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Finally, we’re at a stage with the play where we feel as though we actually have something we’re willing to share. After weeks of wrestling with an out-dated, poorly-written script, approximated characters and half a director we have a play on our hands. The hottest day of the year and we shut ourselves in that room, pulled down the blinds and donned out shirts and jumpers, jackets and overcoats. Sweating into the yellow stars emblazoned on our chests. One more day of dress rehearsals and technical readjustments and then we’re done with the Annexe for good. Let’s do it justice.
Another full day cramped in the Annexe – our last – living the fictional lives of real people. Two families and a dentist who did all this for real without the breaks for lunch and coffee, without the air-conditioning or the pleasure of a view outside. We feel a very real responsibility to these people, the weight of History if you like, as we say approximations of their words and tell their stories as best we can. To live as they did for two years, fearing every outside noise, waiting for an end to come, is almost unimaginable. One more story left.
‘Huh… huh. Huh… huh.’ You make the funniest sounds as you sleep. I kiss your cheek and, ‘Huh,’ there you go again. We made it, by the way (as she would say), we made it to the end of the week. The longest week for all of us this year, but we made it and we made it in style. The banana guard lies under the window as I write this now, waiting to be used again to prop open the frame and let in some air. You don’t notice; you’re sleeping, lost in your dreams of, ‘huh, huh, huh.’
My Village Café in Camden, run by Salah the good brother and his evil twin who works downstairs in the basement cooking up wonderful vegetarian soups and fruit cakes. Banana muffins made only minutes ago and the finest Syrian coffee served with love in pewter mugs. The perfect place to meet a friend and run some lines. Salah greets me like an old friend (my friend is his old friend, but still!) and invites me downstairs to meet everyone. They reminisce over parties and meals together, ‘How is so and so? Do you still see..?’ Handshakes and smiles all round.
He walks around fumbling for his zip: it’s always out of reach or dropping again in protest. He walks talking out loud with headphones on, like he’s struggling to hear over the music but I don’t think he’s talking to anyone but himself. He shuffles from foot to foot, bouncing apologetically on the balls, so very sorry to ask them again to flex and point, to take his weight; he’s only light he says, “I’m only light,” since he stopped eating two full meals a day, to make the journey quicker. He’s always walking and talking alone with his thoughts.
I know I shouldn’t be counting my chickens, I should be touching wood or something but if that was Swine flu then I got off pretty lightly. Dry cough to chesty cough and a fever that subsided after a few hours of rest with series six of the West Wing for company. It wiped you out for days and I’m sorry I left when I did but I’m trying to get better, or more on your wavelength but you’re right, gentle reminders each way should do it. Teaching is out of the question but we’ll enjoy the other stuff instead.
Lying in bed for another day watching the rain batter the trees outside my window. Listening to a mindless altercation on the street below. ‘You’re a mug bruv, a mug, a mug. You’re a mug… South African mug!’ God knows how he could guess at the other driver’s nationality but he sounded pretty certain. With his girlfriend in floods of tears in the passenger seat, he pulled a u-turn and followed the offending ‘Safa’ to the end of the road and jumped out threatening to ‘cut’ the guy. Some people have a terrifying capacity for anger. Terrifying and utterly stupid.
He throws his toys out of the pram because there’s no food for him in the oven and he couldn’t be bothered to pick up anything himself; his day has been a nightmare so we’ll hear all about the phone-calls made and hurdles overcome, the full-blooded arguments with his girlfriend at all hours of the day and the inevitable ear-splitting make-up sex that follows, the impressive collection of shoes, socks and jumpers (some of them borrowed from me) in the hall and landing, the irrepressible joy of picking through the debris if his washing-up trying to find a clean fork.
He looks too old to be saying, “Bruv, you know what I mean? If he gets in ma face then I’ll nut ‘im.”
You know what I mean?
He’s got the posturing bounce and the scowl that says, “What?” but he’s not mixing it up in the playground.
“It’s hot, it’s too hot bruv… nah, you don’t wanna go sunbathe in this. Your hands will swell up… yea… I get the itch up bruv, peeling an’ shit. Nah, wait ‘til four and get out there. Yea…”
Off at the next station - bounce, scowl, ‘Bruv’, bounce, scowl, ‘What?’ bounce, scowl.
“Pack it in you donut, you’re an adult, now stop it.” She giggles away through broken teeth, her face pulled back into a bun. “Pack it in the lotta you. If that hits me…” and she bursts into laughter again; her husband and son carry on. Flecks of paper screwed up with spit and coffee bounce around the carriage like a muddy storm in a snowglobe. Mouths hanging open covered in crisps, lumpen tongues digging out junk from molars. They’ve laughed for an hour and what’s wrong with that? Going home after a week away together and they’re still laughing.
A picture in lashing rain, brown boots and blue umbrella smudged by a wet thumb from above. Bracing herself, alone on the platform, against the horizontal side-pour. Smiling in spite of it all, or rather, because of it all. The beauty of standing in a thunderstorm; standing perfectly still and letting it happen around you. Feeling clothes sag under the weight of the water, jeans darken and stick to her legs, rivulets slide down her face and bounce softly onto her jacket turning into rivers at bank-full then floods. Walking with a smile when everyone else is running in tears.
‘Here we are again, strewn along the corridor like victims of an epidemic,’ is what I wrote some weeks ago turning slowly in the oven, baking on all sides. Now I sit outside a familiar haunt, warming gently in the afternoon sun watching a Turner sky change in the breeze. Balding men in blue polo shirts talk peaceably of holidays in Sorrento and old German girlfriends; order lattes and Italian paninis. Perhaps I would like that life, to enjoy lazy lunches chatting with friends over coffee, but there would have to be more: a dangerous antidote to the relaxing sickness.
One, two, three, four and I’ve only just left the house. If I turn to look over my shoulder I can still discern the green front door. Five, six. Seven is a double so not sure how to count it. I hesitate for a second before eight and nine arrive in tandem, mothers driving them on like huskies, Starbucks in hand at the reigns. Ten is a thing of beauty, I shudder to think an antique, all white and chrome with reclining canopy and handle bedimmed in silver. Eleven and twelve pass without comment, aware of what came before them.
I’m feeling less and less sure of myself here. It’s aspirational certainly, but I find I’m surrounded by people I detest. I have no desire to become them. Perhaps this feeling is something I’ve inherited from Dad – a distrust of that way of life; this society of frivolous treats and tweed.
“Elections are not won, they’re lost.”
“Here, here,” chimed Tweed Two to Tweed One. Tweed Three snorted something about ‘Cameron’ and they had a jolly good chuckle about Brown being, “a bloody Scot.”
Ladies of leisure talking of Cannes and Brown Loafers Snr bemoaning the death of English musicals.
Where are we now and how did we get here? Or rather, how did I get here and you get there? I don’t remember what I said but I’m sure it wasn’t, ‘leave now,’ or, ‘could you go?’ or, ‘I’d like to be alone now.’ I suppose I went off somewhere again and didn’t take you with me but that was only because I was embarrassed or didn’t have the vocabulary to find the words to do it. It’ll get better I think, easier at least. I don’t do this to keep you guessing, you know? It’s just… who knows.
There’s an undeniable attraction to being the ‘Masked man’, flamboyant and leading, but at some point you must stop and say, ‘this is who I am.’ To flit from one to the other is to stay hidden. Break out and get messy! Step outside the safe place and take a risk; make a dangerous, wrong, decision. Never lose the impulse to question everything. Recognise the glamour within you and play with it, don’t keep it buried beneath a calm and tidy exterior. Explore; find a new piece of sky and lay under it. Let me put my finger on it.
For a blood test for starters. Trying to forget the memories of needles in my arm; the little burn in the vein and sympathetic prickling breakouts over my skin. Every twinge and ache will sound and resonate here forever.
For a phone call about last night, whatever that means. Probably nothing, we all have our own particular ghosts that emerge from time to time. We deal with them as we see fit and carry on. How did you deal with it? As I did once upon a time? I hope so.
Waiting, waiting, in search of lost time.
That feeling you have from time to time where you’ve made plans – agreed to be somewhere close to meet someone distant – the hour approaches and you’d really rather just stay where you are. Drumming up enthusiasm for the afternoon ahead, pushing the meeting further and further back with other jobs that could be done before you leave until you can’t avoid it any longer. And what a relief when you finally leave the house and stroll on over; conversations with friends of friends, genuinely interesting, pleasant people happy to share something with you. That earlier feeling should always be ignored.
I find myself less inclined to do some of the things I took pleasure in even a few years ago. We’ve all grown up together. It’s been a little while since I woke up fully-clothed with a dry mouth and that peculiar sinking lurch in my soul, piecing together all those ‘forget it, I deserve this’ choices I made. Stumbling out into the morning sun reeking of stale smoke and dry beer, laughing with my fellow stumblers as we waver towards the tube. I still love the magic of those endless nights but find myself thinking more about the days.
Lunch at the Imperial after meeting mum and dad and it’s pasta with lots of fresh coffee. I’m on my very best behaviour meeting all the family and friends, offering my opinion on dresses. “How am I doing? What shouldn’t I say? They don’t know you smoke, you’re kidding?” Don’t mention the smoking, it doesn’t exist, don’t mention the smoking, think of anything else but smoking! Something comes and we’re away again chatting in the sitting room casting my eyes around at pictures of horses and photos of horses. We survived and I enjoyed it; I’ve never had that before
We finished our donuts and put on our coats, sat listening to shanties as we wove out to sea, a yellow hood pulled over your head as we pitched and rolled over the waves. We heard all about Captain Cook as we see-sawed up the coastline trying to get a picture. Back on dry land we ambled up 199 stone steps for a lap of a ruin, smelling the local smoked kippers. We raced in cars and bikes, shot aliens and bowled. I forget who won overall. With a final picture looking out to sea, I think it was me.
Sitting in the back garden, now completely overgrown with weeds that first emerged between the broken concrete tiles and crept up the walls disguising themselves as flowers, remembering a waterfall in the rain. The stones that made up the path were marooned in great oceans of puddles, shiny and slick underfoot in the drizzle. The gates were locked due to the weather but I climbed over the fence and jumped from rock to rock towards the gushing torrent. A plume of brown and white feathers shot through the gully and fell into the pool below, spitting back foam and spray.
He really needs to start making more of an effort, he’s getting a reputation amongst his friends for being absent; always running off somewhere and slow to get in touch. It gets to a point where it’s easier not to contact him: you can only wait so long for a reply so many times before you just don’t bother picking up the phone or writing the email, even sending him a quick text to see how he’s getting on. Forget him, he’s forgotten you. I really need to start making more of an effort. I’m still here thinking about you.
What a mess. I can’t believe him. I should have said something, anything, instead of standing there grinning like an idiot, so concerned that he was entertained and having a good time that I didn’t stop to consider what that actually meant. We sat back recounting those famous moments – the cliff jump, the VC, stale beer and all the other dead memories – that brought us together and remembered why they did (now I see why they died). Marvelled, wide-eyed, at the adventures of the other, laughing at the cloud looming overhead but we only saw the planes cutting through it.
“Should I get the dictionary?”
“No, we’re all friends here!”
and a mischievous grin leapt across your face as the dictionary arrived and brought an end to your triple-word score dream – there will always be two ‘E’s in Hygiene! With your hand in the bag, your own set of rules, even mum was impressed with your reasoning. I had ‘Quake’ all set up but you blocked me with ‘lean’ when out of the blue, the Gods intervened and you said, “Let’s go with ‘lane’ instead.”
I lost in the end but you gave me my ‘E’, selfless without even knowing.
We watched him from the shore cutting to and fro between the amber markers diving under the swinging boom, gliding like a cushioned pendulum, passing from side to side with the assured click of a metronome. I waved a soft half-cautious wave and felt his brow furrow wet with spray; watched the rope pass through his hands and coil in pretty knots upon the bank. He stood tugging at his zip and said, “Hello. Pleased to meet you. Shall we have a drink?” I caught a glimmer of the man I knew, that sparkle in the eyes I’d always loved.
I found ‘The Suicide Handbook’ towards the bottom of the box buried beneath albums of photographs from school and university; oil on water in shapes I can remember. You threw stones in the pool, followed the ripples and asked me how I’d arrived here. I told you as much as I could picture in my mind and used my mouth to colour in the spaces, made links to all my journeys with the stories I’d been told as a child. You smiled at me and said, “I love you” in an accent then again in your normal voice, eyebrows dancing.
Written five years ago and finished with pride, albeit in a hurry, and handed in late. It was always the way: I could automatically deduct three to six marks from any piece of work, I just couldn’t let it go on time. ‘But that’s fine,’ I would smile and shrug. Stuffed away in a box for all that time waiting to be found and here it is in my hands once more. ‘Excellent work… minus three marks: late.’ Some lines elicit a sigh, some others a cringe but it warrants a second glance at least. Still not quite finished then.
There’s a giant white stuffed tiger toy in Lost Property at Kings Cross station. It’s been standing on the top shelf watching bags, coats and Ipods take residence on the lower rungs, some gathering dust for months on end, others retrieved in minutes, reunited with sweaty palms and red blown-out cheeks but still he stands marshalling his territory, maybe looking for mate. He has become a fixture, a mascot for the team, remembered by returning customers: “I was last here three months ago, have you still got the tiger?” I heard, second-hand. I want to catch him for a present.
We’re busy making memories, things we can look back on and remember later. We’ll talk of days but only recall hours or tens of minutes; if we’re exceptionally lucky, a significant moment or two, something that passed between us in a second silence when we breathed in together, inspired. A glance across the table, a warm hand on a knee, your head upon my shoulder, an eyebrow raised as if to say, ‘I know what you’re thinking.’ She saw the tears and she thought them sweet; you always ask all the right questions and have my answers before I do.
You taught me ‘Spot’, I picked it up in an instant. Horse, a dog in clothes, a disabled person, place-name comprising any part of our names, the sick-coloured car and another I’ve forgotten. You won of course; you have a memory for law or gambling, for learning lines in one sitting. We arrived at the ‘Castle’ with map in hand, got a hug from Ben and the bride-to-be before settling in with the private pool, sauna and Jacuzzi. An afternoon walk over the river, falling off rope-swings and dinner. ‘Foxtrot from a Play’ would say, ‘You’re my cup of tea.’
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