EPISODE ONE: EVERINGHAM & REDGRAVE (DECEASED)
We followed the road up towards the school and soon came across a sign directing all visitors to report to reception. A little further along another sign indicated that we should find reception through a small entrance at the side of the school. Walking through the doorway as directed, we were confronted by a large alcove blocked off by an impressive mahogany reception desk. The desk was manned by a middle-aged woman with a severe hairstyle that seemed to sit rather oddly atop a very round, pink face and a fussy blouse. She immediately fixed us with a firm gaze that seemed to say that we had about sixty seconds to prove our credentials before she would have us run out of the building. “Can I help?” she asked in a voice that seemed to suggest the only possible answer would be in the negative.
Michael fastened on a quite dazzling smile. “Hello, I’m terribly sorry to interrupt you,” he said smoothly, “but we were wondering whether it might be possible for us to have a quick look around your fine school.”
“Do you have an appointment?” barked the receptionist. Before either of us could answer a phone rang behind the desk. Obviously concluding that whoever might be on the other end of the line was bound to be more important than us, she muttered a sharp, “Excuse me,” and turned away to answer it.
“You can be as charming as you like,” I hissed to Michael whilst her attention was otherwise engaged. “She’s never going to let you in.”
“They’re always open to old boys,” Michael hissed back defiantly. “I don’t have to tell them exactly when I was here, do I? I’ll just make up a false name.”
“And supposing she wants to look you up in the school register? Or what if she asks you for the names of some of your teachers or your school-friends?”
Abruptly finishing her conversation and replacing the receiver the receptionist looked back up at us suspiciously, betraying an intense disappointment at the discovery that we were still there. “Do you have an appointment?” she repeated firmly.
“Ah, no, I’m afraid we don’t,” conceded Michael. “It’s just…”
I have really no idea what possessed me but as Michael tailed off awkwardly something compelled me to jump in. “It’s just we’re doing a spot of research on one of your famous old boys – Michael Redgrave,” I piped up. “It’s actually for a film we’re working on. We happened to be in the area and we thought it would be really useful to get a look at the place where he spent his schooldays.”
“His very happy schooldays,” Michael threw in hopefully.
An interesting struggle began to play itself out on the face of the receptionist before us, suggesting we may have accidentally hit on just the right note. She considered us closely. “A film you say?”
“Yes, we’re busy writing the script right now,” I said. “And background detail is very important.”
Still she hesitated. “It’s just… there are channels through which a request like this would normally be made.”
“And go through them we will,” insisted Michael. “But if you could just bend the rules for us just this once it would be an enormous help.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed as heartily as I could. “An enormous help.”
The receptionist was clearly intrigued by our story but there was still a residual layer of suspicion that had yet to be shifted. “What made you want to write a film about Michael Redgrave?” she asked carefully.
I floundered but after a moments hesitation Michael stepped smoothly in. “Well, actually he’s kind of a relation of mine,” he said.
“Really, you’re a relation of the Redgraves are you?” the receptionist’s eyes opened wide. “They’re such a marvellous family of actors, aren’t they?” Michael beamed with a pride that was really rather sweet to see. “Do you keep in touch with them at all?”
The beam shuddered momentarily as Michael fumbled for an appropriate answer. “Not so much lately,” he finally conceded.
The family touch though it seemed had finally clinched it for us. The receptionist leaned forward confidentially. “My colleague is due back in just a few minutes and then I suppose if you’re just looking for a quick overview, I could show you round…”
“That would be splendid,” said Michael.
“Thank-you,” I added.
“My name is Miss Sykes, by the way,” our new friend introduced herself.
“I’m Natasha,” I explained. “And this is Michael.”
Miss Sykes opened her eyes even wider. “Named after your famous relative perhaps?”
“So it would seem,” replied Michael.
“If you bear with me just a moment we do keep a record here of some of our most famous alumni…” Miss Sykes hurriedly receded into the depths of the alcove and began digging about amongst a variety of files and papers. She returned a few moments later holding out an open book. “There’s actually a picture of him here from his schooldays…” The black and white photo she presented showed an almost impossibly youthful and shiny faced Michael smiling shyly at the camera. Miss Sykes glanced up from the picture to the Michael standing in front of her desk and almost did a double take. “My, you can really see the family resemblance, can’t you?”
“Can’t you just?” I murmured.
Michael was saved from any feeble explanations by the return of Miss Sykes’ reception colleague. As the new arrival settled into her post behind the desk Miss Sykes hurriedly explained to her all about us and our bogus mission. A considerably younger and more stylish model, her colleague seemed a good deal less impressed than Miss Sykes by this ‘scion of the famous Redgrave dynasty’. But she did seem to be rather taken with the notion of getting Miss Sykes out of the way for half an hour or so and therefore eagerly gave her support to the proposed tour.
So, after issuing a flurry of instructions to cover every possible eventuality that might occur in her absence, Miss Sykes led us off on a tour of the school.
Peter, my boyfriend, has a theory that even the most interesting of conversationalists has one subject on which they can bore for their country. A subject upon which they may start chatting innocuously enough but once you get them started they will reveal hitherto unheralded depths of dreariness. A topic that has an appeal to them which they can never quite convey to their audience. Something they know inside out and back to front. Something they will continue to press with remorseless determination in the face of rank indifference in the hope that one day their listener will be beaten into submission by an avalanche of detail. It’s a theory he comes close to decisively proving anytime he gets onto the subject of Irish folk music.
Now, I don’t know how Miss Sykes rates on day to day conversation but I think I can say with some confidence that when it comes to Clifton College public school she has undoubtedly found her subject. She led us through halls and past classrooms, up stairs and along corridors, down dormitories and around sports pitches, all the time feeding us with such a relentless succession of facts and figures that even Michael’s keen eyes began to glaze over. For someone like myself who had absolutely no connection with the school whatsoever it soon developed into an exercise in tedium unrivalled since Peter had treated me to tickets to the avant-garde cinema showcase at the Arnolfini last summer.
As we passed through an empty classroom largely indistinguishable from the several hundred other classrooms we seemed already to have passed through I took the opportunity to nudge Michael. “Is this nostalgia tour of yours likely to last much longer?” I murmured discreetly.
“I shouldn’t think there’s much left that she hasn’t shown us,” Michael whispered back wearily. “I suppose we ought to see it all now we’re here.”
“The only thing I’m interested in seeing right now is a sausage sandwich,” I muttered.
Miss Sykes noticed we were lagging behind slightly. “Just through here please to the library,” she called out sharply.
We hurried after her like the recalcitrant schoolchildren she seemed to take us for. But as we turned the corner just ahead my eye was caught by a door. We had passed by an incalculable number of doors already during our tour and there was nothing about the door itself, being just an ordinary sized wooden door, to merit any particular attention. Yet there was something in the location of this door that gave me pause. It was clearly an interior door and yet it was situated at an angle where there didn’t seem to be space for it to open out into a room behind. It may have been my over-stimulated imagination but it immediately struck me as a door that seemed to lead to nowhere.
Boredom can affect people in strange ways, leading them to grasp at anything that offers the merest spark of interest, and I’m afraid the effect of Miss Sykes’ guided tour was to cause me to reach out and turn the handle on the door. Miss Sykes had already rounded the corner of the corridor and was marching away in the direction of the library but Michael stopped and watched me curiously as I pulled open the door and peered inside.
Behind the door it was pitch black. That really should have been the end of the matter for any rational person but there was something about the very blackness of the dark beyond the door that seemed to invite further exploration. Holding my hands up in front of me I cautiously edged my way forward.
“Where are you going?” Michael asked impatiently.
“Just a minute,” I murmured in a hushed tone while I continued to edge forwards. There was something about the exquisite darkness that encouraged quiet, possibly for fear of waking something unsavoury within.
Behind me I heard Michael sigh and then follow me through the door. “Why are you so intent on exploring the inside of a cupboard?” he whispered.
“I don’t think it is a cupboard. I can feel a draught, maybe it’s a secret passage.”
“I can assure you there are no secret…”
The end of Michael’s sentence was lost to me as I took another step forward and suddenly the ground disappeared from beneath me. Completely unbalanced, my legs crumpled and I flailed helplessly in mid-air for a moment before my bottom hit the sides of what felt like a large, highly polished chute. Instantly I was whizzing down at a rate of knots in wide circular loops. As the air whooshed past me I heard a stumble and a yell somewhere above that told me that Michael had taken a similar plunge.
It’s hard to tell exactly how long it was before, red faced and breathless, I finally thudded to a halt onto a piece of rough, flat ground. It felt like several minutes but in truth it’s impossible to judge something like time while you’re spinning out of control down an enormous pitch-black slide. It was certainly no more than a few seconds after I had landed that Michael skidded into me with a loud ‘oof!’.
“Do you mind?” I muttered instinctively.
“They sure as hell didn’t have that in my day,” exclaimed Michael as we began the delicate process of disentangling ourselves.
It took a few moments to re-orientate myself as to which way I should be sitting up before I felt ready to examine my surroundings. At first all seemed blackness still but as Michael peeled away a gangly limb I noticed a glimmer of light that appeared to suggest a doorframe ahead. Gingerly I rose to my feet and felt, to great relief, my fingers close around a door handle. I pushed and the door swung open into blinkingly bright sunlight.
I took a few paces forward and squinted as my eyes readjusted to the light. As Michael stepped forward beside me, I took a good look round. We were certainly outdoors but nowhere that I recognised as being anywhere remotely near Clifton College. We appeared to be in the middle of an enormous forest, hemmed in on all sides by a vast variety of foliage. Above us a bright blue, cloudless sky stretched out. In the distance a faintly exotic birdsong called out amongst the dense greenery and the air was muggy and rather oppressive.
I looked at Michael. “Well, fuck me Toto, I don’t think we’re in Bristol anymore.”
A smile slowly spread across Michael’s face. “Do you know what? I think we may just have found Sturridge’s door in the wall.”
I was just about to respond when I was distracted by a creaking noise behind me. I turned around just in time to see the door by which we had just entered this world swing shut. “Hey!” I exclaimed.
Michael hastily reached out and pulled at the handle but the door didn’t budge. “It seems to be stuck,” he announced after a few moments of tugging.
I tried it for myself.
“Not that I suppose it matters,” he continued. “We’d never get back up there. We must have fallen at least a hundred feet.”
“Well that’s just great, isn’t it?” I muttered.
“We wanted to find the landscape of the imagination, didn’t we?” said Michael optimistically. “What’s the problem?”
“I could have done with a bit more warning,” I complained. “I don’t know anything about this place. I’m completely unprepared. I’ve hardly got anything with me.”
“Really, how much stuff do you need?”
“A toothbrush and a spare pair of pants would have been nice for a start.”
Michael looked around hopefully. “There’s bound to be places where we can pick things up,” he ventured.
“Well, I hope they take imaginary money cos all I’ve got on me is £3.47,” I muttered bitterly. “And what about food? I’m bloody starving and I don’t think we’re going to get very far on half a Kit-Kat and a packet of Smints.”
“I’m sure once we get going…” Michael suggested vaguely.
“Get going where?” I asked. “Just where are we supposed to go?”
“Well, that seems to be the only thing resembling a pathway so I suggest we start there.” Michael nodded towards a narrow gravel track that ploughed a way through the trees to our right.
I glanced around with a heavy sigh, scouting out alternatives but it appeared he was right. Just for good measure I turned and gave another tug on the door handle but it was undoubtedly stuck fast. Whatever we did, it didn’t seem like we were getting back to Bristol in a hurry.
I adjusted my bag on my shoulders and peered down the pathway. Nothing was visible but rows of trees drifting away into the distance.
I had just lifted my foot ready to make a start when suddenly there came an ear-shattering animal screech from somewhere far off amongst the foliage. It was like no noise I’d ever heard before, pitched somewhere between a peacock and a hyena and it carried swiftly across the warm air. Michael and I looked at one another in alarm. We continued to strain our ears for a little while longer, alert to any other cries, but silence descended once more.
“After you then Redgrave,” I suggested warily.
“No, no, Everingham, after you,” offered Michael.
We hesitated a little longer, the only noise audible the rustling of the leaves in the trees all around us. Then, figuring it wasn’t going to do us any good standing around here all day, I tentatively suggested; “Together then?”
Michael smiled with some considerable relief. “Together,” he agreed.
And so side by side we calmly strode off down the pathway into the unknown.
And that, believe it or not, is how I found myself in the landscape of the imagination. I often think of poor Miss Sykes, still proudly showing off her school to two people who have unfortunately fallen out of her world altogether. I do hope she’ll forgive us for disappearing so abruptly. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to apologise to her in person one day… if we ever get back.
To be continued…
Episode Two Coming Soon