‘Uptown Girl’ came on the radio while I was stuck in traffic on my way home. Torrential rain hammered down on the roof of my car, nearly drowning out the song, but I still could not help singing along. Even after all these years, hearing this song always dredged up a whirlwind of memories and what-ifs.
Boy band Westlife’s cover of ‘Uptown Girl’ had stormed to the top of the UK pop charts in 2001, the year I turned 18. My parents hired a room at the Grafton Hotel for my 18th birthday party and Luke McArthur came.
When Megan turned up with Luke, in their matching black leather trouser suits they were easily the most glamorous couple there. Megan was in my year at school but with her heavy make-up and glossy bobbed hair she seemed older.
In those days Luke and Megan were practically joined at the hip. It might have stayed that way but for Kirsty.
‘Hey ‘Uptown Girl’, that’s your song, Mel,’ Kirsty yelled in my ear as the DJ introduced the next track. She constantly teased me about being posh. I had lived in Liverpool since I was twelve but somehow had never lost my southeast England accent.
Kirsty grabbed my arm, pulled me into the centre of the room and shouted over the music. ‘Every boy here must dance this song with the birthday girl!’ A dozen boys quickly gathered around me, laughing. I was overjoyed to notice that Luke was one of them.
As West Life swung into ‘Uptown Girl’, I hardly noticed who I was dancing with. At one point I found myself in the arms of my classmate Philip. He began mock waltzing with me around the dance floor. ‘You look beautiful tonight,’ he said. ‘I’ve been waiting all evening for a chance to tell you that.’
I smiled at him. ‘Thank you so much. You scrub up well yourself. Oh and congratulations, mate, for getting into teacher training college. You’ll make a wonderful teacher.’
‘Thanks. This is a great party, by the way, the gang all together again for one last time. I can’t believe we’re all going our separate ways so soon.’
‘I know. It’ll be so weird not seeing you and Kirsty in class every day. Let’s not think about that. I’m having the best time right now, having a farewell dance with my best mate.’
All the while I was praying the song would not end before I had the chance to dance with Luke.
As I playfully spun away from Philip, Luke took his chance to step in between us. ‘My turn now, I think.’
Luke pulled me close to him as we danced to the final verse and refrain on repeat. Over his shoulder I could see Megan scowling at us. Philip was looking put out too. I ignored them. It was my party.
When the song ended, Luke kissed me. The boys standing around us stomped their feet and whistled. Some people began applauding. I stood blushing in my midnight blue minidress, loops of hair escaping from my updo. Luke tucked one loose strand behind my ear. ‘That’s better.’ His neat mouse-brown moustache wiggled above his red lips when he spoke. ‘Happy birthday, Uptown Girl.’
They say there is none so blind as those who will not see. For years I refused to acknowledge even to myself that marrying Luke had been a mistake.
I had been flattered to be the new focus of his attention. Seduced by the glittering promise of a lifestyle worthy of a wannabe ‘Uptown Girl.’ Working for his uncle’s investment company, Luke had plans to ‘be a millionaire by the time I’m thirty.’ He successfully expanded the firm’s London branch. We eventually set up home in a smart little town house in Chiswick.
Luke’s ambitions were shattered in the global financial crisis of 2008, following the fall of the Lehman Brothers investment bank. My glamorous ‘Uptown Girl’ persona died alongside his dreams.
When another business venture failed to recoup our losses, Luke began taking his frustration out on me. I took to wearing heavy make-up, a look my parents detested. I let them assume it was the collapse of my lavish lifestyle that triggered my anxiety and depression. I was too ashamed and afraid to admit the truth.
A repetitive squeak, thud, squeak, thud brought me back to the present. I flicked off the windscreen wipers. The rain had stopped and a weak sun was battling to shine in between the clouds.
Home at last. I parked my car on the drive, got out and walked round to the back passenger door. ‘Hey there, sleepy head.’
My son Oliver held out his arms. ‘Out, mummy, out.’
‘Yes, sweetie, we’re home now.’
I reached in and unbuckled Oliver from his car seat. I carried him into the house, his head nodding sleepily against my shoulder in time with my steps.
A shadowy figure startled me, silhouetted against the sun streaming in through the glass-panelled front door. ‘Oh. Hello. I didn’t expect you home so soon.’
‘Hello you two. Thankfully the heads of department meeting didn’t go on too long. You’ve been an age.’
‘Yes, I know. Sorry. The main road was flooded and the traffic tailback was awful. If I’d known, I would have come back from mum and dad’s a different way. Oh, good news, they can have Oliver next weekend.’
‘Great. I’m looking forward to having you all to myself, Mel.’
‘So am I, Philip.’
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
I was the original ‘Uptown Girl’. At my own 18th birthday party, my best friend decided I should dance to the song ‘Uptown Girl’ with every boy there. The rest is fiction. I wrote this story in celebration of all those songs which trigger a whirlwind of happy or sad memories and what-ifs.
Denise D'Souza lives with her husband in Surrey in the UK. After graduating with a BA in English, she worked in publishing. She was voted Spillwords Author of the Month in June 2020. Her short stories, articles and poems have been published in e-magazines and Clarendon House anthologies Cadence, Miracle, Blaze, Poetica, Gleam, Lantern and Poetica 2. Two of her poems appear in Alpha One, the inaugural anthology of Linden Books.