This was never going to be easy. But I always knew that. I
already know a thing or two about public performance, but this is another kind
of public performance altogether.
I am sitting in a conservatory with nothing on but a dressing
gown. Very soon, I am scheduled to step out into the vegetable garden behind my
ex-sixth form college, remove the gown and, stark naked, step across to a
watering can. Subject to direction, I will pick it up and take it over to the
onion patch where I will be discreetly pictured discreetly
meaning nothing naughtier than bare behind on the final prints watering
the onions. I will be the calendar boy for July, with the probable caption,
Mark sprinkles his onions and hopes they will grow nicely.
Yes, I know. Oh dear is right. And, while the finished article
might be discreet, I am not going to have any secrets from the four people here
at close quarters, including one woman. And, though all the lads whove
agreed to this have been promised it wont be too public, I can already
see a few watching faces at the small windows at the back of the college.
Its all the kind of thing which could easily be very tacky
indeed, and when the whole Friends of the Hospice Calendar Boys project was
originally suggested, there were dissenting voices. My ex-colleges links
to the hospice date back to when the college was a grammar school, and a few
ex-pupils doing their bit seemed like a fun idea. A few letters to the paper
its not original, said some of them, as if any charity
event ever is. Tasteless, yukky, who wants to look at naked young
guys etc., well, on the evidence so far, one or two people. Doug
McCann, who used to captain the swimming team, had practically a crowd when he
did his bit behind the kitchens in a chef hat and a strategically positioned
dish. Hes May Doug hopes a little fresh air will help his
puddings rise. Some kitchen ladies had sneaked back in, seemingly unable
to resist the sight.
But Im not Doug McCann. Up until a few minutes ago, I was
sitting in the vegetable garden itself, shivering with both cold and terror and
thinking why am I doing this? Yes, its true that my grandmother, or Nan
as I called her, was in that hospice, but the last days of her life
werent funny, or trivial, and shouldnt be demeaned. My morale was
rock bottom when the producer, Rob Bryce, Media Studies guru of my
ex-college, approached me, presumably for a get that gown off and
lets get on with it.
Apologies, Mark, he said. The
photographers got a few problems with his equipment.
Hes not the only one, I said ruefully, as I
suspected that the local outraged were going to have to use a magnifying glass
to detect anything they could be outraged about. He laughed in that expansive
way he has, then I couldnt stop a shiver and he looked more serious.
Listen, he says. Go take a seat in the
conservatory; they keep that at a decent temperature, and Ill fetch you
when everythings ready to go straight away.
So now Im in the conservatory, which smells of damp and
fresh, raw tomatoes. Naked in a gown, like a dirty protest or something, and
suspecting I am about to make a total fool of myself. I also have grave
suspicions that an ex-college chum or two may be within movie making distance
of this garden with the intention of putting some very definitely not discreet
little movies of me on YouTube. Maybe a sponsored run would have been a better,
if less publicity-grabbing, idea.
Then, two good points pop into my head; one, I am already warmer
and appearing in public with the genitalia of a Michelangelo cherub may not be
inevitable, and two, the reasons why I loved Nan so much return to me and I
think, fiercely and resolutely, that if somersaulting naked off the roof of the
conservatory thing would be likely to do something to help the people who
helped her, I would do it and gladly.
Before Nan went into that hospice, she was my chief counsellor
and adviser. Its not that I dont like my parents or my brothers and
sisters, but our house was just a bit crowded, to be honest. I went for walks
to get some peace and I went to Nan to talk. And shed listen, sometimes
looking a bit puzzled, the round head with the calm hazel eyes nodding a little
uncertainly at times, but always managing to find something sensible to say
beyond well, if thats the worst thats going to
happen....; itll work out; youll see...;
its not really worth making a fuss about, is it? etc. What
shed say would make sense and show that she had actually been listening
to what Id been saying, which you couldnt guarantee with all
When I told her, really got through to her, how absolutely
terrified I was about appearing on a stage for the first time, she started
telling me her own experiences.
I used to do a bit of that, she said. When I
was a girl, back in the thirties, my dad struggled to get work. He wasnt
well, asthmatic youd call it now, not like my mum, who was as strong as
an ox. He played the piano and read music. He tried to make a living with
performing and giving lessons, but my mother brought most of the money in by
going into service; a lot of girls did that then. I used to sing with him,
being cute me, not him - we did village dances, fetes, markets, street
fairs, what have you. But it needed doing properly, Mark. We had a full length
mirror in Mums bedroom, a rare luxury she had. I used to dress up and
practice in that mirror, working on the smile and the movements so nobody just
saw my back. I knew exactly what it looked like, every detail. Get it right
down to the last move, love, the last little gesture, arm wave, and youll
have confidence because youll know what youre doing.
How long did you do it for? I said.
Until I was fifteen, at the end of the war. By then, some
men were starting to have other reasons for liking me, if you know what I mean.
No well, probably you dont yet. My mother stopped it, because we
werent so badly off by then. Just as well, I suppose, eh?
She acted as my mirror, and when it came to it, I put Buttons on
with the costume and it went like clockwork. A few school performances followed
that, and by the time I was fifteen, I was doing whole roles in front of her
and she would comment on the details very carefully and precisely.
It was when I got to sixteen that we returned briefly to the
subject she hadnt liked to elaborate on when I was eleven. The sixth form
production was Julius Caesar; the costume makers underestimated the size of
some of the cast, and a few Roman military costumes were just a little skimpy.
Nan insisted on seeing the thing and I stood there bare legged almost to the
point of indecent exposure.
It feels like Im going on stage stark naked, I
said out of a scarlet face.
She smiled. Let me tell you something, love, she
said. If theres someone around you feel enough for, there
isnt much you wouldnt do. I would have gone on after fifteen and
danced a lot naughtier to have kept my old dad afloat if Id had to,
mother or no mother, though dont you tell your mother that. And I would
have practised that as well!
At which point, she dissolved into fits of giggles, leading into
serious fits of coughing, one of the first signs I noticed of her being ill.
And I would have practiced that as well. The words
come back to me very powerfully now, and I acknowledge the fact that Im
reflected in the glass of the greenhouse. Im used to public performance
now, at university; whats the difference?
I had a sod it moment. If theres someone around you
feel enough for..... The gown is off, and Im looking at the whole
thing. Shift the shoulders back, stand to the side, coy or brazen, whatever
they want. I might not be Brad Pitt or Doug McCann, but Ill do.
And now heres Rob again, smiling, if a little startled.
O.K., Mark, ready when you are. And you look like you
And so Im off to sprinkle my onions, with a big thumbs up