Last-Ditch Miscommunication

This week Trifecta gave us five words to use as a suffix to our usual 33. Five little words, yet they pack a punch!  Some of you may recognize this one. I regret nothing.

Black ash, choking clouds, tears.
Pain ripping me to quivering shreds.
I shuddered.
You begged me to hold on.
I said I was sorry.
Stricken, you promised to tell him what I did today.
That wasn’t what I meant.

He Remembers the Goodbye (Trifecta)

This week, Trifecta asked for this:
Exactly 33 of your own words about love gone wrong. But we’re asking that you not use any of the following words:

love
sad
tears
wept
heart
pain
 
This is what happened:

He remembers.
Inside him
A blank space no longer filled
Oceans lapping at the coast of his soul
Outside, a smile
Forced, hard as smashed hope
Empty eyes belie the words he scatters

Confession (Trifecta)

So I’m in prison again. Yes. You know why. I suppose it was foolish of me to assume I could pull the wool over your eyes just because I find it as easy to manipulate records as it is to manipulate people. I forgot that you know me rather well.
So – here comes the justification you asked for. Just remember that I would not be saying any of this if you hadn’t insisted with your usual inflexibility. First you want reasons why I did what I did – I’m so tempted to say “Why not?” but I recall that particular response didn’t go down too well last time, so I had better try something a little more substantial. I did what I did because I thought it was the reasonable thing to do at the time, and also because I was stupid enough to believe it might get me what I crave more than anything else… but you don’t want to hear that. Let’s just say my ethics are rather different to yours, and leave it at that, shall we?
Of course, the reason why I did it has nothing much to do with the reason for my discovery and consequent incarceration – I was desperate, and that made me careless. I was annoyed with myself for some time, but it gets wearing after a while. I’d rather focus my anger elsewhere. It’s more productive.
You still haven’t come to visit me, but then I can’t say I’m really surprised. It has always been convenient to stick me in a corner and forget, hasn’t it? I must be such an embarrassment to you. Actually that makes me feel better. At least I’m not the only one in trouble here.
And this prison is really remarkably comfortable. I should probably thank you.
I see no point in sending you any regards, because I know you won’t believe me. And who can blame you?
See you when you visit.
If you ever do.

Too Noble for Politics – Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

In case anyone hasn’t seen this wonderful production yet, I am here issuing a warning – caveat lector! Spoiler alert! Having discharged this duty, on with the show …

On January 30th I went to see a play. It isn’t one of Shakespeare’s well-known works – in fact, until this production was advertised, I really knew only its name, Coriolanus, and had no idea what it was about – so I went without knowing quite what to expect. I was utterly bowled over by the play and the performance. It is an epic story, glorious, complex and powerful, swarming with conspiracy, ideals, emotion and betrayal. At the heart of the play is an equally complex and powerful man, Caius Martius, who begins as a celebrated warrior and is forced into a situation he does not desire and cannot deal with. On paper, he should be hard to sympathize with. He is proud, difficult, stubborn, with an ingrained superiority complex and an unfortunate view of the common people that should make anyone living in a democratic country froth at the mouth – and yet, I couldn’t help admiring his unyielding honesty in the face of intense pressure from all sides.
‘Would you have me play false to my nature?’ he snarls. ‘Rather say I play the man I am.’ And that attitude, as much an integral part of him as his bred-in-the-bone courage and warrior’s spirit, is what causes the spiral of events leading inevitably to his downfall. But it is also perhaps his most admirable quality. Menenius, his witty, quick-thinking mentor, says that he is ‘too noble’ and as the play progresses, you feel that he is correct. Martius is a warrior, and that’s all he wants to be. Martius was quite content to carry on being Martius for the rest of his life – it’s the people who make him Coriolanus, forcing upon him a responsibility he does not want. To quote another of Shakespeare’s famous lines from a different play, ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’ – and Caius Martius actually corresponds to all three. He is born great in that his natural personality is one of strength and truth. He achieves greatness by using his natural ability in battle and doing his duty. But then he is pushed, protesting, into another kind of greatness, and that’s when the trouble begins. He cannot adjust to the change in circumstances, and he cannot make the transition from the physical dance of war to the deceptive, doublespeak dance of politics. There is a common saying now to the effect that you can tell when a politician is lying by seeing if his lips are moving. Coriolanus is not a politician. He is a brilliant, fearless, arrogant soldier who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. He is incurably honest, and nearly every time he opens his mouth, he lets fly an opinion that should never be expressed publicly. The results are disastrous. From fawning over his exploits and elevating him almost to god-status, the people turn to hating him with an even greater passion. He always said that the voice of the people is a fickle one, and as much as you deplore his lack of care for the people’s plight, you realize that some of his contempt is, sadly, justified. The twisting plot exposes how easily people en masse are led by strong voices who tell them what they want to hear, and how quickly their love can be turned to utter hate. And that quality of Shakespeare’s writing, to turn an ancient story into something timeless by exploring human nature, is what makes this underrated play so interesting and so relevant. In the real world, heroes are not flawless, and loyalties are often divided. When you give a person from a privileged background too much power, it will come back to bite you. But on the other side of the coin, the world will always try to break those who stick rigidly to their ideals and refuse to let it mould them into its preferred form.
Now onto the performance itself. I love set design and staging, but I will admit that sometimes a particularly lavish set crammed with extras and bursting with colour can be a little distracting. This production was pared-back, minimalist – the stage was roughly the size of a large sitting-room, and the cast numbered fourteen in total. The choreography was fantastic – oh! those fight scenes! And it was truly astonishing to see what can be done by fourteen people when they pull together as a tightly knit team. The only props were a long ladder, some chairs, chains, and the very necessary swords. The lighting design was equally minimalist, but it really worked. Without the distraction of a huge cast and a sumptuous backdrop, the audience could concentrate more on the plot. It also showcased the actors’ talents in a way I had not anticipated. The emotion was intense, all the way through, and everyone played their parts with passion and sympathy.
Mark Gatiss made a sharp and amusing Menenius, which meant that his evident sense of betrayal and hurt at the end was all the more poignant. He has some really very funny lines, and you could see the care he has for his protege, his ‘son’, and the anxiety and disappointment he experiences when Coriolanus blunders so fatally.
Deborah Findlay was excellent as Volumnia, a proud, strong-minded mother whose ambition for her beloved son sets the whole thing in motion. Her outburst at the end, as she pleads for Rome to the man it banished, the son she is no longer certain she knows, was deeply moving.
Hadley Fraser, a rough, tough, bearded Aufidius, was eminently believable in his vengeful hatred toward Coriolanus, but also in his strange jealous obsession with the man who bested him, as he thirsts for a second chance to defeat his enemy, yet wishes, with a desperation bordering on idolatry, that their purposes were compatible.
The two schemers, Brutus and a genderswapped Sicinia, were strong characters played with sarcasm as well as screaming hatred by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger, fascinating and terrible to watch as they plotted and whipped up the people of Rome in order to serve their own ends.
I felt for Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sorenson), the faithful wife, who is the only person in the play who wants her husband to be just himself, Martius, the man she loves. She is bewildered by his mother’s glee in his war wounds, not caring that they give him status or street credibility – all she wants is for him to be safe. But her sweet constancy is overshadowed by the dominating presence of Volumnia, who will always have a hold on Coriolanus that she herself can never hope to possess.
But the star of the show, as is only right, was definitely the main man, Coriolanus, portrayed with conviction, passion and heartbreaking intensity by the phenomenon that is Tom Hiddleston.
L. M. Montgomery propounded an interesting question when she made her heroine ask ‘Which would you rather be; divinely beautiful, dazzlingly clever, or angelically good?’ and Hiddleston has no need to worry about at least the first two of those qualities. But it is the intelligence and the sympathy with which he inhabits his characters that makes his work shine. I was drawn irresistibly into his performance of the role, admiring the courage and honesty of the man even while I cringed at his readily-aired contempt of the people who want him as their leader. There was one particular moment that grabbed me and refused to let go – the moment near the end, just before he makes the decision that will in effect sign his death warrant; I discovered that I didn’t actually know what he was going to do. His tears betrayed the inward struggle he faced – he would say it had taken much to make his eyes ‘sweat with compassion’ – but I really had no idea whether he would allow his sense of justice and his more tender emotions to prevail, or cling to his wounded revenge with the stubborn pride he had shown so much over the course of the play. It was a mesmeric, powerful, scintillating performance, brought to a shockingly, brutally quick yet tragic end as the falling rose petals echoed the spilling blood of the man who shouldn’t be a hero.

Etiquette, part II

Well, very flatteringly, you all seemed to like my little story last week, and the characters wanted to be expanded, so here we are, part two. 🙂 enjoy!

The coffee shop was small, very Parisian, with curly-backed iron seats outside under smart parasols that fluttered in the breeze of an unaccustomed British winter. The seats inside were a mixture of elegant pine uprights and squashy leather sofas. There were not many people in the cafe, and as soon as the proprietor saw them, his face erupted into a genial beam.
“Welcome back, stranger!”
“Graeme! Long time no see, I’m very sorry about that. Things have been rather hectic lately.”
Her companion steered her toward a sofa, and went to have a quiet word with the man behind the counter, who evidently knew him well.
She sank down into the leather, which was every bit as comfortably cushiony as it looked. And then her new friend was back, sliding into the chair on the opposite side of the table.
“Clearly you are a regular customer,” she said. She wasn’t sure why she said it; possibly this particular silence, although of short duration, was making her uncomfortable because she didn’t really know what she was doing here in a boutique-cafe with a man whose name she had yet to discover.
Did he ever stop smiling?
“Indeed I am,” he agreed. “But Graeme has never seen me bring anyone in here with me, and I think we may have overexcited him a little.”
The tops of her cheekbones suddenly pinkened.
“I tried to play it down to him,” he went on cheerfully,  “but I don’t know if it worked. Anyway, while we wait for whatever he decides to bring us – oh, I hope you don’t mind, I told him to surprise us?”
“Of course not.” She hated surprises.
He looked relieved. “Sometimes I do things without really thinking. Anyway, what I was going to say was, tell me about yourself. I’m taking you for coffee and I don’t even know your name! Actually, that’s a good point – what is your name?”
She grimaced. “Please don’t laugh.”
His eyes widened. “Laugh? Why on earth would I?”
“I like my name, as a name, but I wish it wasn’t mine!” she tried to explain.
“Now you’ve got to tell me, otherwise I shall expire from curiosity.”
“Cressida.” She dragged the syllables unwillingly across her teeth.
To give him credit, he didn’t laugh. He didn’t even look as though he wanted to. “Wow. How very Shakespearean.”
“Exactly. I don’t mind it as a name, and in fact I quite like having a literary allusion as a designation, but to most people it’s more reminiscent of salads and egg sandwiches than the Bard. You can imagine what I got called at school.”
He pulled a face in sympathy. “Ouch.”
“My cross to bear, I suppose,” she said with a quirky little grin.
“There are worse names. My great-grandfather was called Percival.”
“Ugh. Actually, you’re quite right – there is always someone worse off. Fancy being Ethelred or Phyllis!” 
The chime of their united laughter surprised them both. His eyes were so warm, she thought rather dreamily, and then snapped herself out of it with alarmed haste. “So what’s your name?”
“Oh, must I reveal all? I was rather enjoying being a man of mystery,” he said with theatrical disappointment.
“You could always give an alias,” she said, helpfully, and then stopped, horrified at herself. What was she thinking?
His brows rose, but his eyes still twinkled. “My name’s Miles. And no, that’s not an alias.”
“That’s what they all say,” she shot back, before she could stop herself.
He actually looked delighted. “A wit!”
Just then the erstwhile Graeme reappeared like a conjuring trick, bearing a large tray which he set down on a neighbouring table with a flourish.
“Our finest Kenyan coffee for two,” he announced, “with torte de chocolat, a fruit mousse, and finally, the bottle of Laurent-Perrier I’ve been keeping for a special occasion.”
Miles looked as if he’d just been hit in the face with a frying pan. “Graeme!” he hissed,  “I said take it easy!”
Graeme shrugged, with a mischievous smirk. “I couldn’t help myself! You have been coming to my cafe for three years now, and this is the first time you’ve brought a ladyfriend. My father was French, what more can I say? Romance is in my blood, and I just wanted to celebrate with you. You’ve done well, my friend, she is a beauty.” He said this last with a conspiratorial wink, and swept off, beaming all over his face.
Miles rolled his eyes, clearly embarrassed. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered. “I tried so hard to keep it low-key, but he obviously ran away with quite the wrong impression.”
“His father was French, that evidently explains everything,” said Cressida lightly. She didn’t think it was fair to make a meal of it when he had done so much to put her at ease, and was now so manifestly bashful.
“In his defense, the coffee really is the best this side of the Channel.”
“Have you been to France?” She couldn’t keep the eagerness out of her voice. Travel was something she had always longed to do, and yet she could never build up the courage to go anywhere; in consequence she tended to admire people who actually went abroad.
“Yes,” he said, “I spent my gap year there.”
Her ears perked up. “University? What did you study?” 
“Music and Classics…I’m a violinist,” he said, quietly, looking down, and picking up his coffee cup. For all he’d appeared confident and at ease, he suddenly seemed almost shy.
“Oh that’s amazing. I wish I could play!”
“The violin?” he inquired, over the edge of the cup.
“Anything,” said Cressida sadly. “I love music, but I can’t replicate it. I tried when I was younger, I had piano lessons, but I just didn’t seem to have the flair for it.”
His expression was so earnest that she felt slightly overwhelmed by the level of feeling he was projecting. “Maybe you didn’t have the right teacher. In my experience the teacher can contribute a very large percentage either toward or against success.”
“Perhaps you’re right. I gave up eventually because I thought I’d never be any good. I’m afraid in some ways I can be a bit of a defeatist.”
He took a large sip of coffee, weighing his next words with the delicacy and care of a craftsman. “Life has to be approached with optimism, otherwise you’d never do anything. There is a balance, of course – sometimes the only thing to do is to stop trying, but generally speaking, if you view difficulty as a challenge rather than a failure, you are more likely to succeed at anything you undertake. But that’s just my opinion,” he added, with a quite charming modesty. “I’ve always been an incurable optimist!”

Etiquette

Cold grey air battered her lungs as she tried to fight her way through the crowd, crushed on all sides by the fast-flowing tide of humanity. She did not even see him until it was far too late.
Smack! Her books fell to the floor as she collided with a body.
A startled exclamation.
A hasty apology, running over her own stumbling words in a slick rush.
She was too busy rescuing her precious volumes to look up.
“Oh! Your books! I really am terribly sorry. May I be of assistance?”
He squatted down on his heels until his head was level with hers.
His voice was soft and precise, pleasing to the ear and with just a hint of hidden richness, like an old book trimmed in gold leaf, discovered at the back of a dusty shelf on a rainy day. But it wasn’t just the timbre and sound of his voice that made her look up – in his correct, rather quaint use of the English language, she recognized the distinct possibility of a kindred spirit. Fellow creatures were so rare. She looked up and met his sparkling blue eyes with a smile in her own muddy brown ones.
“Thank you,” she said.
An answering smile echoed across the whole of his face. “You’re welcome. It was my fault anyway. I should pay more attention to my surroundings instead of woolgathering. I’m told it’s one of my greatest weaknesses.” But he twinkled as he handed her the last book.
She took it with a laugh. “If that’s your greatest weakness, you haven’t much to worry about!”
“You don’t know what the others are…” he warned her, extending his hand to help her up.
She hesitated. It was unusual for a man to be so polite to her. She was always in the background, a small, insignificant shadow, and men in particular seldom noticed her.
He looked very unsure, and she overcame her momentary hesitation, placing her hand in his. His fingers closed over hers carefully, and he held her hand as if it were a thing of inestimable value before helping her up with a comfortingly secure grip.
For some reason she was breathless.
“Thank you,” she said again. The thesaurus in her mind had deserted her. His smile was open, friendly, terrifyingly attractive. “Would you like to have some coffee?”
She stared.
He stuttered. “It’s a cold day. I thought-”
But she had made up her mind. “Yes. Please. I’d love to.”
And two pairs of eyes smiled in unison again.