Sunday 17 November 2019

Episode One: Shirley Finch.

by Janet Howson

a bottle of water

Shirley’s key in the door sounded loud in the quiet of the evening. She pushed the heavy fire door open and to stop it from shutting, she leant her body against it as she manoeuvred herself and her shopping bag through the gap. She let the door clang shut, the noise adding to the headache that had started earlier on, during the quarrel. She must try and forget about it, there was work to be done. The first night was looming and there were so few rehearsals left.

Turning the lights on in the main hall, Shirley was yet again aware of how cold it always was. She wondered if church halls were kept cold, to keep the Sunday congregations awake or as a penance for sins accumulated throughout the week. She smiled to herself as she took off her coat and hung it on the back of a chair with her shopping bag. She pulled a stacking table over to the centre of the hall and placed a chair behind it. She then pulled out her prompt copy of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, her Director’s note book, pen, pencil, reading glasses and finally her mobile phone from the bag. She knew there was a message on the phone and she knew who it was from but she would not look at it until the end of the rehearsal. He had upset her enough for one evening. His lies, his promises his skill at persuading her that he was so sorry. Well, she’d had enough.

She pulled her auburn hair back off her face and secured it in a pony-tail with a bobble. She had never really altered her hair style from her days as a hippy. Then it was always loose. She used to tie ribbons and flowers in it, carry bells and walk bare footed and free. That seemed like a hundred years ago. It was her birthday today; he had forgotten of course. She hadn’t expected him to remember but it still hurt though. Sixty-five and recently retired from a job in the head offices of the charity Oxfam, with two grown up girls, Carrie and Lucy and two grandchildren, she felt anything but free. She didn’t know why she had volunteered to look after Carrie’s two year old from Monday to Friday. It exhausted her. She loved the little boy but he was so energetic and never seemed to need any rest. Perhaps she would have a word with Carrie and see if someone else could look after him at least one day out of the five. 

“Hallo.” A voice rang out followed by the door slamming. “Anyone  here?” The sound of heels on the bare wood floor got closer to the hall.

“In here,” Shirley shouted.

In bustled the willowy frame of Stacey wearing a black ‘city suit’ over a crisp white blouse. The heels on her shoes looked dangerous to Shirley who preferred kitten heels. Her red hair reached her shoulders and her lipstick was a gash of scarlet. She looked nothing like her role of Titania, a part she so wanted and Shirley knew she would shine in.

“Am I early? Worked late then went for a quick drink with a mate. I came straight here off the train, no point in going home first. I was starving so I picked up a biryani from that Indian take away on the corner near the station. Any plates and cutlery around do you think?”

“There should be something in the kitchen, if they haven’t locked everything away. They had a break in last year so they are very vigilant now.” The smell of the biryani seemed to fill the dusty church hall. Shirley’s stomach lurched. Her I.B.S. was playing up again and she hadn’t managed any dinner. That, plus the argument with Jamie. The accusations, the assumptions, the denials. 

Stacey put down her biryani and took off her coat, hanging it next to Shirley’s. “Be back in a mo.” She started towards the hall door, “Oh, I saw Jean and Lauren arriving, tasty motor Lauren’s got, she must be earning a fortune. I heard she’s just bought another property as well. Not that I’m at all jealous.” Laughing she disappeared and Shirley heard the click of her heals on the steps down to the kitchen. Shirley envied her youth. What she would give to be twenty three again and free of all the commitments and complications in her life. Free of Jamie. However, she would probably make the same mistakes again, she thought, wryly.

 Sounds of voices in the passageway and the sound of the fire door slamming announced the arrival of Jean and Lauren. Their conversation continued until they reach the hall. They are both muffled up in thick coats, scarves and woolly bobble hats. Jean is short and stocky with dark hair cropped close to her head. At thirty two she looked older than her years. She wore no make-up. Lauren in contrast was tall and athletic. Her fair, curly hair was tucked behind her ears. She had the healthy complexion of one who worked out regularly. Shirley knew she was in her mid-thirties but she looked no older than twenty five.

“Hi Shirley. The traffic is awful out there. There has been some sort of water mains burst and part of the A12 is flooded so everyone is trying to bypass it by coming off it at the crossroads near the big garage. A nightmare.” 

“And there are no parking spaces,” added Jean, “we had to do a bit of creative parking. Hope we don’t get a ticket but I doubt there will be any traffic wardens around at this time of night. Where are we starting from tonight, Shirley? I am still a bit wobbly with Hippolyta’s words in the last scene, otherwise I think I can do it without my script.”

“Oh, you creep. I bet you are the only member of the cast who can.” The sound of the door slamming again and voices, distracted Lauren. “That sounds like Nina, Jess and Val. Hopefully we will have a full cast today. Which will make a change.”

The three girls enter the hall, still talking. Nina is dressed in a combat jacket with jeans and walking boots. Her long hair is plaited. She is in her forties. “She shouldn’t have cast her in that role in the first place, Val, she was embarrassing.”

“Well who else would have played it though with the choice she had?  What do you think, Shirley?”

Val asked as she took off her black raincoat and hung it with the others on the back of the chairs. She took out a cosmetic purse and applied a coat of lipstick. She had  the smart appearance of a city worker with  styled hair, expensive shoes and designer handbag. She was still quite a catch in her late forties. She ignored the fact that Shirley had not answered her question and carried on. “I’ll just pop out for a quick fag before we begin.” She picked up her bag and exited the hall, nearly bumping into Stacey who was returning with her cutlery. “Hi, Stacey, is that your curry I can smell? I don’t know what’s worse? Curry or the fish and chips you brought in last week. See you in a minute.”

“Sorry, girls. I don’t suppose anyone has any bottled water. I can’t eat a curry without water.”

“I’ve got a bottle, Stace.” Jess fumbled around in her copious bag until she found a small bottle.She smiled at Stacey. She is a naturally kind woman in her thirties. Always pleasant, always ready to help.  She is wearing a loose blouse over elasticated waist jeans. She has struggled with her weight all her life but has now resigned herself to the shape she is. She has a pretty almost child-like face. She never wanted to be cast in a big part and was happy with her two small roles as a fairy and Snug, a mechanical.

“You are a star, Jess. I owe you one.” Stacey got on with the task of eating her biryani.

“Are we starting from the beginning today, Shirley?”

Shirley jerked out of her thoughts of Jamie and the row. “Yes, we are Jess. All scripts down. I would like to get to the end, but at least the end of the first act.”

The various responses of horror at the prospect of abandoning their scripts are aborted by the sound of the bang of the fire door, and the high-pitched laughter of two female voices. 

“Ah, that sounds like Debbie and Annie. Good, we are nearly all here. Stacey can you get rid of your plate etc. before we start?” Shirley was now feeling quite queasy with the smell and the emptiness of her stomach.

“No problem. Hi Debs, hi Annie, you going to share the joke with us all?”

Both girls collapsed in giggles again. Both were wearing short, black leather jackets, ‘little black numbers’ and high heels. Both had small handbags that matched their shoes and full make up plus false eye lashes. Debbie had blond short hair reminiscent of Marylyn Monroe and piercing blue eyes whereas Annie had long black hair and dark eyes. They are both in their late thirties but could pass for twenties . “Couldn’t do that, Stace, Shirley would throw us out for obscenities.” Annie lent in towards Stacey, “tell you in the tea-break.”

“Sorry we are a bit late, Shirley, Couldn’t find a handbag and shoes to match. Debbie had to lend me a bag in the end. Oh, while I think of it, any chance we can leave early? There is a band we want to see in Romford at the Pig and Kettle. It starts at ten o clock, but it doesn’t matter if we miss the first bit as it will be a warm up group but we will need to leave at the latest nine forty five.” 

Shirley felt quite exhausted as she always did when dealing with Debbie and Annie. They were so full of enthusiasm and energy. She had been like that at one time but now she just felt tired and depressed most of the time. Perhaps that was why Jamie had… she pushed the hurtful thoughts to the back of her mind. 

“No problem, as long as we start now and everyone has learnt their lines we should zip through it and you can enjoy the rest of your night.”

“Cheers, Shirley, I’ll quickly nip to the loo before we start. Knew I shouldn’t have had that vodka and cranberry juice before I came out.” Annie, headed towards the door, “Oh here comes trouble, Sean’s arrived.” She holds open the door for him. 

“Okay. Get the show on the road, Demitrius has arrived.” Sean enters flinging his arms wide and shimmying his hips. He is a slim, prematurely balding young man, clean shaven, wearing designer, ripped jeans and a black short sleeved shirt. He smells strongly of a mixture of cigarettes and after shave.

“Shut up, Sean. You still owe me a pound from two rehearsals back when I paid for your tea. So cough up! I’ll give you five minutes while I go to the loo.”

“The love of my life, the beautiful Annie. I would give you my last penny,” Sean hugged a reluctant Annie.

Annie shook Sean off, “I don’t want your last penny, just your last pound.” She disappeared through the door letting it slam shut.

Shirley found herself drifting off again. She had been the love of Jamie’s life at one time. He had looked so handsome the first time she saw him at her cousin’s wedding. He had been wearing a kilt and she was attracted to his rough, manly looks, his beard and athletic figure. He was a dream come true, but dreams can be dashed. She brought herself back to the present.

“Okay everyone let’s get started, Act one scene one. No scripts, I will prompt.” She looked round. 
“Oh, Jordan phoned me this morning.” Dependable Jordan with his almost puppy like devotion to her. She was very fond of him, clumsy and shy with very little self-confidence, she felt a sisterly love for him. She had given him the part of Oberon and she knew he would devote himself to the part. “His arthritis is playing him up and he is going to have to give it a miss tonight. Sean can you read in for him, he is only in the first and last scenes. Jason and Patrick aren’t here. Anyone know where they are?”

“Does anyone ever know where Jason and Patrick are, they are a law unto themselves,” Nina quipped.

“Jason is probably working late and Patrick relies on a lift from him. I was talking to Patrick earlier and he is definitely coming,” Jess added kindly.

“We’ll have to start without them or we won’t get through it. I will read in their parts until they arrive. So, I repeat, no scripts. In positions for Act one scene one.”

Mumblings and exaggerated coughs implied that most of the cast had not learnt their lines. Shirley chose to ignore it as they mounted the stage to get into positions for the court scene. Angie returned from the toilets and joined the others. She knew Patrick and Jason where not needed yet so she wouldn’t have to worry about reading in their lines. She opened her notebook, took the end off her pen and put on her reading glasses. Her mind wandered back to Jamie. How had the argument started? Was it the smell of perfume on his clothes or the hotel bill receipt for a double room she had found in his trouser pocket? He was angry with her for going through his things but she only wanted to empty the pockets before washing them. She knew it was guilt. Had she always known he was unfaithful? Probably, she just chose to deny it.

“Can’t I just hold on to my script today, Shirl. I promise I will have learnt it all by next week.”
Shirley came back to the present. “What did you say, Debbie?”

“Can I keep my script? It has been so busy at home, I haven’t had a moment for myself.”

Shirley was aware that Debbie had a disabled child but she couldn’t allow her to keep her script when the others all had to abandon theirs. “Sorry, Debbie, I will prompt you. I am sure you will be fine.”

Debbie sighed and disappeared back stage.

“Okay, when you are ready.” She was having difficulty gaining any enthusiasm for the rehearsal. She couldn’t get the picture of Jamie’s face out of her mind. His inability to explain his nights away. He had used up all the standard excuses, his car breaking down, heavy traffic, late night office get-togethers. She knew it was all fabrication. 

The hall doors flung open again. In rushed a tall, fresh faced, balding young man, clad in denim with a base-ball cap turned back to front on his head.  “So, so, sorry, Shirley. I took an extra shift. Needed the money. Patrick is following on. I think he needed the little boy’s room. Remind me to ask you about tickets in the break. Need about ten in total for the Friday night performance.”

“Oh, well done, Jason, I wish everyone could sell the amount of tickets you do. Could you get behind the scenes we are about to start. Oh, and no scripts, please.”

“Did I hear you say no scripts?” Patrick had crept up behind them. "That’ll be a problem for you then Jason.” He bangs Jason on the back. “Come on, mate, relinquish your script or die.”
“Shut up Patrick, we don’t all have a photographic memory.” I was only taking it to run through my lines before I went on.”

The two of them retreated behind the scenes. They made a comical sight. Jason relatively short in stature, Patrick unusually tall, very slim with cropped, black hair.

At last Shirley was alone in the hall with all the cast behind the set. She remembered to turn her phone to silent, aware it was informing her she had a message.  The first two actors entered and began. The words became a drone. She must concentrate. She watched the action for about ten minutes. She knew there was only one way she would be able to put her fears of what the message might say behind her. Would it be the end of forty years of marriage? How would she tell her daughters, her grandchildren? A cold feeling gripped her stomach. It was no good she would have to check the message. She tapped in her password and went to messages. Yes, it was from, Jamie.
‘Happy Birthday’ it said.

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