All the World’s a Stage

Sitting in Le Pain Quotidien at St Pancras Station, drinking coffee and eating croissants, I mention to my husband that the flat serving tray, a ceramic cutting board of sorts, with a small hole at one end to hang the item between uses, and slight, inward curvature like a fish tail at the other, might be an interesting new object for him to make in the pottery. People race by on the main platform of the station, the to and fro from England to destinations European, and a man raises his voice to one of the serveuses, accusing her of being rude instead of responding to a simple question.

“I could make these,” my husband says, turning what he thinks is a handmade object over and around in his hands. “But I’d ask the waiter if he likes using them.”

“Ah no,” the waiter tells us in English laced with just enough of an accent – maybe French, maybe Italian – that it’s charming. “They don’t break or chip but for eating, is not so good. Messy,” he adds and flaps his free hand in the air over my plate, to indicate crumbs falling off the sides.

Behind him the belligerent customer opts not to eat in the café and as he storms out, a young man enters and immediately apologizes to the now smiling waitress for something he wasn’t even part of but senses was not her fault.

“I think he’s right,” my husband says to me, meaning the waiter’s opinion of the ceramic object. “They need a return on the sides.”

“But we wouldn’t sell them as plates,” I explain, “I’m thinking cheese boards. Or vegetable trays.” The rectangular flatware has a small bread motif stamped into one corner. I point at it and add, “You could put your tulip stamp here.” Three tables down from us, two men in elegant, silver-grey suits keep up a lively discussion in French about the percentage decline of the stock market. I lean into our table, so my husband can hear me over the background noise. “I really prefer cutting cheese on a flat board.”

“Uh huh,” he says, inspecting the tray again. “But I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere.” He runs his index finger around the perimeter of the clay. “I could make a simple groove just inside the edge.”

I nod; that makes sense. I tear a section off my croissant and look beyond him, to the small Marks and Spencers food shop on the other side of the main platform. We went in there before coming to the café, to buy a green smoothie for me, and I was very impressed to see that they sold pairs of peeled, organic, hard-boiled eggs on fresh spinach in plastic cups to go. I should tell my friend, John Scott, about those, I think, remembering that I owe him a reply to the beautiful missive he sent me about morning time on the beach in Costa Rica. I dip the piece of croissant in my coffee, noticing the remnants of flaky pastry now on the table around my plate. Maybe he could suggest they sell something similar at the Co-op, I continue in my head. I bite down on the coffee softened croissant and nix the idea, realizing that John Scott probably doesn’t want me reaching across the miles with a business suggestion while he’s got his toes on a sandy beach in paradise. Although, I think with a certain amusement, here we are on our way to Paris and I’m talking plate design with my husband. How curious.

After we finish our petit repas (the time wasn’t right to call if breakfast or lunch, just a little snack) the waiter clears up our plates and cups and I hear myself saying, “Shoot! I should have taken a picture.”

“If I were a journaling kind of person I’d draw it,” my husband says and immediately my mind buzzes to the red writing journal I have in my backpack and the drawing he could make in it. I want to get it out and let him do just that but the backpack is behind him, the table is fairly cramped and now it’s covered in croissant crumbs, so I resist.

But not before thinking how strange (yet appealing) this idea is, a journal with sketches of pottery in it. Not birds or wildflowers, things we’ve come to expect in journals, but cups and bowls and plates and cheese trays.

Quick sketch cheese tray

Quick sketch cheese tray

And then I wonder how my life went from thinking almost exclusively about acting to discussing serving ware over café au lait on the way to Paris? And if I didn’t know that businessperson was just another role for me, I could let that bother me. Fortunately all the world’s a stage in my head and I love the range of roles I get to play.

Now about those flat, ceramic trays; how about a Mishima drawing of trees in the corner?

Not Your Typical News Story

Ten years ago, on July 7th, 9:15 am Greenwich Mean time, I was on the tube in London, heading to Liverpool Street Station with my children, when our train was halted at Ealing South. We had just got off a nine-hour flight with an eight-hour time difference, so it was the middle of our night, and the children succumbed to the overly warm, overly full carriage and nodded off in their seats, legs draped over their luggage as pseudo-protection for their gear. We waited, and waited, and waited, the sound system periodically buzzing to life as a nasal voice, heavy on the static, told us again and again that this train could not progress forward due to a “major security alert.” Sitting there, I remember thinking that it was probably a bomb scare. Growing up in England in the 1970s, bomb scares were just something we lived with. After twenty minutes of silent patience within the carriage, the loud speaker buzzed again and everyone on the train was instructed to get off now and leave the station immediately.

I stared blearily at the sign on the platform again: Ealing South. Did I know where that was in relation to Liverpool Street Station? I didn’t think so. I’d lived in the London area as a student but I didn’t remember ever taking the tube to Ealing South. I nudged the kids. We lifted our bags and with weary sighs followed everyone out of the station. Once outside, on a street I was not familiar with, I turned to see iron gates being closed and locked at the entrance to the station. They really meant this.

We spent the next few hours climbing on and off buses, explaining to the drivers that we wanted to go to Liverpool Street Station only to be asked, “Why don’t you take underground?” None of them knew that the underground had been closed or why their buses were suddenly so full or how to get to Liverpool Street Station from Ealing South. But if we took the number 9 bus to the number 24 and then changed for the number 6 bus, we could get to Hammersmith Bus Terminal where we would undoubtedly find a bus to Liverpool Street Station. While we were on one of these many buses, surrounded by people who had also been thrown off the tube, somebody finally received a call on their mobile phone and we could hear, from her end of the conversation, that it was, indeed, a bomb. A series of bombs, in different locations, across the London Underground. We arrived at Hammersmith Bus Terminal, glad to be seeing the end to the mayhem we had landed in, only to be told by one of the many emergency workers in orange and white striped jackets that not only was I not going to Liverpool Street Station that day, but that if I were him, I’d get my children out of the bus terminal too because another bomb had just gone off on a bus.

Now what was I going to do? I sat my children – 14 and 10 – on a bench and told them not to move. Then I went in search of a pay phone. I found one and tried to call my brother who worked in the City of London but the phone lines were down. I tried to call my brother-in-law who worked in South London but those lines were down too. I finally got a line out to my father, in Southend, where I had been headed with my children, and he was baffled that I couldn’t reach my brother. “I just spoke with him,” he said.
“I’m in London, dad. The phones are down inside the city.”
There was a long pause and he finally said, a catch in his voice, “I just want you to get where you’ll be safe.”

It never really occurred to me that we weren’t safe. Trapped, yes. Hungry, very. Tired, beyond words. But the panic the media seems so able to convey in these situations hadn’t reached me. Or anybody else around me that I could tell. We were all just dealing with it. I finally resorted to a London taxi-cab to get us out of the jam and had the driver drop us at a pub in Putney, south of the River Thames, on the understanding that my brother-in-law would come and pick us up from there. The publican showed us to a back room, where I could sit with the children, and since there was no food to be had because the cooks were trapped inside London, the kids laid down on the wooden benches and fell asleep. And then I did the smartest thing I’d done all day. I walked down the street to another payphone and woke up my husband. “You need to hear this from me,” I told him, “before you hear it on the news.”

The thing is, as messy as that whole situation was, what I remember most from being in the midst of it were the stories my sister told when she came home from work the next day. We ended up at her house in Kent, after my brother-in-law rescued us from the pub, and the children and I promptly slept for almost 24 hours. We woke up to my sister sharing the talk from the teachers’ lounge. One of the stories she told was about the husband of one of her coworkers, who was on his usual bus in north London, heading to work the day of the bombings, when a man sat down next to him and started fidgeting so agitatedly with a package inside his backpack, the husband got off the bus. And as it pulled away, the bus exploded. He must have been sitting next to the bomber and didn’t know it.

What I took away from that was the following: there’s a great chance it won’t be us. Or if it is us, there’s a great chance that we won’t know it. I think often about the men on Flight 93, the fourth plane to go down on 9/11. I picture them saying to each other, maybe wordlessly, we’re going down, so we may as well go down fighting. Isn’t that what we should all be saying? If we’re going down, may as well go down doing the things we want to do with our lives. So my vote is, if you want to go to Paris, go. Chances are great you’ll just have a wonderful time.

Paris 2