Friday, 18 February 2011

Chapter One

On 1 January 2011, a brown paper package arrived at the offices of MY Production Company, bound with blue nylon string tied in a knot. Our P.O. Box had been transcribed in a big, uneven hand using very dark ink. There was no return address.

The package contained a brown leather notebook made of very thick paper, every page of which was full of the same, wild hand using the same dark ink: lists, bullet points and underscored words punctuated the text.

A series of sketches and letters fell from the back. There was no name, no identifying address, numbers or email. Every page was dated and it was obvious, quickly, that we were holding the diary of someone’s life.

We sat reading for as long as our conscience and the temperature allowed (the office was cold; the heating works but there is no insulation). After the better part of an hour our fingers were pale and we put the diary aside to return to the morning’s work, catching up on correspondence, plotting our pitch for Torches (the play closest to production) and writing an agenda for our next board meeting. By 2:00 we were too cold to keep typing and felt productive enough for one day, a public holiday at that. I put the kettle on while Chris found a pack of chocolate biscuits and some fruit cake, a propitiating gift from a man I’d been seeing who turned out to be married. I opened the thin, wax paper more in sorrow than in anger - and not enough of either to keep me from feeling able to eat most of the loaf myself.

Our next appointment was hours away in Camden, a New Year’s dinner with friends. I put on my jumper, Chris found a scarf and, dragging our chairs close to the radiator we huddled over our tea and studied the battered notebook in our laps. Turning the pages, we decided, for diversion, to take turns reading the entries aloud.

Had we realised then what we know now, would we have started the story? Hand on heart, I cannot say. But it’s a story we have decided to share with the world, as, we suspect, someone knew we would.

Besides. It's bloody good copy for the blog.

[Inscribed on the frontispiece:]       

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

[first page]

5th January 2010

Cold. Quite windy in south London. I am thirty minutes early for the audition and bought this notebook in the train station. I’m playing Miss Fouquet, a secretary. I’ve decided she carries a notebook everywhere she goes in case her boss says ‘Miss Fouquet, order flowers for my wife’ as he passes her desk.

I don’t know if secretaries still write things down. They probably speak into their voice-activated IPads that flash blinding laser beams into their eyes as a reminder, every five minutes.

I think I have a good shot at this. I can do this job. This is my job. I am this job.

I feel no fear.

I feel no circulation in my thighs either. This converted church obviously wasn’t converted in time for central heating. But I’m fine.  I survived a winter tour of  Scandinavia as Hedda Gabler in 1999.  Schnapps and star jumps in the dressing room.

If my fingertips go white I’ll thrust them into my arm pits. Sadly there are no young men auditioning for this play. Otherwise I’d ask to make use of their arm pits.

THIS IS THE YEAR I RETURN TO THE NATIONAL. On the main stage.  For a season.  This little book can be the Diary of my Comeback in Triumph. 

And it was only 90p and it’s single spaced. It’s good to work out of Zone One.

There are three other women waiting in this draughty hallway. I’ve sized them up and I’m not too worried. One is quite pretty but I think she’s too pretty. I’m wearing my fright make up – pale eye-shadow, slightly orange lippy that looks like Miss Fouquet is trying too hard. I was applying eye-liner in the dark this morning so I wouldn’t wake Malcolm. I hope I don’t look like Boy George.

Boy George. That dates me.

Everything dates me.

I should write in bullet points so when the director glances over at my lap he’ll see a real notebook kept by someone who is prepared to be a real secretary:


-        Get a new agent
-        How dare he, how DARE he dump me??? at Christmas?!! I hate him. I HATE my agent. My ex-agent.  John Wood, John Wood, I want to see you -  mangled -  in a defacing industrial accident in front of those pert, 20 year olds you salivate after in the drama schools across the city.
-        I don’t actually hate him but I have no idea what to do with someone you really like when they have plunged a knife into your back.
-        I'm quite ready to play Julius Caesar.
-        I’d be a great Julius Caesar. I’ll suggest that to My Agent John.
-        Oh no I can’t.  My Agent John has been put through an imaginary combine harvester.
-        I will re-create, for posterity, the sad exchange between us, two days before I was leaving for Yorkshire to spend Christmas with my recently bereaved family.
-        Not that I’m bitter.


-     The third floor of a derelict Regency terrace house that he shares with five other agents in central London, the air blue with static electricity from computers, mobiles, copiers, scanners and shredders.  He has the second-best office.  There's a window.

-        Moth eaten burgundy-coloured carpet. Cigarette burns where the ash-trays used to be. Real bashed-up charm, an unpretentious workaday quality.  They are one of the biggest agencies in the business and they always acted small.  Intimate and – oh I mustn’t think of it.

-        Heavy oak chairs rubbed by the well-fed, well-toned or well-shagged posteriors of actors for fifty years. One chair full of my posterior, opposite his huge mahogany desk, his chair full of his chino-wearing posterior.

-        His baggy mohair jumper drags into the eraser shreds from where he has rubbed out the names of all the actors he’s letting go. Just before Christmas. Et tu.

John looks up from under a madly-long fringe, what 40 year old man has a fringe? It’s because it isn’t grey and he still has hair. He thinks long hair Keeps Him Young. He doesn’t realise his personality is in formaldehyde, that’s what keeps him young.

Of course at the time I didn’t realise he was dumping me and I was admiring his fringe.

John:                Constance. Hello.

He’s already lying.

I’m ashamed to say I was pleased I'd worn make up and my skin was quite good. I was probably smirking.

Constance:       John. You’re looking so well.

John:               I wanted to say I really enjoyed you at the Globe. I loved – I loved what you did. In the studio, fantastic. And working with old friends.  Did you chat with Kenneth?

Constance:       Oh yes. He wants tea.

John:                Well you should go.

Constance:       Yes, I will.

John:                Give him my love.

Constance:       Yes, I shall.

I should have guessed here.  Why is he encouraging me to have tea like a nurse telling the old dear to eat her greens? As if for my health?  Suddenly I am on my guard.  John chews on the end of a pencil that he takes out of his mouth and uses to rub out grease marks on his telephone. In retrospect I find this repulsive.

John:                I guess you know – I guess. Well.  You know. You know you are such –a –good – actress.

Constance:       (Panicking.  Has this been in doubt? Isn’t this the one thing anyone could ever say about me? No matter what else?)

John:                This is not about your talent.

Constance:       (blinking)  What isn’t about my talent,  John?

I feel it, I feel it – like the temperature dropping in a room, like the edge of the step you didn’t know was there. I tense up.

There is a long pause as he clears his throat and fiddles with pages in a file that contains clippings, old photos of me at the RSC, the Almeida and, more recently, panto in Theatre Royal, Bath.  You can hear the Irish in him at these moments, no matter what he’s done to his accent. He gets all – Celtic. I’ve always loved it.  

Now it sounds sinister.

John:                You’re very talented. You are a – you can still be a great actress. I’ve seen it. I know that Medea was fringe and no one saw it but you scared the fuck out of me.

I am seething at ‘still’  and don’t mention that every show sold out, but I inhale and  try to smile. I've always found it hugely annoying that I'm a good actor but I'm a horrible liar.  I know he knows I’m anxious.

Constance:       I just felt sorry for her. She’s not a monster.

John:                No. She’s not. She was just   - forced  - into an unfortunate position.

The tone changes . I glance up and see him staring at me. Suddenly I know , beyond a doubt, what he is doing. He’s preparing me to feel sorry for him. I move my chair back and cross my legs.

Constance:       Of course, you don’t ever have to choose to murder your children. It’s usually a mistake but not like getting on the wrong bus is a mistake. Just – don’t plunge that knife!

I smile again. He doesn’t laugh.

John:                Sometimes – sometimes you feel you have something horrible to do and you have no choice.

He taps the phone with the chewed-up pencil and seems to accidentally punch the number of someone in a room next door. A phone rings and a voice comes through his speaker and, simultaneously and weirdly, through the wall:

Voice:      Wood, Graves and Smart.
John:         Wendell, sorry.
Wendell:   John?
John:         Hang up.
Wendell:   Have you finished with Constance?
John:         No.
Wendell:   How did it go? Did she cry?

John disconnects. Now I am suffused with shame because to my horror, my absolute horror I am about to cry. I hate myself.

John gabbles.

John:                I have enjoyed working with you, Constance. And in five or six years’ time, when you look your age –it’s a kind of – strange situation – because you just don’t look 45 – but you are 45 - but I think a whole new world will open up. Head mistresses, police officers. If you don’t have surgery -  the mothers in period drama. Some very, very good stuff.

He doesn’t believe this any more than I do. Not for me. He knows I’ll be dead by then. If I can’t act, I will die. I know this about myself. I am deciding on music for my funeral even as I humiliate myself by dropping my face into my hands and I am more horrified by the next thirty seconds of my life than I have ever been by anything I've done as I hear someone begging and I realise it’s me.

Constance:       Please. Please don’t let me go. I’ll do anything, you know I’ll do anything. I am punctual, I am prepared, I am – I am fucking thorough – don’t they always say? If I get the audition, I get the part. I can be – beautiful. (I am making my own skin crawl, bile is rising in my throat, but I can’t stop. I lean across the desk, my hand gropes for his.) This isn’t a job. This is my life. John.

Even in this state of unmitigated shame I think ‘This is how people talk in a crisis’.  I can feel myself make a note of my posture. Shoulders far forward, while my stomach is held back. Breathing is strangely slow.

John:                Con, please -

John makes a strangled sound, as though he is choking on a fur ball. I can’t see his face, because he’s dropped his head and I’m just staring into fringe, thick dark fringe. For a moment there is just the two of us in this over-lit office, the sun setting at 3 pm, me gripping him with a hand that seems to have grown talons, weeping silently, as he disgorges his lunch. Then he jumps up from the desk and nearly knocks me over as he passes, saying -

John:                You’re the most talented woman I know.

 - before he vaults down the hallway and disappears into the loo. I think I hear the door lock.

He didn’t come out before I left.

It was two days before – 

[end of entry one]

Next instalment, next Friday.

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