Shortly before I flew out to Afghanistan to perform for Combined Services Entertainment I was practicing fast pirouettes and tore my hamstring. The back of my leg looked like pureed canaries, and I thought how difficult it would have been to recreate this look on my childhood teddy-bear Robert. I would force my parents to give Robert the symptoms of my illnesses, and he’d come with me to see the doctor. Robert had lipstick dots drawn all over his face with a cocktail stick when I had measles; daubs of Parker’s blue-black Quink when I abseiled minus a rope down the side of my cot; and chickpeas sewn into him somewhere strategic when my mumps spread down below, where you never want mumps to spread to.
But perhaps more of a concern than anointing a teddy under the bum with Cochineal and Tartrazine was how I would get through ten days of dancing in Afghanistan on whatever 'stages' there might be. Going for physio, rehearsing Giselle's hops on the other leg I told myself to be zealous about doing a Licia Albanese before shows on this tour. At the half hour call before her performances at the old Met in New York Albanese would be found on hands and knees checking the stage surface by torchlight and making repairs with a hammer and some pliers; she said that doing so had saved her over the years from at least twenty-five fatal falls. In Afghanistan I did my Licia Albanese over a sand-blown right angle in a boardwalk; over mortar-gouged flagstones; black-plastic topped ammunition boxes laid end to end and over orange crates covered with cardboard filched from the cook-house. Lighting technician, Spoons, remarked that as the baked beans slogan wasn't standing proud of the cardboard there had possibly been no need for the hammer.
Stacks, Royal Marine, who speaks of his own physical perfection with quiet reverence, took over my physio sessions out in theatre. He had looked after the Combined Services tour of Iraq in January and he and I stayed in touch.
In early March he messaged me with some photos taken on his grandparents’ farm. ‘Premature lambs in the warming oven of the Aga AWWWWWW, princess, look!!!’
in April there were photos of his thighs. 'Because I know you like me to let you know these things as they happen, just had my latest medical and it was remarked on how textbook the ratio of length to girth of my quads is.'
And at two a.m. one Sunday in May he rang from a club in Canal Street. ‘Princess, tell this girl, Sophie, that you’re writing a book all about me. Trying to pull her. Putting you on speakerphone, chick.’
A female voice had asked, ‘So is he not spinning me a line here, then?’
‘My Tutu's Gone AWOL! is mainly about him,' I said. 'But there are other people in it.’
I was quick-smarted back off speakerphone. ‘Other people?’ Stacks hissed. ‘What part of I’m trying to pull here did you miss? Mentioning other fucking people. TUBBIN!’TUBBIN: Marine-speak for Thumb Up Bum Brain In Neutral.
In the gym on base in Kandahar Stacks said we were starting me on the cross-trainer. 'Stop pressing buttons when you don't know what they're for, please. Thank you. I'll just put it on low speed and set it to incline. That'll stretch-out your hammy. Hold onto the handles, don't walk with your arms folded. You look like my nan pissed off walking behind my granddad out metal-detecting in Morecambe Bay.'
While I walked he pointed to some Marines to one side of the gym in vests and shorts doing weights. ‘Notice how none of us are on something as girly as the cross-trainers. We think they’re for Paras.’
Opposite the Marines, nearest a wall of mirrors, were some Americans. In pairs they spotted one another for bench presses or played human ping-pong with medicine balls. At the back of the gym were Canadians doing Yoga to guitar accompaniment.
‘When they're not being gung-ho to all out fuck, they're totally into being chilled and holistic,' Stacks said, spraying disinfectant on the bench he'd just been lying on to press a barbell the size of Streatham. 'You can never get salad at scoff if the Canadians have done a locust fly-by on it. And if you go into the different blokes’ tents out here you’ll notice something straight away. We have tits and bums posters; the Yanks aren’t allowed that kind of filth so they have wrestling personalities; the Canadians have one single advert for Pro-biotic Yoghurt.’
An hour or so later while he was supervising me stretching, Stacks said how lucky I was to have the walking rocky-outcrop that was his truly working on me. 'Mine must be the best physio input you've ever had, right?'
'Equal best. Tania Parkinson was also amazing; in Aldeburgh. I used to go to her with my sciatica, or when my left foot refused to lift-off for bunny-hops, or when I had Frankenstein neck.'
He nodded. 'And to be honest, chick, you're not in a good way with your hammy, so go to this Tania when you're back, I'd say.'
'I can't, Stacks. She died. I sang at her funeral last June in Aldeburgh.'
'She asked me to. I saw her at Saxmundham station and she told me the cancer had come back and she had put in her will that I was going to sing at her funeral. Rose of England. And that was that.'
I said, 'I've since been put in some other ladies' wills in Aldeburgh to sing at funerals.' I totted up in my head. 'Three down, four to go.'
Stacks wiped his face with a towel, looking at me. 'Right, that's us. See you in the Green Bean when I'm showered and shiny. Mochas are on you.'
He wanted a chocolate muffin as well, ta, as he had burned excess calories by proxy being so hands on with someone with my BMI. He sat spooning Mocha foam into his mouth looking down at the table, and then said, 'Chick I'd like to think that if the worst came to the worst, you'd come and sing and for me.'
'What, when you marry Kim I can come and sing "It Should have Been Me!".'
'Serious thing, mate.'
'But I don't want anything religious. I'd like for you to sing your fake Welsh songs.'
'Okay.' I exhaled, feeling my eyes go moist. ‘Couldn’t tell you the honour, Stacks, but let’s hope I won’t ever have to.’
He picked up his half-full cup Mocha, indicating that I should do the same.
‘Mate,’ he said, clinking his cup against mine.