Sam, the Civic theatre’s educational officer, cast a disparaging eye over the monthly seniors group. Seated randomly around six tables in a light, air conditioned training room, there was no-one under seventy years of age. Some were doubtlessly gifted, but he found overcoming the challenges of their various hearing impairments, physical disabilities, declining mental agility and memory loss wearing. He had to give it to Dominique, the artistic director, that it had been an inspired piece of manipulation to suggest to Willow that she join them. She now sat with two of her peers animatedly discussing the Chancellor’s plans to replace the existing physical currency with a digital system.
In her youth, she had been an acclaimed beauty and worked as a model for many famous fashion houses. At 5'11'' she was tall for a woman although now a little stooped, and she retained her elegant slim figure. Facially, her prominent cheek bones and large, saucer like eyes still meant she stood out as an striking woman, and although there was some inevitable creping of her skin her complexion remained good. Her fine, ash blonde hair had become sparse and brittle with age, so she now cunningly wore if pulled back and supplemented with a small bun of false hair. She wore a pale, floral, floaty, double layered calf length dress, which was suitable for the warm day, but not for the occasion. It would have been more fitting for a garden party. It was rumoured that, her real name was Alma, shortened to Elm, and that her agent had not thought this suitable for an aspiring model and so had changed it to the more evocative Willow.
It was this same resourceful agent, who when Willow’s popularity in the modelling world began to wane found her the part as the Fairy Queen in a West End pantomime. The advertising billboards had proudly proclaimed ‘See Mother Goose, starring the world famous model, Willow, as the Fairy Queen.’ From the start, she had loved being in panto. The ornate costume and the applause appealed to her need for approbation. Of course, Willow was only required to say a couple of lines, but this was enough to convince her that an acting career was her destiny. There followed several bit parts in stage productions and one in a film. With the private acting tuition, which her agent hastily arranged, she became a passable actor. She never attained the lead role that she believed she deserved. Her loyal agent was always able to sooth her frustrated tantrums in relation to this by giving her feasible reasons: ‘Well, of course Greta would get it, she is sleeping with the director.’ Or ‘they had to give it to Julie, her father is bankrolling the film.’ The years passed by and the big part never came Willow’s way, and she found herself increasingly side- lined. This led to angry outbursts and tears during auditions, until at last Dominique had taken her to one side and made her proposal. She had phrased it like this:
‘Willow, my darling, I have a huge favour to ask of you. Something which will contribute to the future of this theatre and the growth of upcoming acting talent. We are in desperate need of new script writers. With your wealth of experience and expertise, I wondered if you could spare a couple of hours per month to join our script writing group? I know that you are terribly busy and it’s a big ask.’ In fact, Dominique knew that exactly the opposite was true, Willow had little to occupy her time. It was this and her continued need to be in the limelight, which drove her to keep auditioning. The phrase ‘script writing group’ was also a delicate manoeuvring of the truth, the group was actually a social group where older people met and participated in various exercises relating to the performing arts. Willow had fallen for the flattery and accepted the invitation with alacrity, and so it was that once every four weeks Sam found her amongst his group.
He began the session with what he hoped was an air of bouncy, enthusiasm. ‘Right everyone, just to warm us up, I’d like you each to take a pen and paper, and right in the middle of the paper draw a small box.’ There was a rustle of activity as each table passed round the pens and paper and got to work. Someone asked
‘How big should the box be? I’m afraid I missed that bit.’
‘Doesn’t matter, just make it fairly small.’ Another person asked
‘Mine’s not quite straight, will it be alright?’
‘Yes, it’ll be fine.’
‘Now, in the box, write one thing. Anything, the first thing that comes into your head.’
One wag, commented.
‘Sex.’ To which there were a few answering sniggers and some tuts. Someone queried.
‘Does it have to be a noun?’
‘No, any word you like.’
Sam pressed on.
‘Next, around your box write anything that comes into your mind to do with that word. Or you can draw if you like.’ Sam looked around and saw with satisfaction that, everyone either had their head down and was scribbling industriously, or was staring into space apparently awaiting inspiration. He waited a few minutes until people appeared to have finished, and had begun chatting to each other.
‘Ok, I want us to come back to the group now. Would anyone like to share what they’d written?’ One chap volunteered.
‘In the box I wrote cat. Then around it I wrote purr, fur, tail, whiskers, dog, pets.’
‘Excellent’ said Sam, leading a round of applause. He took a volunteer from another table, and then uninvited Willow stood, paper in hand. She cast her eye around the group, before dramatically reading.
‘Diamond, book, window, lunch, train, hammer. Pat would like to take a hammer to my head.’ There was a ripple of laughter, and again Sam led a round of applause, although inwardly he was at a loss to make a connection between any of the words.
‘Ok, thank you for that. So now, on a fresh piece of paper. I’d like you to think of a person who you’ve seen. It can be a stranger, someone you’ve seen at a railway station or on the bus, or it could be someone famous. I want you to give them a name, and then write a brief description of what they look like and maybe a bit about their personality.’ There were no questions this time, the group seemed to find this an easier idea to follow, and again their heads were down, concentrating on the task in hand. After five minutes, Sam called their attention back to him, asking.
‘Ok, finish up everyone. Anyone want to volunteer to read what they’ve written?’ Willow was on her feet. She began.
‘Frank Sinatra. I met him once you know. Pat looks a bit like him. Well, not that much, but in certain lights…’ Sam interrupted by starting to clap and everyone else followed.
‘Thank you, Willow. Has anyone else got something they can share? But this time giving a description of the person.’ He was careful to put a chuckle into his voice as he said this, the last thing that he wanted was to upset Willow and perhaps precipitate one of her legendary outbursts. An elderly lady took up the challenge. Her piece was excellent making the character come to life with her skilful phrases. Sam suspected that she came from a writing background. He called for a fifteen minute tea break and the group filed out, chatting and laughing to find their refreshments.
He gave them twenty minutes and then went out to the atrium to round them up. Some were a little reluctant, having not quite finished their drinks, but he jollied them along saying.
‘It’s ok you bring your biscuits with you.’ They gradually filtered back into the room, settling back into their places. Sam started again.
‘On each of your tables I’ve put a sheet of paper with six phrases on it. I want you to select one of the phrases and then use it as the start of a monologue, written for the person you described earlier. Some individuals started writing immediately, but the majority spent more time making their selection and thinking before beginning to write. Some tables conferred together, seeking reassurance and advice from their companions before finalising their decision. Sam had decided to take more control this time. He did not want Willow to again ‘railroad’ the exercise. He gave the group about twenty minutes and then asked them to start wrapping up their draughts.
Sam moved around the room selecting one person from each table to read their piece.
‘Great, thank you. If you’re happy to, I’d like you to read what you’ve written.’ He purposely chose individuals who had not previously shared any of their work. At Willow’s table he chose a timid looking woman, who he half expected to refuse to read. He was pleasantly surprised when she read out a spirited speech, giving the character a broad Scottish accent. He was about to move to the next table, when Willow jumped up, saying.
‘I want to read mine. It’s rather good even though I say so myself.’ It wasn’t, and as before there was a reference to Pat. This time it was.
‘Pat sometimes finds my talent hard to appreciate.’ Sam found himself thinking ‘Don’t we all.’, but he gallantly led the customary round of applause. With relief he realised that their two hour time slot was over.
‘Ok everyone. Let’s call it a wrap. Thank you all for your hard work. See you in four weeks’ time.’ Before, everyone started to leave, Willow announced.
‘It’s a lovely afternoon. Let’s all go to mine for cocktails.’ Several people crept unobtrusively through the double doors and away, leaving approximately ten individuals. Some stayed because they were nosey and wanted to look inside Willow’s grand home, others because they had nothing better to do, but the majority remained because they never wanted to miss an opportunity to squeeze enjoyment from life.
‘I’m in the multi-storey. Follow me everyone.’ And so they did, those without cars sharing lifts with the drivers. They were all soon en-route to Willow’s house by the Common.
Pat was sitting on the patio, book in hand and glass of wine on the table beside her, when she heard the whir of the electric gates opening. Then the unmistakable roar and revving of Willow’s car as she over accelerated onto their drive. This was followed by the sound of at least two other cars. Then the slam of car doors being opened and shut and finally cheery voices chattering together as they crunched up the gravel of the drive.
‘Darling. Come and meet everyone. The scriptwriters have come back for drinkies.’
Pat’s heart sank, a few hours earlier, she had watched Willow reverse her mini out of the complex’s communal gates with a mixture of relief and anxiety. She loved her dearly, but lately found her boundless energy exhausting. In previous years, when Willow was rehearsing and preforming, Pat got a respite from her restless vigour, but now they were increasingly under each other’s feet. Whereas Pat accepted, even welcomed the slower pace of advancing years, Willow was waging a personal, frenetic fight against the changes.
They first met when Pat was working as a lowly seamstress in a London theatre. When she first glimpsed Willow backstage, she thought her the most beautiful woman on earth and in truth still did. Willow was always gracious to Pat, thanking her for any alterations to her costumes, not lording it over her as some of the other stars did. And she had been kind, one day finding Pat distraught and crying because her parents had thrown her out, she immediately said.
‘But Sweetie, you must come and stay with me. I simply refuse to take no for an answer.’ After that evening’s performance, Willow had come down to wardrobe and collected Pat. She took her and her few belongings to the waiting taxi at the theatre’s side door. Sitting in the back of the cab together, they sped through the dark London streets. It was a short journey to Willow’s Kensington flat. Once there she poured them both a drink and showed Pat to the spare bedroom. When Pat woke in the morning, there were no signs of life from Willow’s room. She quietly got up, washed and dressed. She headed for the kitchen, intending to make Willow a cup of tea. There was no milk, in fact the cupboards were virtually bare. Pat let herself out of the flat and walked to the corner shop where she bought a few essential groceries and the morning’s papers. Barely an hour later, she was knocking on Willow’s bedroom door with a tray of tea, toast and the papers. Willow sat up in bed, saying ‘You are an absolute darling.’ This set the timbre for the future of their relationship: Pat took over a housekeeping role with the added bonus that she could make and alter Willow’s clothes, and Willow provided the money for their life together. Occasionally, Willow would tell Pat to make her own way home at the end of the day, saying something along the lines of.
‘Freddie’s taking me out for dinner tonight, so I won’t be back until late.’ Pat was never sure of Willow’s exact relationship with these men, and did not feel that it was her place to ask. Certainly, none of the gentlemen were ever brought back to the flat. Willow and Pat’s physical relationship did not come until several years later.
Both women continued to work. Pat stayed at the Coliseum theatre whilst Willow travelled from venue to venue as her bookings demanded. Gradually, her London work dried up, and she needed to travel out to smaller suburban theatres for her parts. The women discussed the situation and decided to buy a house in one of the Home Counties, near to a station. By this time Willow had amassed a considerable sum of money, and they used this to finance the purchase of their new home. Willow insisted that the house was put in both their names, saying.
‘We’re a couple, darling. You put as much into our partnership as I do.’ Pat was quietly pleased that Willow valued their arrangement as much as she did. Then, one afternoon Willow returned home from an pantomime audition. When she came in through the backdoor, Pat immediately realised that she had been crying, her eyes were red rimmed and mascara smeared down her cheeks.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ Willow sank down onto a kitchen chair, dropped her head into her hands and deep sobs began to pulse through her body.
‘They didn’t want me. They said that I’m too old to play Cinderella.’ This had been the latest in several rejections, although this was the most brutal. Pat was immediately at Willow’s side, her arm around her, kissing the top of her head, as she said ‘My darling, you’ll always be beautiful to me.’ Willow looked up and met her eyes ‘Really?’ With that they kissed for the first time and that night Pat moved into Willow’s room. Whether others guessed the true nature of their relationship, they were unsure as this was a time before these matters were discussed openly.
Now, her beloved was heading down the path towards her followed by a gaggle of other people. In recent months, she had detected some subtle changes in Willow’s behaviour. She had become less adept at picking up social clues, more prone to fits of temper and slightly forgetful. So, despite the interruption to her few hours of peace, she was glad to see Willow leading a group of friends towards their home. It meant that she was happy, and if she was so was Pat.
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