Actions

Work Header

Letters to La Paz

Work Text:

Dear Anna, says the letter, in very familiar handwriting. I am a certified lunatic. My wife is an alien. My stage manager didn't chip when the Titanic hit her, and my assistant thinks I just stepped out of a story by Phillip K. Dick. The Bard endures. If you can bear to take up your white gloves once again, please come and work for me.

*

On their first Monday morning in Montreal, Geoffrey wakes up to the sound of screaming. Wrapped in a combination of sheets and yesterday's clothes, he takes quiet, barefoot steps into the kitchen. Ellen is pacing the floor, fully dressed, trailing perfume and scraps of paper. "All right, I'll do it!" she yells into the empty air, and looks visibly shocked when he asks, mildly, "Do what?"

"You're awake?"

"Evidently."

"I am sick of being sued," she says petulantly, sits down on a chair, stands up and starts pacing up and down again.

"Are you?" he asks, still with the mildness. Now he's up, he's up, and he can't go back to sleep, so he starts rummaging in the refrigerator for something edible. It's only been plugged in for two days, so he knows there isn't anything, but there's something soothing about the ritual.

"Geoffrey..." She stops and starts wringing her hands; he recognises the gesture from a thousand dowager roles. "They're still writing me letters. If I just do this one… thing, this mini-series, they'll kill off my character and then I won't get sued. And I'm sick of being sued."

Now looking in cupboards, Geoffrey has found a jar of instant coffee. "That's understandable."

"So I'm going to do it." She's half-defiant, half-nervous. "I'm going to go to Toronto and get it over with."

"When?" he asks, pleased to find the kettle still warm. He pours the water into a mug and stirs well.

"Tonight." She looks at him. "Geoffrey, I know you wanted... – I mean, if I do just this one thing..."

"Go," he says, and smiles. "I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?" She's wringing her hands again; after a second, she takes his mug out of his hands and pours some milk into it. "It's just a week, maybe ten days, and then I'll have some money and I can pay back" – a disgusted pause – "the twenty-nine thousand dollars I owe the government."

"I'm sure," Geoffrey says. "I'll be fine."

"Thank you. I love you. Oh, sorry – sorry!"

Geoffrey, who is running his tongue under the tap, isn't quite capable of speech. Spluttering inelegantly through the stream, he spits and says, "The milk's gone off."

"Sorry. We should throw that away," she says.

"Yes, we should," he agrees, shakes his hair free of water and eats a spoonful of sugar from the jar on the counter. Through the mild haze of the morning and the coffee colliding in his brain, he kisses her, stands dazed and sleepy in the middle of the floor, and heads towards the window. Hands on the ledge, he says, "Will you be here when I get back tonight?"

She joins him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. "No, I don't think so. I'll see you in a few days. Be good, okay?"

"I will." It's a whisper.

There is a tree just beyond the glass, its bare branches frosted with ice, making a sharp-edged silhouette against the morning sky. Against all expectations, Geoffrey thinks, it's going to be a beautiful day.

*

"It's a church," Geoffrey says, evenly. He pays attention to his diction at moments like this; he chalks it up to an unconscious conviction that the world alters to fit what is said in it. "It's not a theatre, it's a church."

"It's converted," his new stage manager corrects him. "It used to be a Greek Orthodox church, yes. But now it's a theatre. Look, it has a stage and everything."

Geoffrey's steps echo off the flagstones and rise into the rafters, and dust scatters in the beams of winter sunlight. "It also has stained glass windows," he points out, feeling inexplicably obstructive for doing so.

"We're taking them out intact and giving them to a museum." She sounds so matter-of-fact and capable that Geoffrey stops peering at the Sermon on the Mount in glorious Technicolor and turns to look at her instead. She stares straight back, with a slight smile and something positively steely in her eyes.

He takes a deep breath. "Look, Molly..."

"Yes, Geoffrey?"

"Are you really sure you want to work for me?"

"Are you saying I'm not doing my job properly?"

"No, no, not at all!" His hands shake with the flurry of denials, disturbing more dust. "I think you're doing your job very well. But you, you see, are good at your job. And you've heard of me before, right?" Off her expression, he sighs. "Yes, you have. So what I mean is, you could go work for a successful company, a sane director, something like that."

She frowns, still fixing him with the steely gaze. "Théâtre avec argent, n'est-ce pas?"

He covers his eyes with his hands. "Je suis desolé."

"I don't want to." The way she says it, he thinks dazedly, is the way people say that the seasons will turn and the tides will fall. Elemental. "I don't want to work for a theatre where they don't care about theatre. And besides" – she might almost be smiling – "you need me."

That at least is true. And while she walks around, making notes and muttering about blocking and seats and pews, he walks out in front of the makeshift stage, and says: "Thou speak'st aright." A pause. "I am that merry wanderer of the night."

He recognises the acoustics from Lear, and smiles. This might work.

Leaving her to it, he walks down the nave – which he will have to stop thinking of as a nave – and wanders out into the street, blinking in the bright sunshine. It's freezing cold, and he ends up stamping his feet to keep the warmth from leaking through the holes in his boots, but the sharp-edged clarity is a relief after dust and shadows. There's a bar across the street, which looks respectable in the late-morning light. It's not what he would call a theatre bar: not rife with fistfights and lovers and men who kiss other men goodnight.

But, he thinks, and he's smiling again, it will be.

*

The phone rings, and Geoffrey snatches it up. "Ill-met by moonlight, proud Titania."

"Geoffrey," Ellen says, and there's a pause while they're comfortable, both of them, with the sound of each other's silence.

Geoffrey's had enough of tragedy. The first play will be the Dream. Luckily for him, or so Ellen has told him, he never saw any of Oliver's productions at New Burbage, only listened to Ellen's later night-time ramblings about sheep and the forgeries of jealousy. But he's had enough of history, too, and this play will be his own. He doesn't like talking about his interpretation, his vision, not in that disconnected way, but Ellen's voice, long-distance in the quiet of the afternoons, makes him think of fresh flowers and warm, natural light.

The cast is young and enthusiastic, and the winter sun keeps on shining, working its way into his bones. His stage manager, the Unsinkable Molly, has also procured him an assistant. She's an inscrutable damsel who prefers French to English, and she likes him, but she doesn't always understand him, and Geoffrey is very afraid that the former is contingent on the latter but he hires her anyway. The three of them are the entire permanent staff of the theatre, and he can live with that.

He tells Ellen this, and she laughs. She's got to go, she says – prosthetics and pointy-eared aliens, same-old, same-old – and she disappears in a whirl of words as he carefully puts the receiver down. His assistant is looking at him strangely. "Do you always answer the phone like that?"

Geoffrey smiles. "Only for her."

Reaching for his pen, he goes back to his notes from the first read-through, but he's thinking in the margins about what next, where to go from here. Looking up, he wonders aloud whether this theatre could be what Darren would call a bilingual success, drama unfettered by the arbitrary constraints of language. His assistant thinks it might be better to stick with Shakespeare's comedies, if the first one goes well.

"It might," he says thoughtfully, "but the Dream is a big draw, even Oliver Welles knew that. You can't trust all the comedies to go down as well."

But she's looking at him blankly. Stumbling a little, he recasts the sentence into French, but she lifts a hand. "No. I understood what you said, it's just… you…"

Geoffrey is beginning to feel a little blank himself. "You said, it might be better to stick with the comedies if the first one goes well, I said it might, but the Dream..."

"No, I didn't," she interrupts. "I was going to say that. I was going to, but I didn't. You just... you. Um."

She pauses, waving her hands about. Geoffrey nods, and understands. "Ah," he says, because that's all there is to say. He's tried, in the past, to talk about altered mental states, about how calculating human motivation is, indeed, what he does for a living, but sometimes it's easier to admit that sometimes he knows what he knows.

She'll get used to it, he thinks. In the meantime, she likes the idea of the fresh flowers too, and has them kept in the theatre all the time, creating a pleasant dissonance in his head between the fragrance, light and spring-like, and the sharpness of the winter running in his blood.

*

It's going well. The cast flit in and out of rehearsal, occasionally execrable, occasionally not. Once or twice their voices rise like perfect bubbles of sound into the huge space above them, ringing with mirth, and Geoffrey thinks that whether or not they make any money, they're doing something good. There's a fire, a few days in. They put it out. It's going well.

Then Geoffrey wakes up and he can't get out of bed. His bare feet dangle six inches above the floor, but he can't make the connection. The phone rings and he reaches for it, knocking a glass of water off the bedside table as he does. Through the haze, he thinks it might be Anna, but yesterday he got a postcard from Anna, addressed to both him and Ellen and postmarked in La Paz. It's not Anna, it's the Unsinkable Molly.

He picks up the phone. "Where are you?" she asks without preamble.

"In bed," he snaps back. "I'm not coming… I mean, I'm not equipped…"

"You're depressed, aren't you?" She makes it sound like an embarrassing intestinal disease.

"Yes. Yes, I am."

"Go back to sleep."

She's gone. Geoffrey can't do as she says, but everything is still blurred, sleep-heavy, and he thinks he might be hungry, but he can't seem to move through those last six inches of space. The whiteness of the sheets hurts his eyes, and so does the daylight, smeared through clouds until it's a murky mess of grey. There are no shadows in the room.

It takes time. Eventually he makes it into the kitchen, sits on a stool and pokes listlessly at a cup of black coffee. His copy of the play is sitting open on the counter and he picks it up where he left off the night before, eyes flickering over the forgeries of jealousy. The speech is in his memory, engraven as the litany of a disaster, the rivers overbearing continents as Titania crosses her Oberon. Such melodrama, he thinks morosely, and goes looking for a bottle.

He finds one under the sink. He drinks some of it, and takes some painkillers out of habit. There's harder stuff in the apartment; Ellen keeps a well-chosen selection of pill-bottles in her bedside drawer in case of emergencies, unspecified. He's never been able to blame her for that, but pacing round the apartment, fretful and aware of every dust mote in the room, he thinks: this isn't an emergency. There's a cold functionality in that thought, a sort of strength.

With classic lost-weekend blocking, he falls asleep face down with hands loosely gripping a bottle neck, and sinks back down into the black.

When he wakes up, it's dark. He stands up quickly and quietly and walks back into the kitchen, going towards the window. In the semi-darkness, the mixture of streetlights and refrigerator diodes, he says: "These are the forgeries of jealousy." He reads the speech rather than acting it, although he knows he could. With wry humour, he thinks about himself as the fairy queen, held up by larger-than-life wings, pinioned with poetic faith.

Outside, the clouds have receded. He can see the moon, frosted and full, and smiles up at the face in it. There will be rehearsal again tomorrow. Perhaps the cast will be better for a day's rest, although he doubts it.

He goes to tidy up the mess, make phone calls and, possibly, wash the smell of the day out of his hair, but before he does that, he pauses by the window and reaches for the phone.

"Geoffrey!" she says as she picks up. "They dyed my hair red and it's not washing out! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he says, in the dark, and it's true.

*

The next day, Puck jumps off the edge of the stage and says, "Geoffrey, you're soaking."

"I know," Geoffrey mutters, as the fairies giggle in the makeshift wings. "I know that, thank you."

"You'll get pneumonia," warns the Unsinkable Molly from her perch on the edge of a table, stage right. "Why don't you carry an umbrella?"

The reason, which Geoffrey doesn't tell her, is that umbrellas are things that happen to other people. People who are not Geoffrey Tennant, and who see precipitation as just a phenomenon, water from the sky; people, in short, who have never tipped their heads back beneath a downpour and tried to catch the raindrops in their mouths. He pities that sort of person. "Take it from where we left off," he calls, and nods at Molly. "I'll be back in a moment."

The men's room still has stickers on the mirror asking him if he's found Jesus, which make him want to take up Satanism or having sex with men, or sheep, or something, and then he remembers he's five years out of the asylum, respectably married with a job and somewhere to live that isn't prop storage, and he's even had his face on the cover of Canadian Business. He's about to start feeling very uncomfortable indeed when he catches sight of his reflection, his hair standing on end and dripping water everywhere, and notes dispassionately that he still looks positively inhuman, as Ellen would put it, and that he's still here, washed up on the shores of a theatre because he can't do anything else, and that cheers him up somewhat. Rubbing a paper towel through his hair, he stalks back into rehearsal, but quietly, perching himself in the last row of seats and content to watch the action from afar. Peaseblossom notices his arrival, winking at him before she paces back up the aisle, but everyone else has their eyes on the stage.

"Gentles," announces the prologue, "perhaps you wonder at this show."

Presently, Geoffrey starts to laugh. It's the bad kind of laughter, he's dimly aware; it's the half-distracted, half-mad laughter that used to scare people, and usually it has as little to do with true amusement as a bush of thorns and a lantern have to do with the moon, but this time he can't help himself, it's a bubble rising inexorably to meet the air.

"Geoffrey?" says the Unsinkable Molly, and even she sounds hesitant. Geoffrey's assistant isn't here, but if she were, he can't stop thinking, she would probably be in need of smelling salts.

"I'm fine," he manages to say, and leaps energetically to his feet. "I do, however, have a problem with this."

They all look at him expectantly. They're young and they want to act, he knows, so they're here, they're here on this stage waiting for him to say something, but they know the story; there's something else in this scene, something dark, twisted beneath. For a brief moment he's tired, so tired, of escaping a reputation. He thinks about running.

"You all have an appreciation for drama as an art form, is that right?" he yells out instead. "You have all, at some point, attended the theatre, yes?"

There are brief murmurs of assent, confused looks and whispers. Geoffrey nods, satisfied, and beckons in the direction of the wings. Bottom takes the stage once more, looking nervously at Geoffrey, who smiles happily back, leading him out to the centre.

"Then when a good actor steps out before you," he says, "speaking these immortal words – O grim-look'd night, indeed – then react, as audience, as actors, as human beings should.

"Laugh."

And some of them do, tentatively at first, and as Lion and Moonshine make most witty discourse, Peaseblossom starts to giggle. Geoffrey leans back in his seat and listens, and smiles, and catches raindrops in his mouth.

The roof is leaking, he thinks with a certain manic intensity, and laughs and laughs.

*

The apartment is beginning to look like he lives in it. His own furniture and books, a mixture of what he had in Toronto and what lurked in Ellen's house for seven years, are strewn about, mixed in and around Ellen's bits and pieces, her earrings, kitchen knives and hundred-dollar bras. The temperature is falling again, and he notices the raindrops freezing, outlining the tree by the window in translucent ice. He blows on his fingers before reaching for his keys.

There are lights on in the room as he steps inside and throws off his boots, and he can hear sounds of someone moving. Ellen emerges from the refrigerator to see him standing awkwardly in the doorway, and there's a moment where they look at each other, say nothing and smile. She kisses him, strokes his hair, and his arms wrap around her waist, and then they break apart and start talking about real life, but the air is warmer, the light a little less bleak white electric and impersonal; they're together again.

"How was it?" he asks, as she goes back to hunting for something in the refrigerator.

"Dull," she says. "Spaceships instead of motivation. And my hair, look at my hair!"

"I like it," he says mildly, and means it; the red tips make him think of her standing with the sunset behind her, day turning into dust-scattered twilight. During the summer, he realises suddenly, they'll still be here, the two of them, and the days will be long enough for theatre sans argent and after hours, with endless dusk as backdrop. "It's not exactly what I had in mind for the fairy queen, though," he adds.

"I'm..." she begins.

"Understudying her, yes." Geoffrey laughs and bounces up to sit on the counter. The kettle is boiling, so he shifts to one side and pours himself a cup of black coffee. "With all your experience, I think you'll be fine – although my version is a little different from Oliver's."

"I'm glad," she says, vehemently, and reaches for Geoffrey's cup. There's a pause, and the easy words drain away for a moment. She's looking at him with soft eyes. "You look good," she says, with a half-smile. "You look... well."

He nods, quiet and content, and enjoys the silence. He takes a sip from the cup.

"Sorry!" Ellen yells, realising just an instant too late; there are some things, he decides an instant later, that even his much-abused body will not take. Ellen holds back his hair as he plunges his head into the sink, and after a moment she picks up the pint bottle of milk, now a curdled yellow colour. "We should have thrown this away," she says thoughtfully.

"Yes," murmurs Geoffrey through a mouthful of water, "yes, yes, we should."

She's remade the coffee by the time he emerges from under the tap, and she places the cup into his hands with a smidgen of impatience. "Are you happy now?" she wants to know.

Savouring it, long and black, he curls up, sitting on his feet. He shakes his head free of droplets and nods, slowly. "Yes. Yes, I think I am."

The spring, the summer, the chiding autumn – they'll all come, Geoffrey thinks, and he and Ellen will still be here. In the meantime they sit, warmed by the steam, warmed by each other in the dying light, until it's too dark to see the frost.

*

Dear Geoffrey, she writes. I think you're probably doing just fine without me.

But I'm still coming home.

Love,
Anna.