Sex, Death And Starshine
by Clive Barker
Clive Barker is probably best known as the writer and director of the Hellraiser saga, which was based on his novella «The Hellbound Heart.» He has written and directed other films as well, such as Lord of Illusions and Nightbreed . Other works of his have been adapted to film by others, such as his short story «The Forbidden,» which was made into the film Candyman.
In addtion to his work in Hollywood, he is the best-selling, award-winning author of many novels, such as The Damnation Game, Weaveworld, Imajica,The Thief of Always , and Sacrament . His most recent is Mister B. Gone . His landmark short story collections, the Books of Blood , won him a World Fantasy Award and established his reputation as a master of horror.
In The Mammoth Book of Zombies , Barker is quoted as saying, «Zombies are the ideal late-twentieth-century monsters. A zombie is the one thing you can't deal with. It survives anything. Frankenstein and Dracula could be sent down in many ways. Zombies, though, fall outside all this. You can't argue with them. They just keep coming at you.»
The zombies in the story that follows aren't quite the killing machines that Barker's quote suggests, but the relentlessness he implies with «They just keep coming at you» is certainly present.
Diane ran her scented fingers through the two days' growth of ginger stubble on Terry's chin.
«I love it,» she said, «even the grey bits.»
She loved everything about him, or at least that's what she claimed.
When he kissed her: I love it.
When he undressed her: I love it.
When he slid his briefs off: I love it, I love it, I love it.
She'd go down on him with such unalloyed enthusiasm, all he could do was watch the top of her ash-blonde head bobbing at his groin, and hope to God nobody chanced to walk into the dressing-room. She was a married woman, after all, even if she was an actress. He had a wife himself, somewhere. This t^ete-`a-t^ete would make some juicy copy for one of the local rags, and here he was trying to garner a reputation as a serious-minded director; no gimmicks, no gossip; just art.
Then, even thoughts of ambition would be dissolved on her tongue, as she played havoc with his nerve-endings. She wasn't much of an actress, but by God she was quite a performer. Faultless technique; immaculate timing: she knew either by instinct or by rehearsal just when to pick up the rhythm and bring the whole scene to a satisfying conclusion.
When she'd finished milking the moment dry, he almost wanted to applaud.
The whole cast of Calloway's production of Twelfth Night knew about the affair, of course. There'd be the occasional snide comment passed if actress and director were both late for rehearsals, or if she arrived looking full, and he flushed. He tried to persuade her to control the cat-with-the-cream look that crept over her face, but she just wasn't that good a deceiver. Which was rich, considering her profession.
But then La Duvall, as Edward insisted on calling her, didn't need to be a great player, she was famous. So what if she spoke Shakespeare like it was Hiawatha, dum de dum de dum de dum? So what if her grasp of psychology was dubious, her logic faulty, her projection inadequate? So what if she had as much sense of poetry as she did propriety? She was a star, and that meant business.
There was no taking that away from her: her name was money. The Elysium Theatre publicity announced her claim to fame in three-inch Roman Bold, black on yellow:
«Diane Duvall: star of The Love Child.»
The Love Child. Possibly the worst soap opera to cavort across the screens of the nation in the history of that genre, two solid hours a week of under-written characters and mind-numbing dialogue, as a result of which it consistently drew high ratings, and its performers became, almost overnight, brilliant stars in television's rhinestone heaven. Glittering there, the brightest of the bright, was Diane Duvall.
Maybe she wasn't born to play the classics, but Jesus was she good box-office. And in this day and age, with theatres deserted, all that mattered was the number of punters on seats.
Calloway had resigned himself to the fact that this would not be the definitive Twelfth Night, but if the production were successful, and with Diane in the role of Viola, it had every chance, it might open a few doors to him in the West End. Besides, working with the ever-adoring, ever-demanding Miss D. Duvall had its compensations.
Calloway pulled up his serge trousers, and looked down at her. She was giving him that winsome smile of hers, the one she used in the letter scene. Expression Five in the Duvall repertoire, somewhere between Virginal and Motherly.
He acknowledged the smile with one from his own stock, a small, loving look that passed for genuine at a yard's distance. Then he consulted his watch.
«God, we're late, sweetie.»
She licked her lips. Did she really like the taste that much?
«I'd better fix my hair,» she said, standing up and glancing in the long mirror beside the shower.
«Are you OK?»
«Couldn't be better,» he replied. He kissed her lightly on the nose and left her to her teasing.
On his way to the stage he ducked into the Men's Dressing Room to adjust his clothing, and dowse his burning cheeks with cold water. Sex always induced a giveaway mottling on his face and upper chest. Bending to splash water on himself Calloway studied his features critically in the mirror over the sink. After thirty-six years of holding the signs of age at bay, he was beginning to look the part. He was no more the juvenile lead. There was an indisputable puffiness beneath his eyes, which was nothing to do with sleeplessness, and there were lines too, on his forehead, and round his mouth. He didn't look the wunderkind any longer; the secrets of his debauchery were written all over his face. The excess of sex, booze and ambition, the frustration of aspiring and just missing the main chance so many times. What would he look like now, he thought bitterly, if he'd been content to be some unenterprising nobody working in a minor rep, guaranteed a house of ten aficionados every night, and devoted to Brecht? Face as smooth as a baby's bottom probably, most of the people in the socially committed theatre had that look. Vacant and content, poor cows.
«Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice,» he told himself. He took one last look at the haggard cherub in the mirror, reflecting that, crow's feet or not, women still couldn't resist him, and went out to face the trials and tribulations of Act III.
On stage there was a heated debate in progress. The carpenter, his name was Jake, had built two hedges for Olivia's garden. They still had to be covered with leaves, but they looked quite impressive, running the depth of the stage to the cyclorama, where the rest of the garden would be painted. None of this symbolic stuff. A garden was a garden: green grass, blue sky. That's the way the audience liked it North of Birmingham, and Terry had some sympathy for their plain tastes.
Eddie Cunningham had him by the hand and elbow, escorting him into the fray.
«What's the problem?»
«Terry, love, you cannot be serious about these fucking (it came trippingly off the tongue: fuck-ing) hedges. Tell Uncle Eddie you're not serious before I throw a fit.» Eddie pointed towards the offending hedges. «I mean look at them.» As he spoke a thin plume of spittle fizzed in the air.
«What's the problem?» Terry asked again.
«Problem? Blocking, love, blocking. Think about it. We've rehearsed this whole scene with me bobbing up and down like a March hare. Up right, down left—but it doesn't work if I haven't got access round the back. And look! These fucking things are flush with the backdrop.»
«Well they have to be, for the illusion, Eddie.»
«I can't get round though, Terry. You must see my point.»
He appealed to the few others on stage: the carpenters, two technicians, three actors.
«I mean—there's just not enough time.»
«Eddie, we'll re-block.»
That took the wind out of his sails.
«I mean it seems easiest, doesn't it?»
«Yes . . . I just liked . . .»
«Well. Needs must. What about the croquet?»
«We'll cut that too.»
«All that business with the croquet mallets? The bawdy stuff?»
«It'll all have to go. I'm sorry, I haven't thought this through. I wasn't thinking straight.»
«That's all you ever do, love, think straight . . .»
Titters. Terry let it pass. Eddie had a genuine point of criticism; he had failed to consider the problems of the hedge-design.
«I'm sorry about the business; but there's no way we can accommodate it.»
«You won't be cutting anybody else's business, I'm sure,» said Eddie. He threw a glance over Calloway's shoulder at Diane, then headed for the dressing-room. Exit enraged actor, stage left. Calloway made no attempt to stop him. It would have worsened the situation considerably to spoil his departure. He just breathed out a quiet «oh Jesus,» and dragged a wide hand down over his face. That was the fatal flaw of this profession: actors. «Will somebody fetch him back?» he said. Silence.
The Stage Manager showed his bespectacled face over the offending hedge.
«Ryan, love—will you please take a cup of coffee to Eddie and coax him back into the bosom of the family?»
Ryan pulled a face that said: you offended him, you fetch him. But Calloway had passed this particular buck before: he was a past master at it. He just stared at Ryan, defying him to contradict his request, until the other man dropped his eyes and nodded his acquiescence.
«Sure,» he said glumly.
Ryan cast him an accusatory look, and disappeared in pursuit of Ed Cunningham.
«No show without Belch,» said Calloway, trying to warm up the atmosphere a little. Someone grunted: and the small half-circle of onlookers began to disperse. Show over.
«OK, OK,» said Calloway, picking up the pieces, «let's get to work. We'll run through from the top of the scene. Diane, are you ready?»
«OK. Shall we run it?»
He turned away from Olivia's garden and the waiting actors just to gather his thoughts. Only the stage working lights were on, the auditorium was in darkness. It yawned at him insolently, row upon row of empty seats, defying him to entertain them. Ah, the loneliness of the long-distance director. There were days in this business when the thought of life as an accountant seemed a consummation devoutly to be wished, to paraphrase the Prince of Denmark.
In the Gods of the Elysium, somebody moved. Calloway looked up from his doubts and stared through the swarthy air. Had Eddie taken residence on the very back row? No, surely not. For one thing, he hadn't had time to get all the way up there.
«Eddie?» Calloway ventured, capping his hand over his eyes. «Is that you?»
He could just make the figure out. No, not a figure, figures. Two people, edging their way along the back row, making for the exit. Whoever it was, it certainly wasn't Eddie.
«That isn't Eddie, is it?» said Calloway, turning back into the fake garden.
«No,» someone replied.
It was Eddie speaking. He was back on stage, leaning on one of the hedges, cigarette clamped between his lips. «Eddie . . .»
«It's all right,» said the actor good-humouredly, «don't grovel; I can't bear to see a pretty man grovel.»
«We'll see if we can slot the mallet-business in somewhere,» said Calloway, eager to be conciliatory.
Eddie shook his head, and flicked ash off his cigarette.
«It didn't work too well anyhow.»
The Grand Circle door creaked a little as it closed behind the visitors. Calloway didn't bother to look round. They'd gone, whoever they were.
«There was somebody in the house this afternoon.»
Hammersmith looked up from the sheets of figures he was poring over.
«Oh?» His eyebrows were eruptions of wire-thick hair that seemed ambitious beyond their calling. They were raised high above Hammersmith's tiny eyes in patently fake surprise. He plucked at his bottom lip with nicotine-stained fingers.
«Any idea who it was?»
He plucked on, still staring up at the younger man; undisguised contempt on his face.
«Is it a problem?»
«I just want to know who was in looking at the rehearsal that's all. I think I've got a perfect right to ask.»
«Perfect right,» said Hammersmith, nodding slightly and making his lips into a pale bow.
«There was talk of somebody coming up from the National,» said Calloway. «My agents were arranging something. I just don't want somebody coming in without me knowing about it. Especially if they're important.»
Hammersmith was already studying the figures again. His voice was tired.
«Terry: if there's someone in from the South Bank to look your opus over, I promise you, you'll be the first to be informed. All right?»
The inflexion was so bloody rude. So run-along-little-boy. Calloway itched to hit him.
«I don't want people watching rehearsals unless I authorize it, Hammersmith. Hear me? And I want to know who was in today.»
The Manager sighed heavily.
«Believe me, Terry,» he said, «I don't know myself. I suggest you ask Tallulah—she was front of house this afternoon. If somebody came in, presumably she saw them.»
He sighed again.
«All right . . . Terry?»
Calloway left it at that. He had his suspicions about Hammersmith. The man couldn't give a shit about theatre, he never failed to make that absolutely plain; he affected an exhausted tone whenever anything but money was mentioned, as though matters of aesthetics were beneath his notice. And he had a word, loudly administered, for actors and directors alike: butterflies. One-day wonders. In Hammersmith's world only money was forever, and the Elysium Theatre stood on prime land, land a wise man could turn a tidy profit on if he played his cards right.
Calloway was certain he'd sell off the place tomorrow if he could maneuver it. A satellite town like Redditch, growing as Birmingham grew, didn't need theatres, it needed offices, hypermarkets, warehouses: it needed, to quote the councilors, growth through investment in new industry. It also needed prime sites to build that industry upon. No mere art could survive such pragmatism.
Tallulah was not in the box, nor in the foyer, nor in the Green Room.
Irritated both by Hammersmith's incivility and Tallulah's disappearance, Calloway went back into the auditorium to pick up his jacket and go to get drunk. The rehearsal was over and the actors long gone. The bare hedges looked somewhat small from the back row of the stalls. Maybe they needed an extra few inches. He made a note on the back of a show bill he found in his pocket: Hedges, bigger?
A footfall made him look up, and a figure had appeared on stage. A smooth entrance, up-stage centre, where the hedges converged. Calloway didn't recognize the man.
«Mr. Calloway? Mr. Terence Calloway?»
The visitor walked down stage to where, in an earlier age, the footlights would have been, and stood looking out into the auditorium.
«My apologies for interrupting your train of thought.»
«I wanted a word.»
«If you would.»
Calloway wandered down to the front of the stalls, appraising the stranger.
He was dressed in shades of grey from head to foot. A grey worsted suit, grey shoes, a grey cravat. Piss-elegant, was Calloway's first, uncharitable summation. But the man cut an impressive figure nevertheless. His face beneath the shadow of his brim was difficult to discern.
«Allow me to introduce myself.»
The voice was persuasive, cultured. Ideal for advertisement voice-overs: soap commercials, maybe. After Hammersmith's bad manners, the voice came as a breath of good breeding.
«My name is Lichfield. Not that I expect that means much to a man of your tender years.»
Tender years: well, well. Maybe there was still something of the wunderkind in his face.
«Are you a critic?» Calloway inquired.
The laugh that emanated from beneath the immaculately swept brim was ripely ironical.
«In the name of Jesus, no,» Lichfield replied.
«I'm sorry, then, you have me at a loss.»
«No need for an apology.»
«Were you in the house this afternoon?»
Lichfield ignored the question. «I realize you're a busy man, Mr. Calloway, and I don't want to waste your time. The theatre is my business, as it is yours. I think we must consider ourselves allies, though we have never met.»
Ah, the great brotherhood. It made Calloway want to spit, the familiar claims of sentiment. When he thought of the number of so-called allies that had cheerfully stabbed him in the back; and in return the playwrights whose work he'd smilingly slanged, the actors he'd crushed with a casual quip. Brotherhood be damned, it was dog-eat-dog, same as any over-subscribed profession.
«I have,» Lichfield was saying, «an abiding interest in the Elysium.» There was a curious emphasis on the word abiding. It sounded positively funereal from Lichfield's lips. Abide with me.
«Yes, I've spent many happy hours in this theatre, down the years, and frankly it pains me to carry this burden of news.»
«Mr. Calloway, I have to inform you that your Twelfth Night will be the last production the Elysium will see.»
The statement didn't come as much of a surprise, but it still hurt, and the internal wince must have registered on Calloway's face.
«Ah . . . so you didn't know. I thought not. They always keep the artists in ignorance don't they? It's a satisfaction the Apollonians will never relinquish. The accountant's revenge.»
«Hammersmith,» said Calloway.
«His clan are never to be trusted, but then I hardly need to tell you that.»
«Are you sure about the closure?»
«Certainly. He'd do it tomorrow if he could.»
«But why? I've done Stoppard here, Tennessee Williams—always played to good houses. It doesn't make sense.»
«It makes admirable financial sense, I'm afraid, and if you think in figures, as Hammersmith does, there's no riposte to simple arithmetic. The Elysium's getting old. We're all getting old. We creak. We feel our age in our joints: our instinct is to lie down and be gone away.»
Gone away: the voice became melodramatically thin, a whisper of longing.
«How do you know about this?»
«I was, for many years, a trustee of the theatre, and since my retirement I've made it my business to—what's the phrase?—keep my ear to the ground. It's difficult, in this day and age, to evoke the triumph this stage has seen . . .»
His voice trailed away, in a reverie. It seemed true, not an effect.
Then, business-like once more: «This theatre is about to die, Mr. Calloway. You will be present at the last rites, through no fault of your own. I felt you ought to be . . . warned.»
«Thank you. I appreciate that. Tell me, were you ever an actor yourself?»
«What makes you think that?»
«Too rhetorical by half, I know. My curse, I'm afraid. I can scarcely ask for a cup of coffee without sounding like Lear in the storm.»
He laughed, heartily, at his own expense. Calloway began to warm to the fellow. Maybe he was a little archaic-looking, perhaps even slightly absurd, but there was a full-bloodedness about his manner that caught Calloway's imagination. Lichfield wasn't apologetic about his love of theatre, like so many in the profession, people who trod the boards as a second-best, their souls sold to the movies.
«I have, I will confess, dabbled in the craft a little,» Lichfield confided, «but I just don't have the stamina for it, I'm afraid. Now my wife—«
Wife? Calloway was surprised Lichfield had a heterosexual bone in his body.
»—My wife Constantia has played here on a number of occasions, and I may say very successfully. Before the war of course.»
«It's a pity to close the place.»
«Indeed. But there are no last-act miracles to be performed, I'm afraid. The Elysium will be rubble in six weeks' time, and there's an end to it. I just wanted you to know that interests other than the crassly commercial are watching over this closing production. Think of us as guardian angels. We wish you well, Terence, we all wish you well.»
It was a genuine sentiment, simply stated. Calloway was touched by this man's concern, and a little chastened by it. It put his own stepping-stone ambitions in an unflattering perspective. Lichfield went on: «We care to see this theatre end its days in suitable style, then die a good death.»
«Too late for regrets by a long chalk. We should never have given up Dionysus for Apollo.»
«Sold ourselves to the accountants, to legitimacy, to the likes of Mr. Hammersmith, whose soul, if he has one, must be the size of my fingernail, and grey as a louse's back. We should have had the courage of our depictions, I think. Served poetry and lived under the stars.»
Calloway didn't quite follow the allusions, but he got the general drift, and respected the viewpoint.
Off stage left, Diane's voice cut the solemn atmosphere like a plastic knife.
«Terry? Are you there?»
The spell was broken: Calloway hadn't been aware how hypnotic Lichfield's presence was until that other voice came between them. Listening to him was like being rocked in familiar arms. Lichfield stepped to the edge of the stage, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial rasp.
«One last thing, Terence—«
«Your Viola. She lacks, if you'll forgive my pointing it out, the special qualities required for the role.»
Calloway hung fire.
«I know,» Lichfield continued, «personal loyalties prevent honesty in these matters.»
«No,» Calloway replied, «you're right. But she's popular.»
«So was bear-baiting, Terence.»
A luminous smile spread beneath the brim, hanging in the shadow like the grin of the Cheshire Cat.
«I'm only joking,» said Lichfield, his rasp a chuckle now. «Bears can be charming.»
«Terry, there you are.»
Diane appeared, over-dressed as usual, from behind the tabs. There was surely an embarrassing confrontation in the air. But Lichfield was walking away down the false perspective of the hedges towards the backdrop.
«Here I am,» said Terry.
«Who are you talking to?»
But Lichfield had exited, as smoothly and as quietly as he had entered. Diane hadn't even seen him go.
«Oh, just an angel,» said Calloway.
The first Dress Rehearsal wasn't, all things considered, as bad as Calloway had anticipated: it was immeasurably worse. Cues were lost, props mislaid, entrances missed; the comic business seemed ill-contrived and laborious; the performances either hopelessly overwrought or trifling. This was a Twelfth Night that seemed to last a year. Halfway through the third act Calloway glanced at his watch, and realized an uncut performance ofMacbeth (with interval) would now be over.
He sat in the stalls with his head buried in his hands, contemplating the work that he still had to do if he was to bring this production up to scratch. Not for the first time on this show he felt helpless in the face of the casting problems. Cues could be tightened, props rehearsed with, entrances practised until they were engraved on the memory. But a bad actor is a bad actor is a bad actor. He could labour till doomsday neatening and sharpening, but he could not make a silk purse of the sow's ear that was Diane Duvall.
With all the skill of an acrobat she contrived to skirt every significance, to ignore every opportunity to move the audience, to avoid every nuance the playwright would insist on putting in her way. It was a performance heroic in its ineptitude, reducing the delicate characterization Calloway had been at pains to create to a single-note whine. This Viola was soap-opera pap, less human than the hedges, and about as green.
The critics would slaughter her.
Worse than that, Lichfield would be disappointed. To his considerable surprise the impact of Lichfield's appearance hadn't dwindled; Calloway couldn't forget his actorly projection, his posing, his rhetoric. It had moved him more deeply than he was prepared to admit, and the thought of this Twelfth Night, with this Viola, becoming the swan-song of Lichfield's beloved Elysium perturbed and embarrassed him. It seemed somehow ungrateful.
He'd been warned often enough about a director's burdens, long before he became seriously embroiled in the profession. His dear departed guru at the Actors' Centre, Wellbeloved (he of the glass eye), had told Calloway from the beginning:
«A director is the loneliest creature on God's earth. He knows what's good and bad in a show, or he should if he's worth his salt, and he has to carry that information around with him and keep smiling.»
It hadn't seemed so difficult at the time.
«This job isn't about succeeding,» Wellbeloved used to say, «it's about learning not to fall on your sodding face.»
Good advice as it turned out. He could still see Wellbeloved handing out that wisdom on a plate, his bald head shiny, his living eye glittering with cynical delight. No man on earth, Calloway had thought, loved theatre with more passion than Wellbeloved, and surely no man could have been more scathing about its pretensions.
* * *
It was almost one in the morning by the time they'd finished the wretched run-through, gone through the notes, and separated, glum and mutually resentful, into the night. Calloway wanted none of their company tonight: no late drinking in one or others' digs, no mutual ego-massage. He had a cloud of gloom all to himself, and neither wine, women nor song would disperse it. He could barely bring himself to look Diane in the face. His notes to her, broadcast in front of the rest of the cast, had been acidic. Not that it would do much good.
In the foyer, he met Tallulah, still spry though it was long after an old lady's bedtime.
«Are you locking up tonight?» he asked her, more for something to say than because he was actually curious.
«I always lock up,» she said. She was well over seventy: too old for her job in the box office, and too tenacious to be easily removed. But then that was all academic now, wasn't it? He wondered what her response would be when she heard the news of the closure. It would probably break her brittle heart. Hadn't Hammersmith once told him Tallulah had been at the theatre since she was a girl of fifteen?
«Well, goodnight Tallulah.»
She gave him a tiny nod, as always. Then she reached out and took Calloway's arm.
«Mr. Lichfield . . .» she began.
«What about Mr. Lichfield?»
«He didn't like the rehearsal.»
«He was in tonight?»
«Oh yes,» she replied, as though Calloway was an imbecile for thinking otherwise, «of course he was in.»
«I didn't see him.»
«Well . . . no matter. He wasn't very pleased.»
Calloway tried to sound indifferent.
«It can't be helped.»
«Your show is very close to his heart.»
«I realize that,» said Calloway, avoiding Tallulah's accusing looks. He had quite enough to keep him awake tonight, without her disappointed tones ringing in his ears.
He loosed his arm, and made for the door. Tallulah made no attempt to stop him. She just said: «You should have seen Constantia.»
Constantia? Where had he heard that name? Of course, Lichfield's wife.
«She was a wonderful Viola.»
He was too tired for this mooning over dead actresses; she was dead wasn't she? He had said she was dead, hadn't he?
«Wonderful,» said Tallulah again.
«Goodnight, Tallulah. I'll see you tomorrow.»
The old crone didn't answer. If she was offended by his brusque manner, then so be it. He left her to her complaints and faced the street.
It was late November, and chilly. No balm in the night-air, just the smell of tar from a freshly laid road, and grit in the wind. Calloway pulled his jacket collar up around the back of his neck, and hurried off to the questionable refuge of Murphy's Bed and Breakfast.
In the foyer Tallulah turned her back on the cold and dark of the outside world, and shuffled back into the temple of dreams. It smelt so weary now: stale with use and age, like her own body. It was time to let natural processes take their toll; there was no point in letting things run beyond their allotted span. That was as true of buildings as of people. But the Elysium had to die as it had lived, in glory.
Respectfully, she drew back the red curtains that covered the portraits in the corridor that led from foyer to stalls. Barrymore, Irving: great names and great actors. Stained and faded pictures perhaps, but the memories were as sharp and as refreshing as spring water. And in pride of place, the last of the line to be unveiled, a portrait of Constantia Lichfield. A face of transcendent beauty; a bone structure to make an anatomist weep.
She had been far too young for Lichfield of course, and that had been part of the tragedy of it. Lichfield the Svengali, a man twice her age, had been capable of giving his brilliant beauty everything she desired; fame, money, companionship. Everything but the gift she most required: life itself.
She'd died before she was yet twenty, a cancer in the breast. Taken so suddenly it was still difficult to believe she'd gone.
Tears brimmed in Tallulah's eyes as she remembered that lost and wasted genius. So many parts Constantia would have illuminated had she been spared. Cleopatra, Hedda, Rosalind, Electra . . .
But it wasn't to be. She'd gone, extinguished like a candle in a hurricane, and for those who were left behind life was a slow and joyless march through a cold land. There were mornings now, stirring to another dawn, when she would turn over and pray to die in her sleep.
The tears were quite blinding her now, she was awash. And oh dear, there was somebody behind her, probably Mr. Calloway back for something, and here was she, sobbing fit to burst, behaving like the silly old woman she knew he thought her to be. A young man like him, what did he understand about the pain of the years, the deep ache of irretrievable loss? That wouldn't come to him for a while yet. Sooner than he thought, but a while nevertheless.
«Tallie,» somebody said.
She knew who it was. Richard Walden Lichfield. She turned round and he was standing no more than six feet from her, as fine a figure of a man as ever she remembered him to be. He must be twenty years older than she was, but age didn't seem to bow him. She felt ashamed of her tears.
«Tallie,» he said kindly, «I know it's a little late, but I felt you'd surely want to say hello.»
The tears were clearing, and now she saw Lichfield's companion, standing a respectful foot or two behind him, partially obscured. The figure stepped out of Lichfield's shadow and there was a luminous, fine-boned beauty Tallulah recognized as easily as her own reflection. Time broke in pieces, and reason deserted the world. Longed-for faces were suddenly back to fill the empty nights, and offer fresh hope to a life grown weary. Why should she argue with the evidence of her eyes?
It was Constantia, the radiant Constantia, who was looping her arm through Lichfield's and nodding gravely at Tallulah in greeting.
Dear, dead Constantia.
The rehearsal was called for nine-thirty the following morning. Diane Duvall made an entrance her customary half hour late. She looked as though she hadn't slept all night.
«Sorry I'm late,» she said, her open vowels oozing down the aisle towards the stage.
Calloway was in no mood for foot-kissing.
«We've got an opening tomorrow,» he snapped, «and everybody's been kept waiting by you.»
«Oh really?» she fluttered, trying to be devastating. It was too early in the morning, and the effect fell on stony ground.
«OK, we're going from the top,» Calloway announced, «and everybody please have your copies and a pen. I've got a list of cuts here and I want them rehearsed in by lunchtime. Ryan, have you got the prompt copy?»
There was a hurried exchange with the ASM and an apologetic negative from Ryan.
«Well get it. And I don't want any complaints from anyone, it's too late in the day. Last night's run was a wake, not a performance. The cues took forever; the business was ragged. I'm going to cut, and it's not going to be very palatable.»
It wasn't. The complaints came, warning or no, the arguments, the compromises, the sour faces and muttered insults. Calloway would have rather been hanging by his toes from a trapeze than maneuvering fourteen highly strung people through a play two-thirds of them scarcely understood, and the other third couldn't give a monkey's about. It was nerve-wracking.
It was made worse because all the time he had the prickly sense of being watched, though the auditorium was empty from Gods to front stalls. Maybe Lichfield had a spyhole somewhere, he thought, then condemned the idea as the first signs of budding paranoia.
At last, lunch.
Calloway knew where he'd find Diane, and he was prepared for the scene he had to play with her. Accusations, tears, reassurance, tears again, reconciliation. Standard format.
He knocked on the Star's door.
«Who is it?»
Was she crying already, or talking through a glass of something comforting?
«Can I come in?»
She had a bottle of vodka, good vodka, and a glass. No tears as yet.
«I'm useless, aren't I?» she said, almost as soon as he'd closed the door. Her eyes begged for contradiction.
«Don't be silly,» he hedged.
«I could never get the hang of Shakespeare,» she pouted, as though it were the Bard's fault. «All those bloody words.» The squall was on the horizon, he could see it mustering.
«It's all right,» he lied, putting his arm around her. «You just need a little time.»
Her face clouded.
«We open tomorrow,» she said flatly. The point was difficult to refute.
«They'll tear me apart, won't they?»
He wanted to say no, but his tongue had a fit of honesty.
«I'll never work again, will I? Harry talked me into this, that damn half-witted Jew: good for my reputation, he said. Bound to give me a bit more clout, he said. What does he know? Takes his ten bloody per cent and leaves me holding the baby. I'm the one who looks the damn fool aren't I?»
At the thought of looking a fool, the storm broke. No light shower this: it was a cloudburst or nothing. He did what he could, but it was difficult. She was sobbing so loudly his pearls of wisdom were drowned out. So he kissed her a little, as any decent director was bound to do, and (miracle upon miracle) that seemed to do the trick. He applied the technique with a little more gusto, his hands straying to her breasts, ferreting under her blouse for her nipples and teasing them between thumb and forefinger.
It worked wonders. There were hints of sun between the clouds now; she sniffed and unbuckled his belt, letting his heat dry out the last of the rain. His fingers were finding the lacy edge of her panties, and she was sighing as he investigated her, gently but not too gently, insistent but never too insistent. Somewhere along the line she knocked over the vodka bottle but neither of them cared to stop and right it, so it sloshed on to the floor off the edge of the table, counterpointing her instructions, his gasps.
Then the bloody door opened, and a draught blew up between them, cooling the point at issue.
Calloway almost turned round, then realized he was unbuckled, and stared instead into the mirror behind Diane to see the intruder's face. It was Lichfield. He was looking straight at Calloway, his face impassive.
«I'm sorry, I should have knocked.»
His voice was as smooth as whipped cream, betraying nary a tremor of embarrassment. Calloway wedged himself away, buckled up his belt and turned to Lichfield, silently cursing his burning cheeks.
«Yes . . . it would have been polite,» he said.
«Again, my apologies. I wanted a word with—« his eyes, so deep-set they were unfathomable, were on Diane «—your star,» he said.
Calloway could practically feel Diane's ego expand at the word. The approach confounded him: had Lichfield undergone a volte-face? Was he coming here, the repentant admirer, to kneel at the feet of greatness?
«I would appreciate a word with the lady in private, if that were possible,» the mellow voice went on.
«Well, we were just—«
«Of course,» Diane interrupted. «Just allow me a moment, would you?»
She was immediately on top of the situation, tears forgotten.
«I'll be just outside,» said Lichfield, already taking his leave.
Before he had closed the door behind him Diane was in front of the mirror, tissue-wrapped finger skirting her eye to divert a rivulet of mascara.
«Well,» she was cooing, «how lovely to have a well-wisher. Do you know who he is?»
«His name's Lichfield,» Calloway told her. «He used to be a trustee of the theatre.»
«Maybe he wants to offer me something.»
«I doubt it.»
«Oh don't be such a drag, Terence,» she snarled. «You just can't bear to have anyone else get any attention, can you?»
She peered at her eyes.
«How do I look?» she asked.
«I'm sorry about before.»
«Oh . . . yes.»
«I'll see you in the pub, eh?»
He was summarily dismissed apparently, his function as lover or confidant no longer required.
In the chilly corridor outside the dressing room Lichfield was waiting patiently. Though the lights were better here than on the ill-lit stage, and he was closer now than he'd been the night before, Calloway could still not quite make out the face under the wide brim. There was something—what was the idea buzzing in his head?—something artificial about Lichfield's features. The flesh of his face didn't move as interlocking system of muscle and tendon, it was too stiff, too pink, almost like scar-tissue.
«She's not quite ready,» Calloway told him.
«She's a lovely woman,» Lichfield purred.
«I don't blame you . . .»
«She's no actress though.»
«You're not going to interfere are you, Lichfield? I won't let you.»
«Perish the thought.»
The voyeuristic pleasure Lichfield had plainly taken in his embarrassment made Calloway less respectful than he'd been.
«I won't have you upsetting her—«
«My interests are your interests, Terence. All I want to do is see this production prosper, believe me. Am I likely, under those circumstances, to alarm your Leading Lady? I'll be as meek as a lamb, Terence.»
«Whatever you are,» came the testy reply, «you're no lamb.»
The smile appeared again on Lichfield's face, the tissue round his mouth barely stretching to accommodate his expression.
Calloway retired to the pub with that predatory sickle of teeth fixed in his mind, anxious for no reason he could focus upon.
In the mirrored cell of her dressing-room Diane Duvall was just about ready to play her scene.
«You may come in now, Mr. Lichfield,» she announced.
He was in the doorway before the last syllable of his name had died on her lips.
«Miss Duvall,» he bowed slightly in deference to her. She smiled; so courteous. «Will you please forgive my blundering in earlier on?»
She looked coy; it always melted men.
«Mr. Calloway—« she began.
«A very insistent young man, I think.»
«Not above pressing his attentions on his Leading Lady, perhaps?»
She frowned a little, a dancing pucker where the plucked arches of her brows converged.
«I'm afraid so.»
«Most unprofessional of him,» Lichfield said. «But forgive me—an understandable ardor.»
She moved upstage of him, towards the lights of her mirror, and turned, knowing they would back-light her hair more flatteringly.
«Well, Mr. Lichfield, what can I do for you?»
«This is frankly a delicate matter,» said Lichfield. «The bitter fact is—how shall I put this?—your talents are not ideally suited to this production. Your style lacks delicacy.»
There was a silence for two beats. She sniffed, thought about the inference of the remark, and then moved out of centre-stage towards the door. She didn't like the way this scene had begun. She was expecting an admirer, and instead she had a critic on her hands.
«Get out!» she said, her voice like slate.
«You heard me.»
«You're not comfortable as Viola, are you?» Lichfield continued, as though the star had said nothing.
«None of your bloody business,» she spat back.
«But it is. I saw the rehearsals. You were bland, unpersuasive. The comedy is flat, the reunion scene—it should break our hearts—is leaden.»
«I don't need your opinion, thank you.»
«You have no style—«
«No presence and no style. I'm sure on the television you are radiance itself, but the stage requires a special truth, a soulfulness you, frankly, lack.»
The scene was hotting up. She wanted to hit him, but she couldn't find the proper motivation. She couldn't take this faded poseur seriously. He was more musical comedy than melodrama, with his neat grey gloves, and his neat grey cravat. Stupid, waspish queen, what did he know about acting?
«Get out before I call the Stage Manager,» she said, but he stepped between her and the door.
A rape scene? Was that what they were playing? Had he got the hots for her? God forbid.
«My wife,» he was saying, «has played Viola—«
«Good for her.»
»—and she feels she could breathe a little more life into the role than you.»
«We open tomorrow,» she found herself replying, as though defending her presence. Why the hell was she trying to reason with him; barging in here and making these terrible remarks. Maybe because she was just a little afraid. His breath, close to her now, smelt of expensive chocolate.
«She knows the role by heart.»
«The part's mine. And I'm doing it. I'm doing it even if I'm the worst Viola in theatrical history, all right?»
She was trying to keep her composure, but it was difficult. Something about him made her nervous. It wasn't violence she feared from him: but she feared something.
«I'm afraid I have already promised the part to my wife.»
«What?» she goggled at his arrogance.
«And Constantia will play the role.»
She laughed at the name. Maybe this was high comedy after all. Something from Sheridan or Wilde, arch, catty stuff. But he spoke with such absolute certainty. Constantia will play the role; as if it was all cut and dried.
«I'm not discussing this any longer, Buster, so if your wife wants to play Viola she'll have to do it in the fucking street. All right?»
«She opens tomorrow.»
«Are you deaf, or stupid, or both?»
Control, an inner voice told her, you're overplaying, losing your grip on the scene. Whatever scene this is.
He stepped towards her, and the mirror lights caught the face beneath the brim full on. She hadn't looked carefully enough when he first made his appearance: now she saw the deeply etched lines, the gougings around his eyes and his mouth. It wasn't flesh, she was sure of it. He was wearing latex appliances, and they were badly glued in place. Her hand all but twitched with the desire to snatch at it and uncover his real face.
Of course. That was it. The scene she was playing: the Unmasking.
«Let's see what you look like,» she said, and her hand was at his cheek before he could stop her, his smile spreading wider as she attacked. This is what he wants, she thought, but it was too late for regrets or apologies. Her fingertips had found the line of the mask at the edge of his eye-socket, and curled round to take a better hold. She yanked.
The thin veil of latex came away, and his true physiognomy was exposed for the world to see. Diane tried to back away, but his hand was in her hair. All she could do was look up into that all-but fleshless face. A few withered strands of muscle curled here and there, and a hint of a beard hung from a leathery flap at his throat, but all living tissue had long since decayed. Most of his face was simply bone: stained and worn.
«I was not,» said the skull, «embalmed. Unlike Constantia.»
The explanation escaped Diane. She made no sound of protest, which the scene would surely have justified. All she could summon was a whimper as his hand-hold tightened, and he hauled her head back.
«We must make a choice, sooner or later,» said Lichfield, his breath smelling less like chocolate than profound putrescence, «between serving ourselves and serving our art.»
She didn't quite understand.
«The dead must choose more carefully than the living. We cannot waste our breath, if you'll excuse the phrase, on less than the purest delights. You don't want art, I think. Do you?»
She shook her head, hoping to God that was the expected response.
«You want the life of the body, not the life of the imagination. And you may have it.»
«Thank . . . you.»
«If you want it enough, you may have it.»
Suddenly his hand, which had been pulling on her hair so painfully, was cupped behind her head, and bringing her lips up to meet his. She would have screamed then, as his rotting mouth fastened itself on to hers, but his greeting was so insistent it quite took her breath away.
Ryan found Diane on the floor of her dressing-room a few minutes before two. It was difficult to work out what had happened. There was no sign of a wound of any kind on her head or body, nor was she quite dead. She seemed to be in a coma of some kind. She had perhaps slipped, and struck her head as she fell. Whatever the cause, she was out for the count.
They were hours away from a Final Dress Rehearsal and Viola was in an ambulance, being taken into Intensive Care.
* * *
«The sooner they knock this place down, the better,» said Hammersmith. He'd been drinking during office hours, something Calloway had never seen him do before. The whisky bottle stood on his desk beside a half-full glass. There were glass-marks ringing his accounts, and his hand had a bad dose of the shakes.
«What's the news from the hospital?»
«She's a beautiful woman,» he said, staring at the glass. Calloway could have sworn he was on the verge of tears.
«Hammersmith? How is she?»
«She's in a coma. But her condition is stable.»
«That's something, I suppose.»
Hammersmith stared up at Calloway, his erupting brows knitted in anger.
«You runt,» he said, «you were screwing her, weren't you? Fancy yourself like that, don't you? Well, let me tell you something, Diane Duvall is worth a dozen of you. A dozen!»
«Is that why you let this last production go on, Hammersmith? Because you'd seen her, and you wanted to get your hot little hands on her?»
«You wouldn't understand. You've got your brain in your pants.» He seemed genuinely offended by the interpretation Calloway had put on his admiration for Miss Duvall.
«All right, have it your way. We still have no Viola.»
«That's why I'm canceling,» said Hammersmith, slowing down to savor the moment.
It had to come. Without Diane Duvall, there would be no Twelfth Night; and maybe it was better that way.
A knock on the door.
«Who the fuck's that?» said Hammersmith softly. «Come.»
It was Lichfield. Calloway was almost glad to see that strange, scarred face. Though he had a lot of questions to ask of Lichfield, about the state he'd left Diane in, about their conversation together, it wasn't an interview he was willing to conduct in front of Hammersmith. Besides, any half-formed accusations he might have had were countered by the man's presence here. If Lichfield had attempted violence on Diane, for whatever reason, was it likely that he would come back so soon, so smilingly?
«Who are you?» Hammersmith demanded.
«Richard Walden Lichfield.»
«I'm none the wiser.»
«I used to be a trustee of the Elysium.»
«I make it my business—«
«What do you want?» Hammersmith broke in, irritated by Lichfield's poise.
«I hear the production is in jeopardy,» Lichfield replied, unruffled.
«No jeopardy,» said Hammersmith, allowing himself a twitch at the corner of his mouth. «No jeopardy at all, because there's no show. It's been cancelled.»
«Oh?» Lichfield looked at Calloway.
«Is this with your consent?» he asked.
«He has no say in the matter; I have sole right of cancellation if circumstances dictate it; it's in his contract. The theatre is closed as of today: it will not reopen.»
«Yes it will,» said Lichfield.
«What?» Hammersmith stood up behind his desk, and Calloway realized he'd never seen the man standing before. He was very short.
«We will play Twelfth Night as advertised,» Lichfield purred. «My wife has kindly agreed to understudy the part of Viola in place of Miss Duvall.»
Hammersmith laughed, a coarse, butcher's laugh. It died on his lips however, as the office was suffused with lavender, and Constantia Lichfield made her entrance, shimmering in silk and fur. She looked as perfect as the day she died: even Hammersmith held his breath and his silence at the sight of her.
«Our new Viola,» Lichfield announced.
After a moment Hammersmith found his voice. «This woman can't step in at half a day's notice.»
«Why not?» said Calloway, not taking his eyes off the woman. Lichfield was a lucky man; Constantia was an extraordinary beauty. He scarcely dared draw breath in her presence for fear she'd vanish.
Then she spoke. The lines were from Act V, Scene I:
«If nothing lets to make us happy both
But this my masculine usurp'd attire,
Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump
That I am Viola.»
The voice was light and musical, but it seemed to resound in her body, filling each phrase with an undercurrent of suppressed passion.
And that face. It was wonderfully alive, the features playing the story of her speech with delicate economy.
She was enchanting.
«I'm sorry,» said Hammersmith, «but there are rules and regulations about this sort of thing. Is she Equity?»
«No,» said Lichfield.
«Well you see, it's impossible. The union strictly precludes this kind of thing. They'd flay us alive.»
«What's it to you, Hammersmith?» said Calloway. «What the fuck do you care? You'll never need set foot in a theatre again once this place is demolished.»
«My wife has watched the rehearsals. She is word perfect.»
«It could be magic,» said Calloway, his enthusiasm firing up with every moment he looked at Constantia.
«You're risking the Union, Calloway,» Hammersmith chided.
«I'll take that risk.»
«As you say, it's nothing to me. But if a little bird was to tell them, you'd have egg on your face.»
«Hammersmith: give her a chance. Give all of us a chance. If Equity blacks me, that's my look-out.» Hammersmith sat down again.
«Nobody'll come, you know that, don't you? Diane Duvall was a star; they would have sat through your turgid production to see her, Calloway. But an unknown . . .? Well, it's your funeral. Go ahead and do it, I wash my hands of the whole thing. It's on your head, Calloway, remember that. I hope they flay you for it.»
«Thank you,» said Lichfield. «Most kind.»
Hammersmith began to rearrange his desk, to give more prominence to the bottle and the glass. The interview was over: he wasn't interested in these butterflies any longer.
«Go away,» he said. «Just go away.»
«I have one or two requests to make,» Lichfield told Calloway as they left the office. «Alterations to the production which would enhance my wife's performance.»
«What are they?»
«For Constantia's comfort, I would ask that the lighting levels be taken down substantially. She's simply not accustomed to performing under such hot, bright lights.»
«I'd also request that we install a row of footlights.»
«An odd requirement, I realize, but she feels much happier with footlights.»
«They tend to dazzle the actors,» said Calloway. «It becomes difficult to see the audience.»
«Nevertheless . . . I have to stipulate their installation.»
«Thirdly—I would ask that all scenes involving kissing, embracing or otherwise touching Constantia be re-directed to remove every instance of physical contact whatsoever.»
«For God's sake why?»
«My wife needs no business to dramatize the working of the heart, Terence.»
That curious intonation on the word «heart.» Working of the heart.
Calloway caught Constantia's eye for the merest of moments. It was like being blessed.
«Shall we introduce our new Viola to the company?» Lichfield suggested.
The trio went into the theatre.
The re-arranging of the blocking and the business to exclude any physical contact was simple. And though the rest of the cast were initially wary of their new colleague, her unaffected manner and her natural grace soon had them at her feet. Besides, her presence meant that the show would go on.
At six, Calloway called a break, announcing that they'd begin the Dress at eight, and telling them to go out and enjoy themselves for an hour or so. The company went their ways, buzzing with a new-found enthusiasm for the production. What had looked like a shambles half a day earlier now seemed to be shaping up quite well. There were a thousand things to be sniped at, of course: technical shortcomings, costumes that fitted badly, directorial foibles. All par for the course. In fact, the actors were happier than they'd been in a good while. Even Ed Cunningham was not above passing a compliment or two.
Lichfield found Tallulah in the Green Room, tidying.
«Tonight . . .»
«You must not be afraid.»
«I'm not afraid,» Tallulah replied. «What a thought. As if—«
«There may be some pain, which I regret. For you, indeed for all of us.»
«Of course you do. You love the theatre as I love it: you know the paradox of this profession. To play life . . . ah, Tallulah, to play life . . . what a curious thing it is. Sometimes I wonder, you know, how long I can keep up the illusion.»
«It's a wonderful performance,» she said.
«Do you think so? Do you really think so?» He was encouraged by her favorable review. It was so galling, to have to pretend all the time; to fake the flesh, the breath, the look of life. Grateful for Tallulah's opinion, he reached for her.
«Would you like to die, Tallulah?»
«Does it hurt?»
«Scarcely at all.»
«It would make me very happy.»
«And so it should.»
His mouth covered her mouth, and she was dead in less than a minute, conceding happily to his inquiring tongue. He laid her out on the threadbare couch and locked the door of the Green Room with her own key. She'd cool easily in the chill of the room, and be up and about again by the time the audience arrived.
At six-fifteen Diane Duvall got out of a taxi at the front of the Elysium. It was well dark, a windy November night, but she felt fine; nothing could depress tonight. Not the dark, not the cold.
Unseen, she made her way past the posters that bore her face and name, and through the empty auditorium to her dressing-room. There, smoking his way through a pack of cigarettes, she found the object of her affection.
She posed in the doorway for a moment, letting the fact of her reappearance sink in. He went quite white at the sight of her, so she pouted a little. It wasn't easy to pout. There was a stiffness in the muscles of her face but she carried off the effect to her satisfaction.
Calloway was lost for words. Diane looked ill, no two ways about it, and if she'd left the hospital to take up her part in the Dress Rehearsal he was going to have to convince her otherwise. She was wearing no make-up, and her ash-blonde hair needed a wash.
«What are you doing here?» he asked, as she closed the door behind her.
«Unfinished business,» she said.
«Listen . . . I've got something to tell you . . .»
God, this was going to be messy. «We've found a replacement, in the show.» She looked at him blankly. He hurried on, tripping over his own words, «We thought you were out of commission, I mean, not permanently, but, you know, for the opening at least . . .»
«Don't worry,» she said.
His jaw dropped a little.
«What's it to me?»
«You said you came back to finish—«
He stopped. She was unbuttoning the top of her dress. She's not serious, he thought, she can't be serious. Sex? Now?
«I've done a lot of thinking in the last few hours,» she said as she shimmied the crumpled dress over her hips, let it fall, and stepped out of it. She was wearing a white bra, which she tried, unsuccessfully, to unhook. «I've decided I don't care about the theatre. Help me, will you?»
She turned round and presented her back to him. Automatically he unhooked the bra, not really analyzing whether he wanted this or not. It seemed to be a fait accompli. She'd come back to finish what they'd been interrupted doing, simple as that. And despite the bizarre noises she was making in the back of her throat, and the glassy look in her eyes, she was still an attractive woman. She turned again, and Calloway stared at the fullness of her breasts, paler than he'd remembered them, but lovely. His trousers were becoming uncomfortably tight, and her performance was only worsening his situation, the way she was grinding her hips like the rawest of Soho strippers, running her hands between her legs.
«Don't worry about me,» she said. «I've made up my mind. All I really want . . .»
She put her hands, so recently at her groin, on his face. They were icy cold.
«All I really want is you. I can't have sex and the stage . . . There comes a time in everyone's life when decisions have to be made.»
She licked her lips. There was no film of moisture left on her mouth when her tongue had passed over it.
«The accident made me think, made me analyze what it is I really care about. And frankly—« She was unbuckling his belt. «—I don't give a shit—«
Now the zip.
»—about this, or any other fucking play.»
His trousers fell down.
»—I'll show you what I care about.»
She reached into his briefs, and clasped him. Her cold hand somehow made the touch sexier. He laughed, closing his eyes as she pulled his briefs down to the middle of his thigh and knelt at his feet.
She was as expert as ever, her throat open like a drain. Her mouth was somewhat drier than usual, her tongue scouring him, but the sensations drove him wild. It was so good, he scarcely noticed the ease with which she devoured him, taking him deeper than she'd ever managed previously, using every trick she knew to goad him higher and higher. Slow and deep, then picking up speed until he almost came, then slowing again until the need passed. He was completely at her mercy.
He opened his eyes to watch her at work. She was skewering herself upon him, face in rapture.
«God,» he gasped, «that is so good. Oh yes, oh yes.»
Her face didn't even flicker in response to his words, she just continued to work at him soundlessly. She wasn't making her usual noises, the small grunts of satisfaction, the heavy breathing through the nose. She just ate his flesh in absolute silence.
He held his breath a moment, while an idea was born in his belly. The bobbing head bobbed on, eyes closed, lips clamped around his member, utterly engrossed. Half a minute passed; a minute; a minute and a half. And now his belly was full of terrors.
She wasn't breathing. She was giving this matchless blow-job because she wasn't stopping, even for a moment, to inhale or exhale.
Calloway felt his body go rigid, while his erection wilted in her throat. She didn't falter in her labor; the relentless pumping continued at his groin even as his mind formed the unthinkable thought:
She has me in her mouth, in her cold mouth, and she's dead. That's why she'd come back, got up off her mortuary slab and come back. She was eager to finish what she'd started, no longer caring about the play, or her usurper. It was this act she valued, this act alone. She'd chosen to perform it for eternity.
Calloway could do nothing with the realization but stare down like a damn fool while this corpse gave him head.
Then it seemed she sensed his horror. She opened her eyes and looked up at him. How could he ever have mistaken that dead stare for life? Gently, she withdrew his shrunken manhood from between her lips.
«What is it?» she asked, her fluting voice still affecting life.
«You . . . you're not . . . breathing.»
Her face fell. She let him go.
«Oh darling,» she said, letting all pretence to life disappear, «I'm not so good at playing the part, am I?»
Her voice was a ghost's voice: thin, forlorn. Her skin, which he had thought so flatteringly pale was, on second view, a waxen white.
«You are dead?» he said.
«I'm afraid so. Two hours ago: in my sleep. But I had to come, Terry; so much unfinished business. I made my choice. You should be flattered. You are flattered, aren't you?»
She stood up and reached into her handbag, which she'd left beside the mirror. Calloway looked at the door, trying to make his limbs work, but they were inert. Besides, he had his trousers round his ankles. Two steps and he'd fall flat on his face.
She turned back on him, with something silver and sharp in her hand. Try as he might, he couldn't get a focus on it. But whatever it was, she meant it for him.
Since the building of the new Crematorium in 1934, one humiliation had come after another for the cemetery. The tombs had been raided for lead coffin-linings, the stones overturned and smashed; it was fouled by dogs and graffiti. Very few mourners now came to tend the graves. The generations had dwindled, and the small number of people who might still have had a loved one buried there were too infirm to risk the throttled walkways, or too tender to bear looking at such vandalism.
It had not always been so. There were illustrious and influential families interred behind the marble facades of the Victorian mausoleums. Founder fathers, local industrialists and dignitaries, any and all who had done the town proud by their efforts. The body of the actress Constantia Lichfield had been buried here («Until the Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away»), though her grave was almost unique in the attention some secret admirer still paid to it.
Nobody was watching that night, it was too bitter for lovers. Nobody saw Charlotte Hancock open the door of her sepulchre, with the beating wings of pigeons applauding her vigour as she shambled out to meet the moon. Her husband Gerard was with her, he less fresh than she, having been dead thirteen years longer. Joseph Jardine, en famille, was not far behind the Hancocks, as was Marriott Fletcher, and Anne Snell, and the Peacock Brothers; the list went on and on. In one corner, Alfred Crawshaw (Captain in the 17th Lancers) was helping his lovely wife Emma from the rot of their bed. Everywhere faces pressed at the cracks of the tomblids—was that not Kezia Reynolds with her child, who'd lived just a day, in her arms? and Martin van de Linde (the Memory of the Just is Blessed) whose wife had never been found; Rosa and Selina Goldfinch: upstanding women both; and Thomas Jerrey, and—
Too many names to mention. Too many states of decay to describe. Sufficient to say they rose: their burial finery flyborn, their faces stripped of all but the foundation of beauty. Still they came, swinging open the back gate of the cemetery and threading their way across the wasteland towards the Elysium. In the distance, the sound of traffic. Above, a jet roared in to land. One of the Peacock brothers, staring up at the winking giant as it passed over, missed his footing and fell on his face, shattering his jaw. They picked him up fondly, and escorted him on his way. There was no harm done; and what would a Resurrection be without a few laughs?
So the show went on.
«If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die—«
Calloway could not be found at Curtain; but Ryan had instructions from Hammersmith (through the ubiquitous Mr. Lichfield) to take the show up with or without the Director.
«He'll be upstairs, in the Gods,» said Lichfield. «In fact, I think I can see him from here.»
«Is he smiling?» asked Eddie.
«Grinning from ear to ear.»
«Then he's pissed.»
The actors laughed. There was a good deal of laughter that night. The show was running smoothly, and though they couldn't see the audience over the glare of the newly installed footlights they could feel the waves of love and delight pouring out of the auditorium. The actors were coming off stage elated.
«They're all sitting in the Gods,» said Eddie, «but your friends, Mr. Lichfield, do an old ham good. They're quiet of course, but such big smiles on their faces.»
Act I, Scene II; and the first entrance of Constantia Lichfield as Viola was met with spontaneous applause. Such applause. Like the hollow roll of snare drums, like the brittle beating of a thousand sticks on a thousand stretched skins. Lavish, wanton applause.
And, my God, she rose to the occasion. She began the play as she meant to go on, giving her whole heart to the role, not needing physicality to communicate the depth of her feelings, but speaking the poetry with such intelligence and passion the merest flutter of her hand was worth more than a hundred grander gestures. After that first scene her every entrance was met with the same applause from the audience, followed by almost reverential silence.
Backstage, a kind of buoyant confidence had set in. The whole company sniffed the success; a success which had been snatched miraculously from the jaws of disaster.
There again! Applause! Applause!
In his office, Hammersmith dimly registered the brittle din of adulation through a haze of booze.
He was in the act of pouring his eighth drink when the door opened. He glanced up for a moment and registered that the visitor was that upstart Calloway. Come to gloat I daresay, Hammersmith thought, come to tell me how wrong I was.
«What do you want?»
The punk didn't answer. From the corner of his eye Hammersmith had an impression of a broad, bright smile on Calloway's face. Self-satisfied half-wit, coming in here when a man was in mourning.
«I suppose you've heard?»
The other grunted.
«She died,» said Hammersmith, beginning to cry. «She died a few hours ago, without regaining consciousness. I haven't told the actors. Didn't seem worth it.»
Calloway said nothing in reply to this news. Didn't the bastard care? Couldn't he see that this was the end of the world? The woman was dead. She'd died in the bowels of the Elysium. There'd be official enquiries made, the insurance would be examined, a post-mortem, an inquest: it would reveal too much.
He drank deeply from his glass, not bothering to look at Calloway again.
«Your career'll take a dive after this, son. It won't just be me: oh dear no.»
Still Calloway kept his silence.
«Don't you care?» Hammersmith demanded.
There was silence for a moment, then Calloway responded. «I don't give a shit.»
«Jumped up little stage-manager, that's all you are. That's all any of you fucking directors are! One good review and you're God's gift to art. Well let me set you straight about that—«
He looked at Calloway, his eyes, swimming in alcohol, having difficulty focusing. But he got there eventually.
Calloway, the dirty bugger, was naked from the waist down. He was wearing his shoes and his socks, but no trousers or briefs. His self-exposure would have been comical, but for the expression on his face. The man had gone mad: his eyes were rolling around uncontrollably, saliva and snot ran from mouth and nose, his tongue hung out like the tongue of a panting dog.
Hammersmith put his glass down on his blotting pad, and looked at the worst part. There was blood on Calloway's shirt, a trail of it which led up his neck to his left ear, from which protruded the end of Diane Duval's nail-file. It had been driven deep into Calloway's brain. The man was surely dead.
But he stood, spoke, walked.
From the theatre, there rose another round of applause, muted by distance. It wasn't a real sound somehow; it came from another world, a place where emotions ruled. It was a world Hammersmith had always felt excluded from. He'd never been much of an actor, though God knows he'd tried, and the two plays he'd penned were, he knew, execrable. Book-keeping was his forte, and he'd used it to stay as close to the stage as he could, hating his own lack of art as much as he resented that skill in others.
The applause died, and as if taking a cue from an unseen prompter, Calloway came at him. The mask he wore was neither comic nor tragic, it was blood and laughter together. Cowering, Hammersmith was cornered behind his desk. Calloway leapt on to it (he looked so ridiculous, shirt-tails and balls flip-flapping) and seized Hammersmith by the tie.
«Philistine,» said Calloway, never now to know Hammersmith's heart, and broke the man's neck—snap!—while below the applause began again.
«Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump
That I am Viola.»
From Constantia's mouth the lines were a revelation. It was almost as though this Twelfth Night were a new play, and the part of Viola had been written for Constantia Lichfield alone. The actors who shared the stage with her felt their egos shriveling in the face of such a gift.
The last act continued to its bitter-sweet conclusion, the audience as enthralled as ever to judge by their breathless attention.
The Duke spoke: «Give me thy hand;
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.»
In the rehearsal the invitation in the line had been ignored: no-one was to touch this Viola, much less take her hand. But in the heat of the performance such taboos were forgotten. Possessed by the passion of the moment the actor reached for Constantia. She, forgetting the taboo in her turn, reached to answer his touch.
In the wings Lichfield breathed «no» under his breath, but his order wasn't heard. The Duke grasped Viola's hand in his, life and death holding court together under this painted sky.
It was a chilly hand, a hand without blood in its veins, or a blush in its skin.
But here it was as good as alive.
They were equals, the living and the dead, and nobody could find just cause to part them.
In the wings, Lichfield sighed, and allowed himself a smile. He'd feared that touch, feared it would break the spell. But Dionysus was with them tonight. All would be well; he felt it in his bones.
The act drew to a close, and Malvolio, still trumpeting his threats, even in defeat, was carted off. One by one the company exited, leaving the clown to wrap up the play.
«A great while ago the world began,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done
And we'll strive to please you every day.»
The scene darkened to blackout, and the curtain descended. From the Gods rapturous applause erupted, that same rattling, hollow applause. The company, their faces shining with the success of the Dress Rehearsal, formed behind the curtain for the bow. The curtain rose: the applause mounted.
In the wings, Calloway joined Lichfield. He was dressed now: and he'd washed the blood off his neck.
«Well, we have a brilliant success,» said the skull. «It does seem a pity that this company should be dissolved so soon.»
«It does,» said the corpse.
The actors were shouting into the wings now, calling for Calloway to join them. They were applauding him, encouraging him to show his face.
He put a hand on Lichfield's shoulder.
«We'll go together, sir,» he said.
«No, no, I couldn't.»
«You must. It's your triumph as much as mine.» Lichfield nodded, and they went out together to take their bows beside the company.
In the wings Tallulah was at work. She felt restored after her sleep in the Green Room. So much unpleasantness had gone, taken with her life. She no longer suffered the aches in her hip, or the creeping neuralgia in her scalp. There was no longer the necessity to draw breath through pipes encrusted with seventy years' muck, or to rub the backs of her hands to get the circulation going; not even the need to blink. She laid the fires with a new strength, pressing the detritus of past productions into use: old backdrops, props, costuming. When she had enough combustibles heaped, she struck a match and set the flame to them. The Elysium began to burn.
Over the applause, somebody was shouting:
«Marvelous, sweethearts, marvelous.»
It was Diane's voice, they all recognized it even though they couldn't quite see her. She was staggering down the centre aisle towards the stage, making quite a fool of herself.
«Silly bitch,» said Eddie.
«Whoops,» said Calloway.
She was at the edge of the stage now, haranguing him.
«Got all you wanted now, have you? This your new lady-love is it? Is it?»
She was trying to clamber up, her hands gripping the hot metal hoods of the footlights. Her skin began to singe: the fat was well and truly in the fire.
«For God's sake, somebody stop her,» said Eddie. But she didn't seem to feel the searing of her hands; she just laughed in his face. The smell of burning flesh wafted up from the footlights. The company broke rank, triumph forgotten.
Somebody yelled: «Kill the lights!»
A beat, and then the stage lights were extinguished. Diane fell back, her hands smoking. One of the cast fainted, another ran into the wings to be sick. Somewhere behind them, they could hear the faint crackle of flames, but they had other calls on their attention.
With the footlights gone, they could see the auditorium more clearly. The stalls were empty, but the Balcony and the Gods were full to bursting with eager admirers. Every row was packed, and every available inch of aisle space thronged with audience. Somebody up there started clapping again, alone for a few moments before the wave of applause began afresh. But now few of the company took pride in it.
Even from the stage, even with exhausted and light-dazzled eyes, it was obvious that no man, woman or child in that adoring crowd was alive. They waved fine silk handkerchiefs at the players in rotted fists, some of them beat a tattoo on the seats in front of them, most just clapped, bone on bone.
Calloway smiled, bowed deeply, and received their admiration with gratitude. In all his fifteen years of work in the theatre he had never found an audience so appreciative.
Bathing in the love of their admirers, Constantia and Richard Lichfield joined hands and walked down-stage to take another bow, while the living actors retreated in horror.
They began to yell and pray, they let out howls, they ran about like discovered adulterers in a farce. But, like the farce, there was no way out of the situation. There were bright flames tickling the roof-joists, and billows of canvas cascaded down to right and left as the flies caught fire. In front, the dead: behind, death. Smoke was beginning to thicken the air, it was impossible to see where one was going. Somebody was wearing a toga of burning canvas, and reciting screams. Someone else was wielding a fire extinguisher against the inferno. All useless: all tired business, badly managed. As the roof began to give, lethal falls of timber and girder silenced most.
In the Gods, the audience had more or less departed. They were ambling back to their graves long before the fire department appeared, their cerements and their faces lit by the glow of the fire as they glanced over their shoulders to watch the Elysium perish. It had been a fine show, and they were happy to go home, content for another while to gossip in the dark.
The fire burned through the night, despite the never less than gallant efforts of the fire department to put it out. By four in the morning the fight was given up as lost, and the conflagration allowed its head. It had done with the Elysium by dawn.
In the ruins the remains of several persons were discovered, most of the bodies in states that defied easy identification. Dental records were consulted, and one corpse was found to be that of Giles Hammersmith (Administrator), another that of Ryan Xavier (Stage Manager) and, most shockingly, a third that of Diane Duvall. «Star of The Love Child burned to death,» read the tabloids. She was forgotten in a week.
There were no survivors. Several bodies were simply never found.
They stood at the side of the motorway, and watched the cars careering through the night. Lichfield was there of course, and Constantia, radiant as ever.
Calloway had chosen to go with them, so had Eddie, and Tallulah. Three or four others had also joined the troupe.
It was the first night of their freedom, and here they were on the open road, traveling players. The smoke alone had killed Eddie, but there were a few more serious injuries amongst their number, sustained in the fire. Burned bodies, broken limbs. But the audience they would play for in the future would forgive them their petty mutilations.
«There are lives lived for love,» said Lichfield to his new company, «and lives lived for art. We happy band have chosen the latter persuasion.»
«There was a ripple of applause amongst the actors.
«To you, who have never died, may I say: welcome to the world!»
Laughter: further applause.
The lights of the cars racing north along the motorway threw the company into silhouette. They looked, to all intents and purposes, like living men and women. But then wasn't that the trick of their craft? To imitate life so well the illusion was indistinguishable from the real thing? And their new public, awaiting them in mortuaries, churchyards and chapels of rest, would appreciate the skill more than most. Who better to applaud the sham of passion and pain they would perform than the dead, who had experienced such feelings, and thrown them off at last?
The dead. They needed entertainment no less than the living; and they were a sorely neglected market.
Not that this company would perform for money, they would play for the love of their art, Lichfield had made that clear from the outset. No more service would be done to Apollo.
«Now,» he said, «which road shall we take, north or south?»
«North,» said Eddie. «My mother's buried in Glasgow, she died before I ever played professionally. I'd like her to see me.»
«North it is, then,» said Lichfield. «Shall we go and find ourselves some transport?»
He led the way towards the motorway restaurant, its neon flickering fitfully, keeping the night at light's length. The colors were theatrically bright: scarlet, lime, cobalt, and a wash of white that splashed out of the windows on to the car park where they stood. The automatic doors hissed as a traveler emerged, bearing gifts of hamburgers and cake to the child in the back of his car.
«Surely some friendly driver will find a niche for us,» said Lichfield.
«All of us?» said Calloway.
«A truck will do; beggars can't be too demanding,» said Lichfield. «And we are beggars now: subject to the whim of our patrons.»
«We can always steal a car,» said Tallulah.
«No need for theft, except in extremity,» Lichfield said. «Constantia and I will go ahead and find a chauffeur.»
He took his wife's hand.
«Nobody refuses beauty,» he said.
«What do we do if anyone asks us what we're doing here?» asked Eddie nervously. He wasn't used to this role; he needed reassurance.
Lichfield turned towards the company, his voice booming in the night:
«What do you do?» he said, «Play life, of course! And smile!»