“Do call again, when you can't stay so long” – Walter Sickert
Apart from the frightening vision of another season of bras hanging on my bedroom door handle, my main reaction to M telling me she was moving in again was jaw-swinging horror. This was swiftly followed by a reluctant excitement at the prospect of some company for the summer, which gave way to a low simmering anger at the assumption that it would be ok to move in for three months without actually asking. My vexation was unable to be assuaged until I’d downed my bottle of whisky later that evening.
I then thought about the measures Julie Birchall takes when faced with visiting friends to her home. She has them sign a form informing her, and reminding themselves, of a leaving date – thus satisfying any anxiety that a flying visit could become an indefinite and very much unwanted leave of stay. Unable to bring myself to go to such far-fetched lengths – and possibly fearful of the explosive repercussions – I quietly, yet no less anxiously, capitulated.
She’d already been an incongruous bedfellow previously. Years before, M had embarked on a journey of self-discovery by returning to drama college in London, using my place, among others, as her base for the year. Riding the roller coaster of emotions for 12 months as her mother succumbed to illness up north while another of my unsatisfactory relationships played out to its inevitable obliteration, our self-confined and claustrophobic confinement together in my flat provoked a fruitful and often painful self-reckoning.
My growing self-imposed hermitdom was upended by the messy reality of her arrival in a period that was to inspire me to write my first play, Cranes. I’d hoped to produce a reflection on hope and stagnation in the city prompted by the disparity between the dream of love and the reality of it. The first draft captured the blinkered solipsism of the broken hearted. It eschewed plot and traditional narrative in favour of a montage of ideas, fanciful dialogue and black humour. This was the outcome of writing piecemeal while holding down full time employment. Several drafts later, it had become a study into urban dislocation and loneliness; an honest yet extreme dismembering of personal despair.
While I longed to be alone with my misery, she was desperate for human company, foisting her emotional hunger onto my disfiguring social blankness. Having her presence in my home each day brought with it fresh inspiration for each new rewrite. Her concern for her mother 200 miles away was unwavering, and occasionally she’d stop dead in her tracks, like a bronze statue of sorrow, her forehead corrugated, her eyes so disarming they’d allow a glimpse into her trapped suppurating soul.
Eagle eyed I’d watch her, like a parent intently follows their child, observing her subtle gestures and her frightening and sudden imperiousness, while listening out for any vague stab at profundity which she’d murmur regularly. To quote Edgar Allen Poe, I was transfixed by “a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, an account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression.” There was something self-dramatising and almost histrionic about her searing accounts of life in London both then and back in the 80’s as a debutante. Practically, the propinquity frustrated me; I’d call her a damned nuisance with her untidiness and elephantine way of bounding around the place, slamming doors and breaking toilet seats as she went. She, meanwhile, would call me her annoying little brother for following her around, picking up bits of food and long strands of hair, in her plangent wake.
Nevertheless, M was, and still is, an unforgettable presence in my life; a spirit, both rambunctious and besieged, I’m unable to exorcise. Her current stay is almost a sequel to that play, this time with a new set of frustrations and revelations acted out of our somewhat symbiotic relationship. This time, rather than us looking inwards, we set our sights to the outside world opining on the wretchedness of life rather than the wretchedness of our own existence. Her loathing of the city has gained momentum, manifesting itself in an anger in her hitherto unseen. Age and exhaustion had compounded ill-will toward the place and anyone in her way. She’s screaming at train carriages too full to board, and in the evenings is reduced to a spluttering string of expletives in her flannelette nightie, her face the colour of a botched skin peel.
But for all her faults, and the atmosphere of perpetual quarrel since her arrival, I've found myself recently smiling more than is seemly. But she always did make me smile, even through the embers of our mutual despair. This is, of course, when she wasn't making me tear out my hair in exasperation. And here I need to remark on some things I've overlooked. Despite her being 19 years older, she's never patronised on grounds of age, which is why she's found genuine adoration from her younger charges. She gets a terrific thrill from being among young people, passing on her wisdom and regaling them with her experience.
Perhaps she's not so far from her own youth, and by this I don't mean she's some eternal girl, unable to mature. No, she's able to tap into the shyness, bravado and yearning that embodies all those in early adulthood, thus bringing about a kinship with those compelled by her candour.
She remains loveable, despite the neurosis and combative manner. And when she rambles endlessly of her struggles and entanglements; each story a self-contained play, astonishing in detail, all surreal tangents and voices mimicked to the point of hilarity, one can't help but listen in awe. In the end, that, and my quiet endurance of the chaos she creates, is the essence of true friendship.