The theatre was always my passion. I was never sure whether to write a play or act in one. It was the rag bag that won the day.
Mum’s rag-bag was a treasure-trove of glorious and splendid items. Old and discarded evening dresses of black lace, pink satin and red velvet swept the floor with magnificent trains on my skinny ten year old body. These were the dresses of princesses, opera heroines about to die noisily and triumphantly, Shakespearian queens bent on murder most foul, or whatever else took my fanciful imagination at the time. I was actor, stage manager, director and playwright all rolled into one and enjoyed myself thoroughly as I cavorted in these beloved dresses with high heels too big for me, bright pink lipstick applied to a small, funny, childish face. I thought I looked marvellous.
When I went to senior school, I joined the drama group at once. We had to take a little audition for entry and the teacher gave me Cassius speech from Act One of Julius Caesar to recite aloud. Of all things! But I thought they were wonderful lines and rather enjoyed doing male parts. I forgot myself entirely. It was easy to do that with Shakespeare’s wonderful words. I wanted to persuade Brutus to forget his honourable scruples and turn against Caesar…I wanted it!
I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus
As well as I do know your outward favour
Well honour is the subject of my story.
I cannot tell what you and other men
Think of this life; but for my single self
I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself
I was born as free as Caesar.
‘You have a strong and pleasing voice, Tina, that was extremely well read,’ said Miss Bailey looking up from her book and regarding me over her spectacles,‘very well read indeed.’
So although it was a mixed school, I often landed a male part here and there. Mainly page boys and squires and the like as I was rather small and slight. But I didn’t mind just as long as I could put on the greasepaint and be there on the stage before an audience. I knew that as I grew older I would get better parts and hopefully more attractive, female ones.
I worked at my few lines very hard but in my secret heart longed to be like Angela Jones who always took the role of heroine because she was the prettiest girl in the school. Apart from her beauty, she was a terrible actor yet no one seemed to notice the fact. Even more upsetting was the fact that she always played opposite the gorgeous Tony Wright, the handsomest boy in the fifth form. Every girl fancied Tony. He was tall, slim but not skinny, had floppy fair hair and swimming-pool blue eyes which you wanted to dive in and swim forever.
Watching them play Romeo and Juliet and smooching all over one another in the cause of realism…huh!...while I had to put up with the part of a servant with about five lines…was enough to make me a female Othello. I could cheerfully have smothered the smug, pretty face of Angela Jones and taken her place with Tony on stage. It gutted me just thinking of the unfairness of life. But I had to be real about it. I was eleven years old, a mere Junior, skinny and unattractive. It was all a big come-down for the little girl who used to dress up in front of the mirror and want to be Ophelia or Tosca.
The nearest I could get to the gorgeous Tony Wright was to kow-tow to Angela. I would hang around her and offer to sew her costumes when they got torn, help her find her make-up and carry stuff about for her. I put up with all this indignity because when Tony came sneaking into her makeshift dressing room in one of the downstairs classrooms, I could watch him out of the corner of my eye and drool over him and fantasise how it might be if I was grown up and able to go out with him.
‘Get rid of the kid,’ Tony said the first time he sneaked into her dressing room and found me busy sewing up the hem of her outfit as Olivia in Twelth Night.
‘Tina’s helping me. She’s only a Junior, don’t worry about her,’ said Angela as she smoothed the greasepaint on her face and began to apply eye shadow and liner.
Tony looked at me as if I was a worm and I blushed and bent my head over the sewing.
‘Go on, scram, kid,’ he said but to my surprise Angela stuck up for me.
‘Leave the kid alone, you big bully,’ she said and he looked huffy and glared at me. But Angela had taken a strange liking to me. I think she imagined I had a crush on her; she was one of those people who like to be adored and admired. If only she knew that I could cheerfully have strangled her.
I know I cramped Tony’s style but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to let him kiss her and cuddle her if I could help it. He hung around a bit more and then went off to put on his costume, saying, ‘See you later on then.’
Time moved on and Angela Jones left the sixth form and became a hairdresser in Barnstow. Tony had left school by now and joined his father’s firm selling furniture. The two of them began dating seriously and were, as they say, an item. As for myself, I grew up a bit more, began to show a well rounded bosom and look less gangly. All the same, I never thought of myself as attractive. Imagine my delight, then, to be told that I could be Titania in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream!
By now my long blonde hair cascaded down to my waist and was the envy of all my friends. I never needed a hair straightener; my locks were as straight as a stick and fine and soft. So Titania, the Fairy Queen was a natural for me. I played the part with enthusiasm, especially as I knew that Angela and Tony had come to see me. In the strange way of things, it was Angela who now sought me out and seemed to admire me. She wanted to keep up the friendship. I might easily have let it go but she was still seeing Tony and frankly, I still hankered after him. He seemed even handsomer, more knowing and sophisticated now that he was an adult and out in the big wide, world.
Because I knew that Tony was in the audience with Angela, I acted Titania with enthusiasm. I knew I looked very beautiful that night. My face shone with an inner light and I felt unreal, magical, a fairy Queen. Even my love-making with the foolish Bottom in his asses head was seductive. After all, all men were asses in my opinion. Except Tony.
‘It’s nice of you to come, Angela,’ I said.
She had come round to the dressing room behind the stage. Our drama group had now progressed to a proper stage at a real theatre in the town and we charged people to come. The proceeds all went to school funds and various local charities.
‘You were brilliant, Tina,’ she said,’ God you were so brilliant. You’re going to be a real actress one day, I feel sure of it.’
‘I hope so,’ I said calmly and looked at myself in the mirror.
Tony was standing behind me and as I looked up at his reflection, I saw him watching me keenly. His lips moved as if blowing me a kiss and I saw the frank admiration in his eyes. It wasn’t my acting he was admiring either. It was me.
I lowered my gaze and felt sudden confusion.
I knew I could have had him then if I had wanted to work at it. I wasn’t the skinny kid from the third form any more but an attractive young girl of sixteen. And then I saw Angela smile at him and take his arm possessively. Had she seen that kiss blown to me...and was she now saying in a subtle female manner…hands off my man? All I know is I never saw them again for a long time after this and they never came to any more of my public performances.
I left St. James before entering sixth form and went on to an acting school, finishing my A levels there. Somehow, I was always lucky with parts. My agent found me some marvellous roles to play in various modern plays as well as my beloved Shakespeare. There is nothing like Shakespeare and repertory to teach you about acting. In a few years I was a well known face. A juicy role in a long television series made me a household name and all this in a space of five years.
I seldom went near my old home town of Barnstow any more. That seemed a long way behind me now, and so did the people I had once known. I never thought of Angela very much but sometimes I did wonder what had become of Tony.
One year, I was offered the main role in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and it was to open in the well known Barnstow Theatre for a trial run before being taken to the West End Stage. It was a role I had often longed to play; I loved tragic heroines since my dressing up days with Mum’s rag-bag. So there I was back in my old home town again.
It all seemed so small, quiet, dreary and boring. Yet it also had a nostalgia for me as I walked around looking once more at all the local sites. I went to visit my old school and the teachers and pupils were rapturous to see me and thrilled be able to go home and say that Tina Marshall, the actress in Blue Island, had come in for the day! Miss Bailey was still teaching drama there and she hugged me and said, ‘I gave you your first role, Tina Marshall! I knew you had potential then, even when reading something as tough as Cassius. You were only eleven but you had such a sense of passion, my dear.’
I hugged her back. ‘I have a lot to thank you for, Miss Bailey. You encouraged me so much and I shall never forget it.’
I went and sat in the local Café Nero after that and felt it had been good to go revisit my beginnings in the theatre world. I so seldom came here now as Mum and Dad had moved from Barnstow long ago. I’d bought them a lovely house in Stratford as befitted the parents of a famous actress. People in the café kept glancing at me and some came over to speak and ask for autographs, others pretended to ignore me but watched out of the corner of their eye, then whispered fiercely amongst themselves. I had become used to this sort of thing and sat and quietly sipped my coffee, read a paper and ignored it all.
Imagine my surprise when a familiar voice greeted me.
‘It’s Tina Marshall, isn’t it? Little Tina from St. James School!’
Looking up I saw Tony Grant. My old heartthrob Tony!
‘D’you remember me?’ he asked.
He stood there, coffee in his hand, as handsome as ever, perhaps even more so for he had now matured and looked less boyish and more manly. My heart stirred within me as it had done all those years ago.
‘Of course, I remember you, Tony.’
‘May I sit here with you?’
He sat opposite me and put sugar in his coffee, stirred it and then looked at me for a long time. His eyes were as blue as ever. I still wanted to swim in them.
‘Hard to believe you were that skinny little thing that used to follow Angela Morrison around,’ he said with a smile, ‘now you’re a famous actress and we’re all in awe of your beauty.’
‘I wouldn’t be too much in awe; amazing what a bit of make-up and hair dye does for you,’ I smiled.
‘Modesty too? That’s rare in a famous person, I should think. But don’t bother. I’m not fooled by such stuff. You’re a beautiful woman, Tina, make up or not. I’ve always thought so. I thought so when you were just a kid. I’ve been to most of your plays and watched that series you did on telly. I’ve travelled to London to see you, you know.’
I was amazed by this and also very flattered.
‘Truly? Why on earth didn’t you come backstage to say ‘hi’. I’d have loved to see you.’
‘I wasn’t sure you would remember me.’
I laughed a little, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten you, Tony.’
My voice was so quiet that he had to bend towards me to listen. His coffee cup shook in his hand and he set it down.
‘I wish we could talk somewhere more private,’ he said, looking around at all the inquisitive faces about us.
‘Come backstage tonight after the performance,’ I said. My heart was beating wildly. I had dated some pretty dishy actors but to my mind, none of them came up to Tony Grant in looks.
After the performance, I removed my stage make up and re-applied normal powder and lipstick then changed out of my costume into white trousers and a turquoise top. There was a knock at the door.
Tony entered, his arms full of flowers. Mandy, my dresser who was hanging up my Hedda Gabler costumes, looked round and winked at me appreciatively. Tony was gorgeous. Any woman would have said so.
He deposited the flowers in my arms and kissed my cheek.
‘You were fantastic,’ he said, ‘your best role yet.’
Mandy made herself scarce and I offered Tony a whisky. We sat down and looked at one another and an electric spark seemed to run between us. The spark they call desire.
We began talking and Tony told me about his business, his sporting interests, his liking for jazz. None of these things were interests of mine but who cared when I had these blue eyes to gaze into?
It wasn’t long before the whisky bottle, half drunk, began to work its magic. We were in one another’s arms and kissing with passion. It felt like heaven.
‘Shall we go round to your hotel?’ said Tony after a while,‘finish this lovely evening there?’
I was all for it. The hotel was only a short distance from the theatre so we walked over. I noticed that Tony seemed more constrained now and kept glancing about, hastening me towards the hotel as if his life depended on it. I put this down to his fervour to get me in bed with him. My own enthusiasm for the idea meant that we were soon in the lift together, his hands up my jersey, mine hastily unbuttoning his shirt, then tumbling out and into my room with haste. We fell on the bed together in mad abandon.
It was a sweet, wild couple of hours. At midnight, Tony rose and dressed.
‘I have to go,’ he said.
I was disappointed. I had envisaged making love all night and in the morning too.
‘Can’t you stay?’
‘No, have to get back to my mother. She’s an invalid and getting on. I don’t like to leave her alone.’
I thought this was so nice of him and smiled, ‘Next time then. Get a carer in to look after her.’
‘Good thinking, will do.’
I expected him to come to see me the next night but he didn’t. I was surprised and a little bothered about this. He had seemed so mad about me, I felt sure he would be there again. But he probably had some business arrangement and couldn’t make it. Yet, he had a mobile and might have rung to say so. However, he did come on the third night and any peevishness I might have felt disappeared like snow in the sun. We went back to my hotel and made love even more passionately if that was possible. Then, like Cinderella, he was off again at midnight.
‘Couldn’t get anyone in for Mum at such short notice,’ he said sadly,’ you know I’d love to stay more than anything else on earth.’
‘Would you?’ I said, ‘you say you love me. Aren’t I more important than your mother?’
‘You are, Tina, but it’s not that easy. She is my Mum after all.’
He’s really noble, I thought, adoring him more than ever.
The next day I was in Café Nero sipping a coffee. I suppose I was hopeful that Tony might pass by again and spot me. I longed to see him, make love to him once more, all my life maybe. I’d never thought like that about any other man so far.
Instead, I heard another familiar voice. Angela Morrison slipped into the seat beside me and said, ‘I knew you were here in town, Tina…how gorgeous to see you! I hoped I might bump into you.’
‘Angela!…yes…marvellous to see you again. What are you doing these days? Still into…what was it?... hairdressing?’
I couldn’t resist being a tad catty when I thought how I had progressed in life and here she was still in Barnstow after all these years.
‘I am but I have a little salon at home now. It’s easier with the kids, isn’t it? Working at home, I mean. They’re all at school now, thank god.’
‘So you’re a mum, Angela.’ I was not surprised. She had always been so ordinary. ‘Still single?’
Her ring hand was under the table out of view. One had to ask these things nowadays, so many women were single mums.
‘Oh, we’re married now - everything proper for me. Wasn’t a white wedding, I admit!’ she added with a chuckle.
‘Not many are, these days,’ I said with a smile.
‘I know you haven’t married, Tina…wise of you, I think,’ said Angela with a little sigh.
‘Aren’t you happy?’
‘Oh, I am,’ she said earnestly, 'but is he?’
This statement seemed to hold a wealth of back story which I didn’t really want to hear about. I changed the subject.
‘Have you been to see my play yet? I’d be happy to give you both a couple of tickets for old times sake.’
Angela shook her head, 'Ibsen’s not really my scene, thanks all the same. Plus getting baby-sitters isn’t easy. Tony’s been out a lot this week on business and I wouldn’t want to go alone. Hope you’re not offended’...for she must have seen the stricken expression that suddenly crossed my face…‘I gather from the reviews that you are very good in it. Even Tony didn’t fancy seeing Hedda Gabler and he loves the theatre. He said it was such a depressing play and he’s seen it before and once was enough, even if you were in it. We loved you in that series though, Blue Island wasn’t it? It was great. I knew you’d always do well.’
I continued to stare at her, my face draining of colour.
‘You all right?’ she asked curiously.
I drank some coffee and composed myself. Not an actress for nothing.
‘Tony?’ I said in a calm quiet voice. ‘It couldn’t possibly be...Tony Grant… you’ve married?’
‘Of course, it is,’ she said surprised, ‘I thought you knew. We were always together. Always have been. Childhood sweethearts, weren’t we?’
Tony didn’t appear till the last night but I had no desire to see him. However he knocked on my dressing room door and came in, arms full of flowers as usual.
He came over to kiss me but I rose and moved away letting the offered flowers fall to the ground.
He stared at me in dismay.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were married to Angela?’ I said coldly.
‘I knew you’d find out, Tina,’ he said, ‘Angie said she’d met you in Café Nero and chatted. I knew it would come out then but I hoped you wouldn’t care about it. I mean, actresses are more broad-minded aren’t they?’
‘Wouldn’t care? That you were married to an old friend of mine and had kids and everything. That you lied about the old mother? God, you must have thought me a pushover!’
‘I do have an invalid mother,’ he said, ‘I do. Life is just so full of people and responsibilities and we can’t just throw them out of the window and run away, can we? If I could, Tina, I’d ask you to run away with me, I really would.’
‘Would you? But I wouldn’t do that. There’s no way that I would steal another woman’s husband. What a nerve you had trying to delude me, hoping to get away with it!’
‘I didn’t mean to fool you, I meant to tell you. I suppose I even thought you knew about it. Strange to admit it, Angela’s the only girl I’ve gone out with. But I fell in love with you that night when you played Titania, still a kid at school, but God, you were so magical, so lovely! Then you went your way and I went mine. I never forgot you though. And now, we’ve been lovers and I won’t ever feel the same about Angela or anything. Couldn’t we just meet up sometimes? Just now and then. I love you Tina. I can’t bear the idea I won’t see you again!’
I looked at him for a long time and then I smiled sadly.
I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus
As well as I do know your outward favour.
Well honour is the subject of my story.
He looked at me uncomprehendingly.
‘No, Tony, we won’t meet again,’ I said, ‘it’s all a question of honour and there’s no way I’m stabbing my old friend Angela in the back.’