decent exposure
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A Boy For July. By Bruce Harris.


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 who’ve agreed to this have been promised it won’t be too public, I can already see a few watching faces at the small windows at the back of the college.

It’s 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-college’s 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 – ‘it’s 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. He’s 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 I’m 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, it’s true that my grandmother, or Nan as I called her, was in that hospice, but the last days of her life weren’t funny, or trivial, and shouldn’t 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 let’s get on with it’.

‘Apologies, Mark’, he said. ‘The photographer’s got a few problems with his equipment’.

‘He’s 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 couldn’t 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 I’ll fetch you when everything’s ready to go straight away’.

So now I’m 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. It’s not that I don’t 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 she’d 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 that’s the worst that’s going to happen....’; ‘it’ll work out; you’ll see...’; ‘it’s not really worth making a fuss about, is it?’ etc. What she’d say would make sense and show that she had actually been listening to what I’d been saying, which you couldn’t guarantee with all adults.

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 wasn’t well, asthmatic you’d 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 Mum’s 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 you’ll have confidence because you’ll know what you’re 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 don’t yet. My mother stopped it, because we weren’t 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 hadn’t 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 I’m going on stage stark naked’, I said out of a scarlet face.

She smiled. ‘Let me tell you something, love’, she said. ‘If there’s someone around you feel enough for, there isn’t much you wouldn’t do. I would have gone on after fifteen and danced a lot naughtier to have kept my old dad afloat if I’d had to, mother or no mother, though don’t 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 I’m reflected in the glass of the greenhouse. I’m used to public performance now, at university; what’s the difference?

I had a sod it moment. ‘If there’s someone around you feel enough for....’. The gown is off, and I’m 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 I’ll do.

And now here’s Rob again, smiling, if a little startled.

‘O.K., Mark, ready when you are. And you look like you are’.

And so I’m off to sprinkle my onions, with a big thumbs up from Nan.



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