When my friend Linda Stephens visited us at Ty Isaf in the late summer of 2014, she was already frail from the illness that would take her life in December that year. The visit was a surprise for her from her husband Jonathan, who had been secretly arranging it with me in e-mails. It was plain that much would depend on how Linda was feeling on the day, but the plan was they’d set out from their Usk home in the camper-van, and head for a short break away in west Wales. Jonathan had booked a night on the small campsite of a farm just a minute up the lane from Ty Isaf, but as Linda and I had long been out of touch and she had only a haziest notion of where I lived, she was completely taken in by his subterfuge. It turned out she was taken in too by the ‘driver error’ that brought them ‘accidentally’ in the wrong direction along the lane and up the drive to Ty Isaf, and the penny only dropped for her when I walked out with my terrier Jack to greet her.
In the 1960s Linda and I had been members of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre, and our time there forged a significantly close friendship between us. In the way of youngsters we fantasised about and ‘planned’ our career trajectories. She would be a great actress and I would be her director. No doubts. We felt invincible and energised and capable of fulfilling our every dream. But teenage years are ones of flux. Linda’s and my paths diverged, and there followed the inevitable falling away of ties. Linda, a few years older than me, went to the Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, while I moved to London to attend the Italia Conti Stage School.
No mobile phones back then, and moreover our circles of friends changed. She started dating, and that signalled a drift between us that I recognised meant we were no longer as close. Our worlds were opening up. She was maturing into a young woman exploring and pursuing her dreams, and I was absorbed in my career as an actor, dancer and later a choreographer. Linda met and married Jonathan and settled to having a family of three sons. Our lives, once so tightly enmeshed, went their separate ways.
It was a lovely day we had together at Ty Isaf. I’d prepared lunch, and though Linda ate very little she was very clearly having a wonderful time. We talked and talked and talked. So much that I’d forgotten came flooding back, nudged out of the shadows by her stories. Her memories were incredibly immediate, and I realised that precipitated by her failing health, she’d been poring over the past. She spoke of things we’d done together, and I wondered how on earth she’d retained such freshness about what had happened so long ago. But as I’ve recently discovered, she had a key that may have kept the past alive and present for her, though back when we were talking on that glorious August day in 2014, I just thought she had an almost supernaturally good memory.
It turns out that Linda safeguarded her memories in tangible form. In recent months, Jonathon has made files of material meticulously ordered and stored by her, available to Stephen Lyons, who is making an archive of the history of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre. Back when I was a teenager I didn’t have a camera of my own, and I didn’t take photographs of the world around me in the way that people do these days on their phones. Although I imagine I must have kept a few mementos of my time with MYPT, in the professional life of globe-trotting and changing addresses that followed, I travelled light. I have no theatre programmes, no photographs, no scripts and no notes of my time with MYPT. Nothing at all. Linda by contrast, kept everything, and now it’s all coming into the light to be examined. With every MYPT-related discovery emerging from her papers, memories come hurtling back to me. I don’t understand the mechanics. How can I have forgotten things so completely, only for a saved slip of paper scrawled in biro, or a snapshot to bring them all back? I hadn’t a single photograph of Linda. Now I do.
Above: neat folders of material that Linda Henderson – as she was then – kept from her years with Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre
One of the MYPT productions Linda and I had worked on was Maurice Maerterlinck’s The Bluebird. She played several roles. I danced with her in a scene in which we played characters identified in the cast-list as ‘The Lovers’. (The other performers in the photograph are, standing at the back, Stella Wells as Light, and sitting behind Linda, Gaynor Miles as Mytyl.)
I designed and made the many masks and headdresses for the cast, and I executed the more specialised make-ups. Linda played the dual role of the Fairy Bérylune and ‘Night’, and backstage during the performance I had to transform her from a hag to a haughty beauty. Staggering to see the photograph of her as Night all these years on. Linda was an enthusiastic collaborator and fantastically game for anything, letting me loose to create this Kabuki/Garbo/Caligari mash-up! She was thrilled with the look, and headed for the stage shimmering with hauteur and confidence.
To my complete and utter astonishment, among the mementoes she’d squirrelled away nearly five decades ago, was the grotesque nose, made by me out of mortician’s wax, now shrivelled and rock-hard but bearing vestiges of the greasepaint I used as a base for her Fairy Bérylune makeup.
Opening up the distant past has made even more abundantly clear just what I lost five years ago when Linda, having come back into my life, in short order left again, this time forever. Sadness wells up for a friendship that while it didn’t exactly die for want of oxygen, certainly wasn’t nourished the way it might have been had we stayed in touch. Life, as they say, gets in the way. The days, weeks, years fill with the many consumers of our time. I know from what she said to me that summer’s afternoon in 2014, that Linda regretted we hadn’t tried harder. Moreover she roundly chastised me for not commemorating my time at MYPT in the ‘biographical’ chapter of the monograph about my life as an artist, published by Lund Humpries in 2011. She said that proud of me though she was, it was a great sadness to her that I’d edited out what she knew had been important to both of us. She was right. But I’d forgotten. I’d just forgotten.
Time to remember.