John Wood came to see the show. I met him afterwards in the bar at the back of the BFI, not wanting to run into anyone else I might know in the foyer of the National. The worst thing that could possibly happen would be for Kenneth B. or Ian M. to see me, ask what I’m doing and have to tell them.
John was gazing intently at the programme when I arrived. He whipped his head up and he wore an expression I found impossible to read as I sat slowly on one of the trendily-retro-but-comfortable sofas. He’d bought me a drink and smiled, bashful, as he handed it over.
I shook my head.
I smiled. We clinked. He looked back down at the programme. Apparently, we weren’t going to speak. This suited me fine. What is there to say about one of your former A-list clients now working as a stage hand at the National in blackouts between scenes? ‘That was you I didn’t see moving the ottoman, wasn’t it darling? Such stage - absence.’
Music was playing; couples perched, laughing at the bar, and I stared at the top of his head.
I hadn’t noticed before but from here I could see his hair was thinning. The rest of his head is full, all dark and stiff, and not skimpy but, quite undeniably, a bald pattern was emerging.
I felt something stir in me, just above my hips. It arose before I could stop it - a small surge towards him, a kind of melting tenderness at the thought of him passing his physical prime, his clean lines blurring.
When the fuck had I noticed that John Wood had lines, clean or otherwise? I licked an ice cube out of my lime and soda and began to eat it. John looked up and frowned.
John: That’s bad for your teeth.
I shrugged. He returned to reading.
Thank god. I took a deep mental breath and back-pedalled from the melting. This – feeling - was a natural result of our reunion. Our wonderful professional relationship, tended and seasoned over fifteen years, recently severed, and then re-formed, more solid than ever. He was my dear colleague and, well, even friend you could say.
Why hadn’t I noticed that irresistible slope of his shoulder before? The shoulder that led to the back of his neck, strong-looking and very slightly dusky – that Irish thing going on in his skin.
Shoulder? Neck? I was losing control. I was beginning to eat John Wood alive in this public watering hole on the South Bank.
I choked. Violently. He started, dropped the programme between his feet and whacked me between my shoulder blades.
John: See?Con: (between hackings) What?
John: Bad for you. Don’t eat ice. If you’re hungry, I’ll buy you a sandwich.
I regained my breath and my composure. My lipstick was all over the rim of the glass. I reached into my bag for a compact to address what must be a Bozo-The-Clown look smearing up my mouth. I groped, found nothing but a tissue and some pencils. I scowled.
John: What?Con: I want to fix my face.
John: You have a surgeon in that bag?
Con; Ha hadee ha ha.
John: Here. Come here.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He dipped it in my lime and soda at which I said
but that didn’t keep him from holding my chin, staring at my mouth and expertly dabbing away whatever red had strayed from the line of my lips. He was focussed, intense and frowning, like a mechanic cleaning an engine. He finished, smiled and looked at me, still holding my face.
John: That’s the best I can do without steel wool.Con: Thanks.
John: Just hover in corners. No one will notice.
Con: I should have brought the balaclava.
He wanted to laugh loudly but somehow, his fingers cupping my chin, there wasn’t room between our faces for such a big sound, so he made a noise, deep in his throat. A laugh crossed with a purr.
He didn’t let go.
I didn’t want him to.
And I think it was because, having just been on stage in front of 1,080 people for over an hour and a half, he was the first person to look at me all day.
[Chris glanced at the time and suggested we were going to be late for our New Year’s dinner in Camden. I urged her to read a bit further. I think we both suspected then what neither of us was willing to say: there would be no dinner before we finished this diary.
The next entry was brief.]
24 June – from the green room
One of the actors in the cast is a rabid football fan. There is some huge tournament he is following and, as he is on stage all the time – in one of those five, dimly-lit, high-backed judge’s chairs, gazing at and condemning Nora - he has secreted his Iphone/pad/pod in the pocket of his 19th century frock coat and listens to the match when he’s not in the action.
Just before he makes an entrance he quietly removes the ear piece and hides it. He plays the scene – he is Torvald, the well-meaning but terrified husband – either condescending to Nora, perving or berating her. When he’s done he takes several dignified steps back to his chair, lifts the tails of his coat, sits and, back safe in the gloom, raises the ear piece and keeps listening.
I watch him instead of the play now. I can tell how his team is doing.
One night last week he’d run out batteries or couldn’t get reception and approached me in the wings before our entrance. He was almost pale.
Joseph: I’m sorry, I have the most cheeky request.
We hadn’t spoken much during rehearsal or the run. He was polite, almost deferential. My hands were on the edge of my balaclava about to pull it down for my entrance. I looked at him, waiting.
Joseph: Chelsea is playing tonight. It’s the final and the series is tied.
I made a guess as to his loyalties.
Con: Go Blues.Joseph: Yes, exactly. And just before Nora reveals to Mrs Linde that she has forged a signature to save Torvald’s life, the match will start. And as the curtain comes down, all will be decided. I will have missed probably the most important event in the history of my team.
I could see the assistant stage manager taking her post at the edge of the proscenium arch just inside the wings. She put on her head set and glanced about for the As Cast and Nora. We were all ‘pre-set’ discovered on stage as the audience entered – the invisible forces of fate moving objects about Nora as she sits in a daze on her sitting room divan.
Not a bad image, as I suspect that’s how most housewives must feel at one time or another.
Joseph spoke again, more urgent and more apologetic.
Joseph: Can you do me a huge favour? Can you get me the scores? When we cross onstage, can you just whisper what’s happening? And when you hand me the floating letter, would you mind – just – just lean forward, I’ll put my ear down – and tell me what’s going on?
I looked at him in disbelief but with a certain respect. If he were a bad actor this would not have been a pleasant commission. But I liked him and liked his work and admired the intensity of his passion. I am a sucker for obsessives.
Also, and let’s be honest, this was the chief attraction: I liked the attention.
I shook my head smiling, pulled my mask on over my eyes and entered on cue with the stricken and whey-faced Nora.
That night, the forces of fate in Mrs Helmer’s life moved chairs, raised tables, threw lamps, and stole fountain pens, between which poltergeist-ings one of them slipped quietly, unseen, between the backstage radio and the scowling Torvald Helmer to let him know, 90 minutes after scene two had begun, Chelsea had progressed to the next round.
He hugged me in the wings.
I can see why it’s called the beautiful game.