Chapter 1 - The Sea Coast of Bohemia by A.J. Hall
Geoffrey Tennant was accustomed to say (rather too often, if Ellen’s left eyebrow were any judge) that unlike other holders of the post of Artistic Director at the New Burbage Festival (Darren Nichols, understood) he possessed an actual certificate proving his sanity. Those inclined to cavil (Darren Nichols and Ellen’s left eyebrow, understood) could in turn point out that the piece of paper he treasured was not, in fact, an affirmative statement of his absolute sanity, but merely an acknowledgement of his relative sanity, as compared to the outright lunacy of his swan-strangling past.
To which observation Geoffrey Tennant was wont to observe, “Pfui!”
Nevertheless, his faith in the sanity clause was not well-rooted enough to incline him to take risks. It was hardly paranoid (and he knew paranoid; he’d seen it at very close quarters) to avoid mentioning in public things like — say — getting notes on Macbeth from Oliver Welles, the very much dead and mostly cremated former Artistic Director of New Burbage, whose own sanity, even before he lay down dead drunk on a snowy road in front of a ham van, had been distinctly questionable and emphatically not attested to by any competent third party.
Except when inspired otherwise for dramatic effect, Geoffrey took particular care to avoid displaying any noticeable eccentricities of manner
around people (Darren Nichols and Richard Smith-Jones, understood) who had the power or the inclination to tear up his hard-earned certificate and despatch him once more to that bourn from which few travellers return, and none without a certificate signed by a Consent and Capacity Board convened pursuant to the relevant provisions of the Ontario Mental Health Act.
He was not, in short, at home to the supernatural, the paranormal, the numinous or the occult. Or, if he was, he expected them to knock at the back door. Having, for preference, phoned ahead. (Understood, Oliver?)
Which was why, when he opened his eyes on a sight which had no business being there, his first response was to shut his eyes tight and will it to go away again.
His last conscious memory had been of wandering away from that dog-and-pony show which Anna had organised on the terrace at Casa Loma. If it had been anyone else requiring his presence there (Richard Smith-Jones, understood) he’d not have turned up at all. But Anna looked at him and saw him, Geoffrey the man not Geoffrey the fuck-up. That was worth rubies or, at least, an afternoon supporting Anna’s efforts to woo potential sponsors with luke-warm Niagara-on-the-lake Riesling and cheese straws of doubtful provenance. And with him, of course. Geoffrey Tennant: according to reliable sources the finest Canadian Hamlet of his generation.
Though it had struck him — about the time he was listening to yet another observation on the dreadful effect of Shakespearean dick jokes on the young, this time from a high school dropout who had subsequently made a fortune selling extruded corn snacks in the shape of cartoon animals — that when it came to sanity, as in every other field of human endeavour (the New Burbage Festival, understood) capitalism trumped logic and reason.
Take the location itself.
In Geoffrey Tennant’s honest opinion, the mere fact of setting out to build Casa Loma proved a man a loony-tune of the most fruit-looped variety. Equally, however, to be able to afford to build Casa Loma (or, to be strictly accurate, to be able to afford to build three-quarters of Casa Loma) stacked the odds heavily against one’s sanity being called into question — at least, until building Casa Loma led to bankruptcy and so nullified all assumptions about one’s sanity in some sort of collapsed wave form.
Still, Casa Loma’s builder could not have intended, still less achieved, the vision against which Geoffrey was currently screwing his eyes shut: an explosion of brilliant wild-flowers in a paradisal landscape.
He’d seen flowers crowded densely across meadowland like that before. Once.
James Bay, June 1984. High school field trip. He’d been seventeen and burning to get into Nancy Petroysan’s knickers before belatedly realising that she batted for another team entirely. And then a black-fly bite had gone bad on him and he’d been whisked out of there to hospital, not making sense.
The story of his life, one might say (and plenty had. Darren Nichols, under- — Oh, fuck it. Too much, even of self-pity. Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting, appetite may sicken and so die.)
Geoffrey Tennant opened his eyes.
He was lying on his back on the grass, amid the flowers. Above him, a glorious sky soared, unsullied blue. The temperature, given a saving wisp of breeze, was warm, but not oppressive. Up in the sky above some bird sang on and on, in a tumbling waterfall of notes. And the smells —
When they let him out of the hospital, his certificate not actually clutched in his hand (they had sent something by email, with a follow-up by FedEx), the first thing that had struck him had been the smells. Not that carefully contrived absence of odours that might cause offence or allergies or sensitivities or simply exist, goddammit. Not a faint tinge of disinfectant, shrouding the multiple stinks that flesh is heir to. Honest-to-goodness garbage-truck, dog poop, leaked motor oil city smells. He had clung to the smells even tighter than he had to the certificate, when it finally arrived.
But that sense had been nothing to this. Here it was as if someone had taken a cloth and wiped a life-time’s accrued grime from his senses. Flowers, grass, something that might have been the remains of some small rodent decaying gently in the grass beside his head (a rat in the Arras!), the passage of some pungent animal hours earlier (not skunk, not tom-cat — raccoon, perhaps?) — all rolled out to his nostrils as plain, sharp and clear as the view itself, the gentle downward curve of the meadowland with the white, unmade track across it.
Geoffrey shut his eyes again, and this time held them shut for a counted sixty seconds.
The sounds and the smells continued unabated. There being no point in continuing with any form of self-deceit, Geoffrey opened his eyes again.
He was no longer alone. A young man was walking along the road towards him, with the purposeful, mile-eating stride of someone who has an objective which he means to achieve sooner rather than later.
As he approached, Geoffrey’s general impression of the man resolved itself into something so plainly, unmistakeably Wrong that it put all the other random bits of wrongness into the shade.
The stranger was wearing doublet and hose.
Geoffrey had spent a fair few years wearing doublet and hose himself, as well as watching others doing it. The kind of sponsors who made their pile in extruded corn snacks in the shape of cartoon animals had an equal horror of theatre-in-the-round, colour-blind casting and modern-dress productions.
He and all the rest had been doing it wrong all these years. For the first time he saw someone wearing doublet and hose as clothing, not as a costume. And that, apart from the natural frustration he had nothing on him with which to take notes, frightened him more than anything else about the whole affair.
Hypothesis one: his mental problems were not only worse than he had thought but worse than he could possibly have thought. Hypothesis two: he, Geoffrey Tennant, had travelled in time and space. The stranger’s unselfconscious, rolling stride underlined which option looked likelier with each stride of his buskined feet.
Now he was mere yards away. His blue eyes — startlingly blue, in a deeply tanned face beneath bleached blond hair the colour of pale straw — regarded Geoffrey with an unsettling, unwavering intensity. His hand rested loosely on the hilt of the rapier slung by his side.
Assessing the risk, Geoffrey realised, mouth dry.
There was only one thing for it. It had worked before. Wish upon a fan.
He scrambled to his feet. “What country, friend, is this?”
He’d played Sebastian at college, in his first class production, but the director had decided that Viola and her brother, to emphasise their twinnishness, should mirror each other’s parts and substitute for each other in alternate rehearsals. Unkind critics later observed the production might have been less of a mess had they stuck to the gender-swap the whole way through.
On the instant, the stranger became an older man; respectful, wary, about to break uncertain news to a liege he cherished almost as a daughter. “This is Illyria, lady.”
Geoffrey gave his next line everything he could summon up of fear, grief, alienation and a bone-deep exhaustion that transcended them all. It felt surprisingly natural.
“And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium.”
The stranger’s face broke into a grin. His hand left his sword-hilt.
“You’re a player yourself, sir?”
Geoffrey bowed, professionally, by way of acknowledgement. As he straightened he could see a cool air of appraisal in the stranger’s face — Not from round here signalled not just by his clothes (the neatly pressed chinos, blazer and polo-shirt with label Anna had forced him into for sponsor-wrangling) but by his manner.
“You see before you one Geoffrey Tennant. Of —”
It occurred to him in the nick of time that it would be the height of folly to claim to be from New Burbage, when the original Burbage might still be around to assert trade-mark rights.
“—of everywhere and nowhere, as a player should be,” he concluded, with a flourish.
“Geoffrey? That’s my brother’s name.” The stranger grinned, impishly. “He would not be best pleased to hear his namesake a player. I’m not sure if it’s fatherhood or Kate, but Geoffrey seems all-but Puritan these days. I’ll swear, he’d rather I settled down in Yetland Cove and turned smuggler than have the Marlow name sullied by the taint of the playhouse. I was hard put to it to get away.”
“Marlow? Are you by any chance —”
He tailed off, acutely aware that he sounded like any tourist: So you’re Canadian! Do you know my wife’s great-uncle Archie from Winnipeg?
The stranger seemed to have decoded the unspoken words, anyway. He shook his head, and then spread his fingers in a curious gesture, as if to ward off ill-luck. Again Geoffrey regretted not being able to take a note. A bit of business for Marcellus and Bernardo, perhaps, on the battlements.
“Another namesake, only. I’m Nicholas Marlow of Dorset. No kin of — of Kit.”
His lips closed in a tight, unhappy line, like a line in the sand. Geoffrey took the hint.
“Master Marlow, it’s most fortunate we met. I think I’m lost. Where are we?”
Marlow gestured extravagantly. “Not seven miles from St Paul’s. Over that hill lies Fulham Palace, the Bishop of London’s summer seat. Two hours, or very little more, and I shall be at the Globe.”
Despite himself, despite a lifetime’s practice in controlling his features, Geoffrey’s jaw dropped. “Shakespeare’s Globe?”
Marlow’s face bubbled with such unrestrained happiness that Geoffrey swallowed. Had he ever been that young? (Once, certainly, before Oliver had cast him opposite Ellen in Hamlet, but that he preferred not to think of.)
“Is that what they’re calling it now? Oh, I do hope Dickon and Cuthbert don’t mind. Will would be mortified to cause strife among the Sharers.”
Dickon. Cuthbert. A page of Anna’s presentation for sponsors wavered before Geoffrey’s eyes, culture and history packaged up in decorative gobbets, the better to be digested by people who sold corn products shaped like Mickey Mice.
The principal actors in all these plays — and then On expiry of the ground lease of the Theatre in 1598 —
The shock felt like walking into a wall of solid air. Around to claim trade-mark rights, indeed.
He could not let young Marlow see him taken aback (to say nothing, of course, of anyone else who might be watching. Always think of the audience. Even when there isn’t one as Oliver had mordantly observed after a particularly disastrous studio production of The Two Noble Kinsmen.)
He spoke the first words that came into his head. “When were you there last?”
“A year ago last Lent — after we played Hamlet at Court.” Marlow’s face turned boyish, almost pleading. “Oh, I do hope the Company hasn’t been discouraged from playing it again. I would love to try for Horatio, now my voice has broken and mended.”
Geoffrey’s throat closed; for a moment, he thought he might die of asphyxiation. Behind all the whirl of thoughts one stood out clearly. He could see this one as Horatio. There was a flame in that thin, eager face, an air of defiant gallantry in how he wore those travel-worn, salt-stained clothes — yes, an audience could be brought to understand that where this man pledged his friendship he would follow his star through madness, treachery and death.
Somehow, he croaked out, “Why wouldn’t they play it again?”
Marlow shrugged. “It did not catch fire, that first time. You know what audiences can be like.”
Geoffrey nodded. He knew, all right.
“Even so, Dickon almost had them. It is the part he was born to play. But, of course, at Court they always look first to the Queen. But I swear Her Grace would not have been so — distrait— were it not for the Earl. Her condemning the Earl of Essex, I mean, that very day. But Will would have it the play was at fault. And the plays are his share; I don’t think Dickon could insist they played Hamlet again, if Will said no.”
An invisible hand caught at Geoffrey’s heart and squeezed. The past — how fragile the past seemed. His very presence here was changing it, second by second. If Nicholas Marlow had met a stranger on this road first time round, back in 16—whenever, that stranger would not have been Geoffrey Tennant. That stranger might, indeed, have been the kind of man Marlow had been thinking of when his hand had gone to his sword hilt. The encounter might not have gone Marlow’s way. His namesake’s had not.
An infinity of pasts, splitting each from another at every choice taken or not taken, at every meeting consummated or avoided. In some of which, inevitably, Shakespeare, discouraged by a lukewarm initial reception put Hamlet back in his trunk and let it fall into obscurity, along with Love Labours Wonne, Cardenio and who knew what others?
What of Geoffrey Tennant then? Did he, and Ellen, and Oliver shipwreck themselves over a different play? Or did they stagger on past the dangerous corner, into whatever unimaginable future they might have hammered out for themselves? And what, after all, did the problems of three little people matter, in this crazy world?
Geoffrey drew a deep breath. “May I walk with you? I think we’re heading to the same place.”
Marlow nodded. They walked on in silence, toiling up the long, gradual, deceptive slope until at last they stood on its crest and Geoffrey saw below him what no man in twenty-five generations of his own time had seen: London, great still, but shrunk to the compass of a bowl, smudged with sea-coal smoke, clustered amid green hills all around and winding through it all the silver ribbon of the Thames.
He drew a deep breath, took a sidelong glance at Marlow, and the two of them began the slow descent down to the city.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.