How do you pass the time when you know you're facing eternity?
Maglor agrees to appear in a student production of The Pirates of Penzance
, and gets more than he bargained for.
A shamelessly fluffy love letter to my alma mater, to student life, to Maglor (of course), and to the joy of friendship in unexpected places.
Categories: Fiction Characters:
Maglor, OFC, OMC
Angst, AU, Gen, Humor, Hurt/Comfort, Mystery
May 07, 2018 Updated:
June 10, 2018
A couple of people have asked me if I have more stories about Maglor and Claire (who appears in Nocturne and Of Lapwings, Hares and Speckled Eggs). The answer is yes – although both of those fics and this one are intended to stand alone, so don't feel like you can't start here.
A word of warning: this fic is both self-indulgent and, in places, tooth-rottingly fluffy. Even so, the idea has been floating around in my head for a while, refusing to go away, and over the months it has accumulated in scraps and snippets in my notebooks. Today in particular I'm missing wonderful St Andrews, where I spent four years as an undergraduate, and this seemed like the perfect thing to start polishing up and posting.
Rated Teen for language. Allusions later in the story to grief and mental health issues.
1. Overture and Scene by Narya
2. A First Rate Opportunity by Narya
3. Our Pirate Fold by Narya
Overture and Scene by Narya
I was getting good at predicting Xander's explosions.
The Pencil was the first thing to watch for. He'd jiggle it between his finger and thumb at first, then start tapping the end of it against his teeth. That was how you knew he was getting closer to Stage Two, The Glasses. He'd keep shoving them up the bridge of his nose like they were sliding down, even when they weren't – and the frames were small, so they'd end up jammed right into his eye sockets. If you were with him in the auditorium, you'd hear him sighing loudly.
The Arms were next. He'd cross them and slouch back in his seat, scowling – and then something would make him lean forwards, feet tapping, chin resting on clasped hands, knuckles white and stark under the skin.
Last of all was The Hair. He'd run his fingers through it until the corkscrew curls stood on end and it crackled with static. The more it crackled, the more trouble we were in.
We were already on The Pencil before the overture finished – a string slipped on one of the violins, so it was hideously out of tune, and its player had to scuttle off backstage to fix it. We got to The Glasses halfway through the pirates' opening number, which was admittedly a shambles, and then Harrison and Theo muddled their dialogue, which tipped us into The Arms. I got through my number without incident and shot back to the wings to watch Harrison's big solo song, but the spotlight that was supposed to follow him as he swashbuckled around the stage refused to budge, so he was standing in shadow as he gleefully pronounced himself the Pirate King. The Hair began to fizz and crackle, and I was already fleeing for a breath of fresh air when the inevitable happened. There was an incoherent shriek about footwork and three-legged giraffes – and then the heavy Union doors swung shut behind me.
I sighed, leaned against the wall of Blackwell's, and pulled a cigarette from the pocket stitched into my apron.
“You do know those will ruin your voice?”
I jumped. I had been so relieved to escape in time that I hadn't noticed him coming out of the bookshop. I recognised him, of course. He was a Philosophy post-doc, but research only, no teaching hours – much to the disappointment of that School's undergraduate community. I hadn't had much interaction with him, being based out of the School of English, although I'd seen and heard him practising the piano in Younger Hall. I swallowed at the memory of the sweet, yearning ache that awoke in my stomach when he played – and then I belatedly realised I was gawping, and forced myself to reply. “Not much there to spoil.” I attempted a nonchalant grin. “I'm just the comic relief.”
“I heard you singing. You're very good.” He smiled then, and the force of it could have turned back the tide.
King Canute, eat your heart out.
It suddenly dawned on me that I was still wearing my straggly grey wig. My cheeks and ears burned.
It was my housemate, Rosie, holding the Union door open with her elbow, since her arms were full of batons for the policemen. Chatter and laughter from the bar tipped out into the street. An elderly man heading for the council office next door gave us a disapproving scowl.
“What's up?” I asked.
“Xander wants to pick up from your song with Theo.”
I sighed and stuck the unlit cigarette back into my pocket. “Duty calls.”
The musical philosopher raised an eyebrow. “And you are the slave of duty?”
I laughed. “You like Gilbert and Sullivan?”
“One could say that.”
My grin widened, and I stuck out my hand to shake his. “Claire James.”
“Mark Lowry.” His right hand felt odd in mine – and then I remembered the awful scarring I'd noticed before, and forced myself not to look down.
“Claire, come on!” Rosie was bobbing up and down like an anxious pigeon. “Sorry,” she added to Mark, "but the rehearsal's been a disaster so far, our director is in the worst mood...”
“I'm coming.” I glanced back at Mark. “You should come and see the show.”
“Do you think you'll survive the rehearsals?”
“'At any price I will do my duty,'” I quoted.
His lips quirked again, and my stomach leapt up into my throat.
“I know, I know, I'm on my way.”
“Break a leg,” Mark said.
“Thanks.” I gave him an apologetic smile, and followed Rosie back into the Union.
As soon as the door swung shut behind him, she turned to me with wide eyes and a giddy grin. “Oh – my – GOD!”
“What?” I asked, although I had a fair idea.
“He is gorgeous! Who is he?”
I was right. “His name's Mark. He's a Philosophy post-doc.”
“Older than you,” I laughed. “I don't know – maybe early thirties?”
“That's not too old,” she said thoughtfully. “Single?”
“Can you invite him over for drinks?”
“What? No! Rosie, that is literally the first time I've spoken to him - at least, properly.” And Theo would be heartbroken, I thought, but said nothing. “Anyway, I might never bump into him again.”
“Oh, you will.” She shook out her mane of honey-blonde hair with the confidence of the lucky few who believe the world will shape itself according to their wishes, because life hasn't yet been cruel enough to teach them otherwise. “That's the best thing about St Andrews – there are, what, like, five streets? Once you've met someone, you're bound to see them again.”
“Is that a good thing?”
From the auditorium, Xander let out a furious bellow.
A crinkle of worry appeared between Rosie's eyebrows. “Maybe not.”
A First Rate Opportunity by Narya
It turned out that Rosie was right about St Andrews; I did see him again.
It was Wednesday, four days after the disastrous rehearsal. I'd got up early and grabbed a few books out of short loan, and had planned on hiding in Taste to skim through them and make some notes. I'd assumed it wouldn't be busy, with most students either at class or still in bed, but all the tables were occupied by the time the barista handed me my chai latte.
Mark was sitting in a corner, scribbling in a black notebook. I didn't like to disturb him so I dumped my book bag on the floor, intending to stand at the bar until a table came free – then he glanced over, caught my eye, and smiled.
I wasn't so blindsided by it this time, and smiled back. “Hi.”
“Hi.” He put his pencil down and tilted his head to one side. “You survived.”
“Just about. I'm pretty sure Xander murdered a few of the policemen, though.”
His mouth twitched. “Well. The policemen can get away with a little incompetence.”
“Yes, but it helps if they actually come on stage in the first place.”
Laughing, he pushed his coffee cup and plate to one side so they took up less space on the table. “Need a seat?”
I felt a rush of gratitude. “Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
I flopped into the chair with a sigh of pleasure. I hadn't walked far from the library but the book bag was heavy, and a dull ache was yawning across my back. “Thank you.”
“You're welcome.” He flicked his eyes at my bag. “You look like you've got work to do, so feel free to pretend I'm not here.”
Easier said than done, I thought, digging in my bag for The Western Canon. I was already getting envious glares from a brown-haired girl with thick-rimmed glasses and an iPad.
Mark, meanwhile, had gone back to his notebook. The pages were etched with manuscript lines and were covered in hastily-drawn staffs and staves. He was writing music, not words. I couldn't help smiling, but as I watched him work my eyes were inevitably drawn to the scarrring on his hand. Up close, in the light of day, it looked even worse. It was as though the flesh had been boiled into liquid and then reset around the bones in a melted mockery of its former shape – like an experiment from Dr. Doom's lab.
He looked up and caught me staring. I blushed, but he didn't seem to mind.
“It's not pretty, I know.” He smiled again, but this time it was distant and sad. He flexed his hand and showed me the palm. A strange pattern was seared into the skin there, an oddly beautiful geometric arrangement of polygons, like something from one of those adult colouring books. “Old war wound.”
“Sorry,” I muttered, averting my eyes – although I wondered what kind of combat would cause an injury like that.
“No need to be. It was a long time ago.”
He talked about it the way my great-grandad talked about Dunkirk. In spite of my embarrassment, I shot him another look. He was only a few years older than me – thirty-five at most. It couldn't have been that long ago – but I'd already been far too nosy just by looking. At least he could still play, I thought, remembering him in the practice room in Younger Hall, eyes half-closed, fingers caressing the piano like an old lover.
I was still struggling for something sensible to say when my phone went off. The old Nokia handset vibrated in my bag and made it hop along the floor like a Duracell bunny.
“Sorry,” I said again, retrieving the bag as it made its bid for freedom.
Mark just looked amused and went back to his black notebook. I searched among the books and papers for the earthquake-causing handset and eventually found it, although my stomach shrank a little at the name on the display. I pressed the Accept button. “Hi, Xander.”
“Hey, Claire. How are you doing?”
He sounded unusually concerned, as though he expected me to have come down with the flu since we last spoke. “I'm fine. What do you need?”
“I've spoken to Theo. Jesus, Claire, what are we going to do?”
“Um. What about?” Clearly I was missing something.
“The Pirate King, the show!”
“What are you on about?” I was definitely missing something. Surely Xander wasn't thinking of cancelling? “I mean, yes, Harrison's been a prat the last couple of rehearsals, but you know what he's like, he'll pull it out of the bag when he's got a real audience.” Silence. “Hello?”
“You don't know, do you?”
“Know what?” The squeezing sensation in my gut turned icy. Mark looked up from his composition.
“Shit.” Silence again. “I figured you'd know, I thought they'd have called you first.”
“Doing nothing for my nerves here, Xander.”
“Uh. Yeah.” I heard him swallow. “So earlier this morning, after they turned their essays in, Theo and Harrison decided to jump off the pier.”
Fuck. Bugger. Shit. “And?”
“There was a kayak tethered at the bottom – I guess from Canoe Club or something, I don't know. It was still dark, so they didn't see it. Theo missed it, but Harrison...Harrison didn't.”
The cold squeezing crept up my throat. An image rose in my mind of my ridiculous, stupid younger cousin with his skull split open, floating in the water, blood spreading around him in a pink cloud. The back of my mouth prickled and tasted of vomit. “Xander, for God's sake, just tell me.”
“His leg's broken.”
“Jesus.” I exhaled, my legs suddenly feeling hollow and weightless. I picked up my drink but my hand was shaking, and the milky liquid slopped out of the mug and into the saucer – and over my sleeve. “Fuck, Xander...”
“Are you OK?”
“No!” Aware that I sounded shrill and wondering what on earth Mark must think, I took another breath. “Well. Yes.” I shoved my chair back and climbed over my book bag, heading outside. “But you scared me.”
“Oh. I didn't mean to.” Another pause. “But he can't be the Pirate King with a broken leg...”
“I know that,” I snapped. “Look, give me a few minutes, I need to speak to them. I'll call you back about the show.”
The cool November air danced in off the sea. I inhaled it gratefully and leaned against the wall to stop my calves from trembling, then slowly breathed out. I forced myself to notice the warmth in my throat, the softening of my muscles, the weight of my feet on the ground, until my nerves and thoughts stopped racing.
Calmer, I dialled Theo's number.
“Pick up, you moron,” I muttered as the dial tone trilled for the fourth time. “God, you are such an idiot...”
At least he had the good grace to sound sheepish. Even so, I stepped back into the character I'd worn in the courtroom for three long years. “Why the hell didn't you ring me?”
“It was early." An anxious, somehow pathetic silence. "We didn't want to get you up.”
I took another breath and counted three. “And where are you now?”
“In a taxi, on the way back from Dundee.”
“Theo, why didn't you just phone me? I could have driven you both to A and E...bloody hell, we only live together!”
In the background I could hear Harrison asking for the phone. There was the sound of something being dropped, then a scuffling and a string of muffled curses, then - “Hey.”
Relief washed through me at the sound of his voice. My legs wobbled again, and I pressed my back against the sun-warmed stone. “Hey, you wally.”
Harrison gave a tired half-laugh. “Claire, don't be mad at Theo – please. I was in a state, we both were, he wasn't thinking properly. He had to pull me out of the water and everything, it was like a scene from Baywatch.” I heard Theo making some stupid quip about Harrison screaming like a girl. Irritation flared in my gut, but its edges were dulled by the exhaustion of the morning's emotional rollercoaster.
I sighed and rubbed my nose. “Look, Harrison, I don't want to fight on the phone.” I wished I had him with me, wished I could fling my arms around him, wished I could slap his freckled face. “Just...please get back safe, OK?”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
I smiled in spite of everything. “Shouldn't I be saying that to you?”
“Not any more, I don't think, I can't play the Pirate King like this...oh, shit.” He swallowed. “Xander...”
“Never mind Xander, I'll ring him.” I'd promised to call him back after I spoke to the boys, but all my nerves coalesced into a leaden ball in my stomach at the thought. “I'll see you in a bit. And tell Theo he'd better look after you, or I'll shoot him with his own bloody rifle.”
When I got back to the table there was a fresh, steaming cup of chai waiting for me – and a slab of caramel shortbread. “What's this?” I asked stupidly.
“You were out there for a while.” Mark's silver-grey eyes met mine. “Your drink was cold.”
"Oh." I took a sip, ignoring the scalding heat and savouring the sweetness of it on my tongue. “Thank you. You're an angel.”
“And the cake?”
He shrugged. “I didn't know what you'd like. It seemed like the fail-safe choice.”
An aching warmth rose in my chest that I was fairly sure had nothing to do with the chai latte. “You didn't need to do that.”
“I think I did,” he said gently.
The easy kindness of it, on top of Theo and Harrison's idiocy, the anger and the worry, was too much. I felt the telltale closing of my throat, the prickling of my eyes, and swallowed. I wouldn't cry, not in here, and not in front of him.
He closed his manuscript book. “I heard most of your first call,” he admitted. “Is your friend alright? Leg aside?”
“Harrison's my cousin – but yes, he is.” I set my cup down and rubbed my forehead, trying to ease the headache I sensed building. “Jesus, what an idiot...”
“One of my cousins once climbed a tree blindfolded for a dare. The result was much the same.”
“Was he playing the Pirate King too?”
“No.” A furrow appeared between his brows. “No, I meant the leg.”
“I know. Sorry. Failed attempt at humour.” I took a bite of the shortbread and another sip of my drink. “I need to ring Xander back, but I'm dreading it; he's going to be furious.”
“Mm. I mean, he's always furious about something, but having to cancel the show...”
“Don't you have an understudy?”
I shook my head. “Harrison's a bit of a diva.”
“Ah.” He gave a small smile. “'There is no understudy for La Carlotta.'”
“You're a Lloyd-Webber fan too?” I laughed.
He leaned back, arms folded, one eyebrow raised. “You don't seem quite as impressed by that.”
“Oh, no, I like Phantom,” I said hastily. “And La Carlotta isn't far off the mark.”
He nodded, stirring his own cup of black coffee. “Then if there's no understudy, what about your Samuel? Could he play the Pirate King, if one of the chorus took his part?”
I pulled a face. “Maybe. Rob's a decent singer, but I wouldn't say he's a Pirate King. It needs a bit of presence.” I gestured vaguely. “Confidence. Charisma. The X Factor.” I thought of sweet, short, chubby Rob, like a young Mr. Smee. “Bless him, he doesn't even look like a pirate.”
Mark's smile widened, as though he could see the picture in my mind. “Well, if you're really desperate...”
I took another drink and narrowed my eyes. “What?”
He shrugged one shoulder – a small, careless gesture, impossibly elegant. “I could give it a go.”
“You're not serious?” But I knew he was. I looked him over again – tall, imposing, utterly at ease in himself, and magnetically attractive. He'd be perfect. My heart thudded as I began to hope. “Can you sing?”
Again the half-shrug. He gave a mischievous, lopsided smile. “I'm a tenor really, but my lower range isn't bad.”
“And you know the part?”
“Every word and note.”
I knew he was musical. He sounded like he should be able to sing. I bit my lip, debating. “It isn't really my call,” I said eventually, and pulled my phone out. “Give me two minutes.”
Xander picked up almost straight away. “What's happening, Claire?”
“Theo and Harrison are on their way back from Dundee. Have you cancelled the show yet?”
“No.” I heard the hope rise in his voice. “Can Harrison do it after all?”
“Not unless you want a Pirate King in a plaster cast.” I glanced across the table, checking one final time. Mark nodded. “But I might have another solution.”
I went back to the flat when I'd finished my drink – partly to drop off the books, and partly to check on Harrison.
His door was open, so I didn't bother knocking. He was stretched out on his bed listening to music, pale-faced and with his left leg in a cast, but otherwise looking normal. A pair of standard-issue hospital crutches were propped at the end of the bed.
He pulled off his headphones as I entered. “Hey.”
“Hey.” I folded my arms. “What's the damage?”
“Displaced fracture of the left fibula.”
“Clean break. Six to eight weeks on crutches. Hurts like hell.”
“I'll bet.” I perched next to him on the bed. “You're an absolute fucking moron.”
He tilted his head so a lock of curly black hair fell across his face, dark eyes widened in his best Labrador impression. “It was Theo's idea.”
My lips curled upwards as though pulled by magnets. I tried folding my mouth inwards, but it was no good; the giggles bubbled up inside me and I snorted like a piglet with a cold.
I opened my mouth to explain, but whether it was nervous energy or sugar from the chai and shortbread, suddenly I couldn't stop laughing. A draft from the single glazed window chilled the tears catching at the corners of my eyes, and I gasped for breath. “You know when you were little? Did your Mum never say to you...” Another wave of laughter crashed over me.
“Did my Mum never say what?”
This time I inhaled deeply, forcing the giggles to simmer down. “If you did something stupid, and tried to get out of trouble by saying someone else told you to do it...”
“Oh.” He grinned.
“Did she never say to you...”
“...'if so-and-so told you to jump off a cliff, would you listen?'” we finished together, and then we were both laughing, and I pulled him into a gentle hug.
“Idiot,” I said into his shoulder, and sat back. “What were you thinking?”
“Loads of people do it. The tide was high, it wasn't that dangerous.”
“Except for the bloody great kayak in the way.”
“Well, yeah, except for that.” He leaned into his pillows, looking sheepish. “Sorry about Pirates.”
“I'd keep out of Xander's way for a while if I were you – but it's not a lost cause yet.” I shoved him gently. “Even you're not irreplaceable.”
A look of sheer horror crossed his face. What little colour he had left drained away. “You're not letting Rob do it?”
“Nope. Someone new.”
“Oh. Are they as good as me?” he asked, posing half-heartedly.
“I'll tell you in about an hour.” I glanced at my watch. “I need to get over to Younger Hall. Will you be OK here by yourself? Rosie should be back soon, her lecture finishes at twelve.”
“I'll be fine.”
“Sure? You don't need me to do anything, or pick you anything up?”
“Er.” He shuffled. “I kind of haven't told Mum yet. She'll freak.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Yes, fine, I'll ring her – when I get back, though. And she will want to talk to you,” I warned him. “I'll tell her you're fine, but she won't take my word for it.”
“I know. You're the best.”
“I try.” I hugged him again. “Be good.”
“Don't worry, I'm going nowhere for a while.”
It wasn't lunchtime yet but Theo was already in the kitchen, stacking slices of cheese and tomato inside a baguette.
“Leave that,” I snapped, suddenly irritated by everything about him, from his red trousers to his artfully messy mop of sandy-brown hair.
“Theo, we're late!”
He sighed and cast a longing look at the half-assembled sandwich, then slouched towards the door.
“I don't know how you and Harrison stay so skinny when you eat so much.” Skinny wasn't exactly a fair description, and I knew it would needle him, but for once I didn't care. I pulled on my coat and wrestled with the zip.
“Why are we even auditioning this chap?” Theo examined the two green waxed jackets slung over the bannister, presumably trying to identify which was his and which was Rosie's. “I could be the Pirate King.”
“Don't be stupid. You look like an innocent little boy, which is exactly what you're playing.” He looked at me with hurt blue eyes, and I felt a nibble of guilt. It must have been terrifying hauling a screaming Harrison out of the water, whether he joked about it or not – and Theo wasn't a bad kid. He probably felt awful for suggesting the jump in the first place. I relented. “Anyway, nobody else has the range for Frederic.” I smiled, not quite ready to forgive him in as many words. “Come on – let's see what this guy can do.”
Mark was waiting for us on North Street, outside Younger Hall. He didn't look at all nervous, I noted approvingly. He stood completely straight-backed, the wind stirring his long, dark hair. Theo eyed him suspiciously.
“How do you know him?” he asked.
“Post-grad stuff.” I couldn't be bothered to relay the full story.
“He looks like he belongs in a guitar band, not a comic opera.”
“Never stopped Jon English. Don't be such a snob.” I smiled and waved at Mark as we got closer.
“I didn't know which practice room,” he said apologetically.
“My fault – I didn't say. Mark, this is Theo, our Frederic. Theo – Mark.”
They shook hands. If Theo noticed Mark's scars, he did nothing to show it.
“How's your cousin?” Mark asked.
I rolled my eyes. “He'll be fine, it's not a bad break.” I led them inside and down the corridor to the left of the auditorium. I could hear Xander running over the piano part for the Paradox Trio, and followed the sound.
“Done much Gilbert and Sullivan before?” I heard Theo ask.
“Some.” Mark kept his voice carefully even. I knew he hadn't missed the challenge. “It's been a while, but I'm sure it'll come back to me.”
Don't be cocky, I thought. Not until we really know you can do it.
Fortunately, he back-pedalled a little. “So – Frederic. You must have one hell of a voice.”
Good one, I thought, relieved.
“Oh, you know.” Theo put on his trademark plummy toff tones. “One does one's best.”
Xander stopped playing as we all trooped in, and scowled at us over the top of his glasses. “Where have you been?”
“Hi, Xander. Harrison's doing OK; thanks for asking.” I unzipped my coat, tugging as the slippery fabric got stuck. “He'll be on crutches for a few weeks, but it's not a serious break, so no need for a hospital stay. I'll be sure to let him know you were worried.”
Mark snorted and then coughed softly. Xander's scowl only deepened.
“What in the hell was he thinking? And you!” he added as Theo shrugged off his jacket and lounged against the piano. “What kind of shit did you smoke to put that in your head?”
“Oh, stop it.” I was still annoyed with Theo, but not enough to let Xander bollock him. “We've got an answer.”
“Maybe.” Xander looked at Mark appraisingly.
“Sorry. Mark, Xander; Xander, Mark.”
Xander nodded. “Alright, we're tight for time. We'll do a very quick warm-up, then we'll run through 'Paradox' from the top. Then I'll decide. Clear?”
Theo saluted silently. Mark raised an eyebrow at me; I shrugged and smiled.
Please, please, please be good, I begged him silently, breathing from my stomach as Xander gave us our starting notes.
He flickered his left eyelid, inhaled deeply, and sang.
He wasn't good.
He was unbelievable.
It was definitely a tenor voice, but it was unlike any tenor I'd ever heard. It was warm, deep, rich, pure. I thought of the sea on a summer's day – but at the same time I felt a curl of melancholy in my gut, a desperate yearning for something I could no longer remember. I'd felt the same way when I'd heard him play the piano. Theo's eyes widened, and Xander's fingers faltered halfway through the arpeggio.
Mark smiled at me, his expression one of relaxed confidence. I could almost hear the question in my mind. Will this do?
Oh, yes. I grinned back at him, delighted. I'd been hopeful, but this was beyond anything I'd dared to imagine.
After a few wordless scales and exercises, Xander went straight into the introduction to the Paradox Trio, not even stopping to criticise. My grin widened. I slipped into character, leaning forward slightly, right hand balled into a fist and resting on my hip. “When you had left our pirate fold we tried to raise our spirits faint, according to our custom old with quips and quibbles quaint...”
Theo joined in with the performance, every inch the eager, trusting apprentice believing in his former comrades' good faith. He clasped his hands excitedly, inquiring after the paradox that had enticed them from their pirate lair – and when Mark joined in for the chorus, our three voices blended and soared, dancing over the ridiculous lyrics with light, joyous energy. I felt a tickle of guilt in the small of my back, thinking of Harrison laid up in bed. I loved singing with my cousin, we'd been performing together since we were kids – but I knew that singing with someone as talented as this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
He swaggered through his solo verses, buckling swash like he was born on the stage, hamming up the recitative in a gorgeous vibrato, and then we all came back together for the final chorus. I felt a heady rush as we held the climactic note, the three-part harmony ringing pure and true around the flaking walls of the little practice room – and then, eyes all on each other so it was perfectly crisp, we cut to silence.
My grin stretched to manic proportions. My cheeks ached, but I couldn't switch it off.
“Brilliant.” Theo crossed the room and shook Mark's hand. “Bloody brilliant.”
Mark shrugged, but he was smiling too, and I recognised the look in his eyes. It was sheer satisfaction with a performance that was as near to perfect as it could possibly be.
“Very nice,” Xander allowed.
I threw my hands up, but said nothing.
“Come on, Xander, the man's a bloody genius! I've never heard anything like it!”
“Hey, I said you all sound good together, what more do you want?” He pushed his glasses up his nose again, eyeing Mark critically. “How about choreography? It's nothing complex, but can you learn it in a week and a half?”
“Harrison can walk him through it. Well, not literally,” Theo added hastily as I glared. “But he can explain what he does and when.” He turned to Mark. “There's a bit of sword fighting, but you can always just jump about and wave the sword around if you get stuck.”
Mark laughed, a wonderful, melodic sound with a soft dark echo. “How hard can it be?”
Somehow I got the impression he was well-versed in stage fighting too. “Happy, Xander?”
He didn't look it, but I hadn't expected him to. “What the hell. The show must go on, right?”
“Is he really better than me?” Harrison looked a little forlorn.
“Oh, you're never getting cast again,” Theo grinned.
Rosie threw a cushion at him; I aimed a kick at his ankle, missed, and knocked over the side table. A collection of mismatched mugs went flying, and the four of us yelped as cold tea spilled across the carpet.
“Well, at least it's a manky colour to start with,” sighed Rosie, crossing to the bookcase and pulling handfuls of tissues out of the box. “It won't show any stains.”
Harrison lifted his cast carefully clear of the trails of liquid snaking across the floor. “Seriously, though. Just how good is this guy?”
“Very good,” I admitted, collecting the mugs and inspecting them to make sure none had broken. “But he's a fair bit older than you. He sounds professionally trained.”
“So why is he messing about with an Anthropology post-doc?”
“Philosophy.” I passed the mugs to Theo as Rosie knelt down to mop up the mess.
“Whatever.” Harrison flopped back into the pile of cushions on the sofa. “If he's so good then he should go off and do it professionally, and leave the student productions to us mere amateurs.”
“He wouldn't have gone near it if you hadn't thrown yourself off the pier,” I pointed out.
“On the plus side, he doesn't look like he'll take any bullshit from Xander,” Theo called from the kitchen.
This, I thought, was probably true. “Anyway, he's coming over tomorrow. You can inspect him then.”
“Nope. Theo and I suggested it, but he insisted you'd need peace and quiet this evening.” I joined in with Rosie's efforts to clean the floor, sighing as one soggy tissue after another disintegrated in my hands. “Ugh, we need to get some proper cloths...”
“Try this.” Theo flung a tea towel across the room and sauntered across to the bookcase. “And check for crockery next time you decide to kick someone.”
“If you tidied up more often, it wouldn't be an issue,” I retorted
“Stop squabbling.” Rosie picked up the towel and dabbed at the damp spots on the carpet. “So Mark's coming here?” She flashed me a mischievous grin. “Exciting!”
“Wait.” Theo turned. “Have you met him?”
Rosie nodded. “Outside the Union on Saturday night. I told Claire she should ask him over for drinks.”
“Oh.” Theo pulled down a well-thumbed copy of Brideshead Revisited and sank into the beanbag, a faint frown on his face.
Harrison and I shared a look. It seemed Mark had gone down a few notches in Theo's estimation.
Later, in the corridor as we were heading to bed, Harrison asked me, “Do you think one of us should tell her?”
“What do you mean?”
He glanced towards the living room, where we'd left Theo reading and Rosie watching clips of corgi puppies on Youtube. “I don't know, maybe not tell her, but drop a few hints – get her to tone it down a bit in front of Theo when she's got a new crush.”
“Oh.” I thought about it, and pulled a face. “No, we can't. It'd be so unfair on Theo.”
“They'll sort themselves out eventually – or at least, I hope they will.” I smiled ruefully. “At the moment it's like living in an episode of Dawson's Creek.”
Harrison shook his head, grinning. “I don't know what that is. You're showing your age.”
“Oh, sod off.” I gave him a quick hug. “Seriously, I mean it – go to bed. You've had a long day.”
“Yes, Mum.” He ducked as I swatted at him. “Goodnight.”
It was still dark when I woke up the next day. I cracked my window to change the air, and smelled salt and fog and damp stone. My chest felt heavy – not tight and breathless, the way it used to before work, but weighed down somehow, like a pair of iron bars had settled under my ribcage. I'd dreamed of the sea, I remembered, as a gull wailed from a rooftop across the street – of the sea, and an ancient white light under the waves. Suddenly I felt deeply, achingly unhappy – beyond sad, drifting near the edge of despair, but too numbed to hurt now to feel its full force...
Jesus. I rubbed my arms. Hell of a dream.
I pulled on some leggings and an old baggy hoodie and slipped outside for a cigarette. The jagged edges of the cathedral climbed above the wisps of mist curling at the top of the street. The parking spaces outside the flat were almost all empty – a sign of how early it was. This was the closest free parking to town; past about half seven, it was always full, but there were two clear spaces on either side of my own battered Micra. Perhaps other drivers thought it was too ugly to park next to. I smiled fondly. Its hideous blue-purple colour had earned it the nickname 'The Bilberry' from Harrison – but it was mine, and in a funny way I was proud of it, far more than of the sleek BMW I'd hired on contract in my years as a lawyer.
As I lit my cigarette, a small grey cat emerged from behind the bins and chirped softly.
“Hello.” I squatted down and offered it my hand to sniff. It was a pretty little thing, with thick, soft-looking grey fur, fading into a peachy-pink bib that extended to its underparts. It was a tabby, I supposed, but marked with dark spots like a cheetah, rather than with stripes. I wondered if it was part wildcat; Theo and Harrison claimed to have seen one out by the sports hall one night on their way back from a house party at Fife Park. Then again, I thought, with the state they were in that night, they could have claimed to have seen a dancing bear and I wouldn't have been surprised.
I reached out to scratch the strange tabby's ears, but it hissed and backed away into the fog.
“Well, fine.” I straightened up and took a drag on my cigarette, savouring the cheap, bitter tang in my throat as my body relaxed into its nicotine hit. “Why did you come begging for attention?”
Across the street the proprietor of Janetta's was unlocking the door and switching on the lights. A few school kids on their way to Madras and St Leonard's called tired greetings to each other, their voices muffled by the fog. As I absorbed the familiar sights and sounds and smells of the town starting its day, the feeling of acute sadness began to dissipate, but I still felt strangely restless. Suddenly I was desperate to walk along the beach, to feel the sand shifting under my feet and the rush of the changing tide around my ankles. I glanced at my watch. Plenty of time for a walk down to East Sands.
The sky was lightening now but the cathedral grounds weren't open yet, so I cut under the archway by the school and plodded down the Pends. The fog shifted around the ruined towers to my left, and a cold tickle like a soft whispering breath ran up my back and across my shoulders. The air smelled stale and close down here, and I was glad to emerge in to the busy harbour, even with its cold, fishy taint.
East Sands, by contrast, was empty except for a few dog walkers. I unlaced my sneakers and let the waves break over my bare feet, staring out at the froth-flecked peaks of water further out. I wondered what on Earth had possessed Theo and Harrison to jump of the pier and into that. In summer, I might have been able to see the appeal – but this morning the North Sea looked like a monster waking from sleep. I imagined the vicious currents running under the waves and shivered at the thought of Theo and Harrison being tugged out beyond the bay, past help.
Stop it. I forced my eyes away, made myself look at the caravan park on the hill and focus on the ugly white blocks, like Lego bricks scattered on the grass. What is wrong with you today?
My leggings were getting soggy at the cuffs. I retreated to the dunes and dusted the sand from my feet, but its scratchy grains clung stubbornly to my damp skin, and eventually I gave in and pulled my socks on over the top. I did my best to ignore the itching and chafing as I trudged back to the flat, the mist curling my hair in directions that gravity shouldn't allow.
When I got back to the flat the cat had gone, and the smell of cheap meat in hot oil was wafting from the kitchen.
“Hey, Claire,” Theo called, poking his head out into the hallway.
“What's brought this on?” I kicked off my sneakers and padded down the corridor. “It's not like you to get up early and start clattering about in the kitchen.”
“I thought I'd take Harrison breakfast in bed.”
I pressed my lips together, resisting the urge to laugh when for once he was actually being thoughtful. “Don't let him get used to it.”
“I think I owe it to him, just this once.” He smiled uncertainly and pushed his hair back from his face. “Claire...I'm sorry about yesterday. I know you're still pissed off, but...”
“I'm not,” I interrupted him, and was surprised to find I meant it. “I was yesterday, but mostly because I was worried – about both of you. It could have been one hell of a lot worse.”
“I know. It was pretty stupid.” His smile grew puppyish and appealing, and he lifted his arms. “Truce?”
I did laugh then, and stepped into the offered hug, the aching sadness in my chest finally clearing. “Truce.” I stood on my tiptoes and peered over his shoulder at the pair of pans balanced on the gas stove. The big pan held eggs and white pudding, and there were mushrooms frying gently in the small saucepan at the back. “Need any help with anything?"
“You could butter some bread rolls. This is all going in a sandwich.”
“You've got to be joking.”
“It's something Harrison and I were talking about the other night – what's the ultimate breakfast sandwich? My grandma used to make this for me when I was in sixth form, if I'd had a few too many the night before.” He poked at the slices of pudding with a spatula. “It's amazing, but Harrison refused to believe it without trying it.”
“Hmm.” I considered the quantities in the pan. Even Theo and Harrison would have a challenge mowing through all that. “I think you need more than two judges – to make it a truly objective test.”
Theo grinned. “I'll see if I can stretch it to feed four.” He pulled a couple of extra eggs out of the fridge and returned to the stove.
Ten minutes later we were all sitting on or around Harrison's bed, munching our sandwiches. It was pretty good, I had to admit; Theo's Grandma clearly knew a thing or two about lining stomachs for the day ahead. I'd have to bear it in mind the next time we had a big night out.
“I'm not sure it's the best sandwich ever, though,” said Harrison, mopping up the last of the egg yolk with a scrap of bread roll.
“Best breakfast sandwich,” corrected Theo. “Best sandwich ever, full stop...well, that's a completely different discussion.”
Harrison's eyes lit up, and he smiled a smile I knew far too well.
“No,” I said.
“No what?” Rosie asked.
“Yes!” said Theo and Harrison at exactly the same time.
“We're going to find the ultimate sandwich.” Harrison rested his chin on the kneecap that wasn't bound in plaster. “Theodore Morris Wentworth, you are a bloody genius.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, you can find your perfect sandwich between meals; I don't want them for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day between now and the May Ball.” I glanced at my watch. “Right – time to get moving.”
“Me too.” Rosie wriggled out of the knitted blanket she'd tucked around her legs. “I'll walk with you.”
I kept quiet through my tutorial; the day before hadn't exactly been conducive to productivity, so I hadn't done as much of the reading as I'd have liked. I made a mental note to catch up over the weekend.
Afterwards I mooched for a while in the second hand bookshop, and picked up a battered old copy of Le Morte d'Arthur. A guilty twinge reminded my that my Mlitt was not in Medieval Literature – but then again, there were plenty of articles and books that read The Waste Land as a Grail quest. It was related. Kind of.
I also agonised over refreshments for the evening – I'd definitely told Mark to come after dinner, but he struck me as the cultured type. Would he expect drinks? Canapés? Chocolate? I felt like I should be able to offer something, even if it didn't get eaten.
Bloody hell, why not arrange parlour games too and be done with it, I thought, irritated with myself for caring so much.
In the end I settled for a couple of bottles of red and a cheeseboard, reasoning that if it didn't get used then Theo and Harrison could have the cheese for their mad sandwich scheme – and red wine would never go to waste in a student house. I winced a little at the cost of the cheese, but I squashed the guilt as the shop assistant rang it through. I'd been careful all semester; I could afford a small treat.
Cheese and white pudding in one day, though... I smiled, imagining the reaction of old-me, lawyer-me – the me who had bought Stella McCartney suits a size too small, then lived on kiwi fruit and watercress until they fitted. I wouldn't have set foot in a cheese shop.
The fog from the morning had cleared, and the crying of the gulls felt friendly again. The last vestiges of the weak November sunshine clung to the pavement and trees, and the air tasted clean and sweet. I remembered the muggy grime of the street I'd lived on in London, the strange flat I'd rented that was a converted room above a single garage, and I tipped my face upwards into the sea breeze, breathing deeply.
The cat was sitting on the bins again when I got back.
“Hi,” I said to it.
It flattened its ears and hissed.
I shrugged. “Please yourself.” I shouldered the door open, reminding myself that we needed to get the landlord to come and fix the lock, then checked the post (a couple of bills and an underwear catalogue I presumed had been ordered by Rosie) and headed upstairs.
To my astonishment the flat smelled of bleach and furniture polish. The worn red carpet in the hall had definitely been hoovered, and the laundry that usually adorned the bannisters was conspicuous by its absence.
“Hello?” I unzipped my coat and checked the impulse to sling it down on the nearest available surface.
“Hey, Claire.” Theo's grinning face appeared around the living room door. “What do you think?”
“Nice!” The kitchen worktops were gleaming; fresh air poured in from the open windows, and even the skirting boards had been wiped down. “How long did this take you?”
“Oh, all day,” he said airily. “But Harrison said it wasn't fair for the flat to be a tip when your date gets here.”
“Mark is not my date,” I said automatically.
“Tall dark handsome stranger volunteers to undergo ritual humiliation for a girl he hardly knows?” Harrison's voice echoed from the living room. “I think he is.”
“Shut up,” I called, then dumped the shopping bag on the kitchen floor and started to unpack.
Later, as I was doing the washing up, Harrison caught me alone in the kitchen. “Sorry about before,” he said sheepishly, “but Theo was still in a strop, thinking Rosie's into this Mark character.”
“Well.” I carefully dried the corners of the roasting tin. “She is.”
“Yes, but I had to say something to shut Theo up.”
“Teasing me isn't the answer.”
“I know. Sorry.”
I still couldn't feel annoyed with him. “I doubt I'm his type anyway. He looks like he'd prefer someone more...I don't know...glamorous.”
“You're glamorous.” He tilted his head, smiling cheekily. “Or you were, before you turned back into a scruffy student.”
I smacked him with the soggy tea towel, just as the buzzer rang.
“No stupid comments,” I added in a low voice as Theo went to answer. “I like this guy – not like that!” I sighed at Harrison's smirk. “But seriously, he's nice. Can we please not scare him away?”
He nodded. “Scout's honour.” His eyes widened and he suddenly looked hopeful. “Hey – if he's not into you or Rosie, maybe he likes guys?”
“Who knows?” I smiled at him. “Come on – let's get you introduced.”
I could already hear Mark's musical tones in the hallway.
“I wasn't sure what to bring...”
“Oh, no way – this is amazing!” I'd rarely heard Theo so enthused. “Bloody hell, Doublewood Seventeen...!”
“If he's bringing whisky then I approve already,” whispered Harrison.
“Ssh,” I hissed as we headed out of the kitchen. “Hi Mark,” I called down the corridor.
“Hi, Claire.” He smiled warmly at us both. “And you must be Harrison.”
“How did you guess?” Despite his grumblings of the previous evening, Harrison returned the smile and shook Mark's hand. “Thank you for saving the day.”
Mark laughed easily. “I don't know about that. It's a long time since I last sang Pirates; I'm horribly out of practice.”
“That's not what I heard.”
“It's total bollocks,” Theo confirmed. “This guy could walk into D'Oyly Carte.”
As good-natured as he was being, Harrison tensed a little at that. Luckily, Rosie chose that moment to sashay down the stairs; I noticed she'd changed from her usual leggings and man's shirt into a slinky black mini-skirt, glossy tights and a snugly-fitted cashmere sweater. The next few minutes were occupied with introductions, discussions of which degree everyone was doing, sorting out who was drinking what, and turning the living room into a temporary practice space. Once or twice across the general hubbub I caught Mark's eye and smiled a silent apology – for Rosie's brazen flirting, Harrison's jealousy, Theo's inane comments.
Don't worry. Again the lazy wink, the half-shrug, the lopsided smile – and again my stomach flipped.
The cheeseboard provided another talking point (I'd deliberately selected a charcoal-infused cheddar for its dramatic slate-grey colour), and eventually, glasses of red wine in hand, we settled into a quick run through of lines.
Mark, unsurprisingly, was word perfect as the Pirate King. Harrison read the Major General, Rosie read the various daughters, and by the end of the First Act most of us were falling about clutching our sides.
“Rosie, please audition for our next show,” begged Theo.
“I can't sing,” she objected.
“That doesn't necessarily matter. Isabel isn't a singing part – and you're so funny...”
Her cheeks turned a delicate shade of pink.
“I think you've got undiscovered range, too,” I said to Harrison, curling up against his side as he leaned into the beanbag. “You're a great Major General – better than Roosevelt. He's so...stiff.”
Harrison grinned, relaxed now after a glass of wine. “Say the word to Xander and I'm all yours. We can't have a limping Pirate King, I know that, but I could play the Major General on crutches...”
I elbowed him. “No way. You're having the most relaxed end to the semester possible – and anyway, Xander would have kittens if we had any more casting changes.”
“Come on, guys.” For once, Theo took charge. “Let's crack on, we're nearly at the end of the Act. Mark?”
Mark didn't respond. I propped myself up on one elbow; he'd been watching Harrison and I with a strange, almost hungry expression, and now he seemed to have retreated into a sad, distant daydream, gazing out of the window towards the cathedral.
“Mark,” I repeated, louder.
Another pause – then he jumped and turned as though he'd only just heard me. “Sorry – where were we?”
“'Orphan, frequently, only once,'” I prompted.
We got through the rest of the Act without incident, and then we pushed the furniture back against the walls so we could take Mark through the blocking. As Harrison explained the choreography for the Pirate King's big solo number, and Mark climbed onto the sofa (which was doubling as the pirates' ship), Rosie snorted and began to giggle uncontrollably.
“What is it?” I asked her, as Mark paused in the middle of waving his imaginary sword.
“Sorry,” she gasped, tears beading at the corners of her eyes. “But honestly...”
“Spit it out,” said Theo, who was balanced carefully on the arm of a nearby chair.
“You do realise that essentially we're a bunch of grown adults, playing at pirates like little kids?”
Harrison, Theo and I fell about at that, and Mark laughed too, apparently forgetting his earlier melancholy – and shortly after that the whisky was opened.
“Dude, you can definitely come again.” Theo closed his eyes in ecstasy as he passed the whisky under his nose.
Harrison nodded. “Agreed.”
“I don't know how you can have it with cheese, though.” Rosie wrinkled her nose.
“It actually works surprisingly well.” Theo proffered her a small piece of the Cashel blue. “Give it a go.”
She shook her head, honey-blonde highlights shimmering. “I'll pass.”
There was no more Pirates that night. After a couple of whiskies and some more small talk, Mark got to his feet to leave.
“I'll go with you.” I grabbed my book bag. “I have to go to the library anyway; it'll be quiet now, I might actually be able to find what I need.”
Harrison gave me a knowing smile. I rolled my eyes at him; he'd pay later.
Outside the temperature had dropped to at least minus five. Frosted flowers adorned the Bilberry's windscreen, and the pavements shimmered silver. Our breath clouded in the air; wind hissed through the crumbling walls of the cathedral, and I buried my nose in my scarf.
“'The North Wind doth blow,'” quoted Mark.
“Well, I hope we don't get snow,” I grumbled in response – although the sky was knife-clear, so it seemed unlikely, and anyway I didn't mean it. Harrison's pictures of the old town blanketed in white, the ancient spires looming against the heavy sky, and the frozen quad glinting in the pale sun, had been part of what had enticed me up here. It had looked like fairy-land. I'd sat in my poky London bedsit gazing at the photos of Harrison and his friends pelting each other with snow, and wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. I remembered sleeping on the floor in the tiny dorm room Harrison and Theo had shared in their first year, when I came up for my interview. We'd stayed up until three drinking Old Pultney and plotting to share a house the next year if I was accepted. I smiled at the memory.
Mark smiled too, as though I'd shared the story with him. “It's nice,” he remarked, “seeing family members so close. Often cousins drift apart as they grow up.”
“Not me and Harrison. We're both only children, so he's like my little brother. Better than, really,” I amended, thinking about it. “We didn't live together, so we didn't fight like siblings sometimes do.”
“And Theo and Rosie? Are they family too?”
“No. Theo and Harrison shared a room in halls last year, and Rosie lived across the landing from them.” I grinned. “They adopted me when I came back to uni.”
“Back?” he inquired.
“Mm. I did my undergrad at UCL, then did a law conversion.”
“Goodness.” He looked me over again, as though imagining me in my court robes and wig.
“It wasn't for me. Academia's more my scene.” I took a breath of the sea air, reassuringly cool, easing away the grey dread that had haunted my years as a London professional. “Anyway, how about you? Family? Previous unrelated careers?”
He laughed. “Plenty of the latter, none of the former.”
“What about your cousin?”
“The one who fell out of a tree.”
“Oh.” He stopped at the entrance to one of the wynds that linked the main streets. “He died a long time ago.”
I was glad that the dark spared my blushes. “I'm sorry.” I wondered why I'd pushed it; I knew he'd been a soldier, he'd told me so the other day, and I knew veterans sometimes found it difficult to talk about their experiences. I should have guessed he wouldn't want to discuss the past – selfish of me to have forced it, just because I'd wanted to change the subject.
“I was sorry too.” We couldn't see the sea from this part of town but he turned his head towards it anyway, and for a moment the lamplight burned in his eyes – then he looked back at me and his face was softer again, friendly, smiling. “Anyway, this is me.”
“Oh! You live in one of these?” I couldn't help it; I walked past the stone cottages every day on my way to the library and loved them, with their mossy stone steps up to the front doors and the little animals carved into their roofs.
His smile widened at my enthusiasm. “It's tiny inside. And of course, it isn't really mine – I'm just renting.”
“Aren't we all.” I was still jealous. “Are you free tomorrow evening? We should probably take you through the rest of the blocking before we throw you into a full rehearsal.”
“I can do tomorrow.” He glanced down the street. “I'd offer to host you this time, but unfortunately I don't have the room.”
“We don't mind.” I was pretty sure I was speaking for the other three too; Harrison and Theo had settled down again, especially since Mark had brought that astonishing whisky. “Same time?”
He nodded. “As long as that suits you.”
“Great.” I hesitated, uncertain. I didn't know him well enough for the easy goodnight hugs I exchanged with Harrison, Theo, Rosie and a few others – but a handshake felt too formal now. “Right. Anyway. Library.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Good luck.”
“Ugh, don't.” The state of our library was a standing joke in the postgraduate community. “I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Goodnight, Claire.” His voice was gentle, like a breath of wind in the bay.
I lit a cigarette as I headed down the wynd towards the library, my shoulders hunched against the cold, and as I put it to my lips I seemed to hear Mark's voice in my head, kind and a little reproachful.
I've told you about those.
“You and God knows how many others,” I muttered, staring at the orange glow at the end of the thin little cylinder. I wondered whether Harrison wasn't right; would I be imagining Mark's voice in my head if I didn't have a crush on him? But something in my gut told me that even if I did, it wouldn't be returned – and not only because, as Harrison had wistfully speculated, he might prefer men instead. Somehow I felt that such a foolish, childish thing as a crush would be wrong where Mark was concerned. He seemed above it, in a way.
I stubbed out my cigarette against the nearest wall and chucked it into a bin. It was a bad habit left over from London, a crutch that had got me through nights of sleepless worry and days of frantic, circling thoughts like rats scurrying in my brain – an escape from the crushing fear I'd woken up to every morning for four long years.
Maybe it was time to try and give it up.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.