I was five when I wrote my first play. And of all the memories I have that fight for space in my head, it is that one that always wins. It is that one that comes to the front and shows itself, reminding me of who and what I am. Who and what I have always been. A writer.
Hampshire. The New Forest. 1986. Imagine the scene on an August summer’s day when the sky was the colour of nostalgia and the sun was heavenly hot. Our annual fortnight in the English countryside was off and running, and my family – grandmother, parents, sister and me – were enjoying every second of it. Isn’t that how it always goes, looking back? There are no dull moments, no waiting for things to happen, no ‘nothing days’ when not a thing was done… Even if, in reality, there were.
It was in this place, at this time, on that one day in August that I wrote that first play of mine. We had gone out for the day to Linford Bottom, our ‘private beach’, a peaceful, somewhat secluded little area somewhere in the National Park. Lunch time had been and gone and the adults were restless. Not so my sister and I who could create a game out of nothing and keep it going for hours. But the grownups were hot and tired and they were about to say it was time to leave. To go back to our little holiday bungalow at that point was just not something we little ones would allow.
“Watch our play!” I shouted from across the little stream. It was a distraction technique, something to keep everyone from packing up and leaving. And it worked. Suddenly intrigued, suddenly interested, they sat back down on stripy deckchairs and waited.
The plan had worked. The problem was that there was no play, nothing to wow them with, nothing to show them at all. Panic settled in the pit of my stomach as I desperately grasped around me for something – anything – to talk about. And then I saw it. ‘It’ was a gorse bush that sat plumply on the banks of the little stream.
“This is the Juniper Tree,” I said grandly. And that’s how it began.
It would, looking back, have been useful to have let my sister in on the plot of my play. That would probably have saved a lot of tears. But I was confident in my role as writer and director, and she was happy to act, so there was really nothing to worry about…
It all went horribly, predictably, wrong.
Amy strayed from the non-existent script. She began to talk to the audience, breaking the fourth wall entirely (not that I had any inkling about the fourth wall, but I still knew something was wrong), making jokes and laughing, skipping around, bringing in new characters, mugging and clowning.
My play was ruined. I could see it, the carefully constructed walls of story, plot, character, they all came tumbling down like the sad end to a fairy story, and I was left with the remnants of it all beneath my feet.
My sister had ruined it.
Which is exactly what I said. I stood there, red faced, tearful, stamping my chubby little leg and shouting, “She’s ruined it! She’s ruined it again!” before storming off to sit behind The Juniper Tree in silence. I stayed there, my parents say, for a good half an hour sulking.
I can’t remember what happened after that. I imagine we went home, dried our tears, enjoyed the remnants of the day as it drooped and dropped from its own heat into a balmy, orange-hued evening.
I imagine that’s exactly what happened.