Freddie and Jim: A Love Story
Weekend magazine, The Guardian 22nd October 1994
'Freddie and I never talked about how long we'd be together. We accepted that we were and would be. Now and then he'd ask me what I wanted from life. "Contentment and love," I'd say. I found both in Freddie'
It had been just another ordinary weekend towards the end of 1983. I'd spent much of it drinking in gay pubs and clubs with my lover, John Alexander. On Sunday night we'd ended up in a gay club called Copacabana. I suppose I was on my fourth lager and this guy came up to me. I was 34 and he was slightly older. He was dressed casually in jeans and white vest and, like me, had a moustache. He was slight and not the sort of man I found attractive.
"Let me buy you a drink," he said.
"No, thank you." Then he asked me what I was doing that night.
"You'd better ask my boyfriend about that." I said. The stranger could see he was getting nowhere and let the matter drop, going back to his friends.
"Somebody's just tried to chat me up," I told John when he returned.
"Who was he?" he asked. "Which one?"
"Over there," I said, pointing him out.
"that's Freddie Mercury! he said, although it meant nothing to me. If he'd been the managing director of the Savoy Hotel where I worked as a hairdresser it might have been a different matter. But I never kept up with pop music. Although I had it on the radio all the time, I couldn't tell one singer from another. I had never heard of Queen. John wasn't annoyed that Freddie had tried it on - on the contrary, he was flattered that a famous singer fancied his partner.
Four or five months after that night,
John took me out to dinner at a swanky restaurant, September's. As we ate, John
looking over my shoulder, said: "Oh, your friend is here."
"Who?" I asked.
"Freddie Mercury. The guy who tried to chat you up at Copacabana."
And indeed there was the same man dining with friends. I don't think he saw me.
Not long after, John and I moved to Sutton in Surrey where we rented two attic rooms at the top of a semi-detached house. It was a modest place: a bedroom, sitting room and basic cooking facilities on the landing. But after a while John and I began getting on one another's nerves. I didn't expect much out of life but I was desperate for a harmonious, loving relationship. I became too possessive of John and he eventually saw me as a ball and chain. In the spring of 1984, after two years together, we split up. I kept the rooms, and John moved out.
I led a quiet life on my own. Once in a while I might meet a friend in Sutton for a drink, but usually I kept to myself. I got into the habit of going out once a week, on Thursdays, as that was pay-day, to the Market Tavern, a gay pub in south London. I'd stand there all night on the exact same spot, drinking a few pints and taking in the atmosphere, oblivious to everyone else. I was kept entertained by watching a bunch of strangers enjoying themselves.
When the summer months came along, it became too dull for whole weekends in Sutton so I switched my drinking night to Saturday. I always thought I was out totally alone those nights. Not so, apparently. Many years later, after Freddie's death, I had a heart-to-heart with Joe Fannelli, a former lover of Freddie's and his live-in chef, confessor and confidant. Although Freddie had a flat in London throughout 1984, he was mostly living in Munich, Germany. Whenever he was back in London for a weekend he'd invariably end up in Heaven, the gay nightclub.
I don't know how, but Freddie discovered where I drank. On his way to Heaven he would tell his chauffeur, a guy called Gary, to take a detour via the Market Tavern. Freddie's old Mercedes would draw up and Joe was instructed to see if I was on my mark at the bar. Once he'd reported back to Freddie that indeed, this creature of habit was in place, they'd continue their journey to Heaven for the night.
If you're Irish, which I am, then March 17 is a date which never leaves your mind: St Patrick's Day. Paddy's Day, 1985, is ingrained in my memory, so I know it was the following Saturday, March 23, that I met Freddie again. The day started much like any other. I made myself some supper, then headed out dressed appropriately for the gay scene. The look at the time was "High Clone", jeans and white vest, and the obligatory moustache.
When the Market Tavern closed, I fell straight into the back of a minicab, driven by a regular face who was used to me slurring Sutton as my destination. That night I decided I wanted to go on partying and told him to drive me to Heaven instead. It was a very occasional haunt of mine: I'd always found it too big and impersonal for my liking. I arrived fairly late, legless and undoubtedly on another planet. Worse still, after paying the minicab I only had £5 to my name. At least I didn't have to pay to get in, as I discovered that a friend was on the door. I went straight to the downstairs bar and ordered a pint of lager.
"Let me buy you this," said a voice. I looked up. It was the chap from the Copacabana in 1983. Freddie Thing. I'd had a fair amount to drink. My tongue loosened up. My defenses were down.
"No I'll buy you one," I
"A large vodka tonic," came the reply.
There went my fiver in one go. If I was lucky I would be left with a little over £1 perhaps enough to get the night bus home.
He introduced himself as "Freddie". I knew he was Freddie Mercury, but still had little inkling who he actually was, or what he did. It didn't seem to matter. Freddie asked me to join his crowd of friends, who were grouped in the middle of the bar. Joe Fannelli was there, Peter Straker, the singer, with a couple of others. Joe was fair-haired, worked out and was in his thirties, with a cautious approach to people and life. I haven't got a clue what any of us talked about that night; I let them do most of the talking.
By about four in the morning Freddie decided he'd had enough and we were all invited back to his flat in Kensington - outside, the dawn was almost up, but everyone in the flat was in the mood to keep partying. At one point Freddie offered me some cocaine. "No, thanks," I said. "I don't touch the stuff." I'd had the odd joint of cannabis in my time, but never anything harder. Anyway, I was already happily tanked up and more interested in playing with Freddie's two cats, Tiffany and Oscar, than in putting anything up my nose. Despite a room full of noisy people. Freddie and I flirted all the time. There was a lot of eye contact with the odd wink, or not, or touch.
Eventually Freddie and I fell into his bed, too drunk to do anything more than fumble about. Freddie cuddled up to me affectionately. We both nattered away until we finally flaked out. Next morning we lay entwined, carrying on talking where we 'd left off. When we got around to discussing what each of us did for a living, I told him I was a hairdresser. He said, "I'm a singer." Then he offered to go ad make me a cup of tea.
Later, around noon, as I was leaving the flat, Freddie gave me his telephone number. "Fair dues," I said. "Here's mine." I didn't hear a word from Freddie after that night, and thought no more of it.
Then three months later, in the early summer, he did get in touch. I got home on a Friday and started cooking bangers and mash. I'd just put the potatoes on to boil when the phone went downstairs in the hall. My landlady answered it and called up for me.
I trundled down and the voice at the
other end said: "Guess who this is?"
I tried a few names without success.
"It's Freddie," he said. "I'm having a little dinner party. Come over."
"I can't," I replied. "I've just started cooking my dinner."
"Well, turn everything off at once," he demanded insistently. "Come over. You'll have a good time, I promise."
So I turned off my bangers and set off for Freddie's flat. I had no bottle of wine to offer my host but felt I should take something along, so when I got to Victoria Station I bought Freddie two £1.99 bunches of freesias.
Then I caught a bus to Kensington High Street and walked towards his flat. "This is silly. I'm going nuts!" I thought to myself. I'd never taken flowers to a guy before and had really surprised myself when I bought them. Besides, they looked half dead. As I turned into Freddie's street I spotted a bin and, embarrassed by the flowers, threw them in. Little did I know that freesias were one of Freddie's favourite flowers. If I'd actually given them to him that day he'd have gone crazy.
So, when Freddie opened the front door
to me, I just gave him a big smile. We hugged and went downstairs to the sitting
room to meet his other guests. There were about six of them. I felt apprehensive
about meeting Freddie's friends. As we were going upstairs to the dining room,
one of the guests put his hand on my shoulder and acted hurt.
"All right," he said. "Ignore me."
"Jesus!" I said. I had to look twice. It was Peter Freestone, a former colleague from my pre-Savoy days at Selfridges's, the Oxford Street department store. In those days I was working as a hairpiece sales assistant while Peter managed the ground-floor restaurant. Later he worked at the Royal Opera House as a dresser and now he helped Freddie manage his life and was constantly on call.
Freddie and the others always called Peter "Phoebe". Freddie loved finding nicknames - usually gender swapping ones - for those around him. His own was Melina, after Melina Mercouri, the volatile Greek actress and Joe was Lisa, as in "Lisa Fannelli".
At supper I sat next to Freddie. He had hit the cocaine again at some point, and couldn't stop talking. He was buzzing so much he could have talked to the wall. After supper we headed out to Heaven for a few hours, then, exhausted, we went back to the flat. All Freddie's other guests, especially a guy called Paul Prenter, were trying to find out what they could about me. I didn't feel at all at ease with Prenter. He was a slight man with a moustache and glasses. His eyes constantly darted around the room watching everyone around him and everything going on. He didn't miss a trick. He was very talkative but also had a bitchy streak in him.
There was a lot of bitchiness among Freddie's friends. They seemed to compete constantly for his attention. None of them had ever seen me out on the gay scene. Unlike most of Freddie's previous boyfriends. I was a total stranger. And I remained a tight-lipped mystery to them. They knew my name, where I lived and what I did for a living, but no more. When they asked questions, I was as evasive as possible. It was none of their business.
Freddie didn't ask any questions. We picked up exactly where we had left off three months earlier. I hadn't heard from him in that time, and that night he explained why it had been so long. After our previous liason he'd gone back to his flat in Munich. It was his real home, because at the time he was living out of Britain as a tax exile. He'd also been on a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Japan with his group, Queen.
After three months of silence, we were ready to begin our affair. I think I must have seemed something of a challenge to Freddie: he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world and I didn't seem impressed with any of that side of his life.
We spent that night together. I left in the afternoon, before Freddie was driven to Heathrow to take a flight back to his home in Munich. My life went on in London, unchanged. I strolled down to Kensington High Street to wait for a bus to Victoria. Freddie's car zoomed by, but I didn't notice. He told me later that he had spotted me and thought I looked downcast and it had made him upset. He'd said to Joe and his driver: "There goes my man. Doesn't he look miserable?"
I wasn't miserable, I was just being me. All the same, Freddie said he'd been tempted to turn back and cheer me up.
The next day I was back at work at the
Savoy and my life carried on as before, totally without incident. then, on the
Friday I got a call in the barber's shop from someone in the "Queen
Office", saying Freddie was expecting me to go to Germany that night to be
with him. His chauffeur was being sent to pick me up from the Savoy after work
to drive me to Heathrow. I panicked. I was completely broke.
"Sorry," I said apologising to the stranger at the other end, "I can't afford it. I can't afford fares like this."
"You don't have to worry about that," came the response. "Your ticket has already been paid for."
That night after I had locked up the barber's shop at the Savoy, Freddie's chauffeur handed me a Lufthansa air ticket and I was soon flying off to Munich.
The flight was pretty special. It was the first time I'd ever traveled first-class and I had the compartment to myself, with four young attendants waiting on my every whim. My feelings about the weekend were rather mixed. Although I was thrilled that he'd bought me a ticket I was a bit annoyed with him because I always like to pay my own way and remain under no obligation to anyone. For the first time I couldn't afford to be independent. I was a hairdresser on £70 a week.
When the plane touched down at Munich airport. Freddie was waiting. He was with Joe and Barbara Valentin, a German actress who in her day had been Germany's answer to Brigitte Bardot and was now a cult heroine because of her work with the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
From the airport we drove the half-hour journey through the darkness to Freddie's apartment. As soon as we arrived he jumped on top of me. When he got the urge for sex there was no stopping it - he wanted it at once. I think Freddie thought of it as making love in those early days, but I don't think it would be called lovemaking until some time later. For the time being it was just steamy sex.
When we re-emerged from the bedroom, Freddie showed me the rest of his flat. It was bright and spacious, and sparsely but tastefully furnished. The dinner table sparkled, laid ready for supper. Before long, Freddie's guests arrived, mainly English-speaking German friends. After supper we left for the gay bars in Munich's bohemian "Bermuda Triangle" district. And finally we ended up in a wonderful club, New York New York.
Freddie was the club's regular star and one corner was exclusively reserved for him and his inner circle, who were reverently referred to as "The Family". Freddie had been at the cocaine again and by New York New York he had caught his second wind. That night Freddie made a great fuss of me and showed me off to his friends. I was surprised to discover that I lapped it all up. Doors had been opened for me to a completely new world.
Despite the late night, I woke up early on the Saturday morning and left Freddie sleeping. I went into the kitchen, made myself a cup of coffee and gazed out of the bedroom window. Eventually the flat started to stir. Freddie got up in the middle of the morning and Joe went out to buy some provisions. For the first time on that trip Freddie and I were together, alone. We cuddled on the sofa, talking about anything which came into our heads. Before we knew it, the day had flown by.
The next day, Sunday, I had to leave for London at the end of the afternoon. As a friend drove me to the airport, I started getting myself ready to return to my quiet, modest life in Sutton and devote myself to the daily routine of the Savoy barber's shop. I was thrilled about the weekend with Freddie but didn't dare tell a soul where I'd been. I simply carried on with the haircuts ahead of me, happy inside to have found Freddie.
The following Friday an air ticket was again waiting to fly me to Munich for the weekend. This time I declined his generous offer of a chauffeur to drive me to Heathrow. It all seemed a bit daft: he had to drive from West London to the West End then back out to Heathrow. I got the Tube instead. Again I was flying first-class. The following weekend, now well into a routine. I flew to Germany again. Over that fortnight, I wrote to Freddie a number of times. He was now a large part of my life.
The following weekend, back in London, Freddie revealed a secret. After breakfast on Sunday, several of his friends arrived. "We're going for a walk," Freddie announced to us all. It was glorious sunny and we strolled for about 20 minutes until we came to a gate in a long wall. Freddie unlocked it and led us through into a magical secret garden.
Garden Lodge, I Logan Place, is a large Georgian house set inside a large, mature English garden behind high brick walls. Freddie had bought the place at the end of the Seventies from the Hoare banking family - hence its nickname under Freddie's ownership: The Hoare House. He had gutted it, totally renovating and redecorating it just the way he wanted. That Sunday the last of the builders and decorators were about to move out; the place was almost ready for Freddie to move into.
The jewel of the house was undoubtedly the garden, which made the house totally private. We spent most of that visit outside, sitting on a small mound, soaking up the sun and larking around. Freddie had mentioned Garden Lodge in passing, but the house was far more magnificent than I'd expected. But at that time, however, despite the beautiful London house, Freddie still thought of Germany as his main home.
Freddie would work on Queen albums in both London and Munich, and it was during one of what were to be many sessions that I met the members of the band for the first time: guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon. Roger had run a stall at Kensington Market with Freddie years earlier and they were clearly soul mates; they'd often sit together, giggling. Brian was intellectual and meticulous about his music. But it was John Deacon I took to most. He was the silent member of the group - modest, quiet and unassuming. He and Freddie were the most closely involved in the business side of Queen when they started out, and John had doubled as the band's accountant. Later, their success wildly escalated the demands of the job. His running gag was: "I'm only the bass player."
The release of Freddie's new solo single, Made in Heaven, was a big event. The video for the track was an incredible production with a Dante's Inferno theme boasting a 60-foot rotating globe, apocalyptic fires, raging storms and a ton of extras. Freddie invited me to visit the set after work, but I didn't reckon on the reception I'd get. I went up to the security guy on the studio gate and asked for Freddie's trailer. He pointed it out and I ambled over. When I opened the door, Freddie was very jumpy.
"How did you get
here?" he snapped. Then he flew into a rage, insisting that security had to
be made much tighter.
When he calmed down, he told me why he was so jittery. Some time before, a man had broken into Freddie's flat and tried on all of his clothes. He had been caught by police and put behind bars, but the incident had upset Freddie enormously. The morning of the video shoot Freddie learned that the man had escaped from prison; his girlfriend had alerted the police that her man was out, armed, dangerous and probably looking for Freddie Mercury. The police were taking the threat so seriously that they had sealed off both entrances to his flat in Kensington. After a while the drama passed; the poor man was caught by the police and put back in prison where he belonged.
Filming the video lasted late into the night, and when we got back to Freddie's flat around five in the morning a couple of policemen were waiting for us. They said they wanted to make sure Freddie was feeling all right after his ordeal, and they stayed and joked for a while and Freddie joked back.
He pointed to a little
antique Japanese lacquered box.
"I suppose you're wondering what's in that box, aren't you? he said. "It's my drugs!" They burst out laughing.
After they'd gone, by which time it was about six, Freddie said to me: "You go and have an hour's lie-down. I'll wake you for work, don't worry." An hour later Freddie woke me, softly saying: "You'd better be getting off to work, darling. I've run the bath."
Back at the Savoy a week or so later I received an internal call from a woman asking to make an appointment for a Mr Jones. She wanted it to be as late as possible, which was 5.30pm.
It was David Bowie. I didn't recognise Freddie when I first met him, but I recognised Bowie at once. As Ziggy Stardust he'd triggered off a whole style era a decade earlier - a trend for Bowie haircuts, of which I'd done my fair share.
When I'd finished
cutting his hair, I asked: "You are who I think you are, aren't you?"
"Who do you think I am?" he asked back.
"David Bowie," I said.
"Yes," he said.
That was the only conversation we had.
The next Saturday, July 13, 1985, was a sweltering hot day. After finishing a morning's work at the Savoy I made my way to Freddie's flat. The place was buzzing. Freddie was in party mood. Everyone was absorbed in watching Live Aid on television.
At about four in the
afternoon Freddie turned to me and asked: "Aren't you going to get ready,
then?" I was still in my suit straight from work.
"What for?" I asked.
"We're going to Live Aid!" he screamed, and my mouth fell open to the floor. I'd never been to a concert before, a fact that Freddie didn't know.
"I've got nothing to wear," I spluttered.
"You don't need anything," he replied.
"Just get your jeans on and there are T-shirts in the wardrobe. Help yourself."