Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Edinburgh Pony.

It's around five am and David and I are listening to the back catalogue of his favourite songs from the beginning of time to the almost present day (mid 90's).
'And of course this one,' he says. 'From A Star is Born.'
'Judy Garland.'
'Oh. Never seen it.'
There's an unwanted pregnancy of a pause.
'What the fuck are you saying to me?'
I glance up nervously.
'I – I've never seen it.'
He stares at me balefully.
'You are the shittest fag hag ever. I'm telling Christeene.'
Ah, Christeene.
I had been introduced to the way of life that is Christeene a few months previously via the gift of youtube. David and John are producing her show and David sent me a link which I clicked on as I sipped my first coffee of the day. Five minutes later I finally blinked and wondered whether I was crying tears or blood.
I won't spoil the experience for you. Look her up. I recommend 'Fix My Dick' for your first viewing experience. Better still though would be to see her live as I did some hours before the 'shittest fag hag' recriminations.
Initially she looks a little like the love child of Marilyn Manson and a crack whore but she grows on you alarmingly quickly and before long you'll see that she has a strange and compelling beauty. She is the most seductive creature. It's impossible not to fall for her. You'd have to be dead inside. A word to the wise though, do not under any circumstances accept the balloons she offers you during the show.
Let her in and she'll teach you how to release your inner pony, the courage that keeps you from safe places, the one that lives in your gut, wild and untameable.
After the show we met and were left alone for a couple of hours to chat, smoke and drink. As I stared in to her electric blue contact lenses I fell a little in love. I plan to be her life long friend irrespective of any feelings she may have on the subject. The great thing about obsession is that it focuses you.
I'm at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a few days, the guest of David and John, two friends and Producers who are the just about the most fun as you can have with or without lashings of vodka. And there is always vodka. They have that wonderful gift of making you feel treasured. As I type this John has emptied my ashtray and placed a bowl of cheesy biscuits within easy reach, right next to my gin.
It's lovely being a bit part player in their world of shows and drinks and anecdotes. They have five acts on in conjunction with Soho Theatre, all of which I've seen and enjoyed immensely. David tells me that some years ago they had twenty five acts on simultaneously and it was madness.
It's my first time here and I'm aware that I've been spoiled horribly and for ever more. I don't pay to see anything and I have a number of plastic passes to get in various places. There is always a drink in my hand and a cigarette at regulation height.
Every time I try to pay for something John tells me to 'Put your cash away, we might need it later.' Later has never arrived.
The first show they took me to was Fascinating Aida. I've been a fan of Dillie and Adele since I was sixteen and first saw them perform on Hysteria (A show that David produced, serendipity's a sneaky minx) They are two of the greatest comic lyricists and like all clever people they make it look effortless. Watching the trio perform together is hilarious and nostalgic. I had the pleasure of finally meeting them after the show and barged in with my camera demanding a picture before they'd barely had a sip of wine. It's what you do isn't it. Despite the self loathing.
I'd tell you about Kim Noble's show 'You're Not Alone' but I'm still a bit speechless really. There's a moment where you see some footage of his elderly father. Kim has gone to visit him in his care home and he sees his son and says; 'Kim, Kim, my blessed boy.' With everything that comes before and after it just makes you cry. There are also bits that make you want to claw your way through the wall behind you to get away.
I'm aware that I haven't a bad word to say about anyone or anything, I'd make a terrible critic, thank fuck. If you ever have the opportunity to see his show, go. Cancel all your plans and go. Once seen it can't be unseen which is both a curse and a blessing. He won an award. So did Christeene. Though hers was a brick with a plaque on it which she's rightly concerned about taking through customs; “I'm gonna give it to Soho Theatre and get them to ship that fucker to me.”
I haven't been properly sober for at least two days.
Everyone I've met is either in a show or working on a show and I have had the luxury of absolutely no responsibility. The most taxing activity has been putting the kettle on.
The days are long and fizzing with excitement. The drinks are relentless and I can't tire of it.
John tells great anecdotes and it has become second nature to roll a cigarette and share it with him because apparently he doesn't smoke anymore. I'll be passing my cigarette to thin air for days to come.
The two of them have known each other forever which is evident in their banter. We were in a taxi yesterday and in response to some quip of John's, David said:
'If I die young you'll be sorry you said that.'
John raised an eyebrow.
'David, we're too old to die young.'
They both sit there giggling for the next two minutes.
But one of the nicest things is lounging opposite David at five am as he plays me songs whilst scrolling through his endless emails, which never stop, not even at half six when I finally drag myself off to bed. John who lies down, closes his eyes and sleeps immediately, dreamlessly and for up to nine hours, staggered through last night for a piss and just rolled his eyes.
'Go to bed for fuck's sake.'
David doesn't seem to require sleep. From what I can gather he takes a restorative nap between about seven and ten before starting all over again.
He wakes me at eleven with a cup of tea and tells me to get up because 'we're going for a lovely lunch somewhere proper'. He's full of beans and I'm bouncing off the walls so it takes me a moment to realise the soundtrack to 'A Star is Born' is playing loudly and pointedly just outside my door.
As I sit on the train heading back south a montage of the last few days shimmer around my head.
Christeene talking about the secrets kids tell each other in the woods, where no grown ups are allowed to go. Kim riding in to the night on the back of a white horse, wearing a sparkling red evening gown. Dillie rolling her eyes as she explains the finer points of dogging. Adele's perfect red lipstick and warm smile. A puppet of Gabriel Byrne telling fellas that it's okay to fuck fellas. David roaring with laughter. John handing me yet another margarita as the rain thunders down. And I think of that pony in the gut, wild and untameable.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Night Blooming Cereus

I sit and watch as she removes a pint glass from the cupboard and places it on the side. She is telling me about a mutual acquaintance that I have asked after, a woman who was a terrible snob and never had a relationship that we know of in her entire life. She walks to the freezer and removes a tray of ice which she bangs out and in to the sink.
'I think she had a boyfriend when she was fifteen or so but he turned her over for someone else and she swore off men after that.'
'How old is she now?'
'Must be in her seventies,' she says in her smooth Judi Dench timbre.
She refills the tray and puts it back in to the freezer before pulling out a bottle of ginger ale which she opens and places next to the glass now half full of ice.
'How sad,' I say.
She moves over to another cupboard and pulls out a bottle of Teachers Whiskey. I watch as she unscrews the lid, feels for the rim of the glass and proceeds to fill it to the three quarter mark. She then adds a dash of ginger. A flourish.
'What did you say?'
'I said it's sad.'
'Mmm. Can you imagine going to your grave without a single fuck? Awful,' she says and sips her drink.

And that's the best way I can think of to introduce you to my ninety seven year old grandmother.
It's odd to call her that, I've never done so really. To me she has always been 'Mutti' which is German for mummy. The reason we call her this is one of about 250 interesting stories I could tell you about Mutti. More probably.
Writing about her is like trying to count grains of sand.
She is my fathers mother and she was born in Norfolk but for the past forty years has lived in Spain in a villa that she designed. In between those two places she has lived in the Maldives, Bahamas, Mexico, America, Canada, Saudi, Madras, China....the list goes on. She is a teacher and her IQ is 183. When I was about seven she made me promise that if she ever went senile and had no idea what she was doing I would bring her back to the UK - “Because I assure you I would have to be completely insane before I'd agree to move back there” - That hasn't happened and it's quite obvious to me now that it never will. But old age is crafty and wicked in other ways. She has cataracts in her beautiful blue goat like eyes. She's had laser surgery twice in the last five years but within six months her sight went from perfect back to blurred. The doctor sighed and said; 'I'm sorry but your eyes are over ninety years old, they're just not supposed to last that long.' And so she continues to do her cryptic crosswords with a giant magnifying glass but she can no longer write me letters which is a great loss to me. For the past thirty five years I have frequently felt a skip of excitement at the sight of one of her white envelopes with the small gold sticker on the back containing her address and a little black palm tree.
And now she is going deaf. She finds it so frustrating that she often responds to something I've said with; FUCCCCKKKKKK! Say it again!
She's going for a hearing test though and we hope that maybe with hearing aids her ears will hold out a bit longer. The downside of retiring to a foreign country is that nothing is free.
Those two problems aside she is otherwise remarkably sprightly. I watch her bend over, pick up one of her dogs and throw her on the sofa.
'She has arthritis, poor thing,' she says before sitting herself cross legged on the chair next to her.
Over the years I have brought a number of friends to visit Mutti and some have returned independently referring to it as a 'pilgrimage to Mutti'. She remembers them all and recalls details about them that I have long since forgotten.
She loves being read to and when I was younger I'd often read an entire book to her over the course of a weekend. Yesterday I sat next to her on the sofa with my mac on my lap and one arm around her shoulder and screamed the first two chapters of my book in to her 'good' ear. Today I'll arm myself with a pint of water and scream the next two chapters too. Because, as she quite rightly says, we shall not be defeated. She runs her hands over my tattoos like they're brail.
I have a terrible filing system in my head where memories and events are stored. I can't remember a lot of things and I certainly couldn't give you dates or years. But I have a shockingly good memory for words and can usually recount a conversation I had years ago with great accuracy. I've inherited this from Mutti and whilst she can now only read with the aid of a magnifying glass and a blinding light she frequently quotes things to me with word perfect precision.
We were having our early evening lifter when she said;
'Do you remember this one; “I sit beside my lonely fire and pray for wisdom yet: For calmness to remember or courage to forget.”
Mutti gave me a notebook when I was four in which she had written out some quotes and poems she liked or had written. She told me she had always kept these notebooks and I should do so too. That every time I read or heard something I loved I should copy it in to the book. I have six now.
'Yes, of course I remember,' I said.
'I choose courage,' she said. 'There's no point remembering the things you can't change. Do you still keep notebooks?'
'Yes, but I've started transferring them to my skin now.'
'And why not,' she laughs.
We talk about her adventures and my hopes and hours pass.
'What's that flower out on the patio?' I ask.
'What colour is it?'
'Hibiscus,' she says. 'It's the flower of Hawaii.'
'It's beautiful.'
'Did I ever tell you about my Night Blooming Cereus?' She asks.
'I found it whilst I was living in the Bahamas. It's a cactus flower, white, very beautiful. I'd always wanted one. I planted it in the garden. They only bloom for one night a year. When that night came around I would always have a great party, lots of people would come, the press too, and we would get drunk and watch it unfurl. It's extraordinary to watch a flower unfurl its petals, you don't normally catch them at it.'
Mutti has witnessed a revolution and watched friends killed in front of her. She has escaped an island under gun fire. She has hung on to a rope ladder underneath a helicopter as it flew her to safety. She's met the Dalai lama and knitted clothes for the children he walked to safety from Tibet. She taught Omar Sharif English. She has literally sat in the eye of a hurricane (Betsy) then watched it tear the edge of an island in to the sea. She has outlived two of her children. She has eaten goats eyes and bollocks. She survived a brain tumour and taught herself to speak again. She has spoken eleven languages fluently. She set up the first educational system in the Maldives. She has travelled over dodgy borders with her jewellery hidden in her bra. She has had thirty eight trashy romances published, each one written over a weekend when she needed a bit of cash. She saved a child's life. She was in a spitfire that crashed in to a field. She saw Judi Dench play Juliet when she was sixteen and remarked that the girl had a future. She's seen Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix play live. She had the courage to leave her husband at the age of forty during a time when the law was against her and go on to travel every corner of the world.
Yesterday afternoon she asked me to climb a ladder and fetch a folder out of one of her cupboards. I did as asked and handed it down to her, brushing the spiders that hadn't managed to escape off the cover. She pulled out a yellowing manuscript and handed it to me.
'That's my autobiography,' she said. 'You can have it if you like.'

Sunday, 16 March 2014


I am sat in the garden, sipping a drink, watching my seventy year old mother rip trees up by the root. There's a huge silver birch in the corner that she says is the result of a bird crapping seeds.
'A lot of the plants and flowers come because of the birds crapping seeds,' she says.
I nod and continue to do absolutely nothing whilst she wrestles with a particularly gnarly looking weed.
Anything that woman touches grows beyond all expectations. My siblings and I are a testament to that. She's only five foot. We all tower over her. It's not that she has green fingers. It's that she's a witch. I'm convinced of it.
She never learned anything about gardening and she doesn't come from a family of gardeners but I see her tear bits off plants ('They are called “cuttings” darlinkk.' She rolls her eyes.) and shove them in a pot and in the blinking of an eye there's a flourishing thing.
When she was a carer she looked after an old man who had been a well known botanist. He had spent a large portion of his life travelling the world in search of rare or undiscovered orchids. He had two in his room that he had never managed to get to bloom outside of their habitat. He gave them to mum and asked her if she'd like to have a go. She brought them home with four pages of densely written notes suggesting optimum temperatures, how to drip feed them water and where to place them. Mum shoved them in a pot, poured a cup of water over them and left them on the window sill. A few days later a white and a purple orchid stood to terrified attention under her appraising glare. Witch.
I remind her of the story and she pulls off her rubber gloves, sits down and lights a cigarette.
'His name was Wilde,' she says. 'I have a newspaper article about him somewhere under the bed.'
She thinks for a moment and I can feel myself itching to pick up a notebook and pen.
Daniel Kitson said he once watched a boy in the park running in to the sun and thought the moment so perfect and beautiful he couldn't wait to tell his audience when on stage that night. His next thought was that he was a monster. What kind of person has barely experienced a moment before filing it under anecdote? Writer's, that's who.
'He was a lovely man,' she says. 'He really, really loved his wife. She was so beautiful. She came to the home before him. She'd had a stroke. He came to visit every day. He would be there when she woke up and he wouldn't leave until she was peacefully asleep.'
She's a natural storyteller. She sets the scene and I am already picturing it, wondering how they met, how long they were together.
'She had a balcony that lead out to the communal garden. There was a little hillock outside. I found him out there one day on his hands and knees digging the whole thing up. “You'll get in trouble,” I told him. He smiled. “I pay enough.” He planted the whole thing with the most incredible flowers for her. She would sit and look at it for hours. One night I was in the kitchen and he came in, it was quite late, and he said “She's sleeping peacefully.” He sat at the table and I made him some tea and a sandwich. On my way past her room I stuck my head in to check on her. She had passed away. I went back to the kitchen to find him staring at his cup. I sat down beside him and held his hand. “She is sleeping very peacefully ins't she,” I said. He nodded, smiled. He came to live with us after that. And on the night he died his daughter came in to the kitchen and said “He's sleeping peacefully.” And I thought; Bloody hell. I told her, I said; “That's exactly what your father said when your mother died. She nodded, smiled.'
I sit in the sun thinking about Mr Wilde whilst mum disappears inside. She returns twenty minutes later with her hair on end.
'I've been to hell and back under that bed!' She says.
She's tiny and I have this image of her climbing under the bed and entering a whole other dark world, like Dante's inferno, but with a head torch on. I start giggling.
'I had things balanced on my head and I got stuck and I still didn't find the article about him. But I found this.'
She hands me a newspaper clipping. There's a photo of me on stage aged sixteen wearing a St Trinian's school girl uniform and brandishing a crutch in an amateur production of 'Daisy pulls It Off!' at The Bishopstoke Players. I read the review delighted to see that my friend, Lucy, and I stole the show as Sybil Burlington (snob and rake) and Trixie Martin (mad cap and poet of the upper fourth). Lucy played the villain of the piece, haughty and humorously dry. And I played the overly keen, bumbling and terribly posh jolly hockey sticks character. I think about how Lucy and I interact more than twenty years later and realise that when we're messing about we pretty much still play those characters. An example would be a conversation we had a few weeks ago when I was terribly hungover after a works party and had the horrors about my behaviour.
Lucy: Well how bad was it?
Me: I was very drunk. Staggering about the place. Fell asleep stood up.
Lucy: Oh darling, that's nothing. I've done worse. Without leaving the house.
Me: But -
Lucy: Have an ice lolly, you'll feel better.
Me: I dare say you're right.
I think about Lucy and how much she has made me laugh over the years. Not least because of her horrific singing voice. I swear one verse of I Could Have Danced All Night sung at volume by Lucy could drag even the most determined depressive out of a slump. 
The people I love most in my life have one thing in common; they are all singularly hilarious.
In the film As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson states that 'People who use metaphors should shampoo my crotch'. I know what he means but can't help myself. 
My mum plants cuttings and over the years trees grow in their place. The seeds of my friendships have done much the same. Water for one, laughter for the other. Everything good flourishes doesn't it.