"Sometimes I write to make sense of the world"
Monologue for Paines Plough Theatre Company, Come To Where I'm From.
They call you an off comer. Well, there’s no hiding the fact that you’re “not from round here”, just listen to that South London twang. Yes, I know you’ve lived in Ulverston for most of your adult life. I know what this Cumbrian market town means to you. I know everything, because I’ve been here, inside your head all this time. Oh, you won’t have been aware of me. I’m quiet, you see, and patient. I like to pick my moment.
Ulverston. Cobbled streets and crooked houses in ice cream colours. When they say you’re an off-comer, they mean from off the peninsula. The Furness peninsula: an almost-island stretching out from the north shore of Morecambe Bay. Off comer. I wonder if that’s how they might describe me?
Your problem is that you can’t, hand on heart, call yourself a Londoner, despite being born there.
You’re not from any one place entirely, but then, how many people are? You come from a family of immigrants. Home, for you, existed in other people’s memories, in a country you travelled to by train on the other side of the wall that once divided East from West. A black and white world trapped in a different time and seeped in loss. Home was ripping yourself in two. Am I right? Maybe this was where I began: the piece of grit that settled inside your head. I can’t be more precise; who can remember the moment they were conceived? I might have been there, in your DNA, passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. I can’t tell you how far back, because all I remember is dozing, warm and idle, lulled by the pulse and throb of your body’s engine room.
You came to Ulverston for a job. You were twenty eight and had spent the previous decade moving from place to place, across the country, across the world, avoiding living anywhere longer than a year, talking about freedom whilst all the time searching. You come from a line of survivors; women gripping on by their fingernails, damp with sweat, clawing their way to a better life.
It was May. Everything was vibrant green and bathed in spring sunshine. You sat in the dappled light beneath an ancient oak tree, remember? On a splintered bench, as the dog splashed about in the beck. I felt you relax. Time to stop and rest for a while. You created a space. The rhythm of the engine slowed and I stirred. But you didn’t hear me. You were off, striding ahead, fists clenched, eyes on the ground, and my whispers couldn’t reach you.
Your two children were born in the shadow of these fells and you will never leave this place.
Your daughters are true Cumbrian girls. You’ve watched them as babies, sitting on the shores of Coniston, dribbling strawberry juice onto their bibs, the sunlight on the water reflected in their eyes, and you’ve seen this landscape imprinting itself somewhere deep inside them. You’ve seen them clambering over the fells and splashing in the becks and you know they will carry this place in their bones, and this has both comforted you and opened old wounds.
Ulverston is easily identified from miles around by a beacon on top of Hoad Hill. A giant pepper pot lighthouse built in memory of Sir John Barrow and recently restored to its original, copper topped, sparkling white splendour. When you think about where you’re from, I know it’s Hoad Hill with its monument that you picture. Your house is nestled at the foot of it, behind the Norman tower of St Mary’s Church, but it’s this hill that makes it home.
January. The bleakest time of year. Everything stripped back. Stark, bare. Only the fittest will survive. You are in Furness General Hospital. The doctor sitting opposite you with the test results is your neighbour and good friend, because this is how it works in a small town; your doctor, the butcher, your child’s class teacher, the builder, the postman, are all people you know, or people connected to someone you know. There is nothing anonymous or one dimensional about a relationship in a small town. Astrid, the doctor, your neighbour and friend, is matter of fact and unsentimental. She’s an eye doctor and you’re here because you called her last night to ask her advice. You’d been reading to the children from a picture book at the kitchen table, something you used to do regularly to distract them fighting while they ate their tea. They’d been complaining that they couldn’t see the pictures and you’d realised this was because you were having to turn the book right round in order to read. You tried looking out of the side of your eye, but all you could see was a white fog.
Astrid removes her glasses and you want to stop everything then. You want not to have phoned her, not to have come in and had that test, not be sitting here now watching your friend, the doctor, let go of her cool, professional exterior in order to tell you something, which you know is going to change everything in your life, irrevocably.
A tumour. In your brain. Probably benign, but large enough to have reached your optic nerve. She is picking up the phone and organising an MRI scan.
I’m not sure I like the word tumour; it has such negative connotations. I prefer to describe myself as a pearl. A pearl begins as a piece of grit and grows slowly, layer upon precious layer. Pearls mean tears but they also mean wisdom. Did you know that? Some wisdom is hard earned. I’m sorry for that, but needs must. How else could I make you hear me?
You take the bus and sit, staring out at the streets while it carries you home, thinking how you’d always imagined blindness to be black, not this thin white mist creeping in from the edges. Back in Ulverston, you walk straight to your house, but as you wander through the quiet rooms you cannot find a place to settle.
If it’s any comfort, I was, at that moment, as wretched as you. The doctor would call me benign, and he’s right, I am not malicious, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be dangerous. I can grow, you see, and fill a space, and push beyond it. I can make my presence felt. I can reach out in any direction I choose, and who knows what the consequences of that might be? But in my defence, there’s a risk for me in this too, because that moment I made myself known, I became vulnerable. Those surgeons with their cameras and their scalpels. Yes, I ‘ve brought you to the precipice, but you’re not alone. We’re in this together.
So, as you pace those rooms, both our lives are in the balance and I’m afraid what happens next is beyond my control. But then you do exactly what I’d hoped you would do: you put on your walking boots, call the dog and set off up Hoad Hill.
This hill you have climbed more or less every day for seventeen years, has mothered you when your own mother could not. The paths you walk curve like a woman’s hip, the dip of her waist, the swell of her breast, the space between her shoulder and her neck where a small head might rest. This hill has soothed you. It is the cool palm on your hot forehead, a thumb rubbing a tear from your eye, a soft mouth against your temple. When you first stamped along these paths, claiming a place for yourself in this world, this landscape calmed you. Day after day you were welcomed, whatever your mood. This place can be splendid in the sunshine, glittering like a woman dressed, decorated and scented for celebration, but on dark days too, shrouded in grey, it lifts you towards the top, holding you up to the thrash of rain and wind, and then coaxing you back down into the shelter of its hollows. Here you’ve shared the beginnings of your stories and listened to secrets, in the wind. Characters have been formed and their lives interwoven, as your boots sank into this muddy earth. From this peak you’ve gazed at the Lake District mountains and the wild sweep of Morecambe Bay, the dialogue of imaginary people filling your head.
But today everything is silent. The space inside your head is filled by me. Listen! You are the landscape you grew up in; it exists inside you. You search for it wherever you go. Home is where you settle. It’s where you make your peace. You were not from here, but this landscape has shaped you and the woman you are now, is of this place.
The next two weeks are taken up with hospital appointments and the breaking of news. You have to be careful who you tell. This is not something for the local grapevine; the words tumour and brain are enough to make you a ghastly celebrity in minutes. You are careful. You make plans, just in case. You write letters to your girls, your sister, your dearest friend and your husband and hope they will never have to read them.
The day before your operation you plan to take a train to Preston and a taxi to the hospital with your overnight bag. You wave your three year old off to preschool and walk your seven year old to the school gate in the morning. You bake chocolate brownies, listening to the radio and buy unnecessary dusters and dishcloths from a door to door salesman. Your husband would like to drive you to the hospital, but you’re afraid that if he goes with you the thread that ties you to this place might be weakened and snap. Your train is due to leave just before school is out. You have time for one last walk on Hoad Hill and of course, I go with you.
It’s as if someone knows this day is pivotal and has pulled out all the stops. One of those unexpected crystal days that burst out of the gloom leaving you gasping. Ice blue sky and shocking greens, the purple mountains sharp, the bay dazzling. You sit on a bench with the warmth of the sun on your face and look out across the jumbled rooftops of the town and you know.
You know that all will be well. Because whatever happens tomorrow, this will remain. And your children will climb this hill and they’ll bring their children and the life you have lived together will be remembered here, those moments that make up the fabric of your history. Jemima at two years old, in her blue and white fleece and matching hat, waddling between the cows on her chubby legs, Nadia rolly-pollying through the sheep poo in pink leggings, the two of them struggling up the rocky waterfall in their wellies, or scrambling through the bracken to find the dog’s ball.
And it’s at this moment that you finally discover what you’ve been looking for, and I know that I’ve not taken this risk in vain. That brittle, clench-fisted young woman, who strode along, barely noticing the view, is long gone, and in her place is someone else. Someone nurtured and shaped and softened by this landscape. Someone who has learned to look at the world and take time to breathe. Someone with a home, friends and a family whom she makes time for. Someone with a little more wisdom. Someone with a pearl.
And you sit, on a bench dedicated to a much loved mother and grandmother, not knowing if you will still be part of this world tomorrow, but aware that right now, you are happy - a deep contentment - and the peace this gives you is a gift. This landscape comforts you. It will still be here long after you, and I, are gone, and you are reassured by this. And you know now, why you want to live. Not to achieve anything other than what you have right now. Every day after this, for you, will be a bonus. You want to keep walking here. You want to watch your children blossom and see your grandchildren roll over the curves of this hill, and snuggle into the secret spaces and feel that gentle presence surround them. And I want you to have this too.
So here you are. You have survived and so have I. We can rest easy for now. You still climb Hoad Hill every day. Every bonus day. And you look down over the town where your family was born, and you know that this, finally, is where you belong. You are still here. This is your home.