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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Archives

First Flame
Bruce Harris
I put down the magazine. I have to think, the kind of thinking which needs solitude.
‘Rob’, I say, ‘I’d like a bath. Can you manage?’

He is slumped a little in his armchair; he is slightly pale, and the day probably hasn’t been the easiest. For a moment, I fear his face will screw up in that spontaneous exasperation which tiredness can create in him, but he smiles, quickly, and nods.


‘Sure, Jane. At least an hour before anyone’s going to bed. They’re sorting out tomorrow’s school stuff and then they’ll watch a bit of TV. Go for it, love’.

Bath time is my time out. All hell can break loose, they can lose things, trip over things, whatever, I am immersed in hot, not warm, water with something suitably aromatherapeutic (it works for me) and an hour is usually enough. For Rob, it's the kit car he keeps in an outhouse in the garden. The place is Victorian, and the original purposes of some parts are obscure, that outhouse being one of them. When Rob’s there, I’m in charge; when I’m in the bath, he’s in charge.

I need to think about a man who isn’t Rob, which sounds vaguely faithless, but the spirit of my thought is mostly nostalgic.

A door clicking open downstairs, a few angry shuffles, a childish treble I can't make out, and then Rob’s voice, in what I imagine is supposed to be a whispering tone.

'Katie, your mother is in the bath. And, to be honest, why you think your mother should know any better than you do where the relevant school books are, I don't know – it really is for you to keep track of your stuff, sweetheart. You're getting too big for us to be running around after you.'

I met him in sixth form days, when my school decided to go co-ed and the first boys to arrive were sixth formers themselves. In a History class with Miss Matthews on a warm spring day, our eyes flickered sideways as a class of boys trooped off the football field, some of them with their shirts off, a sight which had never been seen on the green fields of Thoresby Grange before. Will Knight was one of that group, with a torso like a young god. Even Daphne Matthews sneaked a peak through her silent outrage.

I remember him vividly, at close quarters now, in what the teachers had decided was a suitable Macbeth costume; an imitation animal skin round his shoulders, a leathery jerkin beneath, and rough cloth trousers. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, not surprisingly.

‘I can’t do this, Jane’. He was hoarse, as if he had a sore throat. ‘I can’t remember half of it. I’m going to make a complete idiot of myself, and probably everyone else’.

His eyes were very close, glistening not just with anxiety but a kind of menace, an animalism, a wildness only just kept within borders. Even in his state of funk, he was almost disturbingly good-looking, clear thoughtful green eyes, blondish hair and a tanned, smooth complexion which testified to the time he spent out of doors rocking the boats of the Miss Matthews of the world.

‘You’ll be fine, Will’, I said. I cupped his smooth chin in one hand and kissed him right where the sweat was. He looked up, a little startled. We were mates, and that’s all; neither of us had yet tried to go any further. There was competition for him, and I wasn’t ready to play that game, or take the consequences either for defeat or victory.

Voices closer now, David's uncertain adolescent croak and Ben's again, with some exasperation and no further attempt at whispering.
'David, if you've lost your boots, it's your mystery and you're the only one who can solve it. I'm not hunting through that jungle of a room of yours'....

The single voice fading to an indistinct duet, rumbling adult and nerve-grating boyish whine, now seeming to be much, much further away, like the sound of a distant playground. Like another life.

Two, long sidelong glances at him, the two of us exposed in the strange, blinding alien light of stage centre. He is now so absorbed in Macbeth that he is being him completely, even close up, where he could find ways to hide or disguise it if he needed to. An intense inner conflict as he watches his lady - me - try to manipulate him, his eyes narrowing and widening as the battle continues between approval and jealousy, his respect for the toughness in me and his self-contempt that it isn’t in him. He is close to real tears; passion for power, empathy with me, aspiration to be what I want him to be, striving within him, and I wonder suddenly just what his real feelings towards me are – is he such an incredibly good actor, or would he really do anything that I could ever ask him to do, even if it ate at his insides to have to do it? Have I got that kind of power? Do I want that kind of power?

Sotto voce anger, at the distance of a half-remembered dream, the man sounding as if he was being baited, like snapping dogs whining and worrying at a ponderous old bear...

But now, I am alone on the stage in the sixth-form production of Macbeth, and every and any voice would not amount to anything more than the few smothered coughs and backstage taps and clicks that was all that penetrated my consciousness at the peak of my acting career....

Part of it – most of it – was Will. If he was so good that he’d saved the real performance for the right time, I’d decided I had to try everything I knew to ensure the production came up to the standard he’d set. If he’d used his real feelings for me to help make his Macbeth credible, I had to decide whether or not I reciprocated them, but if let down came to be necessary, it wasn’t going to be in the middle of the big school production. My crazy Lady Macbeth scorched the stage, dagger and epic groan and all, and even though our director had told me that a good sixty per cent of the epic groans he’d known in her big scene had elicited at least a smattering of giggles in the audience, a pin could have dropped in that auditorium after my epic groan of quite genuine agony – I’d dived into the part so totally that I was almost breathless.

Our second night was, if anything, even better than our first. We’d both spent huge amounts of time and effort on that production, time we could ill afford from managing three A levels; we both knew the parts inside out, and his second night was no less fiercely dedicated than his first. At the point where he’d been near tears the night before, he did tip over into them on the second and last night, and from the corner of my eye I saw almost the entire first two rows leaning forward to see the anguished face in close up.

A crash, almost certainly the entire contents of a cupboard falling out, followed by a deep and quite shocking expletive from David in the next room but one; it would be too much to expect that he didn't know the words, but I would rather believe at least he doesn't fully know what they mean.

The crash is followed by a Eureka type exclamation at the exact opposite end of his present vast voice range, soprano and quite girlish. I suspect he may have just found his boots...

In any case, I am listening to the sound of tumultuous applause, the only time in my life that it has happened to me, and even though I thought most of it was for Will, the roar which went up when I stepped forward on my own was something I will never forget.

After a long time changing, showering and coming down after that second night, I finally emerged from the girls’ changing room as Alan Fenwick was coming out of the boys’. Alan had played Duncan, the supposed innocent; his boy next door looks with age make up had made the whole thing credible. I knew enough about Alan to know the innocence was definitely a performance.

‘Has Will gone, Alan?’ I said.
‘You’re joking’, he said, closing on me in the ingratiating way he had. ‘He’s completely shattered. For ages, he just sat slumped on the bench; everyone was asking him if he was O.K. Everybody else has gone, but he’s only just got himself in the shower’.

He started to walk away, and then turned back, giving me his best leering grin.

‘Go right in, Jane. I don’t doubt he’d love to see you. And incidentally’ – the leer wiped suddenly away – ‘I thought you were sensational’.

Then, of course, he had to nod at the boys’ door and leer again. For the one and only time in my life, I hovered uncertainly outside a male changing room debating whether or not to go in. Naked boys en masse would’ve been much too much, but only Will was in there, and yes, I had thought of him like that and yes, I did want to see him like that. And after what we’d been through, to make love together seemed like some kind of fitting culmination.

But reality tapped on my shoulder, as it always has. Alan had a variety of faults, but exaggeration wasn’t one of them; he’d said Will was exhausted, and so, I suddenly realised, was I. If we were to be lovers, perhaps a steamy testosterone-heavy boys’ changing room with both of us on the verge of collapse wasn’t the best way to start. I headed off to the last night party.

Everything is quiet, but for tinny muffled television noise, sounding like they were emerging from a cupboard somewhere in the distance. A gentle, unassuming knock on the bathroom door.

‘O.K., love? They’re watching the TV, bed in about half an hour. Then I’ll open a decent red, eh? Will you join me?’
‘Yes, Rob, I’d love to’.

Of course, Will applied for RADA and got in. He wanted me to. But at the last night party, it became obvious that he had been acting. A romance had already started between him and Emma Foster, who did make-up and costumes; it amazed me that I hadn’t seen it before. And I reasoned from that time onwards that I would spend my time as an actor having to guess at the real feelings of the people around me, because the better they were, the more disguise they could call on. I decided on an English and Drama degree, and headed off to teaching, and Rob, a teaching natural if ever there was one, whose solid sense and abundant good nature are obvious to all. And, happily, he’s also what the girls now call fit.

Late in the evening, I go back to the magazine article about Will Knight and his Hollywood contract – ‘big, big bucks for a thirty something Englishman, though we all remember Will Knight talking about ‘selling his soul’, when the idea of him going to Hollywood last appeared’. Will has a smile for the camera, as ever, though he’s too elaborately made up and a few crinkles are appearing around the eyes. He was the first who really flamed within me, and I would wish for him that his soul remains his own always.

© Bruce Harris September 2011

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