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Most still, most secret and most grave

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‘I’ll go with you if you like.’

Laurie was a moment absorbing this. ‘Unless,’ Ralph added, with the air of a tomboy who, having cheerfully offered her services as an undemanding dance partner, bumps for the first time against social convention, ‘you were thinking of asking someone else.’

‘No―I mean, I did. None of them were free, or they didn’t fancy a Sat. mat. But look, are you sure?’

‘Yes, why―oh. Because it’s Hamlet and the Old Vic, you mean? Spud, you must stop worrying about things. You won’t mumble along with Laertes’ speeches, will you?’

‘Can’t remember a line of them. You won’t splutter like a retired colonel if they do some sort of stylized dance thing for the duel?’

Ralph’s raised eyebrow contained a hint of genuine alarm. ‘Are they likely to?’

‘It’s a possibility.’

‘Good God. Well, let’s hope for the best.’

*

Oh lor’, Nicola thought. There were lots of things to recommend the excursion. It was a trip to London, first and foremost; it would cost almost nothing, since in recompense for Nicola’s help in herding the O-Level group Miss Batchelor had offered her one of the free tickets that came with a group booking and her return fare. The other sixth-form shepherdess, Phil Ashley, was as far as she could tell an undemanding character with whom to undertake a longish train journey, as happy with desultory chat or companionable absorption in a book. Lawrie had said in her last letter how good the production was, albeit in her own dense thespian jargon and enthusing mainly about the chap who played Gravedigger One, who, Nicola gathered, was some sort of friend of hers. It might prove a distraction from compulsive mental post-mortem of her entrance exam and interview at Newnham, or at least give her some time to think about how she might broach it with Patrick, whose failure at Brasenose two years before would be on both their minds. And after all, one didn’t have the opportunity to see this particular leading man properly in a theatre every day of the week: she’d seen his films, and he was fairly smashing. Finally, there was the ignoble reason she didn’t want to own: by the time she got back to Trennels late in the evening, Ann’s three-day pre- or un-Christmas duty visit would be half a day old, and the rest of the family might already have worked off some of their uncomfortable Ann feelings, leaving Nicola a little more latitude to do the same. (Ann was rarely home for Christmas or New Year itself: she took as many extra shifts at the hospital as she could get―she said, mildly but meaningly, that competition for them was stiffer than you might imagine.) All this to set against the fact of it being Hamlet, about which Nicola suspected she had too many and contradictory emotions to bear seeing acted.

*

It was only my second Hamlet, but I was thirty-seven, approaching the age at which a man starts to look ridiculous playing him, if only because producers, firm in their belief that a woman over forty is an offence to the eye, will more than half the time cast a Queen younger than her putative son; though in this production (which I directed myself) the part was taken by Colonna Kimball, an actress fully six years my senior, with the statuesque bearing that for many men suggests timeless and universal maternity. The ensemble was a strong one, well-matched in ability and unpretentiously committed to the job. With two exceptions, all its members had worked together before, and knew how to play to one another’s strengths and support their weaknesses. When relations are harmonious, to belong to such a group is one of the great pleasures of the profession; I may venture to say of life itself. But should discord be sown, the misery grows disproportionate to the former happiness, for it is easier to exploit a foible than buttress a talent, and slights demand vengeance more urgently than good turns do repayment.

Ill-feeling among a cast seldom arises from matters of moment, and from amorous contention more rarely than the public, holding certain ideas of actors in their minds, could conceive. Items borrowed and given back in disrepair, loans of half a crown never repaid, trivial mannerisms or mistakes repeated, disinclination to stand a round of drinks, broken confidences, gossip unwisely retailed: it is upon such things that companies founder. If we differ from our audience in their offices, schools and factories it is merely in the degree to which we must depend upon and trust one another. Sailors understand us.

During rehearsals I began to have a recurring dream of a shipwreck. At first, not wishing to confirm every stereotype, I said nothing to anyone. But Thettalos could not but notice I was sleeping poorly, for it meant he did too, and after a particularly broken night I told him over breakfast. It was strangely comforting to be able to say it in Greek, and I thanked, as I do often, the good fortune that had brought us together in a country―though it is also my own, and was my father’s―that still sometimes feels to me chillingly alien.

He lit a cigarette. ‘I’m not surprised, dear, after the incident in that tank on the Pinewood set. I don’t know what Charlie could have been thinking. You might have said that you can’t swim, mind you.’

‘Be what you would wish to seem―’

‘Well in that case, Hampstead Men’s Pond, your next free afternoon. I’ll lend you a pair of trunks.’

‘Brr. I’d rather not make a public exhibition of myself or swallow moorhen shit, let alone both. Especially not if the prospects are charming.’

‘I wouldn’t worry about that. Acres of flabby English pallor. But your dream―are you sure you want to hear this?’

‘Go on.’

‘Well―Hamlet. There are the pirates―’

‘We cut all that. Five Two starts with Rollo and me coming downstage as if I’m telling him a long story and he says So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to’t and makes a cutthroat gesture―’

‘All the more reason why it should bob up from your unconscious, don’t you think? And of course, Ophelia―’

‘Mm?’

His colour rose. ‘Betrayal―half-unwitting, perhaps―’

‘And you think I’m worried about betraying someone? I―don’t quite―’

He stubbed out his cigarette with sedulous care, and looked up, something wild and nervous in his grey eyes. ‘Niko―you don’t have to say if you don’t care to, but it isn’t something―from the war, is it?’

I had done a few things for SOE in Italy and Greece that might be described by the easily impressed as dangerous. But I was haunted―consciously at least―by none of them. The deep flush had reached his ears―gorgeous, silly boy, he was always embarrassed to speak of the war to me, being just too young to have served. It was all I could do not to sweep him off back to bed for the rest of the morning.

‘No―if there’s anything in it at all, it’s located in the here and now.’ I reviewed the tensions and fractures―for there were one or two, there always are―among us. Horatio would never quite forgive Laertes for the half-inch in height that left him the shortest man in the cast; Rosencrantz, Fortinbras and Osric shared digs, and one of them made altogether too free with the immersion heater; Polonius thought himself rather too grand a personage to reciprocate the efforts at friendliness made by one of the two new cast members, who played the First Clown; Ophelia walked off with people’s cigarette lighters. But I couldn’t see how I was implicated in any of it, though no doubt somewhere someone was contriving to resent me for something. ‘Sometimes a dream is just that, my dear, coming through the ivory gate.’

The conversation ended there, but something of it inflected my performance. I began to play Hamlet as the soldier he is more than once said to be; not indeed a career officer, but the sort of competent, decent, thoughtful young man who carries an anthology of poetry or selections from Montaigne in the thigh-pocket of his battledress, is slow to come to terms with being (excuse my journalese) a cog in a killing-machine, but when he does, can operate efficiently as one, and hates himself to death for it. It was well-received: critics and audiences had seen enough of the hysterical, posturing, Oedipally-fixated Hamlets then in fashion and mine was a relief from that. The run was going well, the company, in high humour, playing to full, appreciative houses, when the crash came.

Like all the best disasters, it was one wholly unexpected.

*

Ralph wondered if he might have done well to re-read the play in advance, but his mind had obstinately refused the idea of preparation. The speeches seemed interrupted by those phrases that had achieved proverbial familiarity; he missed the next couple of lines in the jolt of recognition. He remembered less of the action, and more of its personal resonances than he expected to.

Laertes’ leavetaking was lost in a recollection of Hugh leaning in at Ralph’s study window, flushed with the perception that minor deceits and misdirections were among the theatrical producer’s arts: ‘I’d told Harris beforehand to make a face―just at “primrose path”―as if Jeepers had taken him aside for one of his particular little chats. Worked almost too well―you should have seen Odell blush―I almost felt sorry for him, but that he’s such a terrific prig, don’t you think?’

Ralph’s memory―faulty, perhaps―was that then Hazell had shown up, and after twenty minutes of inkily algebraic application rubbed the heel of his hand across his brow and sighed, ‘You see, Lanyon, my problem is that I can’t reconcile myself to this world.’

This admission of metaphysical discomfort was surprising―and, if truth be told, exciting―enough to forestall automatic reprimand.

‘I mean, all these chaps who run baths without thinking to put in the plug, or sack a tradesman in favour of one who does the job slower, or drive engines at a perfectly steady forty m.p.h. all the way from Carlisle to London―I simply can’t believe in it.’

Fatally, Ralph had chosen to be amused. They didn’t do much on that occasion, though what they did was still perilous, for a Head of House’s study is very nearly a public place. But it was enough to make Ralph sure of him, damnably sure. He had made their first assignation with the words, ‘Kempe asked me to take a look at the lighting panel before the School Cert. mob start rehearsing in the theatre. You might drop in after supper tomorrow, if that sort of thing interests you at all.’

Ralph lugged his attention back through twenty years to the stage, where the rottenness of the state of Denmark was being avouched. At first he was nonplussed: this was a Hamlet so restrained as to be almost not there. And then he began to see how it was: the bleak, brittle hilarity of the exchanges with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the tendentious, earnest attempt to tell the players their business (the mild, glassy stares of the latter he recognised with delight as exactly those of senior ratings confronted with a bossy sub just up from King Alfred); the humiliation of Polonius and the cruel repudiation of Ophelia. A man who elevated the taking of responsibility to an end in itself, so keen never to let himself off or make excuse that he let injustice go unchecked, who in making a fetish of duty abrogated it. It was compelling, fascinating, in all respects too close to home, and utterly insufferable.

*

Nicola slipped past Phyllida into her seat. ‘Lumme. And to think I was looking forward to a nice civilised cup of coffee and one of those Italian macaroon things. Were we that wayward at their age, do you think?’

‘Don’t think I had the energy. Too busy growing,’ said Phil, who just tickled five foot eleven. ‘Let’s make a determined break for it in the interval. Absolutely no talking about the play till it’s over, just dash for refreshments before the Spinster can protest.’

As the houselights came down, they exchanged the sort of quick shy smiles that advance a friendship.

Nicola was glad of their agreed interdict on dissection of the performance; beginning with the Ghost, it seemed to touch all that was most unutterable in her life. The polluted feeling that came with a rushed, hole-and-corner marriage; the priggishness of fathers and brothers, which was called ‘protectiveness’ but did nothing to make their daughters and sisters feel protected, only blamed; the Ghost; the bloody bloody Ghost; spies; friends who didn’t like you and whom you did not like; the way fictional people could be so much more substantial than real ones. And Hamlet himself reminded her of someone―at least three someones, in fact. She pushed all of them from her mind before he did that hideous thing, dropping Ophelia and teasing her with it before ‘The Mousetrap.’ Lights, lights, lights. ‘Now might a’ do it pat,’ which was Binks and his gruesomes―and then it was the closet scene, a mere agony of waiting for hoist with his own petard. She had sat clammily dry-mouthed through three-quarters of the Olivier film, beside an oblivious and enraptured twin, before she’d realised it had been cut (she hadn’t known they cut bits; ‘but of course they do,’ Lawrie said with a self-important snort when she’d ventured this observation afterwards, ‘the whole script takes over four hours to play’) and she would still have no other voice to hear it in but Foley’s. Niko Artemiadis’ accent, flexible and rich but bilingually neutral, would be an ideal antidote to that hateful clipped drawl. It was just such a filthy swindle, she thought irritably: the actress who played Gertrude was superb, like a lioness not quite able to comprehend that her jackal of a son was tearing into her, and there was another Ghost bit―and all she could do was watch out for for ‘I must to England’―no. Damn, blow, blast, and bloody hell, he was already lugging Polonius’s guts, and then the houselights were up.

Phil gave a last resounding clap and stretched luxuriously, folding her arms behind her headful of bronze curls. ‘Well, that was very satisfying. But now is for macaroons.’

The macaroons proved rather hard, though better when dipped in coffee. Not, Nicola reflected, really worth having to deal with Miss Batchelor’s flap when they reached the Upper Circle door. Two of the group were missing. The warning bell shrilled; people were crowding in to resume their seats.

‘Verity Lidgett and Gail Farrant?’ Nicola said. ‘I can make an educated guess―’

Phil put out her hand, stopping just short of Nicola’s wrist.

‘’S all right. I know how it ends.’

Miss Batchelor’s voice, querulous with a futile attempt to reassert authority, addressed itself to her back, ‘Yes, Nicola, that’s a good idea. Why don’t you look for them and we’ll―’

They didn’t take much finding. She met them trailing sheepishly into the empty lobby. Gail was actually pretty, she thought inconsequentially, with something of the look of Patrick’s picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour; but that furtive expression made her look worse than if she had been thoroughly plain. Verity, mean-featured and brazen, looked Nicola in the eye.

‘For goodness’s sake, you two. The Spin’s in a proper twitter. I couldn’t care less if you want to slope off for a quick ciggie―I do myself sometimes―but can’t you at least keep an eye on the time?’ Staying on to work for Cambridge had its advantages, she thought, in being able to shed prefectly hypocrisies. Verity’s mouth dropped open, and out of nowhere, she began to howl, heavy tears flooding her high cheekbones. Gail clutched her friend’s upper arm convulsively.

‘What the―’ Nicola appealed to Gail, and saw that although silent, she was almost more disturbed than Verity. ‘Look, come on. Haven’t you a handkerchief? Here.’

‘’M sorry, Nicola.’ Verity attempted, We―well, we went out for―why you said―’ The sobs caught her again.

Nicola saw they had attracted the attention of an usher, to whom she made a gesture of everything under control. ‘Come on. We’d better duck into the loos and get you two looking presentable.’

Leaning against the wash-hand basin, Gail spoke for the first time. ‘It was horrid,’ she said in a high, tiny voice. ‘We were round the back of the theatre―just on the corner of a grotty alley―and a man came running out of a door with a round light over it straight into the road between two parked cars and then the van came along and―h―h―’ she hiccuped― ‘hit him. We only saw him from behind, but it was the noise,’ she pleaded. ‘And then he just lay there.’

‘It was Monroe Calculating Machines. The van. Ten―Albemarle St―W1―’ Verity gasped.

‘What did you do?’

‘Do?’ Gail said, genuinely bemused.

Nicola perceived for the first time in a manner articulable to herself that her own capacity for seeing what needed to be done and to do it rather sooner and more thoroughly than anyone else was reasonably uncommon; perhaps that was why, despite a distinctly chequered past, people kept giving her responsibilities. She moderated a look that the brightly-lit mirror showed her was almost murderously exasperated.

‘I mean, did you you fetch the doorman―or look for a policeman, or a phonebox―’

‘No.’ Gail shook her head and said childishly, ‘The driver stopped and got out, and there were a few grown-ups around, so we just―’

‘I see. I suppose―if there were other witnesses, you don’t need to―’ She smothered her disgust. ‘Look, are you all right, Vee? Dry your face, that’s it. No, keep it, for God’s sake. I don’t expect they’ll let us back in, but―’

They met a thin-lipped, frayed Miss Batchelor at the top of the stairs. Nicola tersely outlined the situation, hoping to obviate the Spin’s scrappy, bodged equivalent of blood for breakfast. The whole business hadn’t quite taken a quarter of an hour, and they had to wait until the scene-change at the beginning of Act Five to return to the auditorium: Miss Batchelor occupied the time, mortifyingly, with sustained, whispered rebuke, while Gail and Verity whinged damply. Phil had rearranged the party so that four seats were left on the aisle; her profile shadow, greenish in the slight glow from the stage, managed to communicate legitimate rather than morbid curiosity. Still, all the good was gone out of the play. Nicola would much rather have sat it out in the foyer.

*

Too belatedly even to be more embarrassed than amused by it, Laurie had some years ago realised why he liked to recite ‘Childe Maurice’ or Hamlet’s first soliloquy on lonely country strolls. It left him, he considered, cent per cent proof against the closet scene, though he was more than usually impressed by this iteration: Gertrude sardonic, disbelieving and indulgent in response to Hamlet’s chill passion, her remorse mere humouring of one who has proved himself dangerous yet by whom she cannot feel endangered. She broke only at the sight of mad Ophelia, exemplar of woman destroyed by the senseless, barbaric sexual codes of men. Ophelia entered playing the pipe with which Hamlet had earlier mocked Guildenstern, her hair dishevelled―it looked at first as if from amorous play―then one saw it was matted with blood. The effect was grotesque enough to be unsentimental, but stopped short of censorable Sunday-theatre eccentricity. For the first time, Laurie felt himself implicated on account of his sex, and justly: personal inclination could mitigate some of the advantages bought at the expense of the other half of the human race; it did not expunge them. ‘Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,’ he mouthed, ‘And therefore I forbid my tears.’ Ralph gave a sidelong glance, the ocular equivalent of one of his more condescending caresses. Caught out, Laurie brazened it, murmuring, ‘when these are gone/The woman will be out.’ It was only when the stage-hands were erecting the gravestones for Act Five that he noticed he had not once thought of school.

The First Gravedigger, whom notices had praised for making the hoary quibbles of his part not only intelligible but actually funny and pathetic, wasn’t on form this afternoon: his voice sounded strained and he was slow to take up his cues. Laurie watched the grave-jumping pantomime without feeling―nothing about demonstrativeness could interest him, not even, now, its power to disconcert. The fencing was done with a notable degree of expertise and authenticity: rapier and dagger, not foil. As Hamlet disarmed Laertes, dropping his dagger and seizing the hilt of his sword with his left hand, Ralph made the small tradesmanlike or feminine noise, neither quite a wheeze nor a chuckle, that means ‘Life’s like that, so is death.' Laurie found himself unfeasibly irritated, then proportionately endeared.

Hamlet moved with the contained, automatic, exhausted clarity of a man who has minutes to live; Horatio cleaved to him in dumb, unthinking compassion, knowing that the time has passed for even self-sacrifice: ‘more an antique Roman’ had never sounded so hollow. Laurie had prepared himself for ‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet;’ he had not thought of ‘report me and my causes right/To the unsatisfied,’ which became it’s necessary to make out as a human being. I haven’t done it, but you will, and blurred his vision, scoured his cheeks. Counterfeiting a cramp in his knee (shabby, but the other was worse), he saw the usefulness of Fortinbras―perhaps even his purpose, in a daylit theatre at a time when men's tears might be shed as freely as they were disowned as womanlike―and by the time the houselights came up, was complacently composed.

*

‘Wasn’t Polonius missing from the curtain call?’

‘We’ll see him in the Duke of Sussex, I wouldn’t wonder―if you’re all right. I saw that twinge.’

‘Nothing a drink can’t―damn.’

‘What?’

‘I left those review copies under my seat―I’ll have to―’

‘Don’t think of it, Spud. Wait by the Box Office.’

The crowd was thinning, but moving against it still required frequent apology. At the top of the Circle stairs he offered one to a face he knew.

‘Christ. Nicola―it is Nicola Marlow, isn’t it?’

‘Oh―I―yes. Hullo, Mr―’ But the surname was too familiar from her daily journey to school to utter in this different, charged connexion, and she managed only a disyllabic groan.

‘Oh, drop that. You’re not a schoolgirl any more.’

‘’M, actually. Just about still.’

‘Oxford?’

‘Cambridge. I mean―’ she added hurriedly, ‘I went up for interview last week. I don’t know if I have a place or not.’

‘Good luck. I’m glad things worked out for you, Nick.’

‘Thank you.’

A greyhound-shaped woman in mauve jersey made an inarticulate and disapproving ejaculation, less at their obstruction of the stairs, for there was now plenty of room to pass, than an apparently respectable young woman’s acceptance of attention somehow untoward. Nicola grinned; it eased things into unconventionality.

‘D’you mean you heard I got the sack?’

‘Robbie wrote. Felt rather culpable over that. Anquetil lays on, you know.’

‘Yes, I do. But there’s no need―I can take my own responsibility. And it worked out well enough, after a rocky start.’

‘Just my experience, in fact.’

Really?’

‘Did I never say? Well, there it is.’ His smile was one she hadn’t seen before, his voice very soft and mellifluous. ‘I didn’t steal anything, if that’s what worries you.’

The Nicola of two years ago would have recoiled; now she was touched and curiously flattered. He seemed instinctively to have known this would be so. She laughed. ‘Do you live in England now?’

‘Yes. I proved a pretty hopeless expat., funnily enough. I like travelling too much. I work for an engineering firm in one of the New Towns. Rather a hole, but it’ll bed down. I stay with Laurie most weekends―he’s in the BBC. Wireless Features. Perhaps you knew that―he still writes to Anthony Merrick sometimes, I think.’

‘Oh. No, I didn’t.’ She wondered what had happened to make them less than inseparables. The phrase came immediately, the thousand natural shocks.

'He’s waiting for me downstairs―go and say hullo―good Lord, you’re old enough. Come for a drink with us.’

‘Nothing I’d like better,’ she said, unsettlingly aware that this was actually the truth, and that disappointment would sear through her at some later time unspecified, then smoulder painfully for days or weeks. She diverted the intimation by picturing what Miss Batchelor would say to the idea of Colebridge Grammar’s best Oxbridge hope going boozing on the Waterloo Road with a pair of―she found all the available words were ones she didn’t want to use, even in the privacy of her thoughts. ‘But there are people waiting for me. School people.’ And then there was the train, and Trennels, and Ann.

‘Shame. Well, goodbye, Nick. Give my regards to Rowan, if you think she’d like that.’

‘G’bye.’ Ralph felt like a court-martial offence, and that too he seemed to understand. He took her hand and as quickly dropped it.

Strewth, she thought. She spared a last glance for his trim, trig person, engaging an usher to let him back into the Circle to pick up something forgotten, and joined Phyllida, who was beginning to exhibit the elaborate suavity which Nicola would come to recognise as her version of consternation. Acquaintance has this mysterious property: once made, it obliges those it links to tread a measure to the same unheard temporal music; brief as their exchange that afternoon had been, Nicola saw, as she had not before, the name Ralph Lanyon indelibly inscribed on her card. Though, as it happened, they would shade it pretty close to the Sir Roger de Coverley to take their next turn around the floor.

*

That evening’s performance was cancelled, of course, and the three subsequent, as a mark of respect. Then we began again, with the understudies in their new roles; that had a certain piquancy to it, or something grotesque, depending on one’s disposition in regard to such things.

Thettalos’ company was in Glasgow. I had sent him off cheerfully with the warning not to grab Gorbals rough by its lapels in any circumstances; and felt it a breach of our protocol to trouble him with brooding telephone calls. I wrote a sober but buoyant account of the whole sorry business and despatched it; it was Thea, down from Oxford after the Michaelmas term, in whom I confided.

She accepted cocoa (Navy) and curled around it on the hearthside rug at my feet. Though we should ordinarily have felt it a waste not to converse in what both of us consider our mother tongue, I found very shortly that the story only made sense in English, and switched to that language.

‘I knew him as Stephen Tey, and in any case should have thought nothing to know that he was christened something else: pseudonymity is common to at least three of the things I am. He was a drinker, and he’d missed more than one curtain call, which is why no-one noticed; not that it would have―’

‘Niko, darling, you’re telling it all out of order. You must be rattled as hell.’

‘I am, and I’m not sure why: it’s a banal, meaningless little tale. Anyway, whatever else Stephen was, he was just the Polonius I wanted for this production: the old-fashioned manner was genuine, and it threw the rest of us into relief. And I considered Julian Fleming really rather a coup. His is a extraordinarily circumscribed talent―but in the right part―’

‘He can’t get much work.’

‘He doesn’t need it. His wife has a very tidy Harley Street practice, and there’s a house and land somewhere in Gloucestershire―though that’s entered in the outgoings column, I believe. He tried to pass it off to the National Trust as Cotswold Manorial Vernacular or something, just after the war―he can be quite amusing about That Ghastly Marsh Downe Person―’

Niko.’

‘It’s to the point, roughly. Julian’s my age, or round about. He grew up believing his father had been killed in the Great War―the mother kept him very close, but strict, and unloving. She belittled his good looks―which are very good, though lacking the vivacity that makes someone truly attractive; anyway, he is uxorious to fault―no good trying to hide that smile, my dear; I see any protest I make will be too much, so I shall make none―and he developed a complex about it, only ever playing character parts. Even so, she tried to stand in the way of a stage career for him, with the result that he squandered the years best suited of all to learning the craft. He thought she opposed it because his father had preferred to stay in France with a bevy of actresses than come home on leave to see his wife and baby son.’

‘Did he?’

‘Not at all. It’s a much dingier story than that. Then just before the war, Julian met Hilary, his wife, who’s a few years older than he―and of course he knew his mother wouldn’t have that. They carried on a clandestine affair for a few months. When he told his mother that they’d got engaged, it all came pouring out. She had been a rather naïve, vain young woman, I think, but with enough gumption to volunteer for the VAD. She went out to France and became less naïve in fairly short order, but not before she’d fallen for what the Army in those days called a Temporary Gentleman―do you know what I mean?’

‘A liaison officer―’

‘For a couple of meanings of the word. A French-Canadian fellow called André O’Connell, who in civilian life had been an actor of sorts. Emphasis on the of sorts, I believe. Anyway, she married him. Or rather, didn’t―he having omitted to mention he had a wife already, like the Gentleman Soldier in the song, but not so honest. She found out on their honeymoon.’

‘How vile.’

‘But normality is so terribly sordid, my dear. We’re well out of it.’

I had said it without thinking of the form taken by our relief at a close shave during a raid ten years before. In truth, that episode meant as little to me as our friendship meant much, and I had for that reason almost forgotten it―but I had not to repent in anxiety for subsequent weeks, I suppose. I apologized.

‘Stuff and nonsense. You’re quite right. Go on, though I think I can guess.’

‘She left him immediately, and reported him to HQ: he was dishonourably discharged and imprisoned. One of the patients in the hospital, a Major Fleming, consoled her, and that ended in matrimony.’

‘But the baby was the bigamist’s.’

‘Yes. Major Fleming couldn’t wear the consequences of his pity, as it turned out, though he must have known it was a risk, and then a German shell solved that particular problem for him. Julian was terrifically cut up to hear all this from his mother at first. But then he pulled himself together, married Hilary―he was in the RAF in some capacity or another in the war. But he was always on the lookout for his father―semi-consciously, you know.’

‘And there he was, behind the arras.’

‘Exactly. Stephen, or André, had no idea Julian even existed, of course. Julian said he felt some sort of connexion, but he’d done so before, and been wrong―so he tried to feel him out. It looked rather comic to all of us: a dilettantish, well-bred twit chatting up a seedy old soak, who, moreover, gave him the k/b more often than not. It might have stayed at that, except last Saturday Stephen borrowed something―spirit gum, I think―from Julian, who’s always terribly well furnished. We all borrow, but it was a point of pride―very punctilious―with Stephen always to return things promptly and in good order.’

‘How very apt.’

‘Mm. And Julian said, oh, just chuck it back in my box. But I think Stephen must have rummaged a bit―as I said, seedy―because he found a photograph of Julian’s mother tucked away somewhere. It was one from the ‘20s―quite a beauty, I believe, and he recognised her straight away. This is happening roughly at the same time as I’m doing Act One Scene Five, by the way.’

‘Now you’re teasing me.’

‘On my honour as a servant of Dionysius. I have it from Penny Freeling―one of the ASMs; she was having a conniption: Stephen should have been in the wings. She disturbed him going through Julian’s gear, but didn’t think anything of it, she was so glad to have found him―and then Polonius is on stage pretty much until he gets killed. At which, Stephen came off-stage and Julian, having found his things turned over, asked him what he thought he was playing at. And Stephen being a reasonably good liar, offered the closest thing to the truth. He said he’d happened to see the photograph, and thought he had once known his mother, was it?―and Julian just breathed André O’Connell, and he turned tail and fled.’

‘Didn’t Julian follow?’

‘Too flabbergasted, apparently. I thought somebody must have seen at least some of this―but apparently not: backstage is an absolute warren and there are always people dashing about in the interval. Stephen bolted for the pub, and walked straight into the path of a van trundling at a perfectly respectable twenty-five miles an hour down Webber Street. He lived about twenty-four hours: even regained consciousness for a bit, after a fashion, but then they lost him again. Subdural haematoma. Of course his system was shot with drink.’

‘Wasn’t he missed?’

‘If you find him not this month you shall nose him as you go upstairs into the lobby―’

‘Ugh, Niko, you horrible man.’

‘Sorry. Irresistible, you must admit. He made a bit of a habit of sloping off, as I said, especially in the mats. He was usually back, slightly the worse for wear, to take his bow, but once or twice he hadn’t been. None of the witnesses had seen him come from the theatre, only the crash, so it took a bit of time for the hospital to work out who he was―modern dress, you see, a plain dark suit with just a suspicion of a Jacobean collar, and the beard was a very good one; they didn’t spot it until they’d started cleaning him up. He had nothing on him, no money even. He was the only regular that the Duke’s landlord would ever countenance giving tick―’

‘Because he was an absolutely trustworthy borrower―’

‘Yes. Honour’s queer, isn’t it?’

‘And Julian just went on―’

‘Well, he didn’t know about the accident. And he wasn’t much good that afternoon. Anyway, actors do.’

‘Yes. People do, in fact―but how absolutely frightful for him. What did he do then?’

‘He went to the hospital as soon as the police told us, but they wouldn’t let him see the patient―close family only. Stephen was married―well, you know, the status of the first Mrs O’Connell pending―but they were separated and she lives up North somewhere. No children―except, well. We'll all go to the funeral, of course.’

‘Do you think that he ever knew―?’

‘Or just that his past had caught up with him? I don’t know.’

'Anything that can happen―’

‘―usually does.’

‘What’s Julian doing now?’

‘Well, he understudied Polonius―so―’

‘No!’

‘Heartless to a degree, my dear. He wanted to―a―tribute, or something. He’s not at all bad. Trifle young for the part, but one of those Quattrocento planar facial structures; he makes up into anything on earth. And he has that comic-pathetic flair. I’d like to see him tackle Falstaff in ten or fifteen years time―’