Wherefore was that cry?
The queen, my lord, is dead.
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
The girl at the desk was craning her neck to read what he was writing before he'd finished. She hurried him, and he didn't like it. He needed to take his time, needed for allowances to be made for him and so he willed her to be patient. He wrote carefully because he needed for her to understand, and, for that, his handwriting had to be legible.
A TICKET TO NEW YORK.
He wrote it on a new page in a notebook a quarter of the size of a bank statement or a love letter. He had always imagined that paper had a way of retaining purpose; a Final Demand felt nothing like a poem felt nothing like a hymn felt nothing like a page ripped from a paperback book. Plays and novels felt different. Dollar bills retained a very particular texture. He'd taken to making himself understood on used envelopes and paper napkin. His pockets were filled with the rumpled remains of half finished sentences. He was coming to understand the complicated nature of paper, where he'd taken it for granted before. He had begun to understand how much of its previous purpose paper could retain.
NO PLANES, he added.
He already knew that staying in London was simply not an option. Somewhere in New Jersey there was a long road, and his mother's low white house. .He had to get there, had to go back, and, in going back, somehow come to understand what had happened to him. In order to do that, he he he had to go back slow enough that he could see what he'd done, when, and why. He had to pinpoint where he'd started to go wrong. There was no attraction for him in falling asleep on an airplane in one place and waking up in another a few hours later. He'd spent so long by then thinking in Iambic Pentameter that, at some point, he'd begun to believe that life, too, should be read to that particular rhythm, regular as walking.
He needed time to think.
In school, he'd been told that life was a stage, and all the men and women merely players, which, to a child, had conjured up images of games and fun. It was must more serious than that. He realised that now, and he just had to find a beginning that made sense, so that the rest of it would slot into place.
It was easier done than said.
In the harbour, he looked up at the ship. She was tall and wide, big as a small city, and painted red and white. Splendid, she reminded him of a movie that he'd seen once. She reminded him of a stage but Shakespeare had written that the whole world was a stage so he supposed that that could have been true of anything. He couldn't see a name painted on her great, white side, but the Brits were fond of naming things after dead queens, weren't they? The Queen, my Lord, is dead, said Seyton, and he'd sagged in the shoulders, just right, the image of a man who'd just lost the love of his life. He'd never had a wife to lose, but, in that moment, he truly believed that he could have. He'd been an actor for all of the years of his life that counted and he'd made it to London, stressed and fretted and preened his way around the stage, and then, suddenly, been heard no more. It had only been a few days but it was still agony. Heard no more was like death for an actor, and now he was sailing to America on a dead queen.
There was poetry in that.
He'd never been that fond of poetry.
Ahead of him, there was a queue of people stepping up onto the ship. He wouldn't have expected that this way of travel would have appealed to so many people these days. It wasn't the first thing that he'd been wrong about, that week. On the gangplank, he hesitated; it occurred to him that he would have to spend a week on this ship, confined, with the same people, and, if they realised somehow the truth about him, there would be nowhere to hide. He considered disembarking before he’d even embarked, forgetting about his mother's house, taking the train to mainland Europe and disappearing that way, but someone stepped up behind him, and then he had no choice. They hadn't tried to go on without him, in London. The whole thing had folded in around him like a circus tent in collapse. Sound and fury, and nothing after that. But here, the people were boarding with or without him, and he couldn't go back, couldn't push past them.
He did the only thing that he could.
He got lost on the way to his cabin. Below the deck, below the restaurants and gift shops, beneath the swimming pool, the ship turned into a maze. In the overnight bag slung over his shoulder, hastily packed, he was carrying four shirts, five pairs of underwear, one pair of jeans, three notebooks, two envelopes, a playbill and a phone-bill, three playing cards, cigarettes (but no matches) and a single photograph. He hadn’t thought to pack a ball of string. He had no bread to reduce into crumbs with his fingers. He couldn't ask for directions. Silently, he searched, up and down plushly carpeted hallways. The walls looked cheap and plasticy, like the back-side of a stage flat. He was so caught up in imagining what scenes might be being staged on the other side of those temporary looking walls that he’d never realised that '99' can always be '66', and he'd been looking for a room that had never existed. In the end, a pretty woman with a whistle hanging around her neck took the card from him and turned it upside down, or right-side up, and showed him. He'd smiled at her and walked away, and, maybe he'd imagined it, but maybe she had looked disappointed that he hadn't had a word of thanks for her. People were all the same, these days. Nobody had the manners that their parents raised them with. He hoped that that was somehow a consolation to her.
Cabin 66 was at the end of a long corridor. The door stuck until he leaned against it with his shoulder and his hand on the handle and popped it free. He'd expected window, one of the round ones that looked out on sea, sea, sea and sky, but there wasn't one, just a plain white wall and a brassy light fitting. He imagined a dark forest painted on the other side of the wall, and lay down on the surprisingly comfortable bed. He fell asleep before he felt the ship start to move, his bag still packed at the foot of the bed and his shoes unlaced but not properly removed.
He woke to piss and to eat. Life seemed much more bearable if he could live it in small portions. There were eight performances of the play in a week in the theatre in the West end and a man could live until he was eighty, ninety. It was too long for him to deal with. He simply couldn't think in numbers that big. He couldn't cope with that, but he could cope with twelve hours between sunrise and sunset, and then twelve more hours until the sun rose again. He could live his life in shifts. He ate, he pissed, he slept. He read The Play over and over again but always stopped before the point where it all went wrong for him. The spine so cracked by now that it would automatically open where he'd closed it. He looked at himself in the mirror. He was vain enough to believe that he'd looked good before, photographed on playbills and posters. He couldn't see himself any more. Once, girls had waited at the stage door to ask him for his autograph and a photograph, trembling when he laid his arm around their shoulders. Now, he wasn't sure that he could even have picked himself out in a line-up, hollow eyes and tangled hair. After a few minutes, he gave up looking for something that struck him as familiar, searching through his pockets until he found a marker pen. He held the cap between his teeth while he wrote, right there on the mirror. He still had white, straight, American teeth.
SEVEN DAYS IS NOT THE SAME AS FOREVER.
Outside, when he came to venture out, the weather was warm. A light wind was blowing, but it was still warm enough for short sleeves. In London, he'd missed short-sleeves. He had two notebooks shoved into the back pocket of the same pair of jeans that he'd worn for rehearsals at the theatre in London. He felt like a different person than he'd been the last time he'd put them on. He was a mortal man in actor's jeans.
He found that he could walk around the entire ship with his hand touching the railing. He wanted to find somewhere to sit and read a newspaper. There were groups of people everywhere, black t-shirted and talking, all of the time. As he passed by an open doorway, he heard a snatch of what sounded like an argument in progress.
"But I know..."
"...Known too late."
"And what should I do?"
"Believe me...I'll prove more true."
"I'll do my best. I can say little more..."
"I will not fail."
"I thank you."
Dimly, he registered that both participants were women, that neither sounded happy. Sex never bought anyone anything but trouble. He couldn't yet bring himself to think of the girl in London, the girl in the photograph folded three times in the pocket of his jeans. He listened in on other people's heartbreaks so that he could pretend to have none of his own. He kept walking. In the pool, there was a gaggle of girls in black costumes, their hair twisted into wet, complicated knots. They were playing a game of splashing and squealing. There was a group of women arguing about what appeared to be a game of cards.
“You must not stay here!”
“I wonder that you will still be talking?”
He wondered if people had always made so much noise, or if he was just noticing now that he could make none of his own? He wondered if every other man on the ship had found a quiet corner in which to read his newspaper, only to leave him, alone, surrounded by noisy women.
Eventually, after two twenty-minute circuits, the number of females on the deck seemed to diminish and he found himself a corner to sit in, an empty chair, close enough to the rail that he could put his feet up and rest his heels against painted iron. The dateline of the paper read '4th AUGUST, 1997'. He wondered if it mattered if the news was ten years out of date in the middle of the Atlantic. He wondered how quickly things could possibly change, this far from dry and solid land.
A little way down the deck, a woman with black hair was reading a paperback novel. It was easy to settle into people watching instead of reading the paper. Idly, he wondered what kind of book she was reading. He wanted to believe that it wasn't some cheap romance novel, but he wasn't sure why he was interested, other than the fact that it had been a long time, and she was a beautiful woman. She had the sleeves of her green cardigan pushed up to her elbows. Her skin looked a little reddened. Stage make-up covered all of that, thick enough to cloak all human imperfection, and he'd grown used to strange and perfect women. Her chapped elbows were oddly endearing.
When he looked up from his newspaper for the second time, she was gone.
On his way back to cabin 66, he passed by the pool. His fingers were still touching the painted rail. There were a couple of girls sitting there, in wooden deck-chairs. It was hard to tell if they were the same girls as before. He didn't think so, anyway. They were fifteen, maybe sixteen. It felt inappropriate to pay too close attention to them. At a glance, he noticed that one of them was drawing on her sneakers with a marker pen. The blonder of the two turned the page on her glossy magazine and then very deliberately nudged her shades down her nose so that she could study him. Caught in looking, he looked away.
“What is yon gentleman?”
It took him a moment to realise that she was even speaking to him at all. He'd begun to think of himself as invisible; he saw people in the hallways, but they rarely even looked at him. He moved quietly, like a shadow. It was like he'd left a visible version of himself on that stage in London, and now he was barely there at all, all scribbled out and dark. He turned away from then, giving them a nod of his head in place of actual words and started to walk away.
“Go ask his name.” Out of the corner of his eye, her saw her flip long blond curls over her shoulder.
The other girl slid out of her chair, sneakers and her jeans hanging halfway down her ass, her short hair standing up in fingered furrows. She came around the pool, her soles making noise on the wooden deck. She squeaked over to him.
“I,” she said, with her hand on her chest, “Am Viola.”
He nodded, and showed her a page on which he had previously written his name to show the girl at the counter who'd sold him the ticket.
The other girl came over, and then there were two of them, a skinny pale arm hooked through one with slightly darker skin. In her white dress and her white sweater, with her long pale hair, she caught the light, and was difficult to look away from. She seemed brighter in contrast to the darker girl. She couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen and it embarrassed him to look at her like that.
“By whose direction found'st thou out this place?” she said. All that he could think was that it was a pool on a ship and that there was only so many times that you could walk around a ship before you either found the pool or fell in it.
He shrugged. His cheeks were burning. When he was a boy, he'd blushed so much that his mother had thought that there was something wrong with him. He'd stopped, mostly, when he started acting. The blonde was giving him a quizzical look. Suddenly, he felt like he was being weighed up. He didn't like that feeling; it reminded him of the girl in London. In the wings she'd been standing in her Lady Macbeth costume, and he could see what she thought of him. It had made it easier to leave, the look in her eyes just then, when everything had been falling apart around them. It had been easier to leave when she'd looked at him like she'd never seen him before. And he had loved her so much.
“What's he that follows here and would not dance?”
He took a step back, in case she tried to get hold of him. Even sane, he'd never been much of a dancer, two left feet and no inclination. There was a difference between the things that you did on stage, and the things you could bring yourself to do in the more mundane moments of your own life.
Something was happening in front on him. One girl leant in to whisper to another. He didn't hear what she said, and he tried not to watch as a slender arm slid around a slender waist, the tip of a nose brushing behind an ear. A kiss.
Suddenly the ship felt much smaller. His face was hot.
“You kiss by the book.”
With her arm still around the other girl, around Viola, the fair girl leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. He felt the whisper of her long hair against his skin. She took the marker pen out of his pocket and wrote 'JULIET' on his white t-shirt. There was a heart instead of the dot on the 'i'.
“Goodnight,” she whispered.
The pool was perfect in the fading light. Bulbs under the surface. It glowed. It was sort of beautiful.
He left it to them.
When he'd gone out, he'd left the 'DO NOT DISTURB' sign hanging on the door handle, so nobody had come to make the bed. He lay on top of the rumpled sheets and rubbed his fingers over the name written on his chest. It didn't disappear. He thought about Viola and Juliet, the way that one had flushed when the other kissed her. He thought about the way other girls had blushed. Stage make-up was thick, and hid blushes, but at night she'd blushed against white sheets and he'd kissed hot skin with his lips, touched her with the tips of her fingers and quoted plays to her. With hindsight it was silly, but it hadn't felt like silly at the time. At the time, it had been the sexiest thing that had ever happened to him, lying there rehearsing his lines with his lips against the smooth pale English skin of her belly.
Whatever. Maybe all girls of their age spoke like that, now; quoted plays easily, like swearing or discussing boys in American accents. He was too old to keep up. That was his problem.
He slept again, and dreamt of the girls in plays.
It wasn't that he was looking for her, but that she kept turning up in unexpected places; the woman with red elbows. She looked like she was in her thirties, maybe even her forties, older than him anyway. Today she was dressed in green, this vivid, pulsating shade of green that looked almost living as she stood at the rail and a sudden breeze snapped the full length of her dress back against her. He couldn't help but think of the last woman that he'd wanted as desperately as he suddenly wanted her. Up on the stage, staring at him with wide, red-rimmed eyes and all he'd wanted her to do was kiss him and tell him that everything was alright, that none of it mattered. That it was only a play, and that everything was going to be fine, and there she was and she was looking at him like she'd never seen him before. He pushed her from his mind. His skin prickled with desire for the woman with reddish elbows and a green dress, and it was a nice feeling, somehow, reminiscent of how it had felt to feel things on a daily basis.
He took half a step towards her, and then stopped. There was nothing that he could have said to her, anyway. He'd never been good at talking -- speaking, yes, but never talking, and maybe that had been the problem all along?
He was paying now for all of the things that he never learned to do.
He cut his losses and went back to the bar.
The bartender was refusing to serve him another. The polished bar in front of him was littered with empty bottles, every one stripped of their domestic labels. On the back of a bar-napkin, he’d been begging for another, one more.
Please please please please please please
No good. He sighed and leaned forward to rest his head against his folded hands. He had the most palpable feeling that if he could have one more drink he’d be able to sleep deeply and without dreaming.
He felt a hand come to rest on the back of his neck.
“He has an excellent stomach. Do, good friend.”
It was a voice which reminded him of a girl he’d known in drama school, Italian accented, her arms always loaded with too many musical bangles. He was dimly aware of the bartender saying no, no he wouldn’t but then she leaned forward with a chiming sound of tin, her breasts brushing against his arm. She whispered something. A moment later, a glass of Scotch was put down on the bar in front of him. Once, his father had told him never to mix his drinks. He picked it up and inhaled the sharp scent of it as she sat down beside him.
The bartender started to clear the bottles away.
She raised her own glass, knocking the rim of his with the base of hers.
“I would not deny you,” she said.
Her hair was long and black, woven through with glass and earthenware beads. She wore long silver earrings. He found himself staring at the sway of those earrings. She had a sharp nose. She was one of those women that his mother would have called 'handsome', his father would have called 'striking'. She had the most beautiful fucking eyes that he had ever seen. She seemed to be enjoying her drink. He found a piece of napkin that was still clean and wrote ‘THANKYOU’ on it, held it out for her to see.
“You have no reason,” she said gently. “I do it freely. If it had been painful, I would not have come.” She gestured to his glass, mimed for him to drink. She reached out with her free hand and squeezed his forearm gently, as though she meant to reassure him. “No-one marks you.”
The bar might have been empty except for the bar-tender and the two of them, but that wasn’t what he was worried about. He raised the glass and swallowed a large mouthful. It was good Scotch; warmth but no burn. He nodded. She watched him, amusement tugging at the corner of her mouth and wrote a ‘B’ in the wetness on the bar.
“This one is too like an image and says nothing,” she said, leaning her chin into her hand and watching him with her wide dark eyes. Her silver earrings made a musical sound against her cheek. “Speak. Tis your cue.”
He pulled a blank postcard out his pocket, bent over the bar to write on it. He held it out to her.
THERE ARE NO WORDS
She raised her eyebrow, lifting the glass to knock back the rest of the drink and he found himself distracted by the slip of the muscles in her throat.
“You have no stomach, Signor?” she said, holding up her glass to the bartender, signalling for another drink for both of them. He shook his head to tell her that his stomach wasn’t his problem, not by a long way.
This time, he drank first.
She palmed her hair back from his face. He’d always loved women with long hair; the way they handled themselves, combed it with their fingers and pulled it back from their faces. She twisted her hair over one shoulder and then she pressed at the skin over one cheekbone with her fingers.
“I am sunburnt,” she said, sipping her drink and wiping her lip with her thumb. “I am heartburned, too. One foot in sea and one on shore and no young squarer who will make a voyage with me. Who is my companion now?”
He couldn’t speak to her and tell her that she wasn’t the only one who was lonely, so he put his arm around her shoulders instead. He was drunk enough to be familiar. Out of a pocket she took a picture of a young man with a beard and sun-bleached hair. He had sunburn across his nose. In the picture, he was smiling and he looked good natured. She held it out to him and he took it.
“He is in my heart, God help me,” she said. “And now is the whole of me ruled by one. I would rather hear a dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me, and yet… My heart. He won it of me with false dice and I have lost it. I am gone though I am here. There is no love in me.”
A tear ran down her cheek. Even if he could have, he didn’t know what he would have said to her. Love was shit. People were always being left behind. She wiped the tear with the back of her hand and raised her glass to her trembling lips. After drinking deeply, she looked around self-consciously.
“Nobody marks me,” she said, and he squeezed her against his side to show her that he was listening. She turned her cheek against his shoulder. He felt a tear run under his collar, following the sharp line of his collarbone.
“I beseech you, pardon me,” she whispered. He could smell the whiskey on her breath. “There was a star danced and under that I was born to speak all mirth and no matter. I will weep a while longer and run presently mad.”
He smoothed his free hand over her long dark hair. The silver beads caught and refracted the light, bouncing it back at them in the mirrors behind the bar. She lifted her head enough to drain her drink and then gently pulled away from him. She rubbed her eyes with both hands and pushed her hair straight back from her face.
“Get thee to bed, Beatrice,” she muttered. “Get thee to bed.”
Like him, she must have been drinking for a long time. They both had things they wanted to forget, apparently, sweet kisses that had led to nothing. A line came back to him, an all male production of Much Ado that he’d been in once, almost farcical with all of the swapping of coats and hats to try and tell the audience who was who.
And thus goes everyone to the world but I.
She leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to his forehead, just below his hairline.
“Good morrow, sweet hero,” she said. “I know men like you of old, Adam’s son. God give you joy.”
He watched her walk away from him, noting the slight unsteadiness in her step and the sway of beads in her hair. He raised his glass and drank a silent toast to her, draining the last of the whiskey.
It was a long time before he followed her advice and put himself to bed.
Breakfast the next morning was greasy and unappetising. In the corner of a surprisingly full dining room, he sat alone and pulled a piece of toast apart with his fingers. It was almost disconcerting to be suddenly surrounded by so many people. He'd known that they were there: lying in bed with the sheets pulled over his head, he'd heard them moving around in the corridors, their voices pitched too high for him to actually follow conversations. He'd liked listening to the rhythm of them talk, though. Like a child, he'd felt safer when everything wasn't so quiet. He'd been afraid of silence.
“It is my birthday,” said a woman on the table next to him. She was older, he thought, and she spoke with an elaborate sort of accent. “I am sick and sullen.”
He knew the feeling. Mixing beer and whisky had given him a pulsing headache, made worse by the oleaginous feel of the toast between his fingers. Every time he moved, he felt as though he was swimming in a sea of himself.
The woman sitting opposite rolled her eyes.
“Be kind and courteous.”
They seemed much older than a lot of the other women in the room; British, he thought – old teachers who dreamed of husbands, forever jealous of these beautiful students, girls who got younger and younger, in their summer clothes, and....
His mind was wandering again.
He heard one of the women make one of those soft, dismissive noises with her lips that seemed to come naturally to some people, particularly women who were, or had at one time in their lives been, beautiful.
“I am quickly ill and well, and...”
He stopped listening then. Around him, people had started to filter out of the room; gaggles of giggling girls, and the occasional man, his head buried in a newspaper (he'd known that they had to be there, somewhere) and, disappointingly, the toast tasted exactly as bad as he had expected it to.
There was a photograph in the pocket of his jeans. Dimly, he remembered standing in front of a cluttered dressing table in London and gathering up the things that seemed to matter at the time. There was no way to explain the play cards, or the lack of matches. Cigarettes made sense, although he was smoking less than he had (he always smoked after sex). The photograph, though. The photograph which showed a girl, a woman but still a girl, really, with corkscrew curls in her long dark hair, sitting on the edge of a stage in heavy boots and a flowered skirt. Lady Macbeth had worn heavy velvet but, for rehearsals, they'd opened the windows and she'd worn light cotton that had blown around her thighs while they spoke lines back and forth. He was almost certain, though it was hard to remember, that he had been the one who'd taken this particular photograph of her. She'd fallen, scuffed her knees and elbows, and her makeup had run a little with tears, but, for him with a camera, she'd smiled.
He wrote on the back of the photograph, and then he tucked it into his copy of The Play, and he didn't look at it any more.
Later in the afternoon, after a shower, and a change of clothes, he was sitting in the bar with a beer in front of him, watching the shadows pass the glass doors. The bar was outdated in the same way as the rest of the ship was outdated; dark polished wood, chrome and mirrored tiles. At least the walls weren't white. He watched everything happen in reflection. In the corner of the bar there was a woman sitting on her own. There was a glass of ice water on the table in front of her. She stared mournfully at the glass and, occasionally, touched a pale hand to her pale throat and closed her eyes like swallowing was painful, like she was physically helping the process along by massaging with her fingers.
Someone close to him told him that it was terrible.
He looked up and saw her standing at the end of the bar. He'd been aware of her being there; the sound of her heels, the constant whirr and hiss of the glass washer, the clink of bottles being replaced in refrigerated units. She was very tall, broad through the shoulders. Her long red hair was feathered around her face, and he thought that her spidery eyelashes were almost certainly fake. There was something off about her, something which he couldn't put his finger on.
He looked at her expectantly. He'd had to write a request for a beer on a bar napkin, so he thought that, maybe, she'd gotten the message.
She'd told him that it was terrible, the things that men did to women, shooting a meaningful look at the woman in the corner. It was terrible, the things that women had to run away from. He thought about the girls kissing by the pool, the women at the breakfast, and the conversations that he'd overheard in corridors. He looked at the bartender's hands resting on the bar, and he thought that, though large, they were beautiful. The nails were un-lacquered and bitten short.
He thought that women weren't the only ones who had something to run away from. He nodded, though, and started to tear the label from his beer bottle.
She pointed out that it was a sign of sexual frustration. As an actor, he had always known that he could give himself away with his body. There was a language spoken in the tilt of your head and the movement of your hands, the exact way you placed your feet. You revealed yourself in the way that you stood. You told your secrets in the way you bit your nails. He looked at the shredded label on the bar, the indicator of his sexual frustration. He couldn't remember the last time that he...that they had had sex. He was pretty sure that was because he'd made a conscious decision to forget all about it. He was paring himself down to nothing. He was stripping away the things that he could no longer deal with. He couldn't even bring himself to think about her.
He could hear voices in the corridor and he wasn't in the mood to listen to more conversations he couldn't participate in. Silence was isolating. It was the most obvious thing in the world, but it had never occurred to him until he hadn't been able to speak.
In the mirror, he caught a glimpse of a group of girls, teenagers, maybe, black t-shirts and bright streaks in dark hair. They all looked the same to him. They all looked the same because they weren't her.
He left a tip, bulky British coins, and got up. He left by the other door.
He took his beer with him.
He had wanted to be alone, but she was there before him. He hadn't expected anyone to be on the deck that was positioned to catch the last light of the sun. There was a tear in the ass of her jeans under the pocket. It was a good ass, and recalled the asses of other girls who'd worn torn jeans. When she turned around to look at him, the tight line of her mouth and her huge eyes made her look even younger than he would have guessed from the way that she was dressed and the way she held herself. She looked so young that he almost felt guilty for thinking about her ass. She looked at him like she was dissecting him, that expression again, and he felt the urge to shy away from that. Even just looking at him, she seemed to be asking way too much.
He was worth nothing to anybody, and he needed her to understand that.
She was holding out her hand to him. It took him a minute to realise that she wanted the bottle that he was holding in his hand.
“Give me the cup.”
There was no cup, only a bottle, and there wasn't even a lot in it. He held it out anyway. “We'll teach each other to drink deep.”
It wasn't as if he'd ever needed any help. It was self medication. He needed something to help him sleep. She drained the bottle and lifted the bottle over her head, empty.
“Brief as women's love.”
He didn't see it coming. He assumed that she was about to say something to him, so he lifted his head and her mouth caught him, awkwardly and sloppy on the corner of his. He pulled back too quickly, shook his head and it seemed like her face darkened, although it could have been that she turned out of the light. She was so young, and everything was so sad for her. Every heartbreak was the end of the world. He wanted to tell her that it would get better as she got older. He wanted to explain to her that the world could end a hundred times over and yet manage to stay the same. He wanted to tell her the same thing as he wished he could say the woman in the wings in London: that, in the end, everything was usually all right, that you got used to things, and found ways to go on.
She turned away from him, and he didn't have time to write anything, let alone what he wanted most to say.
With her back half turned to him, she folded her arms underneath her small breasts. He opened his mouth to speak to her before he remembered that he couldn't. He wanted to lie to her, but the words wouldn't come.
“Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew.” She turned her back on him, putting one foot and then the other on the rail. It hadn’t rained and the rails were dry but he still took a step towards her, moving more quickly when she stepped up again.
“In that sleep of death what dreams may come? Angels and ministers of grace de…”
He pulled on her too hard, his arms around her waist, and they both fell, ended up winded on the deck, his arms still tight around her. It had been a long time, or it felt like a long time, since he'd touched someone. Her red hair was in his mouth, but he didn't spit it out. She tasted of cigarettes and too long in bed, though that could have been the taste already in his mouth. She'd been quoting Hamlet, or, at least, he thought she'd been. Maybe that was him too -- he couldn't speak, and now he couldn't hear either, and he was supplying her with the only lines of dialogue that he could call to mind. He'd never had much of an imagination. He'd never been good at making conversation, unscripted.
Her sigh was shaky, breathless and full of tears.
“Better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?”
He nodded, still clinging to her. It was a long time before they disengaged from each other. He wanted to remember how it had felt to hold someone in his arms. She looked even younger now, and fragile, like something made of broken eggshell.
He got up off the deck first and held his hands out to her but she stayed cross-legged on the boards, and shook her head. He glanced at the rail again and she watched him. She shook her head.
It took a frustratingly long time to scribble a single word in a way that it was still legible.
“Goodnight, sweet Prince,” she said, and blew him a kiss. “And flights of angels wing thee to thy rest.”
He nodded, and crossed out the question mark before he handed it to her. She read it again, her mouth quirking, and then she folded it neatly into quarters and tucked it into her torn pocket.
From day to day, the motion of the boat did not discernibly change. On a vessel that big, a thing moving that many bedrooms and kitchens and offices and bars across the Atlantic ocean, he wondered how disturbed the motion of the water would have to be to make any difference at all? The people on the Titanic didn't know that they had a problem until they were ankle deep in the ballroom. Naked under his bed sheets, cotton pulled up under his chin, he closed his eyes and thought about her on her back on the deck, the pull of her reddish brown hair in the wind. Suddenly it all felt very real...he could tell himself that it was all a delusion, the tatters of his career come back to haunt him but then he'd remember her hair in his mouth, the bud of her breast momentarily in his hand as they tumbled to the deck and it wasn't so easy to believe that he'd put the words into her mouth. He pulled the sheets, which were starting to smell stale, up over his head and wondered what he was supposed to do now.
He could just stay in bed.
It was a start.
He woke again with a fierce hunger and didn't remember when exactly he'd fallen back to sleep. It took seven days to cross the Atlantic. He couldn't remember how many days had passed already and so it was impossible to figure out how many days of the crossing could possibly be left.
He just knew that it couldn’t be forever. Which was somehow comforting, in the end.
In the dining room a full scale banquet appeared to be in progress. He ate quickly at a table set for eight but otherwise unoccupied. He kept his head bent low to avoid drawing attention to himself. With his eyes fixed on his soup, he thought he heard laughing. He didn't look up, but he imagined the girl from the deck in a dress that his Mom had worn in a photograph that he'd seen once, ready for a costume party in fringed red satin and a beaded headband. He liked the image of her and it made him smile which was a strange sensation and realising that stopped him from smiling altogether. Dancing was starting as he stood, slipping a handful of small white mints into the pocket of his jeans. He was faced with the slightly surreal image of a room full of women dancing with each other, dancing closely with each other and looking into each other's eyes. His eyes blurred, and he began to be able to pick out the men in their dinner-jackets, which made the scene more ordinary, but he still didn't fit there. He stepped out of the room, into the corridor beyond. He removed himself entirely.
It hadn't occurred to him for a moment that she would be there. If he'd thought of her at all between dining room and deck then he'd unconsciously grouped her with the dancing women, with the sound of laughing and the scene which he'd felt that he'd had no part of. He'd never have imagined that he'd see her on the deck, but there she was, standing against the rail and smoking a cigarette. The women with reddish elbows. She was wearing black, closely fitted, with her long hair gathered back in a style which looked elaborate, and for which he had no name. He found himself missing the green that she'd been wearing when he'd seen her before, which had made her seem alive and vital, unmistakably adult but still growing. All in black as night fell, she looked like someone who had unwittingly come into the knowledge of her own death. Even her jewellery was black. She was still beautiful, just somehow sadder. He'd spent so much time watching her that it was almost strange to see her that close. He could see more of her imperfections; cracked lips and dark shadows under her eyes, a run in the left knee of her stockings and the reddish chapped skin of her elbows beneath the pushed up sleeves of her sweater. She was still beautiful, only now she seemed more real, tangible, like nothing that he could possibly be dreaming. He couldn't have made her up. His imagination had never been that vivid, but then again, he'd never gone completely out of his mind before. His mother had once told him that it was rude to stare but someone in London had once told him that all Americans were born rude so maybe it wasn't his fault and there was nothing that he could do it about it anyway. She stood in profile and he stood and watched her and, in time, she turned to look at him.
She took a drag on her cigarette. Against the white and gold paper, the colour of her lipstick looked faded. She blew a long plume of greyish smoke and turned her face to the side again.
“Who can be wise, amazed, temp'rate and furious, loyal and neutral in a moment? No man.” She sighed. Her voice was low and husky, her tone almost weary. “The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?”
Out of habit, he opened his mouth to say something. It didn't matter. She put out a long hand to silence him. The red polish on her fingernails was chipped.
“I pray you, speak not.”
He thought that she might be drunk. She didn't slur her words, didn't sway as she stood there, but there was some quality, something slightly unfocused about her. He leant against the rail and folded his arms, his jaw clenched. For the first time since that stage in London, he really truly wanted to be able to speak. He didn't know what he'd say to her if he could.
When he felt her hand on his arm, it was so unexpected that he jumped.
“Consider it not so deeply.” He hadn't realised how close she was standing until he smelt the cigarette smoke mingled with the alcohol on her breath. “Your face is as a book where men may read strange things.”
In his pocket was the postcard he’d written in the bar to show to Beatrice. On the front was an image of Elizabeth I. He held it out to her, her hand still resting on his arm.
THERE ARE NO WORDS
She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. It was the smallest movement, but it showed that she understood. Unlike earlier, he felt a sudden need to explain to her. He dragged the small notebook out of the back pocket of his jeans and started to write with her leaning against him, reading over his shoulder.
It was the whole story, nothing but the truth. His confession, maybe. A foolish player, and then is heard no more, not until he writes it all down. He wrote carefully, making sure to be legible.
“What, quite unmanned by folly?”
Somehow, they'd ended up sitting on the deck, with their backs to the wall and the rail and the sea.
He shook his head. Unmanned, sure, but it hadn't been his fault. Not all of it, anyway.
She leant her head against his shoulder. Watching her from a distance, he'd expected her to be more rigid that she was, to keep her own space better. Not that he was complaining. It felt good to hold up something other than his own weight.
“I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing to those who know me,” she whispered, and she sounded much younger, like one of the girls beside the pool, and like the girl who he'd left before she could leave him, back in London. “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?”
The Thane of Fife had a wife, and he loved her too much, and they did terrible things together, or for each other. He knew that much, but he somehow couldn't relate that to this woman with ragged stockings and ragged hair blowing in the breeze, smudged eye-makeup and a dying cigarette held between her knuckles. She looked like an actress that he'd seen in movies. She looked like a woman who he'd seen come unravelled before, but always pretending until now.
She reached down between his legs and, for a moment, he froze. She picked up the pen that he'd discarded and twirled it between her fingers. He realised that he'd been holding his breath.
“Let us speak our true hearts to one another.”
Gently, he took the pen from her and turned to a clean page.
He got that far before she leaned in and kissed him. In a fracture of shock, he tried to remember the last time that he'd been kissed. It wasn't important, but he tried to remember anyway. He wondered whether stage kisses counted. He wondered whether a life lived on the stage counted at all? It didn't matter. If he'd doubted that it was real before, he couldn't doubt it now. He'd been right. He could never have made her up.
He counted ten beats before she pulled away from him. The taste of her lipstick was faint but waxy. Her eye make up was smudged under her lashes. She murmured something that he didn't quite catch, but it sounded like hand, your tongue.
This time, he didn't blush. There was barely any room between their bodies on the deck, her arm against his arm, the tear in her stockings against the seam of his jeans. He picked up the notebook that he'd dropped on the deck and he turned to a blank page. With her head craned to look at what he was writing, her dark, tangled hair hanging in one eye she looked like a woman that he'd seen in films, or like a witch from earlier in the play.
ARE YOU REALLY MAD OR DID HE JUST WRITE YOU LIKE THAT? he wrote in small, careful letters. He wanted to be sure that she could read what he had written.
She looked at it for a long time and then she turned his face with long fingers against her jaw and for a moment they just sat there, the tips of their noses touching, their lips almost together, no words existing between them except for the ones that he'd written down.
Pulling away from him to give herself space, she lifted her cigarette and took a long drag. When she spoke, he could taste the smoke that she'd carefully blown from the corner of her mouth. She took the pen from between his fingers, leant the pad against the flat of her thigh to write.
“We are yet young in deed,” she said, as she wrote, her handwriting larger and more extravagant than his own. “So prithee, go with me.”
He looked down to see what she had written.
ARE YOU REALLY MAD OR DID HE JUST WRITE YOU LIKE THAT?
What makes you think that it matters?
He walked behind her, three steps behind her, down the corridor towards a door with no number. Vaguely, he thought he remembered a number of his own door, corresponding to the one in brass on the heavy key ring. 66 which could always be 99. He watched the swing of her dress around her legs. On the thick carpeting, her heels made no sound. He didn't know what he was doing, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd been led down a long corridor by a woman with dark hair. It must have happened to him before in his life. He was still a young man.
She turned towards him, leaning against the door with both of her palms flat against it.
“This is the door,” she said, and then she turned and she let them in.
The room was larger than his own, less cluttered. There was a row of patent shoes lined up against one wall. The green dress that he remembered the other day was folded neatly over the back of a padded chair. She seemed out of place in the middle of her own bedroom, the black of her clothes and hair standing out against white walls. The silk of her dress skimmed her breasts and hips and suddenly he had the revelation that maybe he was making all of this up, that maybe this entire thing was just the creation of a body deprived of and obsessed by sex?
It was all so hard to tell but, please, God, no.
She turned her back to him and scooped her hair up, twisting it from the nape of her neck, leaving a swathe of pale skin above the fabric of her dress. He tried to remember if he'd ever seen a woman act like that before, but he couldn't remember anything of his life before she twisted up her hair, and the zipper at the back of her dress.
“Unfix my hair,” she murmured, and he walked slowly towards her. His sneakers made no sound, but his feet might as well have not been touching the floor at all. “Make my seated heart knock at my ribs.”
He reached for her zipper and unfastened it slowly. Her black bra broke the flawless stretch of her bare back under her dress. Her panties were candy pink. He didn't know why but the fact that her underwear didn't match made him feel better about the whole thing, about being in this bedroom with this woman at this time, about all of the things about this that he didn't or couldn't understand. If, under her perfect black dress and over her perfect white skin, her underwear didn't match, then anything was possible, and everything would be all right. He bent his head and kissed the nub of bone at the bottom of her neck. He eased her out of the dress, let it pool around her ankles, and she stepped away from him in her stockings and her high heeled shoes.
She walked two full steps before she turned around and came back, twining her fingers in the hem of his shirt and drawing it up over his head. She didn't pause over him the way that he'd paused over her, her hand dropping straight to his belt.
“I do dare anything that becomes a man,” she whispered, unbuckling and pushing his pants down around his hips. He wasn't wearing any underwear.
He took her by the shoulders and kissed her on the mouth.
In the wide bed, she was above him, her hair hanging down on either side of her face and his face and she wrapped her fingers around him and stroked him agonizingly slowly. He found himself wanting in equal parts to urge her to go quicker and for that first touch to never end.
“Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle towards my hand? Come let me clutch thee,” she murmured, the words distorted by whispering and the fact that she was almost laughing, and his found his own lips curving into a silent smile as he pushed into her hand and closed his eyes.
When he eased inside her, her back arched, her mouth making a silent, perfect 'o' and he counted ten beats before she breathed again. She cradled his face with his hands and worked against him, under him, their bodies working at cross-purposes but somehow towards the same end. There was a look in her eyes that he couldn't place, like something coming unravelled. The look in her eyes was like a mirror image of how he'd been feeling since that night on the stage. She understood or she seemed to. Either way, it was enough.
“Speak if you can: what are you? I have thee not and yet I see you still.” She sounded almost upset, and still he couldn't stop. Unless she said it, unless she said “no, stop” he knew that he couldn't. This thing had momentum beyond him. “Are you a dagger of the mind, a false creation proceeding from the heat oppressed brain?”
He shook his head and crushed his mouth against hers, tried to will her to believe that if she was real to him then he was real to her, and they existed in the sweaty space between their bodies, rushing towards the same point, hell, or the end of the world, or the other side of the ocean or something.
He was trying to tell her that it didn't matter if they were real as long so long as they were together.
When they were done, the ocean was between them again, even though he could still feel her hot skin against his. She leant over him and he could smell himself on her. She curled her fingers and then she tapped on his forehead three times.
“I conjure you, my dearest love,” she whispered. Even now, stripped naked, having been naked for long enough that the marks left on her by elastic and the slightly too tight dress had faded, her elbows were slightly reddened and he rubbed them with the tips of his fingers. He thought of the girl in the wings, who was supposed to be dead, who was supposed to have killed herself. He leant over her and pressed his ear between her breasts and listened to the slightly syncopated rhythm of her heart.
Full of sound and fury.
He wasn't really aware that he'd said it aloud, until he felt her fingers in his hair.
“A tale told by an idiot...” she said, almost fondly.
It was that easy, and it was that ridiculous. It made perfect sense, or it made no sense at all. Like any of this did. He'd been adrift, on a clichéd sea of his own design. Her body was a boat, or a bridge. He was an idiot, telling a story that he couldn't understand, and, by her, he was carried. It was only a play, after all. It hadn't ever really mattered in the first place.
It had only been a few hours, and he still didn't recognise her as she walked towards him, in jeans and a coat and flat shoes. Her hair was caught and blowing in the wind and the sun hit her straight in the face and made her squint. She'd washed her face and redone her eye-makeup. She stopped just in front of him and looked up at the blue sky and the scattered clouds.
“Twas a rough night,” she said, with her arms wrapped around him, still looking at the sky and not at him. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen. I do not know what I have done.”
He reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Behind them, people were already starting to disembark, the chattering girls and women in a broad brimmed hats and men with umbrellas. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and drew her into his body. Her fingers fisted in his shirt. Her hands were smaller than he remembered.
He bent his head and kissed her, and, for a moment, they stayed just like that, him breathing in and her breathing out.
“Fuck,” she whispered. And then she turned and walked away.
He turned his back so that he didn't have to see her disembark. That way, he could imagine her stepping down onto the dock and suddenly remembering every line that she'd ever spoken, just like he was as he looked back across the ocean, back the way that they'd come. He'd rent a car, drive down that long road to New Jersey to see his mother. A week, maybe. He'd take a week, and then he'd go back to London and see if he could get that girl in the photograph to smile for him again.