I decided to write this column about the TV series Fleabag. I hadn’t been watching it as I was worried it would be too funny and make me feel even more of a failure. The headlines proclaiming its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge to be a genius and reports she’s been hired to add her quirky wit to the new James Bond script made me want to spend the afternoon in bed with a family bag of M&Ms. I was worried I’d watch it and then miss it too much. Like all the things I’ve loved in my life, it would disappear. End.
But then, weeks after the rest of British womanhood, I binge-watched it and it was like being tossed a rubber ring in the fetid, cold, outdoor, full-of-dead-frogs swimming pool of my life. At a dinner to celebrate her dad’s wedding, Fleabag asides, ‘No one’s asked me a question in 45 minutes.’ On a weekend in Sussex at the house of my ex David’s friends, no one spoke to me for three days; not even a, ‘And who on earth are you?’ The hostess merely pushed some broad beans (home-grown, of course) in my direction to shell. Like most middle-class mums, she had made no effort. When it was time for dinner we were instructed to ‘help ourselves’ and find a place at the bare table: no flowers, no cutlery, no trio of glasses, just buckets of privileged, self-assured, zero effort. It was like school dinners.
No one spoke to me as no one likes the well-dressed, child-free, single woman. Perhaps they were worried I’d later write, ‘How can you call yourself left-wing if you eat spring lamb? And surely kiddies running riot at midnight, screaming, isn’t ideal for them – or your guests.’
Their husbands are too frightened to talk to me and Fleabag, worried when they go to bed their wives will whisper through gritted teeth, ‘Why were you talking to her?’ The men, of course, believe that Fleabag and I find them attractive; the number of times I’ve shuddered, wanting to aside an ‘Urgghhh’. Or to punch someone.
That’s where Fleabag and I are most alike: we’re angry. Permanently. At the dish life has shoved our way down the refectory table covered in crumbs, despite the fact we are
tall and funny and flat-chested. Waller-Bridge even has a line similar to one from my new book. ‘You look well. Where have you been?’ asks her sister. ‘Boots,’ Fleabag deadpans. My heroine, an 18-stone mother of twins, wails, ‘I cannot live like this. With the huffing and puffing, the folds, the moist seams, the under-boob cress, the looks I get if ever I dare set foot inside a shop – any shop. Even Boots.’
Now, reading the reaction in the press, I’m made even more livid that sorted women – with ‘partners’ so bullied they wee sitting down, and pensions, and who are so self-assured they take maternity leave and change their surnames (I’d worry no one would get in touch to give me work ever again) – have claimed Fleabag. I’m sorry. You can’t have her. To paraphrase that wonderful line in Sex and the City, ‘She’s my a**hole.’ (SATC has been my polystyrene float for the past decade; the girls are probably quite glad to have passed on the baton.)
These privileged, smug mums in the media go on about how Fleabag is about sisterly love, which of course it is. But I doubt they’ve lost one sister to the bottle then the grave, a second to the Antipodes and been unable to afford a flight, even though she’s dying. And the third to a terrible feud. When Olivia Colman’s character snaps, about a trip to Japan, ‘Oooh. That was just a little fortnight,’ I actually leapt off the sofa, making my collies bark, reminded of when I’d sobbed to my sister, ‘But I took you on holiday! We went to that Georgian hotel in Bath!’ And she’d retorted, ‘That was only a weekend.’
These comfy heifers who have co-opted Fleabag don’t know what it’s like to be truly ostracised: I don’t even get the back of my expensively highlighted head in a family portrait; I’ve been airbrushed out! Fleabag is given a voucher for counselling by her father at the dinner as she’s deemed so mad and unhappy simply for not being married to a monosyllabic lump. Oh to be given a voucher! Oh to be invited! Or even be asked, ‘Are you OK?’
I’m glad, too, Fleabag didn’t get her happy ending, as Carrie et al did. Am I alone because I’m prickly, or prickly because I’m alone?