by Francis Beaumont and Julie Bozza
Dale is proud of how his acting career is progressing. Tonight, for instance, is the last night (at the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) of a well-received run of Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, in which he plays Rafe. But his colleague Topher, who plays Jasper, seems to think something is missing in Dale’s life. They’re not really friends, and Dale sees little point in reprising the one night on which they were not-really-friends with benefits.
However! Despite the distractions of performing this chaotic two-plays-within-a-play, Dale is plagued by the niggling doubts prompted by Topher. Dale might be better off paying attention, though – because maybe Francis Beaumont, writing over 400 years ago, already provided the answers to Dale’s dilemma.
38,500 words/150 pages
Publication 1 May 2017
“Did we ever work out what this play is about?” asked Topher.
“You’re asking me now?” Dale retorted with a mild sense of outrage that was mostly feigned. “It’s our last show!”
“Better late than never.”
“We’re going on in a minute.”
“In thirty minutes,” Topher quietly replied.
They were sitting in their corner of the men’s dressing room, each at his own table – at right angles and far too often at cross purposes. Dale leant in to shoot Topher a fiery look via the reflections in their mirrors. Not that Dale would let Topher rattle him, of course. The friendly repartee they shared was generally for real, and the less good-natured niggling was usually for display purposes only. Dale knew that Topher knew that for Dale the work came first, and if Topher went too far, Dale would simply shut him out.
Topher finished off his make-up, and then tended to his hair with his usual slapdash though effective method: he ran his hands back over his hair to smooth it down, before pushing his fingers up through his fringe so it stood from his forehead with rakish charm. They couldn’t use hairspray or certain kinds of gel due to the stage being lit by beeswax candles, but Topher had found some kind of uninflammable product that he swore he loved even more than his regular brand. Dale hadn’t had the same luck in finding a replacement for his usual stuff – but then, he was playing the innocent dork as opposed to the romantic lead, so it didn’t matter very much if his hair was rather a shambles.
That smug git Topher was now lounging back in his chair, swivelling it halfway towards Dale and meeting his gaze from over Dale’s shoulder, via Dale’s mirror. They were both mostly dressed already. Topher had only to slip on the boots and doublet of his Jacobean-era costume, and Dale was lacking only his modern-day jacket and shoes. They were in plenty of time. But now that Dale considered him properly, he found that Topher actually seemed quite pensive – which was a tad alarming when Topher’s default setting was usually to look rather pleased with himself. Dale eyed Topher’s reflection with a caution that no doubt Topher could read. But Dale said nothing.
Eventually, Topher remarked, with an edge to his overly casual tone, “Our last show, eh?”
Dale made a noncommittal sound that Topher could take as agreement if he wished.
“Are we going to celebrate in the same way as before?”
Dale froze. “I thought we’d agreed –” he found himself whispering fiercely, before grinding to a halt. He didn’t need to state the obvious. I thought we’d agreed on professional. He was this close to grabbing up the nearest thing to hand, spinning in his chair, and throwing it at the insufferably beautiful bastard. The beautifully insufferable bastard. The nearest thing would have been his half-full mug of tea, Dale noted, which would have made a decent dent in Topher’s skull, and stained his character’s white shirt as well.
After a long, still moment, Dale forced himself to shift in his chair. He checked his foundation in the mirrors, and then leaned close to apply eyeliner along each lower lid. Once he was done, Dale took the opportunity to glance casually across the rest of the dressing room, and was relieved to see the other guys at a distance, all minding their own business. Then Dale sat back and considered the overall effect of his hair and makeup with a pretence of satisfaction.
Topher wasn’t satisfied. That much was clear from his sour expression and slumped shoulders. “No,” he muttered, turning away. “Didn’t think so.”
It had been months since they’d last worked together – almost a year, now Dale thought about it. Almost a year since they’d parted, with a handshake and (surely!) an unspoken agreement that gentlemen neither tell nor ask for second helpings. Dale had thought the past was safely in the past, despite the occasional crackle of tension between them when they’d met up again during the read-through and rehearsals. But perhaps he’d been wrong about that.
At least they were both too professional to let it affect the show. Topher stood now, and stepped around to face Dale in order to hold out his hand to shake. “Sorry. Pretend I was too couth to say anything.”
“Of course.” Dale shook the proffered hand – and very deliberately fought down the sense-memory of that hand curved tenderly around his flank then slipping down to shape itself hard around his hip.
“See you out there, then.”
Dale nodded, and offered a half-smile – though Topher was already out the door, with his doublet and boots hastily grasped, and the effort was wasted on him. Dale let out a sigh instead.
Well. He’d thought Topher had become quite oblivious to Dale’s sparse charms. He’d assumed their long-ago encounter had meant as little to Topher as it was supposed to. The whole stupid thing had been insignificant, of course. A slow growth and then a quick release of unwanted tension, that was all it had been, there was no point in romanticising it, and in any case there was no room in Dale’s life for anything more. If Topher had once had thoughts of changing that, surely it was clear by now that Dale was perfectly happy was he was. It had been nothing, really.
For a while there, though … Only for a short while, of course, and probably only because Topher had woken him up with coffee in the morning, exactly the way Dale liked it best … For a little while, Dale had to admit to himself that he’d been fooled into thinking it meant the whole world.