'And the trouble is,' said Storm Lavelle, 'it's just total murder.'
'What is?' asked Jude.
'My life. Everything.'
Storm Lavelle was stretched out on the treatment table in the front room of Woodside Cottage in the seaside village of Fethering. It was February, cold outside, but snug with the open fire in Jude's front room. The scent of aromatic candles on the mantelpiece mingled with the smell of burning wood.
Storm had in theory come for a healing session, though Jude knew by experience she was basically there to unload the latest aggravations of her life. Which was fair enough. Jude also knew that listening was frequently as effective as any other form of healing.
The irony was that Storm Lavelle also practised as a healer, and she was the ultimate example of where the 'healer, heal thyself' principle broke down. Though very good with her clients, impressing them with her calm and stability, Storm was actually as mad as several container-loads of frogs. Her volatile personality ensured that she skittered from one alternative therapeutic cure-all to another. It was remarkable that she'd stuck with the healing, though it was now only as a practitioner rather than a patient. Storm had long since decided that healing was inadequate to her own needs, and embarked on courses of reflexology, kinesiology, homeopathy, naturopathy and any other 'ologies' or 'opathies' that came to her attention.
She had also dabbled in a wide range of leisure activities. Many of these were fitness-related. Within the previous couple of years Storm had, to Jude's knowledge, tried Aerobics, Aqua Aerobics, Padel Tennis, Pilates and Zumba. She had also taken up macramé, bird watching and bridge, and joined a choir.
None of this worried Jude or stood in the way of the two women's friendship. Her attitude to her fellow human beings reflected a line that had once been quoted to her, the view of someone called Joe Ancis that 'the only normal people are the ones you don't know very well'. And beneath all Storm's traumas and dramas, Jude could recognize an honest, caring person whose only fault – if indeed it was a fault – was to get both too deeply and too shallowly involved with everything.
This applied particularly to Storm Lavelle's love life. As with alternative therapies, she also skittered from relationship to relationship. And in each one she made the same error, believing wholeheartedly that at last, after all of her past failures, she had found the perfect man on whom to lavish all of her affection. Invariably the men, frightened by the intensity of this passion, soon wanted to disengage. And Storm's heart would be broken once again.
It wasn't that she was unattractive, far from it. She was in her forties, some ten years younger than Jude, but unlike her friend, didn't carry a spare ounce of weight anywhere. This was partly due to the cocktail of diets and health fads that she followed, but the traumas of her frequent break-ups also played their part. She had innocent, pained blue eyes and was a natural blonde, though that original colour was very rarely in evidence. Storm was as fickle with new hairstyles as she was with everything else in her life.
That day her hair was cropped short and coloured a striking aubergine. She was dressed in black leggings and a sloppy yellow T-shirt. The precision of her make-up made her look almost like a geisha girl.
Jude sometimes wondered where her friend's name had come from. Surely no parents would actually christen a child 'Storm'? She wouldn't have been surprised to find out that in her younger years Storm had tried out as many names as she had other elements in her life. But she'd stayed with Storm Lavelle for the duration of their friendship.
Jude was giving her a basic relaxing massage, while the more important therapy of Storm unburdening herself continued. Storm would sometimes do a massage for Jude, so in these sessions no money ever changed hands. And whichever one was client or healer, it was still Storm who did most of the talking.
'I told you I'd split up with Paul, didn't I?'
'You didn't actually, but I'd kind of pieced it together from your manner.'
'What is it with men? One moment they're all over you like a rash, then suddenly they go all cold and start mumbling about "needing their own space".'
'Yes.' Jude paused, then decided to say it anyway. It wouldn't be the first time she'd raised the point. 'You don't think, do you, Storm, that it might be because you always go at relationships so full-on, you know, with all guns blazing? Maybe if you started a bit more casually ...?'
'I can't be casual about love. I have to follow my heart. I knew when I met Paul that he was absolutely the one for me. And he said the same – he said he'd never met anyone like me.'
Jude reckoned that was probably true, but she didn't voice the thought.
'So how can someone be madly in love with you, saying he's having the best sex with you he's ever had, and then within a couple of weeks say he "needs his own space"?'
'If women knew the answer to that question, Storm, the relationship between the sexes might be considerably easier.'
'Yes. Do you think men are just differently wired from women?'
'If I did, I wouldn't be the first to have expressed that opinion. But I think there are more similarities than differences between the genders. Everyone, male or female, is afraid of having their personality swamped by another person.'
'And are you saying that's what I do, Jude? Swamp people's personalities?'
'I'm just saying that if you took a more gradual, a slower approach into relationships ...'
'But I'm not a gradual person, I'm not a slow person. I have to obey my instincts.'
'Even if those instincts keep pushing you in the wrong direction?'
'What do you mean – "pushing me in the wrong direction"?'
'Well, look, Paul isn't the first man with whom your relationship has ended in much the same way.'
'How can you say that, Jude?'
'From simple observation. Do you want me to name names? Carl, George, Nick, Harry—'
'Those relationships were nothing like what I had with Paul. I knew from the start that Paul was the real thing.'
'I heard you say the same when you first met Carl ... and George ... and Nick ... and—'
'No, I'm sure I never said that with them.'
It wasn't worth arguing the point, though Jude's recollections of Storm's announcement of each new man in her life were extremely accurate.
'Anyway,' Storm announced, as she had so many times before, 'I'm giving up men.'
'In favour of what?'
'Other things. I've wasted so much of my life agonizing over them, it's time I got on with the things that really interest me.'
'And what might they be?' asked Jude, wondering what new fad was about to be revealed.
'Acting,' Storm replied. 'I'm really going to concentrate on my acting.'
Now this was not as foolish an answer as Jude had been expecting. Storm Lavelle was actually rather good at acting. Perhaps the wide variety in her own emotional life had enabled her to see inside the characters of others. Or, then again, like many with a shaky sense of their own identity, maybe she found a security in playing a role, in being a different person.
Jude had been dragged along as support to a selection of West Sussex's church halls where her friend had been appearing with one or other of the local amateur dramatic societies. And though a few of the productions had been a bit ropey, Storm Lavelle had always shone in the not very glittering company. Acting was also a fad that she had stuck with. Whatever else was going on in her life, she was usually involved in rehearsal for some play or other. Jude, whose earlier career as a model had led to a year or two of acting, recognized genuine talent and was sure that her friend had it. Whether Storm also had the temperament and tenacity to pursue the theatre as a full-time career Jude was less certain.
Which prompted her next question. 'Do you mean concentrate on it exclusively? Make it your profession?'
'I wouldn't rule that out,' replied Storm, with a new confidence in her voice. 'I'm certainly going to take it more seriously, concentrate on getting better as an actor.' Jude was amused that the politically correct fashion of not using the word 'actress' had permeated the amateur section of the business.
'My quality is beginning to be recognized,' Storm went on. 'I'm being given better parts. I've just got a really good one with SADOS.'
She pronounced the acronym 'Say-doss', but Jude had to confess that the word meant nothing to her.
'SADOS,' said Storm, 'is the "Smalting Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society".'
'They've just held auditions for The Devil's Disciple and I've got the part of Judith Anderson.'
Jude had once again to admit ignorance. 'I've heard the title vaguely somewhere, but I'm afraid I don't know anything about it.'
Storm had clearly done her homework. 'It's one of George Bernard Shaw's earliest plays. Set during the American War of Independence. And it's about this bad American guy called Dick Dudgeon who's going to be hanged by the British because he's been mistaken for the good American pastor called Anthony Anderson ...'
'Sounds a bit like A Tale of Two Cities.'
'I don't know that play, I'm afraid. But, anyway, Judith is Anthony Anderson's wife and she's really conflicted, because she hates Dick Dudgeon, but at the same time she's very drawn to him.' It didn't sound as if this summary was Storm's own, more as if she were quoting someone. 'And the play's also an attack on puritanism, and reiterates the common theme in Shaw of how people should stand up against convention if they think that convention's wrong. At least,' she concluded, 'that's what Neville thinks.'
'Neville Prideaux. He's playing General Burgoyne in The Devil's Disciple. He's actually quite important in SADOS. Particularly on the Play Selection Committee. He says Shaw's out of fashion, but he doesn't deserve to be. And he thinks that SADOS ought to do more challenging work, not just their usual safe diet of light comedies, Agatha Christies and episodes from television series.'
'Sorry? What do you mean – "episodes from television series"?'
'Oh, it's quite a popular thing now with amdrams. An evening of three episodes of something like Fawlty Towers or Dad's Army.'
'Yowch!' said Jude, as the ghastly image of local thespians doing their impressions of John Cleese and Arthur Lowe encroached on her imagination.
'Well, Neville says doing them is retrogressive.'
'I would agree with Neville on that.'
'But they are very popular with audiences.'
'Presumably because said audiences know every word of the script off by heart.'
'I think that could be part of it, yes. Anyway, Neville says that SADOS should make a stand against putting on that sort of stuff. He even thought last year's production ofCalendar Girls was too lightweight. And that's a play about cancer.'
No, it's not, thought Jude. It's a play about women taking their tops off. She was constantly amazed by the British prurient attitude to nudity, which explained the disproportionate success of shows like Calendar Girls. It seemed that members of every amateur dramatic society in the country couldn't wait to get their wizened tits out.
But Storm was still continuing her encomium of Neville Prideaux. 'He says there's a wonderful archive of great plays which deserve revival much more than any trivial TV sitcom.'
The devoutness with which Storm was quoting the great Neville Prideaux made Jude wonder if, with Paul out of the way, he was about to be the next recipient of her all-embracing adoration.
She reached for a bottle on her mantelpiece. 'Just finish off the massage with some lavender essential oil. You happy with that?'
'Great,' said Storm, as Jude, with oil rubbed on to her hands, started kneading her friend's shoulders.
'And it's because of Neville's views that you're doing The Devil's Disciple – is that right?'
'Exactly. Neville says it would do the people of Smalting good to have their brains engaged by something they see in the theatre.'
'I'm sure it would.'
'Anyway, as I say, I'm delighted to have got the part of Judith Anderson. Though I say it myself, I knew I was the best person in the Society to play it, but I was still very nervous about the audition.'
'Why was that?'
Storm gave a conspiratorial wink. 'Oh, wheels within wheels. There's a lot of politics in SADOS. You see, there's this kind of diva called Elizaveta Dalrymple, who's the widow of Freddie Dalrymple, who's the guy who started the Society, and she's very much its social hub. Holds these little parties on Saturdays that she calls her "drinkies things" and if you're invited to one of those you really know you've arrived in SADOS. Anyway, Elizaveta is kind of used to getting all the major parts in the shows – even ones that she's far too old for. And she's very in with Davina Vere Smith, who's actually directing The Devil's Disciple, and with quite a lot of the older members. So I thought there was a real danger that Judith Anderson, who's meant to be – what, thirty? – well, that the part would go to Elizaveta Dalrymple, who's got to be seventy – and that's being generous.'
'But instead you triumphed?'
'Yes. Well, as I said, I was definitely the best person for the part.' In spite of the vagaries and vulnerabilities in other areas of her life, Storm Lavelle was very assured about her acting skills. And indeed it was when witnessing one of her performances that Jude had seen her friend at her most confident. Maybe getting into the professional theatre would be the resolution of Storm's personality problems. Not of course that getting into the professional theatre was an easy thing to be achieved by a woman in her forties.
'And have you actually started rehearsals for the play yet?'
'Read-through on Sunday. Open on the twelfth of May.'
'Wow! Three months' rehearsal. A lot of professional theatres would kill for that amount of time.'
'Maybe, but you forget that we aren't doing it full-time. Most of the cast have day jobs.'
'Yes, of course. I wasn't thinking.'
'So we rehearse Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons.'
'And how many performances do you do?'
'Just the four. The twelfth of May's a Wednesday, and we go through to the Saturday. SADOS used to open on Tuesdays and throw in a Saturday matinee as well, but they can't get the audiences for that many performances now.'
'Ah.' Jude removed her hands from Storm's body and rubbed the oil off them with a towel. 'That's you done,' she said. 'Unknotted a few of the knots, I hope?'
'Great, as ever. Thank you, Jude.'
'My pleasure. I'm sure I'll soon be asking you to do the same for me. Anyway, good luck with the read-through on Sunday.'
'Yes, I'm a bit nervous about it. Excited too, but at the moment mainly nervous.'
'I'm sure you'll be fine.'
'Oh, I will ... once the read-through actually starts. But, you see, the thing is ... Ritchie Good's playing Dick Dudgeon.'
'Is he?' said Jude, though neither of the names meant anything to her. 'Should I know him?'
'Ritchie Good? Surely you've heard of him?'
'Oh, he's a terrific actor. Everyone says he should have done it professionally. He's played star parts with lots of local groups – the Fedborough Thespians, the Clincham Players, the Worthing Rustics – Ritchie's acted with all of them. He even played Hamlet for the Rustington Barnstormers.'
'Did he?' said Jude, trying to sound appropriately impressed.
'He's really good. Somebody must have pulled out all the stops to get him for the SADOS. I suppose it might have been Davina, though I'd be surprised if she had the clout to persuade someone like Ritchie Good.'
'Davina Vere Smith. She's the director. I said.'
'Yes, I'm sorry.'
'He's incredibly good-looking, Ritchie. Got quite a following in the amdram world.'
Jude wondered for a moment whether it would be this new paragon, Ritchie Good, rather than Neville Prideaux who was about to be the recipient of Storm Lavelle's full-on adoration.
Her friend was on the way to the door when she stopped and said, 'Ooh, one thing, Jude ...'
Storm looked around the cluttered room, whose furniture was all covered with rugs and throws. 'I just wondered if you'd still got ...?'
A wry smile came to Jude's full lips as she said, 'You mean the chaise longue?'