The Promise of a Garden

SO HERE we are in high summer. A baking hot July day, with the neighbourhood children going wild with excitement, as they launch themselves madly into a paddling pool – and even my resident frog is finding it a wee bit too warm to sun himself, as he usually does, on the little tiles at the side of his pond. Today he sits wisely in the shade, and occasionally dives into the water, leaving just his little beaky head peeking out, to see what’s going on in his immediate surrounds. The glorious poppies in the picture above, bloomed briefly and magically in late May, then were blown to smithereens by rain and wind and cold. Well, this is England. Full of weird contradictions – in government, in the people, and even in the weather itself. But on we go.

T’ai Chi and the path of peace

I never would have thought, in spring 2020, when we first went into lockdown because of Covid19, that I would be teaching all my T’ai Chi and Chi Kung classes online within a few months – and that a hitherto unknown and uninteresting (to me) platform called Zoom, would be my only means of connecting with all the students who longed, like me, to continue stepping quietly through the world, via the flowing sequences of this lovely Chinese movement practise. It was, however, a life line, and I have only just finished a long few months of Zoom teaching, that started properly in September 2020, and ended in mid July 2021.

Judging by the new wave of Covid infections sweeping the UK, I feel it will not be the last of these curious – but strangely peaceful – online sessions. And I have already booked in some dates for the autumn. (See my Breathing Space page)

Finding our way back to each other

Teaching T’ai Chi/Chi Kung at Slung Low’s Wild Conference, Temple Newsam, Leeds, Summer 2019

Still, how I long to be in a big group of people – outdoors or indoors – and teaching them the magic of T’ai Chi, stepping with them quietly and steadily, feeling the sense of communal power and connection. The last time this happened on a large scale was at the Wild Conference in 2019, organised by the mighty Slung Low Theatre company in Leeds: a big celebration of the arts, of conversation, of movement, dance, music, theatre. (And with lots of colourful waving flags!) Moving as one body, on a high green hillside on the Temple Newsam Estate, in the early morning, is a joyful memory that stays with me still.

And yes, slowly, we are finding our way back to one another. I made my first tentative steps into the studio at the beginning of July. Masks on, hand sanitisers at the ready. But nonetheless, a physical connection. Real people. In real time. In a three dimensional space. Strangely disorientating, and tiring. But deeply reassuring.

And the beat goes on

Outside Leeds Playhouse, July 2021. Standing between posters for the new show.

Tomorrow sees another big leap forward. Rehearsals begin at Leeds Playhouse for The Promise of a Garden, directed by Alan Lyddiard and devised and performed by the Performance Ensemble. How I love this maverick company – made up exclusively of older performers, story tellers, dancers, writers, space scientists, teachers and much, much more… This large scale, new production – twice cancelled because of Covid – is, as its title suggests, all about the garden, and everything that it means to people, on a physical and metaphorical level. Yes, there will be T’ai Chi in it! And dance. And deeply personal human stories, soulful music, and a big colourful set.

The Performance Ensemble celebrates all life, the dark and the light, from beginning to end. As the Chinese saying has it: “When a human being is born, there is a ripple on a still pond. We go on our journey and when our life is over, there is another ripple on the pond, and the spirit returns.”

Live theatre has had it particularly tough during the pandemic. It is still in a precarious state. And who knows whether Covid will leave our company completely alone, to bring our magical dream of a garden to full fruition this time? But we must step forward somehow. And, as a garden lover and maker myself, I can think of no better way of doing so, than through the medium of flowers and trees, through the seasons of winter, and on into spring and summer and new growth. From night into the light. Nature has all the answers: if we listen, tread carefully, and dare to be bright and bold as those poppies; to flourish again – and again, despite all the odds. This, after all, is the promise of a garden.

The Promise of a Garden will be performed at Leeds Playhouse, from 18- 21 August 2021. Tickets can be booked here.

Crossing Borders, Human Stories

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The Performance Ensemble, September 2019. Photo: Mike Pinches

Theatre of Dreams

For many years I have worked at Leeds Playhouse, on its flagship creative engagement programme called Heydays, designed specifically for older participants. It happens every Wednesday, when the elders of Leeds descend, mob handed, on the theatre, and proceed to take it over for the day, with art classes, creative writing, drama, singing and dance.

Often, my classes in creative writing used to take place in a downstairs space. We would finish on the dot of noon, and, always waiting outside the door, patient and polite, was a man called Alan Lyddiard.  It turned out that he was a theatre director and was running the drama session that followed on immediately from mine. Week after week this happened. We were friendly but reserved. There was work to do, and as I retreated, he would advance.

Then I went to see a theatre piece that he had directed, called ‘Dancehall of Dreams’, in which a non-professional cast sang and spoke and danced the personal stories of their lives. It was moving and compelling. My interest was piqued. Soon after, Alan picked up an anthology of writing that I had produced with my Heydays writers, called ‘Being Human’. Ordinary lives reflected in words – everyday people, writing exceptional things. “You are doing the same work as me,” he pronounced, and our friendship began.

Year on year, our paths continued to cross. He would disappear, to pursue his international theatre connections, and then re-appear for the summer term, to bring some of his maverick magic back to the Playhouse. A loose-layered company began to form, called the Performance Ensemble. The productions became more polished and frequent.

Alan had run a company of actors in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 1992 to 2005, called Northern Stage. He believed in the East European method of working: a close knit community of players forging ever closer links of trust and expertise. Now he was bringing this ethos to Leeds, and, as an older artist himself, his current passion was to champion the voice and presence of the older performer.

Art with the Experience of Age

To be in the Performance Ensemble, you had to be over 60. Not necessarily a professional actor – but someone with something to say, and the commitment with which to say it well. Art with the experience of age – this was his heartfelt manifesto. I remembered a theatre I had worked in, years ago, in the heart of the Hungarian countryside, where a group of people lived, worked, played together, to make theatre of great honesty and power.

I had been looking for that kind of experience ever since – but had found only the fractured freelance world of the western market economy, ubiquitous, not just in the world of commerce, but in the theatre world too. Everything for profit –  and everything contingent on Arts Council funding, or private sponsorship: keeping the performers themselves permanently disconnected from each other, and insecure in themselves. How can good art be made, when cash itself is king? I admired Alan for swimming against the tide. And I felt myself, increasingly, swimming that way too.

Paying Attention, Staying Curious

One morning, in summer 2019, the phone rang. It was Alan. I had done some work for him the previous year, for a production called ‘Bus Ride’, which celebrated the journeys of older performers – in life, and on busses too – and this was the opening salvo for a five year project, leading up to a city-wide arts extravaganza in 2023. He had been given some funding to proceed. He wanted new people to join the Ensemble, and he wanted me to be one of them. Was I interested? I was.

There is a remarkable nineteenth century artist called Hokusai. He is famous world wide for his print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a magnificent rendering of the sea in movement. But he was much more prodigious and diverse in his talent than this one – startlingly beautiful – image might suggest. He worked at his art from youth to old age (he died several months after he turned ninety), and his art continued to deepen and evolve, year on year, decade after decade.

At the beginning, his interest was in people, and he drew them with a fierce and tender honesty: focussing his attention on working people’s lives, for he came from humble origins, and he never forgot his roots. The tumbling array of portraits flowed from his pen as freely as ink – and are thought to be the origin of the modern day Japanese Manga comic books.

But, as time went by, Hokusai turned more and more towards the natural world. The immutable power of sky and sea, and the prevailing grandeur of Mount Fuji, consumed him in his later years.

His art became ever more sophisticated, ever more lively, the older he became. It was as if the spirit of life itself – the animus that drives the universe – were channelling itself through his tireless hand and brush. I love Hokusai’s paintings very much. But more than that, I am inspired by his philosophy.

Roger Keyes, an art historian and curator of Japanese art, has devoted much time and effort into archiving Hokusai’s great body of work. He has written poetically about it, too, in a striking piece called ‘Hokusai Says’. This poem is like a call to attention to all those who are growing older, and who – like me – sometimes falter and lose heart. Here are the opening lines:

“Hokusai says look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says look forward to getting old.

He says keep changing,

you just get more who you really are.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Love, feel, let life take you by the hand

Let life live through you.”

(Hokusai says/Roger Keyes)

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David Hamilton rehearses with the Performance Ensemble, February 2020.

One Week in September

So, one strange, intense week in September 2019, a wraggle taggle group of men and women came together in a large warehouse-style room, where loose wires hung from the ceiling, and old tiles hung loose and abandoned, and started to form a theatre group. No mean task.

Whilst some of us worked professionally, as writers, dancers, musicians or choreographers, most of the people present were none of those things. They may never have done a dance class, never sung a note, except in the bath, never written creatively since they left school to start their long and varied lives of work. Each of us came carrying legacies of  injury or illness: this was a group of older players, and there were certainly wounds and scars, both physical, and of the mind and heart, engraved upon us all.

Two people walked with sticks – a third came through the door bearing a huge boot on one leg, to protect a recently broken ankle. We were not the usual crowd, to be found on Day One of rehearsals. But still, we set to work. In a full-on schedule of dance, movement, speech and song, we started to gather material for a final day’s sharing with people from the theatre industry. The raw material was us. No playscript, or list of prescribed criteria. But real lives, re-examined in the context of a theatre space. Art with the experience of age.

Breathless Whirl of Movement and Music

With customary lack of restraint or self preservation, I threw myself into the process, right from the start. It was all or nothing, as far as I was concerned. I chose all. We took a dance class every morning – and it was the first time I had danced like this for a long, long time. The exhilaration it sparked was immediate. It threw me back to dance college days, thirty years before: the breathless whirl of movement and music, exhorting the spirit – and the body – to climb higher and higher.

The Performance Ensemble successfully completed its inaugural week. Nobody fell over. Nobody died. Everybody became increasingly animated, confident and committed, as the project progressed. There is now a regular company, increased funding, and rehearsals are in full flow for a new and bigger production. Hope over adversity. Tenacity. And the courage to have a dream.

Slow Walking into the Future

Every morning, during company class, director Alan Lyddiard leads something called Slow Walking. Meditative and solemn, silent and composed, the walking prepares each participant for work . It builds confidence and calm and determination. “This is me. I am here. I am fine.”

We sit on a long row of chairs, eyes closed, hands folded over our thighs, head held high, body in balance. The music begins. Slowly, our eyes open. We stand, one by one, walk forwards, pause, look back to where we started. We turn, step back towards the chair – to safety and to stillness. But no. We can’t go back. No one can go back, because time takes us ever onwards.

So we turn again to the future, and continue to travel forward. One arm lifts. We watch it, with a kind of dispassionate curiosity, then we let it fall. Why? Who knows? Not everything happens for a reason. The music stops. Silence. Whispered words echo around the room. “I wish” and “I remember”. And so it begins.

Searching for Profound Harmony

In the 1930s, a remarkable and reclusive woman called Nan Shepherd started walking through the Cairngorms, close to where she lived. Unlike the ego driven male mountaineers, she had no wish to dominate or conquer the landscape: she merely wished to live in it, and to learn the secrets of nature and the wild living world. She wrote notes about her experiences, which, years after her death, were published, in a beautiful book called ‘The Living Mountain’.

The transcendent feelings she describes, of being at one with her surroundings – and with herself – come close to evoking the sense of communion that Slow Walking, at its best, can provide. She writes: “It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony, deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.   (The Living Mountain, page 106/Nan Shepherd/Canongate).

Crossing the Borders of our Imagination

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The Performance Ensemble rises again on February 21st, 2020, with a performance in Leeds, England, called ‘Crossing’. Here is some of the production’s content – and here, too, our manifesto. If you are able to join us – as audience member, or potential future participant, you would be very welcome indeed.

‘Crossing’: a work in progress

A man crosses the mountains from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He leaves behind everything he loves in order to be free. “Take a last look at your country…” A woman travels from Hong Kong to England: her whole life becomes the food she cooks and sells in her take away cafe in Leeds. A boy steals a toy car from the local shop. Consumed by guilt, he goes back the next day, and returns it to the shelf. An English girl falls in love with a Hungarian boy. There is a wall between them – the Berlin Wall. When the wall falls, their love is finished. Difficult births. Divorce. Heartbreak. Death. New beginnings. Always another chance. Many languages, countries, cultures: and in the middle of it all – ordinary people, with extraordinary tales to tell. These are the moments of our lives: moments of meaning and change. Come with us, in Crossing, across the border, to explore in music, dance, words and silence, what it means to be human in our  troubled contemporary world.

The Performance Ensemble: Towards a Manifesto

We are a company of older performers. Some of us are writers, dancers, musicians, actors; others are teachers, scientists, social workers, probation officers. We bring to this work a wide range of skills and expertise, and lives that are full of meaning and intent. We aim to share these rich lives with our audiences, through dance, song, and the spoken word. Everyone has a story to tell – and here are some of ours. The Ensemble collaborates closely together, through weekly classes and intensive rehearsals, to create multi-layered performances, based on the authentic, lived experiences of each individual member. All are equal, and equally valued. It is our aim and ambition to work together long into the future, building trust and confidence: making a community of players, in which everyone has a respected and honoured place. Our current project, ‘Bus Pass’, is a series of different performances, culminating in an epic outdoor happening, featuring one thousand older performers, as part of the Leeds 2023 celebrations. Whilst there is a core group of committed ensemble members, we constantly spread our net more widely, too, both in and around the communities of Leeds, to include as many older people as possible in the projects we are building. We also invite international artists to join us in our work. All of us – older or not – remain full of vibrant energy, reflection and insight. Full of generous ambition, full of hope.

You can book tickets here:

Visit our website here:

Some of the material in this blog has been taken from a manuscript in progress for my new book about the body: ‘Wild Goose Flying’. Watch this space for more extracts.

The information about ‘Crossing’ at the end is included in the programme notes for the performance.

 

 

 

Passport to Freedom

18FE677C-3F24-438E-BC8F-DAF158E25AAFSzabadság Híd – Liberty Bridge – Budapest.

Snowfall on Budapest, 1988

THE SNOW was thick on the ground, and the airport terminus lay hidden in grey fog. There was no one around, except for the occasional soldier, gun bulging at his hip, an inscrutable expression on his face. She went through customs without being stopped. Just as well, because her suitcase was full of Irish whiskey, which the Hungarians loved, but couldn’t get their hands on, behind the Iron Curtain.

Budapest was empty too, except for faded yellow trams – and the jaded glow of a red star on top of the government buildings. When they got on the train to go south, perching in tiny carriages, on cold seats of green leather, she could see nothing out of the window, except for  fat icicles, hanging from trees, half submerged in the deepening mist. Already she loved this place. It felt strange. It felt like home.

Kaposvár Theatre

The actors were so friendly. None of them spoke English, and she spoke no Hungarian, but they got by with sign language. And the whiskey and pálinka soon loosened their tongues. The company had worked together for years. They lived in a tight knit community – the actors’ flats just across the road from the theatre – and they spent all their free time in the subterranean bar, playing cards, gossiping and drinking.

The work they did on stage was astonishing. Such courage. Such physical bravura. And in every play, a hidden subversion, reaching out to their audience to give a message of liberty, when open dissent was completely forbidden. Hungary: the happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc. That’s what they said. But it wasn’t true. The sorrow was palpable. And ran deep.

Passport of privilege

“We aren’t allowed to travel abroad”, explained her friend, with the help of an interpreter. “Except every three years. And only to somewhere approved by the regime. Once we were invited to a theatre festival in France, but the apparatchiks said no, because the French actors were clearly Maoist insurgents, and would be a bad influence on us. If it’s so great over here, why don’t they let us go and tell the whole world about the joys of our communist state?” He laughed. But it was a laugh without humour. More of a sob, really. And a shrug of the shoulders in defeat.

As for her, she had such privilege. A British passport. She could travel where she liked, and knew she would always have the freedom to go back home. It gave her an air of authority and mystique, and people wanted to talk to her, wherever she went. As for her, Hungary felt like a secret garden, full of passion and delight.

Suitcase stuffed with whiskey and teabags

The company kept inviting her back, to teach the company movement skills and physical theatre. But the main appeal, she knew, was her Britishness. A fresh breeze blowing in from London from time to time – with a suitcase stuffed with whiskey and tea bags.

When she finally went home for good, after a three months stint, during which she got really sick, and longed to be in England, it was summer 1989. The Berlin Wall fell  four months later. The red stars were dragged from the roofs, and a new era began. And in the end, Hungary even joined the European Union. Her British passport and their Hungarian passports became united under a single blue flag with hopeful gold stars all across it.

Farewell to freedom

Now it’s her own passport that is changing. The UK is leaving the EU. The freedom of movement that her Hungarian friends so envied, and that she took so much for granted, is over. Oh, they can still travel where they like. But what about her? Will her government maybe let her out, every three years or so, to a country whose views are sufficiently in line with theirs?

She feels like a fraud now, and such a fool. She once believed she was free. She felt her status like a magic cloak, wrapped around her ignorant young shoulders, breezing through Eastern Europe with an air of entitlement and superiority. Now she knows the truth. That she is simply a prisoner of a tiny, spiteful island, slowly sinking under the weight of its own post-colonial delusions. And how she longs for that slow train out of Budapest now, with snow piling at the window, illegal contraband in her case, and a sense of something beautiful and foreign and free, just ahead of her, on the country railroad track.

This piece was written as a response to a question from theatre director Alan Lyddiard, whose company, the Performance Ensemble, I am a member of: “If anybody in the world was allowed to travel anywhere in the world, would this be a good thing?” The Ensemble’s current work in progress concerns itself deeply with freedom of movement, and you can read more about this on their website.

I have written extensively about my deep love affair with Hungary, and some of the links to articles and short stories available on this website can be found on my page entitled Blog and Features Archive.

Silence is Golden

IMG_1859(Back Garden at Reiki in Leeds)

“Silence is golden

But my eyes still see”

The Tremeloes

Early in the morning

THIS MORNING I took my wake-up cup of tea out into the back garden with me, and sat, with just the birds for company, in the quiet of the new day. I live on an urban estate in North Leeds, so in the summer, things are rarely completely quiet. There are small children all over the neighbourhood, just raring to kick their footballs into my raspberry bushes at the front. And adolescent boys keen to intimidate, chugging about the roads on their motorised trikes, and revving their souped-up tin-can cars. But peace can always be found somewhere. It settles, in silky meditative layers, in my Reiki Room at the back of the house. And if I sneak out early enough in the day, before everyone is awake, then the entire garden is an oasis of calm. Silence for the ears. Rich colours for the eyes. Just me on my chair – and the birds, flying from tree to tree, unbothered by the somnabulant human, perched in the corner, and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.

The spaces in-between

Absolute silence, nonetheless, is a rare and precious commodity. Even when alone and tranquil, as I was this morning at 6.30, there were layers of sound all around me – birdsong, the wind, the distant clatter of a kitchen pan; and sounds inside me too – the constant internal narrative of my chattering thoughts, and the high-frequency tones of my pesky tinnitus! But we can, nevertheless, move towards the spaces in between these sounds; and remove ourselves, now and again, from the relentless layers of noise in our high octane contemporary lives. The relief, when we do so, is palpable, and profoundly rejuvenating.

Just like stillness (The Art of Stillness) and solitude ( The Uses of Solitude ), silence is a beautiful resource. A deep well of energy can spring up from within its contours.

IMG_1853(Listening to Penny Greenland speak at #WildConference. Photo Malcolm Johnson)

Alone in a crowd

I have just returned from a wonderful open air Wild Conference organised by the mighty Slung Low theatre company here in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Set in the rolling hills and woodland of the Temple Newsam Estate, the gathering of 450 people – artists, public policy makers, theatre creators and political activists – met, to discuss ideas, to dream of a better future, and to vow to help that happen, to implement change: with the maxim “be useful, be kind” at its root. Everyone wore headphones and moved from tent to tent, gathering inspiration from the many fine speakers. With the headphones switched on, you could tune in to any of the speakers at any given moment, by switching channels as you wished. You were also free to move – away from the crowds, to sit under a distant tree, maybe, or to lie on a cushion and gaze at the sky. All the while listening to a stream of lovely, intelligent talk. Easily overwhelmed by crowds, this was a perfect set up for me. Even better: I got to feel the wind on my face and the sun on my head. Outside, unchained.

img_1857.jpg(T’ai Chi in the wind at #WildConference. Photo Malcolm Johnson)

Moving together – in silence

There was much to put fire in my belly from this fine endeavour – like a mini Glastonbury, without the music (although there was that, too, at the evening cabaret.) Perhaps closest to my heart was the energy of Penny Greenland, founder of JABADEO , speaking passionately about living an embodied life (rather than retreating, as adults so often do, into our minds and our armchairs, or locking ourselves away behind desks.)

But one of my favourite moments, was away from the campfire hubbub, up on a green hill, where I led a morning T’ai Chi session ( See also Classes with Barney ) for anyone who was willing to abandon their croissant, and come up under the trees, to move with me. I suspected no one would come at all. But they did. And the wind blew cool. But we stood firm, performing the ancient Taoist movements – Wild Goose Flying, Separate the Clouds, Pushing the Wave – in exactly the kind of setting from where those movements’ inspiration came: on the green grass, under a blue sky, in nature. Moving silently together. In peace.

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The Silent Eloquence of Touch

T’ai Chi and Chi Kung gain their greatest power when performed in silence – when the instructor’s voice drops away, and it is just a body of people, moving quietly together, in a stream of flowing energy.

Reiki – the other body-based practice I love – seems quite a different activity from T’ai Chi, to the outside eye: one person lying, perfectly still, on the practise table; with the practitioner laying  hands upon her at various places along the body – head, heart, solar plexus, knees, feet – and simply leaving them there, as if planted, for what can seem like an eternity. Time stops still in the Reiki Room. But all the time, an energetic flow is being released – between hands and bodies, between bodies and minds. It is a quiet summons to life itself. A tuning in, to the hum and pulse of our living, breathing bodies. With stillness, movement. An embodied moment.

All of this takes place in silence. Although music may play softly in the background – though often people elect for none – words are rarely exchanged, once the Reiki session has begun. And this time of silence is curiously intimate, touching and profound.

How badly we need to communicate with each other more openly and optimistically, as patterned by the Wild Conference. How crucially important it is – for  our brain health, as well as our whole being – to live Penny Greenland’s “embodied life” of movement. And how golden it is, to be silent from time to time, whether alone or together; whether in the flow of a T’ai chi class, or the deep rest of a Reiki session… Or maybe, just sitting quietly outside – or in a church – or in your own room. Just being. And leaving the world to its own devices, just a for a little while. To quote another fine sixties pop group, The Hollies: “Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe.”  The sound of silence is calling to you now – listen in.

If you would like to book a Reiki session or T’ai Chi/Chi Kung session with me, take a look at Reiki in Leeds  and Classes with Barney for more details. Or drop me a line at barney.bardsley@icloud.com.

The pictures of the Slung Low Wild Conference were taken by Malcom Johnson. Take a look at his website here: https://www.malcijphotography.co.uk

 

 

Hungarian Love Letters 5

Queen of the Castle

Haiku

the oil lamp flickers

soon the shutters will come down

see the shadows fall

SHE SITS by the window and gazes at the street below. Nothing has really changed in this area, in all the years she has lived here. Certainly, there are more tourists. The world has opened up, the walls are down. And the old cobbles have been replaced with concrete. But otherwise, all is much as it was. After sunset, once the visitors have traipsed away, and the castle district returns to the people who live there – that is the time she loves best.  Then, the very air she breathes seems precious and still and old. The privileged few, like her, who have inherited one of these narrow stone and timber houses,  can perch, high above the city, like regal birds of prey – far away from the brutal politics of the modern city beneath. Serene and entitled.

The actress’s flat is a jumble of furniture and clothes. Old mahogany pieces, that belonged to her mother. A certain fin-de-siecle feel to the whole place. Always in shadow, even on the brightest summer day. A smell of dust and velvet in the air. Costumes – racks of them – hanging disconsolately in corners. Waiting for the character who once inhabited them to return and bring them back to life. On the wall – photographs of curtain calls and publicity shots – and on the sideboard – awards and prizes, gathered through her long and illustrious career. Csilla Nagy is at the top of her profession. Everyone in Hungary knows who she is, and admires her, even if they have never set foot in a theatre. For she is hardly off their television screens, starring in some film or other – or popping up on childrens’ television and in  adult soap operas. She is used to being stopped in the street for autographs, stared at in restaurants, fawned over by waiters and bartenders. She knows she is revered, just for being who she is. The queen of her profession.

But Csilla also knows that this is  worth very little, when it comes to the night. After the oil lamp that she keeps lit, for sentimental reasons, on her window ledge, is snuffed out, and Magda comes bustling in with her huge bunch of keys, and closes the shutters, locking her mistress in until the morning, safe against strangers and the dark,  Csilla feels the weight of loneliness press in on her. And each time she climbs the stairs, to the bed – which is elegantly covered in lace, and scented with lavender – that she has slept in, alone, for the past forty odd years, she feels her legs growing a little heavier, the pain in her heart a little more piercing. Csilla knows she is loved by many. But what is the use of that, when you really only need to be held by one?

Today, in particular, she is troubled. She has received an email that has stirred old memories, and she isn’t quite sure what to do about it. The message is from an English woman she knew, thirty years ago, when she worked  out in the countryside in one of Hungary’s renowned state theatres. Oh, what a time it had been. She was in her prime then, still young and vibrant, and already rising to the top of her profession. Then there was real love, at least the promise of it. Stolen moments – of intoxicating conversation, of insinuation and pleasure. Gillian’s little note – so unexpected and sudden – brings back a flood of sensation.  She feels the blood rising to her head, heat flushing through her body. Why this? Why now? When she was so sure she had put the past  firmly behind her.

She has a restless night, with lurid dreams, from which she wakes several times in a sweat, heart thumping wildly. In the end, she rises early and stumbles downstairs to make herself a tisane of chamomile and lemon to settle her frayed nerves. It is only 6.30 a.m. The birds outside in the little courtyard are fussing and chirruping in the old fig tree. It is spring and the sap is rising. Csilla’s head aches. Her joints feel stiff and sore. She checks in her desk diary. When is the personal trainer coming next? Tomorrow evening. Good. She needs his warm hands to keep her in working order. Such a handsome young man too… She smiles to herself. One of the perks of her wealth and fame, and why not? Sitting down with her tea, she scrolls idly through the messages on her phone, and re-reads the email sent yesterday by Gillian. What is she to make of this, and how should she respond?

*****

Gillian sent the email in a rush of nostalgia. She hardly expects a response, is not even sure that the address she dug out from some internet profile or other, is up-to-date or accurate. But she doesn’t regret it. Too many people have disappeared now from her life. She feels the circle turning. Feels, too, a sudden yearning to find lost souls. Csilla was never really her friend, but  Anna’s. But Gillian always liked her, with her soft voice, her gently regal manners, the self conscious way she held herself – ever the actress, always on show. Poor Anna. So long dead. A whole era gone with her. At least Csilla – who must be in her sixties now – is thriving. And by all accounts, is still in Budapest. How convenient, then, that this is where Gillian is travelling to, next. Who knows?  Maybe they might meet again.

*****

Before she has time to change her mind, Csilla presses “send”, and the deed is done. She has arranged for Gillian to come for afternoon coffee the following Saturday. Csilla  has an evening presentation to attend at the Opera House, but that still leaves them plenty of time. Besides, it might be a convenient excuse to get rid of her visitor, if the meeting proves awkward or too intense. Csilla sits for a long time at her messy kitchen table, after sending the message. The remains of coffee – Csilla likes it strong and sweet – sit in her small china cup, and there is a half-eaten kifli on the patterned plate beside it. Csilla doesn’t concern herself too much with food – she is tall and  thin, her long pepper-and-salt hair coiled high on her head, face long and bony, with its own kind of austere beauty – but Magda, her housekeeper, insists. Food is presented to her at regular intervals, and Csilla does her best to comply. Frankly, deep down, she doesn’t much care if she lives or dies. But other people do. So she keeps going, for her public, for the ever-devoted Magda, for the theatre, by which she lives and breathes. Ah yes, there is always her art to fall back on. Otherwise: the abyss.

*****

Gillian cannot believe she is back in Budapest. It was all so long ago. And the longer she left it, the harder it got to return. But she has seen her friends at home becoming older, settled, scared.  Gillian cannot let that happen to her. She is always booking last minute weekend flights to cities she has never seen. The countryside doesn’t really attract her. It is people, theatre – busy streets and late nights – that pull her in. Since she lives on her own, she can do what she likes – and she likes to travel. So now,  why not go back to somewhere she knows for a change? Risky, but thrilling.  She still has shrapnel in her heart from thirty years ago. But no matter. She has come back. And as she wanders through the Castle District, dodging the tourists and gazing at the old buildings, the shutters and the heavy wooden doors, she marvels at  the familiarity of it all. Nothing is quite as it was – yet everything feels just the same.

She arrives, a little early, at Csilla’s  front door, hesitates, heart beating, and rings the buzzer. A disembodied voice speaks through the intercom. Gillian announces herself, and with a heavy click the door opens, into a dark and shadowy corridor. Someone switches on the hall light – is standing at the top of the stairs. Gillian looks up. Csilla looks down. And then, with small cries of recognition, they advance towards each other. The years fall away, and they  take each other’s arm,  and retreat into the actress’s chaotic kitchen. The scent of perfume and coffee grounds hits Gillian’s nostrils like a tidal wave, and she suddenly feels that she might cry. But she laughs instead, sits down on the nearest empty chair and takes a breath.

Before she knows it, they are deep in conversation. Gillian’s Hungarian was always rudimentary, and has rusted over still further, by years of disuse. Yet when Csilla speaks, in her rapid, mellifluous tones, it is as if Gillian understands every word. And she can respond too. The spirit of St Jerome is in the room, translating everything for the two women, wiping away the years, re-setting the dials, making them young again.

“You haven’t changed a bit”, says Csilla, and she means it. Gillian was always elfin in her appearance, small and slight, running through the corridors of her life, whilst Csilla moved slowly, as if there were a full entourage behind her, holding her train.

“Nor you,” replies Gillian, but that is hardly the case. She sees someone careworn, though elegant, sitting in front of her now. A woman with the weight of age – and experience – deep in her bones. She had never understood what made Csilla tick, and she is a mystery to her still, surrounded by glamour, her whole life a performance, well rehearsed and beautifully executed. But with an emptiness at its heart, somehow. Sorrow.

Theirs is a labyrinth of shared memories. And the names of the people they both knew – all members of a mighty theatre company, now dispersed, or retired, or dead – come tripping from Csilla’s tongue in a torrent of affection and regret.

“What a time it was,” says Gillian, with pictures of the subterannean theatre bar now vivid in her mind’s eye: full of smoke, and noise, and animated drinkers, arguing deep into the night.

“Indeed,” replies Csilla. “The red star was over us then. Walls all around us,  to keep us locked in. Now our prime minister builds another wall – this time to keep everyone else out. We Hungarians never learn,” she sighs. It is her only mention of politics. It is enough.

On they go, through the gentle spring afternoon, chatting, remembering, laughing and questioning. And then Csilla suddenly says, “You never married, Gillian? No children?”  “No”, says Gillian. “You neither?” Csilla just shakes her head, presses her lips together. And Gillian continues. “I did love someone once –someone here in Hungary – and I would have stayed. If he had asked me, I would have done it. Defected. Come over the wall to join him. But he never asked. And then he met someone else. You’ll remember him, I’m sure.” The name is spoken. And the room grows cold.

Csilla feels her heart lurch, and she feels faint – might even fall – but recovers her equilibrium just in time. Of course she knows the name. It’s carved, like a curse, on her heart. And she remembers Gillian sitting with him, not long after she had arrived – and he had just come off stage: was glowing with sweat and careless charisma. Remembers the stab of jealousy she felt. How happy he was, to be seen with this English girl, share her whiskey, covet her Levis! Csilla, meanwhile, was already too familiar to him.  Already too old.

Slipping from her reach, before she had so much as touched his long fingers, kissed his lips. But there would be no one else. Not in her lifetime. Even then, she knew that. And now this stupid woman is saying the exact same thing. Stirring it all up. A knife in both their wounds. She sits bolt upright now, and draws her shoulders up by her ears, looking theatrically at the big clock on the wall, as if she has just noticed how late it has become.

“Oh!” she says, with fake surprise. “I had no idea it was that time already. I’m sorry, Gillian, I have an engagement this evening, and I simply must get ready for it now.”

She stands abruptly, and offers Gillian her hand. Gillian is flabbergasted. She has no idea what she has done, why the atmosphere in the room has suddenly changed, from summer sun to the deep frosts of winter – and she doesn’t get a chance to find out. Before she knows it, she feels the heavy wooden door in the downstairs corridor clang behind her – and she is back outside, on the street, on her own. The sun is already beginning to set, and it’s getting darker. There is no one around now. The tourists have all disappeared. Gillian crosses to the steep stone steps which will  lead her back down to the river. She pauses at the top, and turns to look up at Csilla’s window. For a moment, she sees the actress standing motionless, looking back down at her: with a gaze that is unflinching and unforgiving. Then Csilla bends slightly, and strikes a match, to light the oil lamp on the window sill, before retreating, slowly, into the deepening shadows of her room.

– ENDS –

This is the fifth short story in a series loosely entitled Hungarian Love Letters. This is fiction based on my experiences, memories of – and long standing love affair with – Hungary, since first visiting and working there in 1988. You can read the other four stories here on the website, by scrolling through the blogs. There are also some non-fiction blogs about this fascinating country, on this website  too.

 

 

 

Ordinary people, extraordinary lives

“I AM HERE. This is me. And I am fine.” Theatre director Alan Lyddiard offers up this mantra as a way of explaining the ethos of his work. With his company, the Performance Ensemble – inspired by the example of Yukio Ninagawa’s Saitama Gold Theatre in Japan – he explores the lives of older people in intricate, loving detail. Bringing to the stage their stories, songs, dances and desires, is his great, unfolding project . These may be professional performers, or not. He blurs the distinction between the two. What matters to him is the integrity of the story being told. And with each production, he moves a little closer to the heart, to the soul, of the people he is working with – and the audience he is speaking to. On Sunday, September 16th, the latest phase in this work will be performed at the Queens Hotel, Leeds. Called ‘Bus Ride’, it is a kaleidoscope of experiences lived – and bus rides taken! – by a diverse range of older people, living in and around Leeds, in the north of England. The piece will abound in humour and sadness: in the fullness of life as it lived, beyond the age of 55/60.

One of those stories will be my own. And here is the written version in full… If you can, come to the performance on Sunday, or look at the website http://theperformanceensemble.com  for details of future adventures.

Tickets available here: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/bus-ride/

 

BEFORE I could walk – or even talk much – my mother would sit me on a blanket in the back garden, and put a little book in my hands. ‘Progress and Poverty’ it was called. A Victorian treatise on social conditions and political economy by Henry George. I couldn’t read a word, of course, but that was beside the point. I loved the book itself: small enough to fit my hands – the gentle turning of the pages was an act of contemplation; the holding of the book, an entry into another world, far away from the noisy squabbling family I belonged to. When my mother came to gather me up, book, blanket and baby, some time later, I was always in the exact place she had left me, perfectly still, utterly content. Like the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. I have been searching for that stillness ever since.

*****

When I was 29, I got very sick with glandular fever. Pale and weak, I started yoga, as a physical rehabilitation. Slowly my strength returned, and I began to take dance classes at Brixton Recreation Centre. Never one to take any exercise, I suddenly fell in love, hook, line and sinker, with contemporary dance. I left my work as a journalist and trained full-time at the Laban Centre in London. Everything speeded up. Even in my dreams I was moving – fast.

Into this maelstrom walked a tall, elegant Greek man called Andreas Demetriou, who was known then – and still is – as the T’ai Chi guru of South London. Like the child on the blanket, with that little book in her hands, I was drawn to this man and the movements that he made, without having a clue what they signified, or how to do them. Peaceful, calm, contemplative: T’ai Chi was everything that my dance training lacked. Gradually, the world slowed down, into an elegant twenty minute sequence. From the opening movement, “The Rising Sun”, to its inward-focussed conclusion,*“Carry Tiger, Return to theMountain”, I learned to rehearse my whole life in miniature. Each of the three parts represented, in allegorical movement, the three stages of life: Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age and Death. And when the sequence finished, the whole cycle began all over again – **“No Beginning, No End”. Finally I learned to control my body, in a flow of energy and power. T’ai Chi means peace and vitality. Stillness in movement. My troubled and chaotic young adult self had – in endless flow – come to rest.

*****

Death came late to stalk me, after a childhood and adolescence where all the adults around me stayed healthy and robust. It was my own generation who learned about loss, on an epic scale. This was the eighties. And AIDs came knocking at our door. By the time I was 35, I had watched three young men die an agonising death. Fear stalked the corridors of our lives. Stigma followed our every footstep. Cure, or at least containment, was still a long way in the future. A whole generation of young gay men believed they would never grow old. And many of them never did.

When I met Tim, the man who would become my husband, I believed that he, at least would never leave me. He was six foot five, physically strong, mentally stable. Yet, by the time he was 37, he had contracted a rare and incurable cancer. Our daughter was not yet two. Our life together had just begun. Ten years later, at 47, Tim was dead.

One day, when the cancer was already very advanced, and my mind was tearing itself into shreds at the thought of what was to come, I took a book from the shelf and began to read. It was ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, by buddhist monk Sogyal Rinpoche. The book had been there for years and I had never even opened it. Perhaps I had never felt the need, until this moment. The words inside were simple, calm and lucid. Life is transient. Everything passes. Learn to let go, to breathe in, to breathe out, and be still – and everything will be alright.

T’ai Chi, my faithful friend in movement, was still beside me. But I needed something else as well. I had to learn to stop moving: to train the mad and frightened monkey in my mind to settle down, and to make my peace with death. I began to meditate, haltingly, inexpertly, and without companion or guide. And as the days and weeks and years went by, I continued to do so, as frequently as I could. I still do. The worst still happened. Tim died. Then my mother, my beloved aunt and father. Friends grew ill and left me. I had periods of ill health and sorrow myself. But somehow I managed just to sit down, here and now; to breathe; to be still. No book, no movement to hold me. Just the earth beneath, the sky above, and the space, passing around and between us all. Keeping us separate, holding us together. Forever.

Carry Tiger, Return to Mountain means bringing your own aggressive energy (the tiger) into stillness (the mountain).

** No Beginning, No End, also known as Waving Arms Like Clouds,is a short repetitive sequence of gentle arm movements, which recurs several times in the T’ai Chi Long Form: a sign of its perceived importance. It refers to Taoism, on which T’ai Chi is founded, and honours the importance of nature, and of the necessity for human beings to be as transparent as possible within nature – like the passing clouds – to allow the flow of life and energy to be unimpeded.

 

Hungarian Love Letters 4

Don’t Talk To Her

FRAGMENT

She waits at the station

No one is there

Dread in her heart

Cold in the air

Already sickness

Insinuates

Sharp as a knife

The surgeon awaits

SHE CAUGHT the train very early at Budapest’s Keleti Station. The arrivals and departures board was incomprehensible. She hoped she had the right ticket, the right platform. She bought herself a sütemény from the coffee booth, as consolation. Soft melting pastry, stroking her throat, soothing her anxiety. A beggar followed her for money. Her English denials only encouraged him further. In the end she shook him off by plunging into the women’s toilets. Further complication, as she ferreted for enough change to put in the attendant’s saucer, before the nod came, and she could walk through. So many different rituals, none of which came naturally to her, none of which had been explained. She was relieved when the train arrived, and she could clamber on board. Miskolc? She asked, cluelessly, to everyone she met. There were enough nodding heads to convince her that this was the right place, and she found herself a seat by the window, parked her case, and sat down heavily: already exhausted, before the journey had even begun.

The train took three and a half hours, but it felt like forever. It was cold in her carriage. Spring had not yet warmed up the hard bones of  the East European soil, after a bitter winter, and the chill climbed into her body, as if from the centre of the earth. Julia spent most of the time staring mournfully out of the window. She hadn’t really wanted to come up north. But the contract was signed and the theatre was waiting for her. Except for one person. The woman who had suggested her name in the first place. Eszter. They had met in London, and become friends, of sorts – linked mainly by Julia’s love of Hungary and Eszter’s desire to defect. The latter had been a vain hope, and Eszter had returned to her work as an actress in the Miskolc company. The invitation to come and choreograph for the company had come through her. But honestly, Julia did not have a good feeling about it. Eszter was moody. Charming and charismatic one minute, snappish and vindictive the next. She was not, as Julia’s London friends would have it, a sister. So Julia wasn’t even sure that Eszter would be there to meet her at the station. And god knows what she would do then.

She was right. Miskolc train station was bleak and threatening. Groups of men lingered by the main entrance, taking shelter from the wind – which seemed to be blowing straight off the Siberian plains – and doing deals, grubby notes changing hands. They eyed her up, as she trundled past with her luggage, scenting her as foreign prey, from the cut of her hair, the quality of her denim. Julia put her head down and ignored them. She stood by the taxi rank and waited. But no one came. The minutes ticked by. The wound in her foot – cut open in a dirty studio used for dance practise the week before – throbbed and pulsated. Her head, too, felt like it would burst with tension. Now what? Alone in a strange city, miles from the people she knew. Eszter, nowhere in sight. No other name to ask for, should she make it, somehow, to the theatre door. She felt foolish for having come, and was almost poised to catch the next train back to Budapest. But pride and loyalty stood in her way. She had promised. Signed a contract. One month in Miskolc. And one month in Miskolc, it would be.

Finally, she took a taxi, stuttered the name of the theatre to the hatchet faced driver, and headed into town.  How different it all looked. She was used to cosmopolitan Budapest – and the gentle countryside around Lake Balaton. This was brutal in comparison. Narrow, high sided streets. Tram lines criss-crossing the road. Busy traffic. Horns blaring. Lorries and dustcarts piled high with crates and rubbish. And on the people’s faces – lines of worry and distrust. This was an industrial city, and it bore all the hallmarks of hard labour: as if the buildings themselves were sweating with the effort of survival. She noticed several drunks, slumped in doorways, empty bottles of hooch abandoned at their sides. And as they turned a corner into the main street, where the theatre was, two men had just tumbled off a tram and were shouting at each other, vicious and  loud: one of them – a deep cut already swollen above his right eye, a slow trickle of blood seeping down –  had his fists balled up, elbows bent, ready to strike back, whilst the other one – red in the face – bellowed at him to stop. The taxi driver blared his horn, shouted something obscene out of the window and then laughed. But not with pleasure, with bitterness.

The theatre building was plain, grey, functional. It had national status, although its star had fallen in recent years. The repertoire was regime-friendly. Lots of light operettas and classical Hungarian literature. Julia had no idea where to go, so she just headed for the main reception – and waited. In the end someone came and took her to the artistic director’s office, where she was formally welcomed,  and asked to sign several incomprehensible forms by a woman who looked more like a civil servant than an artist. Someone who would, Julia had no doubt, report you for the slightest misdemeanour. Welcome to communist Hungary in the 1980s, she thought. Outside of the Budapest bubble: this was the reality.

*****

Ibolya, the stage manager, was a kind and gentle woman. Julia was entrusted to her care, in the absence of Eszter. No one seemed to know where on earth Eszter was, but neither were they surprised, or concerned, that she had left Julia in the lurch. She is, explained Ibolya, who could manage enough English to make herself understood, a difficult woman. Julia nodded. Oh yes. She knew. The problem was – there was nowhere for Julia to stay. Eszter had promised that she could sleep at hers for a few nights – but no one had the key to her flat, so that was that. After long consultations with the actors, who were slowly winding in through the stage door for that night’s performance, they came up with a plan. Zsuzsanna’s place. They apologised to Julia – Zsuzsanna lived on the outskirts of town, in a high rise block that wasn’t very pleasant, but it was the only option right now. And they knew for certain that Zsuzsanna was out of the country. Moving closer to Julia and whispering in her ear, Ibolya made it clear that Julia would be best off steering clear of Zsuzsanna, as much as she could, should she arrive home any time soon. She is a party member, explained Ibolya. That’s why she gets to travel so much. Comes back with all sorts of black market stuff, books, alcohol, cosmetics. But she’s friends with management here at the theatre, so they keep her on the payroll, even though she does nothing except understudy – and prop up the bar! She probably won’t be back all the time you’re here, Ibolya added. But in any case, whatever you do, don’t talk to her.  Julia nodded. The pain in her foot throbbed. She felt vaguely sick. What had she got herself into?

Ibolya drove her to Zsuzsanna’s flat in her bashed up little Trabant. Dusk was falling. It was cloudy and cool. The atmosphere, as they left the city centre, became even more oppressive. There was scarcely any traffic on the outer ringroad – and everywhere Julia looked there were housing estates, functional concrete blocks thrown up in the sixties, to house the cohorts of industrial workers brought in to service the iron and glass works. This was a worn out kind of place, thought Julia, and she felt worn out too, just looking at it all. Ibolya came up to the flat with her, using the spare key left at the stage door by Zsuzsanna, during her long absences.  They were quite high up – on the seventh floor – and there was a view right across the city into the surrounding hills. The city isn’t pretty, said Ibolya, but the countryside is spectacular. I’ll drive you out there one day. Julia could have hugged her for her kindness. Once Ibolya was gone, she sat on the floor next to her case and stared out of the window. Then she unpacked her clothes in the small spare bedroom, climbed into bed unfeasibly early, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The days passed. Julia learned, with her pigeon Hungarian, which bus to catch, and where to buy the best food on her limited budget. She made a couple of friends at the theatre, who were young and jolly. And she taught some dance classes which seemed to go well. Still, there was no sign of Eszter. But she’ll have to be back by the end of the week, said Ibolya, because rehearsals for the new show start on Monday, and she’s in it. Frankly, Julia didn’t care whether she showed up or not. She didn’t expect much from her, even when she did re-appear. Her suspicions, formed back in London, and confirmed by her friends, were proving to be more than accurate. Not a sister. Not at all.

One evening she was lying on the couch in the lead actor’s dressing room. Zsolt had noticed that she was starting to limp slightly – her foot was still painful, and was slow to heal – and in class, she could hardly demonstrate some of the more complicated moves. So he let her lie down after class in his room. They had formed an awkward alliance, even though his English was non-existent. Sign language seemed to see them through. And Zsolt was rather pleased to have gained some kudos by befriending a girl from the West. He had just gone on stage for the evening performance, and Julia was alone. She felt herself drifting off to sleep, comfortable, woozy. Then she heard the door pulled open, and into the room burst Eszter.

So, this is where you are, is it? she said, her voice sharp, accusing. Julia said nothing for a while, then replied. Thanks for coming to the station to meet me, Eszter, very kind. And that was it. The floodgates opened. Eszter stepped close to the couch and bent down to pour a stream of invective into Julia’s ear. Julia just listened. Remained silent. Felt something in her heart turn icy towards Eszter. Felt her foot throb and her stomach turn with anxiety. Felt what it was like to feel a friend’s betrayal in a foreign place. Felt very alone and small. She never found out exactly what had made Eszter so angry with her. It was no specific incident, as far as she could tell. She seemed to resent the very thing about Julia that Eszter so coveted: her Englishness. The ease with which Julia, British passport in hand, could travel where she wanted, whilst Eszter, alone and bitter, was stuck in a city and a country she hated and despised. What became clear as the days went by, was that they brought out the worst in each other. The more furious and argumentative Eszter became, the colder Julia turned, mute and sullen in the face of Eszter’s attacks. As she made her weary way back to her Stalinist barracks every evening, Julia realised that, despite the overtures of friendship made to her by Zsolt and some of the younger actors in the company, she had never felt such an outsider. The world around her seemed grey, uninviting. The days stretched long before her. Miskolc had seemed like a necessary adventure before she came here. Now it was, she was sure, a colossal, and wounding, mistake.

*****

One night Julia woke in the middle of a nightmare. In the dream, people  were shouting at her, rushing her from place to place, pushing, jostling,  and aggressive. When she woke, her heart was thumping, her head – and whole body – was bathed in sweat. She felt the usual throb from the wound in her foot, but there was more. Her right ear was bursting, her head felt tight and sore: her temperature was soaring. She turned on the light and saw the room swimming in front of her eyes. She looked at the clock. It was three in the morning. A long time till dawn. Longer still until she could go into the theatre and get help. Because it was clear that she was sick. Very sick. She tossed back the covers, which had become unbearably heavy and hot, lay on her back – arms thrown above her head, legs twitching relentlessly, her foot and head throbbing –  and sweated her way through till morning. Somehow she got herself to the Stage Door. Whereupon she collapsed in a heap and brought a small crowd of anxious actors – who had arrived for her morning class – quickly to her aid. They helped her to Zsolt’s room, and onto his trusty couch. Someone brought water. She could hardly speak, she was so hot, so damnably hot. Her whole body was bathed in sweat. And the pain in her ear was getting worse. Eszter was summoned. Impatient, but concerned, she arranged for a taxi. They would have to go to the hospital. Now.

The clinic was grey and empty when they arrived. Eszter and Julia sat in the corridor for what seemed like a lifetime. Nothing happened. No one went past.  No noise. No sign of life. Eventually, a weary-looking nurse poked her head out of a doorway and summoned them in. Eszter knew the doctor. I’ll pay him to see you, she said to Julia. That’s how it works over here. It’s supposed to be free, but if you want proper treatment, money will have to change hands. The doctor was kindly, in a detached way, and took some time to examine her throat and ear, before turning to Eszter to explain. It’s a major ear and throat infection, she told Julia – with the danger of some kind of sepsis. He isn’t sure if they’ll need to operate, but first he’s going to give you some strong antibiotics, and hopefully that will sort things out. Julia nodded weakly, unable to react in any meaningful way.  She had never felt more homesick. A fevered thought ran through her brain: please don’t let me die here. Anything but that.

The next two weeks were a blur of fever and pain. The days and nights bled, one into the other. The high fever brought hallucinations: in some of which Julia was interrogated, in rapid-fire Hungarian, by a man in vaguely military uniform; in others, she was back home, in her childhood bedroom. When she woke from the latter, she wept with weakness and with loss.  But gradually, her temperature came down. She still had no appetite, but managed to swallow some fruit juice and kefir. Her headache cleared as she became less dehydrated, and the pain in her ear gradually softened. When she blew her nose, green snot poured out. Her ear leaked something smelly and disgusting. She lost a lot of weight, and looked pale and ghostly. But she really didn’t care. The doctor had decided she would not have to go under the surgeon’s knife after all, and for that, she was grateful and relieved.

One day, Julia heard a key turn in the door. She hadn’t left the flat in two weeks, and, apart from an occasional desultory visit from Eszter, no one had been to see her. She had no idea who this might be, and, like a coward,  and still in a weak and debilitated state, she hid in her little room, and waited to see what happened. There were voices – one male, one female – and the sound of boxes being lifted and dropped, one by one, in the living room. As she lay there, listening, hiding, it dawned on Julia that this must be Zsuzsanna and her boyfriend, back from foreign parts. Bringing their black market booty with them.

This was her first encounter with them, and although she knew that Zsuzsanna had been tipped off about her presence, she felt awkward and intrusive. Still, there was nothing else for it, she would have to introduce herself – and, straightening herself up, she walked through to the living room door, which they had closed firmly behind them, and knocked timidly. Tessék?  Zsuzsanna’s voice sounded wary, surprised. And when Julia put her head round the door, she could see why. On the floor sat Zsuzsanna and her boyfriend, surrounded by boxes – and piles and piles of books, packages and bottles. This was a rich haul indeed. And not something Julia had seen anywhere else, since she had been in Hungary. Everyone she knew lived hand to mouth: the bare essentials of food and drink and clothing covering their day to day needs. This was nothing short of contraband. No wonder Zsuzsanna looked shifty, as she gazed up at  Eszter, a guilty flush passing across her face. They exchanged a few awkward words of greeting, and then Julia turned and left the room. The next morning, Zsuzsanna was gone. The boxes she had so carefully lifted home, were gone too.

*****

In the last week of Julia’s ill-fated month in Miskolc, she was able to take a few classes again. People in the theatre – with the exception of Eszter, who continued to treat her like an annoying younger sister – were kind to her, and sorry for the ordeal she had been through. Later, when she looked at photographs taken during that time, Julia was amazed she could still stand, she was so gaunt, so thin, so horribly pale. But her willpower saw her through, and she saw her contract through to the end, as agreed. On her last night in Miskolc, a few of the actors had invited her to the theatre bar for a farewell drink. Before leaving, Eszter summoned her to her flat, on the pretext of treating her to a special meal before she left. The meal turned out to be noodles and chicken, unusually tasteless for a Hungarian dish. But then, Eszter was not exactly famous for her domestic skills. As they sat down together, Eszter began to talk. Or rather, to list the numerous ways in which Julia had let her down, during her month in Miskolc. She even contrived to make Julia’s illness seem like her own fault. The minutes ticked by. As usual, Julia offered nothing in her own defence. She was aware how late it was getting, but didn’t feel able to rise from her seat and leave before Eszter had had her say. Soon it was 10.30 pm. Julia’s train was early the next morning. It was too late to go and meet her friends – all of whom had gathered in the bar, as promised, and were puzzled that she never showed up. In the end, Julia caught the bus back to the suburbs, took the piss-stained lift up to the seventh floor, and spent one more night in Zsuzsanna’s empty, eery flat. The next day, she caught the train back to Budapest. If she never went back to Miskolc again in her life, it would be, she realised – with a heart of stone – too soon.

*****

At the end of the summer Julia flew back to London. Thin, gaunt, pale, her friends hardly recognised her. As she passed through passport control at Budapest Airport, she felt as if she were walking through an invisible wall, or that she, herself, had become invisible. She never managed to convey the bleakness of her experience in Miskolc to those back home. And the days of feverish sickness were like a black hole down which she had disappeared, never knowing when, or whether, she would emerge. She despised the Western propaganda about a country she had grown to love and respect. And she knew full well the image of the Iron Curtain was  corrosive, unjust: but still, for a short time, she had felt the taste of it, bloody and ferrous, on her tongue. The memory of it stayed with her for the rest of her life. And the loneliness – of being a stranger in a strange place, unlovely and unloved – never quite left her again.

ENDS

Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here

 

Alone in the city

IT IS USEFUL to be alone in a city. Gazing in from the outside, pressing your stranger’s nose to shop windows, listening to the babble of other people’s conversations, in a delicious foreign tongue, and walking, walking, walking – over bridges, through deserted back streets, and into the middle of cacophonous and dissonant city squares: all mired in the colours, the dirt, the fabulous confusions of contemporary cosmopolitan life.

Budapest is a city I should know well. The first time I saw it, in January 1988, wrapped in its thick winter blanket of ice and snow, I fell in love with the place, instantly, irrevocably. And ever since, I have been in its thrall. For two potent years, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Budapest was my centrifugal force, as I travelled and worked in the theatre in Hungary – passing through the city frequently, and lingering there often, in some borrowed flat or other, on my way down to Kaposvár in the countrified South West, and Miskolc, in the industrial North East. And even though I lost touch with the place for nearly 20 years after that, as it underwent its painful transition from communism to a western capitalist economy, its powerful imprint never lifted from my heart. And when I finally did make it back, in 2009, the spell that had been cast on me – so long ago that it felt like another life entirely – had remained intact.

I go back every year now, visiting old friends – making new ones – enjoying the richness of the city’s theatre and literary life, exploring different territories, and circling the same familiar haunts, with increasing and ever-deepening delight. Even the language – that arcane rhythmical Finno Ugric puzzle – is finally finding its place, albeit haltingly, inside my mouth, beneath my tongue. And yet… Each time I go, this place eludes me more. It is a city packed full of a violent past – and an increasingly uncertain, even dangerous, present. Throughout its history, hardliners of left and right have taken turns to loosen their invective – if not their weaponry – on those bony old streets, and their weary, battered inhabitants. Too much blood has been spilled, too many times. But Budapest has tranquillity too. It is a place of exquisite charm and beauty and sophistication: and has a deep, ineffable sense of mystery, that stalks me constantly while I am there, and haunts me whenever I leave. “There’s something about this place, isn’t there? ”, said a fellow Englander once, each of us waiting for the Number 19 tram. “It just keeps on drawing you back.”

Yet I often hurtle in and out of this city too fast, with too little time and too many people to see. Usually I am a guest of one of the actors I first met, nearly 30 years ago. He is steadfast and comforting, always, in his welcome. All Hungarians, in my experience, are fiery and talkative and outspoken – and very, very loyal. Once a friend: a friend for life. Their hospitality is prodigious – their tables piled high with pálinka and delicious paprika dishes and pastries filled with cherry and sweet túró cheese. Whenever they wrap their arms around me – metaphorically and physically – they squeeze rather hard, and they don’t easily let go. Exhilarating. Exhausting, too.

It is time, maybe, to change the tempo and the rhythm: as a recent trip, at the start of this autumn season, made clear. The welcome was as effusive – the food, drink and conversation, as copious as ever. But I spent a lot more time on my own. I stayed in three different flats, in three different parts of the city. And it was a revelation. To be alone in a city is to meet it, properly – on your own terms, in your own time… Painting it in the colours of your individual imagination and understanding. Fitting it around your own awkward memories – the sadness and the grief and the passing of time – and bringing it, wriggling and bloody and alive, back into the present. Right here and now. Making it yours, really yours. At last.

It is not at all hard to find your way around Budapest. The city is fed by a bustling network of trams, trolleys, busses and tube trains, all of which run night and day, with no notion of curfew – and it is split conveniently down the middle, by the mighty swell of the Danube river: Buda to the west, Pest to the east. If ever I get lost, I just look for that river, and it always leads me back home. September, in Hungary, is still pretty damn hot from the lingering summer– the air sultry, dusty-sweet, somehow distinctly Hungarian. The smell of hot damp earth rises up from beneath the concrete, steamed by sudden downpours of tropical rain, and then baked by blistering sunshine all over again. This year was blessed with a late and lasting heatwave. Temperatures rose into the mid 30s, making it impossible to get anywhere fast, without melting under a miasma of breathlessness, a constant sheen of sweat. No matter. The slower I went, the better I liked it. I would slip out in the morning before it got too hot, and then again in late afternoon, to walk along the banks of the river, and over onto Margit Island – an oasis of dreamy green in the middle of the river, where the whole city seemed to promenade, and exalt in the evening air. Or I would sit on some tram – the Number 4 usually, which trundles relentlessly back and forth, in a huge semi circle around the city ring road, through the crowded squares of inner city Pest, and over the river into Buda; or the iconic Number 2, which tracks down the eastern side of the Danube, from Parliament to the new (and hideous) National Theatre, taking in breathtaking views of the Castle District and the far Buda Hills, the big boats and the wide water, and the high majestic bridges, all along the way.

And I moved, like a snail, with my bags on my back, between three points of a triangle: first, a luxury, light-flooded flat in the fancy Taban district of old Buda – near the faded grandeur of the Gellert Spa Hotel, and the green Prussian steel of the Liberty Bridge; then, to a small dark room – a huge fig tree pressed to the window, drowning all the light in luxurious green – in Donati Street, which spirals down, secretive and quiet, from the medieval heights of the Castle District; and finally to an empty apartment on the top floor of a big, blunt, grey block, in the V111th district of downtown Pest. Bustling, bar-strewn Jozsefvaros, part-gentrified, part-seedy and sad, depending on which side of the ring road you happen to tread: an area as beguiling as it is busy, and the most familiar and favourite of all to me, permanently scuffed at heel and sassy of mouth. Quintessential Budapest, with an expletive never far from its gorgeous dirty mouth.

But none of this really matters: the geography; the views; the buildings and their logistics. What matters in this city is the feeling. The senses, the sounds, the smells – and the echoing of memory, down every street, inside every curving doorway. I was young here once: on my last big adventure before marriage and motherhood clipped my aimless wings. Now I am growing old here, too. More tuned to the sadness that I see in people’s faces. And ripened by the humour and the stoicism, that I recognise as a tool of survival and strength.

Budapest is a tough old town, no question. With tough new politics to boot. An openly right wing government. Fences on the borders to keep out the refugees. (As one woman put it, “This wall they are building; it’s not just to keep people out, it’s to keep us in.”) An anti-immigration referendum (later to fail…but no matter, the xenophobic propaganda has already worked). A recent nail bomb – aimed at two policemen on the streets – fuelling paranoia and suspicion. There is an increasingly sour mood, that spills forth, whenever a conversation is cracked open, and the pálinka starts to flow. There seems no real appetite or opportunity for opposition. Dissent is driving itself underground. And even the iconic 1956 October Uprising – its sixtieth anniversary commemorated this autumn – has been reduced to a series of striking official images, plastered to public buildings – and signally ignored by the people on the streets below. Pictures of freedom fighters, like the one included above, are accompanied by the immortal words of dissident writer Sándor Márai…. “When a whole country said: enough!” The irony is hard to ignore. An old revolution: co opted into a new narrative of repression and control.

As elsewhere across Europe – and in post-Brexit England too – politics and posture are everywhere here, with an increasing tightening of the noose around the neck of pluralism and free thought, which makes it harder and harder to breathe. But in the end it is all about people and place. Hungary, and Budapest in particular, is a place I lost my heart to, a long time ago. Its people, likewise: with their cynical wit, and their particular talent for despair and celebration, all at the same time, in the same sentence, in the same raised glass, and with the same enduring bear hug of welcome and farewell. It took me a long time to find this curious place – and then a long time, to find my way back. Being alone in the city has only deepened my sense of connection to a troubled and beautiful and utterly soulful place. And always, I will keep on returning. Something has settled – both irritant and balm – deep beneath my skin, and there’s no getting rid of it now.

Wave

MUCH of my professional writing and thinking is based on memory: a meditation on how to integrate a complex past with the puzzling challenges of the present day. It is the work of a memoirist, to excavate love and loss, at a deeply personal level – and those are the kinds of books and features I have been writing over the past ten years. But I am struck right now by this challenging quote from André Gide:

“Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realise that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.”

Maybe it is time to write and live in a different way – more tuned into the present tense, less concerned with the echoing chambers of an ever-increasing yesterday?

The end of each adult decade, for me, has seen turbulent change: at 29, a total change of direction, from journalism into contemporary dance and theatre; at 39, a flight – with a terminally ill spouse and a young child under my wing – away from the urban chaos of South London, to the green Northern hills of Leeds; at 49,a bruising, but vibrant, re-entry into the workplace, after my husband’s death from a vicious cancer: with the digging of a garden and an allotment there in the background, to steady my shaky boots. And now, at 59, after two years of my own poor health – the inevitable final ebbing of a personal wave of energy – it’s time to take stock again. A new decade beckons.What will it bring?

With a country divided and bitter, after the disastrous European Union Referendum, and Brexit, two things seem critical in this moment: finding small ways to be kind and constructive to each other, whether it is to smile at the face of a stranger, or take a warm blanket to a drop-off point for refugees in Calais; and – starting to live, quietly and positively, in the immediacy of each day, exactly as it unfolds. Looking back with bitterness won’t change a thing. Catastrophising about the future makes us nothing but prisoners.There is a more subtle way to break free.

I have just read, for the second time, Simon Fitzmaurice’s extraordinary memoir, ‘It is not yet dark’. A young Irish film maker and writer, Fitzmaurice writes of his unexpected and cataclysmic diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease. And he does this with candour, poetic clarity, and a total lack of self pity or recrimination. He also, with an acute awareness of a new and constant companion – death – on his young shoulders, chooses to write, as he lives, in the imperative of the present tense. Even his memories are written as contemporary accounts. There is no time to lose, for any of us. Fitzmaurice knows this, reminds us, urges us on. And, oh, the wonder he conveys, the beauty of simply being here, now, in the world. “I’m burning with this life” he writes.

And I realise that I am too. Burning with it all. So let the tide of energy – my strange, half-looking-back,struggling-to-catch-up,ever-changing fifties – go out fully now. A summer of rest and play. And at the autumnal turn of that tide, I shall be sixty. Ready, as the buddhist philosophers would have it, to “be more curious than afraid”. Ready to meditate more, dance more, garden more, write more, teach more, sing and travel more. And all in the beautiful, ever-vital, ever-changing present. I hope to see you there.

‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ by Simon Fitzmaurice (Hatchette Books Ireland)
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray)
‘Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley (Simon and Schuster)