend Bev Adams, who caused a stir when they were caught timing themselves necking with a stopwatch behind the caretaker’s room, are finishing off their version of ‘Take on Me’ by a-ha. The stakes are high – so far each performance has been a huge success. Shanaz and I have something different planned and, even though I let her convince me it was a good idea when we were hidden away in the safety of her bedroom, now that it’s come down to it I’m not sure what I’ve let myself in for. From the look on her face, Shanaz isn’t either.
‘Good luck, Shanaz,’ I stammer.
‘Don’t say that!’ she yelps. ‘Don’t you know it’s bad luck?’ ‘Really? What are you supposed to say then?’
‘Break a leg. Honestly – it’s what all the stars say. I saw it on
Fame last week.’
Shanaz is so clever and my best friend in the whole world. We
Dress You Up
first met in reception class and bonded by painting a big picture of Wonder Woman together on our first day. To me Shanaz is brave and fearless; she can climb to the top of the tree behind the headmistress’s office and pick leaves off the thistles near the kitchens without being stung. She tells really great stories, like the one about her grandma, who grew up in a Maharajah’s palace in India but escaped to England so that she could marry a stable boy she’d been forbidden from seeing by her parents. And at dinnertimes she always has exotic things like chapattis and bhajis in her butty box, which I think look much more exciting than my dull salmon-paste sarnies and Trio or Penguin biscuit. For some reason, though, the other kids at school aren’t so impressed. They complain loudly about the smell of her food, pulling faces and holding their noses as if it’s disgusting. If there are no dinner ladies around they even spit at Shanaz and call her a ‘Paki’. Whenever they do, she just smiles and says, ‘Actually, my family are from India and my grandma’s a princess!’
I never really understand why the other kids don’t like Shanaz but the truth is they don’t like me much either. Not only do I have no interest in the war games the boys like to play but I’m no good at football and always come last in every event on sports day, which makes everyone think I’m weird and not a proper boy – at least that’s what they never tire of telling me. Maybe that’s why Shanaz and I have become such good friends, because I’m the only one who doesn’t mind what the other kids say about her and she’s the only one who doesn’t mind what they all say about me. Not that we ever talk about that; the last thing we want to do when we’re together is to go over things that make us unhappy. No, as soon as we’re together we play games that make us believe nothing bad ever happens to us at all.
THE MADONNA OF BOLTON
When we were little, this mainly consisted of re-enacting scenes from films like Bugsy Malone and TV shows like Renta- ghost. Or we’d dress up Shanaz’s pet cat in doll’s clothes, brush its hair into bunches and play Mummies and Daddies, pushing it around in her sister’s pram. Once we were a bit older we left behind those kinds of silly, childish games and instead devoured every volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, chatting endlessly through each book and painting pictures of the castle of Cair Paravel and the Battle of Beruna that we’d stick up on Shanaz’s bedroom wall. Shortly after that we moved on to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which we thought were ace as at the end of each chapter you got to decide what happened next. We’d never read anything like it and couldn’t get enough of them – we’d borrow one each from the local library, race through them in a day or two and then swap books with each other.
But recently we’ve decided that we’ve outgrown Choose
Your Own Adventure books too. Now that we’re ten it’s time for us to find a more mature way to spend our time. And that’s how we became obsessed with Madonna.
These days it’s not difficult for us to feed our obsession as Madonna’s everywhere; this is the year of Live Aid, the increas- ing success of the Like a Virgin album and the film Desperately Seeking Susan. Every week Shanaz and I buy Smash Hits or Look-In magazine, cut out the posters and song lyrics and stick them up on our bedroom walls. We use my mum and dad’s new VHS recorder to tape her videos on Top of the Pops, playing them back repeatedly to study their every frame. And we devise elaborate dance routines to her music, performing imaginary concerts to audiences of thousands in my backyard. Madonna’s
Dress You Up
our idol and we want to be just like her. The way we look at it, this year’s Christmas show has given us our opportunity.
‘How are you feeling?’ asks Shanaz. ‘Terrified,’ I bleat.
‘Well, try not to be. I bet Madonna doesn’t get nervous when she goes on stage.’
I make a big effort to relax and tell myself I’m doing nothing wrong; all I’m doing is trying to be like Madonna and she’s so famous that loads of people are doing that at the moment. The only thing is, all the people you see dressing up like her are girls. I look down at my outfit and feel my heart slam into my throat. I wonder whether it will work if I actually say a prayer to Madonna. Oh please make this go well, Madonna!
We’re about to perform a routine to ‘Dress You Up’, using a big coat stand and a screen that we’ll disappear behind to change costumes, adding hats, fingerless gloves and other Madonna-themed accessories as we go along. We’ve adapted the dance routine from a performance we saw her do in the video of The Virgin Tour and have spent months rehearsing it in Shanaz’s bedroom. We found two long blonde wigs in the school dressing-up box and Auntie Jan helped us put together our costumes using her sewing machine at home, agreeing to keep the whole thing secret from Mum and Dad. She’s made us blue and yellow jackets to wear like the one Madonna had on tour, with blue miniskirts and matching lacy tights. Shanaz has a BOY TOY belt buckle tied around her waist and I’m wearing a huge crucifix around my neck. I’ve never dressed up like a girl before and think it’s ace fun. The only thing that slightly spoils it is having to wear my big plastic NHS glasses on the end of my nose. But I try not to worry about it too much – if I don’t wear them I won’t be able to see what I’m doing. And it’s
THE MADONNA OF BOLTON
important that I get the routine absolutely right. This is my chance to impress everyone. This is my chance to make the other kids like me.
‘Now Ladies and Gentlemen,’ announces Mr Fletcher in his broad Bolton accent, ‘please welcome Shanaz Gulati and Charlie Matthews to sing ‘Dress You Up’ by Maradona!’
The audience chuckle at his mistake although he doesn’t seem to notice. By now my heart’s pounding so violently that I’m worried it might burst through my ribcage. We stand to one side to make way for Bev Adams and Damian Bradley, who are just leaving the stage and come barging past. They take one look at us and burst out laughing.
‘Freaks!’ hisses Bev.
‘Weirdos!’ adds Damian, elbowing me in the ribs.
I try to take no notice and look at Shanaz and smile feebly. As the four beats of the introduction sound, we take to the stage in darkness. When the lights come up we launch into the routine and straight away begin to relax. We’re singing along to the instrumental version on the B-side of the 12” single and so far I’m amazed to find that things are going well. For those first few moments on stage we understand what it must feel like to be Madonna performing a gig in front of thousands of
fans. And the feeling’s mega.
For the first verse and chorus I sing with so much joy I don’t even notice the reactions of people in the audience – and forget to worry about what people think of me. In fact, I’m so carried away with my performance that for once I forget to feel any kind of fear at all. I’ve never experienced such a powerful sensa- tion and feel as if I’ve enough energy to take on the world.
But then I pause so that Shanaz can sing a few lines on her own and that’s when I notice everyone’s faces; most of the kids
Dress You Up
and their families are looking at us with a mixture of fascin- ation and, for some reason, distaste. I can just about make out my own family watching by the door – Mum’s pawing her neck as it flushes redder than ever and Dad’s mouth is gaping so wide that even from this distance I can see his tonsils. When I catch sight of Joe, his eyes are bulging in their sockets and his chin plummeting slowly, his Jawbreaker gobstopper eventually falling to the floor and rolling halfway across the room.
A few rows in front of them, I spot Miss Bleach glaring up at us disapprovingly, all steely expression and pursed lips. Just a few seats away from her, Vince Hargreaves glowers at me and punches his fist into his palm. I tell myself not to pay any attention but to concentrate on my performance.
Miraculously, we’re working our way through the rather complicated dance routine without a hitch. The problems only start during the bridge in the middle of the song, when the record skips and we lose where we’re up to. We just about manage to catch up with the music when it skips again and leaves us really lost. We freeze and look at each other in panic. I hear a few kids snigger in the audience and am suddenly paralysed by fear. I recognize Vince Hargreaves laughing like Muttley the dog and see him pointing right at me.
What do we do?
What would Madonna do if she were us?
And what will all the kids think if we mess up now?
Shanaz gives me a determined glare and nods at me to carry on.
We throw ourselves back into it, determined to give it our all and make up for the hiccup. I move forward with a twist and hand Shanaz a fur stole and rosary beads, which she wraps around her neck as she carries on singing. As she leaps forward
THE MADONNA OF BOLTON
to launch into the next move, it’s obvious that her rosary beads have become attached to my crucifix. By the time we realize what’s wrong, we’re all tangled up and it’s too late. I lose my balance and collapse into her, propelling her forward and over the edge of the stage. Before I know it, I’m lying in a heap on the floor of the auditorium, my blonde wig in Miss Bleach’s lap and my eyes held by the gaze of a snorting Vince Hargreaves.
The music’s still playing loudly and no one can hear me scream. As I hit the floor I must have crashed down onto my leg and done myself an injury. The pain’s almost unbearable. I can’t tell what’s going on but there’s a big kerfuffle and lots of adults fussing around me. And then I black out.
When I eventually come round, I’m sitting in the back of an ambulance on my way to hospital. My costume has been hacked off and the music to ‘Dress You Up’ has been replaced by the sound of a blaring siren. Mum and Dad are asking lots of questions and a sweaty paramedic with eyebrows as thick as Dad’s moustache is prodding me in various places. He eventu- ally announces that I’ve broken my leg.
‘Waaaaah!’ Mum starts wailing. ‘Is he going to be like that Joey Deacon?’
‘Shut up, you daft bat!’ says Dad. ‘It’s only a broken leg. I bet you can hardly feel a thing, can you, lad?’
But I can feel it. I can feel it a lot. I tell myself to be brave but the pain is so bad that I start to feel dizzy. I black out again.
The next thing I know, I’m lying in a hospital bed with my leg in plaster and a sombre-looking Mum, Dad and Joe huddled around me. Mum’s trying to get me to drink a cup of hot OXO,
Dress You Up
which she always makes when Joe and I have anything wrong with us.
‘Come on, love,’ she coos, ‘a nice beef tea will do you good.’ Joe holds his head in his hands. ‘You’re so embarrassing,
Charlie,’ he moans, ‘I hope none of my mates from footie find out you dressed up like a girl.’
Dad grumbles away under his breath. ‘Well, all I can say is, let that be a lesson to you, lad. That’s what you get for par- ading round the stage tarted up like a woman.’
I wait for Mum to defend me but she doesn’t. In the past she’s sometimes been an ally, such as when Dad found out I liked skipping and confiscated my skipping ropes and she let me know where they were hidden. Or the time I wanted a length of elastic to try out the new craze for what the girls at school called ‘Chinese skipping’ and she secretly bought me some from a gypsy who came knocking on the door. But then Dad started calling me a ‘Mummy’s boy’ and all that stopped. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be starting again now.
‘Oh maybe it was a mistake, love,’ says Mum. ‘This is only Bolton, after all.’
‘What are you on about, woman?’ Dad bellows. ‘There’s nowt wrong with Bolton!’
‘I never said there was, Frank.’
‘Yeah, well, that kind of carry-on would be embarrassing anywhere. I don’t know, Charlie, what were you thinking?’
As I listen to his words, a deep shame about what I’ve done sits in me like a boulder. I can feel hot, frustrated tears begin- ning to leak from my eyes and sniff them back quickly. If I start to cry I’ll only make things a lot worse.
As the event keeps replaying itself in my mind I feel overwhelmed by a sickening sense of humiliation. I might have
THE MADONNA OF BOLTON
had my doubts about the performance we were planning beforehand but I enjoyed myself so much during rehearsals that I couldn’t see how going ahead with it would be a bad idea at all. I never for one second dreamed it would end up like this. But when I close my eyes now all I can see is Vince Hargreaves, sniggering as he looks at me lying in a heap on the floor. The whole thing has been a disaster and I’ve made an utter fool of myself in front of the entire school. I don’t know how I can ever face anyone again. They didn’t think much of me before – now they’ll think I’m really rubbish!
‘Flamin’ ’eck!’ sighs Dad. ‘I reckon I’ll take you to watch the football next week.’
‘Yeah,’ agrees Mum, ‘that might be a good idea, love.’
As I listen to their words, I feel hollowed out. If Mum and Dad don’t like me the way I am, what hope do I have with anyone else?
I groan aloud. I try to be like my idol and this is where it gets me.
Maybe this love story is going to be a bit more complicated than I thought.
All About Matt
Matt Cain was born in Bury and brought up in Bolton. He spent ten years making arts and entertainment programmes for ITV before stepping in front of the camera in 2010 to become Channel 4 News’ first ever culture editor. His first novel, Shot Through the Heart, was published in 2014 and his second, Nothing But Trouble, followed in 2015. As a journalist he has contributed articles to all the major UK newspapers and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Attitude, the UK’s biggest-selling magazine for gay men, and its sister publication, Winq. In 2017 he was voted Diversity in Media’s Journalist of the Year. He lives in London.
Where To Find Matt