Episode One, Part Two

EPISODE ONE: EVERINGHAM & REDGRAVE (DECEASED)

PART TWO

          So it was that I went to the pictures with CJ Sturridge. The cinema was largely empty, a fact which Sturridge noted with marked disapproval. “Where is everybody?” he muttered as we settled into prime seats in the middle of the third row. “Why does nobody appreciate well crafted entertainment anymore?”

          “Well I can tell you where most of the student population are right now,” I couldn’t help retorting. Sturridge merely sunk a little lower into his seat but I couldn’t help noticing that little private smile of his playing momentarily across his lips.

          The film was as good as I remembered it and all the better for being played out on the big screen of a cinema and not some scratchy television set as I had always seen it previously. For ninety minutes I managed to lose myself in the trials and tribulations of Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as they hunted a missing English governess on a train speeding through central Europe.

          It was barely after eight o’clock when we emerged, blinking, into the foyer. The other few cinema-goers soon straggled away down the stairs but Sturridge paused and seemed momentarily preoccupied as he gazed blankly out of the window. I stood and scratched nervously at the back of my head, suddenly feeling awkward once again. Then, appearing to recollect himself, Sturridge turned to me abruptly. “Well then? How about a drink to say thank-you for rescuing me?” he said brightly. “Unless, of course, you have other plans.”

          “No, nothing planned. Absolutely not,” I quickly replied.

          “Excellent. Steer me bar-wards!”

          So we strode across to the bar and Sturridge bought me a drink. And then another. And then another. Not wanting to blow my own trumpet or anything but me and the great author really got on rather well. We talked about anything and everything that came into our heads; literature, cinema, politics, sport… But for some reason Sturridge seemed to be ruminating on the nature of classic story-telling and he kept returning again and again to the film we had just seen.

          “Of course The Lady Vanishes has all the classic ingredients,” he suddenly announced somewhere around our fourth whisky and soda. “A dash of foreign adventure, the romance of the steam train, a devious villain to outwit…”

          “The star crossed lovers thrown together by circumstance…” I added.

          “Exactly!” exclaimed Sturridge. “The delightfully plucky Margaret Lockwood. And let’s not forget that Michael Redgrave was a handsome old devil in his day.”

          “He’s certainly about the only person I’ve ever found attractive in a tweed suit and a bow tie,” I confessed.

          “A character admirably fitted for purpose. Who better to escort you on a complex and dangerous adventure?”

          “Who indeed?”

          The conversation lulled as I sipped my whisky and Sturridge seemed to disappear into some kind of private reverie once more. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” I ventured cautiously.

          Sturridge looked up sharply. “I suppose that depends on just how personal,” he eventually responded.

          “Why did you really come to Bristol?” I asked. “I’m guessing it wasn’t the prospect of lecturing to a bunch of students that brought you here.”

          “What makes you say that?”

          “The extraordinary lengths you’ve gone to in order to avoid giving that lecture for a start. If you hated the idea so much why not just stay at home? It’s not like you need the money or the attention, if you don’t mind my saying so. So I figure there must be something else in Bristol that drew you here.”

          Sturridge leaned back in his chair and regarded me with a wry smile. “How very perceptive of you young Natasha.” He appeared to hesitate for a moment as he scrutinised me closely. “Do you really want to know why I came to Bristol?”

          I nodded as casually as I could manage whilst burning inside with curiosity.

          “I’m searching,” Sturridge announced. “For originality.”

          “I’m not sure you’ll find an awful lot of that in Bristol. Not sure you’ll find much of it anywhere to be honest.”

          “But that’s exactly my point,” countered Sturridge. “How can anyone be original these days? How can anyone produce any work of any significance in the world we currently live in?”

          “What are you talking about? You’ve written some brilliant stuff,” I insisted, the whisky prodding me on to be rather bolder than I might otherwise have been. “Your novels – they’re immense. And that screenplay you wrote for The Man of Algiers… that was just extraordinary.”

          “But hardly original. I’ve been writing for more than thirty years now and the more you write the more you realise it’s all a sham. How can I produce anything of any real significance when it’s all been said before?”

          Not being sure that I quite agreed with him on that point I wanted to offer a dazzling and truly profound counter-argument. Unfortunately the best I could manage was; “Does it really matter?”

          “Of course it matters. How can you say that?”

          I struggled through the fog of whisky fumes to make some kind of telling point. “I just mean that people have been writing and telling stories for thousands of years – of course they’re going to cover the same themes and subjects. Isn’t that kind of the point of writing? To connect. To find the universal in the particular – those things that draw us all together.”

          I may not have entirely convinced but I at least seemed to have prodded Sturridge into further thought. “Mmmm, partly. But I think writing is also about searching for hidden truths, seeking out new ways of understanding ourselves. And that’s what has been bothering me lately. The fact that everything I’ve ever tried to do with my work – it’s all been done before.”

          “Maybe there’s just nothing new out there anymore,” I suggested. “I think we all have to accept the fact that people were telling stories long before we came along and they’ll continue telling them long after we’re gone.”

          “Ah, but it must have started somewhere,” urged Sturridge.

          “What must have?”

          “The human imagination. That well-spring of ideas from which we all draw. It must have started somewhere. Someone, somewhere was once original.”

          Again, it may have been the whisky, but I was having trouble grasping his point. “What? Like if you went back to the dawn of time there’s a caveman thinking wouldn’t it be nice to paint a buffalo on that wall?”

          “No! You mustn’t think so literally Natasha,” Sturridge responded wearily. “This is precisely why we’ve all become cut off from the source of our creativity.”

          “Have we?”

          “Don’t you feel it?” urged Sturridge. “Century upon century of cultural baggage weighing us down, cutting us off from the real reason why we started to tell stories – why we started to imagine. Every time you try to reach out to it you find it’s been buried beneath an avalanche of boring, formulaic tripe.”

          “Is that what you’re trying to do then?” I asked. “Reach out to some kind of original thought.”

          “It’s still out there, you know.” Sturridge seemed to be warming to his theme. “That one original idea that got the human race thinking in the first place. A kind of creative big bang. Imagine if you could be the one to trace it. To finally understand what lies at the heart of the human imagination.”

          Whilst I still didn’t whole-heartedly accept his thesis, the compelling manner of his speech made it hard to disagree. He was like a prophet who had finally found his message. “And you think you’ve discovered a way of doing just that?” I asked.

          Sturridge was suddenly struck coy. “I might have.”

          “You wouldn’t care to enlighten me, I suppose?” I ventured.

          “Well…” Sturridge considered carefully. “It’s a question of the imagination, so it must be tackled imaginatively.”

          “Naturally.”

          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…

          (Which, the observant amongst you will have noticed, is pretty much where we came in. But there was more…)

          “Because if you could go there,” Sturridge continued, ignoring my hesitation. “And if you were prepared to journey long enough and far enough then you would be bound to find it. That one original idea at the heart of the human imagination.”

          He spoke so convincingly, seemed so positively animated by what he was saying, that I found myself desperately wanting to believe him. But I couldn’t keep a slight tone of sarcasm out of my voice as I responded. “And this is something that you are intending to do? Travel across some mythical landscape in search of the original idea at the heart of the human imagination?”

          To my relief Sturridge seemed to regard my scepticism with a wry amusement. “Well, you wanted to know why I came to Bristol and now I’ve told you.”

          “You think you can find this landscape somewhere in Bristol?” I countered with a raised eyebrow, unintentionally sliding from mild sarcasm to outright scorn.

          “You’re being literal again Natasha, it doesn’t suit you,” retorted Sturridge. “I think I can find my way into the landscape of the imagination from somewhere in Bristol.” I must have maintained my sceptical look for he quickly continued. “I believe that for everyone there is a door in the wall. A door which will lead them to the landscape of the imagination. Few people would ever think of it, let alone go looking for it. Well, I have looked for my door in the wall and, for reasons that are too complicated to go into right now, I’m pretty certain that I will find it somewhere here in Bristol. So that’s what I intend to do. Locate the door.”

          I looked at him closely, checking once more for a sign that he might be pulling my leg or talking in metaphors. But he stared directly at me and everything about his expression suggested he was deadly serious. “And once you find it, what then?” I asked. “You just step right through into another world?”

          “That’s the idea.” The eyes sparkled again momentarily. “That’s where the adventure begins.”

          “And does it operate both ways, this door of yours? I mean, if you step through it and find this original idea, how do you know that you’ll ever be able to bring it back?”

          Sturridge shrugged. “I don’t. That’s just a risk I have to take.”

          “But you’d still go, would you?” I pressed him. “Even knowing that you may never return?”

          “Like a shot,” he responded. “Wouldn’t you?”

          I never got round to answering that question as we were interrupted at that moment by the barman. As he came round, tidying the tables, he paused to let us know that it was time for last orders at the bar. It was only then that I looked around and realised that we were the only two people left in the whole place.

          “Time for one last whisky?” asked Sturridge.

          “Why not?” I replied.

          But the spell had been broken. We finished our last drinks rather quickly, talking idly of nothing much at all, and then we left. It was a balmy spring night outside and I pointed Sturridge in the direction of his hotel before strolling leisurely up the hill towards my flat. And that, I imagined, was that. He’d go back to being a famous genius and I would go back to being a struggling writer desperate for a break. Nothing left but a good story to tell my no doubt disbelieving mates.

***************************

          And so it proved for the next couple of days as normal life gradually reasserted itself and the memory of our conversation was slowly pushed to the back of my mind. I spent most of that time stuck in my flat, trying to get to grips with a two thousand word critical evaluation whose deadline suddenly loomed large. That was, until sometime just after lunch on Thursday when the doorbell rang and I suddenly found myself face to face on the doorstep with a police officer.

          He regarded me with what could only be described as a kind of wary officiousness. “Natasha Everingham?” he said.

          “That’s right,” I replied, not without a note of caution myself. My brain was hurriedly trying to rummage through a list of possible recent misdeeds. “Is everything okay?”

          “I’m PC Harris. I’m just making a few routine enquiries Miss. May I come in?”

          “Of course.” I led him up to the lounge of the first floor flat I shared with Becky and Ben and hastily switched off the television that I had been using as a distraction from my outstanding essay. “Can I get you a tea or coffee or something?” I asked, rather unsure as to the correct etiquette when entertaining a police constable in the middle of the afternoon.

          “No thank-you,” replied PC Harris. “I won’t take up too much of your time. I’d just like to ask you a few questions about your movements on Monday evening.”

          “Monday evening?”

          PC Harris took out a notebook and casually consulted a page of hand-written notes. “I believe that you met a writer, a Mr CJ Sturridge, on Monday evening. Mr Sturridge was due to give a talk at the University at 6pm on Monday – a talk which unfortunately he failed to show up for.”

          “You can’t arrest someone for not bothering to give a lecture, surely,” I exclaimed.

          “No, no, no, of course not Miss,” PC Harris shook his head. “There’s no question of anyone wanting to arrest Mr Sturridge. But it seems the gentleman has gone missing and we were hoping that you may be able to help us fill in a few blanks, as it were.”

          “Sturridge is missing?” I parroted once again.

          “I’m afraid so. Nobody seems to have seen hide nor hair of him since Monday,” explained PC Harris. “Professor Watkins, who I believe was the gentleman responsible for inviting Mr Sturridge to the University, tells me that he last saw him in the University bar talking to yourself.” There was a pause and PC Harris looked up from his notes and peered intently at me. “Just before a fire alarm went off,” he added.

          “Ah, yes…” I wasn’t sure quite what the penalties were for deliberately provoking a false alarm but I was pretty sure it was not looked upon kindly.

          After giving me a rather piercing glare though it seemed PC Harris thought better of pursuing that line of enquiry and moved swiftly on. “Did Mr Sturridge give you any indication during your conversation that he intended to – how shall we say – skip out of this talk he was meant to be giving?” he asked.

          “Well, yes, as a matter of fact he did,” I confessed. “He told me he didn’t have anything to say.”

          “I see,” said PC Harris, making a mark in his notebook. “Did he suggest any other plans he might have made for the evening instead?”

          “As a matter of fact we both went to the pictures together.”

          “I see.” PC Harris paused for a moment but he chose not to expand upon what it was he actually saw. “Which cinema would that be?” he asked instead.

          “We went to the Watershed,” I explained. “To see The Lady Vanishes.”

          “The Lady Vanishes, eh?” PC Harris raised an eyebrow. “How apt… Except of course for Mr Sturridge being a gentleman and not a lady. And after that?”

          “We went for a drink together in the bar, then he went back to his hotel and I came back home. That was the last I saw of him.”

          “A drink?” PC Harris raised his eyebrow a little further.

          “Alright, a few drinks,” I admitted. “Why, what are you trying to suggest?”

          “Nothing at all Miss, just trying to establish the facts,” countered PC Harris smoothly. “Only it seems that some of Mr Sturridge’s friends have been a little concerned about him lately. They feel he’s been – how shall we say – a little preoccupied of late. Did he seem preoccupied to you at all Miss?”

          “Erm, perhaps,” I responded cautiously. “It’s hard to tell, I’d never met him before.”

          “Did Mr Sturridge indicate to you that he might have been thinking of staying around Bristol, or indeed going anywhere other than home in the near future?” pressed PC Harris.

          I hesitated. What was I supposed to say? That he was going to have a look round Bristol for a door in the wall that would lead him through into the landscape of the imagination? I couldn’t see how that was going to make things any clearer.

          “No, nothing I can think of,” was what I said instead.

          “No, it was a bit of a long shot I suppose,” conceded PC Harris, snapping his notebook shut. “Still, if you should hear anything from Mr Sturridge over the next few days you will let us know, won’t you?”

          “Of course, right away.”

          “Well, that’ll be all then Miss.”

          It was with a surprisingly intense feeling of relief that I saw PC Harris back out to the front door. And it was just as I was holding the door open for him that I happened to glance down and I saw a flash of white poking out from beneath the doormat.

          “Thank-you for your time Miss Everingham,” said PC Harris as he set off down the steps.

          “What? Oh yeah, no problem.”

          As soon as I had shut the door I bent down and pulled out from beneath the mat what turned out to be an envelope. God knows how long it had been there, no doubt kicked obliviously under the mat by one of the numerous pairs of feet that tramp through on a daily basis. On closer inspection it appeared that it had been hand delivered, with just my name on the front. I eagerly tore it open and began to read the contents there and then.

          Natasha – I’ve found it! the letter inside began in a large sprawling hand. That door in the wall. I knew it was here all along. To be honest, I’ve no real idea of what I might find on the other side and, if I tell the absolute truth, now that it’s here I find myself more than a little bit terrified. But I know that I will never forgive myself if I don’t take the plunge and step through while I have the chance. Perhaps I shall come back, perhaps I won’t. But this is one awfully big adventure that I would be a fool to turn down. Forgive me writing to you like this but I have to tell someone and I feel like you’re the only person who will understand. I hope to see you again someday. Yours, CJ Sturridge.

          I suppose if I’d opened the door right then and called out I could still have caught PC Harris, showed him the note. Surely that would have been the right thing to do. But something drew my hand back from the door. After all, was it really going to get him or anyone else any closer to finding Sturridge? For a moment I hovered there in the hallway, uncertain as to what to do next.

          Then, eventually, I took what appeared to me to be the only sensible course of action. I stuffed the note in my pocket and went and put the kettle on.

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