When I was 17, I came down to London to audition for the drama school that I would eventually attend. I told school that the audition was a two day process. That was a lie. The audition would actually only take a day. It was on a Wednesday, but I knew that if I were to stay an extra day I could catch the matinee of A Delicate Balance at the Haymarket before getting the train back to Bolton. A Delicate Balance starred Eileen Atkins, Siân Thomas and crucially…Maggie Smith. Some lies are worth telling.
Thursday came and at 10 am I purchased a day ticket for the play. Left with several hours to fill, I headed over to the Barbican, home to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, my drama school of choice. I would use the morning to familiarise myself with the location and dream about studying there. I should point out that I have an impeccable sense of direction (and I’m saying so myself). I used to work for an aerial photographer. He’d fly around in his plane and take umpteen photographs of the ground below and then I’d work out what the pics were and give them a title. Google Earth and an A-Z were my only guide in this. I could look at a picture of a tree in a field and tell you to what road in Romford it belonged. I’ve never been to Romford, but I’m good with directions. The Barbican, however, defeated me. I got lost. Very lost. Lost and somehow trapped on a small island surrounded by water and concrete. With no clue how to get out and not a soul or sound in sight, I was starting to worry about missing the Dames; and then a woman appeared at my side. Short and old, she was draped with layers and bags. She looked like an overgrown owl. I told her I was lost and she said she’d show me to the exit. We started walking and she asked what I was doing there. I told her about the audition; I told her about the play; and I told her about Maggie Smith and how it was imperative that I get to the theatre.
“So you want to be an actor?”
“Yes,” I told her. Turns out she’d been an actress in a former life. She’d worked with Mags once upon a time. She told me a story about doing rep in some coastal town. I can picture a white cliff and the sea below. Did she tell me about that or did I conjure the image to flesh out the story? I can’t remember. The main details elude me now, but something about a dodgy landlady at a boarding house. And possibly her son (hers; not the landlady’s). She warned me of the perils of the business. She impressed upon me how hard it is; how the rejection can weigh you down. She stopped walking.
“Do you think you can handle it?”
“Yes.” She looked at me. And then she looked into me. For a long time. And then…
“You’ll be fine… Here we are.”
How had that happened? We hadn’t moved since we’d stopped, but as I looked up I could see a gate, a private gate out of the concrete garden, out of the quiet and back into the city, but the gate was locked. Out of the layers, the woman pulled a key. Within seconds that gate was open. And then again,
“You’ll be fine.”
“Thank you.” I passed through the gate and she locked it behind me. Cars and noise sped past. A moment later, I turned back to watch the woman walk away, but she’d gone. Vanished.
To my knowledge, I have never seen the woman since. Not in that form at any rate. She was an angel. Placed in my path at that very moment to point me on my way. And that she did. I went to the Haymarket, I saw Maggie, I got the train back to Bolton, a few months later I moved to London and for nearly 20 years I’ve been doing fine…but…you know…I sure wish I could see her again.