‘So You Want To Be an Actress?’ - Manchester


I moved to Manchester in November 1969, after a nursing career that spanned all of eighteen months, to live with DT, and I stayed at first with an old friend from school, whom I had been put into contact with by a mutual friend in my nursing set. After a week or two, we found a bedsit in Maple Avenue, Chorlton-cum-Hardy. It was in the attic of a Victorian house, with a tiny separate kitchen tucked into the eaves where anyone standing at the stove had to bend double in order to cook. Downstairs, on the first floor, we had the use of a bathroom that we shared with the rest of the house, which I think comprised two more flats, one on each floor.

I remember one evening, a matter of just days after we had moved in, I arrived home, thrilled at having found a job, to see that a small envelope had been posted under our door. At first, on opening it, I thought it was empty but then I saw down in the corner a small square of folded paper. When I opened it out, it contained a little clump of dark pubic hair and on the paper was written in neat, small handwriting the words, ‘Found in the bathroom. Yours, I believe.’ It was unsigned. I was mortified. It was obviously meant for me as DT had gorgeous, bright-red hair. Someone must have used the bathroom immediately after me and . . . Oh, it was too awful to contemplate. After this incident I didn’t use the bathroom for about three months, choosing to wash standing at the sink in the freezing kitchen rather than ever exit that bathroom again where I might bump unknowingly into the anonymous writer of the note. Leaving and entering the house also proved to be potentially shaming experiences. On coming in I would mount the stairs two and three at a time, to arrive sweating and panting at the top.

My parents, even my father, thought that I was still living with the friend from school and that DT was living elsewhere. It would have been too much, on top of abandoning my respectable career in nursing, to tell them the truth. When recently I played the role of Mary Whitehouse, who hailed from just down the road in Wolverhampton - the self-styled moral campaigner who was very much in the news at that particular time because of her monumental battle with the BBC and its lack of censorship - it brought my rebellious, angry, anti-establishment, nineteen-year-old self into sharp focus. My mother might not have been religious but she was of the same generation as Mary Whitehouse, although she thought her a ‘bit of an old fuddy-duddy’, when it came to sex before marriage she virtually shared the same views as this woman. Mrs Whitehouse was more or less universally loathed and ridiculed by our generation, representing everything that we balked at and rejected. ‘Living in sin’ felt like one in the eye for her and her ilk; we were, after all, the ‘Make Love, Not War’ generation with a whole new philosophy and a strong and vivid identity. Of course, playing her at the age of fifty-seven, I saw her differently and, having a daughter of my own, I understood her fears for her children in the face of such a whirlwind of a cultural and sexual revolution. Although she went too far in many instances, without her we wouldn’t now have the much needed nine o’clock watershed.

After I’d been up in Manchester for just over a year my parents finally came to visit me. I had started my first year at college and there was a frantic hiding of all things DT, but what I failed to do was put away my birth pills, which my mother’s hawk eyes spotted straight away. She never said anything, or even remotely hinted at it; it was my brother Tommy who told me years later how she’d seen them on the bathroom shelf and was somewhat miffed at me, thinking I’d pulled the wool over her eyes.

Once I settled into living with DT, I began to realise that there was something wrong with my sleep. I would frequently shoot up in bed in the middle of the night, often screaming, my heart banging, my face and the top half of my body covered in sweat. Although this would wake DT, I would not always remember it. As the years went on it became increasingly worse. Every single night I would have a disturbance of one sort or another. On a good night, it would be a brief and sudden panic that would cause me to wake. This would be followed by a second or two of confusion, whereby I would try to work out the meaning of some jumbled, dreamlike logic that suggested an imminent disaster of some kind, and usually I would sort out that it was a dream and then go back to sleep fairly quickly. However, on a bad night, this waking could happen every hour and, weirdly, the hourly interval would be just that, exactly an hour.

These night terrors were not like a normal nightmare. First, they would take place at the beginning of the sleep period and I began to time them; sometimes it would be just a half-hour after I went to sleep, sometimes one or two hours, but it was always exactly the half-hour or hour, give or take a minute or two, never forty minutes or one hour twenty, and it was never at the end of a sleep cycle, which apparently is when the classic nightmare takes place.

There was no story to them; it was more like a terrifying image presenting itself to my psyche, like a snapshot being flashed up, and I would wake, quaking with terror for my life. The image, or sometimes just a single thought or feeling, would often involve dark water and drowning: the house, for instance, sinking down into deep water. I would suddenly see the water rising up the bedroom windows and I would wake with the certain knowledge that I was the only one who knew and who could do anything about it. I would then often get up, pacing around, trying to work out what was going on, staring hard out of the window, and then beginning to not know why I was doing so, as the night terror and its awful image slipped from the grasp of my memory into a muddled and puzzling conundrum. The remnants of this conundrum would sometimes filter into the next day, leaving me with the troubling sensation that something vital had been left undone.

When I was away from home I started to dread going to sleep, much the same as I had as a child and feared wetting the bed. This wasn’t helped by my propensity to sleepwalk. Once whilst staying in a hotel on location, I walked out of the hotel room stark naked and was only awoken by the sharp click of the heavy door as it closed irreversibly behind me. I stood in the corridor, shaking and soaked in sweat, desperately trying to work out where the hell I was. Luckily a female hotel guest was returning to her room and she got me a towel to wrap around myself, allowing me to sit in her room while she called the receptionist to come and let me into my own. One night when my daughter was critically ill as a child, and I was sleeping at the hospital on a put-me-up next to her bed, I woke to find myself running down the corridor towards the nurses’ station, shouting at the top of my voice, ‘Please, somebody, please! My daughter! Please, come and help me!’ I ran with the nurses back to the bed but before we even got there I began to realise that I had somehow forgotten why I had called them in the first place and that this was probably a dream. She, of course, was sleeping peacefully. At that point I just broke down.

This particular incident was unusual as my terrors went, in that it actually related to something that was obviously stressful in my everyday existence. Normally I could see little correlation between my nightly insanity and what was occurring in my life on a day-today basis. I would have the terrors irrespective of whether I was worried about something or whether I was totally relaxed on holiday, although there was the odd sequence of work-related terrors.

A common one for me was dreaming that the camera crew were in the bedroom. I would actually open my eyes and see them, and then I would start getting panicked because I would realise that I had no clothes on and that I didn’t understand what the scene was that I was meant to do, and why wasn’t anyone speaking or at least telling me what we were supposed to be doing? In another instance, whilst living in my friend’s Camden flat, I tried to get out of the bedroom window, waking up as my foot touched cold, damp concrete. It was a basement flat so I was in no real physical danger. I fact I never seemed to sleepwalk dangerously.

Frequently, I would wake up thinking that there was someone in the bed next to me whom either I couldn’t identify or whom I knew only vaguely, and so I would end up nudging my poor, long-suffering husband awake, asking, ‘Who are you?’ How my marriage has survived the nightly turmoil that these disturbances caused is nothing short of a miracle. When we first got together, Grant would cuddle and soothe me back to sleep.

‘Shhh, shhhh, it’s all right, you’re just dreaming, it’s all right, you’re safe, go back to sleep.’

After about ten years it became, ‘You’re bloody dreaming!’ accompanied by a swift turning over, taking most of the duvet with him. Sometimes we would have lengthy conversations that often turned into arguments, all whilst I was still asleep.

‘You’re dreaming!’

‘I am not dreaming!’

‘You are dreaming!’

‘Don’t tell me I’m dreaming. I know when I’m asleep!’

And so on. However, I was eventually to find salvation in the form of acupuncture. After reporting my condition to several doctors, I had tried sleeping potions of every kind and although they made me sleep soundly, I would still sleepwalk, scream and do all the night-terror stuff, but without waking or remembering any of it, which was terrifying in itself. So it was at the ripe old age of forty-eight, after thirty years of badly disrupted sleep, where I could count on the fingers of one hand how many times I had slept through the night, I had an acupuncture treatment. On that very night I slept through without waking and the next morning I cried and I cried. It was so wonderfully restorative and I grieved for what I had so missed. This only lasted the one night but I went back every week so that gradually it became the norm and the screaming habdabs became the odd exception. Then just as I started to get a good night’s sleep, the menopause started, but that’s another story.

In the year prior to college, I did a series of temporary jobs, working for Carrera’s, the cigarette company, counting cigarettes; as a sales assistant in a shoe shop; plus a myriad of others, under the auspices of Manpower Services, the worst of which was quite possibly a factory on the outskirts of Manchester. Here, I spent my days screwing tops on to large cans of oil and trying to take my mind off the all-pervading stench of the place, which I can still smell today and which, I’m afraid, is indescribable. Everywhere was covered in a thick layer of filthy grease, making the floor lethal, and after working there for only about a month, my shoes were coated in it and had to be thrown away. However, the worst aspect of this job was not the mind-numbing tedium, or the ever-present, sick-making smell, or the ubiquitous grease; it concerned certain of the employees.

Amongst the workforce were a number of mentally handicapped people and one such girl worked on the same floor as me. She was blonde, sweet, innocent and slow, obviously much younger than her actual years, always happy, smiling and willing, and rather pretty. Every day of her life while I was there, she was subjected to humiliating teasing at the hands of a group of four or five men. This usually took the form of lewd sexual jibes, which for the most part seemed to go over her head, but sometimes I saw her emerge from behind a partition adjusting her clothing, with raucous laughter coming from the men on the other side. At first I felt impotent, because of my status as a temp, but I became very upset on behalf of this vulnerable girl, obsessing about the awful, bullying behaviour to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on my ‘screwing’ and I began to lose sleep at night. In the end I took it upon myself to approach the foreman and told him what I had witnessed.

‘No, it’s only a bit of fun. She loves it. She’s been working here years. No, no, don’t worry your pretty little head!’

I don’t know how I stopped my hand from forming a fist and punching his big pockmarked nose right into his ugly, pockmarked face.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I want you to worry yours.’

When I checked in with Manpower on the Friday of that week, they said that I would be going somewhere else to work on the Monday. It seems the factory no longer needed my services.

Whilst in a practical sense I missed the comforts of home and the institutional nature of life in the nurses’ home - where the domestic side of everyday living, like laundry, cleaning and cooking, were completely taken care of - I found my new life of cohabitation both challenging and exciting. There in the tiny kitchen at Maple Avenue, from a fairly narrow culinary repertoire, DT gave me my first real cookery lessons. How to boil potatoes and how to make spaghetti bolognese, two ‘skills’ that have formed the basis of the cook I am today!

It was here that the exploding haggis incident occurred. I had just left the kitchen for a second when a bang like a football rupturing brought me running back in to find the innards of a haggis, which had been boiling on the stove, dripping from the ceiling, the thing having burst in the pan. The downstairs neighbour stood on the landing looking a touch scared. This was after the pubic hair business and, unsure whether this neighbour was the anonymous author of the note, I was struck dumb, so the two of us just stood there, him wondering what on earth had happened and me picturing him gingerly picking my pubes out of the bath.

Another disaster took place when I decided to surprise DT with something a little different and purchased for the hefty sum of six-pence a pig’s head. I popped it in the Baby Belling oven with a few rashers of streaky bacon artistically placed on top of the head, two between the ears and a couple down each side, which had the effect of making it look like hair and, without realising it, a prototype for Miss Piggy. I couldn’t wait for DT to arrive home from college; the smell from the kitchen was mouth-watering. However, when he finally did get home and the time came to reveal my culinary surprise, I opened the oven door only to find a sight worthy of a Hammer horror film. The head had indeed roasted to a gorgeous golden brown and the rashers had crisped into a set of curls, but out through the eyes, nose and mouth was oozing the creature’s brain, which I didn’t even know was in there, and it was a sludgy, burnt, greyish colour. We had fish and chips that night.

One Saturday, having gained a little confidence, I invited a couple of friends around for lunch. The lunch was to consist of a quiche, a fairly unusual dish in those days and very trendy, plus some salad, followed by apple crumble and custard. I was totally thrilled with the result as I got the two dishes out of the oven. They looked cookery-book perfect, golden and delicious, but when we came to eat the quiche, no one could get their knife through the pastry. What made it worse is that no one said a word; they just soldiered silently on, trying to force their knives to cut into it, one friend placing his knifetip down vertically and banging on the end of the handle with the palm of his hand, hammer-and-chisel style.

‘Look, look, since we haven’t got a pneumatic drill, it might be best to just scrape the filling out and eat that, and if anyone’s got a roof that needs mending please feel free to take the - what I laughingly call - pastry case home with you.’

I have never made pastry since. I’ve always seen cooking as some sort of measure of my womanhood, a kind of performance that I must rise to, and so apart from preparing meals for my own family, it has been an unspeakable trial. The thought of giving a dinner party to people I don’t really know is anathema to me. Only in the last few years have I been able to enjoy cooking to a degree and see it for what it actually is, and for that I thank Queen Delia.

In January 1970, I had my audition for a place at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre. I had bought a couple of books of audition speeches as I had been asked to prepare three pieces, one of which had to be Shakespeare. I chose Lady Macbeth, Macbethbeing the only Shakespeare I knew, having studied it at O level. The other two I barely remember, except that one was from a play I had never heard of, with a speech by a character contemplating suicide, and the other was a play by Clemence Dane, whom I had also never heard of. I was interviewed on the day by Edward Argent, the principal of the school, who was wearing a black velvet jacket. I recall thinking that this was a good sign as I was wearing my new black velvet trouser suit with the bell bottoms, the tunic-style top being cinched in at the waist by a thin, black-leather belt belonging to DT, and my new knee-length, black leather boots.

‘So you want to be an actress?’ He was a round, teddy-bearish man, with dark, twinkling eyes, thick dark hair and a full beard, threaded through with grey.

‘No. I am an actress,’ I said. ‘Whether I am employed as such is another matter, but that’s what I am; I am an actress.’ I believed that absolutely and felt that if he were to turn me down, it would be his loss.

‘So, do you think you’ll be able to learn anything here then?’

‘Oh yes, I’ll be learning about the actress that I am and how to use what I have.’

He then asked me to stand up and perform my pieces. Never since have I performed anything, first time, with such confidence. First of all I did my Lady M, the ‘screw your courage to the sticking place’ speech, feeling totally in tune with every single line. I was pleased with it, sensing that I had made the right impression, and then, buoyed up by this, I went on to my second piece, the suicide speech. Again I soared through it, convinced that I was completely at one with the character, that I was inside her skin.

Edward Argent didn’t say anything straight away, just creaked slightly in his chair. ‘Mmm, that was interesting and very, very good.’ I felt as if I might just float up into the air buoyed up by my very own ego, but then, ‘Tell me, why did you choose to play a man’s part?’

‘Oh . . .’ I laughed; what the hell was he talking about? A man’s part? My brain instantly melted into a fuzz of anxiety. And then I realised that because I’d bought a book of audition speeches, I didn’t really know the plays that the speeches were taken from and therefore, of course, I didn’t really know the characters either. Clearly there was more to this than my just acting words off the page, regardless of context.

I laughed again. ‘Oh, I just thought it would be . . . you know . . . I thought . . . Oh . . . Oh . . . Oh, what the hell, I had no idea it was a man, I just liked it and I wanted to play that speech and express those feelings.’

Now he laughed.

‘I like your honesty, good for you. Now what else have you got for me?’

‘I bet you can’t wait!’ I laughed nervously. ‘It’s by Clemence Dane and before you ask, no, I don’t know anything about him and I haven’t read the play either, but I think he must be pretty good, judging from this speech anyway.’

‘Oh yes . . . Incidentally, Clemence Dane is a woman. Fire away!’

About three weeks later, I received a letter accepting me on the course, to start the following September, but this depended on my gaining one more GCE, as five were required in those days in order to teach. I instantly embarked on a course one evening a week at a college in Stockport, to study GCE Anatomy and Physiology. This was about as useful to my future as an actress as a lawnmower would have been, but as it was now February, and having missed the first term and almost half of the second term, with the exams coming up in June, I thought it best to choose a subject that I already had some knowledge of. Because of my nursing course, this seemed to be the best choice and, indeed, I managed to pass it with a grade two, my best grade to date.

In the summer of 1970, DT and I decided to hitch-hike down to Arcachon on the south-west coast of France, camping as we went. He had borrowed an old tent belonging to his father. The tent was stowed in an ancient, stained, green-canvas tote bag and had been in there since it was last used, some twenty-odd years before, probably for his father’s National Service. Our first stop, after finding it very difficult to secure lifts in France, was at a campsite in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris. We arrived in the evening, just as people were preparing their evening meals. I looked around at the state-of-the-art tents (the French take camping and caravanning very seriously), and theirs were all, without exception, brightly coloured, modern jobs, blue, green, red and yellow, with bendy poles that screwed together. Some had separate bedrooms and covered extensions to sit out under. People were cooking elaborate meals on full gas ranges, while others were barbecuing or drinking wine at elegantly laid-out tables, complete with vivid tablecloths and proper cutlery. There was that smell of coffee and garlic wafting in the air, which made me excited about setting up camp and cooking our very first meal out in the open. Then DT got the tent out.

It wouldn’t come out at first and required me to hold on to the bottom of the bag while DT tugged it free. When he finally did so, it came out so suddenly that he went careering backwards and fell on his arse on top of a child’s beach ball, causing it to burst with quite a bang and the child, almost simultaneously, burst into tears. I went immediately to the rescue with my school French, which up until this point I had been fairly proud of.

‘Oh, je me remercie! Pardonnez nous! Nous acheterons un bal nouveau.’

I noticed the man opposite, who had hitherto been engrossed in his barbecue, begin to titter and mutter something into the tent. This brought his wife out, who stood and joined in, both openly staring and enjoying the scene. Then the child’s father came over, and I was off again.

‘Oh, je me remercie! Mon ami est un imb’cile! Pardonnez nous, s’il vous plaıt!’

‘Oh, it’s all right, love, he’s got another one. We thought you were the local theatre group, come to put on a bit of slapstick for us!’ And he laughed a big, fat-bellied, Barnsley laugh. Scooping up the bawling child, he made to leave, but as he passed the spilt contents of the tote bag, he dropped down on to his haunches and, turning over the wooden tent pegs and picking up the not insubstantial wooden mallet that was needed to knock them into the ground, he said, ‘Good God ! Where did you get this from? The Imperial War Museum?’ Another big-bellied laugh. ‘Eh, Maureen, come over here and have a look at this! Jesus! It’s like Camping Through the Ages. When was this last used? The Crimea?’

Secretly I was a bit miffed, but putting a brave face on it I joined in with the good humour, and DT and I started to erect the cause of the hilarity. It was made from extremely thick and heavy green canvas and, as we unfolded it, we noticed several mysterious brown stains and a couple of small holes, just to add to its allure, whilst every crease and fold was full of long-dead flies, spiders and cobwebs.

‘Oh! Brought your insect collection with you, have you?’

More laughter, and by now we had attracted a small audience. Putting the tent up then became an activity for the entire camp. The man opposite brought over his mallet and was knocking in the wooden tent pegs, while the Barnsley couple were trying to lay flat the filthy and extremely thin groundsheet, while laughing and marvelling at the age of the thing; it was not sewn in like today’s models, but simply attached to the main tent by a series of toggles and hooks. Finally it was up. We got out our primus stove and I heated up some frankfurters and beans, but every so often a little group would gather and watch us as if we were an exhibit. Going to fetch water in the green canvas bucket with the white rope handle had people fairly rushing from their tents to point and ‘ooh’ and laugh.

We had done well on the first leg of our journey to Dover, securing lifts easily, but when we got to Calais we waited hours for a lift that took us no distance at all, and had to wait some time again until a kindly French lorry driver stopped and took us all the way to Paris. He suggested that DT’s very long hair might be the cause of people’s reluctance to pick us up and if it was cut short we might have more luck. So it was a pretty clean-cut DT who stood on the roadside thumbing a lift to Poitiers the next day and there was a rubbish bin full of red curls on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne.

It was an idyllic holiday. Camping in amongst the cypress trees in the sand-blown site at Arcachon, the hot sun bringing out their clean, astringent scent, and sitting at the pavement cafe’s, sipping huge cups of milky coffee while we observed the passing folk, giving them histories and characters and relationships, passing judgement and laughing is set like crystal in my mind. Even taking into account the antiquated tent and the difficulty with rides - not to mention the Spanish lorry driver who offered us a lift from Arcachon to Calais on the way home and proceeded to molest me as I sat on the engine in the middle, between him and DT, something I tolerated in silence because the lift was so valuable but which I avenged with a quick, sharp knee to the balls in the car park at the ferry terminal while DT was in the lavatory - it set a joyous benchmark for every holiday that has followed since.

From the moment I started at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre, I felt as if I belonged. It was as if I had been struggling uphill in the wrong gear all my life. Now, everything made sense, everything connected and fitted together. However, I did have a little trouble staying awake in the History of Theatre classes, and I tended to dread and try to get out of the make-up classes, which I found a trial because I might have to remove the thick layers of mascara and black kohl eye make-up that I daubed on every morning after removing the previous day’s lot. This was always done in the privacy of the locked bathroom or, in the post-pubic days of Maple Avenue, in the kitchen, with DT under strict instructions to keep out. I hadn’t allowed a single person, except possibly my parents, and then very briefly, to see me devoid of eye make-up for about three years: in fact, from the moment I first started to wear it, when I realised the effect it had on my eyes, making them darker and larger. Without it I thought myself ugly in the extreme. I had, and of course have, tiny eyes; nowadays this rarely crosses my mind but back then we had just come out of the sixties and eyes simply had to be huge. Girls wanted to look like Twiggy, waiflike, flat-chested, stick-limbed, eyes wide with innocence, or more likely starvation, as not many young women had Twiggy’s natural skinniness. So my eye make-up started at my browbone and very nearly finished at my cheek, much in the style of Fenella Fielding, except without the wig. Every time we had a class I would suffer acute embarrassment if I just had to remove a little; I never removed the mascara and I only ever partially removed the kohl. One Sunday morning, in my second year, I was luxuriating in the bath, having washed my face free of probably several days’ worth of eye make-up, when the boyfriend of the girl from upstairs and his mates, having heard from DT that I was having a bath, started banging on the door and demanding to see what I looked like without my make-up.

‘Come on, let’s see you without your war paint!’

I can remember feeling quite sick at the thought of them witnessing the exposing ugliness of my bare face. I lay silently in the bath without moving a muscle, a flannel over my eyes, until they went away, long after the water had gone cold, and I blushed whenever I bumped into them afterwards.

This belief that I became acceptable and attractive to others only when I had emphasised my eyes with a black pencil line went on, but in a less and less extreme way as the years went by, until my thirties and it only stopped completely when I met my husband. It was largely cured, though, by having to be made up for filming. When I first started out, I would go into the make-up bus with a tiny line around my eyes and a very light scraping of mascara, thinking that the make-up artist would never notice, only to have it wiped off almost instantly and dismissed as a bit of ‘slap’ left on from the night before. So, of course, I would try a little less and then a little less still, until it just wasn’t worth it any more, and what a relief it was to finally accept the way I looked.

There are so many legendary tales about famous actors presenting themselves to be made up when already in full slap and I didn’t want to belong to this absurdly deluded band. There was one such story going the rounds about a famous opera singer who was playing a character who wore a wig and, during the course of the story, the wig was to be ripped off to comically reveal that he was really bald. The singer himself was actually bald and wore a full wig at all times to conceal the fact. It was such a sensitive issue that the wig maker for the opera was instructed never to allude to the fact that this man was wearing a wig and to treat him as if it was indeed his real hair. This meant that instead of using his own natural baldness, a bald cap had to be made to fit over his own personal wig and another wig, the one to be ripped off in the course of the action, had to be made to fit over that.

In the second year of make-up classes we turned to the making of Greek masks, which were composed of plaster of Paris. We were sent home with some of the necessary materials to practise making and applying it. Usually people made casts of their arms and legs, but I decided that DT’s penis might be a more interesting appendage to practise on and he, probably thinking it might perk up our sex life, but with a whiff of fear about him, agreed to it.

The first step in the procedure, in order to facilitate the easy removal of the plaster when dry, was to apply Vaseline and, as you might imagine, this also produced an effect that made the member more conducive to the application of the plaster. Once this was on, all we had to do was wait for it to dry. It looked marvellous and we were both thrilled, but probably for entirely different reasons. Some half an hour later, when it was nail-tapping dry, I gingerly began to try to slide it off, but this brought a huge scream from DT. I couldn’t understand it; I had slathered him with Vaseline, but on closer inspection it seemed that some of the hairs on his testicles were deeply embedded in the plaster of Paris.

I tried to get the kitchen scissors that I had been using in between the plaster and the bollocks, but they were too big - the scissors, that is, not the bollocks - although the bollocks were of a decent size, of course . . . And now I’m getting into very hot water. I then tried to employ a pair of nail clippers, but they were too cumbersome and the thought of them clipping his scrotum sent DT into a total panic.

‘We’ll have to go to hospital. They’ll have to cut it off!’

‘Isn’t that a bit drastic?’

‘What? . . . No! I mean cut the plaster off! This isn’t funny!’

He was now shouting and trying to pace around the room with his trousers round his ankles, holding the plaster cast in place so that it wouldn’t pull on his pubes any more than it already was doing. The thought of taking him to the hospital on the bus, trying to conceal this huge white erection protruding rudely from his trousers, was too much. As I watched him shuffle awkwardly back and forth, I had a terrible urge to laugh. The winding round of the plaster of Paris had made his member look almost twice its natural size and, as it was already sizeable, with his long curly hair and beard he resembled one of those little Greek statues that you can buy in tacky tourist shops, of tiny men with disproportionately large phalluses, which are supposed to be fertility symbols.

‘Don’t panic! Someone will have some nail scissors.’

‘Oh, Jesus.’

This howl of despair as he sank down in the armchair instantly turned into one of agony, the appendage having pulled at his testicles as it caught on the edge of the chair cushion.

‘I’ll go downstairs and see if they’ve got some nail scissors.’

DT didn’t say anything, he just looked at me as if to say, ‘Why did I ever listen to you?’

I went off to knock on the downstairs neighbour’s door. She was a trainee solicitor who lived by herself and I was never sure, with her neat and anal look, that she wasn’t the phantom pube collector.

‘Hello, I was just wondering if I could borrow a pair of nail scissors?’

‘Oh yes, of course.’ Great; with a small pair of scissors I should be able to get inside the cast and snip off the pubes. ‘Here you are.’ She produced a pair of clippers neatly placed on a folded paper handkerchief, a detail that was enough to convince me that she had to be the ‘phantom’.

‘Oh . . . no, actually I needed scissors, not clippers, sorry . . ..’

‘Oh, well, I’ve got scissors but . . . what’s it for?’

‘Oh, don’t worry . . . Well, it’s for trimming my boyfriend’s beard.’ She disappeared again and came back seconds later with a pair of long pointed hair scissors in a see-through plastic sheath. Oh well, slimmer than the kitchen scissors and better than nothing.

‘These are my best hair scissors and they can be used only for hair; anything else will blunt them.’

‘Oh, don’t worry, it will definitely just be the hair. Well, that’s what I’m hoping, anyway!’ She looked concerned. ‘No, no, no, I’m only joking, I’ll take great care of them. Thanks very much.’

When I re-entered the flat, brandishing what could be the answer to our prayers, DT’s hands, which had been holding his head, shot down to his groin.

‘You’ve got to be joking!’

‘Well, let’s just . . . give it a go.’

‘Oh God.’

It was fine; I managed to slip the scissors down between cast and scrotum, and snip the first pubes free, after which it was plain sailing. It was a perfect cast, coming away completely intact, except that the inside now sprouted several ginger pubic hairs, which simply wouldn’t detach.

‘I suppose it’s like having your name inside.’


DT wasn’t laughing, but I think he was pretty chuffed with it, as it took pride of place on the mantelpiece for some months, prompting admiring glances from female visitors as well as several male ones, come to think of it. When I went to place the scissors back in their sheath, I noticed one or two of his pubes were still attached to the blades. I removed them, but couldn’t resist leaving one. I then waited to see whether it would reappear under the door in a little envelope, but of course it never did.

In the summer holidays after my first year at college, I was working as a ward orderly at the General Hospital in Birmingham. I loved the job and had far greater success in it than I ever had in my original nursing role. This was largely because less was expected of me as an orderly and my nursing experience bumped me up above the others in terms of competence. So I shone, also because my confidence had been hugely boosted by my year at the polytechnic. My mother thought that I was staying in the nurses’ home at the General, whereas I was in fact renting a room with DT in Varna Road, a notorious street in the Birmingham red-light district called Bordsley Green.

One Sunday morning, Sunday, 23 July 1971 to be exact, I had come on duty, and was immediately summoned to the matron’s office.

‘Sit down, Miss Walters.’

A thin, weary and distracted-looking woman sat at the other side of the desk, fiddling with a ballpoint pen. I could think of no reason why I should have been summoned. Had someone made a complaint? Was I being made redundant? And then, just as I was thinking that maybe I had been found out in my lie to my parents about living in the nurses’ home:

‘Your father passed away last night. Your mother has been trying to contact you; she seemed to be under the impression that you were living here.’

I sat staring at her, aware that I still had the same half-smile on my face that I was wearing when I entered the room, only now it was immovable, a moment of innocent bewilderment frozen on my face, from the other part of my life. My parents . . . My parents . . . My parents think . . . No, no, no, my mother . . .? I couldn’t make the syntax of what she had said fit into any discernible or sensible order.

‘I presume you were expecting this?’ She was flicking the biro between thumb and forefinger so that it blurred like the propeller of a plane.

‘My d—’ I’d got it! Dad was dead; I’d got it now. A gunshot through the centre of my chest and I was still smiling the stupid smile. ‘Oh yes, yes, we were . . . expecting it.’

No we weren’t, no we weren’t! I stood up, and the smile started to shift with a series of muscular twitches in my cheeks.

‘Well, you’d better get off home to your mother, she’ll be needing you.’

Where had I heard this before? I wanted to say something to her, but my throat had closed, so I turned and left. Outside, in the long echoing Victorian corridor, where the endless cacophony of the hospital could swallow up every human sound imaginable, I let out a little trapped yelp of sorrow; the smile was gone and the tears came. My Auntie Clare, my mum’s sister-in-law, picked me up from the hospital and, driving the wrong way round the one-way system in Birmingham city centre, dropped me, surprisingly without incident, at the flat of my brother Kevin. As soon as we looked at each other in the hallway, his face became a mask of silent pain to which he gave vent in the privacy of his bedroom. We raced home, to 69 Bishopton Road, in Kevin’s Mini van, the two of us in a fog of feeling that neither could express, and then suddenly my brother went flying headlong into the back of the car in front. The driver got out, shocked and furious, and began to shout and swear at my brother.

I immediately jumped from the car and screamed at the man: ‘You leave my brother alone, our dad’s just died, we’ve got to get home!’

He didn’t say another word, even apologising for an accident for which he was in no way responsible.

I was anxious about seeing my mother. How was I to make sense of her without my father? I was almost expecting to see a piece of her physically missing. She was sitting in one of the easy chairs in the kitchen, bunches of newspaper crackling beneath its thin foam cushion. She looked up as I came in, her face bright red and tear-stained, helpless with grief.

‘We were five and now we’re only four.’

She looked smaller and strangely childlike. Several neighbours were standing round including the one who had comforted me when she thought I had failed the eleven-plus but was pissed off when I announced that I had in fact passed it. Now she took me to one side and said in a confidential tone, ‘You’ll have to keep an eye on your mum, you know, she’s suffering. I mean, I’m sure she’ll be all right ... She never was erotic.’


‘Your mum, she was never an erotic woman. She’s always been very stable.’

After my small release in the hospital corridor, I didn’t cry again until the funeral a week or so later. I had felt oddly numb, possibly because my mother was so upset and I felt I needed to be strong, but sitting in St Gregory’s church, waiting for the funeral service to start, I spotted two little blonde girls walking up the centre aisle. They must have been about four and six. I could see them only from the back, I didn’t know who they were, and yet my heart broke.

In the days that followed we started to sort out some of my father’s belongings. On going through his filing cabinet, I found a lock of my hair from years ago when it was blonde and a diary from when I was fourteen. It was full of random, mundane facts like: ‘Went to school’ and ‘Hockey practice’ and ‘Spot on chin’ in a childish scrawl, and then I found ten Park Drive tipped. I took them out into the yard and stamped on them over and over, snot and tears flying this way and that as I screamed down at them, ‘You bastards! You bloody, fucking bastards!’

My mum rushed to the back door with a rolling pin in her hand and flour on her chin.

‘Julie! What on earth are you doing?’

Now I was down on my haunches, the battered fag packet in my hand.

‘I’m just so angry about these bloody things.’

‘Well, there’s no point talking like that now, your father’s gone.’

I threw them down and stamped one last time. I then crouched down again and, with my chin resting on my knees, I said in a small voice to myself, ‘Thank God I’m a grown-up, thank God he died now and not when I was a child.’

A few weeks later the woman who had referred to my mother as ‘erotic’ came up to me in the street, and said, in the same confidential tone that she’d used on the day of the funeral, ‘How is she?’

‘Oh, she’s doing all right.’

‘Good. She needs to eat more, you know.’ This woman, incidentally, was enormous. ‘I saw her yesterday, she’s starting to look emancipated.’

My mum did do all right. In fact you could say that, in some ways, she eventually flowered after my father’s death. She started going out more, attending a night school to learn French, and asking me on one occasion whether I’d like to put my feet up and have a coup d’etat, thinking she was offering me a cup of tea. She began to take the foreign holidays she had yearned for all her life, my father having had no interest. One of the first of these was a trip to Lourdes that was organised by the church. She came back with conjunctivitis and was most put out when we suggested that she might have contracted it from the holy waters, citing very forcibly the air-conditioning on the coach as the obvious cause. She seemed to worry less and when after some time I asked her whether she would ever consider marrying again - after all, she was only fifty-six when Dad died - she said, ‘Good Gad, no. Why should I spend my old age running round clearing up after some old man?’

She died in 1989. I stood in a field and screamed at a pale sky until my voice went ragged, ‘Where are you? Where . . .?’

I had driven back from my brother’s house in Birmingham a couple of days after the funeral, berating my new Mini for having so little power, only to discover that I had driven the entire journey home with the handbrake on. I stood in that field at the back of our house in Sussex, a house that she had never been to. We had just moved in and she had said that she would wait until the days got longer and lighter to visit us. I stood in that field until the pale sky went black, hoping for a sign, a sign that this incredible energy that was my mother was still in the world, unable to comprehend how her huge presence and extraordinary drive, without which I would now probably be languishing in a job for which I had no heart, were no longer here.

The love between us was prickly and fierce, combative and competitive, but I never doubted its power. The mourning of her was hard and painful, and some of it was carried out in public. In the West End stage production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune later that year, the character of Frankie, whom I played opposite Brian Cox’s Johnny, has a very moving speech about her mother towards the end of the piece, and every night I cried for the loss of my own mother as I spoke the lines. And again the following year, I was allowed to mourn her further, in Peter Hall’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, through the character of Serafina, who continually cries for a sign from her dead husband.

The mourning continues to this day, but now it is softened by a bit of understanding of what it is to be a mum and, of course, it has mellowed with age. I no longer look for signs as once I did; there is no need. They are everywhere.

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