Returning to New Burbage could, if Geoffrey were the sort of person who did that kind of thing, be described as akin to biting into a rotten apple: you can clearly see that it's discoloured and misshapen but you bite into it anyway, and then you keep taking bite after bite, even though each mouthful is nothing but bitter mush, because you insist on clinging to the belief that if you just bite deeply enough, that next mouthful will be the crisp, juicy apple of your memory.

He says he doesn't want to be back, but thinks what he really wants is to be back in the New Burbage of seven years ago, even if it means being on that precipice again, pushed to his limit and hanging on by the shreds of his tights. That is, until he realises he is back in the New Burbage of seven years ago, and all that's changed are the parts people play.

The part of the mentor will be played by Geoffrey Tennant. Taking over as leading man is Jack Crew, and in the role of the ingenue, formerly filled by Ellen Fanshaw, we introduce Kate McNab.

Hamlet - that Hamlet - is something it seems that Geoffrey will never be able to leave behind.

The rehearsal runs late, despite Maria's best efforts, and people are grumbling as they leave the theatre, hats on heads and coats over arms and lights flickering off one by one behind them. People have been grumbling all day, even when there's nothing to grumble about, and it hasn't stopped raining since dawn; Geoffrey can still hear it every time he wanders too close to a door.

"Kate, a moment," he says before she can follow them. She's got her coat half on, but slips it off again before she turns back to him, hanging it over the back of a folding chair.

"Yes?" she says as the metal door slams closed behind the last one out. There's something about being back here, the stage and the lights and the way those absolutely trusting eyes look at him in just that way that makes this all too familiar.

"The other day you asked about some extra rehearsal time, to catch up with the rest of the cast," he says. It's not a question, but it reads like one.

"I did," she says, stepping closer. "Oh God, did I forget we were going to meet? I was going to go for dinner but I don't have reservations, I can--"

"You didn't forget," says Geoffrey as the last of the stage lights switches off and the booth goes dark. "I'm free tomorrow."

He's free nearly every day, if one doesn't count his ghostly visitor, but it's that very ghostly visitor that makes him so uncertain about the wisdom of this meeting. But then, he's the director. He's a good director. And mentoring the youngest members of his cast is his job, it's his duty. It doesn't have to be anything more than it is.

"Thank you," she says, breathless, moving inside his personal space and trembling like she wants to touch him but doesn't quite dare. "This means a lot to me, Geoffrey."

In her, even now, he sees Ophelia, she breathes Ophelia, she is everything that any of them could have hoped for. He remembers being Hamlet to a radiant Ophelia once. He remembers what that Ophelia was to someone else. And right now he looks at Kate and wants those immortal words come out of her mouth; he wants to watch her become Ophelia for him. He's just not sure which him he wants her to be Ophelia for.

"My lord," she says, like the rehearsal has begun after all or like she can read his mind or his face or those parts of him he'd rather continue to repress. "I have remembrances of yours, that I have longed long to re-deliver; I pray you, now receive them."

He doubts that Kate is going to dinner alone, expects she has someone waiting for her, but he still reaches out and holds her face between both his hands. She's the one who kisses him, but he's the one who doesn't stop her until the moment is too far gone to deny.

"I'm not what you want me to be," he says, too carefully, too gentle, taking her shoulders and moving her away from him. "I'm not what you remember."

It's not that he doesn't want. He wants, more than he wishes he did and much more than he knows he should. But he's had seven years to learn patience and fear, and she's had seven years to immortalize the man he used to be.

"You could be, if you wanted to be."

"I couldn't be, even if I wanted to be," he says, and this time he's being honest with both himself and the world. "You don't want this." She blushes, embarrassment and shame at the rejection, and he holds on to her shoulders all the same. "The theatre makes us believe in things that don't exist. That's the magic of it. And sometimes those things don't all happen on the stage."

"I'll go," she says. "I should never have--"

"It's natural," he says, and it is natural - he's felt those feelings a dozen times or more, moments between actors, between an actor and a director, when the intense connection spills over and when the lines start to blur - but following through is a choice.

He already knows how this story ends. The ingenue loves the leading man yet still sleeps with the mentor in a moment of weakness. Leading man goes mad. Maybe Hamlet never changes, maybe his ending is written in ink and blood, but Geoffrey's real life is as yet unwritten. There is no inevitability to this moment.

"You are an amazing actress, Kate," he says, stroking her shoulder with his thumb. "I'm sure Jack's waiting for you. I'll see you at rehearsal tomorrow."

"You mean you're still willing to...?"

She seems almost afraid to ask the question, cheeks still pink and eyes still trusting.

"Of course," he says. "Hamlet will always go on, even if it kills us."

He doesn't know quite how to say goodbye, to make everything right again, but then this is the theatre. It's not meant to be comfortable, and nothing is ever quite right. People who want to live normal lives do not become actors.

There's a clatter from backstage, a cry of, "What fresh hell is this?", and the world makes its inevitable and timely intrusion.

"And now I need to see if it has, in fact, just killed someone," he says, finally letting go of her, taking a step back and giving them both the distance they need. "Good night, Kate."

She scurries for her coat but she doesn't flee, and she's not quite so pink anymore. "Thank you, Geoffrey."

"Tomorrow, Kate," he says, and watches her until she disappears through the door, into the rainy evening.

Geoffrey is not Oliver and Kate is not Ellen, and if Geoffrey's madness has taught him anything it's that the world is an uncertain place. They can write a different story, this time around.

[ by CJ Marlowe ]   [ home ]   [ disclaimer ]

Written for Yuletide 2008.