So, apart from the odd panto I'd written for The Preston Deaf Society (Long story. I used to be their DJ on a Saturday Night. Honestly, no jokes I was their DJ, tough crowd too. But that's for another time.) and the odd script adjustment for the Preston Drama Club Panto, which in turn lead to me writing 'Hansel and Gretel' for them, the only proper writing I'd done was the aforementioned 'Thank You' for the One Act Festival. I'd always loved writing, never a great reader, I tend to prefer comics and magazines to actual books, but I never thought I was much good at it. This pattern of 'wasn't very good at it' has run through my life from start to, well, I suppose one day, finish.
Anyway, without going over old ground, or boring the readers that know me and my family well, I came to write a full length play.
It had started life as a short One Act, I had the opening speech, the final speech, and not very much inbetween. It was called, originally 'The Lark Ascending' and was loosely based on my two lovely sisters.
Anyway, I never finished the One Act, I put it away, and with going off to Drama School I pretty much forgot about it. Although, it was always in the back of my mind to finish it.
Skip forward a couple of years. 2003 to be exact. I'm sat in Carluccios in Ealing with my bezzy Girlfriend Amanda Daniels (Girlfriend as in friend who's a girl, not, well, you get the picture.) I was on tour with 'Office Suite' and Amanda was looking for some gritty play about women, for women, written by gritty women, that she could produce and be in. So, I tell her about my play, about it being about my sisters, about the fact I'd written, oh, a couple of pages, and before I knew it I was telling Amanda everything, what it was like, what we were like, a family growing up, and something I said, recalling how my sister Aron had died of cancer and before that how her and my other sister Grainne had stopped talking to each other when my mother died, and how the illness had brought them back together again, and I burst into tears and made a dash for Carluccios toilets.
When I came back, after composing myself and being very apologetic, Amanda asked me to write it all down, turn it into a play and she'd produce it.
As I've said before, many times, I'm not the best writer, or actor come to think of it, but I've been very fortunate in having supportive family and friends. How many unknown writers do you know have a friend who is willing to part with a lot of time and money to put on something that may crash and burn. Amanda is one such friend.
Anyway, I went back on tour, and started thinking more about the play, what I could write, what it would be like, just bits and pieces, and when I had a break from the tour I sat down and started writing. The Big Bear that is my other half kept me topped up with cups of tea, sandwiches, gallons of Jack Daniels and Coke, occaissionally stopping to pass me a hanky when I burst into tears again and again over another painful memory, until, finally, I had a beginning, and an ending, still nothing for the middle though.
I sent what I had to Amanda, who immediately said she wanted to do it. Result.
There was one hurdle I had to get over though, if you want to call my sister Grainne a hurdle that is.
I found I'd written something very raw, personal and painful. A no holds barred account of us as a family growing up. I didn't spare any blushes, and, I suppose in a pig headed way, I'd written something that could be rather offensive and embarrassing for some members of my family. I didn't want to hurt anybody, that wasn't the exercise, but I found I couldn't write it any other way. So, I grabbed the bull by the balls and sent a copy to my sister. If she didn't like it, or thought that it might be a little too much for the family to take, then that would be it, I'd scrap it and work on something else, not that I had any ideas as what to write instead.
Thankfully Grainne loved it, in fact she encouraged me to go even darker, to make it less sugar coated.
So I did.
In the meantime, Amanda had shown my writing to Sonia Fraser, a director and tutor from our old drama school. She hadn't told Sonia I'd written it, she just said it was a new female writer. Apparently Sonia's words were, 'Whoever she is Darling, snap her up immediately.'
And so, what was originally 'The Lark Ascending' became 'Third Finger, Left Hand.' With Amanda and Sonia's hard work it was workshopped (Car maintenance!) at Theatre Royal York, before moving to The Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh for the Festival. Amanda played 'Grace', Angela Clerkin played 'Niamh', Sonia directed, and I spent the summer in Lincolns Inn Fields dressed as various women in 'Comedy of Errors.'
I'm proud of 'Third Finger.' I can't get through it without crying, then again, neither can an audience.
The story of losing someone to cancer is universal, but there was something about the play, the relationship of the sisters, my sisters, their growing apart, and eventual coming together for a final time, that hit home with a lot of people.
Everyday, either in Edinburgh, or when the play moved back to York and then The New End in Hampstead, Amanda would ring and tell me of the effect it was having. People refusing to move from the auditorium until they could speak to her and Angela. People who had similar stories themselves, or feelings that they'd surpressed for so long, suddenly now having the chance to let those feelings, memories, pain, bubble up and burst out.
One particular woman, a tourist from America,who saw it in Edinburgh stopped Amanda afterwards to thank her and to explain that, like the sisters in the play, like my sisters in life, she had had a falling out with hers. Their relationship was so bad that when she heard that her sister too was dying from cancer she thought, so what, too late, she wasn't going to make peace with her. After seeing the play, she told Amanda that she was cutting her holiday short. She was going home to be with her sister for her final days.
Still brings a lump to my throat that.
I've rambled on too long, and you've probably forgotten what was at the beginning of this story or why I'm even telling it. I'm currently at the moment trying to get the play revived and performed again, it's a story I think should be heard.
In short, the play is told by the two sisters who play every part, switching characters, making us laugh, and, at certain points, cry. It's not Steel Magnolias, but it's good.
Anyway, here's one of my favourite bits. It's Grace talking about her mother. And just incase you're wondering why I haven't written a play about my brother, well, you'll have to wait a little longer for that one.
Thank you for reading.
Niamh: If me Mum wasn’t in the kitchen, you’d find her sat in the breakfast room, gazing out the window.
[AS SHE SPEAKS, SHE BECOMES HER MOTHER.]
Her legs out in front of her. Feet crossed. Arms folded, but with her left hand resting on her cheek, her little finger in her mouth. Just gazing out the window. It’s those times I really miss. It was just you and her. You could just sit and talk. And she’d tell you everything. About being a girl. About the war. About her sisters. About meeting me Dad. Everything.
GRACE: [GALLOPING UP] Whoa Girl!
What are you doing, Mummy?
NIAMH: Oh, nothing. Just waiting.
GRACE: What are you waiting for, Mummy?
NIAMH: I’m waiting for me fancy man to come and get me.
GRACE: Your fancy man?
NIAMH: Yes. Me fancy man.
GRACE: What’s he like?
NIAMH: Oh, he’s big and strong. With jet black shiny hair and a beautiful smile.
GRACE: What does he wear?
NIAMH: He wears a very smart, dark blue suit. A white shirt, black tie. And patent leather shoes.
GRACE: Is he nice?
NIAMH: Oh yes. Very nice.
GRACE: And what’s he going to do?
NIAMH: He’s going to whisk me away. Off to a beach, were we’ll drink Martini’s and eat Milk Tray.
GRACE: He sounds lovely.
NIAMH: He is.
GRACE: [TO MUM] Does me Dad know?
NIAMH: [PLAYING ALONG] No. And don’t tell him either.
AND EXCITED] I won’t do.
[BACK TO REALITY]
It was a game we played many a time. At first I thought he was real, like the man from the advert, and he’d come zooming up the front path in his sports car, and burst through the window, glass and curtain everywhere. And that me Mother would stand there in her brown sleeveless dress with silver swirls and take his hand, and off they’d drive into the sunset. And us four kids would stand at the garden gates waving them off. Happy for me Mum. Knowing she was free of here. Free of him. Free of me Dad.
But the fancy man never arrived. So she made me Dad’s tea, and had it ready for him when he came in. And did the pots whilst he washed and shaved. And laid out his vest and underpants on the bed, and came downstairs and gazed out the window again. And me Dad would shout downstairs
‘Mary. Where’s me underpants? Mary, where’s me vest.?’ And silently she’d walk upstairs, point to them on the bed. And walk back down. Every night she did that. Every bloody night.
Over the years the fancy man disappeared, I thought she’d given up hope. Until one day I’d gone to see her in hospital. I was telling her about this and that, trying to hold her attention, when suddenly her eyes lit up, she smiled and said, ‘Here he is. Here’s me fancy man.’ And I looked down the ward, and there he was. Flowers in one hand, Milk Tray in the other. And he walked over. Kissed her on the forehead, and held the kiss. A kiss of true love. A kiss of real love. A kiss of thirty five...forty years love. A kiss of ‘I’m sorry.’
And I thought to myself. So that’s who he is.
That’s her fancy man.
(Copyright Dermot Canavan 2003)