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Writ in Remembrance

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"Who was that?" asks Frank when I put the phone down.

"Anna. We're summoned to the headmaster's office tomorrow."

He raises his eyebrows in alarm. "Is it that last night in New York? I can't remember anything about it..."

"Don't worry, ducky, she didn't say anything about that. I think it's Lear."

"Oh, the casting, d'you mean? Who do you think we'll get?"

"Dunno." I fancy Oswald the steward, though they tend to cast him younger these days.

"Pity we have to go to Oliver's office," says Frank.

"Geoffrey's office, now," I remind him.

"Oliver's still there, though, isn't he? I mean, his skull's there on the desk, listening to everything you say. Creepy, I call it."

"You're not wrong. And all his pictures still on the walls."

He looks at me. "Was there something else?"

"Something else?"

"Something else Anna said. You suddenly dropped your voice, like you didn't want me to hear."

"Nothing important."

He's suspicious now. And he's bound to hear it from someone; probably better to come clean.

"She said Brian's funeral's on Friday."

"Oh." There's a pause. Very Pinter. "Are you going, then?"

 

"Gloucester!" I stare across the desk at Geoffrey Tennant.

"Yes! If you'd like it? I can rein them in on the eye-gouging if you're worried..."

"No, no, eye-gouging is fine." I quite enjoy a bit of stage gore as long as it's easy to wash off.

"So?"

"Well..." I find myself grinning. "He's got a lot to say, hasn't he?"

"He has!" Geoffrey looks relieved. Did he think I would turn Gloucester down?

"I just wasn't expecting it."

"You're a Broadway star these days."

"Oh, but Duncan..." I say. "He's a good part - it's fun being king - but he's only 70 lines."

"That's the trouble with being bumped off in Act One."

"Not complaining, it was nice putting my feet up. But Gloucester... he must be 300?"

"More."

"I'd better go and start learning them, then!" I still can't stop smiling.

"That's great! Can you ask Frank to come in?"

"Of course." I'd love to ask what Frank's up for, but he ought to hear first. And then another thought hits me. "Geoffrey - if Brian was still here..."

"Um?"

"He'd have been perfect for Gloucester."

Geoffrey looks thoughtful. "He could have been."

"And you owed him, after Henry Breedlove."

"Maybe I did. But Cyril - in no way are you second-best. I don't know which of you I'd've cast, given a choice. Brian had his stroke before I thought about it."

I'm not sure I believe him, but I nod. "I'll go and get Frank."

 

"The headmaster will see you now!"

Frank looks up. "What did you get?"

"Tell you later. Mustn't keep him waiting - I'll mind your pint."

Oh, please let Frank get a decent part. He'll be pleased for me, but it won't be fair if he's just Old Man. One good thing about Macbeth: Lennox may be a minor character, but he's 70 lines, just the same as Duncan, only spread across the play. I really don't want Frank feeling he's out in the cold now, when he's upset about Brian. Or rather, he's upset by the idea that I might be upset.

All very silly, it was years ago, and I still think he over-reacted. Storming off to Vancouver before Hamlet opened, just because he caught us with our trousers down in the Gents... It was a couple of years before he came back to New Burbage, and a few more before we got together again, and even then he wouldn't talk about it - we tiptoe round it, with phrases like "when you were in Vancouver". And we didn't mention Hamlet until the new production, the season before last. Still, all that fuss told me he was serious about us. Now I'm more careful not to let my eye wander - or if it does, nothing else follows.

I can't say it was the only time I wandered with Brian. In fact, it went on longer than it might have done; once Frank walked out there wasn't much reason to stop. Brian was very good-looking then - he could still get away with playing Laertes, though he was well past the right age. So when everything blew up, it was me pouring out the whiskey while Brian poured out his feelings.

For Osric - ie me - the big story of that Hamlet was the sudden departure of the Second Gravedigger. But nobody else remembered him, once Geoffrey Tennant staged his very own mad scene in the grave Frank was supposed to have dug. Particularly not Brian, left stranded halfway through a shouting match over Ophelia's body.

Funny, isn't it - him and Ellen going from Laertes and Ophelia to Claudius and Gertrude. Of course, he wasn't Claudius when we opened. But Alan got laryngitis, and Brian had just come home to New Burbage after a TV show, so he was the obvious back-up. He missed the shenanigans with Darren Bloody Nicholls - oh, just imagine him and Darren - and the disappearing movie star. By the time he arrived, Hamlet was a palpable hit, and running... as smoothly as anything does round here.

Not like last time. "It's so selfish of Geoffrey," he kept saying. "You should see the state Ellen's in. I don't know how she can keep going." Playing her brother, he seemed to feel protective.

"I don't suppose he went mad on purpose," I said. "Or d'you think he's faking it? 'But mad in craft'?"

"Don't know, don't care. He waltzed in here, let Oliver make him a star, and now he's run away."

"Into a hospital. If it's any consolation, I doubt he's having fun."

"Oh, poor Geoffrey. I'm sorry, Cyril, but life is tough: you've got to stand up and take it. I don't know what set him off, but he's let us all down. Oliver's being brave, but I know him, he's devastated."

This was at the heart of Brian's rage, of course. Whatever he had with Oliver was a long way back, but they stayed close, and Brian would never hear a word against him. Then Geoffrey Tennant arrived, and he was Oliver's blue-eyed boy, the star of every show. I think that was why Brian started doing more television; he felt squeezed out. But somehow Oliver sweet-talked him into Laertes, even though it was opposite Geoffrey.

The day after the disaster, he had his nose stuck in the text of Hamlet. Obviously, the understudy (Alex? - he was either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern) wouldn't do it for more than a few days. So who would Oliver call on? Someone he could trust, who would never let him down, and had Hamlet's 1500 lines by heart.

It was over within hours: Oliver called us all in to say he was very happy to announce Colm Feore would be taking over as Hamlet. Colm had played it recently, and we'd have a few days of intense rehearsal to absorb him into our production.

In the bar, Brian silently knocked back one drink after another. I was getting worried, so I insisted on walking him home, and stayed overnight. In the morning, he opened his eyes and said "I will never play the Dane."

"So? Neither will I," I said, suddenly irritated by this melodrama.

"Oh yes, but you're..." He stopped. There wasn't a kind way to end that sentence.

"Not in that class? No. Welcome to my world."

He burst into tears, and I went into the kitchen to make him some coffee.

That was pretty much the end of things between us. I kept an eye on him, but he wasn't the type to do anything silly, and he wouldn't let Oliver down, even after the man had dealt him the fatal blow of not thinking he was up to playing Hamlet. He stuck it out for the rest of the run, just as Ellen did, and brought real venom to the duel. As Osric, I had a close-up view; I was never sure whether it was Colm or Geoffrey he was attacking.

Afterwards, he concentrated on character parts, and did them well. He put on weight to play Falstaff, and never lost it. His hair turned, and he didn't dye it. We shared a stage from time to time, and were polite to one another.

When he took over Claudius, he seemed shocked that I was playing one of the guards: "This is too much from Geoffrey - you should be Polonius by now!"

"Nothing to do with him," I said stiffly. "Oliver cast it, and gave me a small role because I was playing Quince in the Dream and Semyonov in the Orchard."

"Oh, I see," he said. "Well, better luck next time, eh?" Frank was scowling at him, so he hurried away.

But I have had better luck, haven't I, and it's probably down to him. If he hadn't burned his boats with Geoffrey, would I have played Duncan on Broadway? Would I be looking at Gloucester now?

Frank walks back in with a huge grin on his face.

"The Fool!" he exclaims.

"Natural casting, ducky," I say, hugging him in relief. "I'm Gloucester."

"You old libertine!"

We buy another round to celebrate. Then Jerry comes in - he's got Kent - so we have another.

"Have you heard Brian's funeral's on Friday?" he asks. I wince, but he wasn't to know.

"Yes."

"Are you going?"

I hesitate, but it's Frank who answers. "Course we are. We've known him for years."

O, let me kiss that hand! But he won't want anyone asking why, so I just take Frank's hand and squeeze it under the table.