No one told us who they were. There was no way of knowing, they didn’t look like anything special, just sitting in the corner of the room, staring at us. The bloke was jotting down notes on a pad like he was a journalist or something, but so what? I’d have expected them to have a bit more about them considering who they turned out to be.
The man had a streaming cold, which had made his nose go bright red from wiping. I remember thinking I didn’t want to go anywhere near him in case I caught it. He had a big old jumper on with a high rolled up collar, the sort of thing our dad might wear when he went fishing, and not too clean either.
The woman was old, well over fifty, I’d say, with about two inches of grey brown roots showing in her red hair. It was funny that she hadn’t bothered to do anything about them because it looked like quite an expensive cut, pretty trendy for someone her age. She was wearing dark glasses, even though it was evening and the lights in the hall weren’t that bright, so I assumed she had a cold as well, she certainly looked pasty enough to be ill.
There was no reason for us to think anything of them; Dora often had friends sitting in on the classes, or people who came and went. Sometimes they were old actors and actresses who none of us recognised, who would chip in with a bit of advice themselves once things warmed up, but more often they never said a word and Dora never introduced them.
If I’d known who they were I might have taken the time to put on a bit of make-up, and I don’t know that I would have let myself go emotionally in quite the same way I did, so it was probably for the best that Dora didn’t announce their presence there. Actually she probably did it on purpose because she’s a wily old bird is Dora.
I look pretty crap without make-up, and that isn’t me being modest, it’s a fact. I’m about the only person on our estate from a mixed family who has come out looking like a fucking albino. All the others come out looking gorgeous with perfect, caramel complexions and I came out even paler than Dad. When we’re out as a family I must look like the freak puppy of the litter. Still, could have been worse, I could have been completely ginger and freckled, like Dad and all his McBride relations in Ireland. I’ve seen photos of them and it’s a shocking sight. I’ve never met any of them in person so I dare say they make up for it with wit and charm!
If I don’t wear make-up my face disappears. When people first see me with or without make-up they’re amazed by the transformation, which is pretty insulting really. Dora says it’s great for an actress because I’m a ‘blank canvas’, and I know what she means, I can paint almost anything on my face, make myself into anything I want, whereas the ones who actually have some colour have to get rid of it all first and start again. It would still be nice to at least have some dark eyelashes so it doesn’t look as if I have no eyes at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I do usually make an effort and paint myself up before I go out, before I even go down to breakfast most days, but sometimes I just can’t be arsed, and this was one of those times.
I wasn’t feeling that well, to be honest, which might have been another reason why I got a bit emotional. It was really tiring to work all day and then go out and have Dora screaming abuse at you all evening, and sometimes it got a bit much, especially with everything that had gone on at home the previous evening. There wasn’t much point in making an effort to paint myself up just to have it all steamed off again by the dishwashers in the hotel kitchens where I’d been working all day, and I’d had to rush straight to Dora’s from there and I hadn’t had time to have anything to eat and my period had just started and, well that’s probably as much detail as you want.
Because I was a few minutes late I hadn’t had much time to think about what I was going to do for my piece and Dora was being a bit arsey about me ‘holding up the class’ and so I just launched myself into it and once I started talking things sort of spiralled out of control.
‘Just tell us something from your life that makes you feel really sad,’ Dora had said. ‘Steffi, you go first, and make it truthful for God’s sake.’
That was completely out of order because I was always truthful when it came to acting and stuff. In fact I think I’m always pretty truthful about everything, which gets me into more than a little trouble. There was no time to think up anything clever to do, and the fight from the previous night was still fresh in my mind, so I went for it.
‘I love my Dad to bits,’ I said, pulling as much air into my lungs as I could, knowing I was going to need it if I was going to get through this in one piece, ‘but sometimes he can be a real bastard.’ I noticed the two visitors watching me intently but I didn’t care. I quite liked shocking people. Dora wanted something truthful and I always wanted to do what she asked. She was an old bag but I liked her and I respected her, even if her career had gone down the toilet and she had ended up teaching a bunch of no-hoper kids who all wanted to be stars.
‘It’s the fucking Guinness,’ I said, ‘especially when he mixes it with vodka. He’s Irish and a ginger and he has a fucking terrible temper. Last night he’d already been to the pub before he got home, and I guess we were all making a lot of noise and the house was a mess, but usually he doesn’t care about that sort of thing. We all know when he’s going to pick a fight and we try to stay out of his way, but for some reason we didn’t spot the signs last night, even Mum didn’t. She’s usually good at that, being a social worker and dealing with shitheads all day long, but she was distracted with getting us all our tea and stuff and she just didn’t pay him as much attention as she should have and he went off like a fucking atomic bomb. He had her by the throat, and his hands are big as shovels and they were choking the life out of her. We were all screaming at him to put her down but none of us were strong enough to pull him off. Her eyes were bulging like they were going to pop out and she was jerking around like she was in her death throes. He’d actually lifted her off her feet, pinned her to the wall.’
As I told the story I could picture the scene completely. I forgot I was talking to an audience, well a sort of audience, I just wanted to describe truthfully how it had felt for those few moments when I had thought Dad was killing Mum. I knew I was crying, but I didn’t bother to wipe the tears, (maybe a little bit of my brain was staying objective and telling me that a few tears would add to the dramatic impact). I could even feel some snot sliding out of my nose.
I didn’t look around at the audience until I’d said all I wanted to say and only then did I realise the hall had gone completely silent. They were all crying, or staring at me with shocked faces and their hands covering their mouths. Even the two strangers were searching for tissues and blowing their noses, but that might have been because of their colds.
I felt a bit embarrassed to have made such an exhibition of myself, but proud too because I knew I’d done what Dora had asked of me, I had been truthful and it had had a dramatic effect on everyone listening. I felt a little bit guilty too, squealing on Dad about something that should have been private family business really, but serve him right. If he was going to behave like an animal then he had to take the consequences. Nobody else in the class came from our estate so I was pretty sure word wouldn’t get back that I was being indiscrete about private family business.
‘Thank you Steffi,’ Dora said, as if I’d just read a particularly nice poem to the class. ‘Who would like to go next?’
I took my place amongst the others and it wasn’t long before I’d stopped shaking and was listening to them. Most of them were pretty crap, if I’m going to be honest. One of them talked about the day his cat was run over, another one talked about when her parents told her they were going to get divorced, but none of them made me remotely want to cry.
I don’t want to sound like I’m up myself or anything, but most of them are truly crap actors, Dora’s place is not The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I know that for a fact because I went there, and to about six other posh drama schools. We had this teacher at school, Dave, who used to teach English and direct the school plays and all that. I really liked him, and not just because he thought I was good, he just had something about him that most of the other teachers didn’t have, like a passion for his subject. I guess he had fucked up as much as Dora to end up teaching in a school as crap as ours, but he didn’t seem to care, he still seemed to love what he was doing.
He introduced us to Shakespeare, which most of the others thought was bollocks, but I really loved it. Even though it had all those weird old-fashioned words and everything, it seemed to have a rhythm, which made it understandable to me, a bit like good rap music. I just liked saying it out loud. Dave put on Romeo and Juliet for the parents on Founders Day and even though I had to kiss Creepy Malone, who was playing Romeo, I got a real buzz from it. (Creepy really seemed to enjoy the kissing but I was mainly concentrating on avoiding his zits and his tongue).
Dave said I was good enough to act professionally, but when I mentioned it at home the consensus was that it was a come-on line and Dave was just trying to get into my knickers. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded too much if he had, but he didn’t even try, which is a bit insulting now I think about it. He was one of those teachers you just know you can trust to behave honourably, which is kind of strangely attractive.
Because they had all been so fucking negative about it at home I didn’t let on that I was going to audition at the drama schools, so I had to pay for it myself and it cost me a fucking fortune. They charge like thirty quid each just to listen to you and then tell you to fuck off home. Anyway, I did it and it was a real buzz, but there weren’t many people like me at the auditions. They weren’t exactly posh, well only some of them, but they mostly weren’t estate people. Maybe some of the northerners were; it’s hard to tell with their accents. I loved listening to all the different voices. In fact, I pretty much loved everything about those audition days. Only one of them actually offered me a place, but Dave said that was brilliant, he said that most people have to go back year after year and still never get in. He said it was unusual for them to take someone so young. He was so impressed and so sweet I just wanted to suck his face off.
For a few days I was walking on air. It actually looked like I might make it, but when I sat down with Mum and Dad and really thought it through I could see we couldn’t afford it. Mum kept saying we would find a way, and that there were grants and all the rest, but Dad went ballistic, shouting and yelling, wanting to know who I thought I was that I deserved to have three years playing around at their expense. I was quite surprised how adamant he was, like I’d suggested going on the game or something.
I suppose I could see where he was coming from. Maybe if I had been going to university, like Mum did, so that I could hold a proper job at the end, but just so that I could be an actress, when most of the time they’re all out of work, did seem a bit of a liberty. With six of us, too, they would have to treat us all the same and they were working all the hours God sent already, so in the end I decided I just couldn’t do it to them. Mind you, money wouldn’t have been so tight if Dad didn’t stop off at the pub on the way home every night, and puff his way through a couple of packs of cigarettes a day. None of us has ever had the nerve to point that particular fact out to him though, even though we all think it.
I think Dave was even more disappointed than I was. He offered to come round and talk to Mum and Dad and I had to explain that it wasn’t exactly them, that it was more my own conscience stopping me. I didn’t tell him that if he came round trying to tell Dad how to bring up his children he was likely to end up having his face kicked in. He just kept shaking his head and saying it was a great waste and that I shouldn’t throw away my whole life just because it would be hard and I would have to expect to make some sacrifices at the beginning if I wanted to achieve anything worthwhile. That really pissed me off and I started shouting at him, telling him he didn’t understand the first thing about our family and how much Mum and Dad had to go through for us. He got all sheepish then and nearly cried and told me his whole life story and how he’d tried to get into drama school and failed and had ended up doing some university course to please his parents and how he regretted it every day of his life. So then I felt guilty about laying into him, and even more impressed that he managed to be so up all the time when actually he was so disappointed with the way his life had turned out.
Initially I tried to put the whole acting thing right out of my head after that, but when I heard about Dora’s evening classes in a local hall in North London I thought I would give it a go. I still had this dream rooted inside me and I could only pretend that it wasn’t there for just so long before the longing would start up again. It usually happened when I was watching telly and saw some really great performance. If I saw someone being given a standing ovation or being given an award like an Oscar I would actually get an ache inside me, like a yearning to be that person, to have all that love and applause directed at me. A bit sad, I know, but that was just the way it was and I didn’t fancy going through the whole of my life longing for something and never actually trying to achieve it. I didn’t want to end up like Dave.
Mum had been a bit of an inspiration that way, having gone back to study when she was a grown-up. It must have been incredibly hard to do with kids to bring up and a husband who wasn’t exactly supportive about that kind of thing. I do sometimes wonder if it was worth the effort when I see the sort of shit she has to put up with at the job her wonderful degree eventually got her, but that’s not the point. The point is she had a dream about getting a degree and bettering herself and that I can completely get.
I’d heard that one or two of the actors from the soaps had been spotted in Dora’s classes, particularly younger ones. Most of them were not what Dave and I would have considered ‘serious actors’, mostly just playing themselves, but still it was a way into the business and I thought it would be fun. I worked out I could just about afford to pay the fees if I cut down on my drinking on Saturday nights and avoided Top Shop as much as possible and stopped downloading music.
I auditioned for Dora, but I knew that I would have to have been monumentally crap for her to have turned me down. If she had restricted herself to taking on people who had any chance of making it, she would have been sitting on her own most evenings. We went through the charade of her ‘offering me a place’ and pretended it was all a pucker drama school. I didn’t mention it at home, just pretended I was working evenings. I really enjoyed being there, partly, if I’m honest, because I knew I was the best in the class.
That evening, at the end of the class, Dora asked me to hang on a second as the others went out, chattering, on the usual high that the whole thing gave us all. Drama classes are great therapy when you’re feeling a bit down, brilliant for taking you out of yourself. The two visitors were still huddled in the corner, blowing their noses and talking in low voices, avoiding everyone’s eyes.
‘I want you to meet someone, Steffi,’ she said, taking me over. ‘This is Tom and Audrey, they’re the casting directors for The Towers.’
I don’t think I actually believed her for a moment. I mean The Towers was the biggest soap in the country. All my life I’d been watching it and reading about the actors who starred in it. In fact it was a bit sad really how addicted I was to the whole thing. I felt like I knew all the characters personally, as well as all the actors who played them. It didn’t seem possible that these two tatty old specimens were part of the world of glittery awards ceremonies and titillating tabloid scandals that were all part of The Towers world. When I’d talked to Dave about my addiction to the series once he suggested that I liked it so much because it reflected my own life on the estate.
‘Fuck off,’ I scoffed, ‘do you really think life on the estate is that exciting? There’s about three murders a week in the The Towers, we’re lucky if we hear of one mugging.’ For some reason he thought that was incredibly funny, which gave me the right hump.
‘We’re looking for a young girl to be part of a new family moving into the area,’ the woman called Audrey was saying.
‘You mean into the Goddard’s flat?’ I said, slightly giving the game away that I was an avid fan when I probably should have been trying to show I was a bit cooler.
‘Yes,’ Audrey smiled rather sweetly at me, which made her look a lot younger. ‘You’re a fan then?’
‘Yeah.’ I think I might have blushed.
‘We think you might be great for the part. Would you be interested in coming to the studios to audition?’
Okay! That was all I could think to say, and I said it in the flattest most pathetic little voice. I suppose I thought it would be uncool to jump about screaming and to throw my arms around Audrey and Tom and cover them in kisses and bugger the germs, which was what I really wanted to do. Or maybe I was just frightened that if I once let my excitement out of the box I would never be able to get it back in again, that I would just explode into a million tiny pieces.