EPISODE ONE: EVERINGHAM & REDGRAVE (DECEASED)
He leaned forward and for just a moment those blue eyes sparkled into life. “The landscape of the imagination,” he said. “Just say it exists. Really, actually exists. A real, physical world which has grown from the whole of human imagination over thousands of years. Every story ever told, every character ever created, every idea ever conceived. What if you could actually travel there and explore such a landscape? What would you say to that?”
I stared deeply into my whisky and soda, trying to think of an appropriate response. “Err…” I replied…
And that was how it started really. This whole ludicrous adventure. Well, perhaps, strictly speaking that wasn’t quite the exact start. For dramatic purposes I may have dropped you in it just a little bit. But beginnings are tricky things to get a handle on. Constantly shifting in and out of focus and very much dependant upon your perspective. But I’m digressing. Allow me to rewind just a short way. Perhaps the true beginning came with the notification that CJ Sturridge was coming to give a talk at our University.
This, naturally, was something of a coup and made all the more exciting by the fact that we were only given a weeks notice of his impending arrival. Despite, or more likely because, we were given to understand that this august visit was something to be kept under wraps, not for public disclosure as it were, I was immediately itching to tell the first person I could. That honour happened to fall to my boyfriend, Peter, who I had arranged to meet for coffee after lectures that day.
The reaction was not quite the one I had hoped for. Peter wrinkled his brow in an almost pantomimic display of disbelief. “The CJ Sturridge?” he repeated slowly.
“No, a CJ Sturridge,” I retorted irritably. “Of course, the CJ Sturridge. How many CJ Sturridges do you know?”
“The author, poet, screenwriter and literary critic, CJ Sturridge?” Peter continued at the same deliberate pace. “General all round genius, CJ Sturridge?”
“Yep, that’ll be the one.”
“What does he want to come and talk to you lot for?”
With remarkable control I resisted the urge to empty my coffee cup over Peter’s head. “No, I didn’t mean it like that.” Peter hurriedly back-pedalled. “It’s just I heard he’d become something of a recluse lately.”
“Well clearly something has occurred to bring him back out of his shell.”
“And you do kind of imagine that he gets asked to talk at places like Oxford and Cambridge. I’m a bit surprised he’d be interested in coming to Bristol, of all places.”
“I don’t know, maybe he wanted to go somewhere with a zoo,” I said, with just a note of exasperation. “Or perhaps he’s heard of the glories of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the SS Great Britain. Or maybe, just maybe he thought it would be nice to offer a little bit of encouragement to a group of hard-working students who very rarely get the opportunity to hear from anyone with an ounce of genuine talent.”
“No, you’re right.” Peter attempted a look of contrition which really didn’t sit at all well on his face. “I’m sorry, I’m sure it’ll be a great talk.”
I grunted in response. Now that my initial enthusiasm had been thoroughly trampled upon I wasn’t really in the mood for peace offerings. And I rather suspected that the real reason Peter was creating objections was because he hated the idea of my getting some genuine interest out of my course. Peter had never really approved of my decision to return to University last year to study for a postgraduate degree in creative writing. He thought that education was a bourgeois concept that merely regurgitated accepted wisdom and that, at twenty-six, I should be making my own way in the world, defying convention and breaking new ground. But then he was thirty-five and had a mortgage and a Ford Mondeo so who was he to talk? And the truth was I only really stuck at it for the student library card. The idea of free access to thousands of books and DVDs was far more appealing than anything my tutors had to offer.
“Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about next Monday myself,” Peter attempted to rescue the afternoon with a smooth change of subject. “This’ll cheer you up. You’ll never guess what’s playing at The Watershed as part of their Hitchcock classics season.” I stared blankly at him. “Your favourite, The Lady Vanishes.”
My face unintentionally twitched into a smile. It was true that I was quite a fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock and that this early British thriller of his was a particular favourite.
Peter saw the smile and judged that all was well again. “So, what do you say we make a night of it?” he suggested. “I’ll even buy you dinner afterwards. I know how you students appreciate a free meal.”
“Afterwards?” The smile on my face froze momentarily. “Why not before? What time does it start?”
“The film’s showing at six-thirty.”
My brief return to excitement melted away in an instant. “You’re kidding. Sturridge is giving his talk at six o’clock. I can’t make the cinema then.”
“So, we’ll just do dinner,” insisted Peter. “We’ll eat, we’ll talk… it’ll be nice.”
“Oh but now I really want to see The Lady Vanishes,” I replied, uncomfortably aware that my voice was rising perilously close to a whine.
“You’ve seen it hundreds of times already.” It was clear that Peter was equally endeavouring to diminish the note of annoyance that was rising in his voice. “If you’re that desperate to see it we’ll get a take-away and watch the DVD at my place.”
I looked at his expectant face and considered my response. I thought about saying something conciliatory, about being the bigger person and taking my disappointment in my stride.
Well, I thought about it. But what I actually said was; “Bollocks.”
Over the course of the week I gradually managed to swallow most of my disappointment. In truth, the prospect of getting to meet and hear from CJ Sturridge, live and in the flesh, should have outweighed everything. He was, after all, one of my favourite writers, someone I’d always wanted to meet. But having learned of The Lady Vanishes playing at the Watershed I couldn’t quite shake it from my mind. It was like a small piece of grit niggling in my shoe during a long country walk. No matter how tiny and insignificant it might be in the grand scheme of things it still somehow contrived to spoil the view.
Towards the end of the week though Professor Watkins, our principal lecturer, sought to distract me from this small worry by replacing it with a much larger one. As CJ Sturridge was not scheduled to deliver his talk until 6pm on Monday he decided that each of the members of my tutorial group should keep the rest of the student body entertained while they waited by giving a presentation. This, quite naturally, filled me with an immense sense of dread. There are few things I detest more than being asked to stand up in front of a random group of people and talk, regardless of the subject. And the subject on this occasion had been set as ‘Features of Cinematic Narrative (illustrated with examples from a feature film of your own choosing)’. No, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean either. I was utterly filled with dread.
Having spent the best part of the weekend trying hard not to contemplate the ordeal ahead I suddenly found myself in a state of near panic on Sunday evening when I realised that with only hours till the deadline I hadn’t even selected a film to discuss, let alone worked out what I was going to say. I wasted a further hour scrabbling around in my DVD collection, leaping erratically from genre to genre in a effort to find something that might impress a gathering of impatient students. And then I remembered the Hitchcock season at the Watershed. So on Monday afternoon I marched into the lecture theatre with a DVD copy of The Lady Vanishes tucked under my arm, determined to amaze everyone with my insightful appreciation of the nature of Hitchcock’s genius.
It went about as well as could be expected. I was to present last so the audience was already wearing an almost uniformly glazed expression before I even got to my feet.
I could have told you in advance how my fellow students would handle the assignment.
Richard began by boring for England on the technical details of early Soviet cinema: “…so we can see how Eisenstein’s theory of montage constituted a complete re-imagining of cinematic language…”
Becky then proceeded to wet her pants with excitement at the genius of the French new wave: “…Godard’s self-reflexive modes of narration were just so instrumental in opening up a whole new world of possibilities in modern film…”
And finally Ben attempted to demonstrate how painfully hip and cool he was by picking on some cult exploitation flick and giving it a sub-Tarantino re-evaluation: “…so the nudity of the biker chicks and the graphic violence of their struggle with the Nazi zombies from Hell are really intended as an artistic challenge to the staid conventions of mainstream cinema…”
Naturally, after that little lot, my simple account of Hitchcock’s masterly use of story-telling techniques in The Lady Vanishes didn’t exactly overwhelm my audience. As I stumbled, dry-mouthed and scarcely able to focus, through to the end of my conclusion I was greeted with a tired round of applause. I was so relieved that the whole thing was over that I didn’t even quibble when Professor Watkins nominated me to lock away the projector at the end of the session.
It meant though that by the time I finally made my way into the crowded Uni bar there was very little left of the allotted half hour break before we were to reassemble for the Sturridge talk. I found Becky and Ben occupying a table in the corner and settled into an empty seat beside them. They were just on the verge of dividing up the half pint of lager they had thoughtfully bought for me so I had to move quickly to claim the drink for myself.
“Don’t be too long over it though,” a disappointed looking Becky admonished. “We don’t want to be late if we’re to find a decent seat for the talk.”
“He’s over there by the way,” Ben murmured confidentially. “Standing by the bar.”
“Sturridge of course. Who do you think?”
I looked across and there he was. Leaning against the very end of the bar, nursing a glass of whisky and giving off just enough of a ‘fuck off’ vibe to deter the gang of worshipful students hovering nearby from making a definitive approach. He was tall and well-built, looking younger than his fifty years in spite of greying hair and a neatly trimmed beard that he seemed to have recently sprouted.
“I’m not sure about the beard,” I casually remarked.
“Oh, I think it makes him look quite distinguished,” insisted Becky. “Rather dishy in fact – for his age.”
“Forget it, he’s as gay as they come,” interjected Ben knowingly.
“Not exclusively,” retorted Becky. “I met a guy at Glastonbury who was friends with a guy who reckoned he knew a girl who claimed she’d slept with CJ Sturridge at the Hay literary festival.”
“Oh my God, he’s looking this way,” exclaimed Ben as Sturridge moved from a close examination of his whisky to gazing languidly around the room. “Try and look like we’re having a deep, intellectual conversation.”
“I’m not sure my imagination will stretch quite that far,” I muttered.
For just a moment the whole bar seemed to hold its breath as Sturridge’s eyes lazily swept round the room. Apparently spotting nothing of interest, Sturridge returned to pondering over his whisky. There was a near universal sigh of disappointment.
“Oh come on,” said Becky with a hint of irritation. “If we go now we might get a seat in the front row.”
“But I haven’t finished my drink,” I protested as Becky and Ben rose in unison.
“You stay and finish it off then,” she quickly responded.
“Don’t worry, we’ll save you a seat,” called out Ben, already nearly halfway out of the door.
In an instant I was alone at the table. “Fine,” I mumbled to myself. “I’ll just sit here by myself and stare at the great CJ Sturridge, shall I?”
As I looked up, Sturridge’s eyes did another sweep of the room, only this time they stopped dead as they fell upon my table. Too embarrassed to look away, I felt a deep flush rise up from the sole of my shoes as he casually regarded me with a mild curiosity, as though I were a vaguely remembered face he was trying to place at a school reunion.
“Oh my God, he’s coming over,” was all that managed to run through my brain as he picked up his glass of whisky, slowly unfurled himself from the bar and strode over.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked with a strange kind of faint smile.
“No, of course not. Absolutely,” I blustered.
Apparently unconscious of the eager attention of every other pair of eyes in the bar, he settled himself into Becky’s vacant seat. “I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your presentation just now.”
A further wave of indescribable horror swept over me. “Oh sweet Jesus, you saw that?”
“Well, it transpired that I’d turned up a little early and I think your Professor Watkins looked askance at the prospect of my spending three hours in the bar so I was invited to come along and see the students in action. You were really quite interesting.”
“Oh, well, thanks,” was the best I could manage in response.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch your name.”
“It’s Natasha, Natasha Everingham,” I replied, inwardly rejoicing at my ability to conjure up this crucial piece of information at such a vital moment.
“I’m CJ Sturridge.”
“I know,” I instinctively said. Then, realising this was not perhaps the most polite response, I added, “I’m very much looking forward to hearing your talk.”
Sturridge’s face clouded over momentarily before he swirled his whisky around in his glass with what seemed to be a rather forced air of unconcern. “I shouldn’t be if I was you,” he said. “I haven’t got a thing to say.”
“What?” I looked at him, vaguely bewildered.
“I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here really. To be perfectly honest I may have had one or two drinks when I agreed to the whole thing.”
“Seriously?” I completely forgot my earlier embarrassment in an effort to examine his face closely for signs that he may be joking or teasing.
“Seriously,” he responded with determination. Now that he had got started he seemed to find confession good for the soul. “I haven’t got one word prepared. I thought I would wait for inspiration to strike on the train journey over but, alas, it seems that inspiration is rather hard to come by these days.”
“But what are you going to do?” I asked. “I don’t want to worry you but I’m afraid there are likely to be an awful lot of people waiting to hear you speak.”
Sturridge shrugged his shoulders and gave that odd half-smile of his again. He glanced casually at the DVD of The Lady Vanishes which was lying on top of my notes on the table in front of me. “Perhaps we could just play them your film in full. It’ll be far more interesting than anything I might have to say.”
“I’m not entirely sure your audience will agree,” I replied.
Sturridge merely shrugged and took a mouthful of whisky. “What made you choose that film for your presentation anyway?” he asked suddenly.
“Well it’s always been one of my favourites,” I confessed. “And I guess I was put in mind of it by the fact that it’s playing as part of the Hitchcock classics series at the Watershed. My boyfriend was going to take me to see it. I was a bit annoyed I couldn’t go.”
“Why not? You should always make an effort to see Hitchcock’s films on the big screen.”
“It’s on tonight you see,” I hastened to explain lest CJ Sturridge should write me off as some kind of philistine. “It starts in about half an hour.”
“But you should go!” exclaimed Sturridge, his blue eyes suddenly alive with a spark of animation that had not seemed possible a couple of minutes ago.
“But you’re just about to give your talk. I can’t miss that.”
“Why ever not? I’ve already told you I don’t have a thing to say. Far better to go and see The Lady Vanishes. I’d go if I were you.” Sturridge abruptly slammed his whisky glass down upon the table. “In fact, I think I will go. We could go together if you like.”
“But what about your lecture? There are hundreds of people waiting to hear you talk.”
“Oh, they’ll get over it,” insisted Sturridge with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Come on, let’s go to the pictures.”
I hesitated. On the one hand I felt oddly responsible for ensuring that Sturridge gave a speech as required, though I wasn’t sure if this was due to a concern that he might get into trouble or an awareness that I might well be lynched by the rest of the students if they discovered me to be responsible for wrecking the occasion. But on the other hand here was the CJ Sturridge asking me to go to the pictures with him. I mean, opportunities like that don’t just come along every day.
Before I could make a response though we were interrupted by the portly figure of Professor Watkins looming over Sturridge’s shoulder. “Well Mr Sturridge, it’s almost six o’clock,” he announced portentously. “We have a packed hall ready and eager for your words of wisdom.”
Sturridge fixed his eyes on his whisky glass for a moment or two before he turned to respond. “Of course,” he replied smoothly. “You couldn’t just give me two ticks to gather my thoughts, could you?”
“Certainly, certainly,” blustered Professor Watkins. “I’ll wait for you just over there by the door.”
Professor Watkins slunk away across the bar, all the time keeping his eyes upon Sturridge with a look of mild suspicion.
Sturridge watched until Watkins had retired as far as he was prepared to go and then he turned back to me. I was amazed to see a look of real desperation on his face. “There has to be some way of getting out of this,” he urged. “Help me Natasha. Do something.”
I sat rather stunned for a moment, not knowing quite what to make of it. The bar was still full of all manner of students and staff, bustling here and there. With Watkins hovering ominously on the periphery of my vision it all seemed decidedly unreal. But there was no mistaking the pleading in Sturridge’s eyes as he gazed helplessly at me.
And then I noticed the fire alarm on the wall just above my right elbow. In case of emergency, break glass. So, as Watkins’ view of our table was momentarily obscured by a gaggle of passing students, I did just that.
A piercing shriek of an alarm immediately flooded through the bar, followed by a general commotion from various groups of people who swirled uncertainly, calling and yelling to try and make themselves heard above the din. Sturridge’s face immediately broke into a broad smile. “Genius!” he mouthed across at me.
We both stood up at the same time and I instinctively reached out and pulled him close to me as figures scuttled back and forth, nobody quite sure where to go. Watkins was intermittently visible in the centre of the room, trying to maintain some sort of order. His voice occasionally floated above the din; “Try and leave the premises in an orderly fashion… Oh dear… evacuation point in the car park…”
I crabbed cautiously sideways, pulling Sturridge with me, aiming for the side door which opened out onto the terrace. Bodies were whirling and rippling all around us like a river in full flood and I was conscious of Watkins’ eyes searching us out amongst the crowd. There was a crash across the other side of the room as someone upset a table full of drinks and I sensed the moment to make our move. “Now,” I muttered as the waves of people momentarily parted. Sturridge and I dashed through the doorway. As we sprinted across the terrace I was sure I could hear a faint echo of Professor Watkins forlornly calling out, “Mr Sturridge? Mr Sturridge?”
We didn’t stop running until we reached the main road. There we paused, aching and out of breath, to check that there was no sign of pursuit. There were plenty of people passing to and fro but nobody seemed particularly interested in us, except for an elderly woman who cast a disapproving glare at the sight of a young woman and a middle aged man standing, dishevelled and panting, together on the pavement. With a wry smile I led us off in the direction of the Watershed. A few metres down the road we passed a fire engine steaming up in the opposite direction with all lights flashing. We pretended not to notice.