“Shit, the phone”. My words, anxious and irritated, arrived before my awareness of the ringing. Then I calmed down and made my way to the hall in order to stop the rings more than to discover the caller. Mrs Fox! Oh come on! It surely wasn’t this way around was it? – that I was to track foxes ostensibly for some reason of naturalist curiosity when in reality my mind was after Bethany Fox, and she’d found me! I didn’t know why she had sought us out because she hadn’t seen Elly for years, ever since she’d dropped drama and stopped going to Mrs Fox’s theatre group. She wanted to speak with Elly if possible she said, or leave a message. She’d known nothing: not Rose, not Becky, not Elly’s disappearance, nor anything beyond how she’d known Elly as a youngster. Initially I’d tried evading her requests to speak to Elly, but I just seemed edgy and rude, so I had no option. I found myself spilling out years’ and years’ worth of detail at Bethany’s invitation. After fielding what I was chucking at her for a while, Bethany won some sense out of me, and I eventually did her the courtesy of trying to tell her the true story, uncomfortably aware that I could get us both lost at any moment.
Bethany was finally in a position to inform me why she had called. She’d been reviewing old recordings of performances and found Elly’s debut as a lead. It was quite moving, she said, funny in places of course, but on the whole a really convincing portrayal. She remembered that she’d had to do quite a lot of work with the kids from school because all they’d done by then was musicals. Elly had gone in for the histrionics as much as the others, but when she got into the part, she’d played it completely straight and with disarming candour. “What part was that?” I finally asked, after waiting for the information to be volunteered. As a mother I was supposed to remember such occasions, so I had shied away from the question until it had to be asked. “Oh, the Stepdaughter. The Pirandello we did: Six Characters in Search of an Author.” I remembered it but I think it was my doubt that this could have been the first that she had a lead in that was confusing me. It was raw and hard-hitting, I remembered that. Her subsequent roles seemed trivial by comparison.
I offered to pay the postage, aware that Bethany might find the notion of spending more time listening to me a burdensome prospect, but she “wouldn’t hear of it” she asserted. She did see why I would be happy to come to the theatre, though, to collect the disc, so didn’t push me to accept her offer to deliver it to the house herself. I wanted to go there the moment the call ended, but it wasn’t the kind of theatre that opened daily. It was a renovated chapel, renovated for this purpose by Bethany and her husband, originally theirs alone but now with multiple stakeholders through grants, loans and schemes. Their diminishing autonomy was a mark of their success. The theatre was next open at the weekend for a day of auditions, so I was going to have to wait till then. It was ‘down time’ at this time of year so far as performances were concerned, so quite hard for them to get the interest needed to make a success of the next performance run. Bethany was managing the lot pretty much (casting, directing, advertising) and wanted some help from the seasoned volunteers. Putting two and two together I could see why Bethany saw this as a good time to furnish the waifs and strays with reminders of what they’d passed-up. I couldn’t see Elly as a waif nor a stray. She was evidently lost with a purpose.
I found my enthusiasm to rush there tempered as the days passed, and instead the feeling became more one of foreboding. The notion of asking Jason to come along with me took hold. It felt like the kind of thing that I needed to put a buffer around, a context that might mitigate the shock of the past, or maybe the renewed shock of the present in light of the past. But would he see the point?
At least he answered his mobile quickly:
“Jase, it’s me”
I hadn’t rehearsed this, so hadn’t put any thought into how I was going to present the idea, nor how I expected it to be taken. I tried my best to be straightforward:
“You probably won’t remember Bethany Fox from Elly’s theatre group, but she’s been in touch to ask if we want a recording she took of Elly in her first lead role. She has a disc of the whole play. I’m due to go over there tomorrow to get it. In fact I might be viewing it as well, I’m not sure. Anyhow, I’m wondering if you’d be free to come with me?”
He sighed slowly and I’d almost hung up before he managed to ask me what time.
“Yes alright. I’ll meet you there”
“Thanks” That was easy, was my predominate, relieved, feeling, and I got on with things until Saturday morning.
Saturday morning came and he was late. I sat in the car looking into the rear mirror, started up again and re parked the car facing the awkward sloping entrance. The place hadn’t changed much outside at least, even with the benefit of better funding. There were just a few more logos on the sign. The same trickle of youngsters came and went, the generic hopefuls, and quite literally the same older thespians also trod the path. I recognised them immediately from the countless run of shows I’d seen since it opened, from annual Panto to occasional Shakespeares. This was clearly home to them – clear as much from the way they moved and chatted at the doors as from their back-catalogues. I didn’t see Bethany outside, but then she’d be busy with the auditions. Maybe Jason was already inside. I fumed bitterly that that would have been his interpretation of meeting me there, just as when we bought our house. We were to meet each other there, for the viewing. I’d waited 40 minutes in the car, and by the time I’d decided to go to the door and apologise for being late he’d already seen all the rooms and the back garden. It made me feel conventional and possessive when I complained, but actually I did mind the spoiling. It should have been more romantic: it was going to be our home.
My eyes had glazed over from watching, so I was startled when Jason opened the car door and looked into my face.
“Sorry I’m late. Dropped my wagon at the garage to pick up later.”
Okay, a different kind of offence this time. I straightened myself out and led off to the theatre door without saying much. Bethany had set up a big screen connected to a laptop, which was paused at the opening scene. There was a kettle, cups and biscuits, which I busied myself with for a while before sitting down and letting it begin. The sound quality was pretty poor so I strained forwards on the couch to hear it. Also the camera angle was not helpful, and obscured some of the stage. But I did vaguely know the play from being around Elly’s rehearsals, well mostly hearing her learning lines at home, and at the first night, but was anyhow only really there to see her. When she came sombrely onto stage with the other five characters, Jason glanced at me briefly, quizzically, which made me feel culpable somehow, that this thing we were doing was on my account, whatever the consequences. I shook my head and fixed my eyes on the screen. Elly’s voice was clear, and her attitudes authentic. She was passionate: passionately angry and provocative. I didn’t want to confuse myself though, so I held in my mind my memories of backstage afterwards. I’d gone to find her so that she would know I was there and wouldn’t try and get the bus home, and when I did she was transformed from the stage character: bright clothes and a wide smile for her director, Bethany. Her smile found its way to me along with questions over how I found the performance and what I thought. My enthusiasm lacked discernment, but she seemed to forgive me that.
The action on the screen had changed by the time I caught up with it. It was Ellys’ character, the Stepdaughter’s’, disclosing piece. Her portrayal in the role of sexual prey, victim of the abuses of her stepfather, was chilling. She summoned the ambiguities and insincerities of exploitation authoritatively. What is Jason making of this, I thought. What would he make, if he knew, of the accusations between Becky and Ed? And how could Elly know so much, emotionally, at such a young age? What did Jason know? I was flooded by suspicions that mediated the rest of the play, well not exactly suspicions, they were less articulate than that. There were no specific accusations but there were sickening feelings of violation and mistrust.
The screen stilled and Jason got up for the lights. I’d have preferred to sit in the dark for some time longer. Actually I’d have liked some guidance. He ejected the disc and put it into the envelope with ‘Elly Richardson’ scrawled across the top, then passed it to me. It was too crass to ask him what he thought, and maybe he felt the same way since he also stayed silent.
“D’you want to get a coffee? In town I mean?” His voice had tentative warmth.
I nodded and watched him drop coins into the donation box as I followed him out to the car park. He offered to drive and, rather than think about it, I handed him the keys impassively.
At the coffee shop he sat opposite me and broke the silence saying that he had something to give me: something he’d found, at his house.
It was a hard-backed notebook which he held out to me. “I found it outside, in the barn. It looks as though it’s Elly’s.”
“Well yes. It has her name on it doesn’t it?” It also had ‘private’ written underneath her name. “Doesn’t look especially old does it?”
“No, just a bit muddy on the edges. To be honest I think a lot of the kids, well people in general, hung about round the foresters house when it was empty. There was quite a bit of rubbish left in the outbuildings.”
“Have you looked inside?”
I was instantly annoyed. The expectation must have been that I would do. As though that was my role and occupation, spying on Elly. “Do you want to?”
“It seems as though we’ve been here before doesn’t it? And it feels too late to be casting around for things we missed. Elly isn’t in this book any more than she was in her diary.”
I hadn’t told him about the file and the papers. If he knew what was in them then maybe he wouldn’t be so sure.
“Anyhow, I didn’t want to assume you’d want or not want it, but either way you could put it with her things in case she wants it sometime.” He shrugged. It meant that he didn’t want to assume anything about that either, I thought: I mean about her wish or her ability to come back.
“Well I suppose the fact that you found it means its destiny was not to be lost, so it’s no violation to bring it home.” He didn’t respond. Probably lost him with that. “Did you decide about the puppies?”
“I haven’t asked yet.”
I twisted up my mouth rather say anything then took up my coffee and sank back into the chair. The conversation was up to him now, and he knew it.
“I will ask.”
I nodded disinterestedly. “What did you feel about that just now? Watching Elly’s performance?” I could feel myself on the verge of an interrogation.
“It was very strange, I must admit. I don’t think we ever saw it together did we? I was at the last night, but I don’t think you could make it.”
“No. Lyn went instead”
He raised his head, looking surprised. “Well she was amazing, wasn’t she? I know that Beth was really disappointed when she pulled out of the group. That must have been what, about two years’ later would you say?”
“Yes, must have been about then”.
“Look, I’m sorry but I have to go and get the car. You stay and finish your coffee Cecy”