I recently contributed a written piece to some friends’ forthcoming exhibition. People write them an excerpt about their imaginary friend and then they develop a mixture of screen-printing and collage in response to that.
They were saying how most contributors have written cutesy pieces about their childhood friends who they had tea parties with etc, so I thought I’d write about mine from an adult perspective – here’s the unedited piece:
She first came to play when we hid upstairs in my bedroom from the sounds of my mum’s temper crashing and banging in the kitchen. She kept me company during long weeks of sickness on the sofa, taking me off to far away places for adventures with her other imaginary friends and they always welcomed me to drop in and visit them whenever I wished it. When I was well enough to go back to school my imaginary friend walked through the classroom door with me, holding my hand, and she waited for me at home until school was finished.
Sometimes in the mornings when I think I can’t face the day, she lies quietly in bed next to me and patiently suggests that I start with a shower and see how I go from there. But sometimes she gets frustrated with me and shouts at me for feeling sorry for myself when I have so much to be grateful for, and I know she’s always right. She holds my hand and makes sure I’m standing tall with my head held high when I walk into uncertain situations – and then vanishes into the background when I’ve stopped noticing she’s there. She’s the extrovert who drags me out when I’m feeling introvert. And she’s the calming effect when I’m feeling extrovert. She nudges me and reminds me to listen when I talk too much. She is ageless and timeless, she is of me and of the world around me and she is infinitely wiser than I am. My imaginary friend is neither male nor female but I call her ‘her’ out of habit, and because sometimes I’m not sure where I end and she begins.
It got me thinking a lot about how I came to love acting, because it’s all related I think.
A combination of things. Between the ages of 2 and 5 I was very ill – not seriously ill, thankfully, but I had a terrible time with infections in my tonsils that always led to secondary infections in my throat, chest, ears and inevitably meant antibiotics and two weeks off school ill. At 5 years they finally took my tonsils out but for that 3 years my illnesses were so regular as clockwork that my mum was able to identify a pattern (every 6 weeks) and block two weeks off on the calendar that she knew she’d be tied at home with me.
This was all before daytime TV. Boredom and loneliness was immense. I listened to a lot of stories in long-play records and although I missed loads of school (of which I don’t remember much in those early years) I became a demon reader – books and stories helped me get through the long days. My teddies were my best friends, all with individual personalities, likes, dislikes and wants. I taught them sums and read to them.
And when I went back to school every time I’d have to fit back in again. I found the girls very cliquey, the boys let me join in with games of soldiers without any fuss. And my literacy levels at that time were light-years ahead of my peers.
So I think that all fired up my creative imagination out of necessity.
The other thing was that my mother suffered with mental health problems at a time when it was shameful, embarrassing and not spoken about. People didn’t go to the doctors and if they did, they didn’t get the proper help they needed. I had a valium mother.
But in between she was erratic and prone to violent outbursts. I remember getting up in the morning and promising myself I was going to be ‘a good girl’ so that I didn’t make her cross with me. Sometimes she loved me, like the times when I was ill, but other times she would withdraw that love. And it was so unpredictable; one day you might accidentally break a vase doing cartwheels in the dining room and she was fine, another day you might leave your shoes by the front door and it was as if the world had ended.
The most common phrase I heard was, ‘other little girls.’ “Other little girls tell their mummy what they did at school today,” “Other little girls help their mummy in the kitchen,” “Other little girls love wearing dresses.” I hated these, ‘Other little girls,’ – they were everything I wasn’t, and my mum seemed to wish she had them for a daughter instead of me.
My inner world became much more interesting, safe and exciting. And I also learned in my outer world that if I made people laugh, then they would like me. As the youngest of three kids I was the cheeky one who got away with murder, and who had all the phrases of older children. I learned to become the comedian to hide the loneliness and my discomfort in my own skin.
My primary school was doing a play about The Odyssey and EVERYONE wanted to play the cyclops. I was 7. One by one we auditioned in front of the class, when it came to my turn I played my Cyclops with a hilarious strange voice – one you couldn’t use for more than a few minutes without coughing. But all the children were in stitches and the part was mine. My future career was decided in that moment.
I’d known a lot of loneliness as a child. My mum’s distance, I idolised my dad but he was at work, and my much older brother and sister both left home when I still very young. I went to a different school to all the children in my village and they thought I was a snob. Perhaps I was.
Maybe through my sadness I was aware of the sadness of others. And through my imagination and desperation to be anywhere but here, I was aware of other lives going on that were nothing like my own.
As an adult that morphed into a desire to create theatre that reflects the world we live in, that speaks to and for people, that shares our humanity. And I guess that small child gets people to like her. And it’s the only thing I do where I am truly in the moment and thinking about nothing else. It’s freedom in other peoples’ shoes.