Susan Richardson is a Wales-based poet, performer and educator, whose third collection, skindancing, has just been published by Cinnamon Press. She is currently poet-in-residence with the Marine Conservation Society. Susan has performed at festivals throughout the UK, for organisations such as WWF and Friends of the Earth, on BBC 2, and at Universities both nationally and internationally. She has also been a regular performer on BBC Radio 4 while resident poet on Saturday Live.
“When you come over, we’ll go camping,” he says down the phone from 3,000 miles away. “I know this little island – we’ll drive north, then rent a canoe. An island just for the two of us – how does that sound?”
I haven’t seen Jeff in over five months. We met two years ago when we were both graduate students at the University of Toronto. He was completing a PhD in psychology and I was on a scholarship from Wales, studying drama. We’ve had a pretty turbulent relationship, but it’s somehow managed to endure, even though I’ve moved back to Wales to work as a playwright for an educational theatre company. Whenever my work commitments and finances allow, I fly over to Canada again to see him: on this particular occasion, we’re going to spend eight precious weeks together, as one of my plays is to be performed at a Toronto theatre.
It’s a new play – a humorous, but, I hope, instructive piece about female sexuality set inside the body of a woman, with several fretful Hormones, an under-confident Vagina and a much-neglected Clitoris as the central characters. I’m thrilled that my work’s going to be seen in Canada – it’s a major step forward in my career – but I’m also really terrified, mainly because I haven’t yet come up with a convincing ending. Each of the characters is involved, throughout the play, in a quest for the elusive Orgasm, but as to how they should eventually find it, I really don’t have a clue. At the moment, I’ve got a bold and brazen Penis appearing at the end with the Orgasm in tow, but somehow, it’s just not working. I’m desperately hoping that when the rehearsal process gets underway next week and I see the director and performers in action, inspiration will strike and I’ll know exactly how I should round it off.
For the time being, though, I’m going to try to stop worrying about the play and what the critics may say, and enjoy my weekend in the Canadian wilderness with Jeff. I’m not the most outdoorsy woman in the world but hey, it’s going to be isolated and romantic and after five months apart, a groundsheet will be as welcome as a king-size bed.
I give Jeff a king-size hug when he meets me at the airport and we start to drive north towards Georgian Bay. En route, we stop for food and flashlight batteries and other essential items like chocolates and wine.
“I want tonight to be real special,” says Jeff with an enticing smile. “There’s so much we’ve got to celebrate.”
Even though it’s already midnight back in Wales, I’m wide-awake with happiness and anticipation. A certain amount of nerves are mixed in there too – being a non-swimmer, the canoe bit doesn’t exactly fill me with glee, but I’m determined to go through with it and share in Jeff’s island idyll.
The highway gives way to minor roads and the towns to occasional houses, and soon we’re at the settlement of Dillon Cove, where the dreaded canoes are for rent. The nub of land for which we’re going to be heading looks awfully distant and the water between it and us awfully deep. I don an orange life jacket, help Jeff load our gear into the middle section of the canoe and cover it with tarpaulin, then kneel in the front, clutching a paddle. Jeff, the experienced canoeist, meanwhile, takes up position in the rear.
I’m scared, really scared, as we start to propel ourselves across the bay, with just a few inches of canoe separating me from the pulsing grey water. I don’t look at the sun sinking in the sky or the family of Canada geese swimming along beside us – just keep my eyes fixed on the tree-clad wedge of land getting closer with each tentative stroke of my paddle. I even forget to fret about how I’m going to end my play.
Fifty five torturous minutes later, we’re close enough to land, but Jeff suggests we canoe round the island and pitch camp on the other side, as facing out into Georgian Bay rather than back towards the mainland will give us a greater feeling of remoteness. Though I’m desperate to be back on solid ground, I submit to another fifteen minutes of paddling until Jeff pinpoints a suitable camping spot. As we haul the canoe up onto the stony beach, I nearly collapse from a combination of relief and aching knees.
“Let’s sort out the tent,’”says Jeff. “Then we’ll make ourselves some dinner and open that wine.”
Whoever described the tent as two-man was exaggerating wildly, so it looks like the night ahead will be deliciously snug. Jeff gets a fire going and I again try not to think about my unfinished play as I concoct some sort of vegetable stew in a pot. The wine is then opened against the backdrop of bullfrogs croaking and the gently lapping water of the lake.
“Cheers,” says Jeff, handing me a plastic beaker.
“‘To us,” I say, tapping it against the side of his.
While I empty the contents of the saucepan into two plastic bowls, he stands with his back to me, facing the water. The moon’s rising over the bay now, putting the final romantic touches to the scene.
“It’s a magical place, this island,” says Jeff, once we’ve squatted close to the fire to eat. “I’ve been wanting to bring you here to see it for a long time.”
“I’m really glad I’ve come,” I say, sipping from my beaker with a smile.
“You know, you’ve made a real difference to my life over the past two years. And this seemed like just the place to come to acknowledge and celebrate that.”
My smile grows wider. I’m glowing from the cocktail of his words and the wine.
“Seemed like just the place to come and talk about the future too.”
My smile is bigger still: it’s at least as wide as the canoe.
“Like I said, it’s been two years. And that’s long enough to be sure about something, long enough to be real certain.”
The bullfrogs croak.
I’ve temporarily stopped breathing.
“And – well – what I’m certain of is this. You and me – it isn’t going to be for ever. You’re in Wales, I’m in Toronto – it’s time for us both to move on.”
Breath comes but words won’t. “I – what – I don’t -”
“We both deserve better.”
“You mean you want -”
He forks some stew into his mouth, chews, swallows. “I think we should end our relationship, yeah.”
“But coming here – you said it was special -”
“I wanted us to celebrate what we’ve had, not mourn its passing.”
“But you can’t just- “‘
“I’ve given a lot of thought to it and really, it’s for the best. Yeah, it’ll be a tough transition, but we can help each other through it.”
I want to yell and scream and howl at the moon. I want to tell Jeff that if he thinks dragging me here to end things would somehow soften the blow, he’s one hell of a lousy psychologist. I want to take what’s left of the bottle of wine and smash it against the hull of that stupid canoe. I want to flee the island, flee Toronto, fly home- home-home to Wales, only I’m stuck here, can’t swim, and anyway it’s dark and in three weeks’ time, I’ve got a play on –
Silently, I force myself to finish my meal. I use water from the lake to wash my bowl and when my eyes start to sting and fill with tears, I tell myself it’s only from the smoke of the camp fire.
And finally, when Jeff’s in the tent and the moon’s at its height, I dig in my backpack for my notepad and pen and begin to write.
“Congratulations!” Another complete stranger throws her arms round me. “I haven’t laughed so much in ages – and that ending – wow!”
I’m backstage after the opening night of my play. It feels like almost every audience member is backstage with me, along with the director and actors and all their family and friends.
“‘Those Hormones made me die! The play was, like, so funny but it really got me thinking too.”
I’m overjoyed to hear these comments. It’s been a highly pressured rehearsal process – not nearly enough time and rewrites often needed on the spot – and until I heard the clamorous applause at the end of tonight’s performance, I was convinced my playwriting career was on the line. I scan the crowd for the director, Lisa; want to thank her again for doing so much to make the production a success.
Instead, though, my gaze falls on Jeff.
He spots me a millisecond after I spot him. My irresolute heart both sinks and soars as he starts weaving his way through the crowd towards me.
“Your play – it was great.” He fiddles with one of the flaps of his multi-pocketed vest. He looks as out-of-place here as I must have done kneeling in the front of a canoe.
“‘So how’ve you been?”
“Good,” I say too quickly. “Fine.”
“Can we – “He fiddles some more. “Can we maybe go some place quieter and talk?”
A glass of champagne is thrust into my hand by Ally, who played the part of Clitoris. She was, without a doubt, the star of the show. Once I decided to get rid of the bold and brazen Penis and give more lines to Clitoris, my problems with the ending were over.
Jeff tries again. “I’d really like to talk to you.”
I sip from my glass. “So talk.”
“I’ve been – ” Still more fiddling, with the zip of his vest this time. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we got back from the island and – well – I guess I was wrong.”
I take another sip. My tongue tingles from the bubbles.
“I was crazy to think we should end our relationship, totally crazy.” His voice becomes more urgent; he leans closer. “Can we patch things up, d’you think – make a fresh start?”
From somewhere behind, I hear my name being called. It’s Lisa – she and the cast, arms entwined, are having their photo taken and she wants me to be part of the picture.
“Well, can we?”
I turn away from Jeff and go to join them.