Welcome to the Real World

By: Carole Matthews
This book was great fun to write and, while it is

entirely fictitious, I have to thank everyone at

Welsh National Opera for their invaluable input

and allowing me access to their company.

To Caroline Leech, Catriona Chatterley and

Hazel Hardy, for helping out a woman who didn't

know her La Traviata from her Turandot. It's been

lovely to work with you. Also, thanks to

Simon Rees, Dramaturg at WNA, for kindly

allowing me to use his translation of

La Traviatavery much appreciated.



To Christopher Purvesa huge talent and generous

manfor giving me an insight into the life of an

opera star. To Gareth Rhys-Davies, for letting me

see him with and without his makeup. To Julia, Liz

and Katie, for looking after me backstage. And to

all the lovely members of the company who have

tirelessly answered my inane questions. The only

complaint I have is that I've had to make up all the

diva moments and tantrums myselfyou are all

far too nice to be opera singers! Thank you all so

much for taking the time to allow me to have an

insight into your wonderful worldyou have left me

with some cherished memories. With kind thanks

also to English National Opera and War Memorial

Opera House in San Francisco, for helping me

with additional material. All the mistakes

and terrible liberties taken in the name

of opera are entirely mine.







One




'I need more money.' Tilting the glass in my hand, I pull yet another pint of beer.

'Don't we all, man.' My dear friend Carl looks at me through the fog of his cigarette smoke, eyes barely slits. He's propping up the bar opposite me and I smile across at him, mainly because the hubbub of noise in the pub makes it difficult to be heard and I want to save my voice.



Carl is a man out of his timeI'm sure he would have been much happier as a 1970s rock god. His battered denim jacket, shoulder-length hair and tendency to say, 'Yeah, man,' don't sit comfortably with current ideas of personal styling. But Carl and I go back a long way. A long, long way.



'No. I really need money,' I say. 'This time it's bad.'



'It always is,' Carl remarks.



'Joe's swimming in a sea of unpaid bills. I have to do something.' Joe is my older brother, but somehow I've become responsible for him. I don't mind at all. He needs all the help he can get.



'You work two jobs already, Fern.'



'Tell me something I don't know.' The till does its digital equivalent of ker-ching again and, grinning insanely at the next punter, I reach for another glass.



'How much more can you do?'



Win the lottery? Put on my shortest skirt, strike a pose outside King's Cross station and hope for a bit of business? Get a third job that requires minimum effort, yet doles out maximum pay? I'll fill you in quickly on what I like to call my 'situation'.



Bro' Joe lives on benefits and is constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul. Now Peter has been robbed so much he has nothing left. My brother isn't, however, the media version of a person living on the dolework-shy, feckless or lazy. Joe can't work because he has a sick son, Nathan. My beloved nephew is a five-year-old blond-haired heartbreaker and has severe asthmaand when I say severe, I mean severe. He needs constant attention. Constant attention that his motherthe beautiful and brittle Carolynwasn't prepared to give him as she left my lovely brother and their only child when Nathan was barely a year old. And, call me a bitter old bat, but I don't think that could be considered as giving it a fair crack of the whip.



If anyone thinks it's easy to manage on measly government handouts, then think again. If anyone thinks it's easy being the single parent of a sickly child, then ditto. Joe had a promising career in a bankokay, he wasn't setting the world alight. My brother was never destined to appear on Newsnight in a pinstripe suit giving his opinion on the world money market, but he was getting great appraisals, regular promotions, small pay risesand a pension to die for. He gave it all up the moment Carolyn departed to stay at home and care for Nathan. And, for that alone, he deserves all the support I can give him.



'You're on in a minute,' Ken the Landlord shouts over at me, giving a pointed glance at the clock.



As well as pulling pints behind the beer-stained bar of the King's Head public house, I am also 'the turn'. I do two half-hour sets every evening Monday through SaturdaySunday is quiz nightsinging middle-of-the-road pop songs for a terminally disinterested crowd. I finish serving the round of drinks and then nod my head towards Carl. 'Ready?'



Carl is my pianist. Again, I think he'd be happier as lead guitaristwhich he also plays brilliantlyfor Deep Purple or someone of that ilk, leaping around the stage, doing ten-minute solos, head-banging to his heart's content. But Carl has bills to pay, too. He jumps down off his bar stool and we head for the small, raised platform that is our stage. A once-spangly curtain is attached by a row of drawing pins to the wall behind us. Despite Carl's rebel, dropout appearance he is the most reliable person I've ever met. He's very low-key rock 'n' roll, really. Okay, he smokes the occasional joint and puts 'Jedi Knight' as his religion on Electoral Roll forms, but I don't think he's ever been moved to bite the head off a live chicken on stage or any such thing. And he's never smashed up a guitar as a display of artistic expression, because he's far too aware of how much they cost. He is also patience personified, spending every evening on that bar stool waiting for our two brief periods of respite when we can do what we truly love doing.

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