The kids’ screams of ‘look behind you’ bounce across the stage.
Every time young Jack spins round, the giant is never there.
Of course he isn’t.
It’s never that simple.
That’s not the same for me.
I don’t need to look behind. I know exactly where she is.
Her left cheek is squashed against the small of my sweaty back. I can feel the movement of her mouth. She is whispering well rehearsed words. They vibrate through my spine.
Other people’s words, not her own. Never her own.
Her arms embrace me, tightly wrapped round my waist. Her fingers constantly knead into my T-shirt. They communicate in some indecipherable, secret morse code.
The perfect feeling. My private masseur, working under the cover of darkness.
But sadly, this massage doesn’t have ‘a happy ending’.
Last night, I watched as she left the theatre. Those arms of hers were casually draped around Jack.
They weren’t acting. Both of them were off-script, laughing and clowning around; ad libbing.
They performed to a standard we never reached.
I walk home alone, listening to the sad, isolated voices in my head.
Words in there tend to spend their whole lives incarcerated.
No freedom of speech.
It was at the second rehearsal that I made my initial move. I grabbed a flimsy paper-cup of instant coffee and offered it to her; accompanied by my best, innocent smile. She accepted with the slightest of nods. I blew on my burning fingers and watched as my breath ruffled a lock of her blond hair. I moved in close enough to breathe in her air. She patted the empty seat next to her. This was the opening scene I was hoping for.
After three intense weeks of practising, the first full dress rehearsal is finally called. The freshly cleaned costumes bring additional warmth on these cold November days. They also release a new confidence, as I now have somewhere to hide.
In front of the spotlights, we have become the perfect couple: shining stars.
In the wings, waiting for our call, we snuggle up close to each other, sitting on the floor next to Jack’s sack of magic beans. We are both happy that the ‘ALL QUIET’ light is illuminated. There’s no pressure to converse. No need to worry about what to say.
Our own magic moments.
When our roles are unscripted, things don’t go as well.
Outside the auditorium, we become misdirected. The comfortable touches, shared only minutes before, become clumsy and embarrassing. We fail to cling onto those feelings of cohesion, suddenly embarrassed by the nakedness of our civilian clothes.
On stage, we are the coordinated couple with every footfall so finely choreographed that it appears ridiculously hilarious to the audience. The moment we step outside, where the boom lights are replaced by dim street lights, we transform into an amateurish flop.
Looking into her eyes, as we sit on high, wooden bar stools in vibrating pubs, I never find the prompts. Words always fail me. I don’t have the skills to read the lines, stretched across her frowning forehead. And I certainly cannot begin to understand the thoughts, hidden behind them.
She listens restlessly to my silences. And I clearly hear hers. Both as deafening as each other. It feels as if someone has turned off the sound effects switch and neither of us know how to turn it back on. We are mime artists, hoping to star in a thrilling romance and now find ourselves written into a painful tragedy, following a storyboard full of empty speech bubbles, which day by day burst, then disappear.
The pantomime performances continue to hold us together.
There, on stage, we remain inseparable. Protectively wrapped in the safety of footlights and dark corners.
Beyond this comfort zone, it is always a different tale.
Whatever the backdrop, be it meals in cheap, overdecorated restaurants, drinks in the crowded theatre bar or Thespian Society parties, our silences insulate and suffocate. The reality is clear; this is a friendship, coated with heavy layers of makeup, that cover up deep cracks radiating from our motionless lips.
As with all great actors, I know what is coming next. No need to turn the microphones on.
I am mouthing her words. Synchronised once more.
‘Let’s just keep this professional. We’re not right for each other. You realise that, don’t you?’
A simple death sentence.
There are no tears. From her.
I slowly turn around and silently walk back towards the changing rooms.
She follows me. Possibly she is expecting a response.
Maybe she wants a conversation.
I let my actions speak louder than words. The no-sound effect.
Sadly, it works. It always does.
As the audiences, full of Christmas spirit, roar us on with their laughter, we continue to play our parts. We move across the stage as one. We jump, trip, run and dance in perfect harmony. That perfect harmony I dreamt of. Her hands and face still touch my body. We remain dovetailed together, until the final curtain.
But now, as we float around the stage, there is no warmth in her arms, no secret messages passing through her fingers. The stiffness of her hands is far easier to interpret than her past, gentle twitches.
Every night, we both bow low, watch the velvet curtains close and wait for the cries of ‘encore’. Then, throwing the costumes to the ground, we reveal our real identities to the adoring crowd. And tonight, at this very last performance of the year, I lean over and kiss the cheek that still holds a crease from my T-shirt.
This woman, standing next to me, waving at the audience, never revealed who she was to me. I wish I had asked her.
The pantomime season is short.
It will be back. And so will I.
I’m sure that I’ll get the role as the frontend of Daisy the Cow.
I never audition for a speaking part. That would need more than a few magic beans.
I’m already excited about sharing my costume with a new backend.
Next year, when the audience yell out ‘behind you’, I won’t listen to their cries. Instead, I will only concentrate on what’s in front of my extended plastic nose and cloth ears.
I will leave this year’s experience ‘behind me’.
It will be dumped somewhere near my tail and I will never talk about it again.
‘Oh, no I won’t.’
Short listed, Globe Soup