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Merely Players

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IN THE CUBE

I saw Dad today. On the way here, just ten minutes ago. He was walking ahead of me in the crowd as I left Starbucks. It’s OK, I know it wasn't him. I’ve known that every time I’ve seen him in the years since he died. And there have been a few - well, actually many occasions, all over the world, wherever I happen to be. I am assured it’s normal. Part of the constant learning of living without. But it hurts.

I’m in the Cube. My writing place, where I spend most weekdays if I’m not elsewhere. It’s small and plain, in a bland block, with four white-ish walls. There’s a pinboard on one, and another is dotted with a multicoloured mosaic of post-its, with the odd blu-tacked page torn out of a notebook, and envelopes...whatever. You could call it a mind map or even a storyboard, but that would be overly generous. It’s really just a dumping ground for ideas I’m afraid will elude me if I don't write them down somewhere. Right now I’m standing opposite it, at the window, such as it is. It’s open as far as it will go, because the sun is out and the air is warm with the last breath of summer. The view is less than inspiring: the grubby rooftops of surrounding buildings, moss, straggly buddleias, pigeon shit, peeling paint on the rotting wood of the window frames across the way. The smell of London drifts in, tainting my coffee.

I let myself wallow for a while. There’s no point in fighting it, I’ve learned that much.

I wanted to make this my happy place. But me + thinking = happiness?

I miss him, of course I do. We were close; we loved each other a lot. In that English way where you don't say it much. Dad was never visibly affectionate, even when it became fashionable. Especially not then. Manly pats on the back, a kiss on the cheek, that look when he didn’t think you were noticing, that was more Joe’s style.

I wish he could have known Audrey.

I should be working. Something, anyway. The play is done. Well, I think it’s ready. I sent it to Paula to read. I’m going to ask T to look at it next week, when he’s less busy. I should be learning my lines for the sci-fi thing, but I can't seem to turn away from the gripping drama I have happened upon… A stupider-than-average pigeon is trying to get a bit of dead twig out of the guttering and he WILL NOT give up.

Yes, Dad’s name - Josef Karl. No prizes for guessing. Granddad (who died long before I was born) was old CPGB. ‘Communist-Party-of-Great-Britain’, for those of you not on the Hard Left...You know, the ‘approved’ ones, with members who got their vodka from the Soviet Embassy, and had letters published in the Morning Star. So Joe East rebelled (see where I get it from?), while staying on the far left of course (we’re not ANIMALS). He was a Trot. A Trotskyist, denounced by his father as such, so he denounced Granddad back as a Stalinist lick-spittle (god, I’d LOVE to have heard them arguing! There’s nothing like a good political internecine squabble - see Life of Brian)...Joe joined the Workers Revolutionary Party, sold papers in the rain outside railways stations on Saturdays. Was on every picket-line and demo the seventies had to offer... Sat in crowded smoke-filled rooms, having intense discussions, plotting the overthrow of capitalism and arguing about how to mobilise the working class, late into the night.

Until, that is, he fell out with the WRP leadership, including the Redgraves. Shame. I daren’t mention his name whenever I’ve met Vanessa, just in case she remembered. As for me, well, I flirted with a few parties, but apart from Labour for a year or so when I was at Uni, I’ve never really been a ‘joiner’. None of them felt like the right fit for me.

I often wonder what he’d say, if he could see me now. Tainting my pure working class blood by breeding with one of the ruling class… the grandson of a VESTEY, for fuck’s sake! I hear his voice scolding me sometimes…”What ARE you doing, Martha? Didn’t I teach you ANYTHING?”

But you did Dad, you did. You taught me to care about the world, about the poor and the needy, wherever they are.  You taught me to speak out against injustice. You taught me to argue my point clearly. To educate myself, to think through and understand the issues. To know my own mind. To know a good person, one who shares my values when I see one.

And to know what is right. And what I want.

Dad never met Tom. He saw him acting with me in the Queen’s Players’ As You Like It, of course, but he never wanted to actually meet any of my colleagues. Mum would have loved to, but Dad was always dragging her out of the door at the end whenever they came to watch, claiming they needed to get back to let the dog out… I think he was uncomfortable in that world. My world. He didn't understand it, believed he had no frame of reference, no common ground.

That wasn’t true. He was well read, clever. He could talk about anything, fuck knows, he did it all the time… Actually, I think he and Tom - and Diana - would have got on. Dad could quote the Shakes, he loved Beethoven and Brahms, Shostakovich… classical music was very important to him. A typical autodidact, he bought his books and records second-hand or from the Co-op, when they still sold them. Everything had to come from the Co-op… Poor Mum still dusts the yards of shelves full of tatty old LPs; she can’t bear to part with them.

Yeah. I’ve seen my Dad a lot just lately. I’ve been writing about him, that’s why, of course. But I think it’s more than that...

 

Friday 8 September 2017

“Finally. I made it.” Tom thought as he rolled his bags through the front gate. His heart squeezed painfully. He was tired, not to say dead on his feet, and the sight of his family - his own little family - waiting on the threshold for him was overwhelming. There they stood, confirming his thoughts and achievements, his woman and his child, the great loves of his life, welcoming him home.

“What time d’you call this, Hiddleston?”

“I call it, ‘welcome home tired but still handsome Daddy-time’.” He smiled painfully.  “Hello my loves. Why, what do you call it, Mar?”

“Two hours late, that’s what I call it.” She frowned at him as he stood on the path leading to their front door. To one who didn't know him as she did, he probably looked a bit crumpled but bright and breezy, his usual charming, handsome self. But to Martha, who knew his every mood, his tiniest changes of expression, the subtle gradations of his eyebrow positions and the merest alteration in the angle of his head, he was exhausted. He’d travelled thousands of miles in the past week, performed before many audiences, danced and told stories a hundred times.

“Sorry.”

He saw her face harden just a little.

“Did you hold up the flight?”

“Well, no, bu-”

“Then don’t apologise, posh-boy. Fu- I thought I was curing you of that!”

Tom dropped his bags on the step and moved closer, a lump rising in his throat as Audrey reached both chubby arms out to him. He lifted her from her mother’s grasp and buried his nose in her soft blonde curls. He took a deep breath, felt the warmth of his daughter’s tiny body against his chest, and all the tension left him.

 

Coffee, a piece of Martha’s lemon drizzle cake and a shower later, he was sitting at the kitchen table next to Audrey, who was propped up in her high chair, while her mother bustled around, muttering to herself and checking the cupboards and fridge, apparently making a shopping list. He picked up the Guardian idly, but had no real wish to read the news.

“No Shiv today?”

“Nah. I gave her the day off, as I wasn't going to the Cube, not with you coming home. I thought a quiet family day would be nice.”

He nodded. Weariness was making his limbs heavy, but experience had taught him to try to get onto as normal a sleep pattern as possible right away. “Mmmm. So, any plans for us?”

Martha was glaring at the rack she kept her flour in. “I could have sworn I ordered that last… Oh, sorry… the case of the disappearing self-raising… I thought we could go for a walk, as it’s such a nice day. It might help you stay awake a bit longer.” She smiled at him and he returned it with one of his wistful half-grins.

“Sounds good.” He looked at his daughter, who was regarding him seriously with blue eyes so like his own while she chewed viciously on her teething ring. He picked up a few moist crumbs of cake and offered his fingertip to the baby’s lips. “Want some of Mummy’s delicious cake, love?”

Audrey regarded the morsel suspiciously, babbled loudly and slammed her teether down on the plastic table of her highchair. Tom laughed, sucked the crumbs off his finger and tickled her fat neck. Giggling, the little one stretched out her arms and gazed wistfully at her father, who caved immediately, loosened the safety straps and picked her up. He sat back on his own chair and made his daughter comfy in the crook of his arm. “Come here, darling… now, how about a little taste of that cake?” He ignored the exasperated sigh from across the kitchen - he had a Daddy-timeshortfall to make up.

Audrey still wasn’t interested so Tom just bounced her gently on his thigh and sang ‘The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers’ while she giggled and babbled and chewed hermulti-coloured square teether. When Audrey tired of that song and her father was trying to choose another, he looked up. Martha was still leaning on the worktop by the cooker, tapping her pen on the pad. She seemed rather tense to him.

“Is that bloke still hanging around?”

He watched as Martha’s back stiffened visibly.

“Yeah, but I just ignore him. Shiv is at expert-level when it comes to avoiding him when she’s got Aude... He pisses me off, but no, he’s only a minor irritation. Just a louse… a tick… a vile exoparasite.”

Martha suspected she would never be able to fully accept the intrusions Tom’s level of fame brought with it, but she was learning to keep her fury dialled down, if not totally under control. Tom was calmer about it usually, being a more moderate character and having had more experience than her of such intense attention. “I’ll text Luke, see if he can do something. Perhaps we… well, let’s see what he says.” His natural people-pleasing personality made him tend to do what he could to appease, but when it came to his daughter, his parental instincts kicked in and he was becoming less tolerant.

He looked at his partner, who was writing her list while checking her phone, presumably to see who would be around for which meals in the coming week. After a few hiccups, and the odd meltdown early on after Audrey was born, she had proved to be wonderful at this new reality. Martha, a domestic manager... Not a role he would have predicted for her at all, nor she for herself, he suspected. Had she struggled, did she still find it as overwhelming as he did sometimes? Was it that her great skill at doing more than one thing at once - acting, directing, writing - was transferable? That last thought reminded him of something.

“So, Mar, when are you going to tell me what your meeting was about?”

Martha tried to be casual, but the truth was she was brimming with nervous excitement about it. She had not given him so much as a clue, preferring to wait until everything was settled. She put the pen and paper down and crossed the room to sit next to him. He took her hand, seeing her barely suppressed exhilaration.

“They want me to do As You Like It.

“Rosalind?”

“Yes, but...they want me to direct as well.”

“WOW! Mar, that’s...GREAT!”

He pulled her onto his lap, and Audrey clapped her hands and giggled as her parents kissed one another passionately. Martha leaned back and stroked his face.

“I wondered if I could interest you in a role?”

He raised his eyebrows. “You promised me Rosalind, once...Not Touchstone again, I hope?”

She grinned. “No. I was wondering if you could manage to pretend to fall in love with me.”

“Done. When…?”

“Well, filming should be in late April or early May, they say. Assuming we can get a cast together. I have another meeting next week, at the Beeb, with the producers. So, I can tell them to send the details to HH?”

He nodded. He was free then, as far as he could remember.

“I’ve decided one thing already: you’ll have to strip to the waist for the wrestling…and oil up.”

She was smiling at him wickedly.

“Martha East objectifying again…”

“Just thinking about ratings, love… imagine the trailers! Aidan, eat yer ‘art aht!

Tom chose to rise above her teasing. “Whereare you filming, do you know?”

“Oh, here… UK, I mean. They mentioned some probable locations. One was in Suffolk, actually. RendleshamForest, was that it?”

“That’s near Mum’s. We could stay with her or she could mind Audrey. Mar, this is good, very good!”

His mind began to race, and was flooding with memories of his only other As You Like It, of the early days of their friendship, of chilly rehearsal rooms and cheap digs with nylon sheets. Of cramped dressing-rooms and smelly minibuses. But most of all of being dazzled by this shining genius, who even in her tiny role was clearly destined for greatness. But not, he thought then, for him.

As You Like It. PERFECT.

“Hold yer ‘orses, Thomas. First of all, you haven’t actually gotthe part yet. I mean, I’d have to see how you audition.” He eyed her sceptically. “Second of all, have you forgotten what it’s like to be directed by the Beast?” She was still on his lap, and he dug his fingers playfully into the soft flesh of her waist. She batted his hands away, giggling, then stood up. “Let’s not get too excited just yet.”

“Like you’renot already.”

“Yeah...well… its Old Shakes, innit? And it’s our Shakes… our special one, eh, Audrey?” She bent down and kissed the baby on the forehead. Audrey grabbed a handful of her mother’s hair, and Tom had to carefully unpeel the fat little fingers from the rose-gold to release her. “Thanks, love… Come on, you two! Get your gear on, chop, chop… Let me just get this off to Ocadoand then we can get out… maybe have lunch somewhere?”

 

They made a handsome sight: tall, muscular and lithe, dark blond movie-star Dad; shorter but still on the tall side for a woman, his plumper, elfin-faced strawberry-blonde actor/playwright/director partner. Both in their Ray-Bans, of course, and Tom in a baseball cap. And in her state-of-the-art baby buggy - the big-wheeled kind you can run with if you are so inclined (Martha was not) - was their curly-blonde-haired, apple-cheeked daughter. Hampstead Heath was reasonably busy for a weekday morning in term-time. The sun had brought the nannies and Yummy-Mummies out in force, and they and their small charges were gathered in twos and threes on the benches and walking along the paths that crisscrossed the slopes and wove between the trees, in amongst the dog-walkers and couples of all varieties. People clocked the Hiddleston-Easts but left them in peace in that English way. A few stared at Tom, but he barely noticed. Martha tuned them out too, as she had learned to do over the two years-plus she and Tom had been a couple. Before then she had been famous in her own right, of course, but not his kind of fangirl craziness way. People would recognise her and occasionally ask for a selfie or an autograph, but rarely intruded. She had never minded that sort of attention, and accepted it was a form of validation. When she was in a successful and popular TV sitcom, it happened quite a lot. But not as much as it did now.

Still, their morning stroll above the smog of a sunny London was largely undisturbed. Tom had seen the pap following them, but he was keeping his distance. Tom did his best not to allow it to spoil the outing, but tiredness lowered his resistance and his face gradually set into a scowl he wasn't even aware of until Martha pinched his cheek.

“Hey, Eton!Cheer the eff up! You’re back in the bosom of your family!”

They had reached their favourite café and were sitting at a table away from the window. Audrey was on her father’s lap while her mother was unpacking her little lunch-bag, putting the spoon, bib and little plastic container filled with pureed vegetable in front of her.

“Woman, I am exhausted!!!! …”

“I know. You’re totally cream-crackered and that…” she waved a hand vaguely, “... was shadowing us all the effing way and now he’s over the road behind that BT junction box.”

“Yeah.”

Tom’s back was to the street. He looked down at his daughter and his mood brightened a little. He smiled and the baby smiled back, and he tried to forget the man. He glanced at Martha, who was looking at him expectantly.

“Doing really well with the whole ‘not swearing in front of the baby’ thing, aren’t I?”

He nodded sagely.

“I am impressed, my love.”

The waitress came for their order and Martha gave her the little pot to warm. Their food arrived and they set about the juggling and turn-and-turnabout that all new parents have to learn. Martha had brought a bottle of expressed milk and Tom gave it to a now sleepy Audrey as they both enjoyed their coffees.

“Can we talk about your plans for As You Like It, Ms. East?”

“Well, Mr Hiddleston, I wanted to cast a really talented actor as Orlando, but they’re making me choose some eye-candy instead, so…”

“Very funny. Any other thoughts?”

“I have a few ideas, but you know how it is… I need to see what they money-people say next week. In a perfect world I’d like someone like Derek Jacobi for Adam, because I’d love to see you two acting together…” Tom grinned. So would he. “And Charles Dance for either Duke Senior, or Frederick…Best as Senior, I think, playing against his image as Tywinn, you know…”

“So I understand. I still haven’t watched it.”

“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting you’re a GoT virgin. Well, if I can get him, maybe Ade Dunbar for the other brother, whichever way round…”

“Good thinking. Same sort of look.”

“And both excellent. If not, maybe Tim McInnerney… but he has cornered the market in evil blokes in power these days, so being contrary, I’d probably want him as the goodie... Not sure about the other roles… Ideally, well, dream casting for Jaqueswould be Rowan… His face would be perfect.”

“Atkinson? Yes, I can just imagine.”

“But I know he picks his parts very cautiously nowadays. He might consider this, as a one-off. It sort of complements Maigret, I’d think…”

They continued their fantasy casting conversation all the way back to the house, and it was only when he had changed Audrey and put her down for her nap that Tom realised his intended original question hadn’t been answered. He walked into their large living room to find Martha sprawled on one of the sofas, scribbling in her familiar tatty notebook. He sat wearily down beside her. He had been awake for over twenty-four hours and he felt the weight of every second.

“You never told me what your thoughts were about the production, the play itself, I mean...which is what I was really asking in La Cucina.You know...

“You mean, how can I bring my special radical anarcho-feminist anti-Trump pro-EU extreme left wing agendato the work of a 400-year-old middle-class male playwright?”

He laughed softly and leaned his head against hers.

“That’s the one.”

Martha leaned forward, put down her pen and pad, turned back towards Tom. She bent her knees and tucked her legs under her, getting comfortable. His head was still tilted and she could see he was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. She was too, but her exhaustion was not caused by a week of promos and long-haul flights. Her tiredness was more chronic, the bone-weariness that comes of being a working mother. And the thinking. All the thinking she had been doing lately. Getting this latest job had made her realise how exhausted she was, mentally, physically, even emotionally. She had accepted it without hesitation, not least because who in their right mind would turn down a chance to direct Shakespeare, especially for the BBC? But they were expecting her to come to the meeting on Tuesday with some ideas; with a plan for a Martha East take on Will’s great play about love and mortality, which includes one of the best female stage roles ever written.

She looked into Tom’s face. The afternoon sun was casting a shadow across it and he looked more chiselled than ever. Her heart swelled. She loved him so much. She had pledged herself to him and their family and did not regret it. She knew he had done the same, felt the same but the practical effects of their public lives on their private one were tough, and it was unsettling. She wondered if Tom really understood what it meant for her. On a day-to-day level.

“Oh, I dunno. I haven’t really had time to think properly yet. I’m sure I’ll come up with something, you know… fob them off with a few broad statements… Once I get the casting underway, when I get a feel for the ensemble, then that’ll give me a few more ideas, help me formulate an approach…”

His eyes were heavy, and the sound of her voice, quiet and close, was lulling him.

I’ll just close my eyes for moment. They’re a bit sore...I’ll just...

Martha covered him with the blanket up to his chin, kissed his forehead lightly and stood up. She walked over to the shelves and took down two or three books. She was determined to make a few notes at least before Audrey woke up for her next feed.

 

IN THE CUBE

I asked Mum the other day how she did it. She worked, you see, right from when I was tiny. She cleaned at night, getting home just in time before Dad went off to his job with the Electricity Board. When did she sleep? “When I could,” she told me. I’m lucky, I know: I have Siobhan. She’s great, nothing is too much to ask, I can't imagine, I started to say to Mum… then I remembered those days when T comes home and I shoot off out to a meeting, or the nights I get up and write while he’s asleep and she’s asleep and it feels like I’m the only person awake in the world.

I know this won’t be forever. But it feels wrong to me. It feels as if I am only just managing to keep afloat while Tom is still having the life he had before. But with knobs on. “...men are April when they woo, December when they wed.”

 

No, Mar, That’s not fair and you know it.

But this isn’t what I want.

I remember a moment. Some nameless, long-ago teatime in the flat; I remember sitting on Dad’s knee, the smell of oil and metal and earth from the holes in the ground he worked in. The feel of his overalls under my leg. The line of dirt on his neck. I remember his laugh. Paul Robeson on the record player.

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen