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Lonely Hearts

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Montreal: I work in the theatre, and I love my life.

Early on in his career as a professional stage actor, Geoffrey had resolved to take proper advantage of the amenities. Spending so much time with the great shape and space of the theatre right there, it seemed a shame not to make use of it.

"What!" he yelled, filling the place up to the rafters with sound. "The fuck! Is going on!"

It came in useful as a professional director, too. Anna was scurrying down the side of the makeshift seating, glaring daggers at him. "Anna! Where are my actors?"

"Geoffrey," she hissed, coming up to stand on the stage next to him, "I am the administrative director of this theatre, and you will not shout at me. You will sit down and you will shut up."

Surprised, Geoffrey sat down and shut up. Anna glared at him a little more for good measure and said, "I'm going to give you a practical demonstration."

He nodded quickly and didn't talk.

"This" -- she pulled out an empty pasta jar from behind her back -- "is the demonstration." She shook it, and it rattled; a single penny was rolling around the sides of the glass. "This" -- more glaring -- "represents how much money is currently in the possession of Theatre Sans Argent. It is not a misnomer, Geoffrey. In fact, the theatre has slightly less money than is represented by this jar. I put the penny in at my own expense."

Geoffrey's mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.

"So we have no actors, because we cannot pay our actors."

Geoffrey sighed, deeply, and lay back on the stage. "When I was in the young company," he said carefully, "I jumped at the chance to act on the stage, whatever the cost."

"A lot of them felt like that," Anna said, still through marginally gritted teeth. "A lot of them seem to take cues from their" -- pause, while she did not say mad, crazy, certifiably insane -- "director and want to come and act for us regardless."

He sat up again. "But that's fine!"

"But I wouldn't let them come in today, Geoffrey. Today I told them to go home and call their parents and guardians and aged grandmothers or whatever they have to do now they can't pay their rent."

He flumped back down. "Ah. Rent."

"Richard wants to put it on at New Burbage, did you hear?"

Geoffrey shuddered. "No, and now I shall never unhear it."

"Speaking of which, Geoffrey," she added thoughtfully, "how do you get by for your rent?"

Geoffrey sighed again, and thought that he could at least muster the grace to be sheepish. "The lease on Ellen's house in New Burbage, actually. It's next to nothing, but we can just about eat."

"Wasn't that house seized by that Hollywood outfit, or by the IRS, or something?"

"Long story." Geoffrey shrugged. "Get Ellen to tell it to you when she's in her cups. What about you, Anna?"

"Me?" She looked surprised to be asked. "Uh, I have a retainer from the Bolivian government."

"What?"

She grinned. "Again, a long story. It's not much when it's converted into Canadian currency, but I get by."

"So," Geoffrey said, getting to his feet with less of his previous bounce. "We have no money. We only tentatively have actors."

"And we don't have custodial staff either," she reminded him. "I wish Nahum could be persuaded to come up here, I really do. That is, if we could pay him."

"Right," Geoffrey said. "What do we do?"

"That" -- Anna looked pleased with herself -- "is what I was coming to tell you about."

*

But my friends and colleagues are happy and settled down...

Ellen thought it was a wonderful idea, but then Ellen would. "Geoffrey, it's beautiful! Anna's perfectly right. It will make us some money to get through the next show, at least, and then we'll have the ticket sales to fund us for the next one after that. And maybe" -- she paused, looked straight into his eyes -- "some rich benefactor will come and be so impressed that they decide they absolutely must sponsor us."

"It's artistically fraudulent," Geoffrey insisted, swinging his legs from his perch on the windowsill. "It's, it's gimmicky, is what it is."

"That's nonsense and you know it, Geoffrey," she said truculently. "You of all people, saying that? And get down from there."

Geoffrey swung his feet one last time and landed lightly. "'Selections From Shakespeare'? I have no intention of becoming a latter-day Charles Lamb, I warn you of that."

"Charles Lamb was a sexist old pig. And I admit the title leaves something to be desired, but that's why you're writing it, you can change that."

"Wait." Geoffrey paused dramatically and sat very deliberately back on the windowsill. "I'm writing it?"

"Well, of course you're writing it." Ellen looked surprised. "If you don't write it, Geoffrey, then..."

"Then what?" he asked, belligerent.

"Then someone else will, and they'll get it wrong, and you'll get upset, like you do," she said, satisfied, and he groaned.

"I don't get upset!" he said, petulantly. "When do I ever get upset?

"Geoffrey, you get upset about Shakespeare, you know you do. You recited The Tempest for three whole days when you were in the asylum. I heard you. The staff were delaying their shift changes so they could hear you do the end."

"That was a different type of getting upset!"

"Geoffrey, do shut up. You know you're going to write it. Who else even can? And who else even wants to save this theatre as much as you do?"

And because he didn't have any work to go to, he sat down at the rickety kitchen table that was the closest thing they had to a desk in their threadbare little apartment while she glared at him. And ruffled his hair lightly before she went out.

*

...and I'm getting lonely. I enjoy poetry, and candlelight dinners...

"Anna," said Geoffrey slowly, wonderingly, "where did we get all these candles from?"

"I called the Associated Hindu Temples of Montreal," she said, calmly. "After I'd explained it, they were very happy to donate their spares."

"Right. And, er, the actors? Are they...?"

"They're not being paid, no. Some of them wanted extra credit, though, so I'm writing to their educational institutions in the morning."

"Right. And front of house..."

"Volunteers. They volunteered to walk round all the neighbourhoods in the city with sandwich boards, too."

"And we're not paying for electricity, obviously..."

"No, and our rent was paid up at the beginning of the month with the last of our funds, and I think they forgot to cut off our phone line."

"So our overheads for this production are..."

"Nearly nil. Er, I might have taken a couple of ads out in the newspapers -- that was all right, wasn't it?"

Geoffrey nodded, and was about to leave her in her seat when he changed his mind, walked back, kissed her very deeply on the lips and then went to take his place in the wings.

"Selections From Shakespeare: or, What You Will" was performed to a packed audience of everyone who would fit into the theatre, which was not very many, but at ten dollars for adults and seven dollars concessions, enough. It began with a short scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream, with each fairy carrying a candle lantern in each hand, and then it moved to The Tempest, with lights guiding the ship in the storm. There was an interlude of Pyramus, Thisbe and candle-lit Moon, and Viola venturing along the unknown shore trailing chiffon and a trail of tiny night lights.

"I thought you said it was gimmickry," Ellen whispered backstage. "You said it was ludicrous, doing the greatest hits of Shakespeare as though the bits in the middle didn't matter."

Geoffrey shrugged. "Sometimes you just need to make people cry and laugh. And give you money."

"I think you've grown as a person."

"Nothing from Hamlet, though," Geoffrey said, and she laughed.

Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane, and the soldiers to the Forest of Arden. And then the audience were growing bright and restive, and the great church candles lining the space were burning down, inch by inevitable inch, and Ellen came onto the stage and gave them a sonnet, carrying her star to every wandering bark -- and then it was over.

Anna said goodbye to nearly every patron personally. She insisted Geoffrey do the same. One gentleman in particular asked them both to dinner.

*

..and Shakesperean tragedy.

"Anna Conroy and Geoffrey Tennant, formerly of the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, isn't that right?"

"Formerly," said Geoffrey, with a tight smile that Anna recognised as a warning sign.

"You left under something of a cloud, I believe," said the pipe-smoking patron, thoughtful, and Geoffrey nodded very deliberately and looked manic.

"We left because of artistic disagreements," said Anna, firmly. "I returned to Canada earlier this year and have been the administrative director of the new theatre ever since."

"I see. Well, Mr. Tennant and Ms. Conroy, let us see what we can do for you, under one condition."

"No, we will not advertise your brand of mineral water on the back of our seats!" said Geoffrey, and Anna kicked him under the table, but it was too late. "We will not, on any occasion, rent out our main stage to itinerant bands of glam rock minstrels! We will not, in any circumstances whatever, be accessible!"

"Except to wheelchairs," said Anna, automatically.

"Tell me, Mr. Tennant," said the pipe smoker as though no one had ever spoken. "How do you feel about Twelfth Night? I should like to see it done again before I die."

"Oh," said Geoffrey, and Anna went to get him a glass of water.

*

If you're reading this, are you lonely too?

"It's a play about people pretending to be what they're not," said Ellen sagely, afterwards.

"He isn't pretending not to be a person who wants to give us a lot of money," Geoffrey said incoherently and somewhat miserably. They were sitting on the edge of the stage, all three of them, burning one electric bulb.

"Cheer up, Geoff," she said. "Maybe one day we'll be able to retire."

Geoffrey looked so horrified that Anna almost patted him on the head before she thought better of it. "Maybe by then I'll be able to afford the really good medication."

"Oh, you're not crazy any more," she said, easily. "Not more than the rest of us."

"Is that saying very much?"

"No," she said, surprised. "Should it?"

"No," he decided.

Anna said, "We should go home and get some sleep, we've got work tomorrow."

Ellen seemed put out. "The night's young! How have you come so early by this lethargy?"

Geoffrey stood up and laughed, very softly, but his voice carried across the theatre. "Lechery, lechery, I defy lechery. Bid us good morrow, sweeting."

Anna remembered, suddenly, what it had been like to be a student, watching Geoffrey as Puck and as Oliver's starlet Romeo, and sighed deeply to herself. "Sleep well," she said, getting to heavy painful feet and taking heavy painful steps in the direction of home. "I'll see you in the morning."

*

If you are, you could call me. It might be a beginning.

...and then her address and phone number, and there was the envelope to send it to the newspaper, but she hadn't folded it up and sent it yet. It was too long, she'd told herself. Too prosaic, too ordinary. Maybe she should try internet dating instead, not many people read newspaper lonely hearts any more. She wasn't sure. She read it again, and still wasn't.

It was sitting on her desk most of the morning, even when she'd proof-read it a second time and stamped the envelope, and she kept trying not to look at it. Geoffrey had come in bright and early and cheerful, and Ellen had beem late (and how that was possible with them living together, she wasn't sure), and someone had figured out the exact place on the cistern you had to hit to make the toilet flush. She had even found, amidst the day's a paperwork, an IOU in Geoffrey's beautiful handwriting promising a paycheque, some day.

She ought to get down to work, she thought, tiredly. She ought to send it, or throw it away, or something, and get going with the extra-credit letters. And then she picked up her phone and listened to the dial tone for a moment, and then she dialled Nahum's number in New Burbage and waited, nervously, pencil tapping, for him to pick up.