Perfection

That day the universe was on my side. Because for the first time ever it gave me not just a second chance, but a third; and that really had never happened before. I never even normally get the second chance, for the simple and obvious reason that it’s just very unlikely to come about, so to be given a third chance – imagine how lucky I felt, and how happy.

I was on my way to the party; that was on Monday. I was in a good frame of mind, I had just arrived in town and seen two decent films, and I’d picked up my invitation and now was determined to go to this party even though I knew nobody there, and I thought I might therefore leave it again very soon. But in my good frame of mind I started chatting to a woman on the shuttle bus that the festival laid on from the last screening in the grand piazza to the lido by the lake where the party was happening, and after seeming a little distant at first she then, as we arrived there, almost grabbed my hand, and we went to the bar and had our first few drinks together, talking a lot about this, that and the other, and I thought this is great: I’m already not alone at the party.

When she left, I spotted a good looking man with a beard who was on his own and, buoyed by my success so far, started talking to him, and for a while we had more drinks and chatted about this and that too (though not so much about the other), and he met some people he knew, and I talked to them as well, and I quite liked him, but I also realised he probably wasn’t that interested in me, and that was fine by me too.

We’d by now drifted back towards the bar, and then suddenly out of nowhere the handsomest, friendliest, loveliest of all the men at the party—and it was a fairly big party—stood next to me and looked me in the eyes, and we hugged, and we kissed, and I don’t know why that happened so quickly or how, I only know that I’d seen him before, when he was working, taking pictures, and he had pointed his camera at me and the woman from the shuttle bus, and I had raised my glass to him and said ‘cheers,’ and now here he was, and we were kissing and hugging, and I didn’t know how or why: we must have been into each other, I suppose.

It was now nearing the end of the party, coming up four in the morning, and people were already leaving, and he simply said, ‘so to Locarno?’ and I said, ‘yes;’ and on the way to the car he told me he was staying in a flat with ten people in it, and some of them needed a lift, so we may have to wait for them, and I said that was all right, but in the end nobody wanted a lift—those who were there at the party decided to go by other means, maybe walk, or by bicycle—so we took his car, a convertible, though he didn’t put the roof down, maybe because it was coming up four o’clock in the morning. He told me he didn’t have his licence at the moment, but that that was all right, and I thought, well, he’ll be driving carefully then, and he did, and we got there without problem, but with a little help from his phone.

As we entered the flat it was dark and already quiet, and in the darkness we walked through a room with nothing much and nobody in it (maybe it was a hall?), into another room, which had a large double bed with two people in it, a man and a woman, both young, maybe the same age as he, and there was a narrow mattress on the floor, and he said: ‘this is me, but it’s all right,’ and it was all right.

We lay down on his little bed, and within seconds we were undressed and were what used to be called making love, and it felt like that, it felt like we were just making some love, and the couple in the bed did not seem to notice or mind and then we both fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Now and then the man from the bed would call my young lover’s name because he was snoring, and that wouldn’t help, so I would hug him closer to me, and that would.

In the morning we woke up, and he said: ‘dormi – sleep,’ but he had to get up and go to work, and I got up too though I didn’t strictly have to go to work, but I did have to go to the flat where I was staying, and do some work there. He made me a coffee, and we kissed again and hugged and said goodbye, and he disappeared, I assumed into the shower.

I got dressed in the room with the big double bed and the little single mattress, and a young woman there was also getting dressed, and I left my card on the window sill and let myself out and walked home in the happy sunshine.

He didn’t phone me or text me, or send me an email, or friend me on Facebook, and I thought, well that’s fair enough, he’d told me how much work he’s got on during the festival here, and he was young, so maybe that was just that, and that’s fair enough. But a little part of me wished and hoped and believed I would see him again; I would bump into him, I reckoned, at some point during the festival, it’s not that big a town, after all.

Nothing happened till Friday, except I was happy all week, doing some work and watching some films, and then Friday I was out with some friends, and we’d just had something to eat and decided to get an ice cream before watching a late film together, and from the ice cream stand I could see him walk towards the Piazza Grande, and I thought there he is, but he didn’t spot me, and I was too far away to call him over, and I didn’t know whether he’d want me to call him over since he hadn’t called me, and he was gone, and I thought, ah well, that’s a pity, but maybe there will be a second chance (even though I don’t normally get a second chance, as most people don’t, most of the time: the probability of circumstances arranging themselves such that one could come about being just so incredibly small).

Once everyone had their ice cream, we realised we were running late for the film, so we started to make a move towards the cinema, and there he was again, coming my way now, with a plate of food in his hand and passing at just a couple of feet distance: again I didn’t call him or stop him or say hello, it happened too quickly, we were late for our film, he had his hands full with food, and he didn’t see me, again. And again I thought, ah what a pity, but maybe there will be a third chance, even though I had never had a third chance before, or heard of anybody who had.

We went to see the film, and then on the way back we passed a bar with a big garden where sometimes they play live music, and one of the group said let’s not go in here, there’s another one which is nicer, but the other one was already closed, so we returned to the one with the big garden, and it’s a huge garden with different sections separated by old stone walls on different levels, and it would be impossible to get a view of it all, especially at night when it isn’t that brightly lit, and usually very busy, and we were going to stand in the courtyard nearest the bar, but then the same member of the group said, let’s go up there, and we went up a flight of steps, past another bar, and into another little courtyard, and we sat down at a table, and no sooner had we sat down at the table than I saw the back of the head that I recognised.

He was on the phone, stroking his short bleached hair with his free hand, and I recognised his short bleached hair in an instant, as I had stroked it too and so much liked the feel of it against the palm of my hand, and I recognised the little wrist band that looked like it had come from another festival, probably music, and I thought I should get up now and say hello to him, but he was with a group of people and so was I, and I thought, ah well, he’s here and at one point I’ll get up and say hello or he’ll get up and turn around; and then he finished his conversation on the phone and got up and turned around and there he was.

I said his name, and he said: ‘Sebastian.’And we hugged and gave each other a kiss, and he told me he had a problem with his flat which he needed to sort, but how long was I here for now and what had happened to me Tuesday morning, and I told him I’d left him a card and didn’t want to hang around as I knew he would have to go to work, and he said he hadn’t seen the card but now that he knew where it was he would find it, but I gave him another one ‘just in case,’ and he looked glad to see me, and we held each other’s hands, and we hugged again and gave each other another kiss, and then he had to go and sort his problem with the flat; and I knew that today the universe had been kind to me, because it had given me not just a second chance but a third, and I had taken not the first, not the second, but the third chance, and I don’t know if we will see each other tomorrow or ever again, but just knowing that he was glad to see me again today, and to see that spark in his eye and feel that hair and hear him say ‘Sebastian’ and smiling at me his broadest of smiles, that alone completely made me happy that day.


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Edinburgh

I like Edinburgh. I like it now, I liked it then. I love it now, I loved it then. With one or two reservations, for which Edinburgh is not to blame, nor its good people. It’s so far north, it gets undeniably miserable in winter. And dark. The upside of this is that during summer the days are long; and, with its situation by the sea, the light and the air and the atmosphere are tonic.

On The Tape, I refer to it as “a wonderful city,” “beautiful,” and “absolutely stunning.” I also tell my future self that, having queued up at the Fringe Box Office for an hour, and seen people advertise their shows there, “I feel very strongly that next year I will not be here as a member of the audience, but as a participant on some level or other.”

My slow delivery and often elaborate choice of words notwithstanding—I really seem to be searching a lot for the exact right way to express myself, and only succeeding maybe seventy, seventy-five percent of the time—I am obviously excited to have discovered “the place to be” for interesting theatre.

I never think of the theatre I had either already done by then, with fellow students in Switzerland, or that I was about to do, in London and Edinburgh with professional actors, as ‘avant-garde,’ but with hindsight it’s also clear to me that much of it probably was.

The theatrical establishment’s reluctance or inability to ‘get’ me as a writer has always baffled me, because nothing I’ve ever written has ever seemed so ‘out there’ to me that it could not be both understood and also—if you relish language and appreciate thought as much as emotion, delight in playfulness for its own sake as easily as in losing yourself in a story—enjoyed. Then I read a sentence like the one I’ve just written, and I think: maybe I do see why some people struggle… (Though in all fairness, that’s not how I write most of my dialogue.)

It occurs to me now, and only really now, that with all the wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm that I started out with, I propelled myself onto a trajectory that is exactly not what then I thought it was going to be. What I remember thinking it was going to be at the time—even though from today’s perspective that makes no sense at all—was that I would be heard and seen, ultimately, by everybody, by the general public: I fully assumed that people would, by and by over time, but relatively quickly, become aware of my work, and embrace it. Like it, if you like. And what I find most fascinating now is not that that hasn’t happened, that instead some people have certainly loved my plays, but others as absolutely hated them, that not a single one of the new writing theatres has ever put one of them on, even though some have taken pains to invite me into their office, where the Literary Manager would sit me down and profess how impressed they were with what I’d sent them to read but then seem thoroughly perplexed at the idea of doing anything with it; no, what I find most fascinating now is that in spite of all that, and after three decades, I still write work that to me seems entirely ‘reasonable,’ that is perhaps individual, but that certainly does not set out to baffle, and it baffles people.

I don’t know this at the time I’m recording my audio diary in August 1988, aged twenty-four, still only three years into living in London, but I’m about to embark on a choppy voyage that will on many occasions have me nearly keel over, that will cause me to get wet a lot, that will have some people so incensed at my work that they will attempt to sink me, but that, yes, will also sail me and my audiences to an island here or a bay there on occasion, where we might make a discovery that we would not otherwise have made, and I know—because sometimes they tell me—that there are indeed those who find value in that.

But perhaps the tone had already been set long before then, when we did Sentimental Breakdown…—the first of my plays ever to be staged—while I was still at school in Switzerland. One local newspaper had said in its review of the piece, “if it proves anything it is that today’s youth has nothing to say.” Another found much in it to be encouraged by, much to encourage, even to praise. And it’s been the same more or less ever since. By and large, I seem to split the critics down the middle, sometimes miles apart from each other, sometimes less so, depending mostly on how conventional or not a piece of writing happens to be. And it would not be long before right here, in Edinburgh, two different reviewers would write about the exact same production that it was “the worst thing” one of them had ever seen, while it was also “the best thing” the other one had come across. He wanted,  and bought, the T-shirt, he said; and I have no reason to  doubt either of them. Which is why today, and for some time now, I no longer read ‘the reviews’: they really are just opinions.

Back then, in August 1988, I tell my future self that Edinburgh is “the place to do something; lively, open, very free, the platform for modern new theatre; and that’s me saying this before I have even seen anything.” I’m about to see quite a bit: I spend a couple of days at the festival, sleeping little—“it’s 34 hours since I’ve been to bed last, and it’s starting to show”—smoking too much, and watching seven shows.

One of these leaves me cold, others I’m quite impressed by, one has me “physically shaking,” it’s such an “amazing piece of work.” I take the opportunity to talk to performers and directors, and to some of the people running the venues to “get some insider views.” I see a comedy show which amuses me, but I also tartly remark that “the unfortunate thing is they trap themselves a little; they are very witty, because they parody the Eurovision Song Contest, but their serious songs fall into a category fairly close to the kind they’re making jokes about…” but overall I am inspired, encouraged:

“I love Edinburgh,” I say in my last entry recorded there. “It is full of beautiful places, full of stunning views; if Edinburgh were blessed enough to find itself located a few degrees further down towards the south, it would be one of the most vibrant and fantastic places to possibly even reside,” I venture, using the word ‘reside,’ still without a hint of irony, I believe, though I express doubts that Edinburgh would have the same atmosphere and cosmopolitan feel outside the festival, and “it’s just simply too cold, there’s no doubt about that; it feels like April, which is all right for three or four weeks to do some work here, but to live here must be hell, it’s so depressing; but funnily enough it doesn’t seem to affect the people at all, they are nice and friendly.”

And so, even with the cold weather, I am “so invigorated by the people, by what’s going on here, by the shows, I could,” I say, “go on for a lot longer,” but tomorrow I have to check out by 1:30pm, after which I will “then see another three shows at least, and take the eleven-fourteen train from Edinburgh to London, and that will be my festival experience.” And even though I still have nearly a third of that experience ahead of me, I’m already able to conclude:

“Only just a couple of months ago, Edinburgh was this colossus of fantastically gifted, possibly famous, experienced, thoroughly professional beings who gathered together, excelling at what they do… – but it’s an open space, it’s a platform, it’s a forum, it’s a festival, it’s a place where things can be done.” I seem to be under no illusion: “The fact that people put in vast amounts of work for what in material terms is no return whatsoever: that creates an environment which to me appears very fruitful.” And so the resolution: “If it’s the last thing I do, and if it costs me a vast amount of money, I still want to take a show up here.”

Thus, I record my own personal manifesto for the following year: “It is now high time, very necessary, very appropriate also, to proceed and do the experiment, see how it works, risk failure, risk loss, risk whatever is involved; and I shall be spending the next twelve months preparing for this experiment and will put it to the test.”

And that is, of course, exactly what I then did.


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