1959. SPIDER. Royal County Theatre, Bedford

TS Eliot was an American lived in England and became British.

WH Auden was English lived in America and became American

Who lost and who gained?’

I am looking aimlessly at the yellowing wisteria shedding its leaves in my garden pond when Spider’s words from 60 earlier suddenly appear – from where?

I am puzzled , furrow my brow and think. Tea. Maybe its comforting fluid warmth would thaw, and reveal.

I crush the cardamom pods, measure the tea leaves, pour the boiling water. It is my reset day after filming. This time, filming in Yorkshire, the wind on the moors had chilled me through and I needed a lot of tea.

 ‘You were one of the trailblazers, who paved the way for us.’ said Tony, fellow actor playing my ‘son’ in the TV series.  We were chatting whilst waiting to be summoned to the set.

‘No no,’ I replied, ‘I didn’t blaze or pave anything, not at all. Two years after drama school I had abandoned my acting career and run away. In fact, I just reached a point where I could let those few years, sort of slip off my CV when it, resurrected.’

‘Really?  What happened?

‘That’s another story.’ I say as we walk back to the set to resume filming.

‘Another time.’ says Tony.

Another time. Another place. And in the end it’s all a story or a string of stories, I think walking back with my tea. But what and why this story and why now I ask the wisteria  as I sit down again (with my steaming tea.)  

OK, maybe I wasn’t a trail blazer paving any way. But I was there.  In those early days. That other time. A time before the abandonment of career and more?  When it was all potential, possibility, promise.

I was 16 years old and my father had arranged some work experience at the Royal County Theatre in Bedford.  The ASM ( Assistant Stage Manager)  nicknamed Spider was showing me the ropes and responsibilities and we were walking through the town centre when he posed his question.

Spider left the question on the pavement as he ushered me into a shop where we had come to borrow some props for the theatre.

‘This is Leena, she’s assisting at the theatre with the new play.’

Shop owner smiled at me and said,  ‘Oh we are looking forward to that, aren’t we Edna’ He turned to his wife who picked up the question ‘ Yes. And we are looking forward to seeing Sarah Churchill.’

‘Leena will come in next week with your tickets’

Spider then whispered something to the owner which elicited an even wider warmer smile in my direction

Back in the street carrying our borrowed props Spider scooped up the question  from the pavement where he’d left it.

I felt a bit caught out.  I had tried to read TS Eliot but found him a bit dense. But I knew a poem by Auden, called ‘Refugee Blues’ which I had learned at the behest of  Mrs Brent, my drama/elocution teacher who regularly entered me for verse reading events/competitions . So I parried the question by reciting it:   

‘Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Spider joined in enthusiastically.

‘Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now
.’

I knew about being a refugee, that my parents had once had a city to which they could not return and the emotion I had expressed in my recitation earned me a distinction.

 ‘I’m glad so glad we are in agreement about Auden. His leaving was our irreparable loss and America’s gain.’ Spider smiled.

Spider had a most reassuring smile. I’d noticed it as he walked down the platform to meet me off the train.  I was wearing the red gingham skirt my mother had hand stitched for me with a bouncy petticoat fluffed up with layers of stiff lace. She made me a blue one and a red one and both all hand stitched.  I’d been surprised as I didn’t know she knew how to sew. (At sixteen, I had graduated to wearing mostly  trousers or saris. In the Indian context, skirts and dresses being more associated with being a child.)

‘You must be Leena, I’m the ASM  and everyone calls me Spider.’ He then picked up my bag saying, ‘We’ll drop it off at your digs and then go to the theatre.  You’ll be staying with Mrs Kruger. She’s one of our theatre landladies.’

Along the way I learned Spider was 18 years old had finished school,  due to join Central School of Speech and drama in London the coming September. Until then he was working as the ASM. He learned my father worked in Paris, that I wasn’t in school , but doing my ‘A’ levels through a correspondence course with Wolsley Hall and that I hoped to read French and Drama at Bristol university and eventually return to India.

Mrs Kruger opened the door flashed me a glance drew her chin into her neck, looked at Spider and said:

‘You didn’t tell me you were bringing me a coloured girl.’

‘Her name is Leena. She’s working at the theatre.’ Spider unfazed, flashed his smile.

‘Oh’ Mrs Kruger looked at me and said,’ well Leena,  you’d better come in then.’

‘She’s from South Africa.’ Spider said as we walked to the theatre.

‘Aah’ I replied.

I knew a bit about South Africa. There was a club in Earls court near my drama teacher’s called ‘Overseas Visitors Club’ for Whites only.  Also my Indian passport specified “Valid for all countries in the world except South Africa, Portugal and Israel.” And I’d learned about Apartheid  when I’d asked why.

Back at the theatre Spider was teaching me how to log and to store our borrowed props. I tentatively asked if he’d said something about me to the shop owner?

‘I said you were an Indian Princess.’

‘Why did you say that?’

‘Aren’t you?’ he teased.

‘No.’

Two years earlier  I had attended a school in India called the Maharani Gayatri Devi Public school for girls.  It was my ninth school in as many years and I was a misfit.  After one term, I didn’t return abandoning my clothes and bedding and books. That is how I came to be without a school, in London, studying with crammers and then by correspondence. But there had been many princesses in that school and from what I gleaned most were destined for circumscribed lives. And I couldn’t imagine any of them being allowed to slum it out in a musty prop room with an unvetted unknown boy!

The play, called ‘The night Life of a Virile Potato’ , featured Sarah Churchill and after extended rehearsals and a short run in Bedford was due to transfer to the West End. I gathered it was some kind of a re-launch for her. She took a shine to ‘that sweet slip of  an Indian girl’  – so I was informally ‘assigned’ to her , listening to her lines, carrying out the odd errand, and, to reassure the management, gently spy that she wasn’t drinking. I was a polite people pleaser and it made me feel trusted and important. I put away my fluffy gingham and returned to wearing trousers.

Back at my digs with Mrs  Kruger, I could sense her looking at me surreptitiously as she served breakfast, but if I looked up she quickly pretended she was looking at something else.  After a few days, she returned my look, then she smiled and before the week was up she was sitting at the table with me drinking tea, watching me eat and chatting; about herself, her late husband and the lovely life she’d had in South Africa. Finally when I was leaving, she hugged me and said, ‘ I’m so sorry to see you go. You’re such a lovely girl, even if you are Indian.’

‘No Mrs Kruger,’ I replied. ‘Its because I am Indian.’

The Wisteria catches a of sparkle of sunlight as it flutters down to disappear on the surface of the pond.

 My younger self, wasn’t  bothered about ‘coloured’. She came from the land of Gandhi.

When did that change to become a label of hurt and rejection?.

Well, now these feelings too can also flutter down and disappear into the pond.

Time for more tea. As I fill the kettle I try to recall the words of William Blake, ‘ mind forged manacles …’

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