EPISODE ONE: EVERINGHAM & REDGRAVE (DECEASED)
An hour or so later, erroneously thinking that my life couldn’t possibly get any stranger, I decided to go out for a bit of a walk to clear my head. It was a bright and pleasant, if somewhat breezy, afternoon and I figured that some vigorous exercise in the fresh air was just what was required to regain my focus for tackling the critical evaluation. However, in the end I managed about twenty minutes of aimless strolling before settling down on a bench on Clifton Green to read a book. I’m afraid it is rather a habit of mine to deal with anything contentious or stressful in my life by disappearing into literature for as long as I can in the hope that my problems will go away of their own accord in the meantime. On this occasion though I had barely managed a couple of pages before I was interrupted by the sound of hastily approaching footsteps.
“Ah, there you are!” exclaimed an ever so slightly breathless voice. “You’re a very difficult person to track down, do you know that?”
The bench creaked as a tall figure sat down next to me. “You don’t mind if I sit down, do you? I must have walked miles.”
I looked up into the smiling face turned towards me and almost dropped my book. The face was certainly familiar to me but the last time I had seen it was staring down at me from a cinema screen in the Watershed on Monday evening. Which, given that the film in question was the 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes, made it quite impossible that the self-same face was now staring expectantly at me here on Clifton Green. Yet the evidence of my eyes said that the person sat next to me was in every way identical to the Michael Redgrave I had watched on screen just a few nights ago. The same face, the same hair, the same clothes, everything.
I must have gawped open-mouthed for a good thirty seconds before eventually I said, “Excuse me. Do I know you?”
A momentary look of concern passed across the features regarding me. “You are Natasha Everingham, aren’t you?”
I had been thrown so far off balance that I had to properly consider for a few moments whether I would be correct to answer in the affirmative. “Yes, that’s me,” I finally replied.
“Thought so,” concluded the interloper triumphantly. “They showed me a picture. I’m Michael Redgrave.”
“Of course you are,” was all I could think to respond.
“I need to talk to you quite urgently,” he said confidentially.
“Of course you do.”
“It’s about CJ Sturridge.”
“Of course it is.” Realising that the conversation was slipping rather rapidly out of my understanding I made a concerted effort to rein it back in before my head exploded. “I’m sorry,” I broke in before my new friend could continue, “but… you’re Michael Redgrave?”
“Correct,” he replied with a brisk nod.
“The Michael Redgrave,” I continued disbelievingly. “Star of stage and screen, theatrical knight of the realm, Michael Redgrave?”
“It’s alright, you don’t have to call me Sir Michael or anything like that,” he breezily announced.
“But if you’re the actual Michael Redgrave shouldn’t you be a bit, well, dead by now?” I asked, trying to put it as politely as I could. I stared a little more intently at the smoothly handsome features before me. “Or at least looking a little worse for wear.”
Michael blinked as though an unexpected and potentially disagreeable thought had just occurred to him. “Oh there’s a point,” he replied. “What year are you in here?”
“This is 2010.”
The news seemed to take him aback just a bit. “Blimey! Then, yes, I guess I am rather dead – in a sense.”
It’s funny how quickly entirely unlikely ideas can become accepted if delivered with enough authority. In the face of the visual evidence and Michael’s undoubted confidence in his own identity, my brain quickly moved forward to addressing the next obvious issue. “So, what are you then – a ghost?” I asked quite calmly.
“No, not exactly,” replied Michael. His tone seemed to suggest that although this was the first time he had been asked to contemplate the idea, he did not consider it wholly improbable.
I instinctively reached out and pinched him firmly on the arm just to make sure. It was not something I would normally consider doing to a person I’d only just met but the circumstances seemed to justify the action on this occasion. “No, you feel a bit too substantial to be a ghost,” I mused. “What then? A zombie? A vampire? A werewolf?”
“Why on earth would I be a werewolf?”
“I don’t know, I was just running with a theme. Maybe you’re just an hallucination,” I suggested. “I have been working quite hard lately.” I gave him another pinch just to be sure.
This time he looked mildly offended. “Oww, will you stop doing that? Look, I’m not a ghost or a zombie… and I’m certainly not a werewolf,” he explained with just a hint of irritation. “I’m just… a bit out of my time that’s all.”
My mind quickly raced ahead to the next obvious question. “So, what’s it like being dead then?” I asked with an affected casualness.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“It’s a condition of coming back into the land of the living,” Michael said somewhat sheepishly. “Death must remain a mystery. You know, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” He seemed aware that this was a bit of a weak explanation. “Except, of course, that I have sort of returned. But, well, you get the idea. The moment I stepped back into this world anything that may or may not have happened to me since I shuffled off my mortal coil has been wiped from my memory.”
I examined him closely for any signs of dissimulation. “You don’t remember anything? No bright lights? No serene presence? No… fiery pits?”
Michael drew himself up rather haughtily. “Just what are you trying to suggest?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I insisted. “It’s just, I don’t know you – you could have ended up anywhere.” I looked him up and down thoughtfully. “But the mere fact of your being here is surely proof that there is some kind of life after death,” I conjectured.
“Not necessarily,” he retorted. “I might have been reassembled from bits of dust.” He paused for a moment to reflect on this idea. Not appearing to enjoy whatever thoughts he had just conjured up he pressed on quickly. “Anyway, all of this is rather besides the point. I came here to talk to you about CJ Sturridge.”
“You know CJ Sturridge?”
“Not personally. But I do know that he’s in trouble. That’s why I’m here. We have to go and rescue him.”
That uncomfortable feeling of being involved in a conversation that was running away from me was returning. “Rescue him? From where?”
“From the landscape of the imagination,” Michael replied as though this were something that should have been self-evident to even the meanest of intellects. “He told you that was where he was going, didn’t he?” I must have continued to look rather baffled. “You did get his note, didn’t you?”
“How do you know about the note?” I asked suspiciously.
“They told me all about it. I know all about your conversation in the bar and the note he pushed through your letterbox just before he went.” The expression on his face seemed to suggest that Michael imagined he was being entirely reassuring but it seemed to me that the more he spoke the more out of my depth I felt.
“Sorry, who’s they? Who told you?”
“Ah, well, hard to say really. They’re quite mysterious. Let’s just call them ‘the powers that be’. They’re sort of in charge of keeping an eye on things as far as I can make out. And they asked me to come and help you rescue Sturridge.”
Fearing that my brain was in serious danger of dribbling slowly out of my ears I shook my head in an attempt to regain control of my thoughts. “Okay, don’t take this the wrong way but why did they send you?” I asked. “I mean, given that you’re dead and everything, I would have imagined that there were easier people they could have got to come and help me.”
“Personal request,” replied Michael, just a touch sharply. “You and Sturridge both said it on Monday. Who better to escort you on a complex and dangerous adventure?”
Somewhere through the whisky befuddled memories of Monday night a line of conversation came back to me. “Ah, I think there might have been a slight misunderstanding. We were discussing The Lady Vanishes.” I paused and looked at him closely. “I suppose that must explain your look. Quite impressive, I have to say.”
Michael glanced down thoughtfully at the tweed suit he was wearing and then ran his hand self-consciously through his hair. “It’s not too bad I suppose,” he said with just a touch of vanity. “I’ve certainly had worse looks over my lifetime.”
“Are you planning on keeping the moustache?”
“Why, don’t you like it?”
“Mmmm…” I tactfully restrained myself from outright comment.
“This look was very popular in the thirties.”
“So was Hitler.”
Michael smoothed down his hair again and affected a look of nonchalance. “Anyway,” I pressed on, changing the subject. “Let’s just say for a moment that I do believe that you are Michael Redgrave, despite the fact of his having been dead for quite some time…” Michael opened his mouth to interrupt but I hurriedly continued. “And let’s just say that I believe that CJ Sturridge has in fact disappeared through some strange portal into an imaginary landscape. And that for some reason I have been singled out to go and save him…” Michael again appeared on the verge of interjecting but I was determined to finish. “What makes you think CJ Sturridge either wants or needs rescuing from this landscape?”
“Ah…” Michael looked momentarily nonplussed. “Well, the powers that be…” he began uncertainly.
“Of course,” I interjected with perhaps a touch more sarcasm than was strictly necessary. “The mysterious powers that be.”
“Alright, so they may have been a little vague and I may not have been paying the closest of attention to the whole story,” Michael said wearily. “All I know is that it is very important that Sturridge is found and brought back to the real world as soon as possible. And not just for his sake.” There was a pause and then Michael looked at me with a sudden gleam in his eye. “And, come on, aren’t you just the slightest bit curious to see what might be behind that door in the wall?”
The truth was I was more than a little curious but I didn’t intend to give up my grip on reality quite so easily. “I’m also very busy though,” I complained. “I’ve got a two thousand word critical evaluation to complete for next week. Just how long is this journey into the unknown likely to take?”
Michael shrugged. “Could be hours, could be days, could be weeks. But as far as this world is concerned we may well be there and back in the blink of an eye. That’s the beauty of imaginary landscapes.”
“So, where exactly do we find this door in the wall anyway?”
Michael adopted his rather sheepish expression again. “Erm, well, not entirely sure to be perfectly honest,” he confessed.
“Great,” I murmured, trying to hide the wave of disappointment that hit me. “Some help you turned out to be.”
“We’ll find it,” insisted Michael hopefully. “We know it must be somewhere here in Bristol – that’s why Sturridge came here in the first place. And I was actually born in Bristol so… you know…” he tailed off, looking around with a slightly puzzled air. “Though things may have changed just a bit since I was here last.”
“You don’t say.”
“But you must know your way around the place,” suggested Michael. He stopped for a moment and regarded me suspiciously. “You don’t exactly sound Bristolian though,” he added.
“I’m not, I’m from North Yorkshire,” I replied rather huffily.
“But you live in Bristol?”
“There you are then,” said Michael brightly. “We’ll soon find our way about.” He glanced around once more. “Erm, where are we at the moment?”
“We’re sitting on Clifton Green.”
“Of course, I thought I recognised it,” said Michael with relief. “Fancy that, I went to school just round the corner from here – Clifton College.”
“Did you now? Very nice.”
Michael looked suddenly worried. “There is still a Clifton College here, isn’t there?” he asked anxiously.
“Yes, it’s still there.”
“We should go and take a look,” he announced suddenly. “I have some very fond memories of that place.”
“Shouldn’t we be looking for Sturridge’s door in the wall?” I suggested. “Though God knows how.”
“A slight detour won’t hurt. What do you say?” Michael gave me the kind of hopeful look that wouldn’t have been out of place on a puppy that had been kept waiting for it’s dinner.
“I’m still not convinced you’re not just a figment of my imagination,” I protested. “I’m going to look like a right fruitcake walking around, talking to my imaginary friend.”
“No more than usual I don’t suppose,” Michael retorted. He got to his feet and looked down at me appealingly. “Come on…”
I hesitated a little longer and then I closed my book and carefully put it away in my bag. Sometimes you just hit a tide of events that will not allow for resistance. As I got up though I reached out and gave Michael another firm pinch on the arm.
“Oww!” he yelled.
In almost no time at all we had crossed the green, turned up college road and found ourselves staring across the playing fields at the impressive façade of Clifton College public school. Michael brightened instantly at this glimpse of familiar territory. “Ah, there she is – the old school!” he exclaimed. “Not looking too bad either, all things considered.”
As a fully paid up socialist I felt it incumbent upon me to be entirely unimpressed. “Very swanky,” I remarked casually. “But aren’t public schools supposed to be places from which their ex-pupils recoil in horror. I thought all posh blokes were traumatised for life by their schooldays.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t believe everything you read in novels,” replied Michael airily. “It may have been frequently cold and damp and the food they served may have been an abomination of nature but, all in all, I had some good times there.” He seemed lost for a moment in his own thoughts before he suddenly turned to me. “We should go in,” he suggested eagerly. “Take a look around.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think they’ll take kindly to us just turning up on the doorstep, demanding the grand tour.”
“Of course they will. After all, we’re not just any old strangers. Even if I do say so myself, I am quite a famous alumni. They even named a theatre after me – I’ve been back several times since I left.”
“Not quite so often since you died though I imagine.”
Michael looked at me rather sternly. “I really think you’re starting to get a little fixated about this whole ‘dead’ issue,” he said with a disapproving glance.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me. I’m not exactly used to being accosted in the street by dead people, you see. It does take a little getting used to.”
“Perhaps,” Michael conceded reluctantly. “But you have to realise this is rather a new situation for me as well.”
“Well then, perhaps we both need a bit of time to get used to the situation.”
“Perhaps we do.”
There was a moments stand-off as we shifted around on the pavement, each of us feeling like the injured party. Then Michael slowly turned to me and nodded in the direction of the school. “Shall we go in then?”
My first instinct was to decline. The idea of escorting a deceased actor on a memory trip round his old school seemed just a little too odd for comfort. But then something in the back of my mind nudged me and asked what I could possibly object to. After all the strange events of the last few days surely a casual tour of a local landmark couldn’t top the weird-o-meter. Still, it was rather against my better judgement that I found myself eventually saying; “Fine then, why not?”