I actually felt sorry for the sofa. The sofa we’d bought together for our first, and last, home. I felt like we’d failed it. Promised it that it would have the honour of accommodating us throughout our shared lives. It would support us as we watched TV, ate dinner, made love – and, in a few years, might acquire the hairs of a cat or a dog, or have some kids jump around on it.

But all that’s no longer happening. Not since she left.

This was an important sofa. It was supposed to last us our lifetimes. That’s the promise we made it, and it deserved such a commitment – it was a decent piece of craftsmanship. Thick, bouncy cushions. Green felt covers with faux-Chesterfield dimples. A solid oak frame, varnished.

Apparently its previous owners were an old married couple who’d “had it for donkeys’ years”. So I guess we’d failed them as well.

The sofa is coming with me to my new apartment. I feel guilty as my mother and I have to pull it apart to fit it in the back of our rented Transit van. I tell her not to throw its cushions in with everything else, but to place them carefully on top of each other. The sofa’s frame inevitably takes a few knocks on the journey, and then a few more as we carry it up the stairs when we get there.

But my new apartment is pretty well lit. From its new place by the French windows, the sofa glows in the sunlight like never before. It looks so much more radiant. I’m convinced it’s happier here.

When I sit on it now, I think: whatever life throws at us, we’ll go on together. And, I imagine, it looks back up at me, rolls its eyes, and thinks: oh, and that’s a promise, is it?


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Theatre review: Beryl @ West Yorkshire Playhouse

Published by The Arts Desk

Wife. Mother. Yorkshirewoman. Cyclist. Legend. Beryl Burton was perhaps the greatest sportswoman this country has ever produced, and we ought to be ashamed of the fact that many of us will have to Google her to find out what her achievements were.

Born in Leeds in 1937, she dominated women’s cycling in the 1950s, '60s and '70s – becoming five times world pursuit champion, 12 times national champion, and best British all-rounder for 25 consecutive years. She won nearly 100 domestic titles, and her 12-hour distance record – of a staggering 277.25 miles – has never been broken. While setting it, she caught up with Mike McNamara, who was hoping to smash the men’s record, and offered him a consolatory liquorice allsort as she whooshed past. (Apparently he was grateful.)

To manage such sporting success these days requires a lifestyle governed by trainers, nutritionists, sponsors, and maybe even PR people – but there was none of that for our Beryl. No, she funded herself by working on a rhubarb farm, wolfed down baby bottles full of homemade rice pudding during races, and led a very modest existence with her husband Charlie and their daughter Denise in Morley, West Yorkshire.

There was no financial backing for British cyclists in her day, when many of the country’s top competitors were struggling unknowns. However, Beryl was a star on the continent, where the public had greater enthusiasm for the sport – particularly in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The fact that the odds were stacked against Beryl from an early age made her international success all the more remarkable. In her childhood, she suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that left her with a weak heart, and doctors strongly discouraged strenuous activity. But she took no notice, determined to prove them – and her cynical schoolteachers – wrong.

“I’m going to make my mark!” says Beryl, in Maxine Peake’s debut stage play, adapted from her short piece that was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2012, and commissioned to tie in with the (incidentally all-male) Tour de France. “Doing what?” asks Charlie.

“I dunno, I'll find something!” says Beryl.

It’s a wonder Hollywood bothers writing feel-good sporting dross like Dodgeball  when it could just Americanise the hell out of this. Thankfully, Rebecca Gatward’s production tells the story of this incredible woman’s life with impressive accuracy and respect.

With a cast of only four actors, each adopting multiple roles, the play conveys the camaraderie and selflessness of the cycling community that helped lead Beryl (played by Penny Layden, pictured above) to her many triumphs – in the face of such prejudice, hardship and indifference. There’s also a good measure of dry Yorkshire wit throughout, and the brilliant Dominic Gately – who plays about seven different parts – is responsible for most of it.

Peake’s script follows Beryl until her last breath, when she died suddenly from heart failure while out delivering invitations to her 60th birthday party in Morley – of course, on a saddle. As her bike’s rotating rear wheel rattles to a stop, even those of us who have never previously worn lycra are moved to tears.

And then, as her mountains of medals, cups and trophies glimmer majestically under the stage lights and the audience stands and applauds one of our true sporting heroines, we are left wondering to ourselves: what are you going to do with your  life, exactly?


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