Seven thirty a.m. and I’m already up and writing. I know I’m under serious reader pressure to finish this story and so I’m going to, even before allowing myself a cup of tea. So don’t ever tell me I’m not a loyal, dedicated, responsible writer who loves my readers (even more than a cup of tea).
There we were, Tommy and I, in the waiting area of Gate 8 of Marseille Provence airport, along with another hundred and eighty passengers. We’d been waiting nearly three hours. It was nearly half past three. At 6:45 p.m. I was due onstage in the Little Angel Theatre in London to do a run of our work-in-progress version of our stage adaptation of the childrens’ book Fussy Freya, for a paying audience and a bunch of professionals who would be giving us feedback and maybe even money to get the show finished. The theatre had payed today’s flight seeing as yesterday’s had been cancelled. I had no option but to be at the theatre for 6:45 p.m. And the French air controllers were on strike.
Tommy needed a pee so I ran him along to the loos and while in there had a funny feeling that when we came out things would be moving. Sure enough, our Welsh adopted-for-the-day grandparents, Dorothy and Alan, were waiting for us when we came out, with our bag, buggy and suitcase. At last, we were boarding the plane. It was a start.
We jumped the queue, seeing as Tommy is, by definition, a small child, and took Dorothy and Alan along with us; I asked if my ‘parents’ could board early with Tommy and I, seeing as we were travelling together (and that they were pulling my suitcase and carrying our bag). So we got seats in the plane together and bribed Tommy to put his seatbelt on, using Dorothy’s pack of kiddy picture cards and chocolate. I was willing people to get on and SIT DOWN as fast as possible. I daren’t even look at the time. We took off at 4:15, so due to land at around five o’clock UK time. We’d have just under two hours to get to the theatre. It was feasible, just. I had now totally accepted I would be performing a barely rehearsed show in a space half the size of where we’d rehearsed in France, with props I’d never seen before, in front of a real audience. I just needed to get there.
The flight took AGES. Tommy was not easy. I didn’t blame him. It had already been a long, slow day and we’d only just started our journey. I had to pull out my last reserves of bubbly energy to keep him amused and busy; we’d already exhausted all his books, toys, colouring activities and even films on my phone during the four hours of waiting in the airport. My mind raced, thinking of the the journey into London and of ways to save time. I realised that seeing as we had a buggy which they’d automatically put in the hold, we’d have to wait for it to come out at baggage reclaim. I didn’t have time to do that. I grabbed the bossiest air hostess and explained I had another plane to catch on the other side of London and would have to abandon our buggy if it meant waiting for it. She said she’d ask the blokes “on the ground” what they could do but I already had visions of us bombing along the streets of Islington with Tommy perched on my wheely suitcase, holding on for his life. I was hungry and thirsty but needed to keep the only cash I had (£20) in case we needed to get a taxi. I remembered the bits of paper they’d given me at check-in – I now realised what they were all about: food and drink tickets to make up for the three and a half hour wait. Well it was something. When the air hostesses came by with their food trolley I asked for a Perrier and a sandwich and gave them my food tickets. They took them, looked at them and explained they were only for use in the waiting lounge of the airport. I took the food tickets back, folded them into pointy darts and threw them at the air hostesses instead. I ate some of Tommy’s pasta shells. I coaxed him down from climbing onto the bloke in front of us. I forced that seatbelt on him again. We landed. I flicked our seatbelts off and started pulling our bags and coats out of the overhead lockers, ignoring the message over the speakers telling us to remain seated. Bossy air hostess came down the aisle towards me. I was ready to punch her lights out. She said she’d spoken to the chaps “on the ground” and they’d bring our buggy to us at the bottom of the steps leading down from the plane. Fantastic. I kissed her feet and blessed her family with joy and riches for the next eight generations. But as we came down the steps off the plane I realised that I’d still have to wait a bit while the blokes started to empty the hold and that the rest of the passengers would overtake me, meaning we’d have an even longer queue at passport control. I asked Alan and Dorothy, who were still in charge of my suitcase and bag, to go on ahead of me and wait for me at passport control. That way I’d join them and jump the queue. Off disappeared two people I’d met just a few hours ago with all our stuff. I jumped and waved at the baggage blokes. They pulled two buggies out of the hold, I pointed to ours, one of them brought it over. I snogged him. I strapped Tommy into the buggy so tight he went red and we were off. I carried him up the stairs into the airport terminal and then literally sprinted the mile long walk to passport control, weaving in and out of all the other passengers and being met with various exclamations of disapproval. Tommy loved it. My three times weekly jogging expeditions through the vinyards suddenly made sense. We got to passport control, leapt ahead of the queueing passengers and joined Alan and Dorothy. I hugged them and thanked them, hooked the suitcase onto our buggy and the bag on my back, flashed our passports at the chap in his little box and dashed off towards the Gatwick Express trains. I’d already bought a ticket so we jumped on the train which was just leaving and thirty seconds later the doors shut and we were heading towards London. Five thirty. The Gatwick Express takes thirty minutes. With the tube and the walk to the theatre we would just JUST get to the theatre for six-thirty. If all ran as planned.
There were signal problems on the line. The “Express” slowed down and then started stopping intermittently. A voice on a loudspeaker explained that there was a queue of trains ahead of us and we’d just have to wait our turn. I clawed the seats and banged on the windows and then told Tommy not to copy me. He was exhausted. To make matters worse I had told him he’d be coming to the theatre with me and would have to sit quietly and watch the show, but he had decided he didn’t want to. “NO MUMMY WORKING! NO MUMMY SHOW! ME GO HATTY HOUSE!” I imagined the scenario when (and if) we arrived at the theatre and decided it was best not thinking about. If the worst came to the worst I’d have to just lock him in the workshop out the back strapped to a chair with his mouth so full of chocolate he couldn’t shout. I texted Sister One to bring MUCH chocolate to the theatre. And apple juice. The train hadn’t moved for seven minutes. I turned to the chap behind me with a hairlip who was listening to music and I whipped the earphones out of his ears. “Excuse me, do you have any idea how far we are from Victoria and how long it’ll take and what’s going on?!” He looked slightly surprised but was very gallant and not only estimated we’d be there in ten minutes but asked if I was okay. When I told him the whole story he frowned and said we’d be hitting the Tube at rush hour and that he’d help us get to Highbury and Islington station. I showered him with gold dust and precious rubies. I was furiously texting Caro and my sister trying to keep them in touch and find out what was going on their end. No answer. I finally got a call from Sister One just as we were going down the escalator to get on the Victoria line. “Don’t get a taxi!” she said “I can pick you up at … ” and the signal cut out. We piled onto the train with our hairlipped friend and then more people piled in on top of us. “JESUS CHRIST! CAN YOU BE CAREFUL! THERE’S A SMALL CHILD DOWN HERE!” I shouted. A couple of people got off again and the rest of them shrunk away from us. I had forgotten that London is not like Paris and that people in general don’t say anything when they are being squashed to death, they prefer to keep quiet and not bother their killers. By the time we got out at Highbury and Islington station it was 6:40 p.m. I was doomed. I’d never get there in time. Then I got a text message from Caro. “We go up at 7 now. dont worry. where r u?” I didn’t even take the time to answer, I just asked a passer by to point me in the direction of St Mary’s Church and started sprinting again. After five minutes I still didn’t recognise a thing. I stopped a woman and asked again. She said I was in the right direction for St Mary Magdalene’s Church but if I wanted St Mary’s Church it was fifteen minutes walk in the other direction. I cursed the first passer-by and explained to this one I was meant to be onstage in five minutes at the Little Angel Theatre. She grabbed me a taxi and in we bundled. The taxi driver knew the theatre. Five minutes later we were there. Sister One was at there at the door with Niece Hatty and they ran over to help us out, my sister reminding me strangely of Wonderwoman in her dynamism and swooshing dark locks (but not in her strange nappy knickers), and shoving a glass of clear liquid in my hand which I assumed was vodka. It was water. I downed it, payed the taxi driver and we trundled into the Little Angel Theatre, pushing our way through the audience who were in the lobby having a drink between shows. I wheeled the buggy straight into the theatre and hauled my suitcase down onto the stage, pulling out costumes, props and a life-size baby-Ravi puppet. My sister and Hatty had swooped Tommy onto the front row seats and were keeping him busy and happy with magazines, stickers, toys, apple juice and home-made chocolate brownies. “My sister is a star” I thought to myself, and suddenly realised I was very close to tears. Her Big Sister Taking Care Of It All presence had made me suddenly feel very much like a very little little sister, and combined with the relief of arriving in time PLUS the stress and energy it had taken to get there PLUS the pressure to now perform the show and to do it properly, had lumps welling in my throat. But I knew I couldn’t let go now. If I cried I’d lose it. So I concentrated on setting my props and working out what space I had to move in. Caro came through backstage and couldn’t believe I was there. She and Kat, the writer of the book and master props-maker, showed me the new props and puppets and clip-on highchair and wobbly table and where there was light to set costume changes backstage, Peter the director of the theatre and of our little project gave me a big hug and while we were still setting up, the audience started filtering in. The bell rang, the house lights went down, Peter gave a little speech about our week’s work in France, there was a blackout, Tom’s music started belting out and it was my cue to get onstage and start the show, furiously whisking cake mix in a bowl, playing Fussy Freya’s manic mummy. I didn’t have to make much effort about playing manic. I was totally wired. A bit too manic. As Grandma Clare in pink Dame Edna glasses and leopardskin hat, I managed to dance ballet, jazz, indian, techno vogueing and lift-leg sit-ups in the space of a minute and a half whilst wondering why Caro hadn’t brought the Freya puppet doll onstage yet. It was because I was meant to have brought her on in that scene. So there were some wobbly moments which we covered up pretty well (Caro by being very calm and me by being mad as a hatter) and the audience laughed a lot. We got through the show and even had fun doing it and then had to clear all our stuff away so the last company could set up their show. Sister One had to dash home with Hatty as Uncle Al had a massage booked for that evening, but I was too stoned from adrenalin and too busy sorting out Tommy’s painfully itchy bottom (he was literally ripping his trousers and pants off to get to the root of the problem) to pack away fast enough and go with her. I ended up getting a taxi back to her house. Having dropped Kat and Tom off I said to the taxi driver “51 Connive Road, please” to which he replied “I don’t know where Connive Road is. Could you direct me there?”
It was truly the final straw in a day of journeying nightmare.
The day ended happily though. Back at my sister’s house, Tommy fell straight asleep in my bed, and my sis served me up two glasses of white wine and a slab of delicious baked salmon with a hit of fine English comedy on the telly, before I dropped into bed exhausted and s . l . e . p . t d . e . e . p . l . y .
Well, I hope you’re all satisfied now you’ve had the final, complete story and will stop hassling me. I might even take a couple of days off writing. Oh and by the way, we’ve just had an offer from the Little Angel Theatre following our crazy presentation there; they’re proposing we be their main summer show which would mean a nine week run throughout May and June 2011! Buy your tickets NOW!