Xiuying, chinese herbalist, was so taken aback by the ridges appearing in my tongue when I was performing Giselle's "Mad Scene", she felt she must send for Mr Yong and get a second opinion.
'What is it your job, please?' she had asked, once I was lying still and not rustling the paper sheet on the cot. 'And give me your wrist fully.'
I told her, 'I'm a character actor with ballet skills.'
'And what are you performing just now? Sad, distressed character?'
‘Yes, in my comedy show Ballet Star Galactica I play Giselle. A peasant girl who is jilted, goes insane and kills herself.’
Xiuying clicked her tongue a number of times, then asked,
‘Do you like having kidney function, even kidney function that's not very good, as yours is? Then you must stop performing this thing.'
‘Can’t I just have herbs?’
I'd had them before. Tasting like melon, christmas pudding and fox shit.
‘Everyone can have herbs,' Xiuying said. 'But, you see, the psyche cannot tell the difference between what is real or not and every night you play this terrible sad life out. It is affecting your kidneys quite drastically. Even if we give you the herbs, you must stop performing for at least a week. And now, I am fetching Mr Yong. I don't think he will be pleased to see such a tongue as yours.'Actually, Mr Yong was philosophical seeing such a tongue as mine.
I had been told before that using even my most traumatic experiences as comedy fodder was no way to bring up my inner child.
What happened with the last man I had a fling with, for example: Bill.
He waited tables at one of the Aldeburgh restaurants one summer, staying in a caravan in Sizewell. Known as Posh Bill, on the run from his Lincolnshire stately home-life. Tall, dark and a little chunky. After a few nights at the Cross Keyes, on the beach drinking take-outs and at the Sizewell caravan, I realised Bill was showing off to me. You know what peacocks are like:
‘Whoops, my rather splendid turquoise and gold tail has just fanned up?’
And they always make it look unintentional?
‘Whoops, my t-shirt just rolled right up onto my shoulder and my head's itchy.’
‘Whoops, my wetsuit has just shucked itself down to my waist and I’m just having to strum my left pectoral muscle.’
‘Whoops, it’s another beach party and I’m just having to go swimming; and this towel I’m getting changed underneath is no bigger than a doll’s blanket – whoops! – and after my swim I’m just having to get out of the water fifty yards down the beach and jog back, wet and muscles humping.’
And not suffering from North Sea shrinkage either, apparently…
Love Is: when the dodgiest Baywatch scenario works for you.
Then there was Bill’s sensitive literature campaign. His Boys’ Own stuff - the Clancys, Grishams and Cusslers disappeared, along with Loaded Magazine, FHM and Nuts; and instead on the shelves was Woolf, the wrong Murakami, Isherwood and back copies of the National Trust Magazine. When I caught sight of the Proust and the Wallis Collection catalogue on his bedside table, I planned to sneak out to the chemist for the morning after pill.
Seriously, folks, I knew this was the day. There was the crackle in the air. Heathcliff was finally going to grab his Cathy by the sprouting heather.
Bill had bought steaks for lunch. Dead give-away. And a bottle of red wine, that he’d had chambréeing since ten because it wasn’t expensive and would need time to breathe. He let me taste it. It could have done with mouth to mouth.
And after lunch, he said, ‘Er…’
When he was nervous, this ‘er’ was on six tones going up the E flat major scale.
And he was looking over at his bed. Which in the way beds do in these situations had stopped being a normal size double and was about twice the size of Antarctica and getting bigger by the second.
And, then, on the gentle waft of Lynx Arabia Bill got curiouser…and curiouser…and curiouser.
Our ways parted after the summer holidays. Bill was killed the following spring. Oliver, Maitre D’ where he worked, saw me putting up a poster for Turtle Soup in the window of Baggots and came over to make sure that I knew about Bill's death.
I hadn't known.
‘Car accident,' Oliver explained. 'He was driving.’
It was the period when organist Andrew Campbell sometimes asked me to sing with his chamber choir at services around Suffolk. Harvest Festivals, weddings and Taisès. The choir was penciled to sing at Luke’s memorial in Aldeburgh, in fact - and I might very well have turned up to sing not knowing that he was dead. As it turned out his memorial service was held in Lincolnshire.
But when I stopped crying out on the marshes, I thanked the gods for the plot.
I performed the play Along Came Bill for two years around small theatres and studio spaces, won a prize, got a lovely review in The Times; then shelved it.
And now some ten years later I've been having workshops on revising the play from screenwriter Ken Levison; all because I sat next to him on a bench by Brighton Pier, having no clue who he was, and he asked what I was scribbling away at there?
'Dear boy, don't mind my saying so, but turning up to the funeral of a past lover can't be the premise of your play, it's a mere plot device. And you can't begin with that clowning scene of you warming up your singing voice. The play is about betrayal, dear boy, not about singing. Nor dog sitting, neither, so you can cut all that about having to feed the dog with its Emily Bronte souvenir spoon and so on. Or leave it all in, of course, it's up to you. I'm only making suggestions. But then you'll just have the feedback direct from your audience - which, I strongly suspect, would take the form of wave upon wave from the stalls of indifference, and that's never pleasant. Oh, and you must capsize Bill's boat to set off the discovery of the betrayal in Act One - where you talk about licking the carbon raw off your grandmother's coal straight from the scuttle to deal with the family flatulence. Act Two is too late for this material. You know, actually, I wonder if ultimately you've bitten off more than you can chew, and your comic persona will prove a danger colliding with such bleakly sad material?'
Oh, not to worry, I said. 'I've got my fall back safety net. I started this when I was convalescing from a run of Giselle's "Mad Scene". I have a periodic knock on the window of the chinese herbalist and show Mr Yong my tongue, keeping him up to speed with the physical manifestations of my psyche. He'll either wave me along or beckon me in, depending.'