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Authors: Jo Walton

Tags: #Alternative History, #Mystery & Detective, #General

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BOOK: Ha'penny
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“Will you reverse everyone?” I asked, moving a little away from Antony and signaling to the waiter that my plate was utterly empty of tiramisu and could be taken away.

Antony took up his wineglass and sipped. “No,” he said. “Consider Hamlet, daughter and heir to Denmark. How much more likely that her uncle would usurp? How much more difficult that she assert herself? Hesitation would be much much more natural than for a man. Her relationship with Gertrude, with Claudius, works perfectly. Horatio wishes to be more than a friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be seen in the light of Penelope’s lovers. Laertes, too, Laertes is Hamlet’s true love, which makes the end sing. In fact, the whole play makes much more sense this way.”

He almost convinced me. “But Ophelia?” I asked, as the waiter glided over and poured more wine. “Surely you’re not thinking of making that a sapphic relationship?” It’s funny, there are enough women in the theater who wouldn’t look at a man, and men who wouldn’t look at a woman for that matter, but everyone would have forty fits if you tried to put a storyline explicitly mentioning them into a play.

“There’s no real textual evidence it is a physical relationship at all,” Antony said, dreamily. “Or one could read whatever one wanted into their earlier relationship, why not, get thee to a nunnery, after all.”

“But surely Polonius sets her to entice Hamlet?” I shook my head, realizing that I’d have to look at the text again to make sure exactly what Polonius said. I’d never played Ophelia, all I had was a vague impression of the speech. “I can’t see a pompous stick like him encouraging a sapphic enticement, or if he did, I can’t see the Lord Chamberlain allowing us to show it.”

“The wonderful thing about you, Viola, is that there’s something in your head already,” Antony said. “So many young actresses have no ideas whatsoever. Hmm. We could reverse Ophelia, and make her another suitor; Hamlet beset by suitors. The two brothers, Laertes and Ophelia. That works, my dear. We’d have to cut the nunnery line. I don’t want to change lines, except for the he/she stuff, obviously, but
is always cut, judiciously, but cut. At full length, it would play almost four hours.”

I could imagine a female Hamlet beset by suitors, doubts, and ghosts. She’d be virginal, disgusted by her mother’s sexuality and unsure of her own. I was feeling my way into the part already. “I’ll take it,” I said, draining my glass.

“Very good,” Antony said, beaming. “And with your well-known family background, I don’t need to ask if you’re British born.”

“I was born in Ireland, actually,” I said, resenting the bit about well-known background. The papers had always made such a meal of my family, it had been a real handicap when I was starting off. I hated thinking people came to see me on the dancing bear principle. “Pappa was still Lord Lieutenant there at the time. But I’m a British subject.”

Antony frowned. “Do you have a new identity card?” he asked.

“Of course I do.” I fished it out of my bag and dropped it on the table, open. My rather wide-eyed snap looked up at both of us. “The Honourable Viola Anne Larkin. Date of Birth: February 4, 1917. Age: 32. Height: 5 feet and 7 inches. Hair: blonde. Eyes: blue. Religion: Church of England. Place of birth: Dublin. Nationality: British. Mother: British. Father: British.” I folded it up again. “And you could add to that grandmothers and grandfathers back to when one Lord Carnforth married a French countess in 1802, or back to the Conquest on Mother’s side.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “I’m sorry, it’s just that with the new regulations we simply can’t employ anyone who isn’t really British.”

“The new regulations are a stupid waste of time,” I said, lighting a cigarette.

“I couldn’t agree more, my dear, but I have to observe them or I’ll be in trouble.” Antony sighed. “My own mother was American, and in some eyes that makes me suspect.”

“But the Americans are our cousins across the Atlantic, sort of thing, surely?” I said, blowing out smoke.

“Surely,” Antony repeated, cynically. “But for some people they’ll always be the land of Mrs. Simpson, and President Roosevelt refusing to help us in 1940. I had a certain amount of difficulty with the registration for the new card. It was nonsense, as you say.” He drained his glass.

“You shouldn’t let it upset you,” I said. “Have you cast anyone else?”

The waiter, as smooth as a machine, and to tell the truth, as oily, brought us coffee. Antony stirred sugar into his, being a man and not caring about extra inches. He got his mind back to the play, finally.

“I thought of taking Claudius myself. I imagine Claudius as a man bad enough to commit murder, but with enough conscience to come to feel guilty. Very interesting part. Complex.”

I tried my coffee. It was excellent. Italians always know how to make good coffee. “I’m sure you’d be splendid. And how lovely it would be to work with you again.” That was only half soft-soap. He really was a very good actor, when he played the right type, and Claudius could very well be the right type for him. I could remember him smoldering embarrassingly in Byronic parts and was terribly glad he was too old for that now.

He smiled, vain like all actors. “I’ve managed to get Lauria Gilmore for Gertrude. She’ll really do justice to her.”

Lauria was a theater workhorse; she’d played Gertrude before, along with almost any part you could mention. “I played with Lauria in
The Importance of Being Earnest,
” I said.

“She was a glorious Lady Bracknell,” Antony said, gazing into the distance. “And you were a splendid Gwendolen too,” he said, loyally.

I’d played Cecily, but I couldn’t really expect him to remember. It had been eight years ago, the first season after the war, when everyone had been slightly frantic at the Blitz being over and Hitler stopping at the Channel. Nobody had been really sure if the Farthing Peace would hold, or if we’d all be plunged into war again at any minute. All the theaters had either run daring revues or frothy comedies striving for wit. We needed laughter as we’d come to terms with not being about to be bombed to bits. Wilde’s genuine wit had hit just the right note.

“How about the suitors?” I asked.

“I haven’t made any approaches, but I thought perhaps Brandin for Laertes, and Douglas James for Horatio. I hadn’t thought about Ophelia at all, at least, I was thinking in terms of a woman. There won’t be many women. No—I could make the Player King and the whole troupe women, and have the play-within-the-play work something like a ballet.” He wasn’t seeing me at all.

“That would be glorious,” I said. “How about Mark Tillet for Ophelia? I played with him in
two years ago, the play was nothing and it didn’t run, but I thought he was jolly good.”

“Hmm?” Antony came back from his reverie. “Who?”

“Mark Tillet?”

“Oh no.” Antony sighed. “Jewish, my dear, and therefore ruin at the moment. I wouldn’t even want the word Jew whispered around a play of mine this season, unless it was
The Merchant of Venice

I finished my coffee. “Mark? Really? I had no idea. He doesn’t look Jewish.”

“You mean he doesn’t have a hooked nose and long ringlets and a copy of the
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
under his arm?” Antony laughed without mirth, a stage laugh. “A young lady of your background would probably be surprised how many Jews there are in the theater.”

“Leave my bloody background out of it,” I snapped. “I’ve been treading the boards since 1936. That wasn’t what I meant at all.”

“Sorry,” Antony said, insincerely. “Nobody would doubt you know your way around the theater by now.” He set down his coffee cup and signaled to the hovering waiter. “Well, since I have secured your services as a leading lady, I shall leave you, and attempt to secure the rest of my cast. Rehearsals begin on Monday, ten sharp, in the theater.”

“You haven’t told me which theater, yet,” I said, laughing.

“The Siddons,” he said. “Appropriate, isn’t it?”

“Very appropriate,” I agreed. There may have been women who had played Hamlet between me and Sarah Siddons, but I couldn’t think of any.

“Oh, and one other thing, now you’ve agreed,” he said, confidentially, leaning towards me. “I’ve told Lauria, but nobody else at all, so keep it to yourself until it’s announced officially. The first night, which will be Friday, July first, we’ll have a very distinguished audience—the Prime Minister and Herr Hitler.”

I wasn’t a snob and didn’t give two hoots, but it did mean that the play was likely to get lots of attention from the papers. “Good,” I said. “What a coup for you, Antony!”

We parted on the pavement outside the Venezia. It was a typical English June day, drizzling in a fine mist, the kind of day my Irish nanny used to describe as “soft.” I wanted to go home and read the play, though I couldn’t really start learning my lines until I had a proper acting copy with Antony’s “judicious cuts” and whatever he/she changes it needed. I started to walk briskly through Covent Garden towards the tube station. I shared a flat behind the British Museum with my dear friend Mollie Gaston and our dresser, Mrs. Tring. Mrs. Tring wasn’t really our dresser. She was a dresser, but she wasn’t picky, she’d dress anyone. She’d been my dresser back in the summer of 1941 in
The Importance of Being Earnest
and in the chaos that London was then, just after the Blitz, had happened to mention that she was looking for somewhere to live. She’d been making me comfortable ever since, and the flat, chosen because it was so cheap, had become like a home. Mollie and Mrs. Tring were like family, only better than my own family because less bloody poisonous.

People always think that because my father is a lord, I must live off the family wealth. This is total rot. I could, of course, or to be more precise, there was a time when it would have been possible. In 1935, when I was eighteen, my mother wanted me to be a debutante and I wanted to act. I’d done her thing for one season, incidentally learning quite a lot in the process, and thereafter I went my own way. She said she’d never speak to me again and the family would cut me off with a shilling, and I walked out. Our relations have been rocky ever since. Swearing you’ll never speak to someone again is easy, but of course very hard to keep up. But I’ve never quite forgotten it, and I never go to Carnforth. My little sister Dodo comes to see me when she’s in London, and when she brings her children up we all go to the zoo and I take them out for ices. But when Rosie unexpectedly came to see me in
and sent round flowers, which was sweet of her, I didn’t invite her backstage. The theater is a different world. I knew she wouldn’t understand.

I ran into Charlie Brandin coming out of the lift at the Underground as I was about to go in. “Viola!” he called. “Have you heard?”

“Heard what?” I asked, stopping and walking back outside with him. Actors love gossip worse than parlor maids. “I heard Antony’s going to offer you Laertes in his new Hamlet, so we’re to play lovers again, and we can languish madly at each other.”

Charlie’s a pansy, the theater is full of them as I was saying, so it’s quite safe to tease him about this kind of thing. “But Laertes is Ophelia’s brother . . .” he said, taking a moment to get it. “No! You’re playing Hamlet?”

I grinned. “I couldn’t resist.”

“My dear, I’m so relieved I’ll be able to eat this season without showing my legs in a skirt that I shall endure the torments of being your lover with hardly a pang,” he said. Some of the theaters were casting cross-dressed as well as cross-cast. “Shall we go to Mimi’s and eat pancakes to celebrate?”

“I’ve been stuffing myself at the Venezia with Antony. I couldn’t eat a thing. But I could drink coffee and watch you eat, if you like.”

By common consent, we turned and walked back into Covent Garden. Mimi’s is a little café on two stories with rickety stairs between them, catering largely to the theater crowd.

“This cross-casting thing, it’s just a fad,” Charlie said as we walked. “It’ll die out in no time.”

“Maybe. Or maybe one day they’ll say in theatrical histories that in Elizabethan times men played all the parts, even the women, then they started to allow actresses in the Restoration, and for a while people believed everyone should stick to their own gender, then in the late forties people began to experiment and now anyone can play any part. . . .”

Charlie laughed. “By next year, everyone will be back in their right clothes again. I bet you a fiver.”

“No bet, because I think you’re right, really,” I admitted. He held open the condensation-streaked door of Mimi’s for me and I led the way inside.

Mollie was sitting in one of the coveted downstairs booths, eating a curled-edge ham sandwich. She waved at me. “Have you heard?” she asked.

“Heard what?” I asked. “Can we sit with you?”

“I was lunching with Pat, but he’s gone, as you can see, and I was just about to go, but I’ll have more coffee as you’re here.”

The waitress came over. She was not, like half the staff at Mimi’s, a would-be actress, but a local woman. “What do you want, love?” she asked.

“Three coffees, and one pancake stack,” I said. I slid onto the bench beside Mollie, and Charlie folded himself onto the bench opposite.

“Lauria Gilmore is dead. She’s got herself blown up,” Mollie said.

“I was going to tell you that, but you distracted me with your Hamlet news,” Charlie complained.

“Blown up?” I asked. The waitress brought the coffee and set it down on the table, slopping mine into the saucer. “How? Anarchists, like those people who blew up that castle in Wales?”

“Well, it might have been anarchists, but why would they want to?” Charlie asked.

“I suppose they simply go around blowing people up, just for fun,” I said.

“She might have Known Something,” Mollie said, darkly significant.

“Or she might have been In Their Way,” Charlie said in a dreadfully fake Russian accent.

“I don’t know, she was always rather left than otherwise,” Mollie said in an ordinary voice. “Frightfully keen on women’s rights and unions and voting and all that.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “She was an actress. Actors aren’t political. It seems much more likely to me that she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor Lauria. Now she’ll never play my mother.”

BOOK: Ha'penny
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