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