I used to write a lot of music. I have half a shelf of manuscript books and loose sheets, all covered with my scrawls. I wrote songs for school, arranged music of all kinds for orchestra, flute band and choirs. I wrote an entire score for my school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was fifteen. When I went to university, I carried on writing music as part of my degree. I was the ‘go to’ person on my drama course if you wanted a song arranging or a bit of incidental music. Later, out in the professional world of theatre, I wrote original scores for Two by Jim Cartwright, Soulmaker (a new play about Keats) and The Tempest, along with countless other bits and pieces.
And then, somewhere along the line, I stopped. I think it was about the time I started to write books. The chance to use my imagination through the medium of words replaced my need to use it through music. Suddenly, instead of using my spare time to write music, I used it to write stories instead – and I loved it.
At the beginning of this year, I made a New Year’s resolution. I don’t do that, as a rule, because they are so easily broken. But I realised that I missed the music. I promised myself that I’d ‘do more music’, whatever form that might take. A month ago, I took part in a charity concert organised by a friend. It was fantastic to be singing as part of a group again. And much to my surprise, I started writing songs again. I wrote a very silly song about a persistent owl for a writer friend who was having trouble with a particular story, and I loved it.
A few weeks ago, I heard some shocking news: a friend of ours had been diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer in her upper jaw. It was a bolt out of the blue. She’s waiting for her operation now, but it’ll be a scary process, with the surgeons having to remove part of her skull and then reconstruct it. They’re optimistic that they can get the cancer out, but for any of us, having our face dramatically changed is a terrifying thing. So much of who we are is bound up in the way we look – the face we see in the mirror every day.
She’s determined not to take it seriously. She’s named her tumour Travis and makes up silly poems about him and how much she hates him. I joked that I’d write her a heavy metal song (or similar) in which we would doom Travis to a nasty end. I even tried to do that – but somehow, I found myself writing a song that would become much more anthemic, more about support and encouragement. There was a post doing the rounds on Facebook: it showed a photo of a broken pot that had been mended with gold and explained how the Japanese believed that a broken thing could be more beautiful than an unbroken one. That gave me the idea for the lyrics.
It took a while. I’m rusty, and the first version didn’t work properly. And then when I was satisfied with the chord sequences, I got stuck on the lyrics to the second verse – and later I realised I’d written a piano part that would require a lot of practice! But in the end, it came together. I asked a friend of mine – the same friend who organised the choral concert last month – to come to my house and sing it for me so I could record it. We did it in the spare bedroom, with my 20-year-old keyboard and my iPhone. Frankie had never heard it before but learned it in minutes and sang it beautifully. And then I sent the audio file to my cousin Hilgrove Kenrick, who is a composer, to see if he could make it sound a bit more professional – which, to his credit, he managed brilliantly. I gathered together all the photos of Helen and her family I could, and put together a slideshow. It’s not perfect, but then that wasn’t the point.
This is my song for Helen, a good friend who is having to go through something horrible. Hopefully she’ll be able to listen to it in the weeks and months to come and remember that she has friends who love her and will be there for her every step of the way.