Oliver Dress Rehearsal day. And we've not finished the technical rehearsals yet. I was spoiled for 13 years at St Christopher School - a fully constituted stage team with students in positions of real responsibility; a huge wardrobe & prop store; scenery docks in several different places; a highly experienced & resourceful technical manager; a full-equipped 280-seat theatre & a fully equipped, highly flexible studio.
At my present school we have a huge theatre, which is something that few traditional private schools of this relatively small size can boast, & I cannot fault the enthusiasm, commitment & talent of most the girls with whom I'm working. Nor can I complain about lack of support from fellow teachers, several of whom are sacrificing domestic harmony with the hours they're putting into this production.
But after 30 years of working within two schools for which the visual & performing arts were a practical manifestation of humanist ethos & identity, I feel, to a degree, isolated. Whilst Drama is well supported, both by students & by the Headmistress, it still sits somewhat awkwardly within a culture of high academic achievement & very conservative principles.
I’m also finding the simple practical pressures of having to organise & coordinate all aspects of the staging of this production as a part-time teacher with a young family overwhelming. But, try as I might, there’s no way of expressing those concerns without appearing to whinge so I’ll shut down & head off for what in many ways may be the longest of days.
But hang on, what’s a blog for if not to rail sometimes against the unfairness & injustice of a world that just doesn’t understand? Too late – the clock’s against me. Upwards & onwards…
Something of a blogging hiatus coming up. I'm in the immediate run-up to a production of Oliver at present. A tech rehearsal all day today, another tomorrow & a dress rehearsal on Monday. Then the show runs from Wednesday to Saturday.
And also on Monday Emma resumes teaching after her 6 months of maternity leave so there's something of a collision of commitments this weekend & into next week. Maisie will join Reuben & Rosie at Kindersmill, the excellent nursery we've been using for the past 4 years. I'll have the kids at home on Tuesdays & Emma - who's arranged to job share her head of department post - will have them on Fridays.
When time allows I shall record something of my experience of retiring (very readily from a leading progressive school undergoing traumatic changes) & then being drawn back into teaching, but this time at an emphatically traditional girls' school.
The traffic was backed up on the A505 to way above the Charlton turnoff. Vehicles were bumper to bumper, inching their way between the last fallow fields before the outskirts of Hitchin. There was little prospect of the jam dispersing for at least 10 minutes.
I glanced in my rear-view mirror. The heads & upper shoulders of the driver & passenger in the car behind (a green Metro with a 2006 licence plate) were framed in its letterbox screen, both figures motionless, both staring abstractedly ahead.
They were two young women. The driver was pale & oval-faced with a high forehead from which the black hair was scraped back into a ponytail. The passenger was also pale, her red hair falling loose. Something in the fixity of her stare kept me watching her: the stiffness of anger or grief.
The driver looked sideways at her companion. For a few moments the two faces were perfectly balanced in the centre of my mirror, the one full faced & gazing forward, the other in quarter-turn profile. Then the driver spoke – a single word, it seemed. The passenger made no response. The driver spoke again – the same word - & after a few seconds delay the passenger smiled.
It was not a smile of pleasure: I watched it form & where the one corner of the mouth lifted, the other turned down. The eyes – blue or grey? – blinked rapidly & across the distance I sensed tears falling. The passenger said nothing & her head remained still, erect & facing forward.
The traffic edged forward onto a brief gradient flanked by the first houses – detached villas built, I would guess, in the 1930s. I looked again. Both faces were framed as before in the windscreen of their car, in the rectangle of my mirror, gazing forward.
Then the driver turned her head slowly to her right as if to study the variegated houses, each customised by its front door, its curtains & blinds. Her shoulders lifted in what seemed to be a sigh: her head tilted back slightly & her eyes moved restlessly across the fascia of the house immediately across the road from our two cars. Then slowly she closed her eyes & raised her hand to her forehead, cupping it gently, the fingers still.
Without turning her head the passenger began to speak rapidly, her face unanimated by emotion but her mouth clearly enunciating a torrent of words, fluent & unstinting. The driver made no attempt to interrupt, her face motionless, her eyes seeming to meet mine inside my rear-view mirror. I turned my head slightly but continued to watch.
The passenger stopped talking, her lips compressed, her eyes unblinking as she stared through the windscreen. The driver turned her head towards the passenger & her lips formed a word. “Please”, she said. Then again: “Please”. Each time she nodded the word forward in emphasis. The passenger’s face was impassive, its mask-like stillness unyielding.
The traffic moved forwards, picking up a little speed, the gaps between vehicles increasing. As I crossed the stream of traffic feeding into Upper Tilehouse Street from the Pirton Road fork, a lorry moved into position behind, blocking my view.
The jam cleared at the Stevenage roundabout & I drove down into Tilehouse Street & swung into the filling station for petrol & a couple of sandwiches for lunch. Further blockages delayed me alongside the common & it was some 10 minutes before I was able to join Walgrave Road & a clearer route. As I drove past the Kwikfit tyre centre, a flash of green in the other lane caught my eye. It was the green Metro. The driver was alone.
Insomnia. Rosie wakes me nightly & at 2.40 I stumble into the room she shares with Reuben. She’s sitting on the edge of her bed, cradling Princess Fiona & her upside-down cup, crying piteously. Rosie’s large, clear eyes are wide open. In the semi-dark they are black & pupil-less. I pick her up & rock her gently. Reuben stirs & in a clear firm voice says, “Chocolate shoe, chocolate shoe”, but he doesn’t wake.
When her breathing deepens into its tidal rhythms, I step across the creaking boards & slip back under the duvet. I lie staring at the spectral shape of a shirt hanging against the wardrobe door. Its colours are neutralised but the rumpled criss-cross pattern forms a map of contours, gradients & troughs. I inhabit its landscape as the minutes pass & climb towards the first hour.
I doze, but every gear-change & track-switch in Rosie’s night-journey has me peering into the shape-shifting darkness, nerves jangling. And when she begins to wake again, calling out in the uprush from deep dreaming, I rise into the cold miasma of the small hours & kneel by her bed…
Night. From the obsidian window I stare back, a deconstructed mask amongst trace elements of moonlight,
rain, black leaves. I am part shapes remembered and part shapes from out of the sleep of reason.
In this cone of silence just before the dawn, the shadow world is palpable: gods
and monsters glide and crawl by my garden gate. Half-dreams, uncertain memories blow like feathers.
Here and now, I sense, is the sticking place where all things meet: skeletons into flesh,
ghosts into plasma, rumours, fears, the whole arcana hard wired into the dark. No sound this side
of the distant rhyme of a long train running. The night and I, strange company in a world without hours.
And then, when I turn away, there’s just my breath and the falling rain.