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?”
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