Friday, 4 March 2011

Chapter Three

 15th January 2010

I’VE GOT THE JOB!!! I’ve got the job, I’m Miss Fouquet, head of the steno-pool who tries to tap-dance into the heart of her stuffed-shirt employer and it’s Equity minimum wage and I’m thrilled to death and EX-AGENT JOHN WOOD GETS NONE OF IT.

We’ve just had the first read-through. We are on lunch break and I’m writing on my lap instead of talking to people and it’s fantastic, I wish I’d done it years ago. Week one is agony for me, I am cripplingly shy in front of people I don’t know. This seems like an anomaly in an actor but years ago Malcolm accepted it’s not an affectation.  There’s no script to be me.  I stare, dumbly over the coffee urn and wish there was an auto-cue. I watch people who talk to strangers with a scientific fascination. How do they do it?

Case in point. I am listening to a conversation between the very young and pretty blonde lead, Nicola, and her love interest – a dark, brooding, frighteningly-thin young man. I heard his name but I’ve forgotten. Let’s call him Heathcliff. Heath for short.

Heath:             I told him, mate, I’m not paying that. And he said ‘I can make you pay’ and he stood up and he was fucking huge. HUGE. And I thought Jesus, he could stand me on my head and use me to sweep the car park so I said ‘Of course I’m going to pay you. I was joshing.’ I said ‘joshing’. That threw him. And he was, you could see, completely scrambled, because he didn’t want to seem stupid, he looked at me sideways, and I said ‘I’ve checked my wallet, I will retrieve it now’ and  I gave him the thumb’s up, headed to the coat check and legged it.
Nicola:             (laughs)
Heath:             I can hear him, panting behind me, he’s got asthma or something and then there is a bloody great scream and screech of brakes and I think ‘Don’t turn around, don’t turn around’ but I turn around and the bastard has just been hit by a car. And he’s flat out on the pavement and the driver – scarpered. I spent the rest of the night with him in A&E. Best mates now.
Nicola:             Gosh, that’s amazing.

And I think - it’s a good story but it’s just a story, it’s not a conversation.  And Nicola isn’t stupid. She’s a bloody good actor. She’s just got nothing to add. Unless she’s been trying to cheat her drug dealer too. And spending nights in hospital with him.

I’ll make a point of sitting next to her after lunch. We can have nothing to say together.

Oh. Here comes someone. The designer? He’s smiling and looking friendly, wanting a chat. Fuck.


Home now. Malcolm is in his study. We had soup for dinner, very companionable. We haven’t had a cross word between us in almost twenty years.  Of course we have no interest in each other’s worlds, I have no idea what he does at the bank all day. And he hated stage management so theatre talk just makes him edgy. We give each other cups of tea and foot rubs and watch DVDs.

I don’t do drama for free, I’ve always said. You have to pay me for that. Home is no place for tragedies.

It’s not that it hasn’t been difficult. After six months of unemployment I stopped talking, stayed awake watching bad television, slept all day. The worst moment was staring out the window in the sitting room, hearing a distant alarm, looking up and seeing Malcolm come downstairs. Going to work.

I hadn’t been to bed.

That seems over, thank god for Miss Fouquet! But maybe it’s never really over.  Maybe unemployment is like malaria – once you’ve had it, it could come back at any time. I ask myself this, but only when I’m alone. Malcolm doesn’t need to see that look on my face.

This afternoon, however, I was considering very different questions and had, I suspect a very different look on my face.

QUESTION NUMBER ONE: Why did Ex Agent John Wood call again, today – the fifth time this week – inviting me for drinks, insisting I have a drink, saying he would hunt me down and force me to have a drink?

NUMBER TWO:       Why did I agree?

We are rehearsing TYPECAST! in a working man’s club off the Seven Sisters Road. Six months ago I would have spent the day weeping in the loo at how far I’ve sunk – from the polished, sprung floor boards of the Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsing at Jerwood Studios, to cracking linoleum stained with weak coffee and a hallway smelling of cheap beer wafting in from the pub. After fourteen months of no work, however – I’ll tour Pinocchio for schools. As the Whale.

We'd finished for the day – we’re going to do music tomorrow, thank God. Everyone is so stressed by having to sing that no one is chatty now and I’ll be able to work right through lunch. I love singing and I haven’t even got much of a voice. People seldom realise that.

I checked my phone as soon as I got out on the pavement. There were two more messages from JohnWood.

It’s tantamount to harassment.

Just to be rid of him, I called back.

Voice:              Wood, Graves and Smart.
Con:                John Wood, please.
Voice:              Constance?
Con:                Yes.
Voice:              It’s Wendell.
Con:                Wendell, why do they have you answering the phones?
Wendell:         Hard times, Constance. Spirit of the Blitz. I’m licking the carpets clean later this afternoon. You’re well shot of us.
Con:                Goodness. Well, lick but don’t swallow.
Wendell:         Always sound advice. Are you ringing for John? I’ll put you through.

I felt an exquisite pang, an unbearable sense of loss – what refugees must feel when they think of their abandoned homes. I had a cartoon heart, elastic and stretched out of my body towards Bloomsbury and the offices in that derelict Regency house. I hadn’t cried in this whole horrible year but I had to sit on a bollard and swallow what felt like my tonsils before I could speak when John answered the phone.

John:                Oh thank god.
Con:                What?
John:                How are you? Where have you been? Why haven’t you answered my calls?

I laughed. Relief, hysteria, disbelief. I didn’t know what to say. I haven’t answered your calls because I hate your guts, oh no, of course, I quite like you, but you’ve stabbed me in the back and now I’m ready to play Julius Caesar.

He thought I was amused. I could feel him expand.

John:                Oh good. Good, good, good. Let’s have a drink.

I was sluiced with feeling. Huge desire to see him, to be with the witness to all my greatest achievements, the audience to my best work – a kind of partner that even Malcolm could never be. Part girl-friend, part-priest. It’s rare for an artist to be as supported, as seen, as accompanied as I have been by John Wood.

I wanted to say yes, have a drink, look at me as the success I was.

After which I will kick you in the stomach.

I didn’t say it of course. And by the end of the evening, I didn’t want to.       


Malcolm has just come in and asked what I’m doing. I lied and said prep for the show. Why did I do that? I don’t care if he knows I’m keeping a diary. I’ll make sure I tell him when we get to bed. Ridiculous.


[Chris was reading aloud and pointed out the writing changes at this point, becoming smaller and more controlled. Constance also seemed to have changed pens.]

Ex-AgentJohnWood volunteered to meet me near the club but I am proud enough not to want him to see me rehearsing in such an insalubrious postal district.  I felt ashamed and then was ashamed of my shame so distracted myself by quickly suggesting The Lamb, one of our old haunts, even as the nostalgia nearly choked me. Nostalgia!  I haven’t seen him for five weeks. He agreed and forty-five minutes later I was looking back into his green eyes, past his fringe.

Or past where his fringe used to be. He’d cut his hair. It was stiffer and styled, although still thick as a shoe-brush.  While he was buying me a gin and tonic I added up my change to see if I could possibly afford to buy a round.  Me not working means we've fallen behind on the debts and I've hated that. Even though they aren't my debts. As such. But gambling is a sickness and I think of it as Paying for Malcolm's Private Health Care.  For better or worse, after all.

Today I had enough money for John's beer but not enough for another gin so I drank slowly. I would be able to say ‘Oh no, not for me’ when the time came.

John came back with our drinks and sat down. We cleared our throats and clinked our glasses. We said nothing. Moments passed. I smiled, probably weirdly. I was resisting the impulse to throw my arms around him and weep and had very little energy left to be normal.  And I don’t even know what I wanted to weep about. Lost  glory. Lost fame.

Lost income.

He seemed just as distracted, studying the 19th century etched glass around the bar and reading the small print on the beermats. I felt suddenly nervous as well as tearful and groped around every file in the cabinet of my brain for something to say, anything, when he spoke up, smiling.

John:              You look well.
Con:                Oh.

I was wrong-footed. I’m sure he’d said I looked well before. I don’t know why it felt like the first time.  I blurted out

Con:                You cut your hair.

He was gentlemanly.

John:              Yes. I thought it was time to move into this century.
Con:                I liked it long.

I wasn’t even sure this was true. Had I liked it long? Did I not like it now? I was disoriented.

John:              Oh.
Con:                This is nice, too.

He seemed relieved.  I felt sorry but didn’t know what for.  This was turning into a disaster. Talking to each other was like trying to negotiate Oxford Street during the Christmas rush – collision after collision.  I stole a glance at his new shorn self, was he dressing differently as well? and with a sudden clarity, I understood the problem and felt foolish for not having seen it before.

In fifteen years we had never met outside of business. In fifteen years of lunches, teas, late night meals, opening nights, award ceremonies and movie premieres he had been with me, earning money.  Fifteen years of contracts, negotiations, billing-haggles and producer-wrangling he had been earning his fifteen per cent and I had been happy to pay up.

I had no idea who JohnWood was when he wasn’t working for me.

I didn't like this.  Now he was just -  a man.  With hair cuts and clothes and probably a private life. For fifteen  years he had been that perfect mix of intimacy and discretion - which meant I could tell him anything and he told me very little.  Now I felt as I did with strangers over the coffee urn. I wanted my script. 

Suddenly meeting up seemed like a very bad idea. 

I eyed the door and he saw my glance.

John:              Plotting an escape?
Con:                Ha!
John:              (defensive) Do you want to go?
Con:                (lying) No. Do you?
John:              (unconvincing) No.
Con:                Well then, what did you want?
John;              What do you mean?
Con:                Why have you been calling me and leaving messages and insisting we drink together?
John:              I haven’t insisted.
Con:                Five calls.
John:              You didn’t call back. If you’d called back I would have called once. That’s not insistent.


Con:                Well?

Long pause. He inhaled sharply and seemed to be steeling himself. Finally, with the air of someone about to plunge from an aeroplane at 10,000 feet he shouted –

John:              I’ve written a play!


If he’d confessed to torturing and killing a gymnasium-full of children he could not have looked more ashamed or guilty. I had to ask him to repeat himself, I was so thrown by his face. He looked down.

John:              I’ve written a play.


Con:                Well. That’s good. Isn’t it?
John:              I have no idea. It might be shit.
Con:                Well, yes, it might, but I mean writing it. That’s good.
John:              (sulky) If you say so.

He was suddenly thirteen years old. If I hadn’t been so frustrated I would have been amused.

For him, however, this was deadly serious. He seemed to sink into the green leather banquette and looked very small, which is an accomplishment for a 6' tall man. I dug about for a scrap of useful encouragement.

Con.                For - instance. (Still digging) Going to stab one's self as Juliet, missing, and taking out most of Romeo's eye, which bled all through the climax and denouement of the play so that for the curtain call he looked less like a youth of Verona and more like Oedipus Rex is bad - winning an Olivier award for Juliet is good!

I felt pleased with my analogy. Having had experiences of a very similar nature – well, exactly those experiences of that nature, actually -  I knew of whence I spoke. And as John took Romeo to hospital where he got seven stitches and an eyepatch he wore for the rest of the run - he knew I knew.
He fiddled with his beermat.

John:              This play might be the literary equivalent of gouging out someone's eye.

I shrugged. Art is something you have to allow. I have nothing to say to someone who doesn’t. And I don’t mind that they don’t allow it. I just have nothing to say.  I think this makes me quite a bad teacher. But it probably makes me quite a good actor.

I looked at him, waiting. I was staring into his new trendy non-fringe. I realised in moments of high feeling he doesn’t look up.

John:              God, I feel like a right idiot. A colossal idiot. I’m sorry. What an idiot. Forget it. Forget it. Have another drink, can I buy you another drink? We shouldn’t have come here. I shouldn’t have called. Stupid! I just – I just thought, because we weren’t colleagues any more I could finally, finally – I could tell you. I’ve imagined this conversation for years.

He stared at me as a man stares at a woman he loves. It was my turn to look down and I wished I had a beer mat. There was a cloud of electricity between us, almost visible.  Bewilderingly, I felt myself blush and in the depths of my being, for the very first time in twenty years, I felt unfaithful to my husband. I was confused and breathing with difficulty. We sat there, not speaking  - and then it dawned on me what was happening.

Oh. Malcolm’s coming. I have to go.  


No comments:

Post a Comment