Saturday, October 17, 2009

Back to the Bright Lights

Wow.  Life doesn't hang about, does it? 

You've had the year from hell, but you've begun to get yourself together.  You've stopped noticing yourself all the time and started noticing the squirrel in the garden, and the berries against the leaves, and that sharp tang to the morning air.  You've re-grouped and re-organised, and re-drawn the boundaries of your comfort zone in bright, bold highlighter pen.  Taking slow, shuffly steps, you have finally begun, in other words, to move on.

And then your agent calls.  Your gem-of-an-agent whom you'd really like to make some money one day to repay his endless, Tiresian faith in you, calls and says Never mind if you can't do the job: this is one director whom you cannnot afford not to meet.

More than once over the following weekend, I say wistfully to friends: Of course I won't actually be able to do the job, but I have to go...

So I go to read for the Director-I-Cannot-Afford-Not-to- Meet at a production office in north London on Monday afternoon.  The air is dry and full of autumn crisp.  I am a wee bit early, so I stop to gather my thoughts in a smart, mansion-lined street round the corner from our designated meeting place.  I catch a passing local giving me a side-long look: the sort of look I haven't seen for some time, given that I have refused to consider theatre work since before Anna-mouse was born.  It's the 'what-is-that-crazy-woman-talking-to-herself-doing-on-that-bench-look' well-known to the pre-audition actress rehearsing her lines.

The script - hand-delivered last Friday to ensure I have it for the audition - is neat and bound in red, with the play title in bold capitals in a little window on the front cover.  It is a classic script, a joy to breathe in its papery freshness, thrilling in its quintessential script-ness.  Never mind the job, it has been worth coming for this small, all-important confirmation of my status as 'Actress' once again. 

Also, I have discovered several other pleasing things.  The play is being cast by a true, old-school casting director whose word on quality cannot be questioned; the director-I-can't-not-meet is not only a theatre pro but directed one of my favourite feel-good movies of all time; the project stretches in an elastic line of perfect tension between now and February and there is a West End option should it happen to receive five star reviews.  Just about everything, in fact, about this job smells exemplary - except, of course, for how much it is going to shake up my life with Anna-mouse.

The director is T-shirted, intelligent and kind.  I warm to him immediately.  

So what have you been doing? he asks.

I laugh.  There is no uncomplicated answer to that question, and because it is so long since I went on stage I can't boast of recent theatre conquests, so I decide to talk instead about my work at the school which has recently filled so much of my life, and put me right when all else was wrong. 

I talk about the children, and the projects I'm managing, and what a joy it is when some seed I have planted bears fruit.  The director listens with open face and mind; asks questions; seems to understand.

After a while he asks me to read, and I open the fresh script with its beautiful white pages and find the few lines belonging to the funny strange character for which I have come to audition.

That was well read, he says, and soon after we shake hands and part.

I return to the same bench I stopped at just half an hour before.  I am jangly with adrenaline, all fingers and thumbs as I phone my agent for a de-brief.  I can barely think, let alone talk, about the changes ahead if I were to be offered the job.  

But some tiny corner of my jumping brain is still, and is saying that the job is mine.  I have had this feeling before.  I remember it of old.  It is a remarkable, instinctive knowing.  That is not to say that I believe it.  But by the bench, under the plane trees, it is there.

Twenty-four hours later, when my agent calls, pleased as punch, I remember to congratulate my sixth sense for being so wonderfully, scarily right.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Flying the Flag

So where was I? Ah, yes: I've just been taken to Paris.

We were lovers, long ago. Fresh from our teens and brimming with expectations – of life; of ourselves.

It was perfect: both beautiful and bittersweet, because we knew that it was what it was, and that it could not last in that form. Temperamentally we were a fitting match and our souls loved one another too - possibly aided, rather than hindered, by our mutual love for lean young men with vertiginous cheek bones.

He was the person I had to ‘phone on the morning of my marriage to the Bim. To make sure that he was okay. To make sure that I had his blessing, however painful it was to him that he was losing me in some way.

I think that you’re doing the right thing, he said. Which was kind, given that he had met the Bim only once and probably found the whole thing incomprehensible. But he knew the journey which had brought me to that place. He knew that I needed to have my chance, a shot, at the ordinary. For it is the ordinary we mostly wish for, I understand now. We simply wish to accomplish the ordinary in our own unique, extra-ordinary ways.

Marriage? I needed, given my parents’ so-called failure, to tick that box and make it my own.

Children? Well, there was a slim chance – I had to try.

He understood that. And that was what he managed to convey, during the course of our wedding-morning conversation.

At the wedding itself I remember little of him except for a shot of his face through some leaves, thoughtful and alone before the main celebrations got under way, and then, much later, that he became very, very drunk. If it had been the other way round, I would have been very drunk, too.

The Bim years, the first Anna-mouse years, I barely saw him. He absented himself from my den of domesticity in a way which I found painful. I challenged him on it, once, after a glass or two, taking a late train back to Kent from my beloved London. He was astonished by my sense of abandonment and finally stopped me dead by saying Anything Livvy Unwin chooses to do has always, and always will be, fine by me. I heard the love, and shut up to await the future.

The future came. And so it was, a few days after the Bim moved out, that I found myself on the platform of Kent Town’s railway station, unable to move for tears.

Can you talk? I texted, out of the blue. Because I knew, although we had spoken barely a handful of times over the past five years, that if he could, he would.

Give me 5 mins, came the reply.

I wept-talked for ages. He listened with all his heart. I felt it, and my heart became lighter to sense his, still beating for me all these years down the line.

So, where exactly are you on the platform, did you say? he asked me gently, in a strangely even voice, during one of my more strangled outbursts.

It was only much later that day, when my equanimity had been restored and I could raise the odd laugh, that I realised the image of me sobbing in despair on a railway station platform had got the better of his fiercely literary imagination, and he had had to take a moment to reassure himself that I was not about to do an Anna Karenina.

Perhaps that's why he suggested Paris.

We need to go away, he said towards the end of the conversation, when I had assumed a modicum of his calm. The odd meal is not enough. We need longer together to make up the years. My treat - a weekend – Paris?

Which is how I was reminded that there is nothing, really nothing, like a friend wholeheartedly flying the flag for you, on those bloody, corpse-strewn days when you can’t even make it to the flagpole.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

A Different Heart

Time passes. Things change.

Anna-mouse is nearly five. I am alone again. The Bim is around, constantly, but no longer with us.

Time passes. Things change.

Those few, casual lines of my Profile never fail to sting me now, ever so slightly, when I visit my own pages.

Madeleine McCann has a new face, it is almost unbearable to stare into that older photograph.

I can't come here to write in the same way that once I did, with the Bim safely ensconced downstairs, football and tea at the ready, and Anna-mouse slumbering next door.

I discover when I find myself here that I am not the person I was.

I am a person in recovery from a most turbulent near-decade.

Over now. Looking forward to the next.

So here is a story, and then Livvy's Life will have to undergo a transformation, because I can't hold on to what was anymore.

Be patient, all those who visit. You are dear to me: I am, as the Bim knew and tested again and again, loyal to the bone.

"Mummy can I tell you somethin'?" asks Anna-mouse.

I have found her whimpering to herself in her bed, ages after she should have been asleep.

I take her up in my arms, little thing, cradle her, feel our warmths merge.

We sit together on the bed, speaking softly, trying to unravel the sadness keeping her awake. The sadness her parents have caused.

"You see, Mummy," she grapples for words in a tired little voice, "I love

"I know you do, darling," I say, in my most soothing tone.

"I like Daddy," she corrects, as if she has discovered already the wonder that is loving and liking the same person. "He's my favourite friend."

"I know, darling, I know," I murmur.

"You see, Mummy," she tries again, at last finding the words for which she has been searching: "He held a laugh in my heart.... And when he moved out... my heart was different."

The light is penumbral blue. The air is thick and warm.

At first I'm too moved to speak. Then:

"Now you've made me cry!" I say.

She looks up at me in surprise; reaches up her hand to feel my cheek for tears. Finding them there seems to satisfy her, and I feel her body give a little in my arms. I know she will sleep now, and gently put her back to bed.

Downstairs, I cling to the armchair, trying not to make too much noise as I cry.

That was the wonder of it, the laugh held in my heart by the Bim.

And when he moved out, my heart was different, too.

Monday, April 13, 2009


I have a friend, a very very good friend, who
that if he took Solpadeine at the end of a night of excessive
drinking, he
could all but eliminate the next day's hangover. He drank alot to
his loneliness, and he took alot of Solpadeine. One day, the lady in his
local chemist held him in her gaze with wise eyes as he paid for his second
third purchase that week and asked him gently

Is your pain very

So it's over. And I am arthritic with pain.

The Bim has gone. Moved out three weeks ago. He's local, it's amicable, we are learner novices at navigating the excruciating mine-field that is caring for a child who would rather have her parents together, thankyou very much; the wound is raw; my being howls.

Out of necessity, and just-for-the-time-being, I have put together a hotch-potch of remedies for the pain.

I wish we could be a THREE family, not a TWO family! shouts Anna-mouse loudly from her car seat, in a voice loaded with resentment, a couple of days ago.

I try to explain via the rear-view mirror that I wish we could be a Three Family too, and that I tried, I really tried not to let this happen, and that this wasn't what I wanted either, but that just because Daddy doesn't live with us anymore doesn't mean we're not a family, or that we love her any less... And my voice trails.

I'll get better at this, I think. I've got to get better at this.

This is why I need painkillers.

They come in all shapes and guises, my anaesthetics: these days you will find me browing the supermarket aisles wafting Chanel no. 5. A scent, a really good, expensive scent has always lifted my spirits. I cannot seem to get the person looking back at me in the mirror to look how I want her to look - so at least she can smell good. Also, in these financially precipitous times (the Bim can barely support himself, let alone me and Anna-m), there's nothing like smelling expensive to remind myself to aim high.

And of course I have discovered that there is no point in saving things for that luxurious time when they may be needed/appreciated. They might never be. I might never be, so I figure I need to appreciate myself.

Harder said than done: another of my frequently-used painkillers is, in fact, the painkiller. You name it, I've taken it in the last few weeks if it's round and small and available over the counter. My body has been beset by pain. I suppose it's not surprising that my inner angst is manifesting physically, especially when I've got so very good at appearing as though nothing in the world is the matter when that particular facade is needed.

My pain gets worse at night. It increases in direct proportion to hours awake, which is many, because unfortunately I have been unable to sleep. I keep thinking that if I stay up just one more hour, my head might suddenly be able to crack it, I might have a 'Eureka' moment, I'll understand what the hell happened over the last four years, put my head on the pillow and sleep like a baby.

This has not yet happened. No. This is where Benylin - blessed sleeping draft! - comes in. That, and the very act of staying up so late that I can't actually think at all, about anything. I find myself bumping into things like a drunkard and know that I can finally allow myself to sink, stone-like, into a cold place alone.

What else? Well, there's the mindnumbing buzz of trashy TV; other people's gossip (always good for a quick hit, especially if their lives are worse than mine) and on a kinder note, nothing beats the fantastic rallying of friends, the extraordinarily generous comments left here in cyberspace, or the odd phrase uttered by Esme, late at night on the phone.

Well, something in the cocktail's working. I've got the nausea down to a couple of times a day; I haven't popped a pill for a day or two, and Anna-mouse left school today with a smile. Of course, my state of being is umbilically-linked to hers. When she feels better, I will. Though I do know the reverse is just as true, just as important.

Sometimes, just occasionally, I glimpse something way off through the trees - a lighter, airier place - and life's circling enthralls me.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Home Movie

A couple of days before a strange woman with an intense look handed me a letter outside my house claiming she had slept with my husband, I happened upon an erstwhile favourite film of mine, 'Broadcast News'. It was late at night, I was already tired, but in spite of the dated look - big hair! big shoulders! - I became hooked once again by Holly Hunter's charming portrayal of an intelligent, lonely woman who allows herself just a few minutes every so often to reach for a box of tissues, take the 'phone off the hook, and weep.

So that's who I remind myself of now.

Oh, I operate, I really do. It's incredible, really. I hold down my two jobs; I trouble-shoot my first big community arts project; I deal with innumerable administrative problems; I handle the sensitivities of others; I take Anna-mouse to school, I read with her, talk with her, laugh with her; I applaud her sellotape and string collages: I take her to London, to the hospital to see Esme, who has had her hip done; I try to make Esme's life easier; I discuss logistics with the Bim - flats - the pros and cons of furnished versus unfurnished, and just how very cheaply you can pick up a pan set these days... and slowly, slowly let everyone know who needs to know that we are parting, for good, but that it is amicable, and we are remaining absolutely firm friends.

People are happy with that. It's a nice, pat ending and easy to deal with, and after all most of them are desperately relieved on my behalf - they never quite 'got' the relationship in the first place.

It is not like that for me. I am sadder than the saddest thing. I am a skinful of waiting tears. Finally the anger which has coloured my life for months now is abating, and the real hard stuff is taking hold. I find it much more debilitating, much lonelier, more difficult to contain at the same time as running this busy life. Anger propels; makes decisions shine with brilliance; takes people's breath away when they see its force whip through you - especially when they don't know where the energy's coming from. I got much better at my job when I was angry: I could function - often better than before.

But this. This is hard. The house is calmer, granted, now that the tension which gripped this little family for months has gone. The Bim and I are kinder to one another. He has labelled himself a 'crap husband' but a 'good friend', and I have to concur. I just need to remember I'm losing only the former, not the latter, because at the moment it feels as though everything has been lost. All that I wanted so very much. And all that I tried to keep together for so long.

I don't think I write sentimental posts very often. I hope there's usually some kind of edge. But tonight I've no edge left. Tonight I'm Holly Hunter, playing Jane Craig, playing myself.

Tonight, I so regret to say, I'm starring in my own film.

Friday, February 13, 2009


It's getting dark, a couple of days after the snows, and I'm standing outside my house, finishing a conversation on the mobile with my mother Esme. I've been getting an especially bad work day out of my system before entering the domestic world within.

It's cold, Ma, I'm going to go in now, I say. The curtains are drawn, it looks cosy, and inside are Flo, my salt-of-the-earth neighbour who minds Anna-mouse when I can't, and Anna-m herself, waiting for me to come home.

So I hang up and reach for the porch door and just as I my hand gets to the handle I hear a voice behind me say Livvy.

I turn and there is a woman there - what, my age? Taller, fuller of face, not unattractive, intense. I think she must be one of the school mums, but I can't place her. I rack my brains for how she might know me.

Hello, I say, warmly, pretending greater acquaintance than I feel.

She comes closer, it all happens so fast. I didn't know whether to write this, I'm not proud of myself, I'm really sorry, I think she says.

She hands me a letter, holds my gaze meaningfully for a moment or two longer, then quickly goes.

Something really strange just happened, I say as I walk in the door. Flo comes towards me with a tea towel in her hand. These things, these tiny things, they stick with you, you know? Like Anna-mouse's little face, smiling up at me.

Oh, there was a strange woman come to the door about an hour ago, Flo says, did she look like... Yes, I say, she did.

When she appeared the first time she had knocked and asked for me and wouldn't leave a name, Flo said. Flo had thought it odd, and even odder as the hour went by the more she thought about it, so when I walked in with the letter she said I think you'd better sit down, Liv.

I tried to protest, and, even as I did so, began to open the envelope.

I read just three lines there, with the two of them standing looking at me:

I have been wrestling with my conscience for some time as to whether or not to write this, but have decided to go ahead, so here goes. My name is S--- and I am a work colleague of your husband's.

I look up. I am staggeringly calm. I know that this is it. I know that life isn't going to be the same.

I think I do need to sit down, Flo. Would you just watch Anna-m for a couple more minutes, I'm going to go upstairs.

I sit on the edge of the bed. I read it once. It's enough: a woman has waited over an hour outside my house to hand me a letter in which she tells me she has had an affair with my husband during precisely those weeks I thought he and I were making a huge, ultimate effort to repair our marriage. I don't care if it's true or not (he still swears blind it is not). Enough.

I am getting out of this soap opera, I think, and go instantly back downstairs. I have a daughter to play with, I have the supper to cook.

I am, of course, in shock. My heart is ice. I round the bottom step, and as Flo looks up at me, her big dear eyes full of concern, the moment is set forever as I feel the last tired, frayed thread running between myself and the Bim
cleanly, keenly, irrevocably snap.

It's over, Flo, I hear myself say

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

We Need Buttons

School cancelled, work off, all three of us. We played the snow scene:


Bagged, we keep them,
stubbly as unkempt chins.
Like stones they sit -
cold, silent;
no two ‘poppies’ the same.

To take one middling,
grainy lump he removes
an outsize glove,
plunges deep his Irish hand,
feels the ancient history.

We hear the thud -
a juicy cut makes two
damp stampers
for her to press
into the snowman’s

She calls him Bert.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fast Forward

So she sits there, with her scraped-back hair and her scooped-out cheeks, and her pale, pale skin, reeking intelligence and rigour. And her eyes assess me as I sigh and weep with frustration, her pupils two fiery pins. And then she begins to talk, and it's like... nectar, it's like honey, it's like drip feeding me hope, and the pieces of myself I have shot round the room during the previous half hour she gathers up with her flaming intellect and determined, life-affirming stance, and reflects back to me, showing me myself and where I have come to, and who I might be now, and I discover that it is really not such a very bad picture of a life, after all.

There is a chance, I say then, after my earlier raging about where the Bim and I currently find ourselves, that I am blaming him for everything - even for things that cannot possibly be his fault, like going to bed too late so that I am always tired; like not, just not, being able to write... In fact, most of what I am frustrated about is not his fault, I say - but it's easy to blame him, isn't it, he has been so very blameable of late, there has been so much wrong to lay at his door.

And she hears this, this odd, deeply incisive person before me, and she runs with it, and she knows before I do that my confession is the turning point of our session - and again before I know it she has led me to find an image to work with, to return to when I need it, which will enable me to sit down before my computer - this very night! - and for fifteen minutes
allow myself to concentrate on what I most want to re-connect with, but have been unable even to approach for months - my writing life.

She talks of 'essence' - of Latin words - of the roots of things. How it is to be found in that word 'concentrate'. She says When I think of essence I think of perfume and she encourages me to find the concentrated essence of a delicious scent - in my home, or at a store - and meditate on its concentrated nature, and remember that it is this state I am seeking to emulate when I give time each day, no matter how short, to my chosen passion.

She says no wonder you have been unable to write, you have been, literally, scatterbrained - your being blown to the far corners by the fireworks of the last six months. You are rescuing a marriage; you are nurturing a child.

And she says another thing, in response to my familiar wail about the voices of disapproval which I have allowed to hinder me for years - a wonderful thing which has walked with me all day, comforting my very bones. She says it quickly, in passing, not intentionally the gem of a thing I find it to be at all:

As for your voices, she says: The past is a museum. My brain stumbles, goes back over it, grasps the potential of the image with astonishing speed. Pain, both age-old and recent, assumes suddenly the status of archive, a solid, brass-plaqued exhibit in a marble hall. Not the torturous, nasty live thing I've been dealing with, no, this past is curated, indexed, held under lock and key behind a good oakwood door. I begin to understand how to work effortlessly with something I have been throwing energy at for weeks; how even the very worst days can - will - recede.

There was a day - November 25th - my nadir. The desperate, scribbled note I wrote to myself is still pinned to the fridge where I left it -

And, look, I was right.