Short Story: One of Each.

Pete’s Plaice had definitely seen better days. The only thing still there to remind customers about the good old days was the old “Fish and Chips. Britain’s national dish” poster they had left up on the wall. It had a cheerful haddock on it, waving a Union Jack, surrounded by a group of smiling chips. All the same, the shop did have its regulars. Connie made sure that the ones who came in every week got an extra half fish, and they still used beef dripping and put decent vinegar on the counter, and free Heinz ketchup. Nobody else did. The regulars kept coming, and somehow Pete’s Plaice kept going. The regulars liked Connie. A long time ago, when she first arrived at the shop, they had decided that she was all right. That was how things were done on the Yorkshire coast. The job had started as a part time stop gap, to ease her back into work when her daughter Kelly had started school, but somehow she had never left. She had made plans once, but after a while it seemed easier to stay as she was. It had only been Pete’s Plaice for three months. It had been Huntley’s before that, and way back when she was growing up it had been the Sea’s Pantry. They used to open up the restaurant at the back then, the two rooms they only used for storage now, and sometimes when Connie went into the back and looked at what was left of the old wallpaper she felt as if she was in there waiting for her mum and dad to catch her up and tell her to sit down and behave. She was still a bit puzzled by the new boss. Everybody was. Especially Gina. Connie got fed up of her talking about him all the time when they were doing a shift together. Gina thought he was lovely.
“He’s got this Heathcliff vibe going on,” she’d said to Connie one day when things were slack and he’d gone up to his flat.
“Can’t see it myself,” Connie told her, untruthfully.
“You’ve no taste you,” Gina had laughed. “I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”

There wouldn’t be any talk like that on this shift, no laughs. Young Jessie was dark haired, stick thin and she did more attitude than talking. They drank their coffee in silence, watching the flickering portable television high up in the corner of the shop. It was a show where people were buying a new home in the sun, helped by two presenters who spent most of the time making gooey eyes at each other. It was on several times a week during Jessie’s shifts, and she could recite a lot of the script along with them. Nobody ever seemed to buy any of the houses they looked at, and it was the same today. Connie shook her head in disgust.
“Duncan and Selina are still hunting for their dream home in the sun. Gormless numpties. I tell you what; if I had an opportunity like that I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Jessie gave a heavy sigh and stared at her nails. She knew what was coming.
“Most people born here can’t wait to get out. There’s nothing for the kids, no jobs, unless you want seasonal work. The fishing’s pretty much dead now, apart from a bit of crab and lobster potting. It’s dead. There’s no wonder they end up making trouble for themselves, nicking from the pound shops and setting fire to deckchairs. Somebody was mugged in broad daylight the other week. It’s coming to something when you’re not safe walking the streets in broad daylight.”
Connie could see that Jessie wasn’t impressed.
“I’m not exaggerating. Somebody did get mugged.”
“You get that sort of thing, wherever you are. It’s safe enough round here. You ever lived anywhere else?”
Connie shook her head.
“Ever been mugged?”
“Not yet.”
Jessie giggled.
“Think yourself lucky.”
“It’s nowt to laugh at.”
“There are worse places.”
Jessie wished Connie would shut up. If she thought it was that bad she should have gone long since- not stopped there moaning behind the same chip shop counter for twenty years.
“I suppose there are.”
“I’m not stopping here myself, mind you.”
“Are you not?”
Connie didn’t bother to hide her scepticism.
“Where would you go then?”
There was a long silence. Jessie really wanted to slap Connie down, stupid old bat, but she had a point really. Where would she go? Her fantasies, such as they were, mostly revolved around going away from things, rather than going towards them. She could easily give Connie a long list of what she wanted to get away from. Her dad’s moods, the dark nights in winter, the smell of chips, the damp stain on the ceiling in the corner of the bedroom, just about everything in fact. Where she would go to was a lot harder to work out. She stared down into her coffee, knowing that Connie was watching her, and waiting. She wondered how she had managed to end up staying here for her whole life if she hated it so much.
“Dunno. Down south maybe.”
“Right.”
Jessie knew she wasn’t stupid. She could do better. She didn’t want to be standing about here, still frying fish in twenty years, wondering where her life had gone. She couldn’t blame everything on her dad. Just some of it, maybe. Bloody X factor. Bloody sob stories. Bloody dreams. Bloody journeys. You can do anything you want to do, biggest lie going that was. It was all fixed. She didn’t mind the shop. There was something about fish frying that got under your skin, and it wasn’t just the smell of chip fat. Jessie’s favourite job at the shop was making the batter. She enjoyed making up the soft pale liquid to exactly the right thickness so that it would spread over the fish in an even creamy coat when she dipped the fillets of cod and haddock in. It was satisfying, just a small job that she could do to perfection without anybody interfering. She had learned how to swing the fish over the hot fat and drop it in close to the surface, letting her hand pull back at the last minute. Just a few pieces of fish at a time. No targets, and no performance reviews- not like college. She sometimes wished she hadn’t packed in college but times like that made her glad she had. She could always go back.

The bell over the door rang and Jack Perriman walked into the shop with his chin up, ready to stare Jessie down. Connie had seen him coming. Those two had history. She knew better than to ask why he was in here buying chips. He’d come to see Jessie. Jessie glared at him.
“All right Jess?”
“Now Jack. What can I get you?”
Jack scowled.
“Dunno. Chips I suppose. Two lots.”
“What’s got into you then?”
“Nowt.”
Connie watched as Jessie filled up the trays with more chips than usual.
“Scraps?”
“Suppose.”
He waited for the plastic trays to be filled, holding out his money, staring silently. Connie watched Jessie serve him, smiling to herself and shaking her head.
“Cheers.”
He didn’t hear the slightly pathetic mutter as the door clicked shut behind him.
“Twat.”
Connie wagged a finger in Jessie’s face.
“Oi you- that was a customer.”
Jessie’s eyes flashed, making the most of the dark eye-liner that surrounded them.
“He’s a twat.”
“He fancies you.”
“Don’t embarrass yourself.”
“Yeah he does.”
“Oh please………..”
Connie nodded towards the door.
“Go on, go after him. He didn’t buy two trays for nowt. You know damn well where he’ll have gone to eat them.”
Jessie stared.
“Go on- Pete’ll never know. He’ll be watching the footie by now and we’re not busy. I’ll say you felt poorly.”
Jessie was out of the door like a shot.

Jack was in the park, leaning against one of the shelters. He was on his own. An empty plastic tray was already on the ground next to him. He could see Jessie coming towards him and she wasn’t sure what to do about it. She couldn’t back out now. He was on his own. She tried to think of things to say to him but she honestly couldn’t think of any. She’d hardly seen him lately, not even with Jenna. He didn’t look very happy.
“Now Jess.”
Jessie looked down at the ground.
“All right Jack.”
There was no reply, but when she looked up again he was still standing there. What was his problem?
“You want something then?”
He actually looked a bit uncomfortable. That was a result at least. At least it made a change from him looking as if he was doing her a favour by being there.
“What were you doing in Pete’s?”
He shrugged.
“Buying chips.”
“Very funny. Well?”
“Just wondered how you were and that.”
Jessie looked him up and down suspiciously.
“What brought that on then?”
He might be well fit, but she wasn’t going to let him walk all over her twice. Or at least, she hoped not. Let him stew a bit. He looked away. Jessie wondered if he thought that looked cool. If he did think that he was wrong. He was only managing to look shifty.
“Just wondered, that were all. What have you been up to?”
“Nowt much.”
“Me neither.”
Jessie bit her lip to stop herself grinning at him. She had forgotten how exciting he could be. If that was his idea of conversation then the beach donkeys could teach him a thing or two. It was a bit weird that Jenna wasn’t there, tagging along with him. She decided it might be fun to ask after her.
“How’s Jenna?”
He stuck his hands in his jeans pockets and shrugged.
“Got dumped.”
Jessie’s heart lurched.
“Oh, right. She get fed up of you then?”
“Dunno. She just said I were dumped like. Didn’t say why.”
He did look pretty hacked off, but then he would, wouldn’t he? Jessie felt like putting her arms round him, but if that was going to happen she wanted him to suffer first.
“Well I know exactly what that’s like. Don’t I?”
“All right. Don’t go on.”
Jessie wondered what Jack was expecting to happen. Did he think all he had to do was hang around for a bit and he’d be able to go back out with her? Until something better came along? As if.
“You all right, anyway? Should have seen it coming shouldn’t you? Jenna Maxwell’s a right flighty cow. You knew that.”
“I’ll live.”
Jessie smiled. Yes, he would live. He wasn’t the sort to hang about moping for long. Not with those eyes. There would always be somebody after him.
“Fancy some chips?”
He held out the tray glumly and she picked one out. They wandered across the gardens to the town centre. Jessie wondered whether she should say something.
“What are you going to do when you finish college then?”
“Work in my dad’s garage or summat. He says I can have space for my bike. I’m saving up for a new Kawasaki next year.”
“Not going to uni then?”
“No point is there? Do my NVQ in car mechanics and motor maintenance. That’s all I’ll need. Work for my dad, maybe take over eventually.”
“You’ll be stopping here then.”
“Yeah.”
The way that he said it made it obvious to Jessie that Jack had no intention of going anywhere. His little life was all mapped out in front of him, and he would plod his way through it, picking up a wife and kids along the way, without bothering too much about anything really. That was the thing about people like him. When life came easily to you it was sometimes too tempting to accept what was on offer, without wondering what else there was out there. Somebody like him could do a lot better, but she doubted whether he ever would. So long as he had his Sky+, his mates, his cars, and enough money to afford to go down to the gym on Saturday mornings he would be happy. Or at least he would think he was.
“I can’t believe you’re stopping here.”
“Aren’t you?”
She laughed.
“No chance. Dunno what I’m going to do yet, but it won’t be here. Not wasting my life, thanks very much.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“Work with animals. Donkey sanctuary or somewhere like that.”
There was a long silence. She waited for the inevitable comment, but it didn’t come.
“Doesn’t sound like much of a laugh to me.”
“No, well it wouldn’t would it. Anyway, there’s more to life than having a laugh.”
He shrugged.
“I don’t know. It helps.”
Jessie was amazed when Jack offered to buy her some chips of her own. She stood outside, looking in the charity shop window, far enough away from Pete’s Plaice to be sure that Connie wouldn’t be able to see her.
“Put some salt and vinegar on for me, will you?”
It was hard to tell whether Jack still fancied her, or whether he was just fed up with himself, and going for the easy option. She supposed she had as long as it took to eat a tray of chips to make her mind up which it was. He was definitely fit, there was no doubt about it. When he looked at her it still made her feel very odd, and he had a way of moving that she couldn’t help watching. Having a bit of fun and getting one up on Jenna couldn’t do any harm, surely? At any rate she was getting a free tray of chips, and that had to be a result. He’d even remembered the salt and vinegar.
“Thanks.”
“No probs. Fancy going down the boat landing?”
Jessie nodded. What he really meant was, do you fancy going down to the arcade. She wondered if he would be hoping that Jenna was there.
She was. It was pretty quiet in there and they both saw her straight away. She was wearing her skinny jeans again and a tiny black top, and she was standing very close to Dean Benson. Neither of them said it, but both of them stood there thinking she looked good. Very good. It was sickening. She touched his arm.
“You OK?”
He nodded, and she felt herself being pulled round behind one of the large games consoles.
“Get off me.”
“Sorry. Needed to get out of the way.”
His hand was on her hair, and she could feel his breath.
“Jess.”
“Stop it Jack- not here.”
He pulled away reluctantly and stood there, looking at her.
“What?”
“I still fancy you.”
Her face glowed. She had spent several months waiting to hear him say that.
“Only because you can’t get Jenna.”
“Could if I wanted.”
Jessie snorted.
“In your dreams, Perriman. You’ve been dumped- get used to it.”
“You know you still like me. Admit it.”
Of course Jack was right, Jessie did still like him. He stood, with his hands on his hips and his head tilted, waiting confidently for her to say so. It wasn’t going to happen. Jessie had learned the hard way, and she just stared him out.
“You’re not all that.”
He grinned.
“I never said I was. Still think you like me.”
“What if I did, anyway? Doesn’t mean I’d be stupid enough to get back with you.”
“Come here.”
He pulled her towards him and slipped his arms around her back. She tried to struggle, but had to give in and accept that he was going to kiss her. As he did, even his clumsy effort made her loosen and melt into him. God, this was nice. At the same time, as he was pulling her closer to him, a small part of Jessie was hoping that Jenna might be watching. This was class this was.
He broke away and looked at her, beaming.
“See?”
She rearranged her hair behind her ears and pulled her top straight.
“You’ll get us kicked out of here if you’re not careful.”
He slipped his hand into the back pocket of her jeans.
“We could always go somewhere else.”
Jessie stood there uncertainly. She liked the possessive way he had his hand on her bum. It made her feel safe.
“Yeah, right.”
“Come on, you know you want to.”
Jessie knew where he would suggest going. She had been down in the far shelter in the park plenty of times with him and she also knew what he would want when he got there. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go with him. She did. She had come very close to giving in to him before he went after Jenna. She wanted him badly, and she wanted to get the whole having sex for the first time thing over with as well, but something about it still didn’t seem right. There would be a better time, and a better place, and “come on, you know you want to” was a bit of a turn off, if she was honest. Surely he could come up with a bit better chat up line than that?
Quite suddenly she knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t frying chips or changing nappies for the children of a greasy motor mechanic with only holidays in a cheap hotel in Spain to look forward to. That might be good enough for Jenna Maxwell but it wasn’t good enough for her. She stood back and looked at him in disappointment.
“Jack, get a life please. You’re a total waste of space.”
He watched her sashay out of the arcade with his mouth open, and the beginnings of a sneaking admiration. Jessie Pattison was on her way.

The Memory of Water. New Vic Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 03-04-14

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Production photograph by Andrew Billington.

“I look at you and I see myself.”

Shelagh Stephenson’s play The Memory of Water is a thoughtful and perceptive look at family relationships, particularly mothers and daughters and sisters. Three very different sisters are forced to confront their shared past after the death of their mother and face the fact that our own memories are never quite the whole truth. We see things from our own perspective and construct our own story from the past, a story that is more interested in providing us with a way of making sense of who we are than telling the truth. We may not even know that it wasn’t as we remember it………… until someone else who was also there confronts us with an alternative version. Given that their perception is no more reliable than our own where does the truth lie? A major bereavement forces you to attempt to find out and this is the meat of the play. Death is a great uncoverer of secrets.

Anyone who has faced a major bereavement will see themselves in this play. The immediate aftermath is desperately sad, obviously, but it is also sometimes funny, wild and surreal. This is all there in Shelagh Stephenson’s heartfelt and honest writing- particularly for the women characters. Caroline Langrish, Amanda Ryan and Mary Jo Randle as the three sisters give the writing the truthful, emotional performances that it deserves and as their dead mother, Lynn Farleigh gives a stylish, brittle portrayal of the mother who has damaged each of them in their own ways, without ever really meaning to. All mothers do that, along with the lavishing of astonishing amounts of commitment and care, not just the few who are neglectful. It goes with the territory and is passed on down the generations. I particularly liked the scenes between Mary, the over achieving doctor whose cleverness her family had never managed to accept, and her mother.  A fascinating subject for a play and a perfect antidote to the saccharin view of motherhood that the advertising industry projects. Motherhood is a deeply complex and heart wrenching business. It is good to see a writer tackling these issues so fearlessly as they are often swept under the carpet.

The set for the New Vic’s production is absolutely beautiful and perfectly lit, a sparse setting in a pale winter landscape. The opening is a revelation which sweeps us back into the past before a word has been spoken and uncovers a setting which is strange to both us and to each of the characters in its own way. The direction by Nikolai Foster is fast and nicely paced and mixes truth and theatricality without ever becoming overdone.

Rite of Passage. Catherine Bainbridge. Studio Gallery, Scarborough.

988816_751329468219895_1804879838_nChildhood has always been fertile ground for artists, writers and musicians to explore. Catherine Bainbridge’s exhibition, Rite of Passage takes the clichés and obsessions of childhood and explores their meaning in a way which is both comforting and sometimes unsettling. Childhood is a place that we never quite leave behind. However far we may travel from the setting where we begin it is where our deepest convictions and attitudes are formed. We may cling onto it, comfort ourselves with it, rail against it or hide from it but it is always there. We tell ourselves a story of how it was and as time goes on there are fewer people to challenge our own version of events and less evidence to cling to. It is an odd business.

I was reminded of a conversation that I had once with a perfectly ordinary grown woman who described how each day she would choose which of her soft toys were allowed to come down to breakfast with she and her husband. Catherine Bainbridge’s papier mache rabbits with their outer skins made from children’s story book texts and their little knitted outfits have the kind of comforting presence that makes you understand why someone might do this, but there is also something unsettling about them. Disconnected words mean secrets, text which can only be half understood, and their faces remain blank. A group of rabbits on the floor form a disconcerting group with their own identity, threatened by a seagull. Other animals appear, bringing with them their own mythology and resonance. A crow hangs motionless, caught up in twine and three hare heads stare out from the wall with empty eyes.

Among the animals strange blank faced children play and watch. They have the same storybook outer skins and the kind of cosy, comforting knitwear that shows that someone somewhere cares for them as they explore, observing, balancing and swinging. We can no more know their thoughts than we can know our own as we look back to the small child that we once were from a far off point that was once beyond our imagination. They have a connection with the strange world that they explore which is now beyond our reach.

I enjoyed this little exhibition very much and my chat with the artist over a cup of tea and a biscuit. It will be interesting to see what comes next. As Grayson Perry or Paula Rego would tell you this is a theme which can run and run and there are new and deeper levels of strangeness to explore.

War Horse. National Theatre at the New London. SJT screening.

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Joey and Topthorn square off. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg 2011 London cast.

War Horse opened at the National Theatre in 2007 and since then it has been seen by five million people all over the world. Few theatre productions have managed to touch a nerve in this way and become nationally and internationally known. Few productions are as cleverly thought through and emotionally well judged. It is a simple story of the relationship between a horse, Joey, and Arthur, the young lad who trains him and brings him on. When the first world war breaks out Joey is sold by Arthur’s father and sent out the front as an officer’s horse in 1914.  Arthur enlists in his turn with the simple, heart-rending, hope of finding his horse and bringing him home. I will not spoil the ending as there are still several people who have never seen it, and when the original book was written by a fearless and unsentimental writer like Michael Morpurgo a happy ending is by no means guaranteed. Suffering is a different matter.

Five million people can’t be wrong. This is an extraordinary piece of theatre, perfectly judged and precisely performed, which never descends into the mush of clichés that it could so easily have been. Everybody talks about the puppets, and no wonder. Handspring puppets took two years to develop them in the workshop at the National (the best investment the NT ever made) and the two full size horses, Joey and Topthorn, each operated by a team of three puppeteers, live and breath on stage- it is as simple as that. Every nuance of the horses behaviour is there. You can feel their fear and pain and understand their every thought. I cried for them, and I mean sobbed- not just a polite tear down the cheek. I don’t do that often.

I have seen a lot of good theatre and been very moved by it without weeping, but there are personal reasons why War Horse moved me so profoundly that I still wouldn’t be able to describe it to you now properly without tears. My grandfather was a Yorkshire farmer who worked with shire horses all his life and he was out at the front still working with the horses whose job was to pull his battalion’s field artillery guns from position to position. They did this in the worst conditions possible without the stabling and feed that was really required. It was heart breaking for horse men like my grandfather. The war began for the horses with insane cavalry charges straight into the fire of the German machine guns, with predictable results, and descended into long, grinding suffering. There are records of whole groups of men lining up to pay their last respects to a well loved battalion horse and sometimes a horse had to be shot simply because it had sunk down into the mud up to its neck. 160,000 British horses were requisitioned in the first six weeks of war and in the end they were fetched from all over the world. It is estimated that eight million of them died. The more research you do the worse it gets.

I am not really old enough to have that kind of direct personal connection with the great war but my mother was a very late baby and my grandfather lived healthily until he was ninety so I was lucky. I also rode a lot when I was younger and anyone who knows horses well will understand how intolerable it must have been for animals of their temperament.

It gives me great satisfaction that it is a piece of theatre that has provided the tribute that those horses and the men who cared so much about them deserved. It is a universal story of suffering and reconciliation, a new version of the ancient quest narrative. We won’t see its like again.

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. Ridiculusmus at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 20-03-14

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland by Ridiculusmus

Production photograph by Tristram Kenton for The Guardian.

Theatre is a delicate business and Ridiculusmus had their work cut out making their intense and atmospheric piece work in an almost empty Stephen Joseph Theatre. Four stars in the Guardian review when they opened at Brighton’s Sick festival hadn’t persuaded the older, mostly quite conservative, theatregoers of Scarborough to take a risk on a show called The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. They like to know what they are coming to see. This is a great pity and it was their loss. I was full of admiration for the actors who had to make the play work against the odds. They deserved better- much better- and there was little energy in the space for them to work with. There is a saying that the audience is half of the play and it is tough work for an actor when that audience is thin on the ground, especially in an unforgiving space like the round which makes you so very aware of their absence.

Ironically what I like most myself about Ridiculusmus as a company is that they take risks. They are technically very skilled and what they do could only be done in a theatre. This quality is surprisingly hard to find on stage and should be cherished when you find it. This piece was very thoroughly researched and developed with access to medical practitioners in Finland using a pioneering approach to therapy which has been very successful in treating schizophrenia. It is intense and emotional and allows the patient a voice in the process. Two sequences of action take place simultaneously, back to back, and the audience is split in two to watch first one and then the other. The play shows us a family in crisis after a death and we search for meaning alongside them as things unfold in front of us to the accompaniment of disembodied voices. We are left to work out what is happening little by little as snippets of information are given and a picture builds. It is only when each half of the audience moves to the opposite side of the auditorium and we see the same events all over again from a different perspective that things become clearer. This is a technically difficult feat to bring off for the actors, given that they have to balance each side of the story while they move between the two halves of the stage. It’s an original and sometimes disconcerting idea. It can be quite hard to relax and just accept that you do not need to understand and make sense of everything as it happens. You are left with a haunting impression of something that never quite comes into focus. It’s impressionistic and challenging. I liked it but I’m not quite sure I fully understood it. If I had seen it in its original space, The Basement, at Brighton’s SICK festival I am almost certain I would have done both.

I am very glad that we saw Ridiculusmus back in Scarborough. Theatre must never stop pushing boundaries and using its own unique qualities to attempt new things. This company does that with some style and I am grateful for them.