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Old 07-03-2015, 07:56 AM   #1
loopytheone
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Default The Amateurs - by Bayone (~BHM, ~FFA, Romance)

~BHM, ~FFA, Romance - Hester gives up her vacation to help out an amateur musical theatre group, and finds some inspiration of her own.

The Amateurs
by Bayone

Wednesday

Hester had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to house-sit for a week; or at least that was the excuse her friends had made, in order to get her to take a much-needed vacation. They’d welcomed her the night before, and had left for Heathrow early that morning, and she’d looked forward to a quiet week of puttering around until she’d stumbled into this beleaguered production of Sitwell and Walton’s Façade being put on by — was this a community theatre group? A university club? Well, she’d find out soon enough.

Right now she was busy laying down coats of latex paint, working from darker to lighter tones, assisted by members of the company who all seemed to have accepted her with the same any-port-in-a-storm cheerfulness. Luckily there was a sizeable supply of old paint-stained clothes for her new army of helpers.

A wiry young man (someone had addressed him a few minutes earlier as Dennis, and the purple-dreadlocked director was Sophie) tapped her on the shoulder and she straightened her back, stretching gratefully. At forty-two, Hester was in good shape for her age, but a college student no longer. Thinking she might have to pull an all-nighter to get this backdrop done on time, she made a mental note to ask the location of the nearest coffee shop. Even the UK had to have been invaded by Starbucks by now.

“We’re breaking for lunch at the pub across the street,” Dennis said.

“Come with us? Or we can bring you a sandwich,” he added diffidently. Hester stood up and surveyed her work.

“All right. I guess I’d better meet you all properly; I seem to have skipped over that part.”

Dennis grinned in delight, and worry crossed Hester’s mind. She was aware that many men still found her attractive — though as soon as she tried to engage them in conversation most of them backed off. This, she suspected, was less likely to happen in what seemed to be a pretty arty circle, and Dennis had already volunteered to pose, but he was too young and too thin to interest her in anything but an artistic sense. She hoped he wasn’t getting up hopes that she’d need to throw some cold water upon.

“Just give me a moment to clean up and I’ll join you all.”

“I thought Americans pronounced it y’all.”

“Only in the South. I’m from Michigan.”

Five minutes later, as she bent to pick up her sketchbook — she planned to make some thumbnails over lunch, once she knew which of the company, besides Dennis, would be modeling — a shape loomed into her peripheral vision, and she glanced over at the gentleman whose embonpoint was, at present, filling the doorway.

He was older than most of the other people she’d met so far, and more formally dressed in a neat dark suit. He might have been sixty, though his plump rosy features were difficult to pin an age upon. Certainly his silver hair proclaimed him a man of full years. He was studying the sketch after Rubens that she’d pulled out to show Sophie and the others, but as she looked at him he raised his eyes, which, in terms of the pull that they held, very much resembled a pair of dwarf stars. He stepped forward, and she raised a warning hand.

“Stop! No, sorry — it’s just that there’s a lot of wet paint in here, and I’d hate for you to ruin your clothes.”

“Rather a lot of nudes to this new backdrop design,” he observed, with a twinkle, as he held up the sketch. Though she couldn’t place it, his voice had a slightly more regional quality to it than the public-school accents of the rest of the cast.

“Thought they’d go with all the playful mythological references in the poetry. Besides, nudes are easy,” said Hester. “Asking people to undress for you is hard.”

The fat gentleman compressed his lips very slightly in amusement. "Well, for certain no one’s ever asked me to pose.”

“Would you like to?” Hester asked, with the same shock at her own audacity that she’d been feeling since she had first volunteered to paint an old-fashioned theatre curtain in the absence of the official set designer (who’d run off, with forty-eight hours to go before the dress rehearsal.)

The fat gentleman’s face grew a shade pinker. “Not sure there’d be room for me in a Classical scene.”

“It’s going to be more of a Baroque sort of thing,” she countered, “and it’s going to be a Bacchanal.”

His shiny round apple of a face creased in a wry smile:

“Ah. You need a Silenus,” he guessed.

“Exactly!” Hester beamed. “Thanks for getting that right off the bat — you just saved me a lot of explanation.”

“Ever hear of flattery?” he asked, in a slightly acid tone, but Hester could tell he wasn’t really displeased at being cast as the old, drunk and very wise satyr who’d raised the God of Wine from a divine baby.

“Yes, but I’ve never been any good at it. Besides,” she added slyly, “I’m thinking you would have seen through it.”

Before he could give answer to Hester, Sophie came up behind him.

“Oh, hullo Tom,” she said.

Tom turned around.

“You’ve arrived in the nick of time,” he announced. “This mad woman —” (here he gestured majestically toward Hester) “has been trying to persuade me to doff my kit.”

Sophie raised an eyebrow at Hester.

“This is Tom Watts. He organizes everything. He’s very good at it. Tom, this is — I’m sorry, I just realized I never asked your name or how you heard we needed a set designer.”

“Hester Tacoma. And I didn’t actually, I just wandered in off the street and people started handing me paintbrushes.”

Tom gave a shout of laughter at this. Hester turned to him: “So, would you like to be my Silenus?”

“Yes,” the fat gentleman groaned in mock dismay, “you persistent woman, yes.”

Sophie took him by the arm. “Thanks. And thanks for popping by on your lunch hour to help us.”

She turned to Hester. “ I’ll meet you at the pub as soon as we’re done here — I just need Tom to reserve some stage lights for the show. We’re the Enfield Amateur Musical Society, by the way.”

Hester nodded assent, turned to go, then a thought struck her: “Wait — Tom, if this is your lunch, what time’s good for you to come and pose?”

“Half-past three? I’ve got some work back at my office but it’ll be quick to finish.”

Hester’s mind did some figuring. A quick lunch during which to recruit a few more models, then back here to set up a space by the north-facing window for them to pose. She’d ask Dennis and the other models to come by at four-thirty, giving her an hour to make sure her Silenus was comfortable with posing nude.

And besides, she admitted to herself, I wouldn’t mind being alone with him again for a little while.

Over lunch, Hester decided Dennis would be a young satyr; selected a cheery, good-looking fellow to be Bacchus, persuaded one of the cellists — a dark, curvy young woman with striking cheekbones who would make a perfect Ariadne — to come by at four-thirty with the others; and recruited an assortment of nymphs and maenads. Everyone seemed rather gleefully excited at the prospect of being seen larger-than-life on canvas. She only hoped they wouldn’t change their minds before opening night, but then, with the exception of Tom, she planned to idealize them all just a little. She needed, however, to start from a grounding in reality.

With a nearby coffee bar scouted and the beginnings of a composition in her sketchbook, Hester returned to what had become her studio, and began setting up some chairs near the window, draping them with unused dropcloths (old bedsheets, really), grateful that the window was high enough on the wall for privacy, and that it was summer and she would not need to worry about the sunlight lasting or the room being warm enough for her models. She tore another sheet into wide strips, figuring that she might need to put a few draperies on her nudes, not just for modesty, but to provide some fabric that artistic license might subsequently depict as dramatically billowing swathes of gauze.

The image of billowing curves brought her thoughts back to Tom. Hester had always adored fat men, and in her brief meeting the older gent had impressed her with his substantial charms as well as his wit. He was an extra-large helping of everything that fascinated her, all tied up in a snug bow.

A light rap on the door frame woke her from her reverie. There was Tom, looming (in a somehow gracious fashion) in the entrance again.

“Right on time. You did get some lunch since I saw you last, I hope?”

Tom narrowed his bright eyes briefly until he realized she was sincerely concerned that he’d gone hungry, and then he chuckled appreciatively: “Finished up early and had a bite across the way before coming in. I’d have had a couple of pints to get into character, but I wasn’t sure whether you approved of method acting.”

He looked about him uncertainly. “Do you want me undressed now?”

“Take your time, I’m still setting up. I’ve worked out some possible poses — they’re in the sketchbook over on the chairs. You might want to have a look and tell me which ones look comfortable enough to hold for a sitting.”

With his hands on his splayed, sturdy thighs (briefly reminding her of Ingres’ Portrait of Monsieur Bertin), Tom lowered his bulk to the two draped chairs, and took out his reading glasses to examine the thumbnail sketches. Hester watched him with discreet admiration as he turned slightly to rest one arm on the chair back, his other hand resting lightly and unconsciously upon his great round belly. The thought occurred to her that she’d like to draw him clothed if they could find time, for the taut fabric only emphasised the man’s ample form. She noted the lowest button of his waistcoat was, in classic fashion, undone; the one above it probably should have been, for it strained a little — but only a little; Tom’s suit was well-cut to accommodate his full, weighty contours, and it pleased her to see he was in no denial of his girth. He looked up now and smiled to see her watching him.

“Silenus — he’s supposed to be on a donkey, ain’t he? Not that we’ve actually got a donkey, I know, but I think there might be an ass’s head in the back room from when we did Midsummer Night’s Dream last year.”

“That’s a thought. Funny, I never thought of Bottom as a Silenus analogy but I suppose he is—” Hester hesitated. This was usually the sort of thing that usually caused people’s eyes to glaze with boredom or confusion, but Tom only gave a nod of agreement that caused his lower chin to wobble:

“Comedic, beloved of gods, forever caught between the supernatural and the flesh? Oh yes indeed.” He raised his eyes to her: “Sorry, I do go on. Why don’t I just go fetch the damn thing while I’m still decent?”

“I’ll wait here.” Hester pulled an old shirt over her blouse and got out her box of chalks and conte crayons. Tom returned triumphantly bearing a large, slightly dusty ass’s-head mask and hung it on the back of one of the chairs.

“Stay there, you stupid old thing,” he told it, and removing his jacket, began to unbutton his waistcoat. He undressed methodically and swiftly without any thought of seduction. Hester suspected he was a bit nervous after all, and kept her gaze fixed on the blank page of her sketchbook.

“There’s extra fabric,” she told him, “You can wrap a bit about yourself if you prefer.”

He grunted an acknowledgement and a little later she heard him plump himself down again on the pair of chairs. Looking up from her sketchbook, Hester found him semi-reclining with the sheet over one shoulder like some Roman senator in an old Hollywood epic, one arm draped over the ass’s ears. She got up, walked over, and adjusted the “toga” slightly on his shoulder, trying to remain detached and professional as her fingertips brushed the soft nape of his neck.

She stepped back, surveyed him again, and said: “Turn your head a little more to the left? Good. Let’s try this pose first. You can talk if you feel like it, and I can get a bit lost in my work, so let me know if you get tired.”

She sat down and began rapidly limning Tom’s image on the page, occasionally taking up the white chalk to add highlights that emphasized the florid three-dimensionality of his body.

“Ought I to be looking at you? I mean, looking out of the painting?”

“Sure. After all, you know the audience is there,” Hester mused. “Silenus has the gift of prophecy, that’s your problem — you know everything, but still can’t keep from toppling off that donkey. Hold that grin.”

She caught it on the paper in a horizontal slash of white chalk. “The others should be here shortly.”

Sure enough, there soon came a babble of younger voices from the hallway, and the little group of actors and musicians entered chatting among themselves. “Ariadne” set down her cello case carefully by the door and approached. Hester set her sketchbook down and Tom turned his head.

“You take a break, Tom, I think I’ll do a few warm-up sketches before I try grouping everybody together.” Tom sat upright and modestly pulled his bedsheet more tightly around himself, though it could not completely cover his broad, softly-mounded chest (delicately furred with hairs as silvery as the ones on his head) as he greeted the other volunteers. Finally he settled for girding his loins and his thick midsection, and retired to a corner with a book, while Hester arranged and sketched her various models. Though none gave her quite as much delight to work with as Tom had, they were all attractive and cooperative sitters, if a trifle giggly. She felt glad that none of them had shown any shock or distaste at the older man’s presence, or his unclothed body, for she wanted to like them.

At last she felt ready to place them all in the composition she planned for the final work. Arranging Tom on his donkey (the chairs and the mask) she seated Bacchus and Ariadne (Mike and Ornella) together, just above him and perched upon the chair backs; having checked the furniture for sturdiness and knowing the chairs would never tip backwards with Tom’s weight anchoring them.

Dennis she placed beside him as a satyr steadying him so he wouldn’t topple in his “inebriation.” The youth looked a trifle disappointed to have his arm around a fat old man instead of a nymph, but took his pose with good humour, as did Tom, who stage-whispered “If you do feel me starting to fall, lad, get out of the way and save yourself.”

Filling in the gaps with maenads, Hester seated herself before them and began roughing out the figures, impressionistically, on a fresh page.

Though she did not wish to overtax her models (who were not, after all, professionals used to holding long poses), it was awareness of her own hunger that finally made Hester blink and ask the time. One of the nymphs went and got her mobile phone.

“A quarter to seven, almost,” she called across the room. “Goodness, I’m surprised none of you have raised rebellion by now.”

“None of us dared,” Tom said, straightening his posture and rubbing his back ruefully. “The gleam in your eye as you worked was downright fanatical.”

“Well, everyone get dressed and let’s break for dinner. I’m starving.”

In the general hubbub of everyone putting their clothes back on, people kept coming up, peering at Hester’s sketches and exclaiming in delight.

“Even I don’t look half-bad,” one young woman said. Hester was about to tell her she was perfectly lovely in real life, too, but remembering her own youth, decided there’d be no convincing her of the truth.

“You coming with us?” she asked Tom, who’d been the last to step up and admire her work, perhaps because his clothes had more buttons to fasten than everyone else’s t-shirts, jeans and casual summer dresses.

He nodded, adding: “There’s been a suggestion going around that we all go for Italian food, if that’s alright with you — I imagine you must be a little tired of the pub across the way.”

“Fine by me,” said Hester, “as long as it’s not too far. I might come back here afterwards to start scaling up the picture onto the curtain.”

Tom gave her a look of kindly concern.

“You’ve done so much for us today, and under very unexpected circumstances. I don’t want you exhausting yourself just for an amateur theatrical society you hadn’t heard of until a few hours ago.” Hester patted his arm.

“I ought to be thanking all of you. It’s been at least twenty years since I’ve done something for the theatre, and I’d forgotten how much I missed it.”

Tom’s eyes widened slightly, and a slight surprise crept across his round face. He gave her a look of reassessment and smiled.

“Well,” he said, changing the subject back to supper, “the Italian place is but a block from here.”

The lot of them (for they’d been joined by Sophie and the rest of the cast) had all crowded into the little neighbourhood restaurant, placed orders, and were sharing a couple of bottles of wine while they waited for the food to arrive. Hester found herself ensconced between Dennis and Tom, the latter having somehow eased himself into the tight corner seat. Dennis, she was pleased to see, was busy flirting with the young woman who’d looked at the sketch book and been surprised to find herself beautiful. At the next table Sophie was chatting with Ornella the cellist, and Hester noticed, holding her hand. Turning to Tom she found him watching her with the new expression she had noticed earlier. He blinked, embarrassed, and she smiled reassuringly.

“It’s nice to see everyone having fun,” she whispered, with a slight nod towards the rest of the room.

“That’s always been my reason for coming out with the E.A.M.S.”

“Are you one of the reciters? Sophie said there was more than one.”

“Oh no, I’m more what you’d call a behind-the-scenes type. Box office, stage managing, that sort of thing.”

“But you’ve got such a nice voice,” Hester protested, showing more surprise than she could have wished. It had never occurred to her that Tom would not be utterly at home in front of an audience, but he shook his head wistfully.

“I get awful stage fright — know that must sound odd coming from someone you’ve just seen lolling about without a stitch on, but that’s how it is.”

Talk died down for the moment as plates began to arrive. Hester had decided on a small pizza, reasoning that if, despite her hunger, it turned out to be more than she could eat, it would be a lot easier to ask the waiter to box a few slices of pizza than half a plate of spaghetti. Then she’d wondered whether restaurants would let her do that over here.

Upon the pizza’s arrival, however, she found that outside of the US, “small” on a restaurant menu really did mean small, and that the pizza was just enough for one woman. She might even want dessert afterwards. On one side of her, Dennis was devouring his linguini alfredo with the appetite of a skinny young man with a fast metabolism, and on the other, Tom, having tucked his napkin into his collar, was eating his spaghetti bolognese at a more leisurely pace, though with enjoyment.

Though it was not an outrageously large serving, he was evidently not seeking to grow smaller, Hester noted; and smiling, she turned her attentions to her own plate. The pizza was quite good, with a thin crisp base, and she poured herself a glass of the wine she’d hadn’t dared drink earlier due to the emptiness of her stomach. Refueled, and seeing that her companions had finished the bulk of their own meals, she resumed conversation.

“So what part does everyone play in the show?” she asked. “I’ve been hanging around with and drawing you lot all day, but I’m not fool enough to think I know people just because I’ve seen them naked.”

There was laughter at this.

“I’m beginning to think none of us know Tom so well as we thought,” quipped Sophie. “Or else you have remarkable powers of persuasion, Hester.”

Dennis shook Hester’s hand across the table.

“I dance the tango with Melinda,” he said, indicating a teenaged girl who Hester recalled as one of the people who’d helped her rag and spatter on paint that morning. It felt like years ago now.

“I also do a dance with Mike,” he grinned toward the young man who’d posed as Bacchus, who blew him a kiss.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have cast him and Ornella as a couple,” Hazel observed.

“It’s alright,” Ornella squeezed her girlfriend’s hand. “I have to make Sophie jealous now and then or she might take me for granted.”

“Our reciters,” said Tom, pointing out a handsome Black man, an older red-haired woman in a rather flamboyant hat , and a young Asian punk girl. “David, Vanessa and Susan. Our conductor, Wilf; you’ve met Sophie our director; and I think we have about half the orchestra here. Most of the tech crew are off working another show tonight.”

Despite the E.A.M.S.’s entreaties, Hester paid her bill and walked back to the theatre workshop once she’d finished her dessert and coffee.

“Need to strike while the iron is hot,” she’d said. “It’s only half-past eight, and I’d like to at least draw the grid for the curtain before I crash for the night.”

Dennis, Melissa and Tom had then insisted on coming with her, Tom pointing out that he was the one with the keys to the place, and the two young people adding that she’d get the grid done faster with assistants to hold rulers or whatever it was she might need them to do.

The hardest part turned out to be finding the string that Hester had thought would be the simplest way to mark off the curtain as it lay tacked to the floor. They searched closets, drawers, and a narrow cupboard that Tom could hardly squeeze his large body into, and from which he returned with horizontal bars of dust streaked across his waistcoat from the edges of shelves, but no string.

“Quartermaster’s all out,” he reported, brushing himself off.

“I’m just glad you didn’t get stuck,” said Dennis.

“Just for that, you can be the one to go try the corner shop.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Melissa. “I want to pick up some chewing gum.”

“She fancies him,” Tom observed after they’d gone, “and well, you saw him chatting up Kate tonight. I think he might have been making a play for you as well.”

“Between the three of us and Mike, I kind of lost track.” Hester smiled at the stage manager. “I think I remember being his age, but I don’t believe I ever had that much —”

“Brass?”

“I was more the shrinking violet type.”

Tom laughed at this — not loudly, but the outlines of his face and body shook with suppressed mirth.

“Glad to see you outgrew that fault,” he said, wiping his eyes. He settled himself on the pair of chairs from earlier, and Hester came over and sat down beside him, close enough to just brush against his side as if by accident. Of course, since Tom spread out in all directions when he sat, it really might have been by accident.

“I should be marking off where to put the tacks,” she murmured, “But you were right about it having been a long day.”

It occurred to her how nice it would be to just lean into his well-upholstered shoulder and go to sleep, but she was still determined to remain professional, at least until the curtain was finished.

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Old 07-03-2015, 08:13 AM   #2
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Default

Thursday


Hester awoke next morning with a mild ache between her shoulder-blades, but nothing so bad as she’d feared. She’d reset the alarm clock to her usual, not her holiday, waking time, and she made herself coffee before showering and dressing.

Though she knew she’d be changing into her painting gear within the hour, she could not resist a cheerful cotton print dress; then, looking out the window at the sky, she threw a cardigan over her shoulders and took an umbrella from the stand in the hall before heading out.

She’d drawn a grid over her final sketch the night before while Melissa and Dennis had tacked down the larger string version on the drop curtain, and now, square by square, she began transferring the composition to the canvas in a light chalk she could brush away if she need to correct anything.

All morning she worked on her hands and knees over the drop, feeling like a child drawing an enormous hopscotch course. Every so often she would stop and climb up to the high windowsill to get a view of the overall image. From the next room she could hear the rehearsal, the glorious nonsense flowing over the music in waves of perfect diction:

Waves in eighteen-eighty bustles come,
Late with tambourines of rustling foam.
They answer to the names
of ancient dames and shames,
And only call horizons their home…

When she had finished the figures, she began adding a playfully curlicued frame around the composition, and a trompe-l’oeil swag of curtain on the upper left, whose heavy curve mirrored the buoyant arc of Silenus’ paunch in the lower right-hand corner of the picture. Satisfied with her work for the moment, she went to the rehearsal room to find Sophie.

The director stood quietly watching the actors as they recited their lines over the music. When there was a break, Hester brought Sophie to have a look at the drop. The two of them clambered to the window sill and craned their necks. “Do I have the go-head to start painting, or are there any changes you’d like?”

“Leaving it all up to you. You’ve done a bang-up job so far. Really, you’ve saved the day, I’m not even kidding.”

“I’m sure you could have managed with a plain curtain and the audience
would have been none the wiser, but thanks all the same.”

“No, but really — it does add… an extra dimension to the show, to have this.”

“Wait until you see it finished.”

Hester hurried through lunch and dove back into her work. With the background already richly textured, she had decided to work in thin paints and loose brushstrokes, hoping to keep the energy of her sketches even at a larger scale. Besides, the drop would be needed soon and she couldn’t afford to take her time over it.

This time, instead of methodically working each square in turn, she moved from one part of the canvas to another in a fashion that would have seemed random to observers, working on each detail as the thought took her.

Though she tried not to lavish attention on Silenus at the expense of the rest of the composition, she did save his figure until last, reveling in her task and in each soft shadow and shimmering highlight that defined a roll of flesh on his torso, or a dimple or furrow on his expressive face.

From the doorway she heard a polite, attention-getting cough and looked up to see Tom himself bearing a tray with two mugs on it. He was more casually attired than he’d been the day before, though his shirt was neatly tucked into his gray trousers, his sleeves rolled up on his sturdy thick arms.

“Off work for the day?”

“Off regular work and on the clock for the E.A.M.S. Just now I’m the tea-boy. How do you take yours?”

“Lemon. Can I bring you back to the States as my butler? Sorry. Set the tray down for a minute and come have a look.”

Tom wisely declined to climb up on the high windowsill, but he stood for some time gazing along the painting as it lay on the floor. The late-afternoon sunlight touched his mouth and cheek to a ruddier glow. Watching him as he gazed upon her work, Hester thought she’d never seen anyone so beautiful.

“So," she asked, "what do you think?”

“Never seen meself from that angle before. Bit startling. But everyone else looks lovely. Must be the contrast,” he joked.

“It’s a question of balance,” she said. “Now, this tea break you mentioned?”

They seated themselves with the tea things between them. Tom held out a plate of buns, helping himself after Hester had taken one. Biting into it, she commented:

“These are the first English pastries I’ve had that didn’t have some kind of jam in them. I was beginning to think it was written in Magna Carta or something that all of them had to.”

“Oh it is,” answered Tom solemnly, “but there was a law framed under Cromwell that made an exception for these. Puritans, you know. Couldn't have them too sweet.”

“Never jam today?” she asked. He smiled and took a bite, continuing, after washing the mouthful of bun down with tea:

“I discovered them a couple of years back, when we put on an adaptation of The Happy Hypocrite.”

“Interesting title.”

“Interesting story. Like Dorian Gray in reverse. Buns play a role in the final scene. Anyway, the cast kept stealing and eating them, so eventually I had to buy a dozen and wait for them to go stale – trying not to eat them myself in the meantime, mind – before I dared bring them in. And they would go absolutely hard as rocks: somebody threw one in fun and smashed a picture on the wall. I showed a photo of the damage to the baker and suggested he use it in an advertising campaign to prove that he didn’t use any artificial preservatives.”

“How did he react to that?”

“He said he didn’t think the public was ready yet for anything that edgy.
Turns out he was taking night courses in advertising. Fortunately he’s still baking, so it doesn’t seem to have become a full-time career,” he finished, brushing the crumbs from his shirt-front. “Now, I’ve got to get back to running errands before the tech run tonight. When do you think the backdrop will be dry enough to hang?”

Waiting for the paint to dry was the first real break Hester had had in over twenty-four hours, so after Tom had gone, she spent some time looking up the Enfield Amateur Musical Society. There were lots of pictures of the previous year’s show, and some favourable reviews, though Tom’s name didn’t come up.

Hester tried to resist the temptation to search the internet for him. She didn’t want to know the details of his day job, no doubt as mundane as her own work in the marketing department of a furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids.

Due diligence, came a voice which might have been her conscience or merely her curiosity. After all, you don’t want to fall for someone and then discover he campaigns to reintroduce public floggings or something. She typed the name “Tom Watts” into the search field. Filtering for geographic location, she soon found the professional website of the firm of solicitors in which Tom was a partner; but as she’d expected, it lacked a personal touch.

There’s so much romanticism about “doing what you love,” Hester thought, and yet the job you do by day so often affects more lives than the works you devote yourself to passionately.

Looking at the clock in the corner of the screen she saw it was already nearly six o’clock. She checked the canvas, found her brushstrokes had dried, and contacted Sophie. Then she began pulling out the tacks and folding up the curtain. Sophie, Melissa and the ever-present Dennis helped her carry it, like an enormous rolled-up rug, to the theatre, a smaller building a block from the one where they’d been painting and rehearsing. Dropping it at the front of the stage, they began unrolling the canvas towards the back.

“Thanks,” Hester said to Melissa who was nearest to her, “for the hand. I imagine you and Dennis weren’t officially needed until the dress rehearsal, but I appreciate the two of you coming out tonight to help.”

“It was an independent decision,” Melissa replied coldly, “he and I don’t have to do everything together.”

“Sorry — I didn’t mean to imply you did.” Dennis must have rebuffed his dance partner, Hester realized, or otherwise blown his chance. She moved on to fastening the drop to a crossbeam that could be hauled up into the fly, vaguely aware as she did so that Dennis was working on the other end of the beam. As he approached Melissa huffed and slipped away.

“Sorry if she was snappish with you,” said Dennis, “She’s been acting strange since last night.”

“I’m not upset with her,” murmured Hester, emphasising the last word very slightly.

“Well — I think she’s been getting a little too into character and thinking that because we dance together on stage, there’s something between us.”

Without looking up from her work, the painter replied: “How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce.”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“I’m American. Also, I’m quoting Casablanca.”

“No,” the young man persisted, “why do you talk as though you’re so much older than me?”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Forty-five,” she lied, adding three years. “I rest my case.”

Dennis’ eyes widened in dismay.

“Er… you look good,” he eventually managed to say. Hester laughed.

“Now then, this old lady would like to get this curtain hung so she can go home to bed. Hand me that rope would you, dear?”

They hauled on the various ropes, assisted by a couple of stagehands who’d materialized under Tom’s direction. Hester wondered if he’d heard her exchange with Dennis. The top of the curtain rose, with a reasonable degree of grace, until it hung in place at the back of the stage.

Façade was not an especially long show; and with a single set throughout, even with the lighting crew’s need to accommodate the new backdrop, the tech run went swiftly. By half-past nine Sophie was scribbling giving final notes and people were beginning to put equipment away and head for the pub.

“I’ll catch you up,” Tom said to them. He was still scrambling about with a clip-board clutched to his belly, tacking call sheets to the walls with a press of his broad thumb.

Dennis’s jab about Melissa confusing on-stage with off-stage relationships had left Hester mistrustful of her own interest in Tom; and she had decided to probe the matter, as diplomatically as could be managed (which knowing myself means with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, she thought) before her feelings went any further.

“That seemed to go pretty well,” Tom commented to her when the others had left. “But not so well as to make them over-confident.”

No, indeed. Steering clear of overconfidence. Avoiding overconfidence. Overvay onfidencecay ixnay.

“Did you hear my little talk with Dennis?” she asked the stage manager, and a sly smile spread across his round face:

“You gave him the fright of his life. Mind you, in those work clothes I’d have thought you were closer to his age, myself. Not that it makes much difference if you’re fifteen years my junior, or twenty years” he added, with a hint of wistfulness in his voice that raised her hopes to a suspenseful pang.

Hester had revised her own initial estimate of Tom’s age down a couple of years on seeing him out of his formal suit. Deciding that this was her best if not her only opportunity to make her interest known, she began: “Regardless of the number of years, there’s less of a gap between you and me than there is between me and him.”

“Do you mean with regard to personality, or that time goes swifter the older one is?”

“Both, I suppose. Speaking of time going too fast — I have to leave at the end of next week.” She took a deep breath and plunged: “So I’m going to go ahead and ask if I can buy you a drink tonight. Not a friendly drink, but an ‘I fancy you and I’m trying to indicate it politely, but directly, through the medium of alcohol’ drink.”

When Tom did not answer right away, she added anxiously: “I’m sorry — if I’m barking up the wrong tree-”

He set down his clipboard and looked searchingly at her face: “No, I’m glad. I’m very pleased. Only you caught me off guard, that’s all.”

“Well,” said Hester, “consider that we’ve been talking, the past couple of days. At any time did you feel like it was a struggle to communicate?”

“No.”

“Me neither. That’s not how conversations usually go for me. Also,” she added, “You’ve seen the painting. You fascinate me.”

Tom looked as though he were about to say that’s the part that caught me off guard. Instead, he placed a hand on her shoulder and said:

“Well, that’s all right then. Can I buy you a drink, too?”

As it turned out, they never made it to the pub that night. As they walked through the theatre to the exit, Tom had stopped to glance back in the direction of the painted figures, larger than life, hanging in the near-darkness; Silenus in the foreground, confronting the audience with his unabashed breadth of hip and girth, mysterious wisdom embodied.

Hester had put her arm on Tom’s.

“I confess,” she whispered, “that I looked you up online. I know you’re not literally a Greek demi-god.”

“All right. It’s just that even if this is to be a brief fling before you have to go home, I’d hate to disappoint you. Getting things wrong is just about the only thing I’m afraid of.” There was a slight catch in the fat man’s voice.

“If it makes you happy, I’ll give you review notes.” She edged closer and leaned in, nestling against his soft side as he draped his arm about her. She felt his chest and belly expand and shrink as he sighed, relaxing, and then the two of them were scrambling for one of the benches in the lobby.

Not exactly comfortable, Hester thought, but better than the back row of theatre seats.

She straddled Tom’s knee, once he’d seated himself, and placed her hands on either side of his waist, delighting in the way her they sank into his fat body. She gently dug in with her fingertips in a circular motion and he wriggled happily and wrapped his arms about her, pulling her closer. He kissed her ear, the curve where her neck met her shoulder, and finally her mouth; the last for a very long time. When they could both speak again, he caught his breath and murmured:

“I hate to interrupt, but I’m not sure the bench is going to be able to take much more of this — is it alright if we continue this back at my place?”

“Oh yes indeed.” They stopped several more times on the way there, wherever the shadows of trees gave them cover to embrace. Reaching the house at last, Hester, in the darkness and her excitement, could form only the impression of a small neat garden and a flat front. Unlocked the door, Tom fiddled with a switch, and warm light from a ceiling lamp spilled over a little entrance hall with a narrow staircase on one side which they climbed to a bedroom with bookshelves along the walls, and a poster from one of the past E.A.M.S. shows.

Tom threw himself cheerfully onto the bed; Hester climbed aboard and began undoing his shirt buttons. His stomach was soft as she had imagined, slightly cool to the touch.

“You’ve seen it before,” Tom commented, smiling back up at her.

“Yes, but there’s a difference between looking and touching.”

“May I look and touch as well?” he asked. Hester stuck out her tongue at him playfully and untied her dress, letting it fall open. Tom’s eyes widened perceptibly, and he gently slid his hands under the fabric and along the planes of her body, murmuring: “So warm… smooth… oh, lovely, you’re just lovely all over.”

If pressed, Hester would have admitted she liked her body; but as she was too proud to be vain, she tried not to think about it most of the time. At present, however, she could not help but be pleased with Tom’s reaction to her, and with the comfortable way the two of them fit together. She felt like one of the nymphs that teased and attended the old satyr; that they were each playing a part, yes, but parts that suited their natures.

Tom’s arms had closed around her, now and he gently drew her down onto himself, and neither of them was capable of articulate speech for a while.
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Friday

Hester opened her eyes upon a square of sunlight that brightened a pale ceiling, and after a moment’s recall, looked about to find her clothes of the night before draped over the end of the bed, along with Tom’s. She made a point of putting on his shirt to go look for him, though it was too big for her.

Downstairs she could hear someone whistling cheerfully, and she followed the sound through rooms full of books and sturdy, comfortable furniture, to a kitchen that spoke of a bachelor of tidy but not fussy habits, where she found Tom in a dressing-gown pouring out coffee.

“I thought for breakfast you’d prefer coffee,” he said. “Did I get that right?”

She accepted the mug and pulled up a chair. They chatted while keeping an eye on Tom’s unreliable pop-up toaster:

They talked about the show:

"Did you really just wander in and they handed you a paintbrush?”

“Pretty much. They were all standing over an empty canvas and Sophie turned and asked if I could paint, and I said ‘A little…’”

They talked about their work:

“….Mostly wills," Tom said. "People think wills are boring, or depressing or materialistic; but they’re how people try to make arrangements for what they care about, so I find them sort of touching, even though the language is dry as dust…”

“Grand Rapids. Manufacturing city. Don’t worry, most people outside the US haven’t heard of it either — I think I smell smoke—”

At Hester’s words, Tom hastily unplugged the appliance and prodded it with a fork until it disgorged a couple of pieces of perfect golden toast. He smiled beatifically at her:

“Marmalade?” he inquired, then spread a generous serving after her head nod.

“If satyrs are part goat,” he mused, a little while later, “do they shear themselves in summer to keep cool?”

Hester laughed at that.

“No, really,” Tom continued as she giggled, “Can they spin their own wool and knit themselves sweaters to wear on their top halves in the winter?”

“I’d better go — just for a bit. I figure if I’m house-sitting it’s my duty to check in on the place at least once in every twenty-four hours; besides, my clothes are there.” The stage-manager checked his watch:

“See you at the dress-rehearsal?”

Besides Hester, the afternoon dress-rehearsal audience included a number of E.A.M.S. supporters, most of whom appeared to be relatives to old or too young to stay up for the evening premiere. The painter took a seat in the middle of the audience, four rows behind some school-age children and three ahead of two ladies who appeared to still be living in the 1950s.

Wilf raised his baton and the orchestra began to play. As the Overture ended with something like a cock-crow, the curtain rose on Vanessa, and Hester’s backdrop. There was scattered applause from the audience and a satisfying gasp from someone on the other side of the theatre, who she guessed had recognized one or more of the models.

“The people in the painting don’t have clothes,” piped a little girl, and the audience laughed.

“Shh,” said one of the other children, as the drums rattled and Vanessa moved to the edge of the stage reciting Sitwell’s “Hornpipe” over Walton’s music with rapid, pattering delivery.

The pace changed for the lilting “Through Gilded Trellises.” Now the reciter swayed slightly in time to the music, finishing with the sinister cadence:

Ladies — Time dies.


The orchestra finished and she retreated, to applause.

Dennis and Melinda’s tango was comically passionate — Hester couldn’t tell if they had made up or if anger was spurring them to heights of rivalrous acting. David, tall dark and handsome in his dinner jacket, took the stage, and as the orchestra struck up, began vigorously to declaim:

See me dance the polka,
said Mr. Wag like a bear,
In my top hat
and my whiskers that
tralalala trap the fair!


The interval, due to the performance being a dress rehearsal, was skipped over. David carried on with the “Tarantella,” whose ending drew laughter and more applause:

Said queen Venus:
“Silenus, we’ll settle between us,
The nymphs disobedience forestall —
With my bow and my quiver
each fresh evil liver,
for I don’t understand this at all.”


Hester thought she saw some of the audience nudging each other and pointing at her painting.

"Do not take a bath in Jordan, Gordon," Vanessa roared in a faux Scots accent, her hair blazing:"on the holy Sabbath, on the peaceful day,

said the huntsman, playing on his old bagpipe,
boring to death the pheasant and the snipe…"


Susan, like the other readers, was dressed mainly in black, but her outfit incorporated more leather and torn lace; and her piercings were a twinkling constellation beneath the stage lights…

"We bear velvet cream, green and babyish…"


she lisped, over music that aped the William Tell Overture.

The last poem, “Sir Beelzebub” was divided between the three reciters, switching voices at lightening speed. When it was done, the audience cheered, though Hester had only made out one word in five and doubted anyone else in the audience had done better. The music and the delivery had made it work.

So had the backdrop, apparently, for when Sophie, having given the performers their notes, took Hester’s arm and steered her around the audience waiting in the lobby, people kept complimenting the artist and shaking her hand. Even the schoolchildren were wide-eyed, though Hester suspected that was due to the subject matter as much as to her technique.

“Look,” one of them whispered, “it’s the fat man from the painting.” The adults must have recognized Tom too, for she saw he was on the receiving end of a number of winks and backslaps. She hoped he wasn’t regretting his role.

There was a little curved stairwell that led to the balcony level of the theatre, and when at last Tom approached her, she drew him into it, just out of the line of sight of most of the people still conversing in the lobby. They sat down on one of the wedge-shaped steps, Hester closer to the turn of the stair and Tom with his back against the stairwell wall.

“Everything looked and sounded great from the audience,” she told him.

“I confess,” he said, “that I snuck out the back and came round to have a look.” He raised his eyes to indicate the balcony at the top of the stairs. “I think the audience tonight is really going to be interested.”

“That’s… cautiously optimistic.”

“You ought to hear me do mild dismay; then you’d know how pleased I am.”

His shrewd kind eyes twinkled at her, but his voice, when he spoke next, was quietly serious: “That’s a remarkable thing you painted, and it really does suit the show. Where’d you get the idea?”

“Always wanted to paint an old-school act curtain; always wanted to paint a Baroque allegory; and I’d heard some of the poems before, years ago. I remembered there were nymphs and satyrs. It all just seemed to make sense. Though I think meeting you helped, too. Certainly made the job more enjoyable. Hope you feel the same,” she added.

“It was a pleasure to sit for you. The end result — well, it’s me and not-me,” he said, gazing at his large hands as they rested upon his knees. “I’m not complaining mind you; it’s just that I’ve never been scenery before, and I’m still getting used to the translation.”

Hester laid her hand on his, and he turned his palm upwards to grasp it. “Do people often feel that way?”

“I don’t suppose anyone looks quite the way they think they look.”

“I’m not sure I look the way you think I look. But others seem to agree with your view.” He leaned closer and his soft, ample body brushed gently against her as he kissed her.

“For that reason,” Hester continued afterwards, “I’d like to do a real portrait of you. As yourself, I mean.” She stroked Tom’s round cheek.

“You never did give me that performance review you promised last night.”

“I think I need to conduct more research.” He laughed and put his arm around her.

“After the show tonight? Oh, we’ve set a ticket aside for you already, by the way.”

“How dressed-up should I get?”

“Well it’s summer, so…. business casual? Semi-formal? You know I’m not even sure what those words mean meself. Wear what you like, you’ll look all right.”


Friday Night


Having checked with Sophie and got much the same response, Hester decided on the blouse she’d been wearing Wednesday when she’d first wandered into the E.A.M.S. rehearsal space (was that really only sixty hours ago?), with yesterday’s cardigan and the all-purpose black skirt she’d packed when she’d thought her week of art-appreciation was going to be a lot less hands-on.

The evening was a fine one and a lot of people were talking out front of the theatre, seemingly in no hurry to go in; but as the place gradually filled up around her, Hester noted that this was a much larger and very different audience than the one at the dress-rehearsal.

These theatre-goers seemed determined to enjoy themselves, but in serious fashion. For the first time she worried how the show would be received. The couple behind her were discussing whether this would have more “psychological realism” than the last E.A.M.S. show they’d been to:

“That awful thing with the masks a couple of years ago, remember? I mean what was that all about?”

“Masks?”

“Oh you, know, the fellow who wears the mask and changes his whole personality to get the girl?”

“They never did Phantom of the Opera, did they?”

“No, er, The Happy Hypocrite, I think it was called.”

The one with the buns, Hester thought.

“And at the end someone pulls the mask off him but his face has changed to look like the mask? Pretentious nonsense.”

Oh dear, they’re not going to like this one very much then, are they?

She hoped that the rest of the audience hadn’t come to Façade expecting realism. She began to pin her hopes upon the people on either side of her who were studying the theatre programmes like vitally important documents. At least they’d know what genre they were in for.

“Well it says this one’s all poetry,” said one of the Realists behind her.

“Not again.”

“Too late to leave now. At least the mask fellow isn’t acting or directing this time. Looks like they’ve demoted him to stage manager.”

Hester froze in her seat.

Tom?

The orchestra struck up, the curtain rose, and there were some satisfying gasps and oohs at her backdrop — but one of the people behind her snickered:

“Oh my word, he’s insinuated himself into that tacky painting. What an ego.”

Someone shushed, and Hester struggled to quiet her thoughts as the show began, but the deprecation of Tom — and herself — ate at her, and she could not take the same pleasure in the performance as she had that afternoon. Gradually, however, she became aware that the show was at least working its magic on the rest of the audience.

The laughs and the silences came in all the right places; sometimes she thought she could feel the listeners’ breath synchronize with the words and the music. Even the couple behind her made no snide remarks when the lights came up for the interval. She fled to the lobby before they could do so, and hid in a stall in the Ladies’ until it occurred to her that there probably a line-up of people who genuinely needed to use it.

She washed up and splashed some cold water on her face before slinking back to her seat.

During the second half she was able to give herself over to watching and listening, and Dennis and Mike’s slyly flirtatious soft-shoe routine cheered her up; as did the vigorous applause when the last word and the last beat had fallen, that continued as the performers came out for their bows.

Then one of the people behind her began to hiss something about “dusting off former avant-garde works now that they’re safe enough for the middle class.”

The remark was drowned by the rest of the audience, but still poisoned her enjoyment, and she hardly heard what anyone said as she was pulled into group photographs, asked for the spelling of her name, thanked. She could see Tom with Sophie and other members of the company on the other side of the room, but couldn’t bring herself to join them, not with the face she currently wore.

At last someone took her arm and she turned to see Ornella smiling at her.
“There you are. We were wondering where you’d got to — especially Tom.”

Lowering her voice she added, “I think he’s taken a shine to you.”

“He has.”

“You don’t mind, I hope?”

“No, no — it’s mutual.”

Ornella gave a little squeak of delight, and Hester could not help but smile at this approval. “I heard someone saying he used to direct?”

She supposed the cellist might be termed a friendly witness, but at least hers was a perspective that was neither Tom’s nor that of the people who’d sat behind Hester.

“Oh yes, he’s quite good. He was Sophie’s mentor, you know. He retired from it and from acting a couple of years back.”

“He acted, too? He told me he gets stage fright.”

Ornella raised one of her perfect dark brows:

“He never used to. But I guess the last show did take a lot out of him.”

“Was that The Happy Hypocrite?

The younger woman nodded: “It was was adapted from a fairytale, a sort of Beauty and the Beast thing, and you really had to accept that logic for it to make sense. I wouldn’t say it was perfect, but it was interesting. He played the… anti-hero, I guess you’d call him: Lord George Hell, who goes through the transformation. He was terrific, actually, but we got lousy reviews, and he took it hard. The story was an old favourite of his, you see, but it was difficult material to adapt.”

“Thanks.”

“What for?”

“For coming to find me.”

Ornella laughed and put her arm about Hester:“You’re an odd one, darling. You didn’t think we’d leave you out, did you? Tom’s probably searching for you himself right now, if he’s been able to get away from the group hug — speak of the devil —”

Indeed the stage manager, have managed to cross the crowded room at last, was there, beaming at Hester, and she let herself be swept into his vast and enthusiastic embrace as the rest of the E.A.M.S. whistled and cheered. Even Dennis gave them a thumbs-up.

This time they made it to the pub with the others; but Tom, who must have noticed Hester was quieter than usual, found them a table set slightly back in a corner, and took advantage of this semi-privacy to ask her if everything was quite alright with her.

“You know how it is,” she replied, “when you hear a dozen compliments and one criticism?”

“The criticism’s the only one you believe?”

“Yes.”

Tom squeezed her hand and said nothing, to Hester’s relief. She been afraid for a moment that he would tell her to believe in herself, or try to get her to cheer up. Eventually she took heart enough to spill her experience of the terrible people in the row behind her, and their opinions on various matters of taste, as well as Ornella’s version of past events. When she had finished,

Tom lowered his eyes:

“That was what you might call a glaring omission on my part. S'pose I didn’t want you feeling sorry for me. Besides, stage-manager's an important job, if not a glamourous one, and I know I can do it well. I’m very proud,” he added, “and very stubborn. Those are what usually get me into trouble.”

“So I’d guessed. After all, when you eliminate the vices that call for greed or cruelty, those are pretty much the ones that are left. Well, except laziness. Which pretty obviously doesn’t apply in your case.”

Tom tilted his head and contemplated her:

“Something tells me you’re describing yourself as well.”

“Oh I’m lazy,” said Hester, “don’t be fooled. I can do the work, but I can’t do the work of finding an opportunity to do the work. Or of promoting the work. If any of that makes sense.”

Tom nodded and stroked her hand absently, oblivious to the quiet smiles of his colleagues at the next table.

“Sophie’s a better director than I ever was,” he said, as if to himself. “And Façade was written for the stage, in a format that’s obviously stylized, so people can accept the…”

“Weirdness?” His eyes met hers and he gave her a wry smile:

“The weirdness of it, yes.” They sat nursing their drinks as the chatter of the others floated around them.

“You said this afternoon you’d like to do a portrait of me,” Tom said with sudden conviction. “I think you ought to. No audience. Get the voices out of our heads.”

Hester nodded and immediately began looking him up and down. He smiled.

“You’re already thinking about it, aren’t you?”

“Trying to come up with a good pose,” she admitted. Tom leant back in his chair with his hands folded on his generous paunch.

“No.”

“Too obvious, I agree.” He leant forward and propped his heavy chin on his hand.

Hester laughed. “Not quite. Right now I’m overthinking it, and they all look silly. We’ll work on it together later on.”

Sophie and Ornella came over to their table. Already back to noting the details of Tom’s appearance, Hester watched him look up, and the way this caused his extra chin to vanish along a powerful-looking bull neck as Sophie set her hand on his shoulder.

“We’re for home,” she said, nodding to Ornella. “See you at the matinee tomorrow. Will you be about, Hester?”

“I think I’ll turn up.” She glanced at Tom: “Wouldn’t mind heading out soon myself, if that’s alright with you.”

“Yes, let’s. G’night, you two.” They held hands on the way back to Tom’s place and, secure in this contact, Hester looked about as they walked, at the trees like black lace, the little bright slabs of windows. The air was mild.

As before he unlocked the front door, switched on the light and they entered, a little more leisurely this time. The house smelled sweet and slightly dusty, a smell of books. Hester realized she remembered that, too, from the night before. This time, the two of them turned left into the living room where Tom gestured towards the sofa.

“Would you like me to make some tea or coffee, or is it a bit late?”

“Bit late, but I don’t mind chatting down here some more before bed.”

Hester took a seat and patted the spot beside her, which Tom lost no time in occupying. She touched his face and could feel, though not see, the stubble on his heavy cheek and chin; the hour was late. She snuggled into his side and looked about the room. Like the upstairs, it was mostly bookshelves.

“What shall we talk about? The Happy Hypocrite? Sorry, if you’d rather a different topic — all these books, perhaps?”

“No, it’s alright. And as to the books — it’s a story from one of them.” He pointed to a spine.

“I’ve always thought the chief advantage of being human is the ability to remember things that happened outside one’s own lifetime. Beerbohm — that’s the author of the story — he stretched his lifetime further than most.

"First became famous in the 1890s, when he was only about twenty. Coped by assuming the pose of an old man reminiscing; and he lived into his eighties, so he wrote as an old man for a very long time. Some of his stories are science fiction of a sort. One features time-travel to the year 1997. But The Happy Hypocrite takes place in the past, some time before 1820.”

He peered down at her and his mouth quirked. “So... naturally I could not resist the urge to revisit my youth.”

Hester giggled.

“Oh you might not think it now,” Tom carried on, warming to the game, “but time was I looked very fetching in pantaloons. Brummell was quite envious, though he’d never let on.”

Hester looked him in the eye and resolved to parry:

“So was the Regent, I recall. Of course he was envious of everyone, poor dear. But I still maintain dark blue wasn’t your best colour, even if it was the fashion.”

Tom’s eyes twinkled to see her playing along.

“Well,” he countered, “you’re one to talk about being a slave to fashion. ‘Pon my soul, I’m amazed you never caught your death of cold in those muslin frocks.”

“Why do you think I always had my fichu wrapped so tight? It wasn’t modesty, I can assure you.” She paused. “Do you still have the miniature of me?”

“It is always next to my heart.” Tom made as if to reach inside his rumpled cardigan, and Hester coquettishly patted his stomach:

“It lodges a bit more snugly than it used to. Sorry, that was mean.”

“Some of us show the passage of years more than others.”

“I rather think that inwardly you are less changed than most of us. Oh my dear,” she sighed, and didn’t know whether or not she was still playing.

“Everything has to have its contrast.”

Hester straightened up, and tapped Tom on his snub nose, to break the spell.

“Beep,” she said. “I’m a die-hard romantic. Given a choice between the beautiful and the picturesque, I’m for the picturesque, every time. Wait - is it the Beautiful and the Picturesque, or the Beautiful and the Sublime that are opposites?”

“Unfortunately most of my art-theory is of more recent vintage than the rest of my reading.”

“Mine’s stuck in the eighteenth century.” She considered. “I think my idea of Picturesque is probably closer to Grotesque. So basically I’m more of a Gothic-Romantic. But you probably knew that by now. So, loving the picturesque, the grotesque, the tragicomic and the paradoxical — it’s inescapable that I should be attracted to you.”

Tom laughed softly and put his arm about her.

“I can’t argue with such logic.”

“I’m being an awful bitch this evening, aren’t I?” Hester asked, with her head resting upon Tom’s shoulder.

“If this is your idea of being a bitch, then please, carry on.”

“I mean, I keep talking about your looks.”

“Well you are a painter, it’d be odd if you didn’t. But I think what you mean is that you’ve become less coy about mentioning my girth.”

He turned towards her and drew her to his midriff, pressing her gently into its soft, yielding rotundity.

“It’s alright,” he murmured, “I have noticed that I’m fat. And I’ve noticed that you don’t really seem to mind it on me. I suppose I’m a little curious as to why, exactly. Is it a comfort thing? Upholstery?”

“Partly. I mean, that’s certainly in play at the moment.” Hester squeezed Tom’s belly affectionately; then, folding her arms across his chest and resting her chin upon them, she gazed thoughtfully into his face. “But I think it’s visual, too. You... fill the eye, for a start; and then there’s really something rather masculine about such breadth and mass; only all the curves make you look sort of gentle — and it’s very hard to think clearly when I’m looking at you, especially with you stroking my hair like that. Don’t stop though. Um. So… lush. Sleek. Oh I could just sink into you—”

Hester woke during the night, at what Tom’s bedside alarm clock told her was 3:35 AM. They had eventually made it from the sofa up the stairs to his bedroom, where exhaustion had overtaken both of them (they’d been quite busy on the sofa.)

For a time she watched the glowing numbers float in the dark; upon realizing she was not going to be able to get back to sleep she sat up and gazed at Tom, mountainous beneath the light summer blanket. Moonlight — or perhaps it was a streetlamp outside — filtered through the windowshade, enough to delicately pick out his features, crumpled against the pillow.

Delicate — odd word for so large a man, but one, she thought, that caught the truth of things — outsized though he was, there was not a coarse fibre in him. Rather, there was a slightly unworldly quality to Tom when he was not playing a character. In sleep his face was marble, ageless; his lashes were pale in the strange light. His flank rose and fell in a slow, gentle rhythm. The impression was one of great power lying fallow.

I ought to be writing this down, she thought, while I’m less distracted. But if I turn on the light I’ll wake him. Observer paradox, I suppose.
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Old 07-03-2015, 08:31 AM   #4
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Saturday


Morning arrived in a heavy drizzle of rain. Hester’s head ached fuzzily and she wondered if the barometer had been the reason for her insomnia. Tom murmured soothing things and made tea when she told him she wasn’t in the mood for coffee. She wrapped herself in his cardigan, curled up on the end of the sofa furthest from the window, and watched his unhurried movements in the grey light.

Only a few more days, she thought wistfully, then back to reality.

Tom brought over two mugs of tea, offered her one, and settled himself beside her on the sofa; the springs creaked audibly but alarmed neither of them — they’d put the furniture through far worse the evening before.

Hester smiled at the memory, and Tom’s face brightened:

“Feeling better?” he asked.

“A little.”

Tom took a sip of his tea and contemplated her, one arm resting along the back of the sofa; it made Hester think of how he’d sat leafing through her sketchbook on that first day.

“Mind if I start your portrait?” she asked. Her lover waved his hand in a ‘go-right-ahead’ gesture, and she went and got her bag from where it hung by the front door.

“How do you want me?”

“Just relax, for now; don’t worry about keeping still. You know, I used to model for an artist — more than half my lifetime ago, now. I’d talk about my courses, and he’d tell me about his student days, which had been considerably less wild than he’d have liked — he used to describe himself wandering through Paris in the 1960s muttering ‘everybody’s getting laid but me,’ and he’d sketch very quickly,” Hester continued, “and very elegantly and accurately, in pen and ink. It made me green with envy, but then he’d had at least forty years more practice than me. That’s still the case, I suppose; he’s alive, and hasn’t retired, that I know of.”

“I wonder if he still has his record collection,” she added. “I’d pick out an LP to listen to, each drawing session. Usually I went for the comedy or novelty ones. Actually, do you have anything you’d like to listen to? I should have asked before.”

Grunting slightly, Tom leant across the table and flipped open an ancient laptop.

“I still have every piece of recording and playing technology I ever owned,” he said, “but it would take too long to set up my stereo — most of my current favourites are on this machine anyway. Let’s see, you probably don’t want all the Façade tracks, since you’ve already heard them performed live three times.” He glanced at Hester and unticked some boxes on the playlist. “As for the rest… folksy stuff all right?”

‘Folksy stuff’ turned out to be a mix of what Hester would have described as acoustic rock and classical vocal. It was all tuneful enough, and she hummed along as she drew; until a track came up that began with a tinkling piano introduction. A baritone began to sing a twentieth-century setting of “Waly Waly.” Hester’s heart sank as she recognized the tune, and remembered the lyrics that were coming. She focused upon her work and braced herself, but the singer’s voice came out very clear even over the laptop’s tinny speakers:

I leaned my back up against an oak,
Thinking it was a trusty tree;
But first it bent, and then it broke…


Hester’s throat closed up and her eyes stung. Oh no. She wasn’t going to be able to contain her emotions. She bent her head over her sketchbook and watched the drops hit the paper. One, two..

“Hester? Hester darling, what is it?”

“I don’t know. Sad song, I guess.” She couldn’t bear to look Tom in the eyes; but he turned off the music, edged over and put his arm about her. As in the pub the night before, he neither questioned her nor tried to jolly her out of her mood. For a while she was tempted to close her eyes and lose herself in his kindly substance, but, she told herself, he deserved an
explanation:

“The part about the tree seeming trusty and then breaking. It reminded me of someone… a while back. It wasn’t his fault that he broke, but it was still hard.” She wiped her eyes. “I wasn’t going to talk about it. I’d… I’d been happy to be on holiday, and to not have a past.”

“Well, you don’t have to have one right now, if you don’t want to. I won’t ask more,” Tom responded.

Hester smiled weakly as she considered this:

“You know when you meet someone and you feel as though you’ve known them forever?” She continued more cheerfully as the change of topic carried her away: “Except, of course, you haven’t — ‘forever,’ under the circumstances, is only a few hours or days. So you can’t imagine them other than how they are. Not older or younger. Whatever you see now — that’s them in full bloom. And it’s like you’re ascribing them a kind of retroactive immortality.”

“Well,” Tom said, stroking her hair, “I can see that working for you. The present looks good on you. For me, I think it’d mean a sort of eternal late-middle-age. Still, if you wish —”

“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to erase your past. I’m sure it had moments you wouldn’t want to give up.”

“Nothing worth remembering just now.”

“Not even the pantaloons?” Hester giggled in spite of herself.

Tom returned the light tap on the nose she’d given him the evening before:
“Not even the dark blue ones.”

Hester opened her sketchbook, which she’d been clutching to her chest, to the page upon which she’d been drawing, and showed him:

“I like your mind. And I like your body; and the way the two mix. The last part most of all, I think; but that’s what’s hard to depict.”

Tom closed his eyes, thinking:

“Actions are where they mix; but in a still image…”

“Clothing can show it too. Not always in a flattering way. Nudity has a certain dignity to it -- when I was doing life drawing, the models would shuffle around between poses in their dressing gowns; looking like they were waiting for the nurse to give them their pills-- Anyway, my point is: as soon as the models dropped their robes and took off their glasses, they became... Humanity, rather than humans. Beautiful -- but in a portrait, the individual is what you want to show.”

“Warts and all?”

“Uniform and all. Clothing tells a story -- it might not even be a true one, but the fact the person wants it told tells us something about them.”

The fat man nodded, considering her words. Then he reached over and adjusted her clothes -- his cardigan -- wrapping it more snugly around her. Hester wondered whether he was attempting to put a literal spin on her words.

“You ought to draw me in my suit, then,” he said. “It’s what I wear to work most days; I allow it’s how I show meself to the world.”

“Sunday, then. Right now we’d better be getting dressed for the matinee.”

“You can hear the show from backstage this time, if you’re tired of sitting in the audience,” Tom offered, “As long as you don’t distract me from my duties.”

Hester squeezed him playfully and whispered in his ear: “No promises.”

The rain had finally stopped, but at the theatre, everything and everyone seemed to be feeling the effects of the damp. As the musicians tuned up, Hester found herself collecting mugs for Tom to fill with hot tea and hand round to the cast. By the time of the five-minute call, with throats sufficiently soothed, the reciters and orchestra took their places; Tom filled the last two mugs and handed one to Hester. When she’d finished, she asked:

“Mind if I go listen from the wings for a bit? I actually would like to watch Dennis and Melissa’s tango again.”

She kissed the stray wisp that fell across Tom’s forehead and making her way from the dressing room, slipped unseen into one darkened wing of the stage. The Passodoble had not yet begun, and Dennis and Melissa (who’d evidently made up again) were whispering to each other:

“Tom’s really taken with her.”

“She’s taken with him, too.”

“Well, I’m dead chuffed for him, then. I was a bit worried that being American she might be shallow about looks and all.”

“I don’t think they all are. Anyway, she’s an artist. They see things differently.”

“I’m just saying it’s nice he’s found someone who can ignore his weight.”

How wrong they are, Hester thought, stifling a giggle.

“The only thing is, she’s just here for the week. Long-distance relationship are tough for older people.”

“Still, if she’s into him for his personality they might be able to make an e-mail relationship work.” In the darkened wing, Hester frowned and hugged herself, suddenly cold despite the hot tea. On the other side of the curtain the audience applauded and the orchestra struck up.

Tom looked up as she returned to the dressing room. He noticed her expression: “Can I get you another tea, love?”

She felt bad that he was having to learn to live with her moods. Why does he have to be so patient with me? The perfect man, except he lives on the other side of the world from my job.

She took up the mug of tea and snuggled in beside him. Tom’s thoughts however, must have been the mirror of her own, for after a while he murmured: “Why couldn’t we have met ten years ago?”

Without looking up Hester answered: “Ten years ago I was married to someone else. And before that, I’d have been too young for you. Not to mention the Atlantic Ocean getting in the way. Face it, this is the best we can hope for.”

“I don’t believe that.” Tom winced, and added: “I’m sorry, I know you didn’t want to talk about the past.”

“It’s all right. Keeps bleeding through anyways.” She hesitated. “It wasn’t a happy marriage. I don’t mean he mistreated me or anything, just – we were both ground down by all the little ways we kept failing each other.”

“Was he -- anything like me, then?”

"He’d your brains, but not your calm.”

“Big lad, too, I’d guess?”

“Sometimes. His weight went up and down. It wasn’t any more stable than the rest of him was.”

“I am,” Tom said, “in pretty much all respects, stable. Which is handy, if you need a base from which to launch flights of fancy.”

They heard the flourish that marked the end of the first half and the reciters and dancers began to filter back to the dressing room.
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Old 07-03-2015, 08:35 AM   #5
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Saturday Evening


After the matinee Hester went to do her usual twenty-four-hours’ check on the house, and invited Tom to come with her and let her cook him supper:

“It’s about time I played hostess for a change,” she said, “even if I can’t show you my own place.”

They stopped at a Sainsbury’s to pick up some lamb chops. “I’m American enough to be afraid to try mutton. Or at least afraid to try to cook it myself.”

“Fair enough. It usually requires currying to be any good.” They seemed, by an unspoken agreement, to have tabled their earlier discussion for the moment, and instead they chatted companionably, as they walked, about the differences in where American and UK supermarkets shelved the foods. Eggs, for instance, were kept unrefrigerated next to the baking supplies, to Hester’s great consternation.

“But wouldn't putting them next to the milk be awfully cold?” Tom asked, equally puzzled with the American philosophy of groceries.

“That’s the idea.”

Arriving at the house they carried the groceries into the kitchen and Hester began to heat a small amount of oil in a frying pan, adding the chops as the pan heated up. While Tom set the table (the small one in the kitchen, at her request), she mixed a cup of water with some lemon juice and salt. Once the chops were lightly browned on both sides, she poured the salty lemonade over them, dodging the hot hissing cloud of steam that instantly rose of the boiling water.

She found a package of mixed vegetables in the freezer and added three handfuls to the pan; turning them and the chops over from time to time with a spatula to make sure everything cooked evenly. Tom brought her a drink and leaned against the counter, watching her admiringly.

“Nice place, your friends’ place,” he said.

“Isn’t it? I’m used to an apartment, and mine’s nowhere near this tidy,” Hester admitted, thinking to herself I could get so used to this.

When the liquid in the pan was reduced to a thin sauce she turned the stove off, carried the pan to the table and transferred everything to their plates, giving him two chops and herself one, with the vegetables equally distributed.

“I’m afraid I forgot about salad, and there wasn’t time to do potatoes --” she began.

“But there’s already veg. It’s fine. Not much of a salad man, anyway,” Tom chuckled, “and I’m fat enough without potatoes, even if you might disagree.”

He patted his stomach with an impish smile that indicated he knew how much the gesture aroused her, even if he did not completely understand why. They sat down to eat.

“Not half bad,” Tom said after chewing and swallowing the first bite of his chop. Hester glanced up:

“Is that more of your understated praise?” she asked, smiling, but his mouth was already full again, and he could only nod vigorously as he chewed.

“Compliment accepted, then.” she remarked.

Afterwards they had ice cream, and Tom washed the dishes while she dried. Then they locked up and walked back to the theatre.

The evening performance was smooth and uneventful, and as on Friday night, they went with the cast and musicians for a drink afterwards, and then back to Tom’s place for the night. On Sunday there would be a matinee only, followed by the cast party at the home of Vanessa and her husband.

“Do you still want to get dressed up tomorrow morning, and I’ll sketch you properly?” Hester asked Tom that night as they lay curled up in his bed. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to pose for me to look at all the time.”

“I’m not tired of doing so, not just yet.” He gently ran a forefinger along her collarbone, following it with an experimental kiss on the same place before once more picking up the thread of the conversation. “It’s something of a novelty for me, to be considered an object of beauty. I’d like to make the most of it.”

He did not add while you’re still here, but the thought wrapped around them both, and they woke the following morning tangled in each other’s stiff-jointed limbs where they had clung fiercely to each other in their sleep.


Sunday Morning


Tom paused and glanced down his generous expanse of shirt-front to check that he’d correctly lined up all the buttons and buttonholes, while from behind him, Hester twined her arms around his portly midsection.

This is him in real life, she thought, and glancing around his big body she looked at the reflection in the mirror before them, trying to see him as though for the first time. A grave and reassuring professional he must look to his clients. Youthful, though not young -- no, that was her mind wandering again. People weren’t supposed to care that the distinguished, silver-haired man drawing up their documents had the face of a cherubic schoolboy.

“D’you mind if we sit in the back garden?” Tom asked suddenly. Hester glanced out the window at the little walled-in green space.

“Looks as though there’s enough light,” she said. “Sounds good.”

Outside was a sturdy wooden bench that took up most of a tiny brick patio; the rest of the garden being devoted to as many plants as would fit: flowers and tomato vines together in raised beds, hanging baskets on all sides. There were even a couple of fruit trees espaliered along the walls that separated Tom’s property from his neighbours’. The trees and vines that peeked over suggested that these next-door gardens were equally overstuffed with greenery.

“If this were a typical American suburb,” Hester commented, “this yard would be three times as large and have nothing in it but plain old grass.”

“I do my best,” Tom said modestly as he put down the chair he’d brought from the kitchen and settled himself on the broad bench.

“Tell me about it.” Hester took the chair and opened her sketchbook. “No, really, I’d like to hear about gardening. It’s not something I’ve ever been good at myself.”

So Tom obligingly talked to her about sowing, pruning and taking cuttings; about his enmity for weeds; about digging compost into the soil in spring, and covering plants for protection during the winter. As he warmed to his topic, his face glowed and his gray eyes alternately brightened and blinked in excitement. He turned and gestured towards a tomato plant with an arm thrown wide while Hester raced with her pencil to catch the enthusiasm, his open mouth and fleshy, sensuous profile.

At length he heaved himself off the bench and ambled over to handle the leaves of a vine-like plant; beckoning her over show her what she took to be some sort of squash. She added its swelling form and calligraphic tendrils to the pages of her book, thinking as she did so that her portrait of Tom had come full circle: Even with his office clothes on, this man of vines and fruitfulness was not so different from the Silenus she had painted a few days ago.
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Old 07-03-2015, 08:37 AM   #6
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“Oh, wait a minute.” Tom blinked his grey eyes abruptly. “I said I’d make a dessert for the cast party. Mind if we break this off for a bit while I throw something together?”

“No problem. Should I pick up some cake or something?”

“I was thinking something with meringue in it. Won’t melt at the theatre, but nice for summer. Would you say these strawberries are ripe?”

“I’d call that cadmium red. Not literally, of course.” Hester set down her sketchpad and picked one of the warm, glowing fruit.

“No, leave them for the moment; we want them as fresh as possible -- well, you can eat that one, since you’ve picked it.”

To himself he murmured, “Need to pick up some cream, too; can do that after the show and before the party. Still, best start the meringue. Ought to make us some lunch too, before we head out; terrible host I’m being.”

After lunch (ham salad), Tom put on his reading glasses before breaking an egg; caught the yolk in one half of the shell, and tossed it back and forth letting the white drain into the mixing bowl. When the yolk was entirely free of the white he dropped it into a smaller bowl to one side and jettisoned the shell in the kitchen catch-all.

“Your eyes are better than mine, no doubt,” he said to Hester. “Can you check for bits of shell?” He broke another egg and began the process again while Hester squinted at the yolks. When he’d separated the whites from six eggs and Hester was checking that these, too, were free of shell, Tom got out the sugar bowl and an electric beater.

“This is why it surprised me when you said they refrigerate the eggs in America,” he said, just before starting the beater. “They foam up better at room temperature.”

The kitchen gadget made an increasingly high-pitched buzzing wail as Tom increased the speed and the whites frothed like sea foam, then like shaving cream, then formed thick, glossy peaks. He stopped the beater and poured in most of the contents of the sugar bowl before whipping the meringue some more. “Can you turn on the oven, love? One-quarter, please.”

Hester was about to ask what “one-quarter” meant, but sure enough, a glance at the dial showed a mark that said 1⁄4; she turned it to that point and picked up the parchment-lined baking sheet Tom had left on the stove-top, guessing he’d need it for the next stage. He grinned and spooned the meringue onto it in dollops. “Not pretty, but I’m going to break it up afterwards anyhow.”

He stooped to place the sheet in the oven, then straightened his back and smiled down at her.

“Right,” he said. “Now we wait for an hour and a quarter.”
“Plenty of time to shower and get dressed, then. If we shower together. To save time.”

“Bit optimistic of you to think we can both fit at once, isn’t it?”
Hester wrapped her arms experimentally around her lover’s thick body. Her fingertips almost met.

“Let’s find out.”

They giggled all the way up the stairs, and left Tom’s bedroom strewn with clothing.

“Careful --” Tom cried as Hester yanked at his shirt. “Those buttons have a harsh enough life as it is.”

“There’s a sewing kit in my luggage. C’mon.” In truth Hester was feeling a little self-conscious herself; it was the first time she’d undressed before Tom in full daylight and at full length.

Don’t be absurd, she thought. You know he adores you.

Nevertheless, she kept her stomach sucked in, as she did even when alone, as she stepped into Tom’s shower and pulled him in after her. It was a tight squeeze, and his belly pressed her to the tiled wall. She shivered slightly at the touch of the cold ceramic on her bottom, spine and shoulder-blades, but she smiled as a blush spread across his face and down his neck to his chest.

“Just a moment,” he said, and twisting with some difficulty to the side, he pulled the shower door closed. “Can you reach the dial?”

Hester reached around his shoulder and twisted the knob that turned on the shower, hastily turning it up as they were hit with a burst of not-quite-hot-enough water.

“Ought to have warned you about that,” he chuckled as she squeaked.

“The plumbing’s -- well, it’s as odd as everything else in this house. There’s soap on that ledge beside you,” he added over the noise of the water.

Hester handed him the bar and he lathered it between his big hands.

“Allow me,” he said and began washing her shoulders and breasts as well as his own.

Hester took the soap; Tom's big belly was yielding enough for her hand to slide easily between the two of them, sending perceptible ripples through his flesh and rivulets of hot water cascading over the rolls along his sides; and as she turned her attention to massaging these, he cheerfully wrapped his arms around her to wash her back, engulfing her in his wet, steam-pink embrace. Playfully, she kissed his chest; then taking hold of his arms she gently steered him to face away from her -- by now they were both slippery enough to move easily around each other even in the confined space of the small shower -- and began soaping his broad back.

At last they could no longer find any excuse to keep washing, and Tom cupped his hands below the showerhead and began rinsing the soap suds off Hester, occasionally pausing to kiss her wet face. He twisted the dial and the water died with a groan.

They squeaked open the shower door, gripping it to keep from slipping on the tiles, and he handed her a large towel. He was in the act of roughly drying his hair with another when his eyes widened and he swore, startled; and wrapping the towel hastily about his waist he fled the bathroom and went thumping down the stairs. Hester listened but, hearing no shouts from the kitchen, wrapped the towel about her hair and then dressed. Presently, Tom came huffing up the stairs again, somewhat sheepishly.

"Was afraid I'd lost track of time," he explained, "but the meringue looks perfect. I've set it on the counter to cool."

They were both still a trifle damp, curls slicked against their heads, when they left for the theatre; but the afternoon sun and a light breeze had dried them by the time they slipped in through the stage door.
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Old 07-03-2015, 08:41 AM   #7
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Sunday Evening


For the last performance, Tom and Hester had decided to listen from the back row of the audience; but it was filled up. So, climbing the spiral stairs to the balcony, they sat together in the “gods.” As the orchestra began, they held hands in the darkened theatre and listened for the last time to the curious and richly-coloured words and music of some ninety years before. When it was over, the audience stood to applaud, and Sophie was called onstage to bow and be presented with a bouquet of mixed flowers.

Afterwards everybody hugged everybody else.

When the theatre was finally closed up, Wilf offered to drive them to Vanessa’s home for the cast-and-crew party. He was a tiny old man who, when not conducting the small orchestra, dressed in several indeterminate shades of mouse. Sophie, however, had given him a snippet of heliotrope from her bouquet, and he’d fastened it into a buttonhole of his worn cardigan, where it clashed cheerfully with the rest of his ensemble.

“Mind if we make a couple of stops along the way?” Tom asked him. “I’m bringing a dessert and need to pick up some cream.”

Back at Tom's house Wilf perched on one of the kitchen chairs with a mug of tea. The two of them seemed to be old friends, and the conductor regaled Hester, who sat across the table from him, with stories of past productions and comic mishaps while Tom whipped the cream. In truth it was hard to hear him over the sound of the beater, but Hester smiled and laughed frequently and hoped she was hitting the right cues.

“Hester --” Tom asked as the appliance suddenly fell silent in the middle of an anecdote that seemed to be about a flautist running late for a performance and a taxi that crashed through the front window of a chip shop. There may also have been a Pomeranian involved.

“The strawberries?” Hester guessed as she stood up. “Right off the runners.”

“You two are a well-oiled machine,” Wilf guffawed.

“I protest that remark -- we haven’t touched a drop,” Hester grinned, and picking up a bowl, headed out to the back garden.

One of life’s less well-known pleasures consists of accidentally overhearing other people say good things about you. Hester would have supposed that a conductor, by definition, could not be hard of hearing; but the fact remained that Wilf’s conversational tone was very loud:

“So,” came his voice through the open window: “You and the American lady, then?”

“Me and the American lady,” replied Tom’s voice, deeper but softer.

“Well good. How long’s she here for?”

“That’s the fly in the ointment, I’m afraid. She only came here on holiday, and she returns home soon. Amazing luck we met at all, really.” A heavy sigh. “I can see the end of it from here.”

“Can’t she come back to visit? Or you go across to see her? Fine woman like that doesn’t come along every day, Tom, or even every year.”

“I don’t know whether she’s seriously interested, though,” answered Tom, “or just having a fling. I don’t mind if that's all she wants, it's been good fun; I just don’t want to embarrass her by kicking up a fuss when she leaves.”

“Well ask her, man -- if there’s there’s one thing I’ve learned from a life in opera, it’s that a hell of a lot of tragedy could be saved if people only talked to each other.”

Hester was tempted to dawdle in the yard, to hear Tom’s reply, but she had filled the bowl with strawberries. Perhaps she was afraid of what he might say. She took care to rattle the door so they’d know she was coming back in.

“Ah, thank you, m’love.” Taking the bowl, the big man smiled down at her as though he hadn’t a care in the world, before he began slicing the tops off the strawberries and tossing them into the bowl with the cream. Then he carefully picked up the meringues, now cool and crisp, and began breaking off pieces and crumbling them into the bowl. “Unsightly, but delicious,” he commented as he gave the confection a brisk stir. “Right, then -- I think we can be on our way.”

They got back in Wilf’s small, box-shaped car (Tom had already moved the front passenger-side seat as far back as possible on the trip from the theatre to his house.) After driving through a series of neighbourhoods and narrow streets, they arrived at a vintage-modern villa where Vanessa greeted them in what, Hester recalled, had once been known as hostess pajamas.

“Welcome, darlings,” she waved. “Half the other guests are already here, and the rest are on their way, so stake your claim to garden chairs while you can. Oh Tom, that dessert looks amazing.” A lanky, grey-haired man -- at some point he was introduced as Vanessa’s husband Roy -- directed them to the back garden, which was at onced less cluttered and more whimsical than Tom’s; and, at present, full of party-guests. Ivy spilled from the broken hollow head of a portrait bust (squinting at the handsome, sensual features, Hester thought it might be Elvis Presley) that overlooked the space from a plinth swathed in yet more ivy. There was beer, and a lot of white wine, and something called Pim’s cup. For exactly half an hour, there was a beautiful, golden summer evening.

The sky, when it darkened, darkened abruptly; it took a thunderclap for her to realize it was rainclouds and not dusk. Everyone fled inside, but soon people were chatting and drinking with unblighted cheer in the living-room, the kitchen, on the stairs and around the dining table. I suppose they're all used to it, Hester thought, just as a sudden lull in the conversation permitted everyone to hear Vanessa arguing with Wilf:

“I don’t care if Kiri Te Kanawa let you smoke in her house -- this is mine, and you’ll have to go outside.” Laughter rolled round the place.

“Don’t worry, Wilf,” Dave called. “The rain’ll let up soon enough.”

“Be brave, old man,” someone added. The talk rose again, and Hester relaxed and let the conversations gather and break around her, catching odd snippets and phrases:

"...well, that was three hundred years back, I don't think he's likely to come round now --"

"...ask Pam, she knows all about lobsters and sea creatures...."

"...so it was you who ate all the sugar cubes at the funeral?"


Drifting into the tiny kitchen with several other people all holding bottles or glasses, Hester found herself squeezed between Tom, Sophie and the refrigerator, which was studded with magnets and festooned with drawings by Vanessa and Roy’s grandchildren.

“So tell me about your previous work in theatre,” Sophie asked. “Because I can’t believe this was your first time.”

“Just some stuff in college. Um, mostly The Clouds, and Chekhov’s The Bear. Clouds was more fun to do, as backdrops go -- I did a lot of Greek-pottery-inspired stuff -- but The Bear’s a Chekhov rom-com, and how often do you get to say those words together?”

“Is that the one where the widow refuses to pay off the fellow her husband owed money to, and they challenge each other to a duel, and then end up falling in love?” Tom asked, from the other side of her.

She pretended to pout: “Oh, now you’ve gone and spoiled the plot for Sophie.”

“No, I hadn’t heard of that one,” Sophie interjected. “Sounds adorable. I hope they don't die.”

"No, like I said -- rom-com."

The rain by now had stopped, and the French doors were reopened. A few smokers had stepped out into the wet, darkened garden, and Hester could see a constellation of glowing cigarette tips at the centre of a chatting group of musicians; hear the soft laughter filtering back into the house. Indoors, their hosts had not turned up the lights, and the crowded rooms were dim, but it was a festive kind of gloom, like being in a theatre or a teenager at a sleep-over party. Here and there, a button, a sparkly earring, a strand of someone’s hair gleamed in the feeble light from a table lamp.
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Old 07-03-2015, 08:43 AM   #8
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Without either of them having suggested it, Tom & Hester stepped outside and wandered past the smokers, to the corner where the ivy-draped bust, that might have been Elvis, cast a still-deeper shade over a garden bench. From here the group near the house appeared as silhouettes before the French doors. Someone must finally have turned on the lights inside. They sat side by side, holding each other and watching the square of warm light with its shadow-play as song came from the dining room:

A rovin’, a rovin’, since roving’s been my ru-i-in…


“Ah. The party has reached the nautical stage.”

“Just you wait till they start in on Gilbert and Sullivan.”

I’ll go no more a roving with you, fair maid….


The song, rollicking yet wistful, seized Hester with a sense of something-or-other. Immediacy. Imminence. It’s now-or-never time.

“When do you have to go --”

“I’ll have to go --”

The words had spilled out in tandem, and they laughed together, nervously.

After a pause, Hester began again: “My plane doesn’t leave till early Tuesday morning, but Susan and Darrow are coming home tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have to go back to the house tonight to make sure I can get it ready for them. Do you want to meet up with us for a drink tomorrow evening, if they’re not too tired from their trip?” She hoped Tom took her meaning -- she wanted to introduce him to her circle. Would he think she was ditching him on their last night together?

“I would be honoured. But if they are are tired, I wouldn’t want to impose--”

“I’ll check with them that it’s ok. Meanwhile, I’ll give you my email -- should have given it to you earlier.” She searched her purse for a scrap of paper. Tom took out his notebook and handed it to her; as she wrote her address carefully in the near-dark, he fumbled through his pockets and at last slipped a small card into her hand. Hester placed it in her purse. “I’m going to miss you,” she whispered. “Along with all this.” No! she chided herself in her head. Now you’ve just made him sound like he’s a local attraction, just an adventure you had on your holiday.

“It was a pleasure working with you,” Tom began. “I hope you’ll remember me and the EAMS...” He continued with the polite formalities that almost hid his disappointment.

Common sense told Hester it would be less painful for them both, in the long run, breaking things off like this in a manner courteous but firm. Would it be fair to ask him to engage in a long-distance relationship? Would they take turns visiting each other’s country, or would that be harder on him than on her? What, common sense added, if the airline made him buy two seats each time he flew?

But then Hester looked up into Tom’s face, almost lost in the shade of the ivy; and knew that a physical separation would be painful, yes; meeting and parting might wear out their two hearts; but having met him, she could never again do without this ongoing conversation between them.

“I -- I don’t want this to end.” As soon as the words slipped out she felt Tom hug her fiercely in the darkened garden. His vast body engulfed her, and she clutched his sides just as tightly, burying her face in his shirtfront.
“Oh my dear,” he kept saying, in a broken whisper, “My dear.”

---------------------------------------------

Wilf, when he headed home from the party a half-hour later, dropped Hester off at Susan and Darrow’s house, and did not comment when Tom got out as well. The two of them spent the night in the guest bed until the alarm woke them early. Tom gave her one last hug and left without breakfast.

“Have a good day at the office,” Hester told him. “I’ll email you.” In truth there wasn’t much cleaning to do -- she’d hardly been in the house all week except to do periodic checkups, and for Saturday night’s supper. She was just tidying the guest room when she heard the key turn in the door downstairs and Susan and Darrow bustled in.

“I’m upstairs!” she called, smoothing the coverlet into place. Her friends were at the bottom of the stairs with their suitcases, and embraced her as she came down, telling her about her trip and how everything had gone smoothly at the airport for once.

“House is still standing, I see,” said Darrow, and Susan shoved him playfully;
“Of course it is, Hester knows what she’s about. How was your week? Did you see a lot of gallery shows?”

“I saw one show, several times,” said Hester, “and I did the painting.” She briefly explained how she’d wandered into the EAMS’ rehearsal space and been recruited as their set painter. As casually as she could, she added, “I was going to meet their stage manager for a drink tonight, we - kind of hit it off. Would you like to come along, since the airport didn’t suck all your energy?”
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Old 07-03-2015, 08:49 AM   #9
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Early Tuesday Morning


At Gatwick, Hester passed through security and reached the fourth floor of the North Terminal with an hour and fifteen minutes to kill before her flight was due to leave -- not a bad wait time, all things considered. The common-sense advice to get to the airport with three hours to spare had always left Hester facing two hours of boredom in the departure lounge, until she’d realized that the advice-givers were assuming she had luggage to check, whereas she could happily spend most trips living out of a carry-on bag. Common sense, she thought, is starting to develop a bad track record. Perhaps it’s time to stop listening to it -- it always seems tailored to a different life than mine.

* * * * *

The introduction of Tom to her old friends had gone smoothly enough. They’d met in a quiet bar near Tom’s work; not the pub across from the rehearsal hall, or the Italian restaurant from their first night. Susan had quickly noticed the glances that passed between her friend and the stout man, and Hester had sensed additional motive in the questions she posed to him about his work and life. Tom must have guessed their drift too, for afterwards, as they’d stood waiting for Susan and Darrow to drive the car around from the other side of the block where they’d parked, he’d asked, with a touch of nervousness:“D’you think I passed muster?”

“Trust me, you aced the audition. And they’re more protective of me than you’d imagine.”

“The EAMS couldn’t say enough about you. You really put a bee in Sophie’s bonnet about The Bear. She’s looked into it and apparently there’s an opera version, by none other than our boy Walton. I think she can make it work – just needs to figure out what the other half of the bill will be.”

“Do you think you might direct the other half?”

“Well, I’ve some thoughts about getting back on the horse. But for now it’s time to get back to the office. Paperwork needs doing.”

“Wills need drawing up?”

“Always.”

“How’d work go today, anyhow?”

“Good, though I think your nude painting may have changed the way I’m perceived around the office.”

“Oh dear.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not in any trouble, and I rather enjoy watching the gears turn over in people’s heads. If I get tired of the winks, I may ask you to show them the one of me looking sober in a suit.” They had embraced and Hester’s sketchbook dug into her ribs.

“Let me give you one of your pictures now,” she’d said. “As a momento, till next time.”

Your picture, of me,” Tom had corrected. “Yes, thanks. So I can remember how I look to you.” Selecting a page, he’d given her a quick kiss, suddenly shy as Susan and Darrow had pulled up in the car.

* * * * *

At the top of the escalator a sign indicated washrooms to the left, and though Hester was in no immediate need, she decided it would be wise to make a stop before deciding which of the airport cafes would have the least-awful coffee. She’d left Susan and Darrow’s house at dawn, without caffeine or a last-minute makeup check in the mirror.Following the labyrinthine hallway that allowed the women’s washroom to eschew a door without giving up privacy, led her into a space lit by flourescent tubes. Mirrors extended the length of one wall, above a marble counter and sinks. Like everything else at the airport, it gleamed with a cold touch of futurism. Soon she would be getting into a metal capsule with a padded interior; a shell that would fly her away, thousands of miles from Tom. Yet how pleasant the same journey might be if the direction were reversed.Pushing her hair behind her ears, Hester looked at herself and contemplated the face that Tom had seen all week as she drew him, admired him, fell in love with him. He had been looking back at her, too, that whole time. Taking out the sketchpad, and in spite of the harsh light, she began a self-portrait.


The End

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