A lockdown story

I have been watching Twelfth Night, courtesy of the National Theatre Online. For me, it is the final act in a drama that began nearly a month ago, during the early days of lockdown. And this is very much a tale of lockdown. This blog post is about things I would never have known, felt or done in other than lockdown days. 

It concerns a story that is both sad and creepy. The sadness belongs to the story. The creepiness is all my own, in that I found myself investigating someone else’s life and the intimate details that modern living spreads across the internet. I am sure that I would never have had the thought to do it in normal circumstances. But all this time for reflection at home means I am living more intensely in the past just now.

About a month back, though it seems longer, in a book-end to seeing Twelfth Night, I stumbled on and gratefully watched a recording of a play staged some years ago at an off-off-West End theatre. It was excellent and reminded me how much extraordinary work we miss by being in the wrong city, too busy or just unaware of its merits. It was directed by one of my favourite directors. But in its credits it paid tribute to him and the lead actor, both of whom had died since production. 

Now the lead performance was wonderful. It was nuanced, compelling and able to turn a potentially dull character into an anguished study of a man in over his head. It had what it takes to make a special evening, to be emotional yet politically charged. But, beyond an appreciation for this, I thought I knew the actor’s name and something about the way he held himself appeared familiar. In my subsequent research I learnt that he was always being likened to another actor who is better known (and there is a likeness). But this was something else.

And after a bit of time, I realized I had known the man. 

It was easy to establish this was true. The obituaries put him where I’d expected. And so I was reminded of the days when I was the stage manager on a student version of Twelfth Night and he was the star. It was my post-university gap year. (At the time, I felt quite mature compared to this very young man performing brilliantly, but a little selfishly, in the lead role. But that was more than 35 years ago and there wasn’t much to choose between our ages when he died.) 

I remember that he found me annoying. I probably was. Stage management was not for me I decided during that production; I didn’t want to be at my diligent and bossy worst the whole time. 

So, while I was impressed, we didn’t stay in touch.

However, to learn that he had died was painful. He had evidently become a formidable actor and I wondered why it had taken all this time to find out. It seemed he had died quite shortly after the performance I’d been watching. And since the obituary had made mention of a wife (and given we were in lockdown and everything is more intense in lockdown, including what this evoked), I thought I would write her a quick note to say I’d known him and to share my reminiscences, such as they were. …Because these things can mean a lot sometimes, especially if lockdown was making her feel as remote from life as it was me. 

But, how to find her?

I will pause and recap here. I had rediscovered him because of lockdown (the streamed performance) and I had become emotional about it because of lockdown (when beauty and sorrow lead straight to tears), but the really extraordinary thing is that I then spent an evening trying to find an email address for his wife. 

And this is where things get sad and creepy. She wasn’t so hard to find. Like me, she belongs to the class of people with a track record, prominent enough for some achievements to be featured online, yet nothing more. She had written a series of books for entertaining children with her sister, in a flurry of maiden and married names. And there was a Twitter account, in one name, that could belong to her. But when I consulted it, there was nothing in it, just a warm face with a nice smile. 

So, I turned to her late husband’s account to see if I could find any cross-references. He was slow to use Twitter, only appearing about three years before his death and disappearing at the time that he got the terminal prognosis. There is no mention of an impending end. Instead, those years in the middle, when he documents his family maturing and small pleasures in sport and countryside, new parts and performances, an occasional political comment, are a study of a life being lived well. As I read, I liked the sound of the man; he seems to have become a very decent human being. But here I am reading in spring 2020 and a virus is taking lives prematurely. Families meeting and pastimes like sport and theatre have acquired the gloss of absence. What would at any time make poignant reading, transfigured by knowledge of his death, is also an elegy to the lost everyday. 

Meanwhile, there is no corroboration to be found in his words. The family sounds lovely, but I am no closer to contacting them. So I return to where I started, with the book series, and follow the other clue, to try and find his wife’s sister. This leads to more understanding about the recent history of the family – and more heartache. Unlike the wife, the sister is very visible. She’d had a career in the public, writing and performing. I could find a picture that was definitely her – a quizzical expression but a pleasant look. I also found a blog post written by her cousin, detailing how devastating her early death had been. The sister had died about five years before the husband, also of cancer.

Having a skilled writer eulogize the dead woman and speak about her own sense of loss revealed more of the lives of these sun-kissed people in the most moving way. The family was close and kind to each other. There was an account of the illness and final days. I grieved with them, for all the pain I could imagine, and felt bad for having found so much pain. I reminded myself that the material I was reading was on a public blog; it was not in some notebook I had stolen or a story overheard in a bar. The grief was being poured out publically. But I was still an intruder to it. 

And, even so, I looked to see if there was an account of the husband’s illness too. Part verification, but, by now, more. And, while less all-consuming and briefer, the report was there, five years on. And it started, as mine might have, in reliving the horror of one terminal diagnosis now replayed in another. Grief is rekindled. Generosity abounds. But another member of this tightknit family has only months to live. He leaves a shell-shocked family, likely aware that his gradual death is not only a loss, but plodding a pathway of loss and bereavement already carved. He leaves teenage children. 

The author stops there, turning to other stories that may also be fictionalized accounts from life. And I stop too. 

I feel that I can no longer look for this woman’s email. I have learnt too much and inquired too far into her family’s circumstances. I step out of the bubble that this task has created for me and go back to my flimsy present, where intimacy and performance are taboo and even my hope of reaching out in innocent connection has been sullied by too much insight.

And that should be an end of it, but it’s not. Amazon recommends me one of her books and I briefly glimpse some cover notes. At the time of publication, she was working in London and writing in her spare time. It seems she was working for a small organization where I have an old friend. The friend has worked there a lifetime. So they probably know each other. It’s a small world.

I watch Tamsin Greig play Malvolio in Twelfth Night with fond nostalgia, remembering other people in that part, remembering the play of the words, thinking of the windows such repetitions open in the mind…remembering an impatient teenager with a future ahead of him, connecting a remote past to a strained moment in the present and, perhaps, to worlds to come. If I ever do encounter the woman that was his wife, I will tell her about his hands, how they made the role come alive, how very alive he was. 

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