As a child, Ted had wanted to join the army.
It had just looked so neat.
Blankets in rows, food in little compartments, socks next to shirt next to trousers. Rise at six, bed at ten, each day metronomic and reliable.
No having to navigate the murky swamp of water-cooler conversation. Politeness was politeness, and conduct something you could learn in a book. Something to be acquired and deployed rather than cobbled together from miscellaneous parts.
Career progression was a nice, clear path – Officer Cadet to Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant to Captain, and so on. No dilly dallying about and having to negotiate people and pay rises.
He’d looked at the precisely spaced-out beds on the television, at the gelled hair and the polished shoes and thought splendid. This is how it should be. This is how my brain works.
He saw the tactics and the weaponry and the ingenuity and thought brilliant. This is the plight of humanity. To serve and to improve. He’d seen the art in it, the beauty, of a million moving parts coming together to achieve a common goal. A shiny, aesthetically pleasing common goal made up of clean lines and sharp edges.
As a child, he’d wanted to join the army.
Until, that is, the incident with the bird.
Because the bird wasn’t neat, you see. The bird was the opposite of neat. One minute, the bird was cawing away happily and the next it was just… feathers. And good lord, the feathers went everywhere. His small feet took only a couple of steps and already, there was one, by his toe. White stained with red, sticky and gelatinous like jam. Another step and there was another – just white, worse somehow. Pure, still so pure, and the colour of polished bone.
He didn’t even see the body before he started shaking, slingshot slipping out of his little hand and emitting a dull thud as it hit the grass. He sank to his knees, and didn’t cry although he felt like it, tears getting stuck in the base of his throat.
“I was just playing soldiers,” he whispered around the bubble, words thin as they squeezed around the finite space.
And that was when he realised that was all he could ever do. Play soldiers. Because imagine if those feathers had been limbs, if that blood had been human.
Or don’t, don’t imagine it because you’ll get stuck there.
Ted Wilson set about finding a career path where he could play soldiers all day. And he could also play dragons and monsters and pirates and kitchen tables and bedrooms and fireplaces and schools and Tudors and Victorians and Liverpool and New York and kings and queens and lovers.
Where he could co-ordinate and plan and tie knots and tick things off clipboards and adjust and micromanage and create.
And that is how Ted Wilson found himself as Creative Director at Button House Theatre.
Ted found rather quickly that a lot of being heavily involved with theatre is being heavily involved with human beings. Not in the sense of feeding them and clothing them and telling them where to stand and sharing make-up brushes – although that was indeed part of it.
No, in the sense of becoming deeply acquainted with the human condition.
Because what playwrights do, is they reach inside themselves, and lay every molecule that makes up their soul out on parchment. And they look, they examine, they compartmentalise. They hold their magnifying glass aloft, and they raise it to their eye, and they go there.
There’s my selfishness.
There’s my lust.
There’s my desire.
There’s my heart.
And still in the shadow of the magnifying glass, ballooned to the size of a complete human being, they take those things. They give the selfishness to the aunt, the lust to the boy next door, the desire to the girl from the corner shop, the heart to the child. And then those characters dash across the stage, downstage left to upstage right, centre and then back again, onto the apron into the wings – and all the while their personalities spill out behind them in words and actions and props placed just so.
And it becomes tangled, oh so tangled on that stage.
Because remember – each of those characters, and their trailing threads, are only a small part of a human being, but they are magnified to so much bigger. The stage itself is the full person, all those elements weaved together.
So, so big.
So, so intricate.
And sometimes, Ted needed a little of help unravelling that thread.
Oh, he knew what it was to be human. He did it, every day. He knew what it was to be selfish and to lust and to desire and to have heart. He knew what it was to feel your emotions dash back and forth across the stage that is your central nervous system, battling for dominance and applause.
But he didn’t always understand.
And others didn’t always understand him.
And in the world of theatre, your bread and butter is people understanding you. Seeing the blue light that sweeps across the stage and thinking yes. That’s your sorrow and it’s mine too.
Sometimes, Ted needed a little help and sometimes, William helped him.
“Why does Margaret react like this?” he asks, pointing a tentative finger at Margaret’s line of dialogue.
MARGARET: [whispered, cool] I need you to go, Elizabeth. You don’t mean that, you don’t really love me, not like that.
“She’s afraid, I think,” William replied, taking a sip of his tea, sweetened with honey. “She loves Elizabeth, and wants to… I don’t know, fall into her arms but she’s afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Doing something wrong, perhaps. Shattering the arrangement they’ve got – maybe she thinks that a relationship existing in limbo is better than it not existing at all.”
That makes sense, Ted thought.
He’s always so good at explaining these things.
Pat had been calling him “The Captain,” since their primary school days, when he’d toddle around after him and follow his orders – because they always played soldiers because it was always Ted’s choice - a little bit in awe of his older and taller friend. The nickname stuck, becoming far more teasing and ironic as they navigated their teenage years and eventually settling into “Cap”.
It followed him on set, which was a small price to pay for the immense blessing he’d been afforded by the universe. Ted wasn’t, in all honesty, quite sure what he’d have done if Pat hadn’t decided to become an actor. The thought of having to navigate daily life, the daily universe and the daily everything without his ‘wingman’, as he insisted on being called, made the hairs on the back of his neck prick up in horror.
“I still think Kitty should be Greta,” he said, as the two of them started blearily at the morning paper. “Sensitivity up to her eyeballs, that young lady.”
“Nobody’s arguing with that, mate, its more the…” he shrugged and pursed his lips, looking very determinedly at his tea, “And I say this with all the love in the world –“
“There is more than one type of intelligence, Patrick. Greta is indeed intelligent, and Katherine is too. Emotionally intelligent. I believe this can work.”
Pat shrugged again. “If you say so mate.”
“And perfect to play alongside William as Jonathan. His subtlety of performance will be the perfect foil to her theatrics. It’ll tick along like clockwork.”
Pat huffed out a laugh. Ted frowned.
“I don’t. What?”
“No really, Patrick. What?”
“I may be picking up on a slight ulterior motive to your casting of the romantic leads, old chap.”
Ted frowned again.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re –“
“We’ve got two minutes.”
“Ah, right… carry on.”
He flushed red as the two of them stood. He adjusted his collar, cleared his throat slightly.
Kitty dashed through the door as he passed it, calling goodbye to her girlfriend.
“The way I see it, the story works on two levels you see, Ted. On the surface, it’s all about Greta and Jonathan – her big, shrieking declarations and his avoidance. It looks like the story is all about them because of his resistance. He’s not sure he wants it.”
Ted nodded, slowly.
“But all the while, in the background, there’s the story of Margaret and Elizabeth, that slips by so quietly. You don’t notice it, because there’s no struggle there. They both want it so much, want each other so much. It seems inevitable so you don’t pay attention.”
William shifted, so that he was sitting with his elbows on his knees, hands pressed together.
“But then Margaret is faced with the prospect that it could actually happen. And that’s when the conflict begins. She realises that she’d allowed herself possibility, she’d allowed herself inevitability, but never actuality. Because if something is inevitable, its always in the future, rolling towards a great unknown? It’s going to happen some day, but that some day will never, ever be today. Do you see?”
He looked up at him, with those big hazel eyes.
“Yes. Thank you for explaining it to me, William.”
“We’ll need a blackout after “tomorrow”, please Robin.”
Robin grunted an affirmative. Humphrey, from the top of his ladder, snorted.
“Worry ye not Cap, he’s good at those. Might struggle getting them back on afterwards.”
Robin swatted up at his brother with another grunt.
“Steady on. That’s all sorted now Cap, shouldn’t come down and take somebody’s head off.”
“Wish I could take your head off,” Robin mumbled, flickering the lights on and off with a frown.
Humphrey chuckled. “If my head came off you’d hide it somewhere, I have no doubts about that.” He turned to Ted. “So… how’s William getting to grips with Jonathan then?”
“Oh,” he flashed a tight-lipped smile. “Splendidly thank you. Sterling work as can be expected. Class act.”
“Glad to hear it. You be sure to reward him for all his hard work.”
“Well, yes I, of course – wait, what?”
Humphrey reached into his pocket, pulled out his hand, and rather obviously threw a leaflet onto the floor.
“Whoops.” He said flatly.
He and Ted stood blinking at each other for a moment, then slowly, Ted bent down and picked up the leaflet. It was for a new restaurant that had opened just down the street.
“We’re all rooting for you, mate,” Humphrey said, and then he winked.
All the lights came on, as Robin’s control desk hissed.
Ted rapped twice on Julian’s dressing room door.
“We’re starting in five minutes, do get a move on.”
“Hang on, hang on. I know there are a lot of people who’d love to see me trouser-less, but I’m not keen on emerging starkers without a paying audience.”
Ted rolled his eyes, as shuffling noises sounded behind the door. The door swung open a moment later.
“Anyway, not my legs you want to see, is it?”
Ted shut his eyes, and sucked in a breath. “Julian, I truly haven’t the faintest idea what you –“
“Just ask him out for fuck’s sake, it’s going to happen one way or another, trust me. Too much booze at the after party, high on paint fumes while they’re doing the staircase. But you strike me as too much of a square to go in for all that fun stuff, you’ll want to wine and dine.”
Ted stood there, mouth hanging open.
“Just do it, he knows you want to, we all know you want to. It’s inevitable.”
Then Julian strode away, haughty chin held high.
He so nearly does it, that very next rehearsal.
He kisses Kitty so tenderly and she sobs so heartily, then they break away and she flounces happily to the wings and he lingers there, just for a moment.
A break is called and he smiles at the floor and he’s alone centre stage.
And it looks like the middle of Ted’s chest, big expansive space with William in the centre, smiling softly at nothing in particular.
And he’s so close, but then he remembers Margaret.
He remembers her fear of breaking the lovely and quiet thing she had with Elizabeth.
And because he doesn’t always understand human nature, his brain jolts four inches to the left and collides with her terror. And becomes it.
“It’s going to happen some day, but that some day will never, ever be today.”