Frances is the new resident in room 21. The room is filled with a jumble of bags and boxes. Frances is rather frail and she struggles to speak above a whisper. Most of the time she speaks rather slowly. Throughout each of the following sessions she wears a headset microphone, plugged in to an amplifier on her desk. At the beginning of this first session Frances is trying to make sense of the care home and the situation in which she has found herself.
I’ve stayed in this room before. It’s familiar. I stayed with a lot of other children, in a children’s home... I can’t figure it out. It was... seemed like it was, because my mother couldn’t cope with me. She was still young and she wanted to travel. She resented me.
My sister wanted mother to herself. I never fought against her... I accepted it... I simply stepped back when she got mother’s attention.
My father had very blue eyes... or brown. There’s nothing more to say about him. He travelled.
We had a dog... a big dog... the name will come soon... I’m talking myself towards it. My early years are a bit vague... my later years, I’m afraid they’re a bit more vague. It says here ‘Label Everything. We are not responsible for items that go missing’. What does that mean?
My sister said three times that I had... and it upset me... and I took her to task on it... my sister worked for the UN.... no, no she didn’t... I’ve got a bit mixed up here... let’s start this straight, my sister said that I had the same as her in every way... that I was mentally... what do you call it? Not insane... demented... and it wasn’t just my sister... they were all trying to prove that I was suitable material to go into the mental home. That shocked me. I had an absolute fit. I know I lose track sometimes but we all do that... don’t we? I think I’ve got it sorted out now... People have been leaving doors open... and draughts... and all that kind of thing... it really doesn’t help my situation... if you close the door it might help me to remember... where do you want me to start?
I stayed in a home with a lot of other children... a saved children’s home... I’m trying to make sense of it... yes... it was because my mother had my sister... and I came too soon after my sister. My mother couldn’t look after me... my father was going on trips and he didn’t want to take us... of course he couldn’t take two young girls... my mother knew a Quaker lady who took in children... so we went to her. My sister absolutely hated the place... she was very, very unhappy. Mother was very fond of her... she was the first-born child... we were very different children... she shouts a lot... she’s volatile... very domineering.
My father was an exporter and he did other things as well, he... oh... well mostly his income came from exporting things... books I think... and my father was an artist also... (Frances thinks for over a minute) I’m wrong, he imported silk, expensive textiles... my Italian grandfather was the artist.
I started to write plays when I was a child... and poetry. I didn’t want my sister to read them so I hid them inside the wall, behind a lose piece of skirting, underneath the window in my bedroom.
I was always given to practical jokes and telling stories. One joke I played, actually I convinced my sister to do it so I wouldn’t get the blame... now what was it? I used to dress up in fine lace from my father’s shop and perform in the park with a huge folding dagger, and start stabbing myself all over the place... I’d be looking round to make sure people were looking at the excellent drama. I used to write down people’s conversations... all their talk about how far back they can remember. Then I’d put them in my script.
I think I’m looking for something... but I’m not finding it.
We went to a private school in Brighton... my sister didn’t like any school... she was rebellious and she didn’t like being away from mother... she still is rebellious though she doesn’t know it herself... and she grew up quicker than me... I came too soon... there’s just one year between us... she resented me. I never fought against her... I simply stepped back when she got the attention... I accepted it. My aunt saw how I was being left out and she said she wanted to adopt me... I wasn’t adopted in the end... I lived with my grandmother when we were young... until my grandfather walked out on the family.
I had very little connection with my sister until recently... she pushes herself forward now... she’s not under full control... she laughs too loudly. I keep saying to her, “don’t say anything to them”. She wrote to the Houses of Parliament! When we were younger she was very pretty... my mother’s favourite, but she was bolshie.
She liked to live well and wear nice clothes, and she likes to have the company of men whereas I was always very shy. I was always more interested in taking photographs.
A condition of being here is that I have no privacy... and not only that, my sister opens my letters and I don’t like that at all. I was always independent... I wanted to write a book about life and people who break away... a book called ‘Where the Marigolds Grow’. I started to write it when I was a child and I’m still writing it now. I had it bound in white imitation leather. I kept it hidden from her in a secret space behind the wall.
My grandfather was a sculptor... perhaps he’s not so well known... he was Greek... H, A, V, I, G, I, S, A, X ... It’s actually, A, X, I ... X, E, ... X, I, ... M, A, N, A, S ... I suppose he was a carver... in Pisa... he had a rather nice house... a palazzo... some important commissions. I went to the leaning tower but I could only go up five steps... I just went up a few steps and then I couldn’t seem to get down... there was... there was the dream... a man on the stairs... a burning man.
My grandfather had been very successful... very wealthy. Some of the family were a bad lot and they had all his money when he left the family... he left and took one of his models with him... absolutely bohemian... Italians don’t usually do that to their own brood. They’re exactly like elephants, they have to live in a matriarchal society.
My Grandfather had money... and paintings, a vast collection... that’s what I’m trying to find out, just what happened to it... he left it to the nation but the nation never got it. All the furniture was stolen... his collection of antiques, Etruscan things... he had a studio with all these beautiful things plus his own work... his own sculptures... and prizes he had won... it’s gone.
I did photography for my newspaper... still life, objects on a table, and children’s faces... an English Language newspaper in Cyprus... I should speak Greek but I never picked up anything. I thought it was a good chance to get some experience of the daily running of a newspaper and I was in Cyprus already. It was a disaster. The owner hadn’t paid me for preparing the magazine and it left me in the lurch... I couldn’t pay my hotel bill. The people in Cyprus don’t like to part with their money... it was always so difficult to get the money for the printers. Like all Cypriots he didn’t like paying me... he’s dead now... I’m glad... I don’t have a good memory of him.
Can you hear me? Am I still speaking?
I took a flat in Cyprus... where the marigolds grow, you might say... and the children would, even the children who were married, they all go back to mother to have lunch every day... the mother is never free. Like the Italians she’s still cooking and cleaning all her life... that would be crazy!
My family always wondered why I wanted to go abroad... I wanted freedom... a chance to get away from them. In the end I got nothing... mother felt I’d cut myself off from them. One of my carers said that I ran down to the gate... along the gravel track... when my mother came to see me... it’s funny I can’t remember her visiting me here.
I took myself to Rome and Naples, on the cheap. Travelling by train. I remember being bitten by bed bugs in the hotel in Naples. At about 10 o’clock I went to see the manager to complain about the bed bugs. They moved me up to another room, which was just the same. It had the exact same furniture.
I went to Venice, twice... oh, it’s wonderful... especially to be alone. I had boyfriends, nothing serious. Bombs and snipers didn’t scare me one bit, but marriage...! I wrote poems instead. They’re private... Last week my sister read them... I was horrified... she put them all in the bin! She said three times that I was suitable material to go into the mental home.
About six weeks ago my sister started opening my letters. Six weeks old ago! My God! Was it so long? Oh that’s a shock. I know I lose track but it’s my sister that muddles me up. She was relating my story to a doctor, an incident at home, she tells my story as if they were hers. I need to be careful who I speak to and what I say.
But, I need to tell you I’m worried. I always thought I had a very good memory. Now I have the experience that a piece of my memory comes unstuck. When I put it back together, other things are falling apart. I think I said to you that my grandfather took me somewhere. I think I said it was Prague because... and I... I recognised the buildings because they were so much like the shallow ones opposite... and they seem like part of the story, a part of the past.
Not shallow, I mean much younger... more recent... and I wasn’t with my grandfather, it was much more recent... maybe about now, and not my grandfather, maybe you. It’s difficult to explain. The view reminded me of another place when I was with my grandfather years and years ago. Just for a minute I thought it was now. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t remember my grandparents at all... houses back then were very dark.
Frances’s face and arm are bruised from a succession of recent falls. An alarm has been fitted to her wheelchair to sound each time she gets up. Unfortunately the alarm has developed a fault, causing it to beep and whistle almost continuously. Frances is clearly annoyed by the noise. A number of carers look in. One puts her fingers in her ears and shrugs her shoulders before explaining that Frances’s family are “difficult”.
Frances’s sister has already been asked to leave the home several times as she shouts and swears at the carers and upsets the other residents. Prior to my visit Frances’s sister made a complaint about the alarm having been turned off the previous day, after which Frances got out of her chair and fell flat on her face.
Frances says that I should press one of the buttons on the alarm to turn it off. She takes hold of a button on my cardigan and presses it firmly several times. “It doesn’t work”, she says. Finally a carer arrives who angrily unplugs the alarm and disconnects the battery before saying that “they can’t do right for doing wrong”.
(Anxiously) OK... it’s not a radio... it’s something else that talks all the time... we had to listen to it... but my sister said nobody listens to it... it beeped. The man... I suppose he was showing off... he got up on the chair and pulled the plug... very brave... he might have been given a shouting-down... I think I was being watched.
When I was younger I was only interested in books and writing... now all I do is drink tea. I’m wasting away... wasted labour... Labour party. You lose that sense of yourself... you don’t have you anymore... you have somebody else... you lose your beliefs... pushing in, my sister. People get fed up with themselves, and fed up with life, so you go along with it. You play the part of the decrepit old woman.
My sister squashed me flat... she’s taken everything. She’s bought me twelve summer dresses. I told her, there’s never any reason to own twelve dresses!
What I used to like was to go to Fenwick’s. They had a little table... a desk with a few chairs. Just a woman enjoying herself for a short time... looking at things she couldn’t have.
I left home when I was 16. I was living in a bed-sit. No furniture, just a bed. I was given a small allowance by my father, which put my mother against me. I wasn’t her favourite, not by a long chalk. I’d been learning shorthand for my journalistic hope... my mother stepped in to put an end to it. She asked me to leave the family home a week after my father died.
I can tell you today, my mother went in a similar care home to this one... I don’t like the fact that we put her away... so I’m denying it. She didn’t survive long. She cried when she moved into a care home... I cried when I moved in here. This old body, we should throw it out the window.
Apparently, when you move into a house in India they introduce cobras to guard the house. An occasional cobra isn’t such a bad thing.
I took a flat in Cyprus... I did photography for an English Language newspaper... still life and objects on a table, and children’s faces. It was a disaster. I was in Cyprus when the invasion happened... when the green line was drawn up. I lived at the Hilton Hotel... with a huge red cross on the top of it. A Turkish soldier told me to walk close to the walls because of the snipers.
I arrived here penniless but with plenty of smart clothes. One of my friends was shot at... by the CIA, I think. There was a lot of that kind of thing at the time. Anti-Jewishness was to blame... I read it in the papers... in small type, not big type now. She was married to a beefy obstetrician... she didn’t collude, despite what they said. I can’t remember who it was. Jim, my boyfriend, he’d know. He said it could only be America behind it. America anciently built this structure and she still wants to press all the buttons. I say 'she'… it’s not a she... not in this case... it’s a... and the trouble in Syria... 9 – 11. I'm lost. I wanted to tell you something important... that... oh, I’m forgetting.
Can you hear me? Am I speaking now? Am I awake?
I was there, an eyewitness... more or less. I put everything in the script… sort of reports from the frontier, where they shot her, everything. Someone else made the introduction, “This is Radio Prague... English Language section”, then I say my lines.
Some people said I could come here and talk about subjects I liked, but it was all propaganda... I wish I could make myself understood... it’s all... broken biscuits... These memories, they’re... still life... nothing more than parts.... bed and breakfast... strange items placed interestingly on a table. Is that right?
I’m so sorry, I do ramble on... I’m looking for the script. It’s still rough knitted... coarse reads. Reeds? Like the grass you find in Russian marshes? Is that right?
Who am I talking about? Jan Palach? I seem to remember his funeral... going underground... “Yes”, he said... “I don’t hang around”... He said, “let everybody know, but be careful what you say”. He was the most beautiful boy... with a lot of talent. He’d put together a book with pages... and on each page he painted a bird... in alphabetical order. It was beautiful... a child’s thing, but they’re all treasures now. Who am I talking about?
It’s my sister that muddles me up... no diplomacy... she worked for U.N. I keep saying to her, “Don’t say anything... people spy”. She laughs too loudly. She tells my story as if it were hers… over and over… “Do the remember the boy who set himself on fire? Do you remember Helen?” In the end I couldn’t see which story was hers and which was mine. I called my sister... no, my sister called me... she called me a commie.
I worked for the state radio in Prague... I breathed their air... and what they got into trouble for. Not much protection for them and not much protection for me. I read articles on the radio. They wanted a new voice... I had no training at all and they... they took me, and I spoke into a microphone... no one told me how... but they said it was very nice. I made a connection with the people... no one told me how... but they said it was very nice.
The Czechs were defeated. I tried to add secret messages to the script... “Czechoslovakia will always be free”. I had to muddle my words. It seems now that I always wanted to be angrier than I was, but they treated me too kindly... my sister said someone needed to die before I get a room. It seemed strange then and it seems strange now. I said I’m not a communist, and I don't speak Czech. They said that it didn’t matter... the gardens are beautiful. It’s a nice place to die and the food is cheap!
I wanted someone to hide behind. When I was working in the Embassy we always thought about how much the CIA was involved... how deeply it went.
I think I’ve prepared two scripts for broadcast, 21... now what was it? 21... 21 Radio... 21 Days in Prague... Who am I talking about? Dubcek? Jan Palach? I seem to remember his funeral... going underground... “Yes”, he said... “I don’t hang around”... half and hour or an hour of talking... well... They said let everybody know but be careful what you say.
Helen gave me my first room in Prague. We were watched... I gave her messages hidden in bars of soap. I never asked her too much about what she did in case they’d think I was a spy... she got me this room in the blue house... she said she knew a family and, well, the funny thing was that she said Czechoslovakia was free, but she’d already been in prison... her identity card was stamped with that. She'd smuggled a priest out of Czechoslovakia... he had his papers hidden in a bun. She couldn’t attend the meetings because she’d had all these problems... she got some kind of meagre allowance... but... her sister had fallen in love with a Russian officer... Helen was not happy about that... there was nothing she could do about it, and she loved her sister, so she didn’t make difficulties. I think she lodged with the woman, I’m not sure... they had two tiny rooms with a partition between. More people and smaller spaces... making the flats into units... it’s fine, but... it makes it smaller. Oh yes, for a long, long time I was very pro-socialist... I still am... I’m very anti people who have too much space. That’s what I thought, that the whole system was bad from atom bombs to the Duke of Westminster.
So how did it come about that I’m here again? Was I arrested? So how did it come about that... that I’m here? I broke my legs... was I arrested again? What was I doing? (whispers to herself, “setting fires?”)... I had a fall... I fell... I’m trying to think... some people said I could talk... about subjects I liked but it was all propaganda... I wish I could make myself understood... I was told not to be too bold. It was an American, a communist I think, but she told me not to be too bold. Some parts of history are deliberately forgotten. I dreamt about all of this last night... that I’d gone back to see them... and I saw him standing there, wearing an old C&A coat I’d left behind for them... English clothes from Oxfam shops... they all had the dreadful local clothes... all the same colour until the dye ran out. In my dream I saw him coming towards me... and they were my clothes, my C&A jacket... and they were on fire... and I ran and ran to a tiny... square... Wenceslas Square. It was so... so shocking.
Try as I might my voice always sounds sad on the radio... I wanted it to be more bright... more bright and... bright... to tell people that... that... oh, I’m forgetting... that’s what the neurologist said... that it’s a nervous condition, the forgetting. He said the signals won’t get through... they haven’t been clear about the future and how long it will take to get better. It’s coming back. They said... the head of all these people... she was a great scholar... tall girl, beautiful... (they said) “You’re going to get in to trouble”... (whispers – “help me find my way home”) ... I said it was no more than sightseeing... taking pictures of the castle... my voice must have said something else... oh... the voice... tried to say... I’m afraid I’ve lost my voice... can’t say. I can’t make the connections. I was always surprised that I wasn’t taken away and beaten or raped but I wasn’t... one has to be careful in case one isn’t whisked off and given an interrogation... or told to be quiet. I should tell you, I don’t remember this place at all.
Oh, I’m not at home... I’ve just seen I’m not at home.
It’s very difficult to remember. I know I’m being... was being, watched. I was at the bus-stop... and the man was following me... and as soon as a tram came between us I ran to the building opposite... a café... and I went inside and out the back through the bathroom window. He wanted to make some contact and he was willing to risk it. I ran into the building and took the lift up here... I tried to put some people between us... I don’t think I could do it now... I’d need to take a carer.
There’s people following you and watching you... yes, and I’ve never had my liberty curbed... it’s wretched. I have to have my door open all the time. I’m really not sure what wrong I’ve done. There was an incident where I had to stand in the bathroom for ages because a man was watching me, ah... an incident this morning... or last week? Somewhere there’s a mix up... he wanted to give me a wash with soap. I don’t think I’ve got it entirely right. I think they took me for a spy.
I remember (in Prague) there were caves where you could go deep underground... meetings of young people in the caves... they had their own life there, the students... hanging signal lights in the trees... we would meet after work... the underground press... I was involved in a minor way... I produced pamphlets... Helen had a printing press... it was... and, ah... a risk... more for her than me... if... if the authorities were to have found out I would have been deported... she would have been killed.
Helen took me in and sized me up... she had a long miserable time in prison... a damp miserable cell... it was cold and she got neuralgia from the water dripping on her head... she was only 19 when she went into prison... a very innocent Catholic girl... not experienced in life... I didn’t like to ask her about it... she was a very pretty girl... beautiful in fact... she was so shocked... after that she never married and never had a boyfriend... 6 foot tall and beautifully slender... she only got a job sweeping the streets and even then they didn’t want her... she lived in a building where they kept released prisoners... men who were sad approached her and offered her a bed.
The government tossed her out of her job... she was extraordinarily beautiful... I’m still in touch with her... I went over last... (Long pause) or was it two years ago? 1970, around then.
I once thought I saw her here on a bus in Knightsbridge... she was rather embarrassed... I don’t know whether it was true or whether I imagined it. I was standing there and a lady came and leaned over the bar... I looked at her, a filthy look, she was in tatters... and she hesitated, and she looked at me... harsh words were exchanged. She had a baby to a Russian soldier. Eventually he shot... she came into the shop... and he stood next to the door... and he shot her dead. Then he shot himself. He wouldn’t let anyone have her. It’s a good thing he shot himself.
I spent six months in Prague... working for the U.N. in 1968, 69, writing a book about... oh, the usual boy girl stuff... I never finished correcting it... I’ve written over it... always one way, then another... a code... I started and restarted it a million times. It’s a fantasy... I saw it as an escape... somewhere nicer... a place you can keep in your mind if you’re in prison. I need to sort out where that place is for me now. I kept it for such a long time and just last week my sister tore it up.
The people here keep changing the story... they move the furniture making it less and smaller... putting up panels. The small table where I write the daily reports... it’s gone behind the wall.
I think a lot of my words are... are all going... in bits. Just last week my sister put them in the bin. I’ve lost myself...
I went for a couple of nights but now it seems like forever. I had a friend at the UN... she said that there were places that were so poor that they couldn’t even buy soap, Yardley’s... she wanted to buy a Christmas present for Helen... a gift the she could enjoy using... a bar of soap wrapped in Christmas packaging... I gave her what soap I had. When I came back to London I bought some soap and took it over and she was thrilled. They used to make the soap from rendered animal fat, which smells bad and isn’t so nice as a gift. There was great joy that I’d given her three bars of soap. It’s funny, I get fed up with soap for Christmas... so that’s soap. So that’s... soap...
Is that what we were talking about? There’s something about soap that still needs saying... a man came out of the dark and asked if I needed a guide... a helping hand... an old fatherly gesture... and in his hand he had a bar of soap... and it remembered me something I wanted to say.
I’ve forgotten what I’m talking about. You should start, “This is Radio Prague... English language section”.
Frances is in her room. Unlike the majority of other residents Frances’s furniture faces away from the door. Her desk and chair face the window through which she can see a busy little park. Frances has recently told a nurse that she can see monkeys, parrots and other zoo animals in the trees outside and on her windowsill. When questioned by the nurse Frances says she knows they are not real.
This room is my poem. The people here keep changing my room. My sister tore out the pages... making it less... putting up panels... making the room smaller... I was furious. PEOPLE KEEP THEIR SECRETS BEHIND THE WALLS. They come in the night to stage it so it looks real but it’s not real. Every night there’s less. The small table... I wrote it, and now it’s gone behind the wall. When I have this trouble... this... words... this new innovation... I don’t know how long it will go on... I was a nervous wreck... The Italians and the Moroccans at the UN (there is an Italian and a Moroccan carer on duty on the unit)... “Watch out! You’re going to fall”... that’s what they say... I broke two legs and an arm... they put the idea in my mind... The idea makes it happen... I fell in this room... lost the words... R, E, U, P... I must have good bones... no repercussions... some pain... my arm... I don’t fall as much now... I fell... an up... (Long pause) How do you pronounce it? R, S, S ... My sister is dance... she dances into the party... I was alright until I was six years old... I could move my arms and legs, it’s true! My old mother... I took myself to a psychiatrist... I walked into the room and she took one look at me and said, “I know your mother. Get away from your mother or you’ll have no life”... I became more introverted... very shy... a long period of shyness. I lost my voice... my mother fell in love with someone else... she used to... she... oh, I’ve forgotten... my father threatened to take my younger sister... she backed down... families floating apart... you have no funds if your family don’t support you... my mother cut me off... by the time I paid the rent and bought cheap clothes... clothes suitable for a dance... I had nothing but bread and milk. You lose yourself a lot... is it old times again? I can’t figure it out. I had a temporary job... temporary jobs were always busy business... Lance’s Tea Rooms... Marks and Spencer’s... I got called for an interview... I had language and... happy about that... and I had tea... but I didn’t get the job. I need a job. I’m looking for temporary work. Something in arts publicity. I considered opening a newsagent. I edited publicity for the Hilton magazine in Cyprus... working at the hotel... stuck on a desert island where they’re cruel to cats... cruelty to cats... despicable... the cats taught me how to scavenge... I took them some food... the kittens... and the mother... she spat in their face three times... three times! They didn’t expect it... they had to learn to fend for themselves... I welcomed them in and gave them food and shelter... bread and milk... I put bricks on the floor so they could climb up onto my window ledge... it’s unexpected for a mother to spit in your face.
I used to live in Naples... it was terrible... here I have the best view in the world, I can see Tesco’s. There are no Tesco’s in Naples.
This room... this is the third move I’ve had... I was in two different rooms... different floors... the same... place... same table... same bed... even my pictures. They’re very quick... I don’t remember the move. The same tops... to the bed... to the chair... the same profiles. The lamps are the same. Same shadows. Part of the move is economic... the lights don’t throw out a lot of light in the way they did... it’s dimmer. It’s done to convince me that I’m demented. I don’t remember moving but I know I’ve moved up. They say I’ve not moved. All the rooms are the same. Why are they doing this? Why are they putting me through it? I’m beginning to doubt my own faculties.
I spoke to people through the fence... to people in detention camps.
I did nothing wrong... even on Lenin’s birthday, they said they wanted an English voice... they didn’t mind. They said it wasn’t propaganda. The moment I arrived back in England the landlady would arrive back from Hastings... she said, ten days or a week supervising house repairs. I’m not so sure. As soon as I got back the phone would ring and it would be the C.I.D. They knew my name. I answered some silly questions... next time I came back it happened again. I was being watched. It turned out that the basement flat... I could go down into the basement, through a secret tunnel, and come up in other houses to escape. I went to my M.P. I said I’m sure I’m being followed... and my phone was bugged... I was very cross with it... my aunt called me a commie but it was becoming more than a joke... they cut me off without a penny. When I came back my M.P. told me not to answer their questions. It was sometimes very difficult to say what was safe and what wasn’t. They said I was in cahoots with the communists. I knew there were people following me... plain clothes police... C.I.D. I thought I was being observed one day... I was waiting for a tram... I spotted him... he may have just fancied me... I dodged into a large block of shops... I ran... I saw him run too... I went to a high place so I could look down... somehow I lost him in the crowd.
I made these broadcasts back to England... specifically for England. I had the experience of going out and coming in and going out again... back to England. I saw how hard it was to get out and how hard it was to get back in again... some people were trying to escape the communists... there were quite a number. Bureaucrats don’t care any more about people. People vanish and you have no idea what happens to them.
Oh dear, everything confuses me today. I thought I could hold a speech therapist session. This 106-year-old woman... I was just going to speak to her and she died on the spot. What am I talking about? Oh dear, I knew a woman who was getting muddled like this all the time... I couldn’t stand it... she’d been a very good friend... she was a burns subject... a doctor... she’d been through fire. She was with me when the young lad set himself on fire... a futile gesture. She was the first on the scene. I knew him from his photograph... before or after I can’t say. I couldn’t have the patience with her... normally I’m very good with people who are sick but in this case I couldn’t stand it.
I went to a school in Switzerland... boarding school helped me... it got me away from my family... the trouble was it didn’t set me up for work... I had no direction... I used to hang around Charing Cross Road and read books and talk to people I met in the bookshops.
Frances has a hospital appointment. A nurse tells me that Francis has been having frequent hallucinations. “She complained that there were snakes in her room at night”. Sitting with Frances after her hospital visit. She repeatedly picks up objects from her desk, handles them, stares at them, and puts them down. There are long silences between many of her comments. Without being prompted, but perhaps associating me with the act of telling the story, she begins to talk about her time in Prague.
Last week a cat jumped through the window and stole my pens.
You couldn’t have anything to yourself... I remember.
The unprivate room... a poem with three doors
A bottle of was
Paul, my American friend... he said, ‘You can stay... sleep on the sofa’
He paid for the hot water
All munching, marching... the action stopped.
People surrendered their beans... you couldn’t do anything but surrender
Palach was the boy who became president, I think.
He said, “Don’t worry about it.”
It was an exciting time... water cannons.
Taking shelter in the back of a shop
We were soaked to the skin
My jacket was blown off with water jets... I lost my jacket... just a small thing but... I backed away... I felt I couldn’t stand up to the water jets... they said, “Get back! Get Back!” People were worried about me taking photographs. A girl said in English “Go ahead, print them in England. Let people see”. I remember a young girl lifting the fence so we could crawl under to get away... they were building an underground... an underground railway? I remember I couldn’t leave Prague that night because the water tanks were on the street... there was a curfew... I slept on the most uncomfortable sofa.
In Bratislava the world collapsed where the girl got shot
There were tanks parked and waiting for orders
The girl had a magazine, ‘Czech Life’.
I went to see where she was shot.
The underground, they keep their toes down but they got their messages through...
They didn’t hide their stuff in kitchen cabinets
The Czechs are very good with words... toilet, information, sounds.
Writers and artists...
We ran to see a poet reading his material
He expressed his thoughts
I liked the rhythm, so to speak
His words never touched me
It was a relief to get shot
It rained hard
I remember driving behind tanks...
A heavy night
Not many private cars
“We better hurry up!”
A house the size of a kitchen cabinet
The near aspects...six people, packed in
A kitchen where we all washed and dressed and dried by the fire
Six soap trays... three doors
There was a young couple with a baby
No private moments...
We put up panels for privacy
I put my head down
This should be a film... my life... I see all of it as a script.
Fragments from a conversion in June
I can write four pages in an hour about this. I pick a thought, another memory... the cats come out of the bag... it’s difficult to get them back in the bag. If you let the cat out of the bag they tend to stay on the windowsill. Do you believe in God?
I don’t believe in God either... especially in the way it’s been prescribed to us... “Peace and Goodness”... I don’t believe in peace and goodness... they’re no guarantee of happiness for anyone... not now America has gone insane. My sister said I should be happy with my lot. I think that, when I get older... what we have to... lost it.
To try to come to terms with me... it’s hopeless now. Life is quite a long stretch to stay happy all the time. I was always terribly shy. I played piano for twelve hours a day, but the day I had to play on stage I collapsed. The things that might have given me real happiness... they filled me with dread. I really don’t know why. When I think back... I have moments of whitened snow... of losing myself.
What more is there to say? Happiness is fickle.
Dubcek was cheered... the young people came onto the streets... a weight lifted off their shoulders. Dubcek was the young man who took up the reigns when the communists left. The older people thought he was moving too quickly so... I think he was arrested, and taken back Bratislava in chains. In my head they always take them to Bratislava... to the countryside. I remember buying a ticket... there was an arch... with a white light above... a dirty greyish window... a ticket window. I bought... for three pence... “What ticket do you want”... “A return ticket to Bratislava, please”... I was a freelance journalist... she said, “What do you do?”... She put her hand flat down on the ticket... I wasn’t allowed to go. I told her I’d like to see the place... “No journalists”. I burnt my boats... they wanted me to sink it instead.
I went to Prague to see the history and the beautiful gardens but my photographs were all hard cement... new, not old. Paul, the scriptwriter, picked me up at the airport. They asked me to write something that changed my life. I came to write about the gardens but there were tanks in the gardens.
I shared a room with six people but I was alone all the time... Paul said you can have the sofa but be out by eight. I sat in cafes and watched the people in the streets. I put their words in my script.
Paul was a script editor for Hollywood... I typed his dictation... he was a boyfriend later. He was blacklisted by then... it was the McCarthy period... he couldn’t get any work. I think he supported... he had no rights... if I’d been born in America I would have been in the same boat. I couldn’t see what was so awful about communism until that moment with Palach.
I took a very good photograph of a Czech woman... she was going to the illegal cemetery of Jan Palach... his relatives and admirers built it. They all met in the cemetery with picnics, and sang songs... much as they did here for Diana. It was upsetting. Kids took their sandwiches... there was... I didn’t like her.
People went to the grave in the evening quiet, and silently... they had gone through years of oppression... no freedom to express themselves. I saw a woman hurrying through... downcast... I was standing by the graveyard... they knew I was a foreigner, a target, because of my clothes. People would come up to me at work and ask very discretely... “Would you sell your jacket? Your suit... just half?” They liked to dress well. The communists preserve food in the old method by bottling it... you stood out in your western clothes... you didn’t look so depressed. I remember one evening walking home... I remember someone following me... he probably only wanted some carrot soup... I’d walked all night... so I could listen to the stories.
In Cyprus I lived in the hotel in Nicosia... then a villa, and then to America for a year... I never called anywhere ‘home’. America is a frightened country... they’re frightened about what might come after them... they want to sweep away the other religions... I think there could be another new star up there popping out at night... just looking down for now and not having anything to do with us yet. People in America think they shame themselves and shame their family if you don’t have the newest products... the big TV, children’s shoes, and an umbrella. I always had a small television... small and black and white. I liked to get rid of things... it was quite a relief to get rid of the furniture.
I started to write my own book on several occasions... I thought that if I just start to speak I would be swept forward and it would be easier to re-write... my problem was low self-esteem... I didn’t think anyone would be interested. There’s a whole book in me about family strife. My sister rang me up and I didn’t answer because I didn’t have a phone.
My sister stepped forward so I could have a recent photograph... I didn’t look at her or show any recognition... I simply stood and took a picture... I couldn’t get my camera steady enough... she was running... I took it very quickly... she ran straight past me... the secret police photographed me... they concentrated their camera on me and put me in their files. Then there was an engravers strike so my pictures were never printed.
I really could have stayed in Cyprus. I stayed with a woman in a rented room for one night... sooner or later I was inside her walls... the court... I could have been caught. I was doing peace work at a crucial time. All the lines were down... only one door was open so I went inside. It was dangerous because of the bombing... I curled up in a dresser... a place they kept clothes... a wardrobe I suppose they called it... safe enough. I was with the press. What happened was John... John was an important press person... we were caught unexpectedly... (She points into the courtyard) You can see us there. John Berger that was. I moved into his flat in Hampstead.
It’s come back to me about the woman in the photograph... it was my sister. I took a photograph of my sister bending down and putting flowers on the boy’s grave. I had a wire cutter with me so I could cut a hole in the fence. I rang John Berger and told him that I had the picture he wanted. I slept under his dressing table while they were bombing.
There were practical problems... no food and no film... the butcher knew me. I had to walk into the shop in silence. He’d already have the meat packed... and (Distractedly looking outside) I’m watching all the circus animals at the zoo... oh, the butcher situation... he’d been blinded in the previous war... you didn’t see the lion just then did you? In Prague everyone’s heart went out to the lion... it had been blinded in Vietnam... it was in such a small room, alone by the castle. I can still see the castle from my window.
I’m lost again.
(Someone drops a tray of cutlery outside in the corridor).
I don’t know what’s happening! There are lots and lots of extra doors... doorways, corridors, miles of corridors, stewards... they’re all eager to please... crashing about. All the heights are the same... the bed... the profiles... the same size... the rooms are made of boxes... cardboard boxes with springs underneath. It’s not even real... just cardboard and packing and lose springs! None of this is real.
This room... they’re just student accommodation in term time. I have to move out when they come back. There are too many cats in the building. I don’t know where my next room will be... probably Paul’s old room... (A worried look) I don’t remember his surname! He’s Canadian... I’d phone him but a pipe burst high up in the wall and covered the phone with... sticky... with... glue. It doesn’t work. (A few days previously someone spilt cough medicine on Frances’s desk. Frances attempted to clean up the spill and inadvertently transferred the substance onto the telephone handset. The phone still works).
I’m lost again. I’m not at home in this old body.
John’s flat wasn’t so nice... it needed reconditioning... nice enough for the time. I had to put down a plank of wood over the bath to use as a desk. Actually it was an old door on a hinge that came down over the bath. I paid a premium, maybe £500... maybe £1000... a lot for then.
I had the flat in Swiss Cottage but I was never there. There was a Jamaican man below me... very unusual at the time. There had been a violent incident from an ex-boyfriend... he nearly killed me... and this Jamaican chap came charging up the stairs... to the rescue. I wasn’t much interested in boyfriends after that. There was an Austrian woman above me, and a Jamaican chap below.
John was an art critic... a writer and art critic... he was very left... I met him in those circles. I was never a communist. I’m not sure I ever met him at the flat... I remember meeting later... maybe at his daughter’s wedding in Prague... maybe when I bought the flat. In those days it was a nice address... there were four flats in the one building... I went in and out... I bought a little car for £5... an Austin 5... I’d only just learnt to drive. I hardly got it to work... actually Jim bought it for me... it had a piece of string tied to the starter... Jim said not to bother with it... “Scrap it”. It stuttered when it went down the hill. Cyprus was appalling... the driving was appalling... if you can drive there you can drive anywhere. The women are nice and very courteous... the men are nice in there way... almost Middle Eastern... quite a good laugh... not the marrying kind.
I’m trying to figure out where I met John Berger... John wasn’t so well known back then. I remember reading some of his writing... it was very good, but I wasn’t interested in art... I was interested in photography. I took a photograph of a farmer sitting on the ground peeling corn. It’s broken, my camera, that’s why I’m not taking any photographs. (She picks up the receiver of the telephone and holds it to her eye, like a camera). It doesn’t work.
Later I had a darkroom... the photographers all scooted off during the invasion... I was alive at the time so I took up the reigns. It’s difficult to say w, x, y, z... I’m always... had an interest in the photograph... a Leica... my first camera... s, t, e, v, w, x, y, z... the second one my father gave me. My mother was furious. She was jealous, and my sister was jealous in a different way. My father was a very nice man... a businessman... he helped as far as he could. I have a meeting with him tomorrow. (Frances is very quiet for a minute. Her eyes dart anxiously around the room. It seems that she is conscious of her mistake).
I left home when I was 19. I put some clothes in a bag and walked out the door. Sometimes it seems so long ago and sometimes it seems not so very long ago at all. I moved flats a lot. I remember I had this flat and then... another girl moved in, and she went off with my camera, my light... what did you call it? My L, e, k... my fluorescent... that I used for writing pictures... my typewriter?
DC. The Leica?
I had to get up early because I was digging... sleeping... sleeping in the dining room... behind a screen... the other tenants thought I might be trouble because... I’ve lost my thought. I liked to be a witness... I put everything in the script. There was Helen, a journalist... The Czech women had to get up early to queue for food. I think I told you that I met the butcher? Helen told me not to speak to him... they give the foreigners rotten meat... the worst cuts. Someone said they put poison in the soup.
This session takes place at Frances’s desk. She has just returned to her room having had breakfast in silence opposite one of the male residents. Throughout the following conversation, she repeatedly searches in her bag and picks up letters, newspapers, bags of sweets and a hand mirror, and asks me what they are.
I think I read all about my story in the paper two days ago... ask someone like John Berger... (She picks up a newspaper and waves it angrily) Ask him this! I wrote letters to... I would have liked... why should I now be separated from a major part of my life? Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
I did another article a week or two ago. (She searches in a magazine) Lost it! It’s about Prague. We... this is Jim... we ran into a shop, or a café... I forget which... I said to Jim... now was it Jim? I said, “Things are going to get nasty”.
DC. Who was Jim?
My boyfriend at the time... when the invasion was over (long pause) the aftermath.
DC. Good word.
The Czechs were free to walk about the square in the "aftermath". A lot of young people came out selling things... they fixed stalls in the square... souvenirs and things they made. There were artists and young people expressing their joy. I have pictures (She searches on the table). There’s nothing here! Jim must have taken them... Jim Proctor... he writes for the Musical Times. He had a girlfriend who was elderly and promoted his stuff.
I never married... never wanted to... I liked my freedom. I liked to get up in the night when there were crickets. I once thought that I might have to get married... as a woman it was sometimes difficult to make headway. I wasn’t taken seriously as a journalist. The men got the best jobs. What am I saying?
The Greek Cypriots had a lot to fear... the best jobs and so on went to the Turks. We stayed at the Hilton Hotel with a huge red cross. I remember a very capable young man... a clean German type with a typical pretty American wife... he stayed at the hotel to organise food... he painted a huge red cross on the roof. It was dangerous to go on the roof as you can imagine. There wasn’t enough food to feed everybody for more than three weeks... we slept in the ballroom... he put tables together for sleeping. I seem to remember the hotel being bombed. I jumped... I was literally thrown up in the air. I tried not to show fear... but there were ones who were. dangerous... a danger to themselves and other people.
I was an independent journalist so I had no cover. I drew an 'I' for Independent on a piece of paper. I took it over to the Turkish side... and I had... I remember we went into a park near the Hilton and a dog came in, and it collapsed at my feet. I begged for food for the dog... or just water... but there was none. John wanted to chase him away. He said it’s better to start with the children. I don’t see why. That’s what they said, not directly but they don’t ever say it directly. No one ever says the old ones get nothing... so all the cats and dogs came to me! I’ve found my voice again! I’ve remembered a wonderful thing... our friends the cats!
DC. If this was published at some point what would you like people to learn from it?
(Frances pauses for well over a minute and continues to pause and think throughout the following statement).
The lesson... there must be a lesson, I think so... I always thought that the lesson is to look at the other side of things and to try... to try your best... to take a long time and think from both sides... take a long time and see your life from the... from the perspective of the other person. They should see... this is the hardest part to say... they... they should see both sides and just try to be happy. For me now it’s hopeless... the old people all start shouting and pushing forward. They all insist on their lines. I was thinking just the other day, this long story I’ve told... it’s too hard for them. I enjoy it but... I was looking just now at the old chimp in his cage... sitting there all alone, just chewing... and I thought that his story is too difficult for them to understand... to try to see from his side... did you see the chimp? That’s the lesson, but I don’t think people can do it. I don’t know what to say next. This must be the end of the story. Thank you.
As I was leaving the home Frances would often call my back as if she had remembered something important that she wanted to say. The following comments were each made separately and were not part of the sessions above.
Someone else has been using my bathroom... my flannel was wet.
When I was little I could move my arms and legs... that’s true. The best thing is to die young.
The people here keep changing my room. They tear out my pages... making it less... putting up panels... making the room smaller. They come in the night to stage it so it looks real but it’s not real, it’s just words. I speak it and it the words slip behind the wall.
My older one... she first said I should move in here... my sister... I have two sisters... or three sisters... but she’s a burden. When I was falling... I would slip and go on the floor... she would scream, “Oh Frances! Please don’t go on the floor”... she wrote a letter, more bile and poison. Pushing me here. Not my choice at all. First-born first served hierarchy... clothes... suitable for a... a dance! She takes on the dominant position. Family travails.
Sometimes it’s difficult to sort out what’s real and what wasn’t. I thought I was being abandoned... shipped off one day.
There were pots in the bedroom, which was the living room... pots of smelly old cabbage soap and... no salt. I would have been satisfied with less.
I nearly married an American, a nice man too... I couldn’t bring myself to do it... not now... we met at the language school... I regret that I never knew enough about life to move in with a guy. Even now I’m always questioning ideas about love.
In the Lebanon I had to sleep on a bench... but sleeping on a bench is better than sleeping in a sack and I... no, no I didn’t.
I played the piano night and day... a waste of time. It took me sixty years to see it as a total and utter irrelevance.
I loved drama... I used to dress up in fine lace and perform my stories... and then my father bought me a cine camera.
Helen was strangled her in her own kitchen. A Russian soldier did it.
This would make an excellent script for a film.
People need to read it, sort of, reports from the frontier.
I wasn’t really a communist but my aunt called me a commie. My aunt was very wealthy.
I used to listen to the radio... the radio is for people on their own.
I see what I’m up to, this is a play without a plot.