Who’s there?

Originally wrote this as part of my english lit degree, four years and several drafts later I think I’m more or less happy with it.

“Who’s there?”

“Everyone who matters.”

“So we’ll be presenting to an empty room then?”

I give Harry my best cheesy grin and he dutifully grimaces. But I can see he’s building to a speech before we go in. I’ve seen him composing it in his mind as we’ve passed hurriedly through security, up flights of stairs, down the wrong hallway for ten minutes, pretending not to fear fouling the opportunity to talk about our project with people who actually have the power to make it happen. Harry is going to tell me that I don’t need to be here. He’s going to try and be understanding without embarrassing me. He’s going to say he knows I’ve been through a rough patch of late, that he can handle the pitch, that he won’t think less of me. But he’s not going to say it yet.

“You should make the jump to comedy with a wit like that. Fine, let me lay it out for you: in the room will be the commissioning editor for drama Clyde Lundi, his assistant Cecil who I spoke to on the phone, Cecil doesn’t really seem to get the treatment, the woman in charge of programme planning, plus legal people, creative consultants, chair-fillers essentially.”

“He doesn’t ‘get’ it?”

“My impression from our conversation was that Cecil may possibly be a fuckwit, he doesn’t understand The Prince, but that’s okay, his job in there is essentially to agree with the commissioning editor and if Clyde didn’t like your treatment we wouldn’t be here.”

We round a corner and find ourselves before the door. I think perhaps as we’re running late Harry will skip his speech but he pulls me aside in sickeningly rehearsed style.

“You know, if you’re not up to this you don’t have to go in there right?”

“I’m fine.”

“I know its been a rough couple of months for you-“

“Yeah, because I’m the first person in history to…my watch says twelve, we’re going to be late.”

He peers at me, intently, searchingly, I’ve seen him give the same look to his sudoku.

“You don’t have to pretend, if you’re not ready to go back to work I can make your excuses. I mean this project is yours, of course I want you in the room, but you’ve been through a lot recently. There’s no shame in talking to someone.”

“If it’ll make you feel better to see it I can put on a show; wail, gnash my teeth, stop shaving, ruin a perfectly good suit with a black armband. Or we can act like professionals and go into the meeting. I realise I haven’t been myself of late but I’m okay, really I am. This is where I need to be.”

“I don’t think you should go in.”

“What are you gonna do, put me in a headlock?”

He pretends to consider it, that’s right Harry keep it light. Why are you asking? What’s your game? Is it really just that you feel obligated to give me a last chance to back out? Are you scared for me? Or scared of me?

“Okay, okay, I’m not sure they’d appreciate it if we go in there wrestling. Right, we’re here, this is it, we’re doing this. Right. Okay. Come on.”

He puts his hand on the door.

“Time to put our game faces on.”

“I’ve only the one face Harry.”

We enter the room with a definite élan and for a moment I feel a rush of the excitement and purpose I once had on tap. But as chairs are offered with thin smiles and a passive-aggressive determination not to acknowledge that we’re late, my heart sinks. I look at the arrayed grey faces and I wonder why I’m here.

There’s a patrician-looking gentleman in his mid-sixties sitting at the head of the conference table. He introduces himself as Clyde. The big boss. He reminds me of my dad.

“It might be helpful if we first just go around the room and explain a bit about why we’re here. For my part, as commissioning editor for drama I’m here to introduce you to the process. If a decision is made to develop your treatment, and I think you’ve got some great ideas, then I would be working closely with you in the early stages, essentially acting as your guide, along with Cecil and Gemma. At this point we really would just like to have an informal, open discussion about the proposal, raise any possible issues and talk about the possibilities for taking it further.”

Clyde our guide is all open smile as he speaks. Firm handshake, eye contact. Relaxed. At no point does he tell us that he’s the one who will make the decision, that we’re pitching for our project, he wants to put us at ease.

“My name is Cecil, My role will be to assist Clyde in working with you, as well as…and this is of course predicated on a decision being made to develop the project as Clyde just pointed out, though we are all, that is the whole team, very excited by this project…working in conjunction with Gemma, head of long term programme planning, to oversee and provide what assistance is deemed necessary in developing the project as an in-house production; that is to say a production produced via a collaborative process between yourselves and our in-house team which, as I said, would include Clyde, Gemma and myself at least at the initial stage, working in conjunction with you, yourselves, as part of the collaborative process, by which I mean-”

Harry was not wrong in his assessment of Cecil. My head begins to hurt.

“Hi, I’m Gemma, head of programme planning. My role here is essentially to help assess and possibly develop the project in terms of future strategy, acting to ensure the best interests of the network and our commercial partners moving forwards in the long term, as well your best interests of course, part of my remit is to look out for you as independents.”

I smile and nod as everyone introduces themselves. I try to focus. I am out of joint. I keep on thinking about the book in my briefcase, the book that’s been there for the last year. Maybe it is too soon, everything has happened so fast. I wish I could of told Harry the truth: I honestly don’t know if I’m really okay or just pretending to be. Clyde is speaking again.

“So for those of you coming to the project fresh, the current proposal is a loose adaptation set in the modern day, to be produced through the drama department and broadcast in two one-hour segments, working title ‘The Prince’. ”

Cecil chimes in:

“Its a good title, ‘The Prince’ is good. And the bard is pretty big right now, I mean we have to consider if he’ll still be big a year from now when we go into production, but still, right now he’s one of the hottest writers working today” .

“Uh, yes, actually the name of a work by Machiavelli isn’t it?” Clyde asks barely missing a beat, he must be very used to this. I nod. Clyde continues with easy charm.

“But perhaps it would be better if you could briefly outline the treatment in your own words for us, it is after all your project and I’m sure you can do it justice better than me.”

I know I need to speak, I need to take this opportunity, but my tongue feels weighed down, the moment feels wrong and when it is done feeling wrong it is over. I am waiting for a prompt that does not come. Harry talks for me.

“Right, well, essentially The Prince is about a young man named John Amleth whose father is the managing director of a large London banking group. When his father falls from a thirteenth floor window, an apparent suicide, John returns from university for the funeral only to discover-”

Harry pauses dramatically, I know what he’s about to say, he promised he wouldn’t.

“-all is not well in the state of the London financial sector! Looking through his father’s journal John begins to suspect foul play may have been involved, and the chief suspect is none other than the new managing director, his own uncle. As John investigates, he falls deeper and deeper into a world of corruption and conspiracy, unsure who he can trust and locked in a sexually charged game of cat and mouse with his old flame Sophia.”

“Sexy is good, sexy cat and mouse.” Cecil pipes in again.

I cannot stand Cecil and his empty eyes. But the commissioning editor is worse, too quick to understand, to keen to be friends, too secure, too satisfied, too comfortable in his chair and in his skin. I find myself taking comfort in imagining him doing terrible things behind closed doors. What is wrong with me? As I listen to Harry outline the main ideas it is hard to believe they were mine. Did I really once care so much about The Prince? What is he to me? What possible relevance does his story have for me now? The words of a dead man, the words of the people slowly dying around this table. I feel like I’m decaying even as I sit and nod thoughtfully. I want to get up and leave, I want to speak out. But I remain, and I remain silent.

I try to tune back into the conversation. Gemma and Harry are arguing over how long you can leave the pause between the first and second syllables of “country”. Gemma thinks longer than two seconds will constitute obscenity. But I realise that the commissioning editor isn’t paying attention to their debate, he is watching me. Someone is trying to work me out again. Shall we stare at each other across the table? If we spend an hour, a day, a year, dumbly looking into each other’s eyes will you understand me? Will I understand you?

“The protagonist’s voice over, I’m not sure it works.”

I feel sick, it is so hard to focus, so hard to understand what is being said. Gemma the programme planning woman hammers me with her objections, her plans, as if it belonged to her.

“We get the whole film noir angle, really we do, but I’m afraid black and white just isn’t a realistic possibility, at least not for the whole thing. Its not something we do here, it can be very alienating for the viewer in a contemporary drama, people think there’s something wrong with their signal. We are committed to a policy of high definition colour whenever possible and our promos are based around this. I get what you’re saying, but our commercial partners won’t touch black and white, and ultimately we would be irresponsible if we didn’t look out for our collective interests.”

Clyde then clears his throat and interjects in gentle diplomatic tones.

“I’m glad you brought this up, I wanted to t talk to you about just that point. I think we have some concerns about playing up the noir angle in general. Audiences understand adaptations of these plays, but they have to be positioned in the right context…”

Something is being lost here.

“Obviously you’re both very attached to the project as conceived but you have to be realistic…”

To stay or to go. For a man hanging from a window ledge by the strength of his fingers it is such a painful struggle to keep holding on, so easy, such a relief to finally drop. How many close their eyes in their beds at night hoping never to open them again? ‘Eternal rest’ is a gentle phrase to let us know they are at peace but what if laying in the ground he is having bad dreams still? All is corrupted or corruptible. The broken hearts, the departed friends, the thousand disappointments and frustrations and little failures people suffer before noon. The unceasing treadmill that triples its pace when you double yours. How many more would jump from thirteenth floor windows if they weren’t terrified that there might be something more to come? Afraid to live, afraid to die, afraid to stay, afraid to go. It is so much easier to put off resolutions, to wait for the right time, to spend energy in making excuses for the way things are rather than take the risk of trying to change them.

“Does it have to be bankers? I’m just asking because I’m not sure a story about bankers is what people want right now, even if-” Cecil allows himself a little chuckle “-they are getting thrown out of windows.”

“It could just as easily be a television executive.”

Did I say that? Everyone turns to look at me. Cecil’s smile falters. I have a voice after all.

“Ha, well quite, Its not a bad idea actually.” the commissioning editor says giving me a friendly wink, Cecil the faithful lackey takes his cue from Clyde and decides to find me funny.

I must act, I must act now.

“I don’t think any of you really understand The Prince.” I say slowly before Harry dives in to save me:

“What I think my colleague here is trying to say is that there’s some qualities in the original play that we really want to bring out in what we’re doing, and we think a film noir aesthetic could be a really effective way to pluck out these themes. I mean, in a way he is very like the protagonist of a film noir.”

“Oh absolutely, absolutely. We’re definitely keen to play up the connection with the play. But we don’t need to go Humphrey Boggart via Kenneth Brannagh to do that.” Clyde again, full of ideas. “I mean, if you really want to express the themes of the play there are other ways to go about it, to draw it out through references. The company could be called Denmark Incorporated, the protagonist could have a skull on his desk, we could set John and Sophia’s scene in the Tate with them standing in front of that Milliais painting, I’m just thinking aloud here but you get the idea don’t you?”

I try to tell him that’s not what I meant but the tea lady comes knocking at the door. I expected executives to all drink espressos but instead it’s those silly-sounding flowery teas, juniper and lemon for you, peppermint and nettle for you, rosemary and fennel for you. The girl hands them out with a daft smile, I don’t point out to Gemma that she’s taken the cup meant for me by mistake. Instead I make one last attempt to explain myself.

“It’s not about working in references to the play, it’s not even about the plot really. It’s about capturing something.”

I look around the table at half a dozen faces trying to understand me.

“It’s about trying to capture something of a person’s insides, the inside world and the difficulty in really understanding anyone else’s. It’s about the tension between thought and action. Its about mummy and daddy issues and feeling alone in a room full of people and friendship and weariness and dying. It’s an adaptation of that, trying to find a way to express those things. It isn’t  about the King of Denmark, or the managing director of Denmark Incorporated.”

They do not understand, but they want to keep me on side. I will be drawn, from point to point, we will talk it out. Everyone will agree to pretend there was a consensus. We will leave congratulating ourselves. Maybe we will get the call, maybe we will not. I have known writers who would fight to the death over the smallest point, a name, a line, a single choice. In their preciousness they thought compromise worse than murder. But when they stormed out, the knew who they were. One hand would have to be taken from the window ledge to pull yourself up.

I think about what I have lost and what I hoped to regain. Clyde is quoting one of his favourite lines:

“There’s a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be
not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,
what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

I excuse myself to use the bathroom, when I reach the lobby I call Harry and tell him that I have to leave for a while, that I’m letting go. I tell him that I’m handing The Prince over to him, that whatever he wants to do he has my voice. I ask him to tell my story for me. I don’t tell him that I’ll never see him again.


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