The only is not lonely

Have you seen The Duchess, the new Netflix comedy created by Katherine Ryan? It is very funny and her incredible school-run outfits have inspired me to put on a sparkly headband even though I am still, to all intents and purposes in ‘writing clothes’, or pyjamas to other people.

The show focuses on a single mum with a successful career who is very close to her child. There’s a scene at a body positivity conference where she is being interviewed and is asked ‘where is your child right now?’ and Ryan’s character challenges the question and the implication that single mothers don’t know how to raise their children. In this sense, the show is great at challenging stereotypes around lone parenting – like I said, the mother is fulfilled in her career, has a great support group around her and has a close bond with her daughter. But my smile started to fade a bit when she started talking about her child. The daughter decided that she would like to have sister and suddenly the narrative shifted. ‘She needs a sibling’, cried Katherine, echoing the desperation that a lot of mothers feel around providing their kids with everything they need. But it also suggests that an only child is an abnormality or in want of something. And this pisses me off. Later on in the show, a character is revealed to be an only child and describes himself as ‘smothered’ by his mother, who apparently cuts up his food for him and still kisses him on his lips as an adult. A lot of shows get applauded for their bravery at challenging stereotypes but are still get away at poking fun at a group of humans who a) cant do anything about their situation and b) maybe don’t feel like they are represented accurately at all. And that group is the only child.

In Working Mums, only children are described as ‘aliens’; in Catastrophe, the only child family of Fran, Chris and Jeffrey are cold and distant from one another, in contrast to the jumbled up chaos of Sharon and Rob’s crew. In Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Nathaniel is deemed to be spoilt and lonely because of his only child upbringing. And of course, Friends, which gets its own flack at the moment for a variety of reasons around representation, chooses to ridicule Chandler for being raised a singleton.

And yes, this is personal. After the birth of my son, I always assumed there would be more, but after many years of trying, there wasn’t. And you now what? There were several years where I felt very very sad about this, but now, I don’t. I don’t have family around me, so raising two kids would mean no time for writing outside in the garden listening to some smooth Bossa (as I am now) It would mean sweaty gym kits, after school clubs, shit and noise. I would always be tired. So, no, I’m fine, thanks. I’m not saying your experience of parenting (of two or more) is any better or worse than mine, but please respect the difference. Please stop presenting my kid as a weirdo for a cheap laugh. Stop presenting any kid as a weirdo for something that they can’t change. Go after creepy men or Holocaust deniers instead. It’s a cheap trick and a boring trope.

Perhaps I hold on to these perceived slights in the media because of my experience, granted, but I get enough little digs in real life anyway. Women telling me it’s time ‘to get one with the other one’ in passing, asking whether ‘i’m trying for one at the moment’, describing their own family of two as’ the perfect balance’. I actually feel sorrier for these kids, as they are growing up with ignorant, convention-swallowing dickheads for parents.

It feels very nice to say all this by the way. Thank you if you are still reading.

So please, world and by world I mean the media apparatus that we now experience our lives through, just leave only children alone (ha!) They are not de facto future murderers. They are not any more or less happy than kids with siblings. If you want to produce a truly original show, create it so that the single child experience is a happy and fulfilling one.

Steve Brookstein

This here’s a monologue that I wrote for Up ‘Ere Productions and their Talking Heads Programme. It’s called Steve Brookstein. Have at it, dudes.

Steve Brookstein

Caroline (mid-late 30s, in a relatively formal outfit,  is peering off stage through some long curtains, watching someone out of view with some anxiety.)

(With forced brightness) Oo – now then, hello – I’d rather you didn’t fiddle with the delphiniums (pauses for his response) Well- if they’re looking a bit crispy swivel them round. Okay?

(She returns to the room, the brightness falls. She starts gloomily applying make up. Stops)

They sent a boy over.  From Hull.   Bruce said he’s doing the course, the same one that I did. Doing the course I did, I thought, that’s an odd choice, for a boy from Hull.  ‘We thought you might need some help’ said Bruce and and then he sort of wrinkled his eyes up. ‘This one’s tough for everybody at Restful Souls.’  He said.

He shouldn’t wear that brown leather jacket,  not in this weather. It only enhances his bullishness. I opened my mouth to fire back but then I thought leave it Caroline, when a man wrinkles his eyes up like that he thinks he’s being sensitive and you won’t dissuade him otherwise.

Bruce is very huggy (and it’s too much in brown leather!).   I’m convinced it was him who’d stashed the vintage pic of Linda Lusardi in amongst the coffee filters .  I didn’t know people still did paper porn.  I think it’s a predilection.  And I could tell from the way he called us together afterwards in the staff car park to denounce the objectification of women, that it cut a little too close to home.  The only red face was his.

You know, I can see feelings. I’m an empath.  I empathacise every day.  Maybe that’s why I got the ‘calling.’

If this is a calling.  Can it be a calling if you had to print off your own certificate? 

My sister thought I was absolutely fruitcake.  Caroline, you’re the number three children’s entertainer this side of the county line and a balloon artist of note and you’re going to give it all up? All that time working your way up the google rankings to commit career death? She was fraught that day, off the back of a slew of IKEA runs, but still, too abrupt. 

She’s not an empath. 

(Looks at herself in the mirror. Then she goes back to curtains. Peeks out.)

Pardon? No.  I’m fine.  If you’re at a loose end though, could you defuzz the chair fabric?  What?  (Pause for response) Well, you wrap some cellotape, there’s some in the first aid box, I don’t know why, wrap it around your hand, no, sticky side out and (does the gesture)  lift it off.  Yes, just like that, fantastic.

(She keeps her smile as she returns to us, gives us a knowing look regarding the boy from Hull.  She starts to do some vocal exercises.  Stops.)

The bereaved are terrible at providing detail. ‘She was a good mum’ – could Jerry Seinfield do anything with that?  Unlikely.  No. It’s only when you get to look beyond the digestives that you find the real dirt.  I miss a good home visit. Douglas was a sponge.  He’d be next to me on the sofa – by god he had a knack for this – and he would wait till they were up and at the tea tray and then he’d whisper in my ear ‘There’s hiking boots in the hall’ or ‘Michael Buble –  DVD –   mantlepiece – 2’oclock’ and then we’d start again – ‘was your wife a keen rambler?  A light jazz fan?’ and they’d be off – telling us about the time that she’d passed out on the 3 peaks challenge, or when she’d almost touched Jamie Cullum’s shirt cuff.

 Because think about it: I’m charged with writing the big finish, tying a whole life up in a sparkly gift bow, for a person that I’ve never even met.  The only way I can do it is with specifics, that’s the stuff that pushes them over the edge.   All those mourners – close family, old friends,  members of your amateur dramatic society – are brought together for one day to sweat it out, flop it on the floor and leave it behind for Nadia to sweep up along with the shredded Kleenex.  If they leave in bits, I’ve done my job.

( Through curtains to Boy)

What was that?  (Pause for response) Well if they’re saying they haven’t got the passcode, they’re leaving it a bit late.   Get them to look at their spam. 

(She returns,  starts checking teeth)

You know , I had an email from a woman the other day, asking whether her son would be ‘prepared’ by robots.  Imagine that!  Weird sinewy metal arms cradling your head, washing your ankles, buttoning up your party  shirt.  I told her no, of course not.  It was still Keith and Sheila, fabulous couple, and they did it with the same love and care as before, just with two pairs of latex gloves on rather than one.

2020.  (she shrugs).

 (She pauses thinking about the ceremony ahead,  Her mood has changed)

The first time I stepped out into that empty room was awful.  Awful.  I said the words, but I didn’t ‘give’ them. I should have said ‘sorry Andrea, you didn’t get the best from me today’ but by that time, she’d disappeared behind the curtain and what good is an apology to a box on fire?

Two days later, I’m standing ‘in the wings’ if you like. And Douglas sidles up to me.  He had this way of creeping up so you wouldn’t know he was there until he was practically on you, remarkable, I’ve only ever experienced it before with a black alsation in my local park and a street mime, once, in Bury St Edmunds.   No malice, just a quiet mover.  Anyhow, he’d wiped around the catalfaque, opened up the Zoom room, put the music on.    Ave Maria. You know that they’re not a real music lover if they go for Ave Maria. It says virtually nothing about the person in question.  I imagine them lying in the coffin when that comes on, thinking, why this?  Avoid.  Just my advice.

Anyhow Douglas says to me, how are you feeling?  And I say ‘I feel like …’ and he says ‘Steve Brookstein?’.  And I look at him – because he’s absolutely right.  I feel like Steve Brookstein.  I feel like the man who won the first season of X Factor, bagged himself a number one and then just – fell away..  I feel like a man who had it all, a man who is standing, in that moment of iffy behind the curtains, knowing that he is about to perform with all his slick professionalism to an audience of stragglers on a P & O ferry.

Empathy.  Guilty as charged.

Not that I have anything against Steve Brookstein.  The industry’s very cruel, and he has a terrific voice. But what Douglas said that day was so right and wrong and funny, that it put a rocket up my jacksy.  And I went out and really eulogised.  I mean really eulogised.

After that, Steve Brookstein stuck.  I think we dared not not say it if you know what I mean. Every time, Douglas would be out front, fingering the mousepad with a face like a newsreader, all business, and then he’d turn away and mouth it at me- Steve Brookstein.  Or like this – ‘Steve Brookstein’ (does funny voice/face) .  And it never failed!

(She takes a moment, suddenly upset.)

(Almost to herself, pulling herself together) I’ve got my notes, here. Ready.   But. May be I should just go out there –  just go out, put my  hand on the coffin and sing it. (To the tune of Goldfinger) Steve Brookstein!

She thinks for a moment.

Douglas’ mum wouldn’t get it though, bless her.  And the boy from Hull will probably report me.  The bereaved of course, they want the greatest hits of Douglas – the scout leader,  dutiful son, keen gardener.  Who am I to deny them?

(Trying to be cheery, but struggling)

(One last time.  Hopefully). Steve Brookstein.   Steve Brookstein.  Steve Brookstein.

(She looks crestfallen – it hasn’t shifted her mood.  Ave Maria starts playing. She looks up, rolls her eyes. )

Oh no.  (She starts to laugh)

Onwards.

(She heads out behind the curtain.)