Telling Laura made it real. I really was going to fly up to Auckland and audition for Maggie Ryder’s acting classes. About a week before I was due to leave I started seriously freaking out. It was ridiculous. I was utterly kidding myself. I was simply letting myself in for massive humiliation, and it would be safer, all things considered, to just hide under my bed instead.
Laura took me in hand with obvious delight. She patiently listened to my insecure rambling, fed me alcohol and uppers, and watched my audition pieces over and over. She suggested I picture Peter naked whenever I got nervous which, while it gave us a good few minutes crying with laughter, led to an unforeseen difficulty with me getting nervous every time I saw Peter. He asked to be warned if we were picturing him naked, Laura told him it would be easier to tell him when we weren’t, and that was pretty much it for that technique.
Laura and Glen took me to the airport. Watching people watching us, I was struck for the first time in ages by how out of my own league I was. Even with Laura’s pregnancy, people admired the two of them. They also obviously assumed that Glen and Laura were a couple. I made extra-specially sure to snog both of them thoroughly before I left.
My sister picked me up from the airport, looking weary and frazzled, my niece in tow. For the first time, I really wondered how the hell Laura was going to cope. Shannon and I talked about it that night. She was managing, just, but she was more than happy to let me sleep on the couch and drive me around in return for a couple of nights baby-sitting. There was no way Laura was going to be able to handle not being able to have a night out. What happened when this baby was a baby? Still, given her utter self-assurance, I had to assume Laura had something planned.
Shannon dropped me at my audition the next day and went and waited at a nearby cafe. I didn’t want her to see me throw up. I stood on the footpath for about five minutes taking deep gulping breaths and wondering how many times Maggie Ryder’s neighbours had seen someone do that. Surely no-one came here with a calm heart.
The woman herself was just as formidable as I’d been expecting: masses of iron-gray hair and jewellery. Her greeting was more than polite, but not warm, and I could feel the weight of her watching me. She took me down a hall genuinely lined with old cast photos to a large room, made herself comfortable on a sun-drenched couch, and gestured for me to stand at the other end, where there was a conspicuously blank space.
She stared at me for a long moment, one arm draped across the back of the couch, and then she nodded. “Alright. What are you reading for me?”
So I started on my Miranda from The Tempest, and after a few seconds the familiar lines and movements captured me again. By the time I finished my nerves were completely gone and I felt so much better. I’d been good enough for paying audiences; I should be good enough for her.
Maggie tilted her head to one side, the tiniest smile playing around her mouth. “Competent. That’s what they give you, isn’t it child, ingénues? Pretty little innocents. And you’re quite happy to play to type. If you’re coming to me, that is absolutely not good enough. You’re not some pale Cordelia, girl, you should at least be able to stretch to see what the Good Little Girl is capable of when she’s pushed too far.” She leaned over, rummaged through a bookshelf, and threw me a battered copy of the Penguin King Lear. “IV.5. Read Regan.”
She read in Oswald herself from memory. It was a short scene, not much scope to convey Regan’s lust and greed and selfishness. For her obvious sensuality, I thought of Laura. For her other traits, I drew on Bastet. It wasn’t easy. For the first time, I was pretending to be someone else more than I was drawing on myself.
My audience was still unsatisfied, but at least she hadn’t yet made up her mind. “Here,” she said, tossing me another book. “Take this home tonight. Come back tomorrow and read me Helen believably.”
Helen, in A Taste of Honey. Middle-aged, dissolute, alcoholic, lustful, selfish and stupid. Holy hells. On the other hand, at least now I knew what Maggie thought I wasn’t.
Shannon read with me that evening, though she couldn’t handle reading Peter without lapsing into giggles. I really needed an actor to work with, but I had to make do with my sister, her wooden delivery and her total inability to take me seriously.
After my niece had been put to bed, I phoned Laura and told her how it had gone. She laughed too, but with delight. “Oh Hera, my poor darling. Alright, let’s think about this. She can’t expect you to have lines and moves down in one day, can she? So that’s not what she wants. She’s after something else. And it must be character, because that’s all that’s left. So think about this… Helen? Who she is. What made her that. What she wants. Also… Peter, seriously?”
“I’m going to have to look this play up.”
“It’s only a bit part, really. It’s mostly about Helen’s daughter…” A talented, ambitious young woman who finds herself pregnant in really unfortunate circumstances… “I wouldn’t bother.”
“I’ll decide what I bother, thank you, darling. You go off and discover the core of the boozy slapper. Hmm, actually, that sounds like something I might bother myself.”
Even four months pregnant, it was all too easy to believe that Laura could find herself a situation where she was bothering the core of a boozy slapper, and I didn’t want to think about it. So I went to my room and thought about Helen, and how someone who’d clearly made her life around her sexual attractiveness had ended up lumped with a child, and poor and desperate. I thought about how she’d got there.
The next day, I went back and played her as Laura in twenty years, with all the slightly frustrated love I bore her. She had the weariness and disappointment Laura’s life could come to hold, but also her verve and determination.
Maggie accepted me.
Laura threw me a huge party when I got back. We had it at the Carnarvon, and she sat in the massive leather chair we’d bought her and queened it over the room. She was so obviously delighted for me I had to pretend not to have any doubts. Certainly she left me no room to worry about her and her baby. She wasn’t going to need me.
Late in the proceedings, in that pleasant lull when people started to drift away and we had no inclination to leave yet, Glen and I lounged in one of the booths and talked. “I want to come back as much as I can,” I said, flicking my fingernails through the hair on the back of his neck as he lay stretched out in front of me. “But gods, I’m going to be so broke for so long. Once I go… I don’t know when we can see each other again.”
He stroked my leg, laid out next to him. “It’s okay, Hera. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.” He stretched slightly, and I watched the muscles play in his legs, felt them move in his back. “It was always going to happen. At the end of this year, or the start of next, I’d be moving to Wellington anyway.”
I’d sort of known that. It was natural that Glen, when he’d finished his degree, would go into the civil service. Charles would help him if he needed it, and he probably wouldn’t. My lover was brilliant. It made me feel oddly proud. “I’ll still miss you. I know we never said…”
He turned, so we could see each other’s faces. “That’s not the point. It doesn’t matter what we say. We’re friends. We don’t have to own each other for that. We can still have our own lives. And you’re not going quite yet.” He slid his hand up my thigh, under my dress. “We can still make the most of the time we have left.”
“Fucking oath,” Laura said cheerfully. And loudly. Not being able to drink didn’t seem to tone her down much at all. “Glen, take my girl home and fuck the hell out of her. For me.”
Glen looked up at her standing over us, and gave her that look he did so well, out from under his soft unruly fringe. “Why thank you Laura, that is exactly what a man likes to hear at a moment like this.”
She grinned hugely. “Excellent. Jump to it, then.”
There wasn’t, at that point, much else we could do.
I arrived in Auckland with a backpack and a place on the couch at my sister’s. Getting to Maggie’s from Shannon’s on public transport turned out to be utterly impractical. After a couple of weeks of sheer exhausting hell, Maggie got me together with one of her students who was looking for another flatmate, and after that things went much better. Well, we were all dirt-poor and scratching for work, and Beth, the other student, was occasionally a bit of a bitch about parts, but in retrospect it seems like we all just got on. They weren’t my friends, it wasn’t like being with the Club, but it was fine.
It seems odd now, I know, but Laura and I mostly communicated by letters. She’d phone sometimes, after ten when it was cheap, which Glen did too, though not as often. Mostly she and I wrote each other thick letters, empty of substance. I still have all of hers. Given the number of times I’ve moved, that’s ridiculously, impractically sentimental, but in a way they’re all I have left of her. Her personality crackles off the page now just as strongly as it did then.
I got a shit job working in a takeaway bar, which involved a lot more of getting sexually harassed by drunken arseholes than I’d been expecting. My feet hurt and I smelled like grease all the time and the people I had to work with were so stupid I was surprised they could stand and breathe at the same time, but I could pay my bills. I gradually replaced all the furniture and stuff I’d had to sell before I left.
Meanwhile, Maggie worked me hard, though she never pushed me as far out of my comfort zone as she had to start with. Mostly she taught me craft. She taught me to watch, and think about, how people walked and sat and how they held their hands when they weren’t doing anything. Sometimes she would take me to a park to people-watch, and make me invent stories about them. What did I assume just by looking at them? So what could I tell an audience before they’d heard a line out of my mouth?
About three months in, I got a break. Talent is great. Luck is essential. Beth and I had gone to a cattle-call for Shortland Street. Back then the local soap had only been running a couple of years, but it was a gold-mine when it came to steady if unfulfilling work for actors. They didn’t take Beth, they did take me. It seemed pretty random at the time. I just looked more like the picture in their heads.
So I spent a few hours sitting in a cafe pretending to have a heart-felt conversation with someone I’d never met while people ignored us. I’d expected the filming to be more repetitive, but it turned out they didn’t have time to dick around looking for the perfect shot. It was like acting in a factory.
That led to a bit part. I could follow instructions, I looked unremarkable, and I was, as I over-heard someone say, “One of Maggie’s girls.” I wasn’t complaining. Anyway, the idea was to have two new nurse characters arrive, there be some doubt about which one of them had done a particular thing, the other one to be accused of it and dismissed, leaving the Machiavellian character to carry on. You can guess which one I was cast as. But it was three weeks steady work, I was going to be on the telly, I could tell my mother, and I was perfectly happy.
Then the other actress got a film offer. It was good enough for her to break her contract and walk. At that point, the easiest thing for the writers to do was to reverse the initial plot, and sack the Nasty Nurse. In order to keep my character on, they had to make her more interesting. That wasn’t hard, to be fair, but she was still no Lady Macbeth when they were finished.
That was the start of me playing Brenda Farley, and I’m probably the only person in the world who still remembers her. I heard later that the other actress’s role fell through and she ended up with nothing. I felt terrible about it – the sort of terrible that one phone call with Laura cleared right up. It was Fate, she insisted, and nothing to do with me. Completely outside anyone’s control. I couldn’t feel I was to blame when something bad happened to someone else, unless I was also prepared to take credit for their successes. The best thing for me to do was to try to make Brenda a success, so the whole thing would have been worth it.
Being able to tell people I was an actor was fabulous. Making a living wage was also not appalling. It was really hard work, though, with the turn-around on filming being so short. It wasn’t, honestly, anything like I’d imagined working in television would be like.
Anyway, Brenda hung around for a while. She was given the opportunity to moon hopelessly after someone else’s husband, which was about as much fun as she got. A few weeks before Brenda was accidentally run over by his wife in the Christmas cliff-hanger, Laura had her baby.