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The Labours of Layla

Layla was always hard at work, but don’t think for one moment that this simple fact was enough to satisfy her family’s demands when it came to their concerns about her future.

‘Dancing is no career,’ her mother would say, while she dug in the garden’s borders for worms to feed the chickens. ‘Why don’t you do something sensible? In an office. Or a shop, like your sister’. Sister Bella would smirk.

Dad would agree. ‘Acting’s such an unstable profession. Don’t you think you’re best finding something steady that will keep you warm and fed when you’re an old lady?’

‘I’m only seventeen,’ protested Layla who continued with her efforts - positioning her feet and learning her lines.

‘And you seriously need to stop the vocal lessons. Especially practising at home,’ said Bella, in typical sisterly-support mode.

Layla grunted and continued to practice her scales, while the rest of the family put on their ear buds and listened to extra-loud music. The dog volunteered to spend a little time in the garden – and howled in distant accompaniment.

Layla had after-college classes each day. She also woke at six on each and every college morning. On Mondays and Wednesdays she travelled to the roller rink for a solitary hour of falling down, and on Fridays she attended her private drama class. Most importantly, on Tuesdays and Thursdays she visited Edna for her singing and voice technique class. Edna had been teaching from her home for the past forty years and had never asked a paying client to leave, but she did find herself regularly asking her son if perpetual migraines were really worth the £40 a week she earned from Layla.

Layla’s weekdays might have been full, but her weekends were veritable hurricanes of dance classes, theatrical expertise practise, and occasional beer-fuelled karaoke with friends - when she could afford it. She was always exhausted, and the expenses her family incurred to keep up her lifestyle were enormous.

‘I’m sick of the classes,’ mum said, ‘They tire us all out and cost a fortune. Give up some of them. Concentrate on the few you love the most. We won’t have to drive you around so much. You’ll spend less and you’ll have more time to study. You might even get yourself a job.’

‘Yeah, Layla,’ Bella said.

Dad agreed. ‘The expertise class alone costs us £40 a week. Your mum has to clean floors for five hours to earn that, and it can’t be all that useful.’

Bella nodded and smiled a big, sly smile. She loved being the favoured child, and gloried in her fulltime job stocking the shelves and assisting customers in a toy shop. She didn’t spend her life trying to be something and someone she was not.

But Layla had her ambitions to keep her going, and those ambitions were big, bold and beautiful. Since she’d been a tiny girl she had been desperate to be on the stage. Her preferred role had always been that of headline in a cabaret act, and that desire had never died. She could see herself now. She’d pose before the dressing room mirror and style her hair in ringletted auburn curls, then would squeeze her elegant body into the most delectable dress of cherry red satin: a dress so tight it would even make her slightly rounded tummy disappear. From behind the stage’s red velvet curtain, she’d peep nervously at the two-thousand-strong crowd, all cheering expectantly awaiting her stage arrival. As soon as she began her burlesque act, the crowds would go wild with wolf whistles and cat calls. She’d gyrate, sing, and pose around the stage with heels so high she should be barely able to walk. Yes she would dance, and her high kicks would be famous the whole world over. At her act’s finale the crowd would be yelling for more, but she’d be picked up by a trapeze swing and would be raised higher and higher, twinkling like the star she was, till the light extinguished and the crowd went wild.

But Layla had problems, and none of them were helped by her efforts, no matter how many early mornings she struggled through and how many classes she took. Firstly, she was tone deaf. Not a single one of the notes she sung was pitched less than three semitones away from its correct location. Secondly, she was unable even to walk without stumbling, and had no ability to follow a choreographer’s instruction even if her life had depended upon it. Thirdly, her spoken voice was weak, and she seemed to have no ability to project, no matter how many diaphragm exercises she did, and how energetically she did them.

‘We can’t hear you,’ said casting directors.

‘You need to project more,’ said her agent. ‘I’m seriously considering removing you from our books. You’re a lovely girl but you just aren’t in the right profession, Layla.’

But Layla had no plans to give up. She may not have found her niche, but that hadn’t stopped her from trying.

It wasn’t just about singing and dancing. She’d even tried her hand at mime. Her clumsiness didn’t help, and nobody had the remotest idea of what she was attempting to depict.

She spent hours poring over write monologue scripts and further hours videoing herself acting them out, but nobody was interested in listening to such a boring and indistinct voice.

Poor Layla. More than anything else, she was desperate to perform.

Her dad said, ‘Layla, darling, you need to be realistic. You’re just no good at this.’

‘No dad. I’ll get better. I just need more lessons, really I do.’

One autumn afternoon she realised there was a performance art form she hadn’t yet tried.

‘Dad,’ she asked, ‘Why are pirates called pirates?’ Dad shrugged. ‘Because they ARRRRRR’ she giggled. And dad smiled too. Just a little.

She ran to the kitchen. ‘Knock knock,’ she shouted at her mum. ‘Who’s there?’ asked mum who was at the back door re-potting a tomato plant. ‘Doctor,’ said Layla.

‘Doctor Who,’ said mum.

‘That’s right!’ And mum, usually so serious, giggled a bit, even though she must have heard the joke hundreds of times before.

Layla removed her tap shoes and took her laptop out of her college bag. She settled onto the sofa and remained there till three in the morning, and by the time she’d crawled into bed, she’d written the bare bones of her very first stand-up routine.

It worked.

There’s nothing quite as funny as self-deprecation, especially to a British crowd, and Layla played to the crowd perfectly. She walked on in a suit, tie and bright white pumps, and would pace about the stage with her optimistic smiley face and silly walk. Her act was simple. She described the day when her ankles got caught together while tap dancing. She cringed at the audition she did for Chicago, and the audience cringed alongside her. This was what they wanted. These crowds warmed to her stories of failure and persistence.

She sung tuneless songs. She danced falling-over dances. She told jokes in a ponderous monotone, and demonstrated her ineptitude on her roller skates.

‘The greatest female stand-up act. EVER’ the Guardian theatre critic said.

‘The worst singer ever,’ said dad.

‘An inspiration. A breath of fresh air,’ said Time Out.

‘A worse dancer than a hippo in a tutu’ said Bella.

She’d been surrounded by people who were brilliant her whole life. Brilliant songstresses, brilliant ballerinas and brilliantly inspirational orators attended her classes and constantly put her non-talents to shame. Layla wasn’t of their ilk. She was as useless a dancer as a hamster in a paddling pool. But she had found her ‘thing’.

And it really had been worth every ounce of the effort.

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