Short Story: Dance, dance, dance little lady.

Sadie wished that she hadn’t worn her work suit. It made her feel as though she was being interviewed for the post of concerned, loving daughter and she wasn’t sure that her references would be good enough. This care home was much the best one that she had seen. There was no brown, dusty woodwork, no smell of cabbage, no unidentified stains on the carpet, and no large open spaces with a motley selection of chairs arranged around the edge. One of the homes she had seen had fixed a small table and two chairs, upside down, to the dining room ceiling. She wasn’t sure what that was meant to do for the residents (they didn’t look like residents- more like inmates) but it scared the life out of her. There had been a board showing the date and the weather too. Why they needed to know about the weather when few of them would move from their chairs she had no idea. She had seen one elderly woman slumped downwards in her chair, her field of vision filled, day after day, by the same tired piece of carpet.That place had been appalling and it seemed foolish to pretend otherwise. This home was better- a lot better. It was lighter and airier, the hallway had been freshly decorated, and the young staff that she had seen were cheerful and friendly.

Even the woman who was running the place must be at least thirty years younger than she was. She had red streaks in her hair, a tiny butterfly tattoo on her wrist and a concerned frown. She was listening carefully to Sadie, her head nodding like a television interviewer, but she already knew what she was going to say. She had heard it all before. That young woman had no idea how annoying, frustrating and obstructive this particular elderly woman who she had not yet met could be. She had no idea of the long, grinding commitment to an unhappy marriage which had defined her mother’s life and made her cling to anything or anybody that would show her a way out for a while. She had no memory of the elegant young dance band singer who was still hidden inside the shell of her mother’s old age, ready to burst out at inappropriate moments. She had never heard her mother’s laugh, once so beguiling to a series of delightful young men, now quite terrifying. She would only ever see the wreckage of a long life, not what had gone before. You had to take the time to dig out clues if you wanted to know that. She had never seen her mother’s anger. She would ask few questions and only rarely would she understand the answers whose truth was now lost in confusion. She would never know.

The young woman made the move sound easy. They could cope with her mother’s needs, they would make this arrangement, provide this equipment, monitor, watch, protect, care. There would be a pad on her mother’s chair so that if she moved they would know. She would not fall again, the young woman reassured smoothly. No, she wouldn’t, Sadie thought, because she would not be going anywhere. Her mother’s instinct had always been to leave, to get out of the house, when things were too overwhelming but there would be no escape for her now.
“I could never keep her safe at home.”
The truth was that she didn’t want to, but however wretched that knowledge made her feel she also knew that it would be impossible. She was not a bad daughter. She was no longer young herself. She was less than two years away from her own retirement, she had her own needs, and she could not bear to see her own future defined by her mother. Her future and her past. A past which she could not erase by doing the right thing now. The same thoughts circled around that truth, reassuring her that she would not cope, could not cope, telling her over and over again that she was doing the right thing, without ever bringing peace.

Nothing that she had done had ever been right for her mother. Almost every conversation had carried the sharp taint of blame. Now that her mother’s age and weakness had altered the power balance between them Sadie could make her decisions without fear of criticism, but the years of censure were still there locked inside her head. When her mother looked at her now it was with the same venom. It was just packed into a weaker vessel, seeping out from a deep well of disappointment that had taken a lifetime to fill. It was the same look, exactly the same, and it tore away the years and brought back the same feelings. You were supposed to love your mother, and she did. Of course she did. It would have been so much easier if she didn’t.

Sadie realised that the young woman was starting to wrap things up, shuffling papers and talking about taxis and belongings, standing orders, visits. She began to panic.
“She won’t eat cheese.”
The young woman smiled.
“Not a problem.”
Sadie looked at her doubtfully.
“I mean not at all.”
“It’s fine.”
“And she might start to sing. Quite loudly.”
“We have a sing along session every Friday night when Mr Harland brings his accordion in. She’ll like that.”
“Let’s hope he does.”
The young woman laughed. She had no idea. Sadie smiled thinly. If her mother started singing When They Begin The Beguine in the corridor at three o’clock in the morning she would find out. A fortnight of that and a series of “small” falls in quick sucession had been the last straw at the other place. She allowed herself to be shepherded out, listening to reassurances and promises, unsure whether she should shake hands.

The park opposite the home had already been carefully pointed out to her. Sadie made her way through the iron gates and sat down on a bench beside the small war memorial, a first world war soldier, shouldering a rifle and reaching up towards the names of his fallen comrades. Telling her mother was not going to be easy and she couldn’t quite face it yet. There was no knowing which way it might go.Her mother was perfectly happy where she was. It was everybody else who was, very kindly and politely, tearing their hair out. Her mother had always been so certain of what she wanted, and so certain of what everybody else should want, but not now.
“Penny for ‘em”.
It took a few moments for the old man’s words to sink in. He was smiling down at her. He had pebble glasses, a flat cap and his shoes had been carefully shined.
“Mind if I sit down? I can only go so far.”
“Of course.”
“I like to come and sit here. It’s about as far as I can get but at least I’m out. It gets a bit much in there sometimes. Most of them don’t talk much sense. I can’t get a decent conversation.”
He looked at her, his eyes asking a question.
“I saw you coming out the door.”
“My mother will be going in there a few days time.”
He nodded.
“I thought as much.”
Sadie looked down at her feet, blinking back tears for the first time. She found herself telling him all about her mother. A week on her own with nobody to talk to but a busy daughter on the end of a mobile phone who wanted to know if she was enjoying her holiday and only wanted to hear that everything would be perfectly fine for her grandmother so that she could go back to thinking about her own concerns had been hard. She needed to let someone know what she had done and hear them say that it was all right. When she finally ran out of steam he nodded slowly.
“She’ll be right enough.”
“I hope so.”
“Course I’m only in there to be near my son. I’m not daft, not like some of them. Or no dafter than I ever was.”
He chuckled.
“87. I don’t do so bad do I?”
“You do very well.”
They both laughed. He was allowed to say things like that at his age.
“They let me out because my son got this mobile phone with big numbers on it and I’ve their number written on a bit of paper. See?”
He got out a tattered piece of paper with a phone number, carefully written in large black letters.
“I only go as far as here anyway. I could nigh on wave back at them if they looked out of the front windows.They want me to have one of them bloody walker things but I said no. I’ve had this stick for years and I trust it.”
He jutted out his chin proudly.
“I’ve never fallen once. I make sure of that. I’d never hear the last of it if I did. I’d be locked up.”
“Like my mother.”
He pointed at the memorial.
“My grandfather’s name’s on there. My dad’s dad. Albert Jackson. That’s why I come. I never knew him- never even saw him. All I’ve got’s a postcard. Kisses for our George it says. George was my dad- he kept it in his wallet for years. That’s the most he ever managed to get, kisses on a bit of paper. My gran couldn’t believe it when it all started again and I got called up. I’m lucky my name’s not written on there myself. Bloody Rommel tried hard enough.”
Sadie turned to look at him. His eyes were still bright, pale and intense. They had seen more than she could ever imagine.
“My generation don’t know we’re born.”
“That’s true enough. All the same I wouldn’t want it any other way. No point otherwise.”
Sadie’s thoughts began to drift off. She was tired. She had done too much. She let her eyes close and set her mother dancing with the young men who would always stay young and sending them off into the void one by one, leaving her mother to continue on among the wreckage, writing letters that would never be answered. A dance which stamped its way down the generations. Lives not lost, but altered irrevocably. Lives endured as second best.
The old man got slowly to his feet.
“Well I’d best be getting back. I don’t want them coming to look for me.”
He gave Sadie one last piercing look.
“She’ll be right enough your mum. They’re not a bad lot in there. I might moan about them a bit but they’ll see she’s all right.”
Sadie smiled.
“Thank you.”
The old man got up carefully.
“We have steak and kidney pudding on Wednesdays. I look forward to that.”
She watched him walk slowly towards the gate of the park.
“Her name is Beattie.”
He lifted his stick in salute.
“I’ll remember.”

She Stoops To Conquer. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

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Gilly Tompkins as Mrs Hardcastle. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

I am not a big fan of restoration drama. With one or two exceptions (like The Beaux Stratagem) I think it needs a good kicking before it can really work for a modern audience. Thankfully Northern Broadsides are just the company to do that service for Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer. Just lately they have been producing some first rate, award winning, theatre and they have a full blooded, honest house style which I admire very much. This production was not one of their best, but I am judging them by their own very high standards now after watching them for so long. It had all their trademarks, music, dance, speed and fun and while one or two of the performances were a bit too over the top for me there was a lot to enjoy. It worked particularly well in the round at the Stephen Joseph where the audience were in clear view and easy for the characters to talk to directly.

Strangely the most over the top performance of them all didn’t worry me a bit. Jon Trenchard has such confidence and bravura that he can get away with being as loud as he likes and his Tony Lumpkin could have come straight out of a cartoon of the period. I liked Hannah Edward as Kate Hardcastle but the character (not the performance) was rather overwhelmed by all the grandstanding going on around it and would have come over more strongly in a calmer, more traditional production. It is the title role so that was a bit of a shame. The pick of the performances for me, came from Oliver Gomm as Young Marlowe. He allowed me to completely believe in him even while he was playing his silliest moments and that is the age old key to playing farce. I also really enjoyed Rob Took’s contribution, a series of small parts played with great relish and I hope that they give him more to do in the future. It takes real skill to get a laugh on an entrance simply by being there again, in a new role, as he did at one point.

Jessica Worrall has done a great job on the design and I loved the costumes, all animal print and big wigs. Conrad Nelson has directed for pace and maybe sometimes with too broad a brush, but it zips along and we are in no danger of being bored so I am not complaining too much. I had fun. Last time I saw it I don’t remember it being this much fun- even with David Essex, Donald Sinden and Miriam Margolyes to help it along.

Speak Bitterness. Live stream from Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin. 18-10-14

Truth and reconciliation … Forced Entertainment's Speak Bitterness.

Production photograph by Hugo Glendinning.

Forced Entertainment’s show Speak Bitterness is a strange piece of theatre. It flies in the face of a lot of the normal assumptions about what makes theatre work. It is an unbroken six-hour long ( six-hour long- just think about that for a minute) catalogue of the failings of humanity, great and small, both as individuals and as societies. There is no narrative drive, no characterisation and it is diffuse and rambling, visually stark, with little use of technique and not a hope of any kind of coup de theatre. The six actors move around, choosing and reading aloud what appear to be verbatim quotes on a mass of A4 sheets of paper which are strewn around the set, both on the floor and across a long table. They come and go as it seems good to them, resting, fading into the background, listening, watching, or taking on the action as they please. It really shouldn’t work. So why does it?

Sadly I was not sitting in the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. If I had been I am quite sure that it would have seemed a very different piece. So different that I think I would be able to watch it there again as though I had never seen it before. Six hours in the same small space with a group of actors (even though the piece is designed so that you may come and go) would have made it an entirely new experience. I watched it at home via a live stream and during the six hours I also cooked and ate a simple meal and wandered down the road to take a picture of a sunset. During all this time, from five o’clock in the afternoon to eleven o’clock at night, the relentless catalogue of human shortcomings continued. As my partner asked quite pointedly several times when he wandered in, “has anything happened yet?” In strict theatrical terms the answer was no, and yet……………

As we listen to the quotes read out a series of threads, repetitions, rhythms and correspondences begin to emerge. Some are everyday, banal reasons for shame, (we could not program the VCR) some are horrifying, (we switched the medication when the nurse wasn’t looking) and some are single sentences hiding a whole story which we will never be told, (some of the letters we wrote weren’t even in our own handwriting). They range from the deeply personal to the political, from the trivial to the profound, and as we listen we begin to wonder if those two things are as far apart as we had imagined. Those individual, small human failings are the same ones which lead on to greater social breakdown and tragedy. It is all one. It is as if the actors are picking their way through a pile of discarded evidence, sorting helplessly through what has been left after a horribly flawed humanity has departed, having confessed their inadequacy. As time passes we come to “know” the individual actors and pick out their contrasting styles and characters. We watch as they become tired, are able to understand how they are working together and feel their relationships with each other. What begins as a series of simple statements of failure, sometimes hectoring, sometimes quietly honest or amusing, becomes something deeper as things fall apart and the sense of intimacy and collusion with the audience grows.

Speak Bitterness doesn’t respond to the usual measures of what makes a piece of theatre work, but it is something quite remarkable all the same. I am very glad that I had the chance to see it.

The Twilight of Memory.

I have seen things that you will never see,
heard things that you will never hear,
been to places that have disappeared in the mist.
Don’t imagine that it didn’t happen
just because you were not there.
I have lived.

My memories walk with me,
holding me up,
helping me along,
filling my days.
Thoughts of half remembered summers
warm me,
caressing my face,
comforting me.
I stretch out my hands
towards the log fires of my youth,
and watch the sparks
chase away through the darkness
of the chimney breast.

The present is cold and unforgiving.
I step out of my front door, unseen.
There are things I could say,
but they will not ask.
Things I could do
but my body lets me down.
Things I know,
that I keep to myself.
I am left to go quietly,
listening and wondering
at this strange new world.

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On the York train.

It was going to be a full train. The woman, anxious, thin, well to do, wanted to get her frail, elderly mother settled. The journey was a worry. Her mother was saying nothing, letting her daughter sort things out for her, clutching her glittery stick.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
The young man, who had been absorbed in the blue light of his ipad, glanced to one side.
“No you’re fine”.
The woman’s body sagged with relief. She turned back to her mother.
“You sit here then. I’m going to leave these bags with you. Is that all right?”
Her mother sank into the seat silently and allowed the luggage to be placed around her feet. She had the long angular bones of someone who had been beautiful in her youth, now transformed into the fragility of dry twigs by old age.
“I’ll come and find you at York.”
The daughter disappeared off down the carriage and her mother stared quietly at the back of the seat in front of her. Slowly the rush died down. A rather pompous middle aged lady appeared at the last minute, clutching her ticket.
“I think that’s my seat.”
She waved her ticket at the young man, sure that he was sitting in her seat.
He looked at her mildly.
“The way it works is this. I should be sitting in the other seat but I’ve let this lady sit there.”
The mother just watched, taking it all in, saying nothing. Her daughter appeared from nowhere.
“Is there a problem? You can sit in this seat over here instead. Is that all right?”
The pompous middle aged woman, mortified to have caused a fuss, quickly agreed that it was. Her self righteous wish to get what was due to her had vanished in a puff of embarrassment.
The elderly man sitting next to me had been watching. He was very smart, shirt, tie, jacket and neatly cut hair. He saw my book, wondered whether it was any good and wanted to talk. He was eighty six and he was a big reader. Dickens, Shakespeare, all sorts. He had lost his book in the cafe where he had had his breakfast but he wasn’t bothered because it was rubbish. He searched in his carrier bag and found his leather bookmark.
“I’ve still got this, see, I thought I’d lost that as well. That’s one good thing.”
We both agreed that this was, indeed, a good thing and talked about Dicken’s characterisation and how it made good television. He liked Solzhenityn too. I said that I hadn’t read much Russian literature but I probably should read Crime and Punishment before too long. He nodded.
“I read that. Miserable lot the Russians. Always worrying.”
After a few minutes silence while we both contemplated the poor, miserable people drinking their vodka in draughty shacks on the snowy Russian steppes he started to tell me about his travelling.
“My son says he never knows where I’m going to pop up next. I’ve been all over. I went on a cruise to Spain last year. Very nice. It’s not the same without my wife though. She’s in a nursing home. Had a bad stroke. It’s not the same on your own.”
It must be hard and I said so. Even so, his detailed knowledge of the Manchester transport system suggested that he didn’t let this stop him getting out and about. There was no need for pity.
The cheerful guard, who had announced at Malton that we were on the York train and if we wanted to go to Scarborough that was “tough” informed us that we were now approaching York. My companion listened to the long list of platforms and connections that followed with interest. The elderly lady began to unfold her legs from around the lugggage and picked up both bags with some difficulty and more determination. With a fixed look on her face she headed towards the door of the train. Soon afterwards her daughter appeared. She frowned at the empty seat.
“Has she gone?”
The young man grinned.
“Yes she has.”
The daughter sighed. It would be so much easier if her mother just did as she was told.
“Thanks for your help earlier on.”
“No problem.”

The Conquerer.

I am holding a horse chestnut tree
in the palm of my hand.
The ground under my feet
is strewn with potential,
laden with chances,
bursting with promise.

Small bundles of waiting life
have been thrown out into the cool air,
a gauntlet challenge to the future.
The tree has chosen fragments of its life force,
wrapped them in carefully inscribed skins of polished wood.
and sent them flying.

Only the strongest will survive.

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