When I was a callow youth of 17 summers, my Father predicted I would never settle down. “You’ll always wander” he said, with an echo of regret in his voice.
I was their only child and the closeness we shared was warm and loving.
“Then you went away” said my Mother, in her own last days, as she kissed each memory goodbye, before dissolving into the stars.
I knew the sun would shine less brightly in their lives, when I became a ‘gypsy’ and embarked on a voyage that has taken me nearly 49 years away from my childhood home by the river banks, with the light dancing across the water.
but I went anyway.
I’ve just returned from Aberdeen, a town notorious for it’s hotel prices, thanks to the discovery some years ago of North Sea Oil. From the moment the oil was discovered, the price of accommodation soared. A look at Laterooms.com and other internet sites made sober reading: some hotel rooms in the ‘Granite City’ reached around £600 per night, with even a modest guest house touching £60 to £70.
I know I could have found a threadbare room – the sort that has a plywood wardrobe and a stained sink, musty carpeting and…at the end of the corridor, a threatening lavatory that you must never actually sit on – but I wanted ‘more’ – and I don’t mean a lavatory brush.
Woe betide the unobservant guest who needs to enter one of those morbid little cubicles and fails to notice the absence of that symbol of care, together with the sad paperless tube hanging on the back of the door.
Misery and angst is guaranteed.
After a multitude of fruitless calls, the Scottish burr on the other end of my mobile told me that he indeed had vacant accommodation for the two weeks I needed - a small converted wash-house near the quay in “an exclusive area”…
….My impressions on arrival however, were rather mixed. Yes, it was a wash-house, but it was very small and umm…’Spartan’ and I wondered if I really needed something ‘more’. After half an hour of pacing around the hut (three paces to one wall, three paces to the next ), I sat down outside the front door to think things over.
‘Should I take it, or should I go?’
I was deep in thought when a small black and white cat gently padded up to me and plonked itself down,resting against my foot.I was pleased to receive the attention the little creature gave me, and regarded it as a welcoming omen…so I decided to stay in the little hut….
….After all, it was only for two weeks and ‘Wee Beastie’ did look very much like ‘Noone’, the cat who occasionally visits me at home and who always seems to turn up when needed…
…I arrived home the other week, to find all the parking spaces taken. I stopped the car and considered my options. Should I park in the next street and face six trips, lugging a pile of archive boxes down the narrow ‘drug alley’ that linked the two roads - or leave them in the car until the next day and risk my windows being smashed in by the feral youths who patrol the area on Saturday nights? I was sitting in dismal thought, when Noone appeared in my car headlights and after staring at me with emerald eyes, turned and walked up the road. I put the car in first gear and slowly followed Noone, who stopped after around 50yds, by the rear wheels of a van that had obscured the only free space available. Noone stalked around the car as I manoeuvred it into the space and then watched as I unloaded the boxes. I was walking to the car to collect the last one, when Noone suddenly ran up the road at high speed. My reaction was instinctive – I grabbed the box from the rear seat, locked the car and made it to the front door, just as a yob approached with clenched fists and trouble in his eyes…
After a while, Wee Beastie got up, stretched and stalked off, sadly never to return during the two weeks of my stay – but the welcome had been good and I was starting to enjoy the hut. So I celebrated my arrival with a meal and a bottle of merlot at a local restaurant -weaving my way back to the quay, just in time to see a ship pass by, it’s lights glowing amber against the darkening sky….
…Bergen is a beautiful old Norwegian port, with a fish-market on the quay. I would buy some fresh prawns – and sit and eat them for breakfast, as I watched the ships leaving the harbour, bound for the oil rigs that lay between Bergen and Aberdeen, or the open sea.
Each night I would lie awake in the darkness and listen to rough voices talking in a language I didn’t quite understand - laughing and shouting in the street below my window - and each day I would search for flowers, as the seven, snow-capped mountains of Bergen looked down on me, unsmiling. As the days and months passed, the lump in my throat grew larger, until even the delicious prawns were impossible to swallow - and I knew I had to go home.
But where is home?
I met my idol George Chakiris in 1992, when he came over to the UK, to play Rene Gallimard in “M. Butterfly”. George is ten years older than me and at that time was a mere 59yrs old – whilst I was still a stage-struck youth of 49. (everything is relative).
I first saw George in the film ‘West Side Story’ when it opened over here in 1962 and right from the opening sequence, when I saw him in a red shirt at the centre of a trio of male dancers……I knew he was very special…
‘First the confrontation – then the humiliation, then friends……then down the alleyway like panthers…so slowly at first…step ball-change, step,step ball-change, now faster step ball-change, step ball-change…then turn,,step ball-change turn, step ball-change turn……along the street, up to the dusty building-site plateau and then Wow!…a flying kick, high to the left – crouch right-left,turn-stop…double pirouette’
From that moment on, I knew exactly how I wanted to dance. (that’s the sequence above)
It had been a last-minute booking, with no time to arrange George’s work-permit – so he was released into my care (I had my passport with me) until the necessary paperwork was completed. I stood excitedly at one end of the barren hanger at Heathrow airport, waiting for his arrival and feeling a bit like Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. . What would he look like now? I imagined an expensive-suited version of the Oscar-winning dancer and actor, striding across the ‘no-man’s land’ between myself and the small security door at the far end. After a lifetime of five minutes or so, the door opened and a slight figure in denim and baseball boots approached. I was knocked out – he looked just the same as he did when he played ‘Bernardo’, all those years before
We talked as I drove him to his small hotel in Leicester Square, and after I had blurted out my adoration, I calmed down enough to ask him who were the nicest and most sincere people, amongst all the stars he had ever worked with….
(It was always important to me that my idols were also nice people in real-life)
George surprised me by immediately answering “Marilyn Monroe”. He had been one of the main dancers in the ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and he recalled that she had worked so hard to get the sequence exactly right, and was consequently so nervous and exhausted by the final take, that he could feel her back and arm muscles trembling during each lift.
When the last take was done, and knowing that Howard Hawks the director was rushing to the airport to try to make a flight to New York, Marilyn ran across the set, to catch him up and ask him if it was really good - and had she been good enough? No status grabbing, no starry ego. Just a vulnerable woman who wanted to get it right. George said she ‘knew’ the last take was really good, but she still needed to make sure the director was happy with it.
When we eventually arrived at the hotel, I was irritated that the receptionist didn’t recognise George, or even know his name. My irritation changed to shock when I saw the tiny room allocated to my hero – all he had was a bed and a wash-basin and a shower. As far as I was concerned, the ‘Oscar-Winning George Chakiris’ deserved ‘more’ than a room where a careful entry was required, to avoid falling over the bed.
Later that night I phoned my long-suffering producer and we moved George into the best room the Hilton could provide. We arrived at the top hotel, to find George wandering around an enormous apartment that could have housed an entire cast and crew, rather than the quiet and slightly forlorn man who stood before us. I explained that I had arranged the move because I thought he deserved ‘more’…
“I rather liked my little room” he replied softly, but not ungraciously,
“It was like a womb I could curl up in."
My father’s prediction was accurate, I have always wandered and never settled. But like wise George, I now know that my real home lies within me and that it must be protected from the noise and confusion of ambition and status.
From always looking for ‘more’ and so often finding ‘less’.
The landlord provided the key, and wished me a pleasant stay. Each morning I unlocked the door and emerged into sunlight or showers and each night I watched the ships leaving the harbour, bound for the oil rigs that lie between Aberdeen and Bergen, or for the open sea – before heading for home and drifting off to sleep in the little hut…
There was no television, just a bed, a cooker, a metal table and chairs, a sink, a shower, a toilet,
…and a lavatory brush.