As usual, hearing his given names in full made his heart sink and his stomach tingle, simultaneously. "What is it, darling?" He ventured this cautiously. Life with Martha was a daily discovery, unpredictable, and every conversation was full of delightful surprises and hidden dangers. He worried he might be rusty at navigating them, after long absences and despite their ‘digital’ contact. If he was, he knew he would get his skills back in no time. He was now home, back in her company and as joyful as he could ever remember feeling. His jeans felt restricting, all of a sudden. Her teacher voice had that effect on him.
A light drizzle was falling outside, making the grey morning a little darker. He did not mind at all. He realised he missed London’s winter gloom, even when it washed all the colour out of the day. They were back to back in his - no, now, their office. Very soon after his return from Australia, the decision had been made and Martha had put her little mid-terrace the market, begun packing up her belongings and moved into his house. He did not underestimate the enormity of this. Being able to buy that place had been huge for her, a symbol of her success, a significant validation. He sympathised. For all his apparent privilege, buying his first flat had meant the same to him: proof that he was on his way and that his choices had been good ones. So to give it up and throw her lot in with him in this way was as loud a declaration of love and commitment as any words she might say.
"When do you leave for Vietnam, exactly?"
Tom swung his chair around. She was staring at her computer screen, and he could see she was on the internal BBC Radio server, on a studio booking page. "Next Friday morning. Why?"
"Radio Three have asked me to do something for the Shakespeare clusterfuck. You know, the 400th death day thing."
Tom hardened his expression theatrically. She loved Will as much as he did, so this exaggerated disrespect was just to tease and provoke a reaction. He obliged. "By 'clusterfuck', I assume you are referring to the festival of performances, documentaries, features and all-round celebration of the Bard...?" Martha tried to maintain the cynical and bored expression she had affected, but his stern features made her start to giggle. Tom, however, kept up the act. "So, what are you planning, you appalling Philistine?"
Martha glanced again at the studio schedule. "They want something sonnet-y, so I thought you and I might... If we can do it in the timescale, because you'll be off the sceptered isle until late April, right? And if you want to... I mean, I can message others, but I sort of, well I was thinking... I wanted to make this our first joint Shakes thing..."
His stone face slipped a little at her fluster. It wasn't usual, but it was highly endearing. "What did you think, exactly? What's the idea?" She looked so delicious when she was excited. Even more so when she was trying to convince him to do something instead of just telling him to do it.
"Us reading some of the love sonnets, yes Thomas, I said love... Back and forth." This brought a wide grin from Tom. "They want something they can slip in between the music shows all day, then broadcast all of a piece in the evening, on April 23rd."
Tom got up from his chair and stood beside her, peering at the screen. "So you're trying to find a studio to book before I leave?"
"Bloody hell, you're quick on the uptake." Tom rolled his eyes at her sarcasm, then swiftly dug his fingers into her ribs, tickling her as a punishment. She fought him off easily. "Gerroff, posh-boy! Let me concentrate!"
Tom sat back down in his own chair and brought up his calendar. He had a couple of interviews scheduled, and one PA, on BBC Radio Two, as it happened. After a minute or two of muttering and muffled swearing, Martha spoke up. "Which day is it you're doing Steve Wright?" He told her. "Perfect. I'll book a recording studio for then, and you can pop out to do that, save you running the fan gauntlet at BH twice."
He smiled to himself. He rather liked the polite and respectful groups who gathered in the concourse between the old and the new parts of the building, but he knew that Martha was still struggling with the attention he got. And the scrutiny that they, as a couple, were under. "Excellent plan. So, which sonnets, darling?"
"Hold on, just let me...sorted!" Martha swivelled her rather battered chair around to face him. She had refused to throw it on the skip, despite his pleading, claiming it was her 'lucky writing chair'. This was nonsense, of course. Martha East didn't believe in luck, but in honest toil and commitment. She was hanging on to the cerise leather monstrosity because she knew it irritated the hell out of him. It was a test, and he had passed it with flying colours. He had accepted the inevitably of its coming, even though she saw his eye twitch every time he looked at it. She fully intended to replace it with one to match his, the minute he took off for Indochina.
"Starting with the easy question, then... I rather hoped you'd help me choose, as you're such a..." She looked into his eyes and lost her train of thought as a tsunami of love swept over her. This kept happening. It was wonderful, but it derailed her. Work seemed unimportant when they could lie together. Deadlines faded away next to the blue of his eyes and the salt-sweet taste of his neck. Nothing was more real than the touch of his hand and the warmth of his body enfolding her.
It was Tom who brought her back to the matter at hand. "We HAVE to include one-hundred-and- fifteen... And twenty-one, because of the April flowers thing... And forty-three! That's SO us... And-"
"Hold on, hold on! Let me make notes." She reached for a tatty, mostly-used spiral bound notebook. She still found it helpful to jot down some ideas longhand, even though her actual writing all took place on the Mac these days. "Now, yes, forty-three is a given." She leaned back in the old pink chair, which creaked noisily and rocked precariously, as if threatening to tip over. She really needed to do something about replacing it...but not until he was gone. "And one-one-six, people will expect that one..."
Back and forth they went, choosing, discussing, arguing at times until by dinner time, they had settled on a list of twenty sonnets. Precisely who would read which was a battle that would continue right up until the morning of the recording. For the moment, they set aside the disagreement to prepare their meal. They ate simply, at the small kitchen table, knees touching. Every now and then, Tom would reach for her hand. It was unconscious, but he still needed to reassure himself they were there, together. Looming ahead were weeks in the jungles of Vietnam, followed by a marathon promo for three projects. He knew he would enjoy it, but it meant being away from home for months, and the thought of that made him feel lonely. Martha would be joining him in the States for part of the three-way publicity round, but even that seemed like some remote point in the future tonight.
"This is great. Doing the sonnets, I mean. I was feeling a bit, well, left out of all the fun."
Martha pushed out her bottom lip mockingly. "Poor baby." She grinned at his protruding tongue. "Me too, to tell the truth. I only got the email from Alan a couple of days ago. I get the impression that Radio Three was feeling rather excluded too!"
"It's going to be so good... As long as you let me read forty-three."
"Director's prerogative, darling... Let me think about the balance." She tapped her chin in a pantomime of thinking. "I must read ten...'thou are beloved of many...'" She leaned back to avoid his attempt to tweak her ear, "and I insist on eighteen.”
Tom smiled. "My 'eternal summer'...?" To his amazement, she blushed and looked down. "And, given that The Night Manager and High-Rise will be out by then, I must be the one to read one-five-four, darling."
Martha smiled and put down her cutlery, shuffled her chair a little towards his and slid her hand along his thigh. "And how is the 'little love-God' this evening? Ready to be disarmed by a virgin's hand? Shut your face!" She feigned offence at his loud laughter at the idea of her hand being in any way virginal. But she did move it, and she followed it carefully, sliding onto his lap. They both sighed as his large hands grasped her waist and her smaller, paler ones smoothed the short hair at the back of his neck, and teased the curls on the top of his head.
"Got a cool well to quench me brand, lady?" he asked, in a Mockney accent worthy of Dick Van Dyke. Martha said nothing, but she ground a little more against his growing hardness. Her well was decidedly NOT cool, and it was looking as if clearing the dinner things would have to wait. Slowly, almost reverently, Martha began to kiss Tom's face. She started at his hairline, her lips and tongue tracing the margins of his forehead. His breathing was accelerating and he gasped as she licked his closed eyelids, tasting the salt crystals and his special flavour.
She paused then, pressing her nose against his temple while her hot breath rushed over his ear, trying to regain control. She felt she was in a vortex, spinning and losing her bearings as her deep desire for him took her over. Tom took his chance and stood, lifting her and walking them both from the kitchen to the hallway. His knees were shaking, but only with the effort it took to resist taking her right there, on the hard floor. "Oh fuck, Martha, I love you so much," was all he could manage before their mouths crashed together and he staggered on, to the sitting room and the soft sofas.
Fortunately, as it had got dark some time earlier, Tom had already closed all the blinds and curtains, so the sight of the sexiest man alive and his actor/director/writer partner falling in a tangled heap on their furniture was not a public display. Tom's patience was wearing thin, and Martha was so desperate for him too that they were soon tugging at each other's clothes. Since his return, the sex had been like this most of the time. They'd be doing something else, like eating or working, when suddenly one or both would seem to realise that they were actually together, really next to one another and that would be it. They simply had to make love, immediately.
"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," he whispered as he peppered her cheek with kisses, "but it's a damn close run thing..."
"Oh do shut up, RADA. Save it for the recording."
The tug-of-war over two of the sonnets went on until they were in the car heading for Portland Place. "Please, Mar. You've got forty-six... Look, I concede that you should have hundred and sixteen, will that do it? PLEEEZE?"
She was struggling not to laugh, especially when he put on his biggest puppy-eyed look and clasped her hands in his. The slightest nod and he was kissing her knuckles and pressing her hand to his cheek in delight. "Oh, give it a rest! Honestly, posh-boy, anyone would think you'd never had the chance to read them before!"
He stopped celebrating and became serious. "Not like this; not with you."
She held his gaze for a moment, then turned away quickly, before she started to cry. "Yeah, well, tell me that again, after we've finished. You might not be quite so enthusiastic after a day in the studio with the Beast." She gave him an evil grin that he defused totally by kissing her sweetly. An hour later, Tom settled in the studio and Martha sat at the mixing desk with the engineer. They worked steadily, Tom reading, usually impeccably, and only needing the occasional retake to finesse his delivery or when he had a coughing fit out of nowhere. They were close to completing his ten sonnets by the time a lunch break was upon them.
"...Alas, why, fearing of Time's tyranny,
Might I not then say, "Now I love you best,"
When I was certain o'er uncertainty..."
Tom wasn't reading this one. He knew it well enough to lock eyes with Martha through the glass. She was trying to smile encouragingly, but tears were pricking painfully at her eyes. "Who's stupid idea was this, anyway?" she muttered, her hand over the talkback microphone.
"Crowning the present, above the rest?
Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow."
He looked up again, noting the extra sparkle in her eyes with some satisfaction. If he could move Martha, especially when she was in director-mode, then he was doing OK.
"That'll do for that one. Right, next...um..." She'd lost track, because listening to his voice and Will's poetry was just like being made love to... With a gulp she realised that Tom had just one more sonnet to record, and that was the one they had tussled over; the one that she had read so often while he was away: forty-three.
His voice came over the speakers, soft and sexy. His words rather broke that mood, however. "Can I have a quick break, love? I need to pee."
"Of course." Tom slipped his cans off and stepped out of the studio. He hadn't been entirely honest. The fact was that being back in the studio suite had revived the memory of last summer and recording the play. He needed to do one other thing, apart from empty his bladder that is, before he could continue. As he returned, he tapped on the control room door, opened it and beckoned Martha out into the corridor.
Wordlessly, Tom gathered her into his arms and pressed her against the wall next to the door. He cupped her cheek in his right hand and kissed her mouth firmly. At first she resisted, mortified at his choice of such a public place for such an intimate act. Not that there was anyone there, but there could be at any moment. But as his lips caressed, and she felt the power of his muscular body leaning into hers, she forgot her objections and gave herself up to it. Eventually, after some time, he relented and allowed them both to breathe.
Martha ran her right index finger along his lower lip and looked up at him curiously. "What was that for, love?"
"Ehehehe. I don't know, really. All of a sudden, I just felt everything I did last time we were here and I had to snog you. Just to ground myself, I s'pose. Sorry."
She regarded him coolly, not wanting to admit she was undergoing the same emotional time-travel. "Thomas, if that's the worst thing you ever do, you need never apologise. Now, come on! Get your arse back in there!"
He responded with an exaggerated salute and soon he was back on the stool and ready to go for a take of Sonnet Forty-Three.
"When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected,
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would they shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day, with thy much clearer light..."
Tom looked up and saw her, her rose-gold hair glowing even in the dim light of the control room. Her pale skin, decorated with shoals of freckles that drew the eye and made his heart swell with love. He swallowed, remembering the long weeks without her that lay ahead.
"When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made,
By looking in thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep in sightless eyes doth stay!"
He paused for a beat, and Martha caught his gaze and held it. She knew what he was feeling; she felt it too.
"All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me."
When they returned from their brief lunch Martha felt the need to be more professional. Getting teary and snogging in corridors was hardly in keeping with her reputation as a virago, nor as an exacting director. It was her turn to read, starting with twenty-five. She was ready.
Tom sat quietly in the corner, listening, occasionally commenting when asked. He knew enough not to offer an unsolicited opinion. She could take criticism, but she was still sensitive about her authority, although these days she was so universally admired nothing could undermine her in the eyes of her peers. He just allowed her voice to wash over him. If asked, he found it hard to explain what he loved about it. It wasn't girlish, but it had an undeniable femininity that aroused him. A sound uniquely Martha's: a mix of RP and teenage Essex girl. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the back wall.
"Then happy I that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove or be removed."
A moment's silence.
"Yeah, that's OK. Sound good, Ed?"
The engineer confirmed and Martha moved on to the next sonnet on her list. The couple had argued about their choices not least because she had peppered her selection with what he perceived to be digs at him. His hackles rose slightly as she began to recite ten:
"For shame, deny that thou bear'st love to any
Who for thyself art so improvident
Grant, if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many..."
He saw her glance up in his direction, a sly grin creeping across her face. She really was incorrigible! She knew damn well that people would put two-and-two together, but she liked to make his more perceptive fans laugh. He'd caught her looking at Tumblr a few days before and smiling, then laughing hard at something she had found there. When she became aware of his scrutiny, she simply said she was enjoying the 'banter' and 'wit'. Since she refused to elaborate, he had to take her word for it, but there was no denying that her selection for today included more than one reference not only to his life, but to their life together.
He scanned the script in his hand. "Let them say more that like of hearsay well, I will not praise that purpose not to sell."He shifted in his seat, discomforted, off-balance as Martha always left him. Even now, deeply in love as they were, she was not easy on him, nor would he want her to be. Only when they lay in each other’s arms, sated and drifting to sleep, did she allow him a little respite.
His musing on how much he was in love with his wild and blazing star was interrupted by the buzz of his phone. It was time to pop across to Radio 2 and Steve Wright in the Afternoon. Tom stood, waved to Martha who gave him the thumbs-up and he slipped out as quietly as he could.
By the time he returned with coffees to go with the brownies she had whipped up the previous evening, Martha was on her penultimate sonnet. He held the cup up for her to see, and she acknowledged him with a nod, visibly composing herself before she began to read.
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken..."
Tom grinned. They'd been through a few tempests together, literal and metaphorical. But marriage? Martha? Unlikely, which was fine with him. She disliked what she saw as an outmoded and misogynistic institution, he knew that. But he was well aware that her commitment to him was as deep and meaningful as any made at an altar or in front of a registrar. It was as profound as his own to her. He smiled more broadly as she reached the final lines:
"If this be error, and upon me proved
I never writ, nor no man ever loved."
Ed whistled softly over the talkback and Tom mimed clapping.
"A bit hackneyed, I know, but it says it. Like so much the old bugger wrote. OK, chaps, let's do this. One more and we can go home, dreamboy."
As so often, Martha was covering, this last reading was going to be tough. Without telling Tom, she had made a last-minute change, wishing to mirror and complement his choice of Sonnet forty-three. He had made his feelings about the next few months crystal-clear; she needed to do the same.
"If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious substance should not stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land,
As soon as think the place where he would be."
Martha closed her eyes and two large tears began to fall down her cheeks. She dare not look at the glass, knowing that if she locked eyes with Tom she might very well break down. Fortunately, she did not need her script for the remainder.
"But, ah, thought kills me that I am not thought,
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time's leisure with my moan,
Receiving naught by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either's woe."
Tom leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. The sun was glaring brightly off the Hudson and they felt gritty and sore. He was tired, and he felt as if he might be getting another head cold. Or perhaps it was allergies. Not surprising; he'd been in a gazillion planes in the last two weeks, and he'd forgotten what his own bed was like. His phone buzzed against his breast and he moaned. "Please Luke, basta!" He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the screen.
<<Hey, posh-boy. I broke into your room and I'm getting in the shower RIGHT NOW>>
<<Wait for me. I'm only seven blocks away>>
Martha smiled at her phone. She was exhausted herself. She'd left for the airport straight from the set, her nerves jangling after a day when it looked as if she might have to reschedule her flight because of problems with the final scenes. But she had made it. She was here, and after nearly four months he was only seven New York blocks away. She was lying on the bed in his extremely comfortable hotel room in just her underwear, and she let the phone slide out of her hand onto the beautiful counterpane.
Tom burst through the door a few minutes later, his face shining with excitement, to find his beloved was asleep, her peaceful face surrounded by a halo of strawberry blond curls. Carefully and silently, he undressed and manoeuvred himself onto the bed beside her, stretching his long body out alongside hers. As he let the weight of his head fall on the pillow, her eyes opened. She gaped at him.
"Fucking hell, you're gorgeous. You make me sick, Thomas."
"I love you too, darling. What happened to your shower?"
"Give me a break. I'm bloody knackered."
He gave her his best crushed look. "Oh."
"Not that knackered. But you might have to carry me to the bathroom; I stink."
He shook his head, and leaned in to nuzzle her cheek. "You smell wonderful," he whispered, allowing his lips to kiss their way across her face until they reached her mouth. They forgot about the shower until the next morning. They forgot about everything else, in fact, except each other. They made love, they ordered room service, they ate, drank champagne, made love again, and luxuriated in the sheer joy of being together again. That morning, Tom had two appointments so he let Martha sleep in. When he got back to the hotel the room was empty.
"Where are you?"
"Shopping. I need to match up to Sienna tonight."
"You outshine her in every possible way, darling."
"Shut up. You're not a reliable witness."
"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare."
Standing in the Macy's fitting room, Martha rolled her eyes and swallowed the tears that were bubbling up. He got her every time, the bastard. He always had the perfect quotation to hand. She was pretty good, but he knew them all.
"I'm almost done, love. I'll be getting in the car in ten, max."
"You'd better. I can't bear it, not now, not with us in the same city."
"How like a winter hath my absence been from thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!"
"Yeah, well, it's spring now and I've got a raging hard on, hearing you quote Shakespeare, darling. Get back here now!"
They lay in bed and listened to the broadcast. The Radio 3 voice announced it with the customary cool of that station: "Those of you who have been with us for all of this special day will have heard some of Shakespeare's sonnets popping up between programmes. Now, here is a chance to hear all of the selection of the Bard of Avon's love poetry, chosen and read by Martha East and Tom Hiddleston." The lovers lay, limbs entwined as their voices filled the room. They sounded good, all at once like that.
"Now that we're back, I've got some jobs for you, posh-boy."
The show was over and Martha had switched her bedside light off. Tom rolled over onto his side and rested his cheek on his hand. "Oh yes?" He felt a flutter of excitement at the thought she might have written another role for him.
Martha, who was lying on her back, turned her head. When she saw his eager expression she started to laugh. "Not work, you twit. Odd jobs around the house. Like the wobbly knob on the back door. And the trellis on the pergola keeps flapping in the wind." She couldn't help being amused by his slightly irritated grimace. "Oh come ON. You've got some time on your hands now. I'm busy, and it is your house, after all."
"I think you'll find it's OUR house, now, darling." Somewhat miffed, he got up and walked into the en suite. A moment later there was a bang and a yelp of alarm.
"Oh yes, the toilet seat needs tightening as well. It won't stay up."