Esquire's Summer Fiction series, in aid of Unicef UK, brings together some of the world's finest writers, and greatest actors, for a collection of original stories and readings that offer, we hope, a ray of light in these dark times, as well as the chance to raise funds for Unicef's Generation Covid campaign. (Read Unicef ambassador and Esquire editor-at-large Andrew O'Hagan's piece on why the campaign is so vital here).
Where a child is already experiencing hardship, outbreaks of diseases bring a new emergency to an already precarious situation. This is the story of Generation Covid. For vulnerable children all over the world, it poses the biggest threat since the Second World War. Please enjoy these stories, then visit Unicef UK's Generation Covid page to donate and hear a special message from Unicef UK Ambassador, Olivia Colman.
Audio: read by Olivia Colman
'That's Where I'll Find You' by Andrew O'Hagan
Olivia knew from the envelope that he might be worse. She could see in the way he’d written her address — “Keystone Crescent, Kings Cross, N1” — that he’d probably gone down a level. No dandyish swoosh on the Ks, no house number, only half the postcode, and that missing apostrophe: it just wasn’t him. David was a man of proprieties and punctuation; he relished Fowler’s, and checkable facts. He’d been a medical journalist at the beginning of his career before he turned to writing the lives of scientists and inventors. The men he wrote about (and it was always men, rectified by women) tended to be heroes with a devotion to their own epic lives, and their common denominator, ie him, Professor David Elsey, had lived his freedoms in amplification of theirs.
Olivia stepped back into the kitchen and opened the letter, lifting a mug of tea. “Darling. Two o’clock on Wednesday would be terribly nice. How about St Pancras Old Churchyard, the one behind the train to Paris and quite near the British Library? There is a bench wrapped around a tree opposite all those Thomas Hardy gravestones. Might you come? I cannot quite ring you from here and the other phone is somehow beyond me.”
Her foxes were definitely getting bolder. She’d seen three of them on the prowl outside number 14 the night before. Three foxes: one of them climbing up onto a wheelie-bin and licking its way round a pizza box. Some of the neighbours worried about boys on bikes coming down from the Barnsbury Estate but it wasn’t Olivia’s thing to complain about boys. She thought the government should create jobs for them and tax the rich. She knew, because her friends told her, that her conversation was full of tangents, footnotes, sidebars, and digressions; it was full of parentheses, exordiums, adumbrations, but she felt that was absolutely fine — things were not always very straightforward, or very finished.
She was a theatre director even about being a theatre director. Most evenings during the week she caught the 91 bus into the West End, maybe for an opening, or for dinner with a set designer, or, heaven forfend, an actor. (It was impossible to be friends with actors, she’d decided: they were always being too many people to be someone you could rely on. The starrier ones thrived on being fussily unavailable, an effort which made them seem insane.) In any case, she hadn’t run a rehearsal or been to the theatre in four weeks, or maybe more than that. Instead, she found herself creating scenes out of her own life and putting her formidable agency into tea and toast, or into ruining her domestic order.
Walking across the sitting room, she slipped David’s letter into an old programme on the table. It was from a play at the National, a version of Three Sisters set in Nigeria. She went and stood by the open window. She wondered if people might be kinder when all of this was over, but then she dismissed the thought, thinking everybody would be ravenous for a world exactly like the one they’d known. “One for the Comment pages,” she said out loud, “how adversity brings us closer.”
Her phone was plugged in behind an armchair and she lifted it up and sent David a quick message. He probably wouldn’t see it but maybe his wife would show it to him before he left the house. Or maybe she’d be driving him. Olivia was never at all sure how complicit the wife was, the famous QC, doyenne of civil rights and immigrant justice and open relationships. She gathered “not very”, and restricted the text message to “Yes” before turning her phone off.
She didn’t keep clocks in the house. She could ask Alexa the time when she needed it. She’d got used to that, asking Alexa for dates in history or for the names of characters in novels. Looking at the theatre programme and missing David got her thinking about the Brontës — David was the elder brother of three sisters — and then Alexa came back into it and she shouted out a question. “Alexa, who are the main narrators in Wuthering Heights?” (She remembered Nelly Dean but not the other one.)
“Sorry, I didn’t get that,” Alexa said. “I am having trouble connecting to the internet.” At which point Olivia got the ladder and climbed up the shelves. She’d finally fixed her books. She’d wanted to do it for ages but had never found the time. It had been awful to her, unconscionable, that her books had somehow ended up in alphabetical order, by author, and then, within that, by date of publication. She couldn’t remember when she’d done it: around the time of 9/11 she reckoned because she’d just come back from a wedding in Boston and was obsessed about the planes and how she could’ve died. So she went a bit mental with the organising.
During the recent trouble, however, “the monstrous hiatus” as David called it, the Covid-19 business, she’d spent a few afternoons upsetting them and moving them around. She even did it with the books she’d written herself, plugging the gaps with foreign editions. Emily Brontë was now on the top shelf, like dirty magazines in a corner shop. The novel was propped against an old wooden magpie and Olivia reached it on her first try and brought it down, discovering after a few minutes that the guy’s name was Lockwood.
The only time Olivia had turned up late for something was the year she edited The Verso Book of Guff, an anthology of prefaces to artists’ catalogues, most of them written by novelists. It wasn’t exactly theatrical, but she had this essay-writing side, and people would ask her to do all sorts of things. Anyway, the book was meant to be a wheeze for Christmas, but the critics took it really seriously and made out like there was a crisis of interpretation in the world and that radical criticism had died with Sir Frank Kermode. The Evening Standard Diary had a go at her for possibly hoodwinking her friends into giving permissions. In truth, they’d all given it heartily, though there had been a few sticky moments on the phone. “Hi Slavoj. Great. No, everything’s cool. Listen. I wondered if I might put your, erm, memorable piece about Tracey Emin and the Era of Hyperbole into my anthology of really bad art pieces. Just a bit of fun, really.” (He felt insulted at first but later claimed the book was a postmodern masterstroke.)
Verso had a party in Malet Street Gardens and Olivia didn’t arrive until the end. Those were the days when poets at literary parties could usually be found in the bushes. She basically missed it because David wanted to give her a cocktail at the old Hotel Russell, and they took a room. Everything was lovely and the party seemed like it must be happening at the end of the world. (It was the first time they’d taken a room. They were more into looking at houses to buy.)
Olivia had never gone out of her way to live as other people did, or to make men’s dinners, or any of that. She loved David but she wasn’t much interested in his hobbies or his wonderful children. That was his business, totally his, along with the garden and the wife’s good causes, and she somehow liked it that the man who came to her was another man altogether. She considered this at the top of York Way before turning left at the old garage and going down past Google. This used to be a place of quick assignations and drug dealers and nothing much said, she thought. King’s Cross. And now it was one of the communications centres of Europe.
A car drove away as she went up the steps. He was already sitting on the bench leaning on a cane and looking out at the road. As Olivia walked towards him, he wiped his nose with a floral handkerchief taken from his top pocket. He was the sort of man who would never go out without a hanky and he smiled and waved it a little when he saw her. That’s when she pulled on her gloves, the surgical ones she’d picked up, and decided they wouldn’t hug, despite wanting to, and missing him badly. “I’m here,” he said.
“I spotted that. Being here is one of your gifts. Not that you’re not punctual when it comes to being other places, too. And that’s another gift.”
“I don’t want you to catch anything,” she said. “So I’m standing back. Not that I care about catching anything myself.”
“I’m totally fine,” he said.
She could tell he was disappointed. He didn’t want to be considered vulnerable or somehow less touchable. He was a biographer, after all, and didn’t they believe people are always bigger than their circumstances? He was one of the master builders of selfhood, that’s what Olivia thought; it’s what she’d always thought, and it was a virtue. It struck her that his eyes were different. That’s to say: they had a new character, and she was one for eyes. A quality of distance, maybe.
She couldn’t compare him with anybody, but she suddenly remembered a journey they once made to see Iris Murdoch. Olivia was a friend of hers and John Bayley’s, a good friend, and she’d taken David up to visit with them in Oxford, quite a few years ago. David would probably deny it but they’d laughed all the way home about the state of their house. “I’m sure it’s petit bourgeois of me,” Olivia said, “though dirt is not always the first sign of Bohemian excellence. Listen: I’m not saying people have to be house-proud, especially if you’re a part-time existentialist, but to have, you know, house-shame, or house-hatred, that’s striking. I’m sure there were at least two loads of baked beans and a tin of pilchards mashed into the carpet. That’s original. Not that everybody has to be unoriginal, if you know what I mean. Or blamed for not being.” Iris had sat like a brainy lion yawning on the sofa. Olivia thought she could remember it all, but she felt sure they hadn’t discussed anything about the look on Iris’s face.
“I still think London is charming,” he said. “This part of London, I mean. Despite all those men with their squeegee bottles.”
“Are you talking about the people who wash your windscreen?”
“Absolutely. They dived on us at the traffic lights.”
“They’re only making a coin,” Olivia said. “And your windscreen could probably do with a wash, if I remember anything about your car.”
“That’s just it, Olivia,” he said. “They don’t wash it. They dirty it. They make huge smears in other words, and that’s no good.”
If she was trying to find David, she wouldn’t look here. She’d look at the pillow next to hers or to a memory of ice cream at Stratford-upon-Avon. But he put out his hand to her after a while and she removed her glove and took it. “I’m done for, Livi,” he said with a smile of such regular charm, as dazzling as he always was.
“We’re managing all right,” she said.
“I didn’t mean it to be like this. Though it’s nice here.” She squeezed his hand and let go of the other stuff, the things she thought she’d say. It was too late. She was unsure of those plays where too much was said in the last five minutes.
“You’ve spoken wonderful sentences all along, David,” she said. “There’s no need for summaries or explanations or anything like that.”
“You should write novels, Miss Bevan,” he said, smiling. He was deeply interested in her working life. “Like your man over there.” He pointed with his free hand and his stick to the old ash tree propped up with gravestones. “Thomas Hardy. Gave up moving graves and went off to invent a whole universe of suffering.”
“That’s not entirely my bag,” she said.
“I can’t agree. I saw your Lear at Chichester.”
David would be a biographer to his last breath. It was a way of being in the world, to only understand yourself through other people’s lives. Even now, with all the archives fallen away and the London Library closed to him for good, he wanted to talk about Thomas Hardy and the railways, how he’d been served by lovers and history.
He brought his face to Olivia’s hand and kissed it and that was a blessing much bigger than his thoughts, and she said that quietly to herself, as one who had loved his thoughts extravagantly. He seemed not to know himself for a moment or not to know what to say — the same thing, really — and she filled the gap by talking about Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave further along.
“She’s not really there,” Olivia said. “Her grandson removed her bones to Bournemouth.”
“Pretty much,” she said.
It had been one of those fresh, simplifying days. She just looked at him and enjoyed the beam of the many things that had passed between them. He rested both hands on his stick and smiled into the sunshine, ready to cope with anything. It was a lovely thing he had, god knows where from, a lifelong confidence, a sense of humour in the face of defeat. He was able to suffer any amount of opposition without flinching. “It’s like a play out here,” he said. “One of those by the Irishman with the nice haircut.”
“That’s the chap. Or the other one.”
“It all comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? No words.” She leaned over and kissed him and that was that, virus or no virus.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” he said.
She didn’t ask him what he meant. She just drew his attention to the lovely trees and the song of a coal tit on the roof of the church. (She loved birds.) “You wouldn’t believe such a small thing could make such a wonderful racket,” she said.
“Write more books. We were dear friends, you and I.”
It was a nice way of putting it. He smiled again and that was plenty — his charm was a gift, a magical toy. She’d never mistaken him for anybody else and the meeting in the churchyard was replenishing, as dangerous moments can be. He spoke about how he missed his desk and missed their outings to places for two. Like ghost trains at the fair, she thought, or stolen weekends in summer. She had girlfriends who felt let down by men, thwarted by the law and a system of oppression, but Olivia felt — at least she thought she felt — that the slogans of her friends were never of much help to her. To each their complications.
David told her his wife would be back for him any minute. He never lied. There was no tension in his voice. He spoke in a drifting yet elegant way and lost his thread only once or twice.
“I suppose we’ll never see each other again,” he said at last, emitting a tiny cough. He stood up. She liked him for saying it so clearly and so well, another of his sentences. She loved the biographer in him. It was as if he’d written both their lives, while she directed.
Andrew O'Hagan says:
"Some stories start with an incident, or a single person, others are caused by an argument, or a scene. I once wrote a whole novel, Be Near Me, that was launched by a priest's tone of voice. I was at the shaving mirror when I heard him speaking, and I thought, He’s trouble.
"This story began with a location, St Pancras Old Churchyard in London. I used to live near there, and the place has these vital connections for me, not least with Thomas Hardy, who worked there in the 1860s removing graves to make way for the new railway. Hardy had an odd time with his first wife. Many of his best poems are about her. At the beginning of the lockdown, I was in that graveyard and happened to look at the tree they call The Hardy Tree, and I began to imagine how two people in love, but apart, might cope with the virus. In the third person, a woman’s situation came into focus: this intelligent person who works in the theatre and who is used to thinking about life’s dramas. She has a partner, David, slightly older, with a second life elsewhere, and so might she, but in some deep sense they have been the centre of one other’s lives. The story came from a notion of their privacy in these very public times.”
This story appears in the July/August issue of Esquire.
Andrew O'Hagan, a Unicef Ambassador and an Esquire editor-at-large, is the author of five novels, including Our Fathers, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Personality, which won the James Tait Black Prize for fiction. His essays and criticism have been been published in The London Review of Books and The New Yorker. His new novel, Mayflies, will be published in September.
As an actor, Olivia’s many accolades include an Academy Award, four Baftas, three Golden Globes, four British Independent Film Awards and a BFI Fellowship. She started supporting Unicef UK in 2015 and became an Ambassador in 2019. She has fronted many successful appeals for Unicef UK including direct appeals for Yemen, Syria and most recently Generation Covid, for ITV’s Soccer Aid for Unicef and BBC Radio 4. More recently Olivia agreed to donate her royalties from narrating the audiobook version of Matt Haig’s The Truth Pixie, and The Truth Pixie Goes To School, to Unicef UK.
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