Authors: Araminta Hall
Somehow Alice knew not to tell her mother. She didn’t know any other grown-ups properly, certainly nothing beyond polite hellos and isn’t-the-weather-terrible conversations and so she had little to compare Clarice to, but she still knew her mother was odd. For a start she called her Clarice.
The other parts were soon allotted and they began daily rehearsals, either in the village hall or at Mr Jenkins’s house. Everyone was at least twenty years older than Alice which did make her love scenes with Romeo rather odd, but still she had never felt more relaxed or at ease in her life. The bliss of knowing exactly what you should say from beginning to end, of being allowed to use up all your reserves of emotion on someone else’s life … By the end of the first week she was already fantasising about the drama schools in London that Mr Jenkins said he would help her apply to.
‘Is your mother coming to the first night?’ Mr Jenkins asked her one evening, when they were washing up mugs in the village-hall kitchen. Alice had dreaded that question; everyone in Druith knew Clarice Cartwright, whose family had always owned the biggest house in the village, in which Alice and her mother still lived.
‘I haven’t told her I’m in the play yet,’ said Alice. She’d never known how to lie but keeping quiet wasn’t the same as lying. If her mother had ever asked her where she got to every afternoon she would have told her the truth in a heartbeat, but Clarice never had.
‘Oh but, Alice, you’ve got to. You’re amazing. She’d be so proud.’
‘I am eighteen, you know,’ she answered, as if she thought he was worried about permission.
‘But everyone will be talking about you. You outshine the others by a mile. You’ll definitely be written about in the local paper. And anyway, where will you tell your mother you’re going every evening?’
Alice hadn’t thought about this aspect of the whole performance yet, but as soon as Mr Jenkins said it she knew he was right. She finished drying the cups and went home and found Clarice in the garden, sitting under the apple tree drinking tea out of her china cup, set neatly back in its saucer after every sip.
Alice stood over her mother and said it all as quickly as she could. ‘I have something to tell you. I got a part in the village play,
Romeo and Juliet
. I’m playing Juliet. That’s the lead role, you know. Mr Jenkins the director says I’m a natural; he says I should go to drama school and become a proper actress. That’s where I’ve been going every afternoon, to rehearse. The opening night is on Saturday and Mr Jenkins thinks you should come.’
Clarice hadn’t betrayed any emotion during this speech, but Alice was used to that. Her mother took another sip of tea and set her cup back down. ‘Does he now,’ she said finally.
‘Well, and of course I’d like you to come as well.’
‘I’m surprised that you didn’t tell me about all of this before, Alice.’
Her mother nodded at this. ‘Have you enjoyed yourself?’ Alice nodded. ‘And you think you could be an actress? On the advice of one failed actor?’
‘Mr Jenkins. That’s what he did in London before he came to Druith. Apparently he hardly ever worked until he accepted defeat and came to live here.’
‘Oh.’ Alice saw Mr Jenkins’s flourishes and silk handkerchiefs and clapping hands and knew Clarice was right.
‘So, you see, he probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’
‘Of course I’ll come and see you though. Should I buy a ticket or something?’
Alice felt as if someone had deflated a balloon in her stomach and she was filled with stale air. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get one for you.’ She turned to walk away, but then stopped, her face flushing with the effort of staying calm. ‘It’s not just Mr Jenkins, you know, they all say I’m good. And I do love it and I think I’m quite good.’
Clarice smiled but Alice knew better than to trust it. ‘Acting isn’t a suitable profession, Alice. And besides, you’d never manage in London on your own.’
‘But will you come and watch before you decide?’
‘Of course,’ said Clarice. ‘I’m looking forward to it.’
The play went as well as it could have and Mr Jenkins was right: Alice completely outshone the others, everyone told her she was wonderful and the local paper ran a picture of her on their front page underneath the unimaginative heading of ‘A Star is Born’. Not that Alice cared about any of that, she was so entranced by the sensation of stepping out on to that bright stage each night and looking into a deep, all-consuming blackness that she would have done it even if everyone hated her. The others talked of nerves and stage fright and some even took a shot of whisky before going on, but Alice couldn’t understand that. To her it felt like diving into a cool swimming pool with the sun on her back; she felt her muscles unlock and her head drain of anxiety.
The play ran for four nights, but Clarice only came once on the first night. She hadn’t come for a drink afterwards, but when Alice had arrived home she’d been sitting up in her chair by the fire and she’d said, ‘Well done, you really were very good.’
After the last show Mr Jenkins produced two bottles of champagne, which the cast used to toast each other. Alice had never drunk alcohol before but she found it prolonged the floating, buzzing sensation she had so enjoyed on stage. After one glass she said her goodbyes and set off, but Mr Jenkins ran after her and took her arm and made her promise to come and see him the next day so he could tell her which drama schools to apply for and even help her make the calls. She promised that she would, her mother’s words of encouragement ringing in her ears.
Clarice was in bed when she got home and so she made herself a sandwich and took it upstairs with her, where she spent the night dreaming about larger and larger stages and a deeper and deeper blackness. She woke up happier than she could ever remember feeling and tripped down to breakfast. Clarice was already sitting at the head of the table, buttering her toast.
Alice set to work on her own toast, her legs itching to get to Mr Jenkins.
‘So, now that’s over then,’ said Clarice, her gaze resting over Alice’s head and travelling into the garden where Peter, the gardener, was already working.
‘Your little play.’
‘Oh, well, yes.’
‘I got you this.’ Clarice slid a white sheet of paper over the table to Alice. It looked like an application form and for a moment Alice’s heart contracted with the unexpectedness of life. Before this minute everything had been over in such short fleeting moments of time, tiny seconds which amounted to nothing, but here was a chance to live a life she understood. She joined the letters on the paper in front of her and saw the words ‘Cartertown Secretarial College, Diploma in Typing’.
‘But …’ she started.
‘I think it’s for the best, don’t you?’ said Clarice and she really was smiling. She wasn’t some wicked witch in a fairy tale, she genuinely believed that this was the best thing Alice could do. Alice saw all of that, she knew it and yet she also knew that she was wrong, wrong beyond measure. She opened her mouth to speak, but found that she wasn’t in possession of the right words to make her mother understand any of this. ‘I think we both know that being an actress is a bit of fantasy for someone like you. Not that you weren’t brilliant, Alice, but it’s such a tough world and you are so, so delicate. You would be gobbled up in a day by all those people. They run a summer course, it starts in three weeks.’ Alice nodded, tears blocking her throat. ‘And there’ll be other village-hall productions. Mr Jenkins isn’t going anywhere.’
And nor am I, thought Alice, as she took her pen and started to fill in her details.
Cartertown College of Further Education was as terrible as Alice had feared. None of the other girls spoke to her, as girls had never done. She knew that everything about her was wrong: she didn’t listen to pop music or wear make-up or giggle about boys and, worst of all, she knew she was extremely pretty. She wasn’t being big-headed; in fact if she’d had the choice she would have been plain: plain meant you could keep your head down and men didn’t stare and women didn’t sneer. Pretty was, in essence, nothing more than a genetic coincidence that had arranged itself in a pleasing way, which was totally baffling when you thought about it. Alice after all had the same features as everyone else and yet they appeared so much more appealing on her.
The time passed as slowly as she’d ever known it. She read books written hundreds of years ago on the hour-long bus journey to and from Cartertown every day, she failed to place her fingers on the right keys in class and ate her lunch alone in a corner of the cafeteria. But it was only a twelve-week course and so she told her mother it was fine and devised plans about how she could get a secretarial job in London when it was over and pay her own way through drama school.
Then she met Tony. She left college at the same time every day, knowing that if she kept up a good pace she would make the 4.10 bus. She crossed the road in the same place as usual and just as she was about to step up onto the kerb, a heavy foot landed right in front of her, nearly tripping her up. She turned her head upwards and he was smiling down at her, his long hair blowing across his face. ‘Sorry, love,’ he said, ‘I was just stubbing out my fag and you came out of nowhere.’ He laughed.
She opened her mouth to speak but no words seemed adequate.
He laughed again. ‘How about I buy you a drink to say sorry?’
Alice nodded without knowing what she was doing. She had never spoken to anyone outside of Druith before, apart from bus drivers and teachers. Dates had never been set, pubs never been entered, drinks never drunk. But this man had quite clearly been sent to save her. As if he had it written across his forehead, she knew that he was the real thing.
‘Come on then,’ he said, taking her hand, ‘I know a great little place just up here.’
It was as if she was in a dream; nothing made sense as she was led up the streets of Cartertown by a man whose name she didn’t know on the way to a pub. The sights of the journey were the same as every other day but her new circumstances distorted everything into an approximation of what she thought she knew. She imagined Clarice watching, from some omnipotent position and realised that she conducted most of her life this way, sure that her mother was watching. Relatively quickly they turned into a small smoky pub where Tony found them a tiny table covered with grimy mats, redolent with spilt beer and surrounded by authentic red velvet stools.
‘So what can I get you?’ he asked, standing over her.
‘Oh, well, I think a gin and tonic.’ The champagne she’d had with Mr Jenkins seemed like too much and it was the only other drink of whose existence she had any real confidence.
Tony smiled and she watched him glide his way easily to the bar where he made himself heard, waving a five-pound note between two fingers as if he was talking a hidden language. He brought their drinks back to the table and put them down, straddling his stool confidently.
‘D’you want one?’ he asked, proffering a packet of cigarettes. Alice shook her head as he lit one expertly, sucking deeply on the end. He smiled and extended his hand. ‘Tony Marks.’
Alice blushed and giggled. ‘Alice Cartwright.’
‘Well, Alice Cartwright, what were you doing when I so rudely stepped on your foot?’
‘Oh, just going home.’
He laughed. ‘Just going home? From where, to where?’
She felt the flush on her face deepen and suspected her nervous rash was blooming on her neck. ‘I’m at Cartertown College, doing a secretarial course. I live about an hour from here.’
‘So you want to be a secretary?’
No one had ever asked Alice this many questions and she wasn’t sure if her head was spinning from them or the gin. ‘No, not really.’
‘Why are you doing a secretarial course then?’
His voice had an accent which Alice couldn’t place and she wanted to ask him about it, but didn’t know if that would be rude. ‘It’s complicated.’
‘Do you know what you do want to do?’
‘I’ve just been in a play at the village hall.’
‘Does that mean you want to be an actress then?’ His voice had a hint of amusement in it.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You’re certainly pretty enough. Has anyone ever told you that you look like Cindy Crawford?’ Alice shook her head. Tony looked at her a minute and then said, ‘You do know who Cindy Crawford is, don’t you?’
‘She’s a model, isn’t she?’
‘Not just a model, a supermodel. It’s a big compliment.’
‘Don’t you read any of those women’s mags?’
He drained his beer and Alice suspected she was boring him. But his tone was more relieved when he said, ‘I thought you were all addicted to
or whatever it’s called. How about music then, who are you into?’
Alice felt herself sinking, it was no good. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think …’
But Tony laughed again. ‘Films?’
She blushed and shook her head, smiling despite her embarrassment.
‘Shit, it’s like you’ve been airlifted in from a different century. Where do you live?’
‘Druith. It’s a village in the middle of nowhere, really. We don’t have a cinema or anything like that.’
‘But you have been to the pictures before, right?’
‘Oh yes.’ Alice didn’t think it would help matters to reveal that the one and only time she had been was to see
with her father the year before he died. Of course she watched films on the telly, but she mainly loved the musicals with Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day and she knew she probably shouldn’t admit to that either.
‘Would you like to go again?’
‘Yes.’ Alice couldn’t be sure if he was asking or teasing.
‘How about I take your number then and maybe we could go at the weekend?’
Alice wrote her number on the receipt Tony found in his jeans pocket but knew he couldn’t possibly ring her house. ‘How about we arrange to meet now, instead of you calling,’ she said, stumbling over her words.
He laughed again. ‘But we don’t know the times.’