Monday, 28 February 2011

Gut Girls - show week part 1

Sunday 27 Feb - Technical rehearsal

We've been building up to this for months. Gradually absorbing and repeating the lines, carefully planning and practising the movements, slowly getting to know the other members of the cast as well as the characters we'll play.

The 'technical' is our penultimate rehearsal before opening night, the final check on lighting, props, staging and costumes; it has always had the potential to be both scary and demanding. Despite all the careful planning and the very best intentions of cast and crew, the last few weeks have been challenging for Lonnie our director and the four hours set aside in our rehearsal schedule, which had seemed so ludicrously generous all those months ago, suddenly appear to be nowhere near enough.

It's one thing to walk through the scenes when all you need to do is imagine the props, another one entirely to manoeuvre around the small space of the village hall's stage without totally blocking the audience's view, as a fellow cast member delivers their most poignant line. It should be easy to wield a meat cleaver with conviction, but the more you do it the less natural it feels. The Gut Girls are supposed to be coarse and common, but we're still being urged to be louder and more raucous; and you may think that it would present no challenge, but I haven't yet entirely got to grips with the art of swigging convincingly from an empty beer bottle.

Theatre is full of superstition. Many believe that mere mention of the name of 'The Scottish Play' is enough to bring on a plague of bad luck. Others attempt to evade calamity by banning whistling anywhere in the theatre, avoiding the use of mirrors on stage and insisting that the colour blue can only be worn when offset by silver. But probably the best known of all theatrical superstitions is the phrase that's meant to replace any ill-advised good luck wishes. This week Sheila, our prompt, took that a little too literally. Having spent weeks patiently and successfully overcoming the challenges of a cast who change their lines at every rehearsal, her downfall was the curled up edge of carpet in the doorway of the hall, which resulted in nasty tumble and a fractured femur.

It's strange how you think you know people just because you pass them in the street and say hello. I saw a different side to my fellow Shoreham Players that night. Sheila was very brave, despite her obvious fear and pain, but she was matched in stoic fortitude by Jill who crouched down motionless for a limb-numbing age to hold the injured leg still. Derek's kind, calming, softly spoken words are just what I'd want to hear if ever I was in trouble and even Megan, who in my heart will always be my little girl, showed me she's far from that in the confident clear way she called and spoke to the ambulance service.

Sheila has now had an operation and is recovering in hospital, but even so, I don't think anyone will be telling us to 'break a leg' on opening night.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Gut Girls - show week

Like the witches in Macbeth, the legs of a tripod, the sides of a triangle, or even just luck, things often arrive in threes. The fortuitous convergence of three events this week has given me an excuse to try something a little different on my blog for the next seven days.

  1. Gut Girls, the show we've been rehearsing since November last year is finally coming to the stage of Shoreham Village Hall this week, with performances from Wednesday to Saturday.
  2. Because there is no way that I could be on stage every evening and up for work at 6.00am the next day, I have taken the whole week off. This also means I have more time for writing.
  3. Next Saturday, 5th March, is not only the final performance of Gut Girls, it is also my very first Bloggiversary; one year to the day since I started this whole blog-writing malarkey.
For these three reasons, and not just because I am a self-obsessed luvvy, I have decided that for the next seven days I will write a blog update every day - focusing on the happenings at the village hall, our final preparations and the performances. 

A daily blog is not something I've attempted before, but I really like the idea of keeping an almost-live record of the week. I know that this is completely self-indulgent, and I've no idea how it will turn out, so I can only beg your forbearance. If the whole idea seems just too hideous, then all I can suggest is that you stay away from the blog for the next week or so, after which normal service will be resumed. 

If, on the other hand, you fancy taking a journey through the stage-fright, the highs and lows, the glamour and greasepaint of a theatrical production in a small village in Kent, then please switch off your mobile phones and take your seats; the curtain is about to rise...

Saturday, 26 February 2011

A cottage in the woods

In fifty years, I've never lived on my own, never even been on holiday by myself. Half a century of sharing and adjusting, carefully negotiating space and sound, decor and temperature.

At nineteen I moved straight from the shared bedroom of childhood to the double bed of marriage. I'd quickly closed down any conversations about going away to university; that had seemed no more real than the notion of finding a room in a shared house, renting a bedsit in the city, travelling around the world. Other people did those things, people I read about, not people I knew.

It might have been that I was rushing into being with someone, trying to get back to the family life that I'd known before my parents' divorce. Or it might have been that young love had convinced me that being half of something was better than being less than someone. Either way, for a long while it was a good place to be, especially while there were children arriving and growing, when sharing space meant snuggling up on the sofa to read a book, budging up in bed to make room for a sleepy kid in the early morning. When eventually, perhaps inevitably, we realised that there wasn't enough space in being married, the children and I moved to another house. Though I'd never been more lonely, I still wasn't alone.

But every now and then I'd think about a cottage in the woods. In my head it was a place where I'd live all by myself. I'd sit and read, with only the creaking sounds of the trees to keep me company. Life was simple in my house made of logs. No electricity, no machinery, no conversations or relationships; nothing to break. I pictured myself revelling in my solitude, writing the book I'd never found time for, being at one with nature and myself. I sometimes wondered though, how long I'd last, how long it would be before I rushed to the nearest town, started a conversation with anyone who'd listen.

My children are all grown up now, but I'm still not on my own. With Philip I've learned a whole new set of adjustments. We live in a tiny house, so whatever one of us does, it's bound to have an impact on the other.  I realise that I'll sometimes have to tolerate the freezing gales that blow through the open kitchen window because he gets too hot when he's cooking. I understand that I'll need to grin and bear the northern cadences of Radcliffe and Maconie, because he likes to listen to the radio while he does so. But that's ok, because I also know that I'll get to sit down with him and eat the meals he's so carefully made while he's been sweltering and I've been shivering.

In return, he's got quite adept at avoiding the shoes and bags I place around the house like booby traps, the laptop leads that I trail across the floor like poachers' wires; he knows I'll get around to moving them eventually, because I'm the one who hoovers. We've both learned that, even when we silently blame each other for leaving clothes around, for piling up books and papers, for failing to change the bed, replace a light-bulb, put the rubbish out, it doesn't really matter. We're both quite comfortable in our clutter and our shared space.

Even so, I still sometimes imagine going on holiday alone. I picture myself lying by the pool with a book, while the other holiday-makers whisper between themselves, wondering in hushed tones about the enigmatic lone-lady. And every now and then, when I've had a dreadful week at work, when I feel like the years are slipping away, when the things I ought to do are eating into the time for the things I want to do, then I still think about that cottage in the woods.

Except this time, there's a bearded, check-shirted lumberjack called Philip living there with me.

Saturday, 19 February 2011


I have almost no sense of smell. It's a bit like that very old, and not very funny joke:

'My dog has no nose' 
'How does he smell?' 

It hasn't always been that way; I have some really powerful scent memories. Ambre Solaire in the heat of a Majorcan sun on my first teenage holiday, fresh-cut-grass in Dulwich park on a Sunday morning, burnt-out fireworks in November, the bury-your-face-in-it scent of a just shaved boyfriend. But it's been a long time since I walked past a lilac tree and was knocked out by its fragrance, even longer since I came home to the heart-lifting aroma of a roast dinner.

One of the real down-sides is the impact on my ability to taste. I easily get those flavours that rely only on the tongue - put either sugar or salt in my tea and I will kill you while spitting it out in your face; but ask me to describe the nuances of a fine glass of wine and I'm lost. I live in awe of tea-tasters and all those who earn their living by their taste-buds. I am nonplussed by those who can define the impact of a herb - imagine being able to say you don't like coriander.

I know it's frustrating for my beloved. He's a very fine cook and will happily spend hours blending flavours to create a perfect dish. I know that my "very nice" doesn't do it credit, but I just don't have the vocabulary to describe what isn't there. In compensation for my lack of palate I have however developed a supreme appreciation of texture. Take the well-crafted combination of textures in crispy duck and pancakes, the soft giving-ness of the pancake, the cool crunch of the cucumber and spring onion, the springy bite of the duck, all enfolded in sticky plum sauce. Unbeatable.

There are other advantages; I never suffer from the odour of sweaty shoes left lying around the house, I'm never compelled to move away from a smelly fellow passenger on a train, I can be relied on to put the rubbish out without making a fuss.  At times though, it borders on dangerous. I can sit in a room with burning bacon under the grill and notice nothing until the acrid smoke brings tears to my eyes, I can happily pour gone-off milk into my tea and only notice when it rises to the surface in lumps.

I always wear perfume, but never choose my own - I have to rely on the good taste of others to tell me if it suits me. And because I cannot rely on my sense of smell, I live in constant fear of offending the olfactory organs of those around me.

A few years ago, while sitting in bed with my beloved, he started talking in his softest, kindest voice,
"you know that I really love you...."
Well that immediately set alarm bells ringing. Why was he being so nice, what was he building up to?
He must have been about to tell me that I smelled.
"...I want you to know that you can rely on me..."
Now I don't mind making a deliberate fool of myself, but I couldn't bear to think that he was feeling sorry for me or disdainful.
"...and because I really love you, I think..."
This was too much. I was ready to leap out of bed and rush to the shower.
Then he took my hand.
I knew it must be really bad.
"...I'd like you to marry me..."

Well I certainly never sensed that coming.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Setting out

Each morning I follow the same routine; as I leave the house, I pull the front door shut behind me, turn left and look down the street. The terraced cottages form a guard of honour as the road makes its way slightly downhill  towards the river. Beyond that, the view opens up across the fields to the other side of the valley. From this distance I can't see the llamas grazing, but as I look up I can see the lights glowing from the solitary house on the hill. I'm intrigued by the round  turret like wing at one end and always think it could be the setting for an Agatha Christie murder mystery, a deadly dinner party with Hercule Poirot as guest of honour; 'Villainy at the Vineyard' perhaps, or 'The Shocking Shoreham Shooting'?

I have a long commute to work, so it's still dark when I leave. There's no-one else around at this time, but as I look along the road I can picture the other Crown Road residents waking up and preparing for the day ahead. I know the house where the toddler will already be awake, chattering away to her Dad before he sets off for work in Tunbridge Wells. I can imagine the scene where our champion of the allotments will be slowly stretching, bringing the life back into his aching shoulders. I can almost see each of the dogs and cats bending down to their individual breakfast bowls.

Then I turn to walk up the road towards the car. Parking is never easy in this small narrow street, so it's usually a bit of a way from the house. I never mind that though; this is sometimes my only chance of the day to feel like I'm really part of the village. At the top of the street is the hill leading up to the woods on our side of the valley. This is the slope where so many people rushed to test out their tobogganing skills when the snow fell heavily in December, I can still almost hear the excited shrieks of delight and fear. Sometimes the field is empty, at other times there are sheep or cows grazing there. I remember the reaction of my son when he first saw them clinging to the steep incline "why don't they roll down?"

As I walk up the road I continue to imagine the scenes behind each front door. The young couple a few doors up are expecting their first baby. It was due earlier this week and I wonder if anything happened in the night. But there's no way of knowing; everything looks peaceful and it's far too early to knock and find out. As I reach the top of the road, the first car reverses past me on its way to the station. The driver smiles and waves through his rapidly de-misting windscreen.

Just a few minutes later I reach my car, but in that short time the darkness has lifted a little and the sky is a lighter grey. I know that each morning for the next few weeks this will happen slightly earlier until the day when I walk out for the first time this year to the bright morning light of Shoreham. On that day I'll walk even more slowly to my car.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

One fair lady - a story

She was a sucker for a musical. Write a play, put songs in it, and she'd be there. It didn't matter if it was trite and predictable, she didn't care if it was contrived and cheesy; with the first note of the overture she would instantly suspend all disbelief and be entranced. There'd been few defining moments in her life that wouldn't have been improved by the people all around her turning as one to an imaginary audience and, with shining teeth and sparkling eyes, bursting into song.

Her teenage role models had been the irresistible Maria from West Side Story, the irrepressible Maria from The Sound of Music. She'd modelled her approach to parenting on a combination of the chaotic care of Caractacus Potts and the matronly magic of Mary Poppins. But it was the character of Eliza Doolittle that had captured and held her. Perhaps it was the name, so close to her own Lizzie; perhaps it was the London setting. She'd certainly known people who would judge her on account of her accent.

She'd sometimes felt uncomfortable with the notion of a girl needing or wanting to change so drastically to fit another's definition of proper, but there was something so very enticing about that dramatic transformation. The very idea that, if you only tried hard enough, you could become beautiful and accepted. She'd pictured herself playing the part on the West End stage. Manipulating her vowel sounds, overcoming her gracelessness and winning the heart of the curmudgeonly but oh-so-clever Professor Higgins.

So why, when he played the soundtrack tonight, as they sat and ate together, did she have to blink away the tears? Why did she feel the need to straighten her shoulders, hold her head high and pretend all the optimism and joy he expected?  She could still remember the time when she'd offered to give her heart to anyone who'd stand outside her door and sing 'On the street where you live'. So when exactly had the transformation from cockney girl to stunning socialite become such a parody of misguided hope and untaken chances?

She looked across the table at her own intellectual. She pictured him singing  'I've grown accustomed to her face' and wondered when that had become a reflection of reality rather than a love song. Was it inevitable for everyone to eventually reach a stage when they have to accept who they are?  When do people realise that the best they'll ever be has already been?

Sighing, she got up to clear the table. Slim chance that she'd ever again want to dance all night. He stood up as she passed his chair, reaching out to catch her hand. She knew he'd meant well and that she'd disappointed him with her silence, she just didn't know how to explain. But as Lizzie looked at him he grinned and then, still holding her hand, he very softly started to sing,
'All at once am I, several stories high, knowing I'm on the street where you live.'

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The shed

A few nights ago I dreamed of our garden shed. It wasn't the timber-slatted, flower-pot-and-cobweb filled refuge of an aged pipe-smoker. Neither was it an eau-de-nil painted summerhouse, with gingham curtains and a wide verandah. This shed was brick-built and square with a flat roof; a utilitarian council-house issue of the early 1960s. It stood in the garden of our house in Croxted Road, just a few yards away from the kitchen, and for nearly twenty years it was the first thing I saw whenever I opened the back door.

For hour after hour when I was a girl, I'd play two-balls against the closed shed door, the pounding of the tennis balls on the wood, marking out time to one of the rhythmic songs I'd learned at school; each line accompanied by the appropriate actions as I practised throwing and catching, throwing and catching.

"PK penny a packet, 
first you lick it, then you smack it,
then you stick it to your jacket
PK, penny a packet"

In my dream the door was open and I was peering into the gloom of the shed's interior. It was a bit like looking at any memory, clear at the centre, but dark and fuzzy the further you go into it.

In my mind, there was a coal bunker just inside. Though the house was newly built when we moved in and I don't remember there ever being a coal fire, I could swear there were a few shiny black nuggets in its corners. Did I imagine the square of old faded carpet laid out on the hard concrete floor under our feet, where we played 'shop' on rainy days when it was too wet to stay in the garden; where we'd pile up toys for sale and take it in turns to press down the keys of the brown and cream plastic till to ring up the prices.

I pictured a folded up wigwam leaning against the wall and the old Silver Cross pram, which we used mostly for pushing our dolls, but sometimes for carrying the docile ginger cat from two doors down, who didn't mind being dressed up. Behind it was a heavy black tricycle and somewhere in a corner there must have been the abandoned pogo stick that I tried so hard to master yet never managed to cling on to for more than two springs.

In the shed of my dream there was no sign of my sister's chopper bike and no images of us huddled on the doorstep each night after school, polishing our shoes before we could go indoors. Nothing had yet been cleared to make way for the stacked cages of the guinea pig stud farm, those small substitutes for the ponies my sister really wanted. And my selective memory edits out the times I took friends home to ridicule her as she spent hour after hour training guinea pigs to jump over tiny makeshift fences in her garden gymkhanas. My older sister tells me she locked me in the shed once until I wet my knickers, but that event is firmly erased from my consciousness.

Memory is a tricky thing; even more so when it's shaped by a dream, so it's hard to be sure how much of what I recalled is true. The shed always seemed dark, I don't think there was a light or any electricity and there was only one small window high up, but in my mind's eye hanging on the far wall, was a framed print of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, shining out like a gold tooth in a gaping mouth.

Friday, 4 February 2011

A photo of you

For a long time there weren't any photographs of the two of us together. I found pictures of you from before and put them on my mantelpiece, almost as if I was trying to claim another part of your life

In one of them you're a skinny teenager, wearing an over-large grey jumper, sitting in front of a bed of municipal daffodils. Behind you the traffic passes in a blur, a transit van in one direction, a blue Ford Capri in the other. It's a bright looking day with patches of clear blue sky between the high white clouds, but the daffodils give away the season and the jumper suggests that it's not yet warm. You grew up by the seaside and I like to think you're looking out to sea in this photo. I like to imagine that you're gazing away from the terraced houses of the town, towards the open grey expanse of water beyond the harbour. The sound of the waves, crashing on the pebbled shore is enough to drown out the noise of the traffic behind you. There are no other people around on this sunny spring day, just you and the girl with the camera. Perhaps you've snuck off from school to hang around together. Maybe later, when the cold sea air creeps in through your jumper, you'll grab her hand and run laughing to a nearby cafe where you'll warm up with steaming mugs of strong sweet tea.

You're older in the other photo, but I love the carefree look on your face, the relaxed way you lean back in the chair and the broad smile that brings creases to your eyes. Your smile was for another woman then. I think you were on  holiday together, sitting at a pavement cafe, parasols in lines behind you. Your sunglasses are hanging round your neck from one of those string things - are they called lanyards? I can't imagine you wearing them that way now, not the you I know. You're looking straight into the camera, as though you're happy to have your picture taken, happy to be sitting there. I wonder what you said to her just after she'd clicked the shutter.

In the early days, when I hadn't known you long, I sometimes wondered what would happen if the worst thing occurred. I was no next-of-kin, no name stored in your wallet, nor the front page of your diary.  Your sister, in a far-off northern town, had only knowledge of your last long love, no note of me. If something happened to you, how would I find out? Who would think to tell me? In those early days, when I placed your smiling pictures on the mantel, it was almost as if I was trying to claim another part of your life. I longed to place beside them a framed photo of the two of us together, believing that would somehow make us real; prove that we had a shared history, a promised future.

There are lots more photos now; other pictures of bright spring days and warm summer evenings and in some of them we're together. You still have a smile that creases your eyes and a way of gazing out, asking the world to tell you its story. But I've stopped putting photos on the mantelpiece. Nowadays that's full of other clutter; your recent birthday cards, red candles on china saucers, the antique clock we bought together. It seems that somehow, almost without noticing and without the need for photos, I have claimed part of your life.