“Ava Harper?” I put down my bottle of water and grab my bag. “You’re in next.” The girl due in after me shuffles nervously with her script. I follow the casting assistant into a studio crammed full of cameras and lighting. Unbelievably, paying-to-act might actually change to acting-to-get-paid, since my fringe fluting floozy antiques caught the eye of a leading Television casting mogul currently looking for a new regular in a major weekly series. Who’d have thunk. I allow myself a few seconds of humming Look what happened to Mabel. Instead of avoiding the backstage mice, I could be settling comfortably into my sofa with a curry and chips, watching my mug being broadcast regularly nationwide on ITV. Look what happened to Ava…
I feel my phone buzzing in my bag. Three consecutive buzzes, my LoveArts message signal. There may be safety in numbers as the boyfriend proclaims heartily but at this point I feel like a kid who broke into a sweet shop and ate half her own bodyweight overnight. It’s been 7 hours and 16 days of non-stop Clementine-style LoveArts dating. I’ve had dinner, drinks, lunch, tea and indecent proposals from everyone and…everything imaginable in the dating world. Mike the Magician, Oscar the Olympics team reject, Charles the Chelsea cooking school owner. So far, I have learnt how to make friends with my date’s amphibian pet, talked to his overly tipsy grandmother about “female hysteria toys” and fallen into the embarrassingly predictable let’s-have-sex-to-get-over-my-ex trap. Bridget Jones, eat your heart out.
Tonight I am on my way to meet Harry who works as an accountant near Bank XYZ and is obsessed with Cate Blanchett films. I grab a stool in the corner of the Phoenix bar and await my fate. A sturdy looking lady a good head taller than me approaches me eagerly. “Hi you must be Ava, I’m Harriet.” A question mark covers my face. Should I know this creature? Is she a distant relative or someone I have auditioned for? I tentatively shake her hand. “I am so glad I recognised you, it’s always strange meeting like this for a first date.” I pull my hand away. “I think you might be mistaking me for someone. I am actually waiting for…err…a friend. Called Harry.” Harriet beams and grabs both my hands. “Well that’s me, I’m Harry! Well, Harriet now. I…did want to tell you but it seems rather odd messaging on a dating site about these things so I thought I would wait until we met in person. And you did after all state that you were very open to a variety of personalities and types of….men.” I grab my bag. I am going to kill Clementine. “I’m sorry but I am actually…looking for…a man. Not…a woman. I wasn’t expecting….” I trail off at a loss for words.
There is an awkward silence as Harry aka Harriet’s mood changes decidedly. Her eyes sink into her face and her hands tremble. “It’s funny how everyone always says they are interested in getting to know a person rather than just the obvious. But really, they just do want the obvious. The predictable. When life never is that straightforward, is it? Have you ever been with a woman before?” Harriet is so keen I can literally smell her excitement. “No really that’s not my scene, I’m sorry but I just…can’t fancy a woman. I…think I should go.” Turning around swiftly, I rush towards the door of the bar squeezing past pre-theatre punters and dash decisively to the next tube station. Munching a kebab on the way home, I listen to my eighties club medley on repeat. As I open the front door the house is pitch dark and Dave is sitting hunched at the kitchen table staring at a half empty bowl of soup. Without moving a hair he states: “I’ve called it a day with Anne. It’s over.”
Auditions: Television casting galore
LoveArts dates: dozens
There is nothing like the singles table at a wedding. Trying not to pop out of my bridesmaids dress I attempt to gage which of the two choices that Holly’s handwritten table cards have assigned next to me, might be more bearable to converse with. Choice number one is ten years old, needs to blow his nose and thinks the wedding should have a Spiderman theme. On my right hand side I listen to the woes of a woman a decade my senior who has just finalised her divorce. “And can you believe it, he even took the dog” she huffs tucking into her parsnips. I nod hello to the two blokes opposite me. One is Chinese and hadn’t been able to understand anything all day while the other one is glued to his blackberry under the table trying to complete a deal of some kind or other. The sixth member of our little eclectic group is a Chemistry professor in his sixties pretending to be in his forties who is peering at my hoisted bosoms rather clumsily. “Hi my name is Andrew, what’s yours?” he asks eagerly. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Andrew Harris ended up sending me a rather lengthy email about how wonderfully perfect for him and stunningly lovely I am….but that his wife has now decided that she is over her “phase”, kicked out her girlfriend and would like to give their relationship another go. And he has agreed for his daughter Marie’s sake. Of course he has. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have made that decision before declaring his undying love to me and crossing my emotional-bridge-of-no-return. Upon receiving his I-love-you-but-can’t-be-with-you (right now) email my heart felt like it was run over by a truck several times in reverse and then hung out to dry in the Siberian tundra somewhere. So I called Holly. Had ice cream. Called Holly again. Had two bottles of wine. Tried to call Holly again but crashed out on the floor…and the next day, sat down and wrote a how-to-get-over-Andrew-Harris list:
- Date, date, date on LoveArts. Oh, and did I say date? Yes, date.
- Throw out all of Andrew’s gifts (yes, even the jewellery box and the French lingerie)
- Buy more ice cream and wine
- Make a list of why Andrew Harris was never really all that wonderful in the first place
Handing my LoveArts account over to Clementine, she has now lined me up with a dozen viable dates on an intense two-week dating mission. And refuses to give me details on any of them until the day before each date. She’s even changed the password on my LoveArts account so I won’t interrupt her project. All I know is none of her choices are apparently anything like Andrew Harris, and in fact, she has avoided anyone unfortunate enough to share his name. “It’s called ‘duty-dating’ Ava” she announces. “Dating to cleanse the soul.” Guess buying a new outfit at Karen Millen won’t do the trick.
“Could I have all the ladies on the dance floor, yes all those lovely sexy ladies please join me now” the wedding DJ announces merrily. It’s throwing-the-wedding-bouquet time and Holly grabs my arm and drags me along. I can’t escape. She places me firmly amongst the barrage of young girls giggling excitedly and winking at their boyfriends knowingly. I shuffle in the back pretending to get ready to leap, jump and kick my way to the prize. I really need the loo but now is clearly not the time. The DJ turns on ABBA’s Dancing Queen and Holly aims at the crowd behind her. The flowers go flying and I politely applaud the ecstatic recipient…and her rather terrified looking other half. Chemistry professor Andrew takes my hand and slips his card in it. “Don’t be a stranger now” he breathes at me.
Dates: Project Clementine – dating to the dozen
Auditions: Performing as fluting floozy at the London fringe – one week to go
I practice my harmonies humming quietly to myself as the director frantically whizzes round placing last minute props of dishes and crockery. The musical director finishes tweaking the opening and announces that we will start our final run through shortly. I gather up my extensive frock skirts and head for the dressing room where an argument has broken out within the cast about extra chairs taking up too much floor space. Not a surprise considering the room is currently squeezed full of 12 people when it can comfortably hold about three. As the clock ticks by it’s suddenly nearly 4pm and a mild panic sets in as everyone bumps into each other racing for hair-pieces, ties and cramming in some last minute sandwiches as a makeshift dinner. The five piece orchestra seems to be speeding up like a Laurel & Hardy sketch as we race through the final moments of practice time. Press night is imminent but all I want to know is whether Andrew will be watching. I haven’t heard from him in days.
Whilst most of the cast gratefully strip off our costumes in between scenes due to the stifling backstage heat, I notice one of the actors in the corner huddled, shivering in a zip-up fleece. “Seems I have a temperature,” he moans as I place a cooling towel on his forehead and pass him a couple of Panadol. He lies down on the floor, past caring about dead ants, dust or bits of food spoiling his dapper suit. The dress run is hastily completed at quarter to seven and the sound of the audience arriving lifts us all to the next level. Excitement and new bursts of energy set in as final notes are given by the director and opening night congratulation cards are handed out to company members. I almost drop mine out the window by mistake trying to catch a few last moments of fresh air before returning to the confinements of my Floozy costume.
The show starts and everything suddenly goes very quiet. We are waiting to hear if our efforts are achieving the desired reaction from an apparently full house of punters. “Do you think that was alright? They didn’t laugh at all,” someone grumbles as they rush back in for a quick change after scene two, dropping their trousers in record time. I suddenly realise we are already on scene two and I am due on stage at any minute. My first entrance is a blur and I don’t remember anything apart from a plate being smashed in the intensity of the moment. I return to the dressing room giggling nervously and get told off by the stage manager for being too noisy. Apparently we can be heard in the auditorium even if we whisper. “And remember not to flush the toilet during the show,” she hisses at me. “Fabulous, first big laugh of the evening,” everyone comments. I enlighten them that the big laughs were due to the plate malarkey and sadly not my comedy timing. “Do whatever it takes, whatever it takes,” one of the older cast members mutters at me. He must know, as he has been treading the boards for more than four decades.
By the start of Act II everyone has relaxed considerably and we start to listen to the show over the Tannoy. The mother’s comedy solo number goes down a hoot though some of us are decidedly worried that the pianist is still missing a large amount of cues. It becomes a running gag. “Oh my god, did you hear what he did this time? I actually had to sing my last verse a capella.” With the play-off music still ringing in our ears, we stumble off stage, eagerly anticipating a very cold drink – only to find the dressing room in total darkness. Someone has left a curling iron in the plug and it’s crashed the entire electrical system. “Ouch, that was my foot! Hey, are these my socks or yours? Has anyone seen my hanger?” Luckily it is only a matter of minutes before full lighting returns and we can grab out essentials and join friend, family and foe at the press night drinks. I rush out, clutching bags…no Andrew. My agent smiles at me with words of praise. Clementine gives me a big hug. But – no Andrew. My comp for him has remained untouched with the box office. Maybe he was mugged on the way and is now being resuscitated in A&E. Maybe he got stuck on tube delays. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I find a quiet space at the back and breathe deeply. Shake it off Ava. The fact that he hasn’t been in contact since your fateful visit to his flat, is a clear sign that the man is unresolved and not as available as he made out to be. Back to fishing in the Lovearts sea? I grimace glazed-eyed through sipping my red wine and suddenly realise that I have less then twelve hours to switch my brain back to Bank XYZ mode.
LoveArts dates: Who am I kidding.
Auditions: Press night of Fluting Floozy fringe role
Today is the kind of day where it makes more sense to paraglide out of a plane with no pants on than to actually try and understand where life is taking me. I am now on half day shifts at Bank XYZ so I can focus on rehearsing for a brand new musical. Unpaid profit share, which is industry speak for kissing-precious-day-job-money-goodbye-to-act-and-get-noticed-for-paid-theatre-work. Still, my morning Metro classifies it as “a top London fringe venue”. Truthfully, the place is a rather damp dump and could do with a dressing area slightly larger than a postage stamp. The West End it ain’t but it’s an acting job with a dream cast and a director I have always wanted to work with. My role as a huffy, spoilt, larger than life “floozy” also goes nicely against my usual girl-next-door casting type – and I even get to choose my own costumes. Part of the job is to flute my little heart out in Act II. Thank god I didn’t throw that instrument away like Clementine keeps urging me to. I have been tooting on the rusty old thing non-stop all week to bring myself back up to actor/muso standard as my audition was rather dismal to say the least. Greensleeves sounded more like a bastardised version of Three Blind Mice. Mentioning the flute always seems to go down well with those LoveArts dates that have been watching just a few too many American Pie installations.
It’s 5pm and I’m on my way to Andrew’s house. I have left Dave with a rather teary Anne to discuss their future in our kitchen. Seems Anne baking blueberry muffins sparked the moving-in-together issue and Dave now has some explaining to do as to why he prefers daily shower arguments in a house share over pampering from Anne. Hopping off the tube I enter a rather posh part of town where Filipino nannies walk overweight pooches and the local GP happily offers same-day appointments. Voice coaching must be rather more lucrative than I thought. I saunter along casually but my stomach is tied in knots. Truth be said, I am starting to really fall for Andrew. This is turning out to be rather more than a lets-see-if-I-can-bag-my-drama-school-crush scenario. I ring the bell of Flat 1, basement of grand Victorian conversion with Olympic-sized garden. Andrew opens the door before my finger even leaves the buzzer. He looks nervous and compensates by keeping hold of my hands as he tours me through his home. The lounge and bedroom are cosy and comfortable while the bathroom has framed theatre posters on the walls. We share a knowing glance over the oversized bathtub. The second bedroom is filled with books to the brim as a beaten-up green pull-out couch tries to breathe surrounded by heaving shelves of memorabilia.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Andrew grins. My heart jumps and I give him a kiss whispering yes. He takes my hand and leads me up the stairs. “The kitchen is upstairs” he mumbles. I stop walking and look at him. He leans against the staircase and exhales slowly. “My ex Sonja lives upstairs. She owns this house. When we split up we decided to convert the basement into a flat for me so…it would be easier for Marie. Separate floor but still in the same home. So she can come and see me whenever she needs me. We had some planning permission issues so I can’t have my own kitchen.” I sigh inwardly. “But Sonja never comes down here” Andrew continues earnestly. “We lead very separate lives.” I nod intensely. “She…has a new partner now. Sarah. It’s…quite recent.” I feel like I am in an Eastenders episode. Andrew looks tense. “Yes well….Sonja had this experimental phase which then turned into her realising she preferred being with…women.” We sit on the stairs and I put my head on Andrew’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I…didn’t know how.” Suddenly frantic footsteps approach the door at the top of the stairs. It bursts open. “Andrew, Marie needs to be picked up from piano at 7…” Sonja stops in her tracks and stares at me. Andrew shuffles uncomfortably. I hold out my hand. “Hi, you must be Sonja. I’m Ava. We were just getting a cup of tea.” Sonja bursts into tears.
Love Arts dates: Visiting Andrew’s abode
Auditions: First rehearsal as floozy/flutist for damp fringe production
“Why don’t you buy it a size smaller? Great incentive to drop that dress size you always seem to be worrying about.” Clementine winks at me and leaves my changing room to hang up the rejects in my outfit-for-Holly’s-wedding quest. I give up trying to squeeze into size 8 of the Coral Dream creation and slouch on the floor. My head spins as I try to make sense of last night’s hen do in Brighton. According to Facebook I somehow ended up stripping for the hen night male strip-o-grams and plunging merrily into the town centre water feature ruining my new Ted Baker heels in the process. Classic. Woke up the next day with Holly handing me a chocolate croissant, which then caused a quick nausea trip to the B&B’s bathroom. As I return I catch a glance of myself in the mirror. I am wearing my pyjama top with last night’s tights somehow covered in my mascara. Lovely. Holly is propped on our bed looking like she’s just stepped out of a Monsoon ad, hair perfectly curled, feet all laced up in sandals, face blush-fresh. “Sorry” I mumble plonking myself next to her. She puts her arm around me and turns on the Olympics. There is nothing else to say. Hijacking her hen night to get mind bogglingly plastered isn’t really bridesmaid style behaviour. Even if narrowly missing out on a West End lead because the current lead decided to renew her contract after all, is a pretty substantial excuse. Back in my changing room, Clementine has returned and holds up a size 10 of the Coral Dream creation. It’s going to clash wonderfully with my auburn hair. I nod weakly as she zips me in.
A car honks outside as I feel something heavy draped over my body. I freeze momentarily and then open my eyes coming face to face with Andrew Harris topless and wrapped in my sheets. He looks even better in day light. His mouth is slightly open as he snores gently. Strangely, he looks almost like a little boy dozing away all peaceful and content. I snuggle up against his arm gently so as not to wake him. My phone buzzes. It’s an email with my audition time for tomorrow – London fringe. Unpaid. But the role is a dream and it’s a new musical. Onwards and upwards. As I prepare to go back into doze-mode Andrew’s phone suddenly plays the first twelve bars of the Knightrider theme . He jumps up startled and momentarily disorientated. Giving me a sheepish grin, he fumbles for his phone with one hand, stroking my hair with the other. “Hello” he answers groggily. A child’s voice at the other end chatters away enthusiastically as Andrew sits up slowly. “Yes. Yes of course sweetheart. I shall come to the park later. No don’t worry about that. You go and have a good time. Yes daddy loves you too.” As he hangs up I raise one eyebrow and hand him a pillow. “So….what’s her name?” Andrew clutches the pillow, knuckles whitening. “Marie. She’s seven. She….sometimes lives with me.” It’s funny how things can change so quickly. Last night my biggest concern was how to finally ask Andrew back to my room after spilling lobster linguini all down his shirt. Now I am contending with a mini-female version of Andrew joining our budding romance. I am so not ready to be a mother. I’m not even thirty yet! Arggh! Calm down Ava, nobody is asking you to be her mother. She has a mother. Stop panicking over nothing. “How do you feel about….children?” Andrew questions softly. Sigh. I want children. Don’t most women? And yes I have been slightly paranoid about my racing body clock but whoa, rewind please. A seven-year old needs a proper role model who can braid her hair and read bedtime stories while baking wonderfully healthy yet delicious cupcakes. I burn Betty Crocker ready-made package brownies regularly and the last time I read someone a picture book story was at a rather dodgy TIE audition many years ago. Never mind my recent hijacking of Holly’s hen weekend to drown my West End los sorrows. I feel about as ready to be a mother as I do to return to Bank XYZ tomorrow morning.
Love Arts dates: Third date (and night) with Andrew
Auditions: One scheduled, unpaid fringe
I am slouching on the sofa in my slanket, my housemate Dave sprawled out on the floor in front of me glued to the Television. As he hums along glued to the Olympics Opening Ceremony I glance at the roses placed to my right on the dining table by the window. Gift from Andrew Harris for our date number two. Roses, steak dinner and a romantic stroll with subtle hand holding in a garden square before being escorted to the tube platform. I almost feel like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. It’s all so very civilised and attentive. Maybe Andrew has actually read the how-to-keep-them-keen-without-treating-them-mean guide? My phone buzzes. Love Arts message: Artybloke28 would like to be connected. “Hi you look like someone who enjoys a play. Can I play with you some time?” I press delete. As Olympic volunteers buzz around the stadium like ants rolling up grass carpets and creating the Industrial Revolution, I make a mental list of things to do to, err…with Andrew:
1. Fifty Shades of Grey role play
2. Fifty Shades of Grey role play in the Maldives
3. Fifty Shades of Grey role play in the Maldives in a secluded whirl pool
My imagination is like an overactive thyroid. Then again it has been playing with Andrew Harris thoughts for almost as long as Dave has been on and off with his girlfriend Anne. I enquire what the current status is. “It’s complicated” Dave mumbles. I launch into a gentle version of my weekly life-isn’t-Facebook talk as Dave zones in and out. “We are good. Just going to see what happens.” He seems determined to play out the Nathan and Adelaide Guys and Dolls scenario. “Nothing is going to happen unless you make something happen Dave. Why don’t you just move in with her and see what happens? You’ve been with her for five years now.” He sticks his tongue out at me and grabs a crisp. Dave and I might as well be married. He regularly sees me without make up first thing in the morning and has no scruples telling me when my bum looks massively hideous in something. Even if the outfit is brand spanking new. I launder his boxers and he hangs up my bras to dry in the lounge. It’s frighteningly comfortable. Anne is a big-eyed, sweet-natured loveable northerner who just turned thirty and wants to start her new decade with the wedding of her dreams. Ah yes, don’t we all. Dave has recently decided that marriage is not for him. Too bad he hasn’t shared that thought with Anne. I could tell him that she will walk. But I know all too well she won’t. Not for a while. She still has that big H for Hope splattered across her face. Far too smitten.
Paul McCartney joins the Arctic Monkeys in a rather tuneless rendition of Hey Jude as the Queen tries not to fall asleep. Dave grimaces. My phone buzzes. Text from Andrew. “Thinking about you. Are you in bed yet?” I sit up and text back. “Would you like me to be?” I press send before I lose the nerve. He replies quickly. “Only if you have done your vocal exercises.” Hmm he is still being rather shy. Let’s give him some encouragement. “Vocal exercises done. Now on to the other parts of my bed time routine.” There is a longer text silence. And then his reply: “You will have to show me…x”
Love Arts dates: Second date with Andrew Harris. Late night phone texting with Andrew Harris.
Auditions: Contract signed, waiting for rehearsals to start
I shift nervously from side to side, wrapping myself tighter in my shawl. The wind enthusiastically creeps up my decidedly ambitious mini rara skirt. So much for a London summer. I never even turned my heating blanket off and keep my winter gloves on close standby. As it starts to rain I huddle outside the Southwark Playhouse and redo my lipstick. Tonight is not just any date. Tonight is the date I have fantasised about for the past ten years. Love Art’s Jollybanter36 is no other than a man I had a silent late-teen crush on for many a voice class at drama school. “Now breathe in fully to the core and release all the tension.” Oh yes. Please do release me. I promise to breathe wholly from the diaphragm for the rest of my waking days if you hold me in position. But Jollybanter36 (aka Andrew Harris) always stayed true to the teacher’s code of ethics and kept his car and conscience student-free.
Now I am no longer a gawky nineteen-year old and about to turn practically middle aged, the fifteen year age gap seems positively miniscule. Andrew has left teaching to voice coach leading shows in the West End while I am about to open in the show playing across the road from him. Well almost (contract pending). He rushes up to me, coat flapping, hair streaked with rain, that familiar smile beaming. It’s been almost ten years since I last laid eyes on him but from moment one it seems like we never stopped talking. We link arms and head into the Southwark theatre bar where romantic red lighting sets the mood perfectly. Andrew buys two pints and I zone out of my surroundings. A halfway familiar face waves at me from across the room. I nod back a hello, my gaze never leaving Andrew’s. We settle into a comfy sofa in the corner and exchange anecdotes and Love Arts dating gossip. I love how he uses the ladder in my tights as an excuse to rest his hand on my knee and pretends not to remember the time I came to rehearsal with the worst hangover ever after my birthday night out.
The bell sounds as the final call for the Mack and Mabel performance about to start. We head to the vault and as the lights dim, a latecomer squeezes into the end of our row. I try not to spill my drink on Andrew’s lap which now seems in even closer proximity than in my student fantasies a decade ago. Various song and dance numbers take place on the stage but all I can take in is the smell of Andrew’s aftershave and his arm lightly resting on mine. In the intermission we arrange a second date. Dinner at Joe Allen’s next Tuesday? Don’t mind if I do. I should be playing it cool. I should have left straight after the show using a Bank XYZ early meeting start as my exit cue. But instead I order another glass of wine. And manage to tangle loo roll into my rara skirt during my nervous-bladder fifth visit to the ladies that night which Andrew removes nonchalantly upon my return like it was part of the date. As we leave just before midnight and reach our goodbye-for-now-train-station, I suddenly go blank. Hug? Kiss-on-cheek? Cheeky-full-kiss? A combination of all three? Andrew takes charge, wrapping me up in his arms and whispering something like lovely-to-see-you. But all I can remember is his lips finding mine, as the rain plods down on us like the finale of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Love Arts Dates: One…hmmmmm…..
Auditions: Successful final recall, contract pending.