A Gift from The Bard
This story, as its name hints, is actually a sequel to 'A Gift from Mother Christmas'. While it is possible to read on its own, elements will make more sense if read after the first story. I should also warn that this is a long story and a romance as much as a sex story.
And so, for this second part of the story of my life, the summer of 1997, I face a problem: how to tell it? I tried to tell it as I did my first tale but, unlike the story of my meeting with the mysterious Kris, the events of that summer aren't easily told from just my viewpoint. And why should I limit myself in that way when, over the years, I have learned more of what others thought and did?
For a while I considered writing this as a play (an obvious idea, for reasons that will become clear) but decided that would be too hard on you, my dear reader and so, in the end, settled for writing some chapters from other people's viewpoints and not just mine. I hope they can forgive me for taking their voices.
I might have called this "The adventures of Suzie Peterson" or some such but decided that I wanted to echo the title of "A Gift from Mother Christmas" and, as this year is the 400th anniversary of his death together with the events that happened, "A Gift from the Bard" seemed very appropriate.
Chapter 1: A Letter from Emmy
As usual, I jump down the last two steps in Longmead House, the halls of residence in which I'm living at Bristol University, push through the door to the lobby and walk over to the mailboxes to check the one for 7C. Cool! There are two letters for me, one interesting white one and one a less cool brown one. Not surprisingly, the brown envelope is a disappointment -- a letter from my local library back home reminding me, yet again, that the book I'd borrowed months ago -- Shakespeare: the life and times of the Bard of Avon - is overdue. I sigh; the book's upstairs so I could take it back but I think I'll find it useful again next year as my English degree course has another module on Shakespeare in the second year. Perhaps I should just tell the library I've lost the book and pay for it.
The letter in the white envelope is much more exciting as I can immediately recognise the handwriting: it is from my oldest and, maybe still my best friend, Emily-Rose. Most people call her Emily, a few call her Em, but to me she was and is Emmy and we have been best friends since we were at primary school together. We were so close as to be almost inseparable, even sharing birthday parties as our birthdays fall on consecutive days in December.
Getting any letter is nice, usually, but I like the ones from Emmy the best. I take out the letter to begin reading immediately.
Thursday 8th May 1997
Hi there Suze,
I hope the approaching end of year exams aren't stressing you too much. Mine are! I know you'll laugh, thinking that an Art and Design foundation course shouldn't be stressful and like I said before, I like the studio work and working on my portfolio. What I don't like is the theory stuff we have to do like 'History of Design' and 'Design Processes' and the essays and written project. Anyway, I have to get most of the stuff finished in the next three-and-a-bit weeks ready for the end of year exhibition. I bet you have loads more essays and stuff plus exams! (Sorry, I don't mean to be a smug bitch, Suze.)
How's the love life? Did what's her name -- Karen? -- did she ever call you back? If she's been horrible to you I'll give her a slap for hurting my friend! You asked about my friend Sam and whether we were dating and the answer is no, we were just friends but even that's finished now. Maybe it's just as well with all the coursework deadlines and exams and stuff coming up. Oh well.
How did the play go: 'An Inspector Calls' wasn't it? Sorry I couldn't make it to see you playing the maid but of course it was Dad's birthday. However, how do you fancy doing some acting over the summer? Do you remember that outdoor performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' you dragged me to a couple of years ago? Well, the local theatre company that did that, Hawsley Amateur Players, are performing 'Much Ado About Nothing' outdoors this summer. Mum knows the woman who's directing, Tatiana (what a name!) and volunteered me to do some prop making and scenery painting -- Mum's convinced that I need to find something "practical" to do with my art or I'll never find a job. Anyway, they're holding open auditions, one next Tuesday evening but another on the afternoon of Saturday 17th and I think it would be brilliant if you got a part. So what do you say? I'm sure you told me you'd done an essay on 'Much Ado' so you must know the parts a bit already. Why don't you come home for the weekend and we can meet up and you can wow them with your thespian skills -- or should that be your lesbian, thespian skills?!
Sorry, I shouldn't tease my gay friend but I couldn't help it. You know I love you really. Please come home next weekend and give the auditions a go and we can have fun over the summer.
Love and hugs,
Well, what an intriguing letter in several different ways.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my first forays onto the stage with the University Drama Soc. but the idea of joining a theatre group over the long summer holiday would never have occurred to me. The possibility of performing in a production of a Shakespearean comedy was certainly an interesting thought and Emmy was right, I do like 'Much Ado About Nothing'. One of my best essays this year had been contrasting how differently the two spirited heroines of 'Much Ado About Nothing' and 'The Taming of the Shrew' were portrayed: Much Ado's Beatrice, whose wit, intelligence and independence were to be wooed, while Katherina, the Shrew, was to be tormented and tamed, her spirit and fire curtailed. Given that 'The Shrew' was written five years before 'Much Ado', my conclusion was that Shakespeare had stopped being an arrogant, misogynistic bastard and matured as he'd grown older, not that I'd quite put it that way in the essay, of course!
However, much as taking part appeals to me, there is a problem because the part I'd like, no, love to play is that of Beatrice, a character whose wonderful independent, feminist outlook, fire and determination I adore. The difficulty would be that I'd be a newcomer to the theatre company and, as I know from the Drama Soc, such a starring role is much more likely to go to one of the established members. It would be much easier not to bother, but then Emmy will be disappointed...
What the heck, I'll go for it! There will be other parts available and Emmy seems so keen for me to participate, very keen indeed... I wonder if Emmy is hoping for a summer like we used to have: long days together, sharing secrets and hopes and experiences as we grew up... until that golden late summer's afternoon, when we lay side by side in the tall grass of a field looking up into the perfect azure sky, and Emmy unexpectedly kissed me on the lips. That had been wonderful, and the weeks that followed, until... no, I will not revisit that past pain and hurt that almost destroyed our friendship, a pain that seems, at last, to be properly healing.
Actually, healing doesn't seem too strong a word because the easy way Emmy had asked about Karen in the letter was very impressive. Of course Emmy has known that I'm a lesbian for almost a year and a half but, given what had happened between us not long before that, it's reassuring that Emmy now seems so remarkably at ease with my sexuality, even able to tease me about it.
There was that fairly disastrous attempt of hers to get me together with her tomboy cousin, Frankie, at New Year, just after I confessed my sexuality to Emmy. It was an important, if uncomfortable, lesson though: just because a girl dresses and acts the tomboy doesn't make her a lesbian. I was lucky that Frankie was so cool and saw the funny side of a newbie gay girl making a pass at her or things could have been really embarrassing!
I suppose I ought to tell her that, unfortunately, my relationship with Karen was just a one night thing. Not that it amounted to much more than some shy hand holding and furtive kisses. It's not that I didn't want more; it's simply that I was too nervous, apprehensive that I was misreading the signs as I had with Emmy. Looking back, I suspect that the same was true for Karen, that she too had made mistakes she didn't want to repeat.
Emmy only mentioned Sam once before, slipping it out during one of our rare telephone conversations three or four weeks ago, so that relationship obviously didn't last long either; it seems that neither of us is being very bold or lucky in love at the moment.
I fold the letter and tuck it into the back pocket of my jeans. When I get back from the shops I'll phone Emmy and tell her I'll audition.
Chapter 2: Stepping out from a Shadow
I replace the phone's handset and cannot help the smile on my face: Suze has agreed to audition! I feel a sense of excitement mixed with nerves. My suggestion about the play had been a long shot but now there was the possibility of at least one last 'best friend' summer with Suzie. God, it sounds so patronising when I say it to myself, since I'm actually a day younger than her, but the fact that she agreed is a sign of how much my friend has changed from the shy girl I grew up with. She has changed physically too, of course, no longer the chubby girl and teenager I knew at school, she is now much trimmer and fitter and though (as she complains) she'll never be skinny, I think her curvy figure looks really good. Actually, she looks fantastic now and I'm sure that has helped Suzie's growing self-confidence.
I guess I was the cause of the start of the changes in Suze because of what I did and what happened between us that night after our shared eighteenth birthday party. Even though it seems to be working out for the best, the pain I caused her still fills me with guilt and remorse.
I'd known, or at least very strongly suspected, that Suzie's feelings towards me were far more than, let me say, platonic. For me, on the other hand, it really started as simple curiosity about what kissing another girl would be like. The answer after the first time was that was sort of nice but I wasn't sure because it also made me feel uncomfortable doing it, my parent's prudish and intolerant Christianity no doubt planting the seeds of the discomfort I felt. So I tried again a few days later but, once again, the feelings were the same.
Okay, I'll admit it: I should have left it there but my curiosity about this matter became a sort of itch I had to keep scratching. Had I spoken to them, Mum and Dad would probably have told me that Satan was tempting me, trying to snare me into sexual depravity. However, the fact that Suzie was always such a happy participant only encouraged me to take further advantage of my friend until we were hugging and kissing quite regularly, nothing overly sexual but intimate and, okay, maybe just a little arousing.
And still I was unsure, both liking it and feeling unhappy about doing it. I still can't explain or justify why I kept kissing her; deep down I knew it was unfair and wrong but at the time I told myself it was just a harmless bit of fun.
It was after our shared coming of age party that I really screwed up. Stupidly, I climbed in beside Suze as she slept over, on a mattress next to my bed. Can I use the excuse that I'd had quite a lot to drink that night? We snuggled together and kissed, as we had before but this time Suze reacted differently and I felt her hand grasp my bum, pulling me closer.
Okay, I panicked and put my hand out... straight onto my friend's full, soft breast. Even at the time I remember thinking that the feel of it had been unexpectedly nice, which only added to my upset. However, when I felt Suzie pressing and grinding her sex against my thigh I completely freaked out and bolted from Suzie's bed, climbing back into the safety of my own bed where I rolled into the covers with my back to her.
I said an abrupt goodnight and pretended to sleep, though for a long time there was no rest. My mind was a mess of fear, guilt, anxiety and confusion. Had I crossed a line, was I a... no! "I couldn't be, I'm not... that," I told myself, "it's Suzie, it's her fault; too fat to find a boyfriend she's latched onto me, perving over me, lusting like some fat dyke..."
I awoke early from a fitful sleep, no less upset by what had happened and irritable with lack of rest. When I looked at Suzie I felt anger at the way she'd reacted; I had just wanted a cuddle, maybe just a friendly caress, like a massage, not some disgusting lesbo romp. In the end I left Suzie to wake in an empty room and find the note I'd written; a note, to my deep and abiding shame, telling her that I never wanted to see her again and calling her a sickening, fat dyke.
Suzie, not surprisingly, was devastated, not that I saw or spoke to her for two weeks. We had no contact over Christmas -- I even avoided a party just after Christmas because I guessed she would be going -- and, as I later found out, we both had had the most miserable Christmases of our lives. I was tormented by guilt over the hurtful, hateful note I'd written, convinced that Suzie would never want to speak to me again and I'd lost my best friend forever.
Just after New Year I went for a walk in a nearby park and sat on a bench. I found myself thinking of Suzie and suddenly I was crying, despite being in public. As I sat there, tears streaming, a woman came and, sitting beside me, began talking to me. She asked what the matter was and, though she was a complete stranger, I couldn't help spilling my heart out, relating all that had happened. The woman held my hand and told me that I needed to speak to Suzie, who'd tell me something surprising.
The woman left but moments later, as I was trying to dry my eyes before anyone else saw me, the barking of a dog made me look up... and there was Suzie with her dog, Pickle. Suzie immediately turned and began walking away but I ran after her, apologising and begging forgiveness. Suzie relented and we sat and talked.
The woman had been correct: I was surprised when Suzie said, "You were right Em, I am a fat dyke. If I manage to lose weight then I will be a thin dyke. Emmy, I'm a lesbian." Despite my suspicions about Suzie's feelings for me, the certainty and confidence with which she said this was amazing.
We talked more, sat together on the bench and then, when the cold of that early January day became too much, in the café in the park. Apologies were made and forgiveness granted but I came to understand that the hurt I'd done was not so easily healed. Our relationship was not quite what it had been but had become more wary and distant. I think part of it was the lingering hurt and guilt we each had but there was also fear of hurting each other again. Of course, the pressures of University applications, of studying, of A Level exams and the anxiety of waiting for results didn't help either so, when in the following September Suzie went to Bristol University and I to Turner College of Art, there was still a distance between us.
Throughout last summer I'd so wanted to bridge that lingering gap because, quite simply, I missed having a best friend, I missed Suzie. Oh I'd had a boyfriend, Jason, though with Art College soon for me and his going off to Durham University in September it was never going to last, so it was never much more than the occasional date with some kissing and hand holding.
The problem was that I could not think of a way to reconnect with Suzie until, during my first week at college, the idea occurred to me of writing to Suzie, opening my heart in the letter and sharing my hopes and fears, successes and setbacks as I began my course and new life as a student -- even if in my case it was only a forty minute journey by train from home to Turner College in London. I was so happy when Suzie replied. True, she was rather formal in her replies to begin with but, as the exchanges of letters continued, she wrote with increasing openness and honesty. I think we're almost as close now as we'd been before I wrote that stupid note. Certainly we got on very well when we met a few times over the Easter holiday.
When Mum introduced me to Tatiana and I agreed to help with the props and scenery, I mentioned Suzie and asked if she could audition for a part. Tati (as she liked to be called) said yes, though possibly because she needs my help quite a lot since the husband and wife who normally did much of this have recently moved away, apparently. I suspect also that she knows she could always give Suzie some minor, walk-on part to appease me if she had to. I'm not worried though; even though I've never seen her perform, I'm sure Suzie's talents will land her a proper part.
I'm so happy Suzie said yes to coming to the audition next Saturday. I know there's no logical reason but I have a really good feeling about this summer. I hope so because I'll need to decide about my slightly mad idea for next year.
Chapter 3: Casting Call
Sat on the uncomfortable seat in the musty-smelling hall I fidget, trying to ease the numbness in my bottom. I look up as Chris Hill, the young man who played the magical mirror in the drama Company's Christmas panto of Snow White, prepares to perform his audition piece; "Puck's final speech from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'," he declares.
Looking at him I can see that with his looks he'd definitely suit the part of Claudio, the suitor of the beautiful Hero. What concerns me, however, is that he always seems to play parts too lightly, which is generally good for comedy but perhaps less in the case of the suspicious and judgemental Claudio. The character of Dogberry on the other hand, the comic constable and leader of the town watch... I jot down some notes, always handy when I need to justify why someone didn't get a part:
Looks the part for Claudio, if poss. a bit short.
Would need to be more aggressively male in his demeanour at times -- work needed on that.
Could make a good Dogberry?
From the first auditions last Tuesday evening, so far I'm fairly happy with the casting of Hero (young Beth Norton, with her stunning looks and golden hair, is the clear choice) and old Peter Blackmore for the role of Leonato is a definite. For Don John, the 'plain-dealing villain', Giovani Perez seems a likely choice, what with his dark hair and sharp features and that he likes the more villainous roles; he also seemed to play well against Dan Jackson as Borachio, his henchman. Finally, there is Joe Radmeyer who is, without doubt, the man for the lead male role of Benedick. My major headache is Beatrice, the female lead; everyone assumes that it will be Val Browning who regularly takes lead roles and is, to be fair, a damn good actor. The problem is that at thirty-eight she's a little old, especially when playing alongside Beth.
Chris finishes his monologue with a final and rather unnecessary dramatic flourish. "Thanks Chris," I say. "Now, are there any particular parts that you'd particularly like to be considered for?" I ask.
"Well, I'd kind of like to play Benedick or Claudio, Tati," he replies and I nod encouragingly.
"Would you consider any other parts?"
"Like what?" he asks, his voice edged with suspicion. Hmmm, perhaps he could do Claudio after all.