“If I be waspish, best beware my sting”
The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare
What have you got to lose that you haven’t already lost?
(From ‘Scenes’ by Martha East)
PRESENT DAY: JULY 2015
It was raining. It seemed to have been raining constantly since he had returned from the sunshine of Mallorca. He had been to California for a brief dunking in the heat and light, then back home to the tan-fading gloom of a London July. It was as if the sky was mocking him for coming home. But it wasn’t working, because he quite liked it, especially today. He could put the lights on, make a cup of tea and settle down in a comfy chair with good book – or in this case, a script. Her script.
He sat down, put his mug within easy reach and opened the fat envelope the motorcycle courier had delivered just fifteen minutes before. He’d been delighted when he saw her name in his inbox, and intrigued when he read the email. She’d asked him to read something she’d written for BBC Radio. They had accepted it already – of course they had, why wouldn’t they? She was phenomenally talented– and she was to star and direct, naturally. A two-hander: a quick job, the producer mentioned his name… was he interested? Stupid question.
Pitter-patter, tick-tock,tip-tap went the raindrops on the roof high above him. A couple of sparrows, or possibly pigeons did a dance routine on the tiles. Traffic rumbled faintly, a child shouted from over the garden wall. This was one of his favourite places in the world, this chair. Books in arms reach, tea close by, reading light on against the unseasonal gloom. From there he could travel anywhere: Asgard, Louisiana, Cumbria, the Caribbean: wherever a talented writer might want him to visit.
He breathed slowly for a few minutes, consciously clearing his head, and then he looked down at the page.
by Martha East
He paused again, his pulse quickening despite his attempts to instil calm. A small grin of pride on his face, he glanced at his bookshelves a few feet away. Just the sight of his books could soothe him, and he wanted to read this particular script slowly and carefully.
HER …………………………..(unspecified, probably late 20s)
HIM …………………………..(unspecified, probably late 20s)
Setting mid-noughties, flats, cafes and bars in London and other UK and European cities.
Tom turned the page and read on, skimming the first scene until an exchange gripped his attention:
HER (conspiratorially) Seriously, watch yourself near that lot. (pause). Look dodgy don’t they?
HIM Oh, er… yes. Right. (coughs)
HIS IV Is she nuts, or joking? I’d do anything to hang out with that crowd. Shit! Now, say something vaguely intelligent.
HER IV Oh dear god he is BLOODY GORGEOUS. Bit posh, but… Do I look OK? Nails? Hair? Teeth? This jumper is so frumpy. I look like a maiden aunt. Shit! Right. Different angle. Flash yer brains at ‘im, love. Before he joins the ranks of the ‘successful’ and never looks back in your direction.
After one glass of champagne, she decided to slip away quietly. The dressing room was packed with friends and Judith would be fine without her. Martha was tired and this last drink, on top of the three she had enjoyed before and during the performance, was beginning to take its toll. She squeezed through the crowd and made her way down the winding corridors to the Stage Door, stepping out into the unseasonal chill of the London night. There were a few fans waiting, and some recognised her. She posed for pictures and signed the odd autograph. One or two of the more knowledgeable ones asked her what she was up to and she mentioned her radio projects, the all-female Tempest she was trying to organise and a few juicy film parts she was considering. No details, of course, since nothing was finalised. She hated times like this, when she had several plates spinning but nothing she could eat off: no actual cast-iron jobs in the offing. But there was plenty to look forward to, in the not too distant, she hoped.
The pavements were damp: it must have rained while she was in the theatre, so Martha decided to head home. She owned a car but rarely used it in town, so she strode out along the street looking for an empty cab. She had been trying for five minutes without luck when she heard him.
She turned and there he stood.
He looks thin, was her first thought. Then she took in his ruddy-cheeked grin and immaculate suit.
“How the hell are you, darling? You look great.”
She knew that was a typical polite lie: she was wearing a three-year-old shirt and jeans, she had washed her hair but her make up was a scrape which had probably worn off with sweat and the many backstage kisses she had shared. And anyway, she always felt she looked a mess when she stood in front of Tom. Never up to the mark. Not for him.
“Oh but Thomas William, how are you? Been to a show, have you?” she asked. Then she noticed he was not alone. Next to him was a short willowy brunette of the type she knew he favoured. She squinted slightly, trying to ignore the irritation that was rising. It’s none of your business who he dates, Martha.
“Yes, we’ve just been to the Aldwych. Excellent stuff, wasn’t it, darling?”
The doe-eyed woman next to him nodded, already bored with the encounter, it seemed to Martha. There was an awkward silence. Martha just stared at her waiting for her to introduce herself, then for him to do so. Silence. She tasted bile: why did he waste his time with these… people?
“I’m Martha East” she said extending her hand, but getting no response. “Nice to… On your way home Tom?”
She was the worse for drink, tired and emotional as her old pal Judith would have said, and she needed to get home and away from Tom and this…person.
“We were just going to get a drink, up at the Tulip. Care to join us? I’d love to catch up, hear what you’re up to.” He was smiling at her in that sweet, irresistible way of his.
She considered it for a nanosecond. She pictured herself in a booth with them, trying to make small talk with him and even worse, her. She had no right to object to this woman, she knew precisely nothing about her, and yet she disliked her with a fiery passion already. She guessed from Tom’s expression that she had shown it on her face, because he looked puzzled. ‘Darling’just looked furious, annoyed.
“Yes, yes, whatever you want Tom. Hi. I’m Susy Barrymore.”
American. Of course. The ‘Darling’ of the day was, after all, not mute, and had a name. One with a history. Too bad good DNA skipped a generation or two frequently.
“I don’t think so, Tom. Thanks, but I’m pretty shattered and I’d better get home. Too many shampoos backstage with Jude.” She took a step towards the kerb and stumbled on her stupid stiletto boots; she dropped her papers and her book on the damp street.Tom caught her by the arm. He looked into her eyes, his face a picture of concern. He was always the better mover of the two of them; she could never react as quickly.
“I think I’d better escort you home, Martha. You don’t mind, do you, darling? Come on, let’s find us a cab.”
Thirty minutes later he was opening her front door for her, having asked his extremely unhappy girlfriend –is that what she is?– to wait for him in the taxi. She felt ashamed of the look of triumph she had given the woman as she left the cab. It was childish, she was drunk, but the very last thing she wanted was to share Tom.
“Water, then bed, darling.” He was putting on the lights and hanging up her jacket. He’d been there many times before, of course, and he went straight to the kitchen, tutted audibly at the pile of dirty plates by the sink and returned with a pint glass of water, which he made her down.
“I’ll text you in the morning to check you’re alright. Now, bed.” His commanding tone allowed for no argument. He sat her down on her bed and removed her boots. He looked up at her, his signature grin, his caring eyes. Marthawas uncharacteristically quiet, thinking of all the things she wanted to say to him. All those things she had said in her head a hundred times, and even – just once or twice – in her dreams. One almost burst out: don’t go, don’t go to HER.
She nodded meekly. “OK, I’ll let you be the boss. Just this once, Hiddleston.” She shook her finger at him. “Don’t get used to it.”
He stood, bent and kissed her on the cheek, his lips brushing over her skin as she closed her eyes to savour the sensation. Before she opened them again he was gone.
He was back onstage in Norwich, eight years ago:
“Doth my simple features content you?”
He remembered the look in her eye as she ran her gaze over him to exaggerated effect, then saying to the audience,
“Your features! Lord warrant us, what features?”
Every bloody time she got such a great laugh at his expense. He smiled, rested the script on his knee for a moment and picked up his almost-empty mug: ‘Shakespearean Insults’, appropriately.
This first meeting between the couple in the script: it had brought that first run-through and rehearsal with The Queen’s Players to mind. How their friendship had grown, slowly at first. She had been prickly, hard-shelled and standoffish, which only made him try harder to winkle his way under that carapace, because he wanted to get to know her better. She glowed, outshining everyone else in the company. Her role was tiny but her stardom seemed inevitable, and once he learned she was a fledgling playwright too he redoubled his efforts.
Not that she made it easy for him. She never let an opportunity to challenge him pass. Onstage, offstage… Still didn’t, come to that. Others found it harder to handle, and he heard them call her ‘The Beast’. None of it seemed to bother her in the slightest. He would watch her taking on all comers in lunchtime political debates. The consensus of the group was left of centre, but not radical enough for Martha. She argued cogently against the Blair government’s policies on education, health and, of course, overseas wars. Not a mindless polemic, but rather a reasoned position backed up by a firm grasp of the facts, and most days she managed to convert a few fence sitters to her side.
During these sessions, he had watched, listened and admired, keeping his own counsel, fearing another hour-long argument filled with witty and snarky remarks. She never let him forget that because his was a life of luxury and ease compared to the majority and he had the invaluable opportunity of an extraordinary education, he had now the obligation and responsibility to work harder. To be better and, most important, be an instrument of change. And, grudgingly, over the years since, he had come to accept she had been right. He hadstruggled to find work; he hadbeen turned down endlessly for roles, made a mess of auditions, felt a failure. He had toiled on, determined to succeed when it seemed unlikely, knowing this was the actor’s lot. He accepted it: it suited his dogged personality, his workaholic nature. But he knew also that unlike her, he had a safety net, a cushion of money and comfort that she did not.
Now they were both successful, both doing what they had dreamed of, and he had been hoping that she would ask him to be in one of her productions. In fact, truth be told, he had begun to harbour a mild offence that she had not offered him anything so far. It wasn’t rational: most of her work was outside his normal range. He had to admit his was hardly the first name that came to mind if casting a story about a kid on a council estate or a struggling single-mum in Tottenham. And he hadn’t done much radio in years, either, and that was where she had been spending the majority of her time lately. Even so, it hurt a little. But now she had sent him a script.
Feeling the excitement rising in his chest again, he got up and walked into the kitchen. He put the kettle on and rinsed his cup while it boiled. The raindrops were still falling steadily, merging as they trickled down the window, making it hard to see the bedraggled geraniums in the pot his mum had left on the terrace after her last visit. His garden lacked colour, but he couldn’t maintain pots and baskets when he was away so much. He had a few shrubs that blossomed in the spring, and a couple of things that came up in the tatty beds: daffodils and irises. He’s like to do more, but it would be a waste, with no one here to enjoy it. So it stayed quite bare: just an empty house, looking out on a largely empty little garden.
And suddenly he felt his garden was not the only monochromatic thing in his life. Or the only empty, flat thing.
Another cup brewed, he returned with it to his chair and picked up the script. He nibbled on the biscuit that had somehow managed to stowaway on his trip from the kitchen. A gust of wind whistled around the eaves, making it feel more like late September than late July. He snuggled down in the big leather armchair before his eyes went back to the words. He had a voice forming in his head already, for ‘Him’. He was intrigued, wondering where she was taking him, where they were going together; on what sort of journey; to what kind of places. Wherever it was, he felt he had been there before. However it was, he was already signed on for the voyage.