Nana made it to the Edinburgh Fringe

Phoebe Frances Brown in FINDING NANA at Pleasance Beside, Edinburgh, 2-28 August, 3.30pm (Not 14)

We’re here. In Edinburgh! Hi.

We made a beautiful little show and previewed it at Soho Theatre and got totally spoilt by the silence and the dark and the tech stuff and all that. You could hear a pin drop. And then we dropped it into a shipping container with a leaky roof in a busy, buzzing courtyard in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe.

You forget what it’s like until you come back. It’s exhilarating and scary and exciting and overwhelming and knackering. It’s a great experience but it can also put you right on edge and give you gut ache.

Flyering makes you feel sixteen again – approaching people nervously, circling around the crowds looking for kind eyes and smiles. Flyering hours are like dog years – one hour flyering is like seven hours doing almost anything else.

But the excitement of rushing between shows (some of them so brilliant you will never forget them), meeting other generous artists, chatting to friendly locals, dashing around in blistering sunshine and pouring rain, and watching your own work find its feet and its place in the world’s biggest arts festival is pretty cool. It’s magical actually.

And my little nut-brown Nana made it to the Edinburgh Fringe. Albeit posthumously. Which is probably a bit shit for her. But it’s proper special for me. And the show is truly beautiful. Despite the slightly leaky roof. So please come.

Finding Nana is on at the Pleasance Beside – 2-28 August (Not 14), 3.30pm

Update: some people came. Three Weeks gave us five stars and Stewart Pringle wrote a really lovely four star review in The Stage. A gang of lads from Glasgow “took a chance on this girly play” and left in tears. They loved it. I checked Twitter about a thousand times a day for the whole of August and and had to buy extra data – because I’m not the cool woman I want to be yet. But I’m trying.

 

 

 

 

Leaving home and one year of wisdom

purple rainPurple Rain is playing on the radio, turned up to 11, while I empty the cereal cupboard into a big box that has been used before. But this time it’s different. Today we are leaving the bungalow where our baby was born. Everyone else has gone to the new house to unpack and I’m left alone. Without the music it’s eerily empty and quiet, so I’ve turned up the song I first heard in my final year of school and I’m putting half-filled boxes of Branflakes away while wiping massive tears off my chin.

I take one last walk around the rooms where we first became a family. The bedroom where I rocked on the floor in agony as I felt the baby bearing down and getting ready to burst forth. The living room where I nursed her behind closed curtains, day and night. The weird walk-through room where we blasted out the Decemberists and danced with our tiny bag of bones in some sort of happy, hazy state of exhaustion. The beautiful garden where we celebrated birthdays – his 40th, her 1st.

I barely left this bedroom for a week

I barely left this bedroom for a week

I stop in the kitchen and I’m sobbing. And that’s when I find it. In a pile of papers my husband has left out for me to sort through (you know, those ever-growing piles of papers that hoarders have filled with old cards and thank you letters and receipts and cinema tickets) there’s a screwed up piece of printer paper with notes scrawled on it. It’s a piece of paper I kept beside me in the first couple of weeks after she was born. In case anything amazing and insightful occurred to me in the smoggy delirium of having new life in my arms. You know, in case the actual meaning of life came to me in that moment in the middle of the night when one episode of The Mighty Boosh has finished and a new one is about to start.

Here’s what it said. Unedited:

Night-time on the ward. My first time in hospital. Staring at my baby in the half-light. Listening to lovely midwife Jas helping the lady with twins. She can’t speak English. Imagine that? My heart’s already in my mouth and I can understand what they’re saying when they squeeze my nipples til they turn blue.

I’m shattered. So shattered. But elated. (Hmmm, original)

When they raised me on the chair and she started stitching me, the gas and air was numbing my skull and I looked down, far, far down (it was probably only a metre) and I saw this little baby in my husband’s arms and I thought ‘what is that? Where did it come from? Is that mine?’ I was so high, and when the supervisor said she was leaving the room because the rookie nurse was doing fine with the stitching, I was sure she was off to hang around with the Goonies. But not in a pervy way. (??) In a way that she just loved riding on a BMX with the lads. And then I drank more gas and air, and more, because I could feel the needle going in. I could feel her twanging the strings like a banjo, checking it was tight enough, but I was sure she was playing Spanish Eyes on my fanny stitches. And then she stopped and asked if I was ok. And I cried. Burst into tears. Because I could feel it all. And then she cried. We both sat there crying. Then laughing at the crying. And then she stuck some more anaesthetic in me with a bigger needle.

The stitches kill and I’m scared to poo in case everything rips open and my insides fall out into the toilet and I have to scoop them out and put them in an Asda bag while Mark drives me to hospital. And the bleach shrinks them on the way.

Day 3: I’m so tired that I thought I saw her on the floor. I thought Mark had fallen asleep with her and she’d rolled off him and died with her face in the carpet. (Said every mum ever)

I’ve just come out of the bedroom for like the first time in a week. And I changed my nightie. I feel like I’ve been reborn.

Day 9: What have we done? I’m sat here sobbing in front of World’s Most Expensive Food pumping milk from my failing tits.

Question: How will I cope with a child?

Day 10: A good breastfeed is like sleepy, slow, hungover sex with someone you’re completely in love with. Failed breastfeeding is like a horrible argument with someone you’re completely in love with.

Day 11: Mark will fall in love with someone else.

Tony Bennett duets on silent as I express milk. The pump is so loud there’s no point in even trying to hear him. But with no sound I can study the rapport he has with each singer. Lovely sparking with Winehouse. (This probably won’t make my next play. Or even my next pub conversation. But here on the blog it can find a little place).

The breast pump sounds like Clive James and Simon Russell Beale and a cool liberal teacher when she sits. (I told you it’s unedited)

Benjamin Button and Cate Blanchett are having sex and I’m sobbing, while pumping milk.

The quiet room at the Children’s Ward, when we walked down the corridor with an undernourished Edi. It keeps coming back to me. The purple walls and the tissues and the leaflets with numbers of people who can help. Please never let me sit in that room.

Is she awake enough?

Is she asleep enough?

Formula? Should I? Is it evil? Does it cause cancer? Is it made of plastic?

I’m so fucking angry with her because she won’t help me with this feeding. Shut up, she can’t help. She’s a baby. Hormonal wave of protection floors me.

She has no idea that I’m going to die one day. I’m so sorry, little baby Edith.

 

And that’s it. That’s all the wisdom I have from overseeing the first year of a new life.

You’re welcome.

Bye-bye bungalow with the beautiful garden

Bye-bye bungalow with the beautiful garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

On being accused of poverty porn

All the Little Lights

All the Little Lights

I’m not averse to criticism. My ego is relatively small and I am always learning. I usually assume that most people know more than me about most things. So I’m not averse to criticism. I’m open to it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s scary. It takes guts to sit round a table and let people pull apart work that you’ve put your heart into. And it’s hard to ask for feedback, especially when you know that what you’re presenting isn’t yet your best. And especially when you know that the people you’re asking might have different tastes to you. But good, informed, well thought-through feedback usually leads to better work. So in the end it’s a great thing.

Saying that, a while ago I received some feedback from someone well respected that actually offended me. It has played on my mind ever since and was ignited again this week by Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner who wrote a really good article about the relatively new and increasingly used critical term, ‘poverty porn’. I first heard it used in relation to the Channel 4 series BENEFITS STREET* and have since read it in various theatre reviews. And, of course, in this piece of written feedback I received back in 2014.

This person was accusing me of “verging on poverty porn” with a piece I was sharing as part of a festival. It was a work in progress, an early draft of my play ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS. I sat shifting in my seat as the audience received this unfinished version. I expected to be questioned on the form and structure, but I wasn’t expecting the poverty porn thing.

All my plays so far (except one) have been based on people I’ve known and met. I went to school with people from all backgrounds (except possibly the super-rich). There was a girl who became a prostitute working from a house opposite the school gates. There was a girl who lived on the streets when she turned 16. There was a girl who everyone called Gypo who brought her dog to school in a bag once or twice and turned up once on a horse. There was a girl who told me about the abuse she’d suffered as a kid as we drank pints underage and shared a bag of pork scratchings. There was a boy whose grandad woke him up in the morning by standing over his sleep-fuelled hard-on with a wooden stool threatening to smack it down. I mean, we all found this hilarious (we were 15), and in all honesty it might have been a lie. But I suspect it wasn’t.

I don’t pretend to have had a horrible childhood. I grew up in a warm house with both parents, watched musicals, went to my grandparents’ regularly. I had it sweet. But I had close friends and more distant acquaintances that went through a lot. And I saw some of it. And it’s those things that have had the most impact on me. Yes, the stories belong to them – they’re the ones who bear the hurt and heaviness – but they are part of me too, somehow. I don’t think I’m stealing them, they are inside me. And when I write, they are always the things that bubble to the top. I don’t seek to shock. These stories are just where I find truth, I think.

I moved away from my home town a couple of times in my adult life but I’ve always found myself coming back. To be among the people I grew up with and to stand on the streets where I imagine I can still smell Charlie Red and Cinzano and feel the emotions of being an overweight, acne scarred teenager, more than a little desperate to work out who I was. Who I am.

I didn’t have friends who were victims of a sex ring, at least I don’t think I did, but the girls in ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS are based on research I did on child sexual exploitation with charity Safe and Sound and fleshed out with bits of friends I had and people I knew. And I’m in there too of course. I never wanted to exploit anyone in writing it. So when this person accused me of poverty porn it actually made me feel a bit sick. And defensive. And angry.

Joe Doherty in Bones

Joe Doherty in Bones

My first play BONES received critical acclaim at Edinburgh and later on a national tour. It was far from perfect and I was completely new to writing for theatre. But the critics that came loved its rawness and the depiction of this angry boy, lost in a world that doesn’t want him. They mainly loved the performance by Nottingham actor Joe Doherty, who really connected with the character. I’m pretty sure if it premiered this year in the same venue, the term poverty porn would be used by reviewers. But back in 2011, before BENEFITS STREET, no one was really using that phrase in the theatre.

I know we need to take care of our most vulnerable, and I appreciate it’s important we don’t exploit people by making salacious or sensationalist entertainment from their stories. But that’s not what I, or I assume other conscientious playwrights, are aiming to do. I just want to tell stories that I think are important. Sometimes they might be shocking and sometimes they might make people feel uncomfortable.

The same version of the play I shared, the one compared to poverty porn, was very warmly received by the charity I worked with to research the subject. In fact they wanted to use it as an educational tool for their staff, something I had never intended it to be. But instead I rewrote it, focussing on form and structure and adding more light and shade to the characters – all important points in the feedback I received. And it’s a much stronger and more theatrical piece for it. I have had really good feedback from the charity, from social workers and from people who work with victims of sex abuse as well as audience members from all walks of life. And when it tours next year, I hope people from many different backgrounds get to see it.

I understand Lyn Gardner’s point, that maybe it’s more uncomfortable when the play is presented in an affluent area on a stage surrounded by hipsters and middle-class audience members. But I believe plays that help tell stories of vulnerable people (I was going to say ‘give a voice to the vulnerable’ but I thought that sounded slightly patronising) should be staged in all sorts of venues. As Lyn said, “presented carefully, they’re essential reminders of the brutal inequality in modern life”. Surely those reminders are even more essential in areas where it’s easy to walk on by.

Of course I will continue to learn and grow as a writer (and a human), and I will always question what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. My thoughts on this will probably shift and change, as they usually do on everything, and I’m sure I will be more aware of how I present people and situations as a result of this debate. But I hope I never shy away from telling the stories I think are important just because they don’t fit with what’s fashionable in criticism. That would be to lose sight of why I started writing in the first place.

 

* According to Wikipedia: The concept of poverty porn was first introduced in the 1980s, a golden age for charity campaigns. Charity campaigns during this period made use of hard-hitting images such as pictures of malnourished children with flies in their eyes. This quickly became a trend and there were several notable campaigns such as Live Aid. Though some of these campaigns were successful in raising money for charity (over $150 million to help combat famine), some observers criticised the approach, claiming it oversimplified chronic poverty, this apparent sensationalism was dubbed by critics as “poverty porn”.

In the 1980s the media used what some believed to be inappropriate use of children in poverty. However, towards the end of this era more positive images emerged to tell their stories, although, in recent years it has been noticed that the disturbing images are being highlighted once more.

Love, breasts and justification

I’ve realised something lately. There is always a justification story. Some yarn you tell over and over to justify something. Something you’re probably not sure of yourself. A bad choice maybe. Or a choice you’re ok with but assume others won’t be. So you build a story around it. A fable. A legend. Of justification.

Let me explain.

oxbridge-1_2012609b

I didn’t go here

Throughout my twenties, when I was going for jobs or, say, sitting in a work canteen, people would ask, “what university did you go to?” Some would ask out of genuine interest, but usually it was just small talk – as in, the person asking didn’t really give a crap about the answer. But instead of just saying where I actually went, I launched into my justification story: “Ahh, well, I got two As at A level (and a D, in history, I blame the teacher ;)*) and got into my first choice. But during the summer, I fell in love. My first true love. And then I went away; far, far away. And we couldn’t stand to be apart. So I ended up transferring after one term, just so we could move in together.

“And that’s why I went to one of the bottom five universities in the UK (at the time). Because, like Meatloaf, I would do anything for love.”

As I got older and out of my twenties, the legend of true love started to fade as people stopped asking me where I studied, thank God. I mean, does anyone really care? When I’m a pile of ash in a chintzy old urn, is anyone really going to give a flying fuck where I read (or didn’t, in this case) Proust?

Still, I felt the need to recite my story, over and over.

And now, deep into my thirties, there’s a new justification tale in town. And it’s usually prompted by the question, “Are you still feeding her?”

Breast feeding. It’s a minefield, let me tell you. Before I had a baby, I assumed I’d be padding around our kitchen, barefoot, cooking eggs, with our baby on my hip suckling happily from my full, seeping breasts.

This is how I thought it would be

This is how I thought it would be

Here’s how it actually went. After a few hours of prowling round a room, naked, heaving and puking and splashing blood everywhere, I gave birth to a tiny little girl, and then a massive placenta (you have to push that out too! I know, man!!) And, despite the fact the NCT teachers tell you that if you lay a new baby on your belly, it will smell your milk and somehow use its brand new turned-in feet to crawl up your body and latch onto your enlarged nipple, my baby just slept.

I had to stay in hospital overnight, and every hour or so a midwife came and squeezed my nipples so hard I thought they might drop off. And then, when I got home, a breastfeeding counsellor came and sat on a stool in front of me and stared at my boobs and told me I was doing everything right. And in the night, me and my husband spent hours attempting to wake our baby, even trickling cold water on her little warm body, to try and make her feed.

Every day, the midwives and health visitors and breastfeeding counsellors said “don’t worry, your milk hasn’t come yet, it will come, you will know when it comes.” And other mum’s would say, knowingly, “oh God, day three, your milk will come, and you will KNOW.” “Day five, your milk will come.” “Day seven, that’s the day.” “Day ten, mine came day ten. I was squirting milk across the room like an arcade shooting shack on day ten. It will definitely come on day ten.”

It never came. Or it did, but there was no Katie Price moment. There was some leakage and horrible, dirty, delirious milk sweats during the endless, hot, dark nights. But my boobs barely changed shape or size. I used to sit with two pumps attached to my aching tits, desperate to drain some sort of fluid from them. I’d get ten millilitres after an hour. It was soul destroying.

Then one night we ended up in hospital after three hours of trying to wake our jaundice, skinny little baby. And nurses watched me feed her. And then a brash and plain speaking consultant told me to just give her some formula. “For God’s sake,” she said “what are you trying to prove?”

At least that’s what I’ve been telling people, as part of my justification story. But actually that’s what a consultant said to my friend when she went through something similar, but much worse, a few years back. I’ve only just realised, writing this, that no consultant actually said that to me. But there was a brash consultant. And she did tell me to feed our baby some formula for fear she might shrivel up. So I did.

Anyway, apologies if I have lied to you and given you that other version. The rest is true. I think.

The morning after the brutal nipple squeezing

The morning after the brutal nipple squeezing

And let me tell you, the whole breastfeeding thing is complex and controversial and, as a new mum already laden with the weight of trying to keep this little thing alive, it’s hard. I fed her for four months, and supplemented with formula. And I felt guilty sometimes and like a failure a lot of times, even though I tried so, so hard. But I also felt annoyed that people expected me to feel guilty. Like it was ok that I failed as long as I felt guilty about it. And that’s where the story came in.

I’m pretty sure that I probably could have done it, if I had known to hold out and wait and keep trying. But I was scared. She was turning yellow and losing weight and I was worried her liver would give up if I didn’t put some sort of fluid inside her. Maybe someone a bit less anxious, like the woman padding around the kitchen barefoot and cooking eggs while her baby suckles hungrily, maybe she would’ve known to hold out. To ignore the doctor and do what her instincts told her. And she wouldn’t need a justification fable for anything.

But I did what I did. And I know I would probably do the same again. And in a few years, months even, this justification story can go to the back of the filing cabinet with the rest of them. And then I’ll no doubt need a new one for some failure or another. Let’s wait and see what my forties hold.

Can’t wait guys.

*I know you can understand what I’m saying without the need for a winking emoji. But that’s there in case the teacher in question reads this. So she knows I don’t actually blame her for my D.**

**I do sort of blame her for my D. She had a passion for Margaret Thatcher that was so fierce and alive that I could get her talking about the infamous Tory leader for almost a whole double period if I was clever with my questioning. That’s why I got a D. Margaret Thatcher didn’t feature on the A-level history paper. After all, she was barely history at that point.

 

 

Musings on being a mum

photo(18)I’m sitting in a coffee shop with my baby. Only no one else knows my baby is with me. It’s neatly tucked away in my womb and a baggy jumper means the strangers surrounding me have no idea I feel kicks and turns and even hiccups every once in a while.

It’s the nicest secret.

Before I was pregnant, when other people were pregnant, I always thought it was weird to start imagining the fetus as an actual baby before it was born. But it’s impossible not to. Almost as soon as you see the pink positive line you start to feel protective. You’re suddenly aware of chemicals and caffeine and aerosols and aspartame. I wonder why I was so disinterested in damaging myself but suddenly so afraid of damaging this unknown hitchhiker in my belly. The responsibility feels overwhelming at times. It’s not just you anymore. You’re building a human with whatever resources you have and lots of other people have a stake.

And as the weeks pass, the future changes and shapes. You start to imagine family camping holidays and whether your kid will be open about social networking and sex and whether you and your partner will lock horns over parenting styles – after all, he likes organisation and getting up early, while you like lying-in and chaos. He believes in respect and tradition, you believe in kids being the centre of attention and swearing for the sake of it. And you think about all this before you’ve even considered whether you want a water birth or pethidine or your mum there (or all of the above).

Actually, substitute ‘you’ for ‘I’ in those last two paragraphs. I’m assuming you will feel like me and that’s a stupid thing to assume. Plus, you and your partner might be in perfect harmony about EVERYTHING.

Disney-frozen-toddler-anna-elsa-dollsFor me, the past has become less important. I used to let my mistakes eat me up. Now I feel like I have to let it go. Let it go. (Should I let my kid watch Disney? Well, Frozen is quite good. OK. And I doubt I’ll have much choice anyway. I’m just its mum. I won’t buy it the dolls though. Unless it really, really wants them).  It’s like I’ve made some peace inside myself, or like my brain is clearing some clutter to make way for the great sponge of anxiety that’s about to start filling up in there. Either way, for now, it feels all right.

Oh. Hang on. I’m crying again. This time the trigger was an old man walking past the café window with a shopping trolley full of four-pint bottles of milk.

Five minutes before, a Demis Roussos song came on and I had to wipe away tears at the thought of my baby discovering music. Can you remember the day you discovered music? I can’t. But I bet it was bloody brilliant.

I thought being pregnant would make me want to be around my extended family all the time. But it’s made me want to be self-sufficient. To retreat to our little family of two, soon to be three, and learn to cope alone and create memories of our own. I know this will all change completely when the baby bomb has dropped and I’ve forgotten what the insides of my eyelids look like. I know then that all the amazing family we have between us will be like a comfort blanket. I can’t wait to have that time with them all. Proper family time when work is forgotten. I’m hoping I find a new role and don’t slip back into my middle-child-striving-to-prove-herself place. I wonder if that ever changes – the way you fall back into your family template when you’re all together. Probably not.

second life babyI feel older. I feel like I’m embarking on my second life (Remember that? Second Life. That virtual world where you created a character and lived a parallel existence? We had a meeting at work about that once. About how EVERYONE was going to have a virtual life and how it would lead to all sorts of weirdness. Oh God. Virtual worlds. Where will they go? How will I keep up with my kid, the digital native. Or the ‘post-modern, third-generation digital native’. Or whatever term we’ll be tagging them with then. What world lies ahead for our kid? Will it protest against inequality? Will we have solved inequality? Is there even a solution to inequality? Must not pass defeatist attitude onto kid. But healthy cynicism, that’s ok right? Hmmm).

Ooops, crying again – Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger is playing. It reminds me of the sixth form café bar. Lunchtime, when we used to pile into Emma’s battered Fiesta and take a trip to McDonalds. Should I ever take it to McDonalds? Some of my happiest memories involve Big Macs with mum. Hmm, but now we know stuff.

And then there’s the fear of what you’ll be like as a parent. With social networking, it’s easy to become one of those middle-class mums who accidentally posts the odd humble brag or fifty. “Oh God, late for work again! Lottie insisted on reciting the first ten pages of the dictionary before we could leave. Incessant child #loveher #greatestthingthateverhappenedtous #lifechanging”.  Or pictures of blended Moroccan chicken tagine poured neatly into 500 Tupperware tubs for freezing.

Etc.

For now, I’m not going to worry about all that. I might never really worry about it. For now I’m going to enjoy this new feeling of being an incubator. Of hanging around with someone all the time. Someone I don’t know and can’t see but someone I know is there. I went to see Grandma yesterday. She’s in a residential home and has lost loads of weight. She’s stopped talking really, except when she reads television subtitles aloud. Sometimes she cries and sometimes she laughs but she doesn’t seem to do much else. I showed her my big belly and tried to help her feel some kicks – but she’s not strong enough to push down and connect with her great grandchild. Or maybe she just didn’t want to feel it. Because she knows somehow that she might never see it or know it. That made me sad. That it might not have any great grandparents at all. But I didn’t either. And maybe it’s too much to ask. It would be nice for the baby to meet everyone who loved and influenced us. But their love and influence is under our skin forever. And we will pass on the good. And probably some of the bad. It’s inevitable. But I do know, all the time, we’ll be trying our best. And I hope that’s enough. Who knows? They tried their best, didn’t they?

tilda and kevinAnd so did the mum in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oh God. Shhhh.

Hitchiker. Incubator. Old man with milk trolley. Love.

PS thanks to Fran Stickley for the hitchhiker thing. I can think of it as nothing else now. I’m sure it’s holding a little hand-painted cardboard sign that says ‘The outside world’ on it.

Of course it’s not. I sound like an idiot. Obsessed with her unborn child. Pinning stories to it already.

Oh well.

Let it go.

 

 

 

How’s married life?

Signing the register - one minute we were single, the next we were married (photo by Roxy and Len)

Signing the register – one minute we were single, the next we were married (photo by Roxy and Len)

We got engaged in March and married in October

It feels like a whirlwind. Not an Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck-type whirlwind. More a ‘write three plays, live between Nottingham and the Isle of Wight, renovate a house, argue, organise a wedding, make up, move house, get married’-type whirlwind.

It hasn’t been plain sailing. We have basically wanted to kill each other half the time. Which makes it weird, because I never once considered not marrying him. And he feels the same. At least that’s what he says.

I’m not sure what love is. It’s definitely not Hollywood. But it’s somewhere in your bones and you feel it. And you just have to trust it, I think. Sometimes you have to summon it up, really, really hard. And sometimes it’s just there, bubbling at the surface, blocking out everything else you ever knew. It makes you feel immortal, when you think nothing else matters. Or terrifyingly mortal, when you’re awake and he’s asleep and the thoughts fill you. Anyway, you know all this.

My old mate Chris Keen hosted the ceremony - he knew the puffy-faced Malibu me and loved me just the same (photo by Abigail Steed)

My old mate Chris Keen hosted the ceremony – he knew the puffy-faced Malibu me and loved me just the same (photo by Abigail Steed)

After the nuptials, everyone asks ‘how’s married life?’ And they usually follow it up with ‘just the same, I expect?’ Only it’s not. Not for me, anyway. I feel totally different. I feel older; not in a bad way. I’m having to let go of the old me, somehow. It’s like I’m hanging over the well from The Goonies, and young me, puffy-faced and drunk on Malibu and orange, is looking up at me. We’re holding hands only she’s slipping through my fingers, and I’m letting her. She’s crying because of all the blue veins on her big chunky thighs and I’m saying, ‘I’m sorry, this is my time, down there, that’s your time.’ Ha! I love that girl. But sometimes she makes me feel bad.

Feeling the love (photo by Abigail Steed)

Feeling the love (photo by Abigail Steed)

But she was there. At the wedding. Of course she was. Every version of me was there. And they were surrounded by all the people who’ve ever loved them. Ok, this is getting confusing. What I mean is, my whole life was reflected back at me in the faces of all the people I’ve known and loved over the years. Not all the people. Not my ex-boyfriends, although I would have loved to have one or two of them there to say thank you for all they gave and taught me. Our wedding felt like a big celebration of two lives and it was amazing; I know people overuse that word these days, but honestly, it was. For the whole weekend, we thought of nothing but love and friendship. And it was exhilarating.

First day of the rest of our lives (photo by Chris Keen)

First day of the rest of our lives (photo by Chris Keen)

And now we’re home. And we’ve argued, probably about every other day. Before, I had this subconscious feeling that if things got bad, I could run. We both did. And we used it, in fights (yep, we really are as rubbish as that). But now we can’t. There is paperwork. But more than that, we made this crazy commitment to hang around together til the end of time. And even when I want to rip off my own skin in frustration, I know deep down that later, or tomorrow, I’ll want to lose myself in him again. Because he taught me to find flowers from the hedgerows to dye Easter eggs, and because, more than once, he heaved his heart into his mouth for me, even though every fibre of his unfussy Northern being fought it, and because he came skinny-dipping on a pitch black, cold Northumberland night one September, and… all the little patchwork bits that make the picture.

I have a feeling marriage will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I know I’m ready.

Photo by Abigail Steed

Photo by Abigail Steed

 

Turning dreams into reality

Simon can't believe his luck!

Simon can’t believe his luck!

The other night, I had a dream. And I woke up smiling. So I committed it to my screen.

It’s a dream about coffee and DIY and promiscuity and Simon Pegg. It stars me, my boyfriend and Simon himself. No names have been changed and I’ve transcribed it exactly as it happened. It’s a dream, remember, hence why I still look cute and sexy wearing dungarees and no make up.

One other thing: I’m not sure how to write a film script so here’s a stab.

Enjoy!

EXT. DAY. VICTORIAN HOUSE. THREE STOREY. RYDE, ISLE OF WIGHT. AUTUMN.

JANE AND MARK ARE LEAVING THE HOUSE. JANE IS DRESSED IN CLOTHES FOR DECORATING. SHE HAS NO MAKE UP ON AND A COLD. HER NOSE IS RED. SHE STILL LOOKS CUTE AND SEXY IN A DISHEVELED, DRESSED-DOWN-FILM-STAR WAY. MARK IS IN A SUIT AND RAINCOAT. THEY CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND THEM AND START TO WALK DOWN THE STREET. HE PUTS HIS ARM ROUND HER AND KISSES HER FOREHEAD. THEN SHE KISSES HIS MOUTH. THEY CARRY ON WALKING.

EXT. DAY. COFFEE SHOP.

MARK AND JANE LEAVE A COFFEE SHOP. HE HAS A REGULAR SIZED TAKEAWAY COFFEE SHE HAS A HUGE COFFEE – MORE LIKE AN EXTRA LARGE POPCORN BUCKET FROM THE CINEMA. SHE IS HOLDING IT WITH TWO HANDS – ONE EITHER SIDE – AND SIPPING IT. MARK LOOKS AT IT AND SHAKES HIS HEAD WITH A SMILE AND THEY START TO WALK DOWN THE STREET.

EXT. DAY.

VICTORIAN HOUSE CONVERTED INTO OFFICES BY THE SEA. JANE AND MARK KISS.

JANE

Have a good day.

MARK

You too, Screwtop.

JANE

Screwtop? Get lost.

THEY KISS AGAIN AND SHE STARTS TO WALK AWAY. HE WOLF WHISTLES HER AND THEN GOES INSIDE.

EXT. DAY. STREET WHERE HOUSE IS.

JANE WALKS BACK TO THEIR HOUSE, HOLDING HER MASSIVE COFFEE. THE STREET IS PRETTY MUCH EMPTY. SHE WALKS UP THE STEPS TO THE FRONT DOOR THEN REACHES IN HER POCKET FOR FRONT DOOR KEYS. NOTHING. SHE LAYS THE MASSIVE COFFEE ON THE FLOOR AND TRIES TO FIND THE KEYS IN HER OTHER POCKETS. NOTHING. SHE TURNS ROUND AND WALKS BACK DOWN THE STREET.

EXT. DAY. STREET WHERE OFFICE IS.

JANE WALKS TOWARDS OFFICE. SHE SEES A WOMAN TAKING HER CHILD TO SCHOOL. CHILD IS ON A SCOOTER. SHE ACKNOWLEDGES WOMAN.

EXT. DAY. OFFICE.

JANE WALKS UP TO OFFICE DOOR BUT THEN JOGS ROUND TO THE BACK AS SHE KNOWS EXACTLY WHERE MARK’S OFFICE IS. AS SHE GETS ROUND TO THE WINDOW SHE SEES HIM SITTING ON A RELAXING CHAIR WITH A WOMAN AT HIS FEET, LEANING HER HEAD ON HIS LEGS. HE IS RUBBING HER HEAD AND NECK. SHE IS JUST RELAXING ON HIM.

JANE BANGS ON THE WINDOW. MARK LOOKS UP. THE WOMAN SITS UP NONCHALANTLY.

INT. DAY. OFFICE BLOCK.

JANE WALKS IN, PAST RECEPTION AND INTO MARK’S OFFICE.

JANE

What the fuck?

MARK

This is Alison. Alison, this is my partner, Jane.

ALISON

Hi Jane.

JANE

What the fuck?

ALISON

Oh don’t mind this. We’ve worked together so long; this is how we do our morning meeting.

MARK

We’ve worked together for 10 years.

JANE

Yeah, but. What the fuck? What the fuck… is this?

MARK

If you don’t like it, we’ll change it.

JANE SEES THE HOUSE KEYS ON THE SIDE, TAKES THEM, WALKS OUT. MARK SHOUTS AFTER HER.

MARK

I can’t follow you. I’ve got another meeting at 9.

EXT. DAY. STREET.

JANE WALKS AWAY FROM THE OFFICE.

EXT. DAY. STREET.

JANE WALKS PAST THE COFFEE SHOP AND ROW OF OTHER SHOPS.

EXT. DAY. SUBURBAN STREET.

JANE WALKS TOWARDS THE HOUSE. THIS TIME THERE IS A BIG TRESTLE TABLE SET UP ON THE ROAD AND LOTS OF PEOPLE SITTING ROUND EATING. THERE IS BUNTING AND BALLOONS. JANE SEES IT BUT GOES BACK TO HER HOUSE, CLIMBING THE STEPS. SHE KEEPS LOOKING OVER THOUGH.

EVENTUALLY SHE WALKS OVER TO THE TRESTLE TABLE. THERE IS A BIG CROWD AND SHE STANDS ON THE EDGE OF IT. THEN SHE SEES SIMON PEGG DOING A TOAST.

SIMON

So, this one’s for you Frank. You dirty old man. We’ll miss you.

JANE WALKS ROUND THE TABLE TO SEE OLD MAN FRANK LAUGHING WITH A TEAR IN HIS EYE. SIMON PEGG IS LAUGHING AND CHATTING WITH PEOPLE. THEN HE SEES JANE. HE SMILES AT HER AND RAISES HIS GLASS. SHE SMILES BACK AND WALKS AWAY FROM THE TABLE.

SIMON CHASES AFTER HER.

SIMON

Hey. Hey. Hi.

JANE

Hi.

SIMON

Simon.

JANE

Pegg. Yeah, I know. Jane.

SIMON

Hi Jane.

JANE

Party?

SIMON

Yeah.

JANE

For Frank?

SIMON

Yeah. You know Frank?

JANE

No.

SIMON

Right.

JANE

Nice rant on twitter last night.

SIMON

Oh God. I looked like such a dick.

JANE

Pleeeeeeease follow meeeeeee.

SIMON

Laughs, embarrassed. I know. Desperate.

JANE

Anyway, I’m… gestures to say that she’s going into her house.

SIMON

Right. Nice place.

JANE

Cheers.

JANE STARTS WALKING IN. SIMON WATCHES FOR A SECOND. THEN HE TURNS AWAY. JANE SEES THE COFFEE ON THE DOORSTEP.

JANE

Fancy some coffee?

SIMON

Yeah.

INT. DAY. HOUSE.

THE HOUSE IS FULL OF LADDERS AND WALLPAPER AND PAINT TINS AND BRUSHES. IT’S HARD TO NAVIGATE.

SIMON

You do all this?

JANE

Yeah.

SIMON

Cool.

JANE TAKES THE MASSIVE BUCKET OF COFFEE AND DECANTS IT INTO TWO DUSTY OLD MUGS.

JANE

Here.

SIMON

Thanks.

JANE

It’s pretty cold now.

SIMON

Yeah.

JANE

And dusty.

SIMON

Yeah. In fact, do you mind if I don’t…

JANE

Laughing. No. Pour it down the sink. If you can find it.

SIMON POURS THE COFFEE AWAY. HE COMES BACK ROUND TO WHERE JANE IS STANDING.

SIMON

So. How are you?

JANE

Been better.

SIMON

Have you actually finished any of the rooms?

JANE

Upstairs.

SIMON

Want to show me?

JANE

Sure.

INT. DAY. STAIRS.

SIMON FOLLOWS JANE UP THE STAIRS. THERE ARE LOADS OF THEM.

INT. DAY. UPSTAIRS.

THE HOUSE IS PRISTINE. AND HUGE. MUCH BIGGER THAN DOWNSTAIRS. LIKE SOMETHING FROM A FILM. CHANDELIERS.

JANE OPENS ONE DOOR AND IT LEADS TO A BEDROOM WITH FOUR POSTER AND IMMACULATE DÉCOR.

SIMON

Wow! You did this?

JANE

Yeah.

SIMON

On your own?

JANE

Yeah.

SIMON

Amazing.

JANE

You wrote a film.

SIMON

I wrote a few.

JANE

That’s amazing.

SIMON

I could never do this.

JANE

I could never write a film.

SIMON GOES OVER TO JANE AND KISSES HER. SHE KISSES HIM BACK. THEY START TO TAKE EACH OTHERS CLOTHES OFF. THEY HAVE SEX ON THE FOUR POSTER.

AS THEY FINISH, THE FRONT DOOR SLAMS.

MARK

Jane! Jane!

JANE DOES NOT MOVE. SIMON STAYS LYING DOWN.

SIMON

Who’s that?

JANE

My partner.

SIMON NODS. THEY STAY AS THEY ARE. MARK OPENS THE DOOR AND SEES THEM NAKED.

JANE

Mark. This is Simon.

MARK

Simon. Oh, God, Simon Pegg. I loved Shaun of the Dead. Hi.

SIMON

Hi.

MARK

Can I get you anything?

SIMON

A glass of water would be great, actually.

MARK

No worries. Jane?

JANE

Yeah. Thanks.

MARK

I’m sorry. About this morning. If you don’t like it, we won’t…

JANE

Let’s talk about it later.

MARK

Yeah, yeah, course. Two waters. Spaced. Loved Spaced.

Simon

Cheers man.

MARK LEAVES THE ROOM.

Nice guy.

JANE

Yeah. He’s alright.

JANE LEANS OVER, KISSES SIMON, HE GRABS HER AND THEY START AT IT AGAIN.

 

THE END.

 

 

 

File under ‘life events’

 

Me and Mark and my little arcade ring

Me and Mark and my little arcade ring

On Saturday I got engaged. It happened on a beach in Bembridge overlooking the crazy café where I worked for my first summer here in 2012.

The week before, we went to New York. At Christmas my boyfriend wrapped up a cooking apple and when I opened it, I realised he’d drilled a hole down the core and slipped in a voucher for a trip to the Big Apple. This is not usual fare in our house. For the last two years I’ve given him painted stones and terrible self-penned songs for almost every celebration. For Valentine’s Day last year, he found me a stone that looked like ET. So a trip to New York was a big deal. Of course, when I told people about the gift (and I didn’t tell many people) about half of them said ‘ooh, you know he’s going to propose, don’t you?’ I didn’t. But now I sort of thought he might.

At the Top of the Rock and in a rickshaw in Central Park and buzzing in the bar after an immersive theatre thing I thought he might.

But he didn’t. And I didn’t mind at all. I was sort of glad. I was so taken with the place, I just wanted to soak it all up.

We got back, we unpacked, did washing, painted a wall, all that stuff. Then on Saturday it was hot, like summer hot, and in the afternoon, we went for a barbecue on the beach: windbreak, little blanket, phone propped up on a rock playing songs on shuffle. We shared a gin and J20 from a jam jar – we weren’t being cute, the dirty plastic cups we’d taken smelt of ground-in wet dog so we used the jar I’d put the gin in.

When we were full, we lay back on the blanket and I played a trick on him – I pretended there was some amazing pudding in the bag when there wasn’t (I know, I know, call the Comedy Cellar, I think they just found their new headliner) and while I was drying my tears of laughter, he asked me. There was no preamble. It was just the question, there. And it felt so heavy and loaded and much bigger than I had imagined it in my head.

I’ve been engaged before. But that was two lifetimes ago and I was a different person, maybe, although the same, sort of. But I was ecstatic back then, and when it all went wrong, because my feelings changed, I couldn’t understand why. And then I fell in love again, for a long time, and then my feelings sort of changed again. And you start to question whether you know yourself at all, don’t you?

The older you get, the more aware you are of heartbreak and how it changes you. And you feel the responsibility more, I think.

Despite all this, I said yes. Because I’m in love, and as Mary said to George in It’s a Wonderful Life, “I want my babies to look like [him]”. He gave me a plastic ring that he’d won in the arcades where I went as a kid.

And then we lay back down on the blanket again. And everything felt exactly the same as it did the minute before.

Only I had these sort of butterflies.

Bloody Facebook

cocaineAbout a month ago I deactivated my Facebook page. I was an avid user. Every morning, I’d wake up and check Facebook on my phone. I had an app; it was easy. I started leaving my phone in bed during the day but every time I went up to get something, I’d seek it out and sit and look at status updates, sometimes for well over an hour.

The range of emotions I experienced in one Facebook sitting depended on many things – time of the month, how much work I’d managed to do, how much alcohol I’d consumed. I’d look through photos of people I know and love and photos of people I don’t. I’d mourn events I couldn’t make, feel sad that my ex-boyfriend was doing things we loved to do together, and get ridiculously angry that the latest independent film everyone was talking about wasn’t showing anywhere on the island where I live. Rather than make me feel connected, it made me feel disconnected. It raked through all my insecurities, rendered me in tears a few times and most of all made me hate myself for being so stupidly affected by a shop window of half-told lives.

how-to-cure-facebook-addictionIf I tell people I’ve left Facebook, they always ask why and my stock answer is ‘because it was breaking me’. Sounds dramatic, I know. I’ve had lots of advice on how to tackle my inability to social network healthily. ‘Just use it professionally’, they say. ‘Stop looking at the bits that make you insecure’, ‘limit the time you spend on there,’ say others. One person told me to have a baby so I don’t have time for such self-indulgence. I told them to surf the social networking sea of baby pictures then come back to me with some helpful advice.

The thing is I’m having a bloody lovely time. I’ve been doing all sorts of nice things. Things that would make me very happy had I not a constant reminder of what else I could/should be doing. I enjoy myself for a bit, then force myself to dip into a world I’m not really part of. It’s like blowing up a lovely red balloon, admiring it for a while and then popping it on purpose.

imagesThe problem is, to really leave the social networking behind is hard. Everyone’s there, and as you move away from it, you start to feel isolated. You get withdrawal symptoms. Work you’re doing doesn’t seem as valid when you’re not telling everyone about it. Great times feel sort of empty without an Instagram tag. You’re in this sort of no-man’s land where you’re living but itching to tell someone about it. Someone you don’t know, who you’ve probably never seen, but who thinks you’re marvellous because you write nice stuff in 140 characters (yes, I know that’s twitter. Same sort of applies).

But beyond that, past the withdrawal symptoms and the no-man’s land, is ‘the moment’ I think. I remember it. It was good.

There will be people reading this who have self-control, confidence and gusto. Who can’t imagine social networking as anything but a great way to connect and progress. People who use the internet healthily and constructively in their lives. Lucky, lucky people. We’re all different I suppose.

And I’ll probably return to Facebook, by the way. If I’m honest, I miss that blue banner banter. Oh yeah, there were good times, don’t get me wrong. Like the time Mark Ravenhill hung his opening address to the Edinburgh Fringe on one of my status updates. Yeah, that was pretty cool.

Bloody Facebook.

ps apologies for the dramatic photos. Haha.

Shaping stories

Nana in the old peopel's home

Nana on Valentine’s Day 2010

On Saturday I visited a care home for the first time since my nana died. I’m working with 1623 Theatre company on a King Lear project and part of our research is to share stories with people living with dementia. We’re trying out a technique called Tapestory invented by Julia Damassa who’s leading the visits. Julia has developed a set of embroidered shapes based on Shakespeare’s King Lear to help people with dementia tell stories.

In 2011, my own nana died with dementia. She lived her last few years in a care home where we tried to make her little room look like her own house. The staff were kind to her and loved her sense of humour but she never knew why she was there and always tried to escape. Whenever I went to visit, I saw photos of her on the walls – at the zoo, wearing an Easter bonnet, posing with a clown, holding a newly born chick – always grinning wildly. We’d walk the corridors, arm in arm, looking at the photos and she’d smile as if she was looking at someone else.  But that wasn’t the point. I was grateful the staff made sure her life was stimulating when we weren’t there. It didn’t matter if she remembered it or not, in those moments she was expressing herself. That’s how we wanted the residents to feel on Saturday.

None of us knew how it would go as we walked down the care home corridor to the room they’d set up for our session. The doors to the residents’ rooms had been made to look like individual front doors and each had a memory box hanging beside it – an A5 sized box with glass on the front filled with a few mementoes to remind them which room was theirs. There were sewing reels and crucifixes, toy cars and tiny cat ornaments. I wondered what I would put in mine.

On each door were two photographs – one of the resident now and one of them before, back in the days they might remember – windswept on a 1960s beach, at a birthday party, close to the camera in an early selfie kissing a dashing husband who may or may not still be alive. It was all designed to help them keep some independence – to stop them wandering the corridors wondering where they were meant to be. An old lady inadvertently led us down the corridor. We walked slowly behind her tiny twisted body as she made her way to the same room we were working in. Her skin and wrists and hands and gold wedding ring and small shoes reminded me of Nana for a second and I took one deep breath. That was the only time I felt sad all session.

The story shapes had been set up on tables in an activity room but the staff decided it might be easier to take them through to the TV lounge where most of the residents were already waiting. We put the shapes around the room where the residents could hold them and see them without moving. It’s not easy, walking into a room of people you don’t know and trying to engage them.

I sat with Sylvia, a small lady who was perched on an armchair that could swallow her up. She held my hand as I showed her two shapes. Immediately she held one and started asking me questions – “Have you seen her? I haven’t. Will be nice if she comes. Sometimes she comes down that fire and it’s a pain isn’t it? Don’t you mind?” I told her I didn’t mind at all then handed her a felt square with a bag of coins embroidered on it. Immediately she said “Oh well, that’s the top of the bins that is.” We talked for a while both of us enjoying the connection despite most of our thoughts being discarded, unfinished, to make room for the next. It didn’t matter. I showed the shapes to John next. Looking at the castle he said “Makes you wonder how people live” and the bag of coins evoked “Well it’s a measure of a man.”

Dorothy was a brilliant ice dancer in the 1940s. Now she can’t walk and her tiny feet are numb and blue. She usually wants to be left alone and she’s vocal about it. But on Saturday she was calm and told us about her skating and dancing days and she held the shapes and traced the outlines and felt their softness. And Peter usually sleeps or cries when there are activities to take part in – but on seeing the others engaged, he drew a picture in the same colours as one of the shapes and signed his name, something the care home staff had never seen him do. It sounds small but it didn’t feel it.

It was hard to leave but it felt good to have talked and connected, to have held hands and smiled at smiling faces. Now the staff have the Tapestory kit to use again and again and we’re going back in a week or so to share what we did with the residents’ families. Our colleague Darius filmed some of the session and Julia will make a story inspired by the thoughts of the residents. Apparently, research shows that the last bit of your brain to survive is the bit that can create. When memory is left behind, the creative bit of the brain is still working away. The Tapestory technique is a way to free people from the shackles of memory and just let them talk. There is no right answer, no test, no ability to fall. And it was pretty liberating for all of us.

Note: residents’ names have been changed