Zlata Ruzencova must be the worst theatrical agent in London. In five years she has only ever managed to secure me two acting jobs. A track record that’s even less impressive when you realise that:
- A) I’m the only actor she actually has ‘on her books’, and
- B) that first role was playing a part she’d devised!
Still, she did find me Nathia. And though working for Nathia can be something of a challenge (the role being somewhat unusual) I have had quite a run. And it does pay well. I should probably be more grateful. But it’s hard to be grateful when you’re sitting in the back of a cab fuming over the disappearance of your watch.
“Zlata – have you got my watch? Zlata?”
“Hello. Zlata is not here at the moments. She is very busy person. Please do leave nice message after the noise. Beeeeep.”
“Zlata – quit messing about. Zlata. Zlata!” But she’s hung up.
Nathia’s smiling when she opens the door. A big, warm, welcoming smile that promises an evening of laughter and cocktails. It’s fake, of course – she’s just rehearsing. In our four years together I’ve learnt more from Nathia than I ever learnt at drama school.
The smile falters when she sees that it’s me. “You’re late,” she says with enough venom to poison a small army. She turns and stomps back into her apartment, and I notice she’s already in full costume: slim-fit high-waist sleek-black trousers, semi-translucent shirt, killer heels – the usual Nathia attire. I glance at the ornate wall clock, which seems to glare back from inside its black wooden case. Even the pendulum is swinging back and forth in an impatient manner.
“We’ve got plenty of time,” I shout from the hallway as I hang up my jacket and turn off my mobile phone. “They’re not due for another forty minutes, and you know what they’re like; Rachel’s probably still herding Michael out the door.”
But Nathia doesn’t say anything, and as I enter her palatial kitchen she’s chopping carrots in a way that suggests parts of my anatomy could be next.
Tanya’s here. Of course. She doesn’t say anything either. Just leans against the fridge, watching the master chef at work whilst occasionally sipping beer from a bottle. She’s wearing a ripped T-shirt that seems slightly incongruent for a woman who looks every one of her forty-six years. When the slogan on the front catches my eye I fail spectacularly to hide a frown. Who’d have thought it was possible to get that many expletives into one sentence? Isn’t language a wonderful thing.
She doesn’t like me very much, Tanya. I’m an obstacle. I stand between her and what she wants – which, in broad terms, is an end to what she sees as a ‘farce’. She turns slowly to look in my direction and I give her my biggest broadest smile, but she turns away with a shake of her head, and I’m slightly disappointed when all those piercings fail to jangle.
“Look,” I say, “sorry about cutting it a bit fine. I lost track of time. Literally, actually. You remember Zlata – my agent? Well, she’s been doing an evening class in – would you believe – watch stealing! You know, right off your wrist? I mean, who the hell thought running a class like that would be a good idea? Anyway, it turns out my agent is the star pupil!” I proffer my naked wrist as evidence. Neither woman seems the slightest bit interested.
“Are you planning on standing there all night?” asks Nathia without looking up. “Only I’d quite like you to change for dinner? If that would be all right with you?”
“Sure,” I say. I know better than to question her authority, but I do so anyway. “We don’t need to catch up first? Nothing that I need to know?”
“Like what?” she asks after a moment. I shrug.
“I dunno. The usual: am I still working for Amnesty International? Has my Dad had his knee operation? Have I started writing that book I’m always going on about? That sort of thing.”
“Nothing’s changed,” says Nathia, and I swear I see Tanya wince slightly. “Just go and get ready.”
“Okay,” I say, and turn to leave.
“And Edwin,” adds Nathia, “wear the blue shirt tonight.
* * * *
My name isn’t Edwin. It’s William. Will to my friends. Though it could just as easily be Gary, or Roger, or Stephan – just tell me who you’d like me to be and watch me morph into someone else. It’s not lying. Lying is an untruth. This is acting. It’s telling a story, and stories are a good thing: they teach us. They help us to make sense of the world. They allow us to stay safe – in that way they’re better than the truth.
And sometimes – in order to tell the story as best we can – actors need to forget about the person behind the mask, let go of the person we would normally be and instead allow the character we’ve taken on to become as real as possible. Nobody knows this better than Nathia Brockenhurst. It’s how we came to meet, four years ago, in a dingy little south London pub.
“What’s this?” I asked, taking the folder from the scratched, beer-stained table and leafing through the half dozen pages. It wasn’t a script. That much was obvious.
“Non disclosure agreement,” said Nathia. I had only the vaguest notion of what that was, something that must have been evident from the look on my face. “It’s a legal document,” continued Nathia. “It states that anything we discuss is strictly confidential and must go no further or there will be… ramifications.”
“Er, okay,” I said. “Is that… usual?” Other than periodically working for Zlata and giving private drama lessons to spoilt brats, my glittering theatrical career had consisted mainly of waiting tables, pulling pints, or flagging people down on the street and persuading them to part with their direct debit details. If you’d told me that successful actors signed legal documents and secured roles in seedy backstreet pubs, I’d have probably believed you.
“Sign it,” said Nathia, producing an expensive looking pen from her handbag. “Then we can talk.” I did as I was told, and once Nathia had taken back the signed document and given me a copy, she took a deep breath, and fixed me with a look of solemnity. “I’m gay,” she said.
“Right,” I said taking a moment to consider how this might have any bearing on the so-called ‘interesting job offer’ that Zlata had told me we were here to discuss. “Okay.”
“And that’s a problem,” she continued.
“It is?” Nathia shuffled in her seat, glanced around the tired bar to see if the landlord or his other patrons might be listening, but she had nothing to worry about. Everyone else was either mesmerised by the large plasma television, throwing darts in the general direction of a dart board, or trying very hard to remain upright. Nathia put her arms on the table between us and leant forward.
“The people I work for… well, let’s just say that they’re somewhat traditional.” I nodded for her to continue, though I had no idea where she was going with this. “Sure,” she said, “it’s the twenty-first century, and they can cope with me being a woman in a man’s world – just – but homosexuality is a step too far.”
“That’s…” I said, running a hand through my hair, feeling it slide through my fingers, “…surprising.” Until now I’d always thought theatre had something of a reputation for attracting your more liberal types. I’d never once heard it described as a ‘man’s world’. Or homophobic. “Who do you work for again?”
“A small firm of venture capitalists, William. That’s all you need to know for now.”
“But I thought… My agent said–”
“Are you going to let me finish?” snapped Nathia.
“Of course,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Anyway,” she continued, “even though my employer and his clients expect me to spend all of my daylight hours – and a fair proportion of my night time ones – doing their evil bidding, occasionally they need to know that I’m still human. That despite my ruthless business instincts, on the inside at least, I’m just an adorable little pussycat. And a heterosexual one at that.” She paused for a moment to take a sip from her orange juice; I picked up my beer and did the same. “There are functions,” she continued, “and fundraisers, and parties, and all manner of ‘after work socials’, and whilst it’s not compulsory to turn up to these events with a partner in tow, the absence of someone I can rather quaintly refer to as ‘my boyfriend’ is becoming a problem.”
“Right,” I said, trying and failing to keep a frown from forming. “Well – can’t you just invent someone?” I reached for my pint.
“Oh, believe me, I’ve tried,” said Nathia. “Within hours of inventing a fictitious love-interest, my boss’s wife called me up, and invited ‘Bertram’ and me to dinner.”
“Bertram?!” I said, very nearly spraying her with a mouthful of beer.
“It’s the first name I could think of! Anyway,” she said, glaring at me, “needless to say I couldn’t accept the invite. Instead I had to invent a plausible sounding explanation as to why Bertram and I wouldn’t be available, and then a week or so later an even more elaborate story to explain why ‘he’ wasn’t on the scene anymore!”
“I take it you’re not very good at coming up with stories?”
“On the contrary,” said Nathia, “I’m a master! Having introduced the possibility of a Bertram I’m now beating off advances left right and centre from any man with a drink in his hand who now sees me as your regular good time girl! After all, why else would I be foot loose and fancy free? Quite frankly, William, I’ve had enough!” She sat back in her chair, arms folded tightly across her chest, and fixed me with a look so intense I found myself trying not to breathe. “You look confused,” she said after a moment.
“Sorry, no. I mean yes. A bit. Look – I understand that you’re, well, that you have a bit of dilemma, with how much you can tell your colleagues, about ‘things’. I get that. It’s just… my agent said you had a job! An acting job! That’s what I do – I’m an actor!”
“I know,” said Nathia.
“So?” I said. “Do you have a job?”
Nathia sighed irritably. “Bertram!” she said.
“I need you to play the part of Bertram.” The words bounced around in my head whilst my brain made sense of them.
“Your made-up boyfriend?” I asked.
“You need me to be Bertram?”
“That’s what I said.”
Nathia raised a hand to silence me, and with the other reached into her bag to pull out a second, much larger document than the first. It hit the table with a distinctive thud, before she pushed it towards me.
“You would be required,” she said, adopting the tone of someone who’s spent far too many hours in corporate boardrooms, “to play the part of Bertram, my doting boyfriend, at various social functions – the schedule of which will be mutually agreed between ourselves.” I turned the first page and began leafing through the document. “In addition,” continued Nathia, “I will require you to come to my office, say once a month, to ‘take me out for lunch’, and to make the occasional phone call to my PA for suitably boyfriend-sounding reasons that we can work out later. I will also provide you with a mobile phone that you will be required to answer, as Bertram, during office hours. In return I am prepared to pay you a monthly fee which I trust you’ll find extremely generous, as well as reimburse you for all reasonable expenses, such as travel, phone calls, food and bar bills, and any clothes that you need to purchase in order to fulfil your ‘Bertram’ duties.” She paused for a moment to take in what I was currently wearing. “For instance,” she said, “I’m not sure Bertram would wear a coat that so obviously came from an army surplus store.” I ignored her remark and continued to thumb through the contract.
“So?” she asked. “Any questions? Comments?” I scratched the stubble on my chin, then raised my eyes.
“I’m still not sure about the name Bertram,” I said.
* * * *
For legal reasons I can’t tell you what was in that contract. Neither can I tell you my fee. I can tell you that at the end of month one I stood to earn more than I’d earned in my entire previous acting career. I picked up the pen and signed on the dotted line.
From that moment on, things got considerably easier for Ms Brockenhurst and myself. She had a boyfriend she could mention, receive flowers from, blame for all manner of things, and if necessary, point to. More than that, she now had somewhere she could conceivably be whilst actually being somewhere else. She was free to discover the real Nathia Brockenhurst, to be whoever she wanted, see whoever she wanted – people like Tanya. And all this behind closed doors, safe in the knowledge that someone else was contractually obliged to cover for her.
As for me – I could finally start paying back some of my more desperate debts. Enter stage left: Edwin Clarkson.
Much thought went into that name, and we decided early on that Nathia would always address me as Edwin to reduce the possibility of blurting out my real name.
Over the years Edwin has been introduced to most of Nathia’s work colleagues – the ones that matter anyway – at various work functions or get-togethers, including regular dinner dates with Michael and Rachel Richmond, her boss and his young wife.
Once a month I follow the river round to Nathia’s luxury apartment in Chelsea, don my Edwin costume, and spend a pleasant enough evening sinking bottles of Merlot whilst I entertain Michael and Rachel with torrid tales of Edwin’s life working for human rights organisations – all painstakingly researched on Google, earlier that afternoon.
The door bell sounds. My cue that the evening of duplicity has begun. I open my designated drawer, take out a pair of thick framed glasses and after a final mirror check, leave the bedroom to meet my audience.
* * * *
Michael roars with laughter, at the hilarity of his own wit, and slaps his palms on the table so hard I fear Nathia’s antique mahogany furniture may have finally met its match. He picks up his glass, finds it empty, and then attempts to reach across the table for the bottle.
“Oh, Michael – allow me,” I say, grabbing the bottle of port and refilling his glass. I throw him a smile, and not for the first time I study his face: he looks like he’s been chiselled out of granite. And whilst he wears expensive shirts, in pastel colours, with floral ties, they do nothing to soften features that are almost jagged.
In many ways Michael Richmond is a man out of time. A century or two ago he’d have a bushy moustache, impressive sideburns, and a belly the size of a small country. He’d spend his evenings smoking expensive cigars and talking about his time in Africa. Roll back the centuries still further and I can imagine him dressed in animal furs, sporting a heavy copper helmet, and wielding a blade high above his head before he conquers another village, and takes his pick of the wenches available. But instead Michael goes to the gym. He watches his weight. He pops statins. And on evenings such as this, he shares stories of boring corporate deals negotiated across expensive but dull conference room tables. Is it any wonder that he drinks too much, laughs too loudly, and always looks as if he might explode at any given moment? That granite exterior is holding a lifetime of frustration in place.
I hand him his port and glance across the table at Rachel, who’s watching me in that way she does.
Rachel’s altogether more interesting. On the surface she’s a working class girl, born and bred in the East End to a British father and Jordanian mother, destined to live a simple, honest existence. That is, until Michael booked a table at the bar and brasserie where she worked, and stole her away from a life of waitressing. But behind that shy smile, those beautiful soft cappuccino eyes, and her tall, lean, slightly Arabian veneer, is someone else. And sometimes, when she’s asked me an innocent sounding question, she stays quiet after I’ve given my answer, like she’s waiting for me to say more, waiting for me to give myself away. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t give me something of a buzz.
That’s not how Nathia sees it, of course. She thinks Rachel’s developed some sort of girly crush. One that might lead to all manner of complications further down the line if it’s not nipped in the bud. Which is ridiculous, but explains why she wanted me to wear the plain blue shirt tonight. Rachel prefers the striped one.
“Anyway,” slurs Michael, though I can’t for the life of me remember what he was talking about, “Nathia said we should check the place out, so check the place out we did. Didn’t we? Precious?”
“Yes,” says Rachel. “We did.”
“Fuck me Edwin,” continues Michael with a shake of his head. “What a fucking dive. Ghastly fucking people, eating ghastly fucking food. The owner… what was his name again? Oh for fuck’s sake… foreign chap. Wasn’t even a proper name. Just a collection of fucking sounds…”
“Jarad,” says Rachel.
“Yesss! That was it! Jar head! You’ve never met a more nervous man in your entire fucking life,” says Michael, waving his glass around so much it’s a wonder the walls aren’t splashed with port. “Whilst his business partner – the so-called brains of the operation – couldn’t even be fucking bothered to turn up! Left this mouse of a man to blunder through probably the most important meeting of his fucking life. Fucking idiot!” Michael shakes his head at the memory, before pouring half the glass down his throat, and suppressing a belch. “I mean doesn’t that seem a little fucking odd to you, Edwin? I have the power to completely transform their shabby, two-bit, here-today-gone-tomorrow, two-man enterprise into whatever they fucking want it to be. I’m fucking Santa Claus! I’m their own personal fucking Jesus! No wait – I’m fucking God! I’m granting them a fucking audience with fucking God! And yet one of them can’t make the fucking meeting – with God – because…” he makes air quotes with his fingers, “they’re ‘busy’! I tell you Edwin, there’s something fishy about the whole enterprise. And I fucking hate fish!” The belch he’s been trying to contain finally makes it into the open, and it lasts a full three or four seconds before Michael waves his hand about as some sort of apology. I look down into my lap and try and hide a smirk.
“He liked you though, didn’t he? Precious? That fucking… ‘Jar-head’ fellow. Couldn’t keep his fucking eyes off you.”
“I can’t say I noticed,” says Rachel with a smile. A false one, but convincing enough to the untrained eye. She takes a breath, and puts a hand on her husband’s. “Sometimes, darling, I wish you’d remember that these are people’s dreams that you’re playing with.”
“Oh fucking poppycock! Dreams? It’s business! There’s no place for dreamers in business! Don’t you agree, Edwin?”
“Well…” I bluster, accompanied with some appropriately vague hand gestures. I know better than to express an actual opinion. This way Michael’s imagination is filling in the gaps with whatever he’d like me to say.
“If anyone wants me to consider investing my money – or my clients’ money – then I need more than fucking dreams. I need to see potential! Real potential! That’s why Nathia suggested we invest in the fucking place! Because of their reputation for ‘outstanding cuisine’. And having had many a fine meal in these humble surroundings, lovingly prepared by her own fair hands–”
“You’re very welcome,” says Nathia, raising her wine glass.
“–I thought the girl knew a thing or two about food! But fuck me! Just how fucking wrong can you be?” Michael slaps both palms flat on the table and blasts us with another belly laugh.
“Well,” says Nathia with a sigh, “clearly I let my initial enthusiasm run away with me. I apologise.” Michael wafts away her apology.
“No need,” he says with the faintest of slurs. “But the last thing this country needs is another fucking chain of ghastly restaurants serving fucking foreign muck, to the fucking ghastly masses.” And with that he picks up his port glass again and drains the contents. I look across at Rachel. Her hands are in her lap, and the smile – false or otherwise – is gone. And not for the first time I have this piercing stab of regret that she’s so obviously trapped inside a marriage that makes her unhappy. If things were different, if we’d met under different circumstances, ones where I’m not contractually obliged to be someone else, I think we could be good friends. Maybe more than friends. Michael belches yet again.
“Nathia darling,” he says, “we need more port.”
“I think, Michael,” says Rachel, placing her hand on her husband’s for the second time that evening, “that we should make a move.”
“Already?” he slurs.
“Yes. Already,” she says, her voice wobbling slightly. She gets up from the table, and flashes me and Nathia a polite smile. “Excuse me a moment,” she says, and leaves the room. Nathia and I exchange looks, then she too gets up from the table and follows Rachel.
“Edwin,” says Michael, his voice considerably lower than its usual bellow, “whilst the girls are out of the room, have you ever thought about getting into the investment business?”
“Me?” I blink. “Really? I’m not sure I have the constitution for it.”
“Fucking nonsense!” says Michael. “You’re a sharp cookie. Anyone can see that. And the thing is, a rather interesting investment opportunity came across my desk the other day which I think might be just up your street; Vanadium Global.”
“Sounds very grand,” I say.
“Doesn’t it,” says Michael with a nod. “Ironically though, they’re too small at the moment for Steele & Richmond to climb into bed with. Which is a real fucking shame, because they’re going places. Anyone with half a fucking brain can see that. Which is why I thought of you, Edwin. It might be a good way to get your feet wet.”
I wrinkle my nose. “I don’t know, Michael,” I say. “I’m not really the–”
“Michael,” says Rachel. She’s standing in the doorway, her jacket draped over her arm. Michael gives a resigned sniff and eases himself out of his chair.
“Pop into my office next time you’re in the neighbourhood,” he says with a wink, “and we’ll discuss it further.”
“I thought I told you to wear the blue shirt,” says Nathia as we close the door on our guests.
“Did you?” I say, glancing down to look at my chest as if I’m expecting to see something other than stripes.
“You know I did,” she adds before walking back into the dining room.
I hate this bit. The obligatory deconstruction of the entire evening; what I said, to whom, and whether any of it might have, in some obscure way, undermined the elaborate fabric of fiction we’ve been weaving these past four years. All whilst we gather up dirty dishes and spent glasses and cart them through to the kitchen. If I actually worked in theatre I’d probably be in a cab right now. I take off my Edwin glasses and put them in my pocket.
“I don’t really like the blue shirt,” I say as I enter the dining room.
“Doesn’t matter,” says Nathia as she gathers up cutlery.
“I’m not sure it’s Edwin. It’s a little too conservative. In the political sense I mean. It makes me look like a… police detective… or something. Not Edwin at all.” I look at the destruction and chaos on the dining room table and let out a sigh. How can four people make such a mess? I reach for the empty bottles.
“It really doesn’t matter, William,” says Nathia, using my real name for the first time in so long it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something isn’t right. I follow her through to the kitchen.
“Everything okay?” I ask. She turns and leans against the work surface.
“I’m tired,” she says. I nod.
“It was an extraordinarily long evening. How many bottles of Merlot did we get through? Three? Four? I think Michael finished half a bottle of port by himself.”
“No,” says Nathia with a shake of her head; she looks as if she has great invisible weights hanging from her shoulders. “I’m tired of this. This endless – farce. This isn’t me. It never was.” She lifts her eyes from the floor and gives me a long weary look.
“I was going to wait a few more weeks,” she says, opening the drawer where she normally keeps her collection of instruction manuals and warranty documents for the kitchen paraphernalia, but instead produces a white envelope. She passes it to me and resumes her stance against the work surface.
“What’s this?” I ask, though I think I can guess. Nathia takes a deep breath.
“Formal termination notice,” she says. “Effective immediately, your services are no longer required.”
Alternatively, The Truth About This Charming Man is available in paperback and for your smart phone, tablet, computer or kindle e-book reader!
The film will be along some time in the next decade.