Bristol Old Vic
Queen Charlotte St
25th October 1946
So here I am in Bristol! Classes finally started earlier this week, and the timetable is pretty crammed—they say we have a lot to fit into a year, although there's already word that we might be able to stay two years if we want. It's very different from Delderton—we have to be bang on time every morning, and we start off every day with a whole hour of physical exercises! Edward, the Director, is doing voice work with us, something called the Behnke Method which is all about the diaphragm, and his assistant Joan does mime and music. There's not as much actual acting yet as I expected, but they're both very keen on fundamental technique, which I suppose makes sense.
My digs are a bit sparse but my landlady is nice. Another girl on the course, Mary, has the room across the corridor. We're about a fifteen minute walk from the school building—and that’s just across the road from the Theatre Royal itself! Apparently later in the term we'll be working backstage there as part of the course. The school itself is above a wholesale greengrocer, so everything always smells ever so slightly of elderly vegetables...still, one gets used to it!
I had to work quite hard to talk Mummy out of coming with me to help me 'settle in'—it would have been so embarrassing, and you know how she can get. And she'd have expected everyone to know her, which would have been just as awful whether they did or they didn't. She is being terribly generous to support me though. Mary's a nurse and working three night-shifts a week, which is going to be horrible as our days are so long and tiring. I'm very lucky not to have to do that, so I couldn't be too cross with Mummy even when she kept saying over the summer how 'of course she learnt on the job and never bothered with drama school'.
It's a very interesting group of students, although there's only a dozen of us. All the men are older than me and the other girls, because they've all been in the Forces and only just been de-mobbed. A fair few students from other countries, too, which makes me feel a little like I'm back at Delderton. Though Bristol is rather more stone-and-brick and less fields-and-rivers. (And lots of it is still being rebuilt, too, of course—rubble and building-sites on nearly every street. There's a big gap between our school building and the pub next door, where a bomb hit. But of course you know what that's like from London.)
I suppose you're all settled in too now. Do write back when you get the chance. I want to know all about Oxford and your college.
1st November 1946
Oxford is wonderful, but just like you I'm exhausted. Living in digs sounds terribly grown-up; although I feel quite grown-up too in my little bedroom with my desk looking out over the quad, even if it is a bit more like boarding-school here than it sounds like your place is. We're allowed to walk on the grass here, you know! Most colleges only let Fellows do that. Very egalitarian (though not by Delderton standards—students most definitely don’t get to discuss the rules the way we did).
Everything seemed to go straight in at full speed as soon as I arrived, with hardly any settling in. I have lectures most days, and tutorials twice a week. My Latin tutor Miss Taylor is tall and thin and very alarming but she is obviously so immersed in the subject and I look forward to our tutorials despite also getting nervous about them. I've had two so far and she listens quietly and then leans back in her chair and asks all these questions...I have to think hard and quickly but it's invigorating.
The food in Hall is absolutely terrible. I miss Clemmy's cooking (and the aunts' of course, but it's term now so it should be Clemmy). There’s someone called a 'scout' who comes round to clean my room which is nice. Mine's called Vera and she's very chatty, tells me all about her children.
I've made a friend called Anne who was at St Barbara's, the school my cousin Margaret went to. She knew Margaret a little but apparently didn't think all that much of her. I shouldn't find that makes me like Anne more, should I? But I do. It sounds like she didn't enjoy St Barbara's much—she's certainly not snobbish the way Margaret is, she cares a bit more about clothes than I do but that's not difficult!—and she thinks Delderton sounds peculiar but amazing. I've told her all about you, and about Karil (though not the whole Bergania story; that has always felt like it's more just for us that were there, if you know what I mean?).
There's a fascinating talk at the Oxford Union tomorrow evening, but women aren't allowed in as members which is ridiculous and very frustrating, as we all agree in the Somerville JCR. There's a college debating society which Anne and I are talking about joining instead.
I have another essay to write and some Greek to tackle so I must get on!
Masses of love,
17th November 1946
Feeling a little down today, and you're really the only person I can talk (write) to about it, so I apologise in advance for gloom. I can't remember if I mentioned in my last letter that we—the students—are doing a play at Christmas? It's only a one-acter (it's called "The Long Christmas Dinner") although it's quite a long single act, but...well, of course I had a specific part I wanted, everyone did. And I didn't get it. I'm still in it, of course, but...the staff said they're not necessarily interested in casting us for the things we want, or even the things we'll do well with, they want to challenge us and make us think differently about ourselves as actors. Which is all very well but I want to do the things I'm good at! I suppose I'll be grateful for it in the long run and all that, and I do want to become better and...
...oh I am being terribly sour, aren't I? But you see why I can't make anything of it to anyone here, partly because I have to accept that it's best for my development and in any case one can't go round like Verity sulking, can one?
Well. Hopefully now I've got that out of my system I can do my best with the part I do have. And there will be other plays.
I have been able to help out backstage in the theatre too—the real theatre, I mean, across the road—and that's been so much fun even though I'm only doing things like painting scenery (not even the interesting stuff, just whitewash for someone to do the proper work over!) and scrubbing floors. I get to watch some of the rehearsals sometimes, and I was around yesterday when one of the front of house girls 'phoned in sick so I got to stand in for her. (They paid me peanuts, of course, because they knew I was a theatre student and they see us as cheap labour, but I don't mind.)
We've acquired a new movement teacher, an Austrian chap called Rudi. He's terribly keen on posture, and on the way we use our bodies generally, how important it is to be in touch with your body, all that stuff. He reminds me a bit of Armelle, although he's much sharper in the way he speaks and calls everyone "darling". He had us being leaves in a fog the other day, which definitely reminded me of Armelle! He's far fussier than Armelle ever was though and his classes are even more exhausting than the morning exercises!
So that's all well enough, but the other piece of bad news I got was that Mummy won't be home at Christmas. She's had an offer of a part over in America and of course she had to take it, I do understand that, especially given that she thought she was all done for in film. I might stay here, see if I can do front of house or backstage for the Theatre Royal panto.
Time for bed now or I will be late and sleepy for movement tomorrow morning, which won't help!
18th November 1946
This isn't a proper letter because I am in a terrible hurry and will be late to my lecture, but I wanted to get it straight in the post so I could say: you must come to us for Christmas, please say that you will! I would love to see you. I only didn't suggest it before because I assumed you'd be with your mother. Please say you will! You might be able to see Karil too as he is living quite nearby now while he's at medical school.
waiting to get your reply saying YES!
PS And I'm sorry about your audition too, though of course I know you will be good at whatever role they've given you.
19th November 1946
Rushing to reply between classes today—if you're absolutely sure that I won't be a burden on your family over the holiday, I'd love to come. Thank you so much! I'm looking forward to the holiday again now.
28th November 1946
I can't believe how quickly term has passed. My last tutorial is tomorrow, though I have lectures all week. I'll be home when it's only just the start of December. And of course it's still three whole weeks after that until you reach London.
Aunt Hester and Aunt May wrote to me yesterday to check the time of my train home for the third time, bless them. It'll be lovely to see them, and Father, again. And you, when you get here! I'm looking forward to seeing Karil too—he's hardly written this term, despite promising to. When he has it's been half-page scrawls. I think becoming a doctor is harder work than he imagined. But then I have found Oxford to be harder than I expected, and it sounds like you've found Old Vic difficult too, so I suppose we are all just discovering how growing up works.
Still, Christmas will be lovely, rationing notwithstanding. The aunts tell me they've been saving coupons for months now (but do make sure you bring your book, of course).
Masses of love,
The train from Bristol came into Paddington, and Tally was there half an hour beforehand to make sure she couldn't possibly miss Julia. Julia's train was bang on time, and, bouncing on her toes and peering through the crowds, Tally spotted Julia, still tall and thin and freckly, carrying a smart suitcase and wearing a bright red hat, and ran towards her, heedless of decorum.
"Julia!" She flung her arms around her friend, and Julia hugged her back as best as she could with the suitcase.
It was almost surprising, just how pleased she was to see Julia. She'd forgotten how Julia smelt when you hugged her. The way she'd put her sandy hair into rolls under her hat was very grown-up; much smarter than Tally's own slightly untidy pageboy cut. But her grey eyes were still the same.
"It's so lovely to see you, Tally," Julia's smile was still her old familiar one, too. "And it's so kind of you to have invited me."
"It's not kind at all," Tally said robustly. "It's entirely for my own benefit. I've missed you!"
She had done: in brief heartfelt bursts at college, when Oxford seemed overwhelming, and she longed for Delderton or home, and for people she knew already. Then she'd come home and realised that she had made friends at Oxford too, when she sat down to do her vacation work and missed studying with Mary, or going to the tuck shop with Anne for tea and toast. She wrote to both of them; and then she missed Julia in a different way, waiting impatiently for her arrival, even while she ran errands for the aunts and went round to read to Mrs Smithson and managed to corral Karil into meeting in a Lyon's a couple of times—his term, like Julia's, finished later than Oxford's did.
"I'll take your suitcase," Tally offered, and Julia told her not to be ridiculous.
They made their way back to Tally's via Tube and then bus, and Tally found herself looking at Julia in a way that felt somehow new. She couldn't quite put her finger on it.
She remembered, suddenly, the one time that she and Karil had kissed. They'd been still in school, studying for Higher Cert and wondering what it was they were to each other. The kiss had showed them that it wasn't that, however important their friendship might be to both of them. It had been a little bit of a relief, if Tally was honest about it. Now, looking at Julia, she felt something of the same sense of hovering possibility. Just for a moment, she let herself think of kissing Julia, and her stomach fizzed in a way it never had about Karil.
"Are you all right, Tally?" Julia asked, peering at her in a concerned way. "You looked quite odd just then."
Tally swallowed, and brought herself back to the present moment. "I'm fine. Look, this is our stop."
She wasn't at all sure what to think about this. Perhaps it was best just to ignore it.
"Mummy sent a Christmas parcel over from America," Julia said, coming into the kitchen when she'd unpacked with her arms laden with tins. "Tongue, ham, and currants."
Aunt May seized upon the currants. "Oh, it's far too late for a proper Christmas pudding or even a fruit cake, but I could do a different sort of steamed pudding, if I can squeeze it out of the flour ration."
"I brought my book," Julia offered.
"Well, I'll see what I can do."
"If not we can just eat them," Tally said, wondering whether Julia might be willing to share some of them with some of the people along the road. But then, they weren't her, Tally's things to share, were they, so she could hardly suggest it.
They spent the morning going round Tally's friends so Tally could introduce Julia to all of them. Kenny, just back from his delivery round of vegetables and Christmas greenery, showed off the new pony who had replaced Primrose, now retired, and then gave Julia and Tally a bag of left-over holly from the back of the cart. Maybelle and Julia had a very interesting conversation about different sorts of theatre, before Maybelle showed off part of the tap dance from the Christmas revue she was in the chorus of this year. And Mrs Smithson was just as pleased with sitting and chatting to Tally and Julia as she ever was with Tally reading to her. Towards the end of the morning, as they left Mrs Hodgeson's tiny, crowded tenement, Julia turned to Tally.
"Do you think...I mean, I was wondering...would your aunts mind, if we gave away some of what Mother sent."
"Oh, I'm so pleased you suggested it," Tally said gladly, her heart filling even more than it had already in seeing how well Julia fitted in with all her friends here. "I didn't like to, it's your gift. But yes, I think it's a lovely idea. We have plenty already for Christmas dinner, Aunt Hester has been saving carefully, and Aunt May and Aunt Hester always make lovely meals anyway."
"Well, I've mostly been eating pie and chips this term," Julia said, "because Mrs Balch gives us students the same discounts she gives the actors. So your aunts' cooking will be a lovely change."
Going out again after lunch with Julia, to give away slices of tongue and ham, and little paper twists of currants, made Tally feel like Father Christmas, and from the glow on Julia's face she felt the same. They'd kept a little back for themselves—enough currants for Aunt May's dumpling, and some of the ham—but both of them agreed that the rest of it was well lost.
Christmas Day itself was lovely—wakening to stockings on the end of their beds, with apples, little packets of soap, and a pair of nylons each. They exchanged presents properly after breakfast—Tally had embroidered handkerchiefs for her aunts and father, and for Julia made a little pouch for her theatre cosmetics.
After that was church, and carols; and then home to the dinner, the best the aunts' ingenuity could fashion out of everyone's rations (plus a couple of donations from Dr Hamilton's patients), and what was left of Julia's parcel, including the precious fruit dumpling at the end of it.
"I'm stuffed! Quite stuffed!" Julia proclaimed afterwards, and insisted to Tally that they go out to walk a little of it off.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I'm finding myself missing those awful morning exercises at college," Julia said as they strolled down the street, her eyes wide. "I suppose your body gets used to it."
"Like getting up early for Matteo's lessons," Tally agreed.
"But we never did that quite so regularly. I do feel better for a walk, though."
"And we walked to church this morning," Tally pointed out. "It's not like you've been so terribly lazy all round. Anyway. Go ahead then, if you like, do your physical jerks right here in the park!" She pointed at the little piece of muddy grass they were passing, the only remnant of the park where the rest of it had been dug up for allotments.
"I wonder when the parks will come back?" Julia said, thoughtfully.
"Well, perhaps it should stay allotments," Tally said. "Isn't it good that people can grow things themselves?"
"But beauty is important too," Julia argued. "Think of Delverton."
Tally thought back to Delverton—to her first view of it, that magical moment—and then looked around the grimy London street. "Perhaps," she agreed. "I do still love London, but...I see your point."
"London can have beauty too, I think my point is."
"One of Father's doctor friends who lived down in Bermondsey was keen on that," Tally said. "He and his wife used to plant trees everywhere. Father talked about it for a while when I was little, but it would have meant dealing with the council more, and he always took on more patients or went to the hospital instead."
Back at the house, they found that Aunt Hester had dozed off in a chair in the parlour; but she woke up as Tally was closing the parlour door again, despite her best efforts to do so quietly. Tally put the kettle on, and then they all played cards—Beggar My Neighbour and Snap—all afternoon, before eating tea and listening to the Christmas radio programme.
Tally finally chivvied her father into going to bed half an hour after the aunts did, and made him promise not to sit up reading.
"And what about you?" he asked, laughing.
"I'm young and spry," Tally said cheerfully, "but don't worry, I don't imagine Julia and I will stay up much longer either."
"But I did want to get a bit of a chance to talk, just us, like at school," she said to Julia ten minutes later, once they were sitting in front of the fire with hot chocolate. Good hot chocolate, properly whisked, not like Magda's; though Tally had been surprised after leaving Delderton to discover that one could miss even truly terrible hot chocolate, when it was really the person who made it that you were missing.
"At least I got used to hot chocolate being bitter already," Julia said, stirring her hot chocolate and obviously thinking along similar lines as Tally, "so sugar rationing has never been quite as bad as it could have been."
The fire was dying down, and Tally wasn't about to put any more coal on it, not if they were only going to be up for another half an hour; but the house was getting chilly. She pulled one of Aunt May's knitted blankets from the back of the sofa.
"I can find you one too," she offered Julia, "or we can share like at school."
"Share," Julia said, without hesitation, and shuffled in next to Tally on the battered old sofa. Tally spread the blanket over both of their knees, and felt suddenly almost shy. Which was absurd, when this was just Julia, Julia who'd spent hours and hours and hours over the years sharing a blanket with her at Delderton, curled on one of their beds and talking over everything under the sun. Julia's warmth next to her was familiar, and yet...
Julia looked at her over the rim of her mug and smiled, and Tally smiled back, and felt like she still didn't quite understand what was going on. Except that she wanted to be closer to Julia, wanted to lean her head on Julia's shoulder. And there was something in Julia's eyes now, something that made her think, again, of...
Julia set her mug down, and turned a little more towards Tally, and the air between them seemed somehow charged. Very slowly, not quite sure what she was doing, Tally put her hand up to Julia's face, stroked a finger down Julia's soft cheek. Julia's eyes widened, just a little, and she leant her cheek into Tally's hand.
Tally might not know what she was doing, but she felt like this was one of those moments where maybe, she didn't quite need to have a plan. She and Julia were very close now. She heard the tick of the clock on the mantel, far louder than usual, and the gentle hiss of the dying fire. She leant in towards Julia, and Julia leant in towards her, and their lips met.
Julia's lips were soft, and tasted slightly of lip gloss. Julia's nose brushed lightly against her cheek, and Tally felt something unfurl in her chest. Her lips parted slightly, and so did Julia's, and the kiss deepened. Tally felt Julia's hand go up to her head, Julia's fingers at the back of Tally's neck. It felt magical. It felt like everything she and Julia were to one another had been coming to this moment, the two of them together, electricity running up Tally's arms.
The kiss lengthened, and Tally, greatly daring, slid her tongue across Julia's lower lip, and felt Julia's hand tighten at the nape of her neck, Julia sway in towards her. And then, still slowly and carefully, it was over, and they were resting their foreheads together and both breathing a little harder than before.
"Well," Tally said, and saw Julia's lips curve in a smile.
"Merry Christmas," Julia said.
"Merry Christmas," Tally echoed, and felt possibility glow around them.