02 May A Brief History Of Me. Chapter 13. Manchester, India, FrAnce.
Some time in July, we returned to the UK. Jon went to stay with his parents and I stayed with my mum who had since moved back to the UK with my brother, not far from Manchester. Before giving up everything and moving to France I had committed to co-producing and appearing in a fringe production of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne with some friends from drama school, directed by one of our tutors, Helen.
I felt confused, returning to the UK and working on a play, whilst also planning a completely different life in rural France. On one hand i still felt passionate about continuing my creative journey in acting, but I also had a strong sense that the realities of an actor’s life weren’t for me. I had never developed coping abilities to handle rejection and I took criticism personally. How could you not when your tool was your body, your voice, your mind?
But I was invested in this project and I still loved acting more than anything else in the world. I think in some ways i always knew it was the most dangerous drug. It could fill me with fire, and burn my house down at the same time. When we started rehearsals in Manchester I fell madly in love with the entire process all over again, deepening the confusion I felt about my life options. I loved the camaraderie, the focus, the world we were creating, the detail in the costume and set design. If I now use illustration as a way to time travel, I think I used to use acting. It helped me experience times and lives I wished I had known, and for that summer I was a young woman living in a dingy flat in the 1950’s, trapped in a dysfunctional relationship. And I was in heaven.
In September we performed the piece, it was a success, we even made a small amount of money from it. Reviews were lovely and I felt even more torn about my future. How could i continue my life as an actor if I was living in a field in the middle of nowhere in the South of Fance? But I also knew it was an opportunity to create a life I had always dreamed of. My career ambitions and my life desores were at odds with each other.
All of this confusion had an unavoidable effect on mine and Jon’s relationship. Jon had been present through most of rehearsals as he was doing the sound design, but we had grown distant from each other. It was entirely my fault, absorbed by my internal conflict just as we were about to embark on a whole new life.
Once the play finished, we boarded a plane to India, our relationship as fragile as cobwebs.
We arrived in Bangalore on October 1st. For the next three months, Jon and I took long train journeys up and down the West coast of India, eating miniature bananas, drinking gin, reading books left by other backpackers in hostels, never seeing a single temple and gently repairing something that felt broken between us. We made beautiful friends we are still in touch with, we rode camels through the desert high on bang, we slept in a hut on the beach and swam at dawn as cows ambled along the sand. Our experience was similar to any other white tourist in India: precious, alien, unforgettable.
On New Year’s Eve, we flew back to the UK and days later met Scott at St Pancras to catch the Eurostar to Paris. I remember buying a bottle of water from the M&S there and feeling certain I had found middle class hell. The air was dense with the scent of expensive suitcases, second homes and entitlement.
A little more about Scott and Saira:
Scott was Scottish born and bred, son of a baker, one of three charming and witty brothers. After going to uni in England Scott worked as a journalist and photographer, eventually working at Unison in London. He is one of the greatest raconteurs I have ever met, living and breathing for a good story, preferably to be retold at a dinner party as he pours you another glass of table wine. Tall and angular, he is flamboyant as well as bookish, romantic yet acerbic.
Saira grew up in Kent with a Parsi, Afghani, British heritage. Her father was Idries Shah, the Sufi author and teacher, her mother Kashfi was the daughter of the Indian poet Fredoon Kabraji. Saira is an author, documentary maker and journalist. Her documentaries had won BAFTA, Emmys and Peabodys. Her first book ‘The Storyteller’s Daughter’ was a memoir of her time travelling through Afghanistan, at times disguised as a man.
Scott and Saira had met in London, and as Scott once told me ‘The first time I saw Saira we were at a house party and she was dancing on broken glass in the kitchen. I just thought she looked like a boarding school girl nightmare.’
When they eventually got together, they were an impenetrable wall of snogging on a friend’s sofa. They moved into Saira’s flat above a deli, often sneaking down to snarf the cheese and cold meats at midnight. In time they became pregnant and Saira secured another book deal. They used the advance to buy an old wreck in the Languedoc. Saira had visions of a bucolic utopia, making jam and raising their daughter in a rural idyll.
Ailsa was a spring baby. Moments after she was born, the nurses identified that she needed extra care. Noone had noticed on the scans that Aisa had a hole in her brain the size of a 50p piece. When we first spoke to Scott about Ailsa he described her as a girl with ‘a shopping list of disabilities’.
We arrived at Les Seilhols when Scott and Saira were still processing the grief that came with Ailsa’s birth.
Ailsa had porcelain skin and rusty hair. She loved to lie beneath the walnut tree and see the light flash above the branches. She understood hugs, love, gentle affection. She was long limbed and a junkie for tickles and hugs. She revelled in the sounds from ‘In the Night Garden’.
Part of our job was to help organise, compartmentalise and shape the land. Alongside this we did admin work for the small publishing company Octagon Press and cared for Ailsa whenever needed. During our time there, my dad came to stay for a couple of months. He fixed wonky lights, carved a staircase banister, argued with the cats. Jon, Scott and Saira returned to London for a short period and left Gareth and I on our own for ten days. It was a learning curve in our relationship. The river froze, leaving us without water, so we would go down to the bottom of the land each day and throw a boulder into the iced river to break the surface and fill buckets to flush the toilet. Gareth and I were confronted with each other in a way we had never been before, and it was at times uncomfortable. In hindsight, years later, I can understand the value of this time.
As spring approached we began to take bookings for the Wild Weekends. Jon would collect visitors from the airport, drive them back to the farm where Scott and I would greet them with cocktails and hors d’oeuvre.The dairy cottage would have been set and dressed in crisp white cotton sheets, curtains sewn by Jon’s mum, rustic decorative details found in junk shops, styled strategically by me. Between the three of us, we would cook, clean, drive, set the scene of a romantic French escape and of course entertain. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.
Living at Les Seilhols was an extraordinary time. Scott and Saira had such faith in us, I will forever feel grateful for this. Through them we made wonderful friends both in France and London, it felt like they introduced us to a group of friends who showed us how much fun it can be to be human and a good friend. The people they had collected in their life seemed to understand the pure delight of celebration and being frivolous. At one of their gatherings they held a cake competition, in which my flat victoria sponge won first prize. I have never ever felt a thrill like it, hearing my name called out as the winner. I never won a Bafta, but I did win the award for the best of the worst cakes one weekend in the South of France.