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Listening Their Fear

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"Geoff! Did you take an umbrella?" Ellen calls through the open door, but Geoffrey's gone already, bounding across the grass through the falling snow. His boots leave imprints half an inch deep, and he's surprised to see them, concrete evidence of himself as solid, rather than just a focus for nervous energy, insubstantial. Cold snap, says the weather forecast, and Geoffrey snaps with it, twanging and ricocheting all the way to the theatre.

There are stacks of paper on his desk, but he can't sit still to read them, not this morning when the wind is blowing from the north, so he bounces out into the corridor and towards the front desk, breathless and demented, to ask Anna for coffee.

She says, "Cream and sugar?"

She says: he has snow in his hair, and that look in his eyes.

"Who, me?" he asks, stupidly.

She says: "Of course, Geoffrey. It was you who wanted the coffee, right?"

She says: it's going to be a long day.

"Anna?" he says, trying for vocalisation over the noise – and there is noise, he realises; all around him, there are whispers and shouts and caresses, murmurs and wails, poetry read into the theatre, and rich, low laughter.

She pats him on the shoulder, you'll be all right after some caffeine, and leaves him be.

"Oh, God," he mutters, and rests his head against the wall.

*

Once he's let it in, it's a quiet, cacophonous din. Geoffrey stands up and walks down the corridor, through into his office, back to Anna's desk, through into the theatre, back out into the foyer and onto the street and in and out again. He holds the coffee mug from the base, scalds his hands, knocks it back and scalds his tongue.

Anna looks at him, concerned; she's thinking about paperwork and if Richard isn't careful he'll have a heart attack, and isn't the town pretty in the snow.

From her table, Maria thinks like a tiny firecracker with added sulphur and spit, fucking actors and fucking directors and look at the way the light falls through the dust, sharp-edged, lovely.

Audible even from his office, Richard is thinking about corporate sponsorship and money and single malt, but he's got a song from A Chorus Line stuck in his head.

One of the apprentices brushes past, looking at the ground, looking at her hands, looking at a boy vanishing out of sight. I'll do anything to make him love me.

"Are you all right, duck?" Frank asks Geoffrey, who's walking, fists clenched, in the direction of the "Rehearsal In Progress" sign. "You've gone pale."

"Fine," Geoffrey says wildly, "I'm fine." Frank is thinking about Cyril, and Geoffrey can feel the mirror image on the other side, Cyril watching Frank walk along the lines of seats.

Geoffrey sits down, drapes his feet across the seat in front of him, breathes in, and he's calm, he's calm, he's the suspended silence between two repelling poles, and he says: "Let's take it from where we left off."

"The raven himself is hoarse," calls Ellen from the stage, looks straight at him, and Geoffrey is wholly, entirely undone.

*

It's a half-hour break for lunch and they collide, breathless and shivering, in her dressing room. "The door," she says quickly, "the door, the door!" – and Geoffrey kicks it shut with one madly flailing foot. His hands go for buttons and hooks and half-mangled costume zippers, a frenzy of new undoing, but she's different: careful, soothing, stripping him methodically of his layers so his coat flies neatly off his shoulders, becomes a puddle of cloth on the dressing-room floor with a certain artistic inevitability. She holds him down with her, matching him to her rhythm so he's tasting her lips rather than kissing her, languorous and slow.

He closes his eyes. Scraps of her come to him unbidden, yes and love and Geoffrey, and he's becoming substantial again, more than just a loose focus of stimulus but a mind in a body, when her hands slice between sweat-slicked cotton and skin, describing the curve of his hips with each sharpened nail. It hurts – she knows it hurts him, she knows, she's always known, this is how he wants it to be – but beneath it he feels the rush of red fire, the burn of possession – mine, she thinks, mine, and the shiver that runs through his body is fraught and anticipatory and ultimately, a harbinger of things to come.

And of course it's good, because he can read her mind, for fuck's sake, and because it's Ellen, because they have had years to explore each other in all the ways madness lies. It's good, and not sweet, and the last of the snow is melting out of the roots of his hair as she holds him close to her – oh, oh, he hadn't thought of this – and arches back with lips parted in a small perfect O.

Ah, he thinks, dazedly, la petite morte, right before his head explodes.

Later, when she is Lady Macbeth and he is the artistic director of the festival and they are both late for rehearsal, she looks at him blindly rooting for his clothes and his papers and asks, "Geoffrey, are you all right?"

It's like a musical canon; she thinks it and says it, but not at the same time, and there are other melodies lurking beneath, vivid percussive notes of love and fear and exasperation.

He doesn't answer, because he can't feel his own mind.

*

The birds sing. Electricity hums in its wires, busy busy positive negative. Trees think as they grow, solemn as preachers in their steady advance towards the sky. Geoffrey Tennant goes mad.

He stalks down the centre aisle of the theatre, past all of them and their interminable monologues – she's off on one again, ducky / oh, for God's sake Geoffrey / fucking artists / someone ought to fix his collar / so foul and fair a day I have not seen – and stands on the stage, thinking about theatre, space and distance, raising himself out of the bedlam.

For a moment he teeters, reeling from unexpected silence. And then someone in his head says, not so hard, yes, right there, yes! and he freezes. It's a girl's voice, it echoes in a particular way off rafters and wood, and he knows exactly where the bolthole is, the sacred space beneath this and every stage where young maids and fairies go when they don't have dressing rooms and do have sex.

Taking a long deep breath, he looks at the actors and says, as neutrally as possible, "I think we'll go back to the beginning for this afternoon. Witches?"

The witches make their way to the stage, and that's his cue to get out of the way, but all at once there's a sourness in the air, something twisted and sick-making and he can't move. I think I changed my mind, she's thinking, with underscoring notes of fear and revulsion. I won't do anything, I don't want to do this.

"When shall we three meet again?" – and the witch is thinking some very witchy thoughts in Geoffrey's direction, because he's right there in the middle of her blocking and he can't seem to get his feet to come unstuck from the floor.

I wish you wouldn't, it hurts, and the echoes are still hitting the boards and Geoffrey's whole body is shaking. The witch looks at him and rolls her eyes, in-character. There's a mundanity in everyday tragedy, Geoffrey thinks wildly, not everyone's lucky enough to have harbinger hags. She's staring and Geoffrey's trembling and the fairy-girl thinks: please, no.

Jumping off the stage, he shouts, "Enough! I changed my mind! Rehearsals are cancelled indefinitely! Nahum, take this opportunity to sweep underneath the stage!"

He's gone mad, they chorus. "Yes!" he yells. "Yes, I finally, irredeemably have! You're free to go! Go!"

He hits the ground running and doesn't stop. Behind him, Maria shouts, "Geoffrey, rehearsals! When should..."

"When the rest is silence!" he calls over his shoulder, and he's gone.

*

He leaves silence in his wake. Ellen can't find him in the bar or by the river, the warmth of body heat has evaporated from her dressing room, and after a few hours she starts to panic. There is no record of a man with dark curls and a psychotic disposition in any of the local hospitals, and the RCMP seem to think he's not their responsibility. Unless he's throttling wildlife again, someone says, and she gives him a slap.

She comes home late in the afternoon to find the radio on in the kitchen and the windows open, but no sign of Geoffrey.

"And the strange unseasonable weather in southern Ontario has disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as it came. Temperatures are rising again, and should be at least five degrees above by Monday..."

She snaps off the weather forecast and takes a moment to breathe in the fresh, balmy air. There's a scent on the breeze, flowers and spices like the last breath of an Indian summer. Stepping across to the window, she finds him at last. Geoffrey is lying flat on his back on the lawn, the sprawl of his limbs marked by a certain peace.

Even with his eyes closed, he seems to know she's watching, and he smiles. She fights the urge to kill him and yells, "Geoffrey! Where the hell have you been?"

"Listening to the silence," he says, still with the smile. He's very pale, she notices, and his hands and feet are bare and must be half-frozen with cold. Patches of white still cling to the garden, blades of grass poking sharply through the last of the blanket, but every leaf is dripping and the world is alive with the sound of running water. "Listening," he says, more quietly, "to the snow melt."

I love you, she thinks. "You worried me half to death, Geoffrey, you fucking idiot."

"Yeah," he says, rueful, "I know."

Without thinking she's gone through the window and out into the garden, sitting with him in the coming warmth of the wind. "God, you're crazy," she says after a while.

He nods, and sitting up, he kisses her. Even his mouth tastes of rainwater, harsh and cold, and she reaches for his hands. "You're freezing, Geoffrey. Come inside."

"The wind's changed," he says, wonderingly, and leans on her as she leads him home.

*

The day ends with an early sunset, the air rich with the promise of warmth, and Geoffrey falls asleep to the sound of silence. Ellen walks around the flower-scented house, quiet and still, and listens to him breathe.