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Jeremiah Savant’s ‘Inside the Inside’

A Parallel Companion to ‘Adventures In Mental Health

SEVEN: I Become a Friend of Dorothy

My life tried to return to normal after the Near Death Experience which faded quickly at the time, yet still lingered in semi-forgotten dreams. Xmas came and went, and all I did was drift. Most afternoons were free, and although my wages were fairly meagre and I had not much company to speak of, I would pootle off and entertain myself one way or another. I went to the cinema a lot, and saw some pretty dreadful films; although I remember watching Risky Business and thinking that the young male lead had a great future ahead of him.

All of my ‘ambitions’ regarding doing things to do with the stage and acting or whatnot were completely gone from my mind as I simply went through each day. At one point, I met a woman a couple of years younger than myself, and we went out for a while, but… the old, ‘what now?’ crept in much sooner than expected, and I realised very early on that I was just going through the motions to avoid the empty emotions of being alone. Surely enough, around the three-month mark, it all fell apart. She deserved better. Much better.

There was so much I know I should have done differently, but it was a combination of circumstances. I felt trapped, living at my parents’ house yet not being able to work out how – nor able to afford – to move out into a place of my own; and she was still living with her parents. The privacy I had enjoyed with Ann could never be. Furthermore, although I had fully settled into the lifestyle of the jobs that I had, seemingly finding my own level like some kind of thick polluted water, I knew I had little by way of prospects to offer this young woman. Confusion reigned in my head and heart. When the acrimonious ending occurred, I just carried on carrying on. Then the pub changed hands and I lost that job. I was immediately offered more hours to make up at the other place I worked… but things really needed to change. I was restless.

So I re-joined the S.A.D.S. (Saint Anthony Drama Society) just in time to help out behind the scenes of a big musical production. In a big community show, it is a natural thing for small groups of people who are friends to clump together, and I was clumpless to start with. That play finished, then a few weeks later the auditions for the next one were held. The company did not seem to be hanging about.

I enjoyed the activity, but increasingly found that I did not particularly like most of the people there and over the next couple of years felt myself somewhat marginalised. Most of the parts I went for remained uncast until the director of that show brought in a ‘friend of theirs’ sort of at the last-minute… it was extremely frustrating to overhear, “Well, he always wanted to give it a go so I thought, why not?”.  I could say why not; I would be better in the part than he, but hey-ho. I considered that I had to ‘pay my dues’ and do the background work to get the recognition… which never really came, despite eventually being invited onto the committee. It never really scratched my itch, though; I wanted to be directed hard – perhaps even brutally. I yearned to discuss my character and how to make him realistic. My longing to be moulded into a role never has been fulfilled.

I discovered that most of the cast and crew, for that awful drawing room mystery, had been ‘guests’ from a neighbouring society… which I had not joined in case Ann was still active with it and I did not know how awkward things might be if I showed up.

However, there were enough people I got on well with for me to stay with the S.A.D.S. I began to view these minor roles as ‘cameos’ – without which no S.A.D.S. production would be complete… I simply applied my full effort to each part; the net result was that by doing this, I stole every scene I was in even though I underplayed compared with the rest of the cast.

There was one show in which I played a Canadian, who was drunk a lot of the time. I did my research, listened hard to well-known Canadian actors and had some coaching from a friend who luckily was from Canada. I also did a weekend of being slightly sozzled the entire time to note how I felt and to see how far I missed doorways by. This all paid off when the director, of that show, at the ‘wrap’ party introduced me to ‘an old friend’ who promptly asked me how long I had spent in Canada and how I managed to seem so authentically drunk. During our chat, I noticed that the director was looking daggers at me, and I knew that if she or any of her little cadre in the Society were directing, my fate was forever sealed; I would never get a major part. At another show, I was playing ‘a frail youth in turmoil’ and decided I was going for the full monty; I was going to do what I’d never been able to (or had needed to) do before… I was going to cry on stage. I failed in my mission as the tears threatened but never fell – as my voice cracked no matter how I tried to control it… however, the atmosphere during that character’s speech of wretchedness was intense, and again caused many comments.

This one speech – which was not particularly long, certainly not long enough to be called a monologue (or soliloquy) – and how I did it taught me a lot; something I consider to be rare and invaluable to an actor. It taught me how to take one of these blocks of writing and bring it alive in a pseudo-spontaneous way. There are very few actors who can take one of these chunks and make it sound as if it is ‘just tripping off the tongue’ as if it had not been thought of before. I listened hard to people delivering these speeches, and noticed that here they would pause a beat

for a reaction, make a physical move and sigh then take their inflections in a different direction

before repeating the process in reverse there.

It always sounded (and felt) to me as if it was too studied, too fake. Let the words lead, and if the writing is just too bad to consider, then translate into something which works for you then translate it back. As Bogart once told a young actor – say the lines and mean it.

One year, at the inevitable Xmas Show, I was cast as an ancient time-traveller… so I studied old people; how did they walked, what sort of gestures did they make, how do I get a feasible sounding voice..? I was aiming for a slightly cartoonish characterisation yet hoping, through voice and body alone, to be personally invisible. Too often had I seen a character in something and been able to see the actor lurking underneath the heavy makeup; I liked my makeup to be light. I allowed my hair to grow out even longer than it was, and grew my beard long over my cheeks… then made extensions for it to stick on my jawline.

At the ‘wrap’ party we all just stayed in the church hall, turned it into a buffet and brought out the drinks (as usual), with all members and their guests invited. An older woman, who knew me very well as I had served her every evening during my time at the pub, made a point of coming up to me and declaring that she was wondering all through the first half who ‘the old man was,’ and only knew it was me when she looked in the programme. Several other members within earshot cast me glances of disdain, while I had a little laugh with her and carried on with the evening.

When not at rehearsals, I would go down the pub mid-to-late evenings. An attractive woman tending bar, Gillian, started to tease me gently about ‘being an AC-torrr’. She was witty and vivacious while seeming very sweet and ordinary. As time passed, she came to a couple of the plays I was in, and one night the subject of films came up. She said that she wanted to go and see one of the more intellectual historical films, but would prefer not to go alone. I agreed it was always more fun with company and suggested we went together. So began an occasional outing to the cinema with a new friend… with whom I recognised a certain spark. In the cinema, we sat with our shoulders touching, and if our arms met on the arm-rest between us, we just sort of entwined them… almost, but not quite, holding hands. It was casual and relaxed, very comfortable.

She was somewhat older than I and divorced with two pre-teen children. I was not sure how I felt about that although I went with her and her children to a get-together at a neighbour’s house, and it was fun; we all got on well together… but something was holding me back. It was not the children thing, nor the age thing, it was… was it because I was a bit of a snob and did not want to be known as the toyboy of the local barmaid or was there something else?

All the while, I continued looking for another job – preferably full-time. I finally found one at a local electrical superstore, and had no idea exactly how much my life was about to change. Not long after I had started, one of my friends from the S.A.D.S. popped into the store and hung nervously around for few minutes. He then approached me and invited me to play the Tin Man in a version of the Wizard of Oz he was mounting as a community theatre/public relations/tax write-off. He earned his living as an entertainer, mainly doing close-up magic and a few larger illusions. One of the results of this, is that I have seen the classic Zig Zag Lady up close, and the first few times, I had to swallow the urge to vomit… it’s so much better to see it live than you might think. The other was meeting Beth.

Beth was slightly shorter than I, had dark curly-ish hair (which I did not realise was a perm), a tight waist, was trim and pert and she reminded me of a Midge Ure song – That Certain Smile. They went together. She had recently moved with her two just-teen children, Alexander and Bella, from North Wales. She and Bella were both in the church choir and both in the panto. I met Beth at the first read-through and my initial conversation starter was rebuffed – I discovered I was a terrible flirt; not incorrigible, actually very bad at it… and at recognising it. Was Gillian flirting with me every night at the pub? And if so, was it just ‘professional’ banter to ease the time or did it actually mean something?

Beth always accompanied Bella to rehearsals, and if she was not doing her own small part, which was the Good Witch of The North, she would read a book she had brought along. I increasingly stole longing looks at her when it seemed like she was preoccupied. ‘That Certain Smile’ was the smile she used to encourage the munchkins onto the stage for the first big song. It tied me up in knots, gave me a massive happy slap and flipped me onto my back every time I saw it. I would have given anything to see that smile up close; closer than close – kissing distance. Bearing in mind it was a long time before any smoking ban – we, who smoked, simply found the ashtrays and got on with it. As the rehearsal period progressed, and the evenings grew dark, I cannot remember when or how but Beth and I gradually started to gravitate towards each other – possibly because of Bella teasing me, perhaps one of us had asked the other for a light for a cigarette. I simply cannot recall but it became so that whoever was there first, claimed a small space for the other.

I could feel the sexual tension building just like it had with Carol back in the Sixth Form. This time, I was not going to make the same old mistakes – I was going to make bold big new ones – for that tension was also present with Gillian (well, so a drinking buddy told me).

One evening, Gillian had invited me to her place for a drink and a quiet evening in before the whole Xmas thing got into full swing – lots of parties and pub working for her – and after her children had gone to bed, we were being rather domestic and snuggling together on the large sofa and drinking wine. She set hers aside, and kissed me on the mouth, then told me she wanted to take me upstairs to take advantage of me. I held the side of her face in my hand and looked into her eyes and said that I’d like to but I’d rather see where ‘this’ was going first… I did not want to hurt or mislead her; I was not sure what I wanted with her – I was still, after several years, churned up about the last two relationships I’d had. She accepted this and settled back down comfortably and we finished watching the late film, then I went home… after we had tenderly embraced and fairly chastely kissed. I was beginning to think that a sort of brotherly relationship might be pleasant.

Holding back was a fairly coldly ‘arrived at’ decision; it was also self-preservation. From memory, the moment sexual activity started was when I began to feel… well, married, I suppose. ‘In a relationship.’ I wanted the rest of the relationship before the sex this time, just to see if I would pair-bond as closely, or if it would be a more satisfying experience. However, the whole evening, I had also been wondering if this could be how it might be with Beth; I was finding her increasingly attractive – even hauntingly beautiful. In my goodnight kiss with Gillian, I did not close my eyes as she had because if I had, it would have been Beth in my arms. I did not want to start things then mess about because it did not feel right, like I had with Mary back in the Sixth Form. Causing her the upset I had done, was not an experience I had enjoyed and simply did not wish to repeat it.

When I got home, I thought explosively, “I COULD BE HAVING SEX RIGHT NOW!” It was not a thought that persisted, because there was another face and figure emblazoned across the cinema screen in my closed eyes as I drifted off to sleep… Beth, in full costume, as the Good Witch of the North.

I had arrived late at the rehearsal the previous evening and Bella, as soon as she spotted me, ran over to give me a twirl to show off her munchkin costume, then grabbed my hand and took me to her mum. Time did a disorientating and very welcome slow-motion thing as Beth turned around. Yes, the dress was a little on the scruffy and tacky side, with a bit too much detailing, but this was a panto and she was a ‘good witch’ – essentially a fairy. Perhaps the trail of tinsel around her trim and tiny waist like a belt was a bit much, but the plain silver of it was like the much-needed cream on a chocolate cake… not that there was anything brown or beige about this dress… yes, there were flashes of just the right shade of red, but a lot of that dress

‘Oh my god!’ I thought, ‘it just had to be PINK didn’t it?’

It was the clingy sort of dress which is demure until one sees it on the sort of woman who pushes all your buttons – and mine were being thumped by mallets. While Beth was still turning, I saw the slight inward curve of the small of her back when she was sideways, and then when she was fully facing me I was very aware of those similar inward curves of her waist (very much accentuated by that tinsel); and the outward curves of her hips. She had been looking down… then super slowly looked up and smiled ‘that certain smile!’ I thought crazily just before my mind almost melted. I was lost for words for a moment – then she skipped a little to one side and picked up a sliver stick with a silver star on the end and waved it in the air.

“What do you think?” she asked and seemed a little anxious when I paused. I wanted to tell her she was too beautiful to look at. I wanted to say that all of a sudden, the brightest being in the whole of the universe was shining before me, and making me feel like the foulest dark thing that should scutter away into the shadows in shame. I yearned to tell her… that unless I looked away now, my eyes would be burned by the flame of beauty before me. I did not though, I smiled and told her she looked terrific. My reward was the smile. Maybe she guessed what had gone through my mind. Maybe…

On the verge of sleep, I opened my eyes in near-daylight of my unlit bedroom with the thin curtains letting through the ghastly glow of thousands of streetlights. Had I done the right thing tonight? Maybe Gillian had wanted a one-off, like Ann clearly had wanted. Or was she after an occasional ‘thing’ or what? If I had been fair to anyone, to whom had it been, her or Beth?

Questions, questions, questions. The only thing I knew for sure was that – although I was playing one, I was definitely not ‘a Friend of Dorothy.’  Time, as they say, would be the teller of the tale being told. The only trouble is that I had to live through the whole damned thing, not the edited highlights one gets in a memoir of some kind…

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Jeremiah Savant’s ‘Inside the Inside’ is a parallel companion to ‘Adventures In Mental Health‘.

If you would like to connect with Jeremiah, or have any questions about this series, feel free to get in touch.