“In a few hours you’ll be in London, with your family, back to your schedule and all of those questions will disappear.” James could still hear Michael’s voice saying those words gently. He remembered that when they were spoken, they had brought him a momentary peace, a certain security, a feeling that the universe was still spinning on its axis, especially because he completely trusted who had said them. But now, miles away, in the middle of an interview about Victor Frankenstein, he resented Michael’s absence, instead having by his side his movie colleague, Daniel Radcliffe. It wasn’t like the interviews with Michael by his side, when they could practically read each other’s thoughts, and exchange mischievous looks. Daniel was an amazing scene partner: competent, funny, witty…but he wasn’t Michael.
After the interview, James and Daniel went to a photoshoot. Usually, James had a lot of patience with this task, trusting that he was photogenic. Today, though, his mind was scattered, and several of the photos had to be taken multiple times. Luckily, the hectic Daniel Radcliffe didn’t let James fall completely into dismay. The young man seemed to be more electric than James was! He grasped instructions quickly and easily. It made James think that Hogwarts had contributed some kind of magic, after all.
It was a long day, followed by similar others, interspersed with moments of extreme happiness spent at home with Anne-Marie and Brendan. James held on those moments like an anchor. He was more lively than was typical for him, and more available than not, a fact that didn’t escape Anne-Marie’s attention, as she had been observing the changes in James’ moods for a while. One moment he was incredibly zippy and willing to do anything she came up with, especially if it included Brendan; but in other moments, she saw him staring at nothing, too deep in thought, oblivious to her presence on the room. She preferred to wait for him to come talk to her, so she gave him all space and time in the world. She loved him so deeply, so entirely, that she could realize something was off, that something was bothering him, even when he didn’t say a word about it.
With the Celtic Football Club benefit match coming closer, James got even busier trying to fit (into his already hectic agenda) some practices with friends who would attend the match as well. Ultimately James was able to attend only one of the invitations before the match happened. Anne-Marie was happy to see him leave happy and come back home like a boy who was out until late playing with friends. “Sometimes I think I have two little boys, instead of only one”, she said, getting her husband’s uniform from the ground, left there before he rushed to take a shower.
“Sorry love! I was going to get it…”
“Ok, ok…” She was leaving the room when James’ phone rang, in a low tone. The screen lit up with the picture of a familiar face. Anne was going to tell her husband, when she noticed it was the sixth lost call from that number. The sixth lost call from Michael Fassbender. That detail could mean nothing; the cellphone could have ringed several times during the practice, without James noticing it. Why did she feel like it wasn’t the case? She decided to observe and wait. Someone who calls six times without being answered will probably call a seventh time.
It was past dinner time and Brendan was already in bed. Anne-Marie was studying the script of the play “Husbands and Sons” that would debut in October and writing some notes, while James checked his email on his laptop. His cellphone rang and he reached get it. He looked at the screen for a moment without answering it. Anne-Marie kept writing, seemingly very focused. James got up and went to the front porch with his phone. “Hello?”
“Hi! Are you busy?”
“Just answering some emails. Where are you?”
“Nice! So filming for ‘Assassin’s Creed’ has already started?”
“It’ll start next Monday. How about you? Are you going to play with the Celtic?”
“Certainly. I even went to a collective practice today,” James said, with the laugh that Michael knew so well.
“Really? So professional, huh?” said Michael, laughing too.
“You know I really like football.”
“I do. Wish I could see that match…but I won’t be able to attend even the Telluride Film Festival, with the work starting here. There will be a ‘Steve Jobs’ premiere there, a panel, those things.”
“You’re not even giving yourself time to breath, huh? Jumping from one job to another…”
“Look who’s speaking, Dr. Frankenstein…”
“I mean it, Michael. Work’s not everything.”
“Well, lately, it has been for me,” he said and added, after a brief silence, “It’s better this way.” The words were followed by a sigh, as if he wanted to say something more.
“Michael, I…” James started, clearly an opening to end their conversation.
“It’s alright, James. I just called to chat for a bit. I like talking to you…a lot. Good night and don’t screw your knee up in this match,” he added, changing the subject.
“Okay, okay… I’ll be careful…”
As he was about to return to the main room, James was surprised to see Anne-Marie right behind him. “Something wrong?” she asked, in an undecipherable tone.
“No, no…” he saw no reason to hide anything from her; she wasn’t only his best friend, but his confidant, as well. He added, “It was Michael. He’s in Malta to film ‘Assassin’s Creed’.”
“And you couldn’t have got on the phone in the room?”
“I didn’t want to bother you; I know you’re studying your text and need to concentrate…”
Anne-Marie stood silent.
“What’s wrong, love?”
“You. You’re different since you came back from Montreal.”
“It seems like your mind is far away.”
“I have too many projects, too many things to do…”
“You always had this work rhythm, even more intense, and you never got like this. Did something happen in Montreal?”
Telling her something happened in Montreal wouldn’t be true. But, on the other hand, hiding what he was feeling didn’t feel very honest either. How to be sincere without hurting his confidant’s feelings? “No, nothing happened,” he answered, putting his arms around her waist. She kept staring at him with big and gentle eyes. He came closer and kissed her, and she kissed him back lovingly.
“I think it’s time for us to go to bed,” she said, her face glued to James’.
It’s not every Thursday morning that you happen to find Hugh Jackman jogging on Hyde Park. He was in London specially to promoting his new film “Pan.” After finishing his exercise and figuring it was a good moment to call some friends, he sat on a bench by The Serpentine and called James McAvoy. “Am I speaking to a little boxer wannabe?” said Hugh on the phone, playfully.
“Wolfie! How are you, mate?” said the voice on the other side, his Scottish accent heavy.
“I’m great! And in London!”
“Really! I’m promoting Pan. Is there time in your agenda to meet an old friend?”
“How long will you be staying?”
“So there’s definitely time for us to meet! Look, right now, I can’t talk much because I have a meeting with the people from ‘Heart of Darkness,’ but if you’re available tomorrow, we can make it. Where are you staying? Did you come alone?”
“I’m on The Gore. I came by myself; Debby stayed with the kids.”
“Great! So I will stop by there by the end of the afternoon. Around 6PM?”
“Okay, we’re set then, 6PM tomorrow at the hotel’s bar.”
“See you tomorrow then!”
“See you, James!”
The Gore was a charming boutique-hotel situated in the heart of South Kensington. The romantic hotel was a 5 minute walk from Royal Albert Hall and from Hyde Park. On the outside, it was all white and classic, with an enormous Union Flag waving at the front of the façade; an icon that harkened back to the pompous Victorian era. Inside the hotel was the famous 190 Bar, which offered an intimate but luxurious surrounding, where guests relaxed and drank cocktails. The bar’s walls were coated with boiserie and woodwork all around, giving it an antique but still cozy appearance, just like the Victorian style that prevailed in the entire hotel. The centerpiece of the establishment was a long wood bar surrounded by ten tall chairs with red leather seats, decorated with lamps in an art-nouveau style. The wall on the back of the bar was covered with mirrors and there were all kinds of drinks lined up against it. The corners of the bar had tables surrounded by soft seats and sofas, where small groups could come together and enjoy a drink.
James already knew the hotel from the outside, but he never went to the bar there. Hugh was already waiting for him, sitting in one of the comfortable sofas on the back, near a tall window, facing the street. He got up to hug James when he came closer. “Hey, mate!” said James, hugging the taller man, then nudged him playfully on the shoulder, remembering their tomfoolery on set.
Hugh laughed and ran a hand over James’ head, noticing his growing hair. “Back to normal, huh?”
James laughed and they sat down. A waiter came over to ask what would they like to drink.
“They have wonderful mixed drinks, James. Wanna try any?”
“Oh, I’m not much for fancy drinks; I’m more up for a beer, or a good scotch. A martini, sometimes, if the occasion’s special,” he answered, as a certain someone crossed his mind.
“Contradictorily, the beer list isn’t very extensive,” said Hugh, going through the beers. “Which one do you prefer?”
“A Stella is fine.”
“I’ll second that. Make it two, please,” Hugh said to the waiter. James then asked Hugh about Debby, Oscar and Ava.
“Everyone’s fine. Ava is in that phase which we need to negotiate everything…ah, you’ll get there.” Hugh smiled and asked about Anne-Marie and Brendan. James lit up when talking about his son, as if paternity justified his existence. He never spoke about his own childhood, his parents’ divorce or his life with his grandparents, unless it was to make a point. He mentioned Brendan’s school progress and the musical tastes he was trying to foster in him; the boy was already five years old. When James spoke about Anne-Marie, he mentioned her projects and how busy she would be in October, meaning he would spend more time with Brendan.
“Well, it seems like October will be busy for you, but I’m still going to make the invitation,” Hugh said, drinking from his beer.
“My birthday! It’s on the 12th, a Monday, but we want to celebrate on the 10th and 11th.”
“In New York?” asked James, curious.
Hugh smiled wildly, anticipating James’ reaction. “In Australia!”
James knew Hugh had two residences: an apartment in New York and a house in Melbourne, but wasn’t expecting the invitation to be for that far away! “Australia?” he said, surprised.
“It’s going to be more fun there; the house is huge, with a yard, grill… there’s much more space, and it would be amazing getting some friends there,” Hugh said as he finished his beer, cueing the waiter to bring him another.
James noticed Hugh’s excitement, and was excited about the party Hugh described, but getting there would be hard. Anne-Marie probably wouldn’t be able to make it, considering that she would be busy with “Suffragette” and preparing for her new play. And what about Brendan? James could imagine Anne-Marie’s face if he suggested taking Brendan to Australia without his mother. “I’m gonnae talk to Anne-Marie, but it’ll be complicated…”
“It would be amazing if you two could make it! It’s a different experience, far from London’s grayness, near to nature. And don’t forget Debby’s your absolute biggest fan; she’ll be thrilled by your presence, an honored guest, for sure!” James smiled at Hugh’s spontaneous way of speaking; he really could charm people.
A hotel employee came close and told Hugh there was a message for him with the concierge. He apologized to James and went to get it. “I was expecting that call to be earlier. My mobile was low on battery so I turned it off. Wait just a minute and get another beer, I’ll be right back.”
“No problem,” said James, more relaxed than when he arrived. He distracted himself observing the bar’s decor. A nearby countertop had some papers on it; some sensationalist tabloids and papers with gossip about celebrities. Suddenly, he saw a name he recognized and picked up the tabloid to give it a better look. It was “The Mirror,” and it said, “Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander split after 9 months.” There were two pictures of the couple: an old one, in Monaco, when they were still dating; and another of them leaving a hotel, Alicia walking ahead of Michael, both expressions serious. James remembered Michael’s call from two days before and looked the paper’s date. “Shit…”
“I mean it, Michael. Work’s not everything…” “…Well, lately, it has been for me (…) I just called to chat for a bit. I like talking to you…a lot.” Michael’s words came back to his mind. James deduced that Michael had wanted to talk about breaking up with Alicia, but James hadn’t let him do so. James looked frantically for more details, even in such a controversial and sordid publication. The paper only mentioned Michael’s statement that “his career was an impediment for his love life.” James thought about how he and Hugh were counter examples of the statement. They both had stable love lives and had built families even though their careers were promising. For James, Michael’s argument was vague and raised more questions than it answered. When he returned, Hugh found James looking very different than when he had left him. “Everything alright, James?”
“Yeah…” he answered vaguely, his look lost on the beer in front of him. Hugh could see something was off with him, though, and then noticed the paper still on James’ hand, lying forgotten on the table.
“Interested in that kind of paper now?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s…” James hesitated, but felt like he could trust Hugh. In fact, Hugh seemed to be the best person to talk about the subject. Besides that, he’d worked with Michael several times and knew the James’ and Michael’s dynamic together, he was an older friend and also married, like James. He had always been an example of how to be diplomatic and wise. With Hugh, James felt he wouldn’t be judged. He showed Hugh the headline that had caught his attention, to see Hugh’s reaction.
“Well, I’m not surprised by this news. How about you?” Hugh said, having a sip of his beer. “Michael once said he was a complicated person. I don’t know what he’s looking for in a person to share his life with, but it seems like he hasn’t found it yet.”
James took a deep breath. Sadly, and letting his accent flow with his accelerated speaking, he said, “I know that I care—a lot—about Michael and everything about him...that I miss him more than a friend should, even a friend as good as he is…I know that I want him to be happy; for him to smile and to feel satisfied about life...and I wish I was part of this…realization.” James tried to choose his words carefully so he wouldn’t make any unwished-for declaration, but Hugh couldn’t help his conclusion.
“Wait…everything you described seem like love to me. Have you a crush on Michael?”
Hearing someone say out loud what James didn’t admit to himself seemed suddenly wrong. “Have I?” he said. His blue eyes were confused and insecure, lacking their usual confidence.
“James, my friend…think really hard about your feelings. And about the consequences of your actions.”
“That’s what I think about all the time, Hugh: feelings and consequences. I’ve always wanted a family, kids, to be a father…a good father…” The declaration made James think about his unhappy childhood with his father, the divorce, the difficulties…
“What about Anne-Marie? You don’t love her anymore?” asked Hugh, clearly worried about his friend.
“I adore Anne-Marie! How could I not love her? She gave me the ground I looked for my whole life, gave me a direction, something to fight for… she gave me a son, for Christ’s sake…”
“Everything you said you feel for Michael will mortify her.”
“On the other hand, you can’t mistake love for gratitude. Anne-Marie helped you; helped you build a family. Are you so thankful that you’re mistaking your feelings?”
James took a deep breath and closed his eyes, hiding all the blue filling the room.
“Well, seeing that, I should tell you that I also invited Michael for my party. Actually, I left him a message, couldn’t talk to him. Anyway, he hasn’t answered me yet.”
James opened his eyes and they were a bit wet. “Thank you.”
“For listening…for not judging me.”
Hugh was really a gentle person; someone nice to talk to. He only smiled and answered, “Who am I to judge anyone?” Seeing how dispirited James seemed, Hugh added: “Always be honest with your feelings, James. Why don’t you call Michael so you can talk about it?”
“You know, he called me a few days ago…and I didn’t give him attention. It was exactly the occasion this tabloid says that he broke up with Alicia. I wasn’t even a good friend!”
“Don’t torment yourself about it. I’m sure Michael, being a true friend, will understand.”
James looked at the watch. “I gotta go home. Anne has a commitment and I’m staying with Brendan.”
“It’s fine; I also have a commitment in a bit. That phone call was to confirm it.” They both stood up and hugged each other, now with more meaning, as it was between confessor and confidant.
“See you, Hugh. And thank you, again.”
“No need to thank me! And think about the invitation I made. Go in peace, my friend!”
That night, after Brendan fell asleep, James called Michael; Malta was only one hour ahead of London. The phone rang repeatedly, but he got no answer. “Fuck, Michael. Fucking answer it,” James cursed at himself. It went straight to voicemail. He decided to text him, instead. Maybe it would work.
“Trying to call you, but it goes straight to voice mail. Call me. I need to talk to you.”
He decided to read while he waited for Anne-Marie. Her agenda surrounding the new film was busy. In October there would be the London Film Festival, for which Suffragette would open the gala night, right before her 45th birthday. James started to read his book almost mindlessly. When he read the first lines, he thought about how people seemed to attract readings that reflected their state of mind…
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to Heaven, we were all going directly the other way…”
It was Charles Dickens, speaking to him; a voice came all the way from 1859. “A Tale of Two Cities” was a classic of English literature; a story about love, shame, rebellion, guilt, retribution, and death, set in England and in 18th century revolutionary France. The characters endured social conflicts among the beginning of movements that would lead to the French Revolution. The prologue seemed to reflect James’ own internal conflict: oscillating between two paths, tormented by opposite feelings. The book made him drowsy and James fell asleep sitting on the bed, with the book still on his hands, held by pillows. He fell into a deep slumber, so when his phone indicated a new message, he didn’t see it.
“Think it’s a bit late to call you. I’ll try to talk to you tomorrow. Completely exhausted. Callum Lynch has a troubled life.”
Later, when Anne-Marie got home, James was already deeply asleep. She saw his phone and the book he was reading by his side on the bed and moved them on the bedside table, by James’ side. She kissed his forehead, but he didn’t wake up.
It was the first meeting of the group that would attend the “Children’s Monologues” at The Royal Court Theatre. James was excited to attend the event and honored to being able to work with professionals he admired, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kit Harrington and Danny Boyle. The “Children’s Monologues” dramatized testimony from children in the rural part of Rammulotsi in Free State, South Africa, who were invited to write about a day that they would never forget. While some monologues focused on happy memories, many others were about desperate situations: some were from children who saw their parents die due to inadequate medical treatment, and others were by children whose mothers were even raped and burnt alive.
The first readings were enough to make the group emotional. James was very impressed with some of the narratives and expressed how deeply he lamented that there were children in such situations.
They had a coffee break and everyone started to chat. James went to the espresso machine to fix himself some coffee when he got a text:
“Bad time to call?”
James smiled and typed an answer.
“Couldn’t be better. I’m on a break.”
“Lightning problems here, so break as well. Wait a minute.”
It was Michael. James had already read the text from yesterday and waited anxiously for the call. He got his coffee and went to a secluded bench. In a few minutes, his phone rang.
“Hey, Michael! How’re you doing there?”
“We’re advancing some scenes, so the days are lasting forever.” James could hear the exhaustion in Michael’s voice.
“Advancing scenes? Busy agenda, then?”
“With both the ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘Macbeth’ premieres close, I’ll be away because of obligations.”
“So you’ll come to London?” James asked, unable to hide a certain inquietude.
“Surely. I’ll arrive on the 26th, I guess.”
“You coming to London and not looking for me will definitely be an ‘inglorious bastard’!” James heard Michael’s well-known laughter on the other end of the line and was happy to make him laugh.
“You said you wanted to talk to me. What was it about?”
Knowing that Michael would be in London soon, James didn’t want to talk about it over the phone; he would rather talk in person with his friend. He decided not to explain what it was about, answering vaguely. “Plans…just some projects I’d like to discuss with you. But since you’ll be here in a few days, I’ll wait to tell you personally.”
“So it’s my professional opinion that you want?” Michael seemed a bit disappointed.
“Professional and personal.”
“Okay. Once I arrive in London, I’ll let you know. But what about your schedule? Isn’t it too busy?”
“It’s easy to deal with, for now. It’s Anne-Marie’s agenda that’s really busy. We try to alternate who compromises because of Brendan.”
“Sure, sure,” James heard a deep breath on the other side, then a voice calling Michael to film. “Well, they’re calling for me here…it has been nice to talk to you.”
“It’s always nice talking to you too, Michael,” James said, and they said their goodbyes.
It was “The Martian” premiere night, at the Odeon Leicester Square. James attended with his sister, Joy, to honor his “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” co-star Jessica Chastain. They met right away when both arrived at the event and shared a hug while flashes went off everywhere. James and his sister posed for lots of photos. Jessica was highly in demand (following Matt Damon, the film’s leading actor), for interviews and pictures. They both stopped to give autographs. James was extremely considerate at this task, trying not to forget about anyone.
The event continued through the night. When James could talk to Jessica again, it was only for a few minutes. It was her night, after all. James decided to call Anne-Marie to find out how everything was at home.
“Everything’s ok, darling. Brendan has been asleep for hours. School activities are finally managing to tire him out,” she said, laughing. “And how are things going there?”
“Busy! Jessica sent you a kiss. She’s radiant. And soon it will be you, with ‘Suffragette’!”
“I can’t wait. I’m anxious, a bit nervous…”
“None of that! You’ll be amazing, everything will work out just fine, and I’ll be by your side.”
Joy called James just then. “I don’t know if I should stay for the rest of the party,” James told his sister, so that Anne-Marie could hear him too.
“You can stay, if you want, love. This time I’m the one trying to conciliate sleep and the play reading.”
“Fine, darling. If Joy wants, we’ll stay, okay?”
“Okay. I love you.”
“I love you too. Sleep well.”
The European season of premieres went on. As promised, Michael came back to London to fulfill his promotional responsibilities related to his upcoming films. His flight arrived at London in the morning, and since the “Steve Jobs” press conference would be in the afternoon, Michael decided to call James. He texted him while waiting to get his luggage.
“Just arriving at the land of the Queen. Duties only in the afternoon.”
The answer didn’t take long:
“Hail to the king! Have lunch with me, then. Are you going home or to a hotel?”
“Home would be great! But I’m at the Kensington. Press conference”
James was at the Royal Court, sitting on the ground of the stage on which the group rehearsed. Usually, he’d be entirely focused on this task, but this time he left his phone on. When he found out that Michael had arrived, he got suddenly very excited, really happy. There was no way he couldn’t admit to himself that he was dying to see him again, that he missed him… a lot. He quickly typed:
“Harwood Arms, you know where it is?”
Once the texting ended, James stopped to examine his feelings. ‘What the hell is going on with me?’ He realized he had been holding a breath, as if he was hiding, doing something forbidden. ‘We were only scheduling a meeting between friends.’ Where was the weirdness of this situation? ‘Within myself, I guess…’ concluded James.
The Harwood Arms looked like a sophisticated pub, but it was actually a restaurant. Built around 1840, with its outside walls adorned and painted in red and cream and a coat of arms in a horizontal pole ahead of the facade, the establishment kept the Victorian era’s charm. On the inside, the large windows gave an excellent natural illumination to the surroundings, and its cream-colored walls, coated with light green wood panels, gave the place a refreshing and exquisite aspect at the same time. The furniture looked like it belong to an English country house, with tables and chairs in rustic wood, and a sofa with a soft floral pattern around a bigger table, probably intended to family meals. Even so, the pub atmosphere was strong around the balcony bar, which had a couple of beer taps on it. Next to the balcony, alongside a fireplace that probably was very disputed in the winter, there were two big couches facing each other, accompanied by two comfortable leather seats and a coffee table, making it the perfect spot to have a lager beer while waiting for a table.
As it was hidden from London’s fuss on a quiet sidestreet in Fulham, not far from the Royal Court or Kensington, James concluded that it would be a good place to have lunch with Michael; a good place to avoid paparazzi. Considering that it was the only pub with stars in the Michelin Guide in London, getting a reservation there usually wasn’t easy, but giving the name of two big movie stars in only one phrase was enough to get the restaurant’s doors open for him. As it was about welcoming famous actors, the restaurant gave them a discreet table, hidden from curious stares by a wood screen. James arrived exactly at noon, right at the moment that the restaurant opened its doors, so it was still empty.
James decided to wait for Michael in the corner of the balcony, so he could see who was coming in through a big window. To contain his anxiousness, he asked for a beer.
12:07 PM. James had already finished his beer. He texted Michael.
The answer came a few minutes later:
“Sorry about the delay. On my way” to which James answered sending him a thumbs up.
12:10 PM. Some costumers started to arrive; they had their reservations confirmed by the clerk and were directed to their seats. By James’ conclusion, they were tourists: first, a couple, then two women and a little boy, their son, perhaps.
12:15 PM. Traffic? Busy agenda? Phone calls to be made? James was finishing his second beer, his muscles starting to relax. Suddenly he recognized the unmistakable tall and masculine figure passing on the sidewalk, right aside the window. The man went through the door and stopped, then said something to the host. James followed his moves with his eyes. ‘Michael could wear the simplest clothes in the world and still look like a king…so damn handsome,’ he thought as he saw Michael getting closer, wearing casual clothes: a white collarless shirt with the sleeves rolled up and perfect fitting jeans. He took off the sunglasses hiding his beautiful and expressive eyes smiled widely as soon as he spotted James.
James got up to hug Michael. It was a true hug, not a mere social convention; they could each feel the other’s reciprocity. James unwrapped his arms from around Michael, keeping one of his hands on his shoulder. He was exultant. Michael ran his hand over James’ head and joked: “Hair?!” while making a surprised face. James laughed.
“How’re you doing?” James asked, trying to read the other’s expressions. He took in Michael’s eyes, the dark circles under them, facial muscles, stubble… “Definitely tired,” Michael answered, passing a hand over his eyes.
A waiter approached to direct them to the reserved table.
“Come on, I got a table in the back, so we can talk comfortably.”
“With no autographs to give, preferably,” Michael joked, even though he was known to be extremely patient with fan’s requests. James smiled. Actually, since Michael arrived, he hadn’t stopped smiling.
“Want something to drink before we get lunch?”
“Sure. What are you drinking? Beer?” Michael asked the attendant for the same.
Once the waiter left to get Michael’s drink, James looked Michael straight in the eyes and asked, point-blank. “What happened between you and Alicia? Can you tell me?”
Michael wasn’t expecting the question. He hadn’t said anything about breaking up with Alicia to James. He did actually try, but hadn’t found the right moment. He certainly wasn’t expecting to be confronted with the question at that moment.
“How did you find out?” he asked, his expression losing a bit of the happiness he’d had since he arrived.
“Through the media…casually.”
“I thought you weren’t into it…into media,” Michael said, clarifying to avoid any ambiguity in his words.
“Like I said, it was by chance. It was on The Mirror’s first page.”
Michael frowned and gave James a disapproving look.
“In that shitty newspaper? You read that? I’m surprised! You could’ve called me when you found out, instead of jumping to conclusions about what you read in the paper!”
“I did! I left a message, don’t you remember?”
Michael took a deep breath. He was tired, very tired…“It’s true, I’m sorry…I remember we had texted, it was late and I didn’t return your call…”
The waiter returned with Michael’s beer and left again. Michael made a toast: “To your health!”
“To ours!” James answered and both took a long gulp of their drinks.
“Ok…About Alicia, then. It wasn’t serious, James,” Michael looked away while he said that, but looked back at James quickly. “It never was.”
Then he added, “Since it wasn’t serious, there were no reasons to compromise.”
“I’m sorry…” and the blue eyes truly did care.
“Don´t…” Trying to make clear how painful it was hearing James lament for him, Michael just repeated himself. “Don´t.”
James decided to change topics. He wanted to dispel the cloud that lowered into Michael’s gaze at every opportunity. “So, your appointment for today is about ‘Steve Jobs’, huh? Oscar nominee, amen! And with amazing chances!” he said, trying to cheer Michael up.
“I’m not into the ‘already a winner’ mindset, but I’ll surely be very happy with every award the movie receives! Even happier if I get to hear my name being called to get it!” Michael’s face opened into his well-known smile.
James found it easy to talk to Michael after that and found the words flowing out of him: about his expectations to the awards ceremony, about Michael’s praise-worthy acting, and about his characterization that left him unrecognizable. James asked how it was working with Kate Winslet, what did Michael think about Aaron Sorkin’s script…
“Best script I’ve ever read! But with the most lines to remember as well! A scary amount of text. To remember everything I had to go offline to the world. That’s why my voice mail probably beat the record for the most unread and unheard messages. And I had just finished filming Macbeth, for Christ’s sake!” Saying this, Michael laughed at himself. “I guess I turned into some kind of machine. To prove it, there’s still the Prometheus sequel on the way, with my robotic alter ego, David 8!” He laughed again.
James told Michael about Brendan’s progresses, about Anne-Marie’s film and the London Film Festival in October. He also told him about Hugh Jackman’s invitation:
“Hugh was here to promote Pan, we chatted a little and he invited me to his birthday party, on October 10th.”
“In New York?”
“Aha, no! In Melbourne!” James answered, his eyes shining like a little boy’s.
“He’s insane! It’s too far! And right in the middle of the premieres season…”
“I know. It sounds like an oasis in the middle of the desert. I want to go, and he said he invited you as well. The message must have fallen into the void of unanswered messages.”
“It’s tempting…a weekend away from everything, after months of one job after another…”
They decide to give their orders to the waiter, in order to gain time. Michael asked for the salmon and James for roast beef. Returning to the conversation, Michael told James about his parents’ restaurant, which was for sale in Killarney. “Every time I come to a restaurant like this, it reminds me of West End! I worked there as a waiter and bartender, you know.”
“Oh, I know…best martini in my whole life!”
“Now we’re selling the restaurant,” he said as he picked up his phone and showed James photos of the place and surroundings, explaining each one of them. “It was already being rented, since my parents retired in 2009. I insisted that they stop and start enjoying their lives, instead. They had been working there since we first arrived at Ireland! Now I can spoil them freely!” There was a look of genuine happiness on his eyes.
Michael talking about the house where he lived was fascinating James. When he spoke about his parents and about his sister as well, who lived in Sacramento, he showed how much he loved them and how fundamental his family was to his professional security. He came from a very united family and it was something James admired, because his life had been completely different. It was only after he had established his own family with Anne-Marie that he felt the wounds of his parents’ divorce start to heal. But the concept of a father to him was still some kind of nightmare, buried deep within his feelings. Maybe it was the difference, James concluded, between a star like Michael and an actor like him. For a long time he’d felt insecure about his professional competence and he would have kept flying low if it hadn’t been for Anne-Marie; it was her counsel that made him get in touch with professionals who made a difference in his life.
“Hey James, are you listening…? I think this time I’m the one talking too much,” Michael said with a smile.
The meals arrived. Suddenly James realized he was hungry; the talk had made him forget everything.
“What about your projects, James? You talked about everyone but yourself.” James then told Michael about the press tour for ‘Victor Frankenstein’ alongside Daniel Radcliffe, about the ‘Children’s Monologues’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ readings and finally, about the project with M. Night Shyamalan.
“Starting to film in November, in Philadelphia. What do you think?”
“That was the professional opinion that you wanted?”
“Well, yes… Some colleagues told me it would be ‘shooting myself at the foot’… I don’t think so.”
“I’ve never worked with Shyamalan, but I know some of his films, ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Signs’, ‘The Village’… and you’ve never worked with him as well, that I know. Were you his personal choice? He frequently repeats his cast… Bruce Willis, Joaquin Phoenix…”
“Actually, it was going to be Joaquin Phoenix…”
“Look, James, it doesn’t matter. Whoever it was to be, the reason you were chosen, what others are saying…what matters is what you want to do. And I know that whatever you decide to do will be perfect! You’re so dedicated and versatile; you have proven that more than once. Actually, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
The last sentence seemed to echo in James’ mind, as if Michael had read his thoughts a few minutes ago, and somehow knew of the brush with low self-esteem that had almost been his ruin.
“Thank you…I mean it,” he said, touching Michael’s arm.
“You’re welcome,” Michael said as he gazed at James’ hand, his left one. His look fell right on James’ wedding ring. He looked away. “I’ll start charging,” he said, with his characteristic smile. “Any more projects?”
“Following it there’s one with Charlize Theron: ‘The Coldest City’.”
“Charlize! She’s great! Funny, smart, excellent actress to work with!”
James was pleased with the comments. Michael had worked with her in ‘Prometheus’.
James cellphone emitted a noise, indicating a new text. “Sorry, I thought I had put it on silent,” he said as he looked at the screen. It was from Anne-Marie. James read it and answered quickly. Michael didn’t want to be nosy, but couldn’t help his curiosity.
“Yeah… It was Anne-Marie, reminding me of a commitment tonight.”
“Hers. It means I need to take care of Brendan.”
“Which you love.”
“True…I can’t deny Anne-Marie gave me the most important thing in my life…I’ll be eternally grateful for that.”
Michael paid close attention to James’ last words. “Grateful ? You’re talking about gratitude ? Wouldn’t it be about love?”
“Anne-Marie gave me everything I’ve always wanted: a family! She rescued me from the bottom…I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for her!”
“So I should be grateful for her too,” Michael said, almost ironically.
James felt his throat close. “Anne-Marie is my best friend…”
“Love, James. I’m talking about love. About counting the minutes to be with the person, to need them physically and emotionally, their well-being above yours, about having to occupy yourself frenetically so you don’t think about…” he suddenly stopped, cursing at himself for his weakness. “I’m sorry, James… I… didn’t mean to mix things up.”
A brief silence followed, so profound that their breathing sounded too loud. Hidden in Michael’s speech there was a confession of veiled love. James´ words broke the silence :
“Remember when you said that once I arrived in London and stood with my family, I’d forget my thoughts from Montreal?”
“It didn’t work.”
They looked at each other. James put his hand over Michael’s and squeezed it slightly, without taking his look from him. Michael felt a shiver up his spine. He withdrew his hand.
“Don’t do this,” he said, looking at James. It would be better if his body remained stolid.
“I miss you, you know?” James said, with emotion in his voice. That was the phrase going through Michael’s head since he’d arrived, and James was the one brave enough to say it out loud. Michael gazed at James’ rosy lips and wished he could kiss him. He looked down to the table, where the empty plates remained, forgotten.
“I’d be the happiest person in the world now, if I didn’t know you’d never risk the harmony and security of your family to throw yourself in a relationship that would be condemned by everyone.”
“Condemned by everyone…and you talk about not caring about what people say and do?”
“You know I meant professionally! But when it comes to feelings…you have so much more to lose than I do. You know that. I know that.”
A new silence settled. Michael took a deep breath. “Tomorrow I’ll be in Edinburgh for the Macbeth premiere. I’ll listen to that accent of yours everywhere… It’ll be hard not to think of you.”
James, keeping his eyes fixed on Michael, asked: “And after Scotland?”
“I’ll be back to London before going on to the New York Film Festival.”
“Will you be back in touch?” The question was made in an almost timid tone, opposite of the James McAvoy known by the media.
That look that could melt an iced heart…how was Michael supposed to resist that? He wished he could throw all his commitments away and spend the rest of the day with James, in his flat, without being bothered by anyone else. Smiling slightly, he answered:
“I’ll never stop being in touch with you, James. Unless you ask me to.”
At that same night, after putting Brendan on bed, James sat down to think about his life. At this hour, Anne-Marie would’ve already left the play’s rehearsal and went to ‘Suffragette’ related compromises. And Michael should have already finished the panel and probably would be surrounded by the press, giving interviews and posing for pictures. James availed the darkness in the room to relax on the couch. The music he had put to play was from a singer he had been listening for a while, Valerie June:
“There you go, there you go
Try to fill, all the space
In your hollow hearted soul
Carry on, carry on
Try to fill, all the space
Pushin’ up against the stone”
In a certain way, the song seemed to be about what he was feeling in that moment: trying to fill all the empty space on his soul… It seemed an inglorious fight, pushing and hurling him against stones…
His head kept going through the talk he had with Michael on lunch repeatedly. He got up and went to the minibar they had there, fixing himself a scotch, something he didn’t normally do, but he wanted something that would quickly make him relax. His thoughts didn’t stop. He tried to focus on the readings he had to do, but he couldn’t. He decided to shut himself down forcefully, laying on the couch again, almost completely down. Another song, from the same singer, started to play and the name couldn’t be more suggestive: ‘Wanna be on Your Mind’. It was as Michael wanted to tell him, “I wanna be on your mind and stay there all the time…”
“Wanna be on your mind
Stay there all the time
You can call my name
The songs were supposed to make him fall asleep, not make him think even more about his problem. James considered changing the song, but his thoughts were practically being guided by the contents in the song’s lyrics.
“In the darkest hours
Of the brightest days
I wanna be beside you
Each step of the way…”
James put the glass with ice over his forehead and closed his eyes. Images kept repeating on his mind. Michael entering the restaurant… his laid-back but elegant way of walking… the opened smile on his direction… his secure way of giving advice and boosting his self-esteem… the way he avoided James’ touch… those eyes… Without realizing, James put the glass on the floor, turned around and fell asleep.
“During the sleep, the brain prosecutes great activity. The one turning off and resting is the conscious part of the brain, the one that takes care of the muscles, makes decisions and elaborates necessary and consistent answers to outside stimulation. When entering the dream stage, the brain selects what must stay on the memory and what must left, following an emotional criterion, of relevance or meaning. The situations that mark us emotionally the most are fixated, while other information are sent to a dark area in which they’re erased.” (The Importance of Dreaming)
James was outside of an antique construction, XIX century styled, with grey walls partially covered by ivy, with some bush ahead. It was a sober outside, but very solid. It was a cold and gray day. The street was empty. He came closer to the house and noticed it’s formed by three parts, the bigger one even had a second floor. Someone comes out of the house and walks in his direction. It’s Michael.
“It’s too cold here! Let’s get in.”
Putting his hand over James’ shoulder, both to warm and guide him, he conducted him inside the house, or, in fact, the Fassbender’s restaurant, in Killarney. The Irish air was freezing outside and James, who seemed to be colder than everyone else, was shivering. Michael noticed that, and said:
“Usually it’s hotter here… The fireplace’s on” and he took off his jacket, putting it on James’ back, giving him a peck on the lips, as it was the most normal thing in the world.
He took James’ hand and started to show him the surroundings in detail. The rooms had many family stories, memories from back when Michael was a waiter. James could almost see him serving beer mugs from behind the balcony. In one of the rooms there was an access to the second floor. Always walking ahead of James, pulling him by the hand, Michael went up the stairs to show him the up floor. It was where he lived since he was sixteen, while working in the restaurant and starting his studies in theater until definitely moving to London.
“And that was my room…” he said, letting James’ hand go and walking to the window.
The room was decorated as in his teenage years. Posters and stuff from Star Wars adorned walls and shelves. There were framed pictures of him as a child, holding an accordion, then one of him a little older, holding a guitar, with longer hair. James smiled at the first photo but laughed at the second. “I wanted to be a rock star, I’m serious!” Michael said, pulling a guitar that was leaning on the bed’s side.
Sitting on the bed with the guitar, he started to strum and sing U2’s “One”:
“Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now
You got someone to blame?”
James felt invited, by Michael’s look, to sit aside him on the bed, while he kept playing:
“You say one love, one life
When it’s one need in the night
One love we get to share
It leaves you, darling, if you don’t care for it…”
Michael sang sweetly, with his deep and bit hoarse voice, looking James directly in the eyes, a sad smile on his lips.
“Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without…”
And there was no resistance from James’ part anymore, no guilty or remorse or doubt or weirdness from being there, at Michael’s room, hearing him sing and feeling well from being by his side. Suddenly, James made a move towards Michael and said:
“You don´t disappoint me neither does deserve living without love” and coming closer to Michael’s face, he kissed him, making the song stop. Michael kissed him back intensely, reclining his head to the bed’s headboard.
“James… James?” The call from the familiar voice and the tender touch on his face woke James up. He raises his head, leaning on his elbows, still on his side.
“Er… Hi love, already home?” he said, still sleepy and a bit embarrassed because the dream. Unwittingly, he got aroused. And he thought it was written all over his face, and in another parts of his body. The darkness on the room shielded him.
“Is everything alright, darling? You fell asleep on the couch…” Having sit on the couch’s end, right aside her husband, she noticed the glass on the floor.
“Bad night?” she asked, jokingly, but in a tone James knew as worried and not playful. He gets up slightly to be in a better position to kiss her. A kiss that started gently, but got more intense. Anne-Marie tried to speak through her lips, whispering a little:
“What… are… you… running… from?” said this, she interrupted the kiss and looked at James’ eyes, lovingly. She could feel the conflict through them.
“I love you” , she said.
That declaration made James’ eyes water. He closes his eyes and tears fall freely.
“Shhh…” she whispers, sitting better on the couch and touching her head on his. “Tell me, sweetheart…”
She could see James’ chest rising up and down, the breathing of someone under extreme pressure. James moved his mouth as he meant to say something, but couldn’t. He couldn’t find the right words, him, who was usually so talkative… When it came to talk about his own feelings or about cloudy lands, his fluid speech disappeared.
“I… love you too…” he said, almost in a whisper.
That was the only truth he could manage to say right now. He couldn’t talk about his feelings for Michael, because he didn’t feel sure about them nor he wanted to hurt Anne-Marie and lost everything they’ve built together, the base of their lives. But why did his mind and body insist on betraying and tormenting him?
Anne-Marie wished he’d say more, that he’d tell her everything, but she felt that pushing him wouldn’t be a loving attitude at that moment. Once again, she covered herself in the love and tenderness she felt for him and let him breathe, so he could find the right moment to talk.
James looks at his cellphone screen to check the hours. Right below the digits showing it was almost lunch time, the date was clear: October 1. Michael should’ve already came back from Scotland, but he didn’t text or anything. In two days, the “Steve Jobs” press tour would start in New York. When the meeting at the Royal Court ended, James impulsively decided to get his bike and go to Hackney. He didn’t want to deal with his brain right now. He was following his heart.
While driving, James wanted to avoid his thoughts that kept questioning his decision. He should have texted first, asking if he was going to be there. He should assume that since Michael didn’t come after him, it was because he didn’t want to be reached. And the worst thought possible, censor : he should head home and not Hackney.
In a few minutes he entered London Fields at Broadway Market, towards Michael’s flat. The buildings on that street had two floors, with shops underneath. James parked his Honda nearby. He took off his helmet and went to Michael’s place.
He hesitated in front of the entrance’s intercom. ‘To hell with it!’ he pressed the button with the apartment’s number and waited.
“Yes?” the voice came from the other side of the com. It was Michael. ‘Finally, the bastard’s home…’
“Michael? It’s James.”
“James?!” a brief silence followed, very brief, but a torment to whom waits. “I’m opening.” And the door unlocking could be heard, indicating that James could go up.
He stopped at the flat’s door and ringed the bell. Michael, dressed with a white t-shirt and grey sweatpants, opened the door and smiled. “Sorry, but you’re the last person in the world I was expecting come by today.” Pulling James into a hug, he added: “But the only one I would like to come…”
James, with Michael’s arm around his waist, entered the flat, putting his helmet and satchel bag on a sideboard aside the door. He noticed that Michael was bare-footed and holding a glass of whiskey. There was music playing, coming from a sophisticated player in a rack, in a place designed to a television.
Michael raises his glass in a toast gesture and says, “Finally home without any commitment… At least, until after tomorrow.”
He gets James a glass. “Drink with me?”
“I’m driving. It’s better not drink anything.”
“Ah, bike! I miss driving mine…” and even though James refused the drink, Michael served him a glass, automatically. James sees that and says, “No, Michael, I’m not drinking…” Getting the glass from Michael’s hand, he puts it on the bar balcony in the room and asks:
“How about you… How much you’ve already drank?”
“Not much…” he answers, sitting on one of the long stools around the bar. “And I’m sober enough to know that, supposedly, you shouldn’t be here.”
James sat on a stool by Michael’s side. “Yeah… I shouldn’t.” and observed while he drank down the glass’ contents. “But I needed to.”
Michael fixed himself another dose, while asking:
“And why did you… ‘needed to’?”
“Honestly… Do you believe me if I say I don’t know?”
Michael looked at the glass’ drink and then to James’ blue eyes. “I do.” He said, with a certain playful tone. “Some people like us are unforgettable”, and drinks a gulp of the amber and tender liquid. “Even my whiskey… oh, because that one’s Irish, my dear… even it doesn’t let me forget you”, he points at the bottle’s label, with “Jameson” written on it.
“It doesn’t matter…” Michael said, more to himself. “Hey, but don’t you want to eat something? My internal clock it’s a bit of a mess with all those flights, but I think it’s time for normal people to eat.”
“I’m not hungry, Michael. Seriously.”
“I could cook for you, because, I don’t know if you’re aware, but I can cook”, and he thought he was repeating himself. “I saw many dishes being prepared at my father’s restaurant…” he stopped before reaching the family emotional field. When he drank too much, he had a tendency of talking about people he liked.
James started to admit that maybe it wasn’t a good idea at all giving up to his impulses and coming to visit Michael at his place. Surely there’s a part of the human brain that gets completely blocked when a strong feeling comes up, it doesn’t matter which one.
“It’s better I eat something, then… Before I get too melancholic.” Saying this, Michael gets up and goes to the kitchen, followed by James. He opens the fridge:
“There’s not much here. I knew I wouldn’t stay for long, so I bought only a few things.”
He takes off the fridge a container with sliced roast beef on it and another with cheese. He gets the package of bread and starts to make two sandwiches.
“I’m gonna make two, in case you get hungry.”
James gets mayonnaise and ketchup from the fridge and hands it to Michael.
“I wish I could explain to my rational half what made me come here see you.” Michael looks at him with the corner of his eyes and smiles. “Don’t try.” Even so, James tried to clear his feelings for himself, aloud:
“I like to be around you, to talk to you and to feel your presence.” Michael keeps making the sandwiches.
“You know in a chess game?” James shakes his head, showing he was following his thought. “I’m not telling you any news: when the white ones win, the black loses. Simple as that. You can’t win in both sides of a battle.”
“Just like you can’t have a consolidated family and brilliant career at the same time?”
“You. Or The Mirror said you did…”
“Come on, James, listen to yourself speaking! This isn’t you! Obviously it was a stupid statement to a stupid paper. What did you want me to say? That I don’t stay with anybody because I’m in love with my best friend?” nothing like a few doses of alcohol in your blood to unlock tongues and hearts. No half words.
Trying to dissipate the tension before his declaration, Michael adds, as if they were in a scene together:
“Your line now… That’s the moment in which you mock me and…” James didn’t even let him finish. He shortened the distance between them with two steps and got his face closer to Michael’s to kiss him. Michael, looking him in the eyes, put his hand firmly on the back of James’ neck, who for a minute didn’t know if his intention was to stop him or to get him closer. Michael felt James’ breathing, the touch of his skin… Attracted by the rosy lips, perfect and half open… A fraction of second of silent hesitation from both of them.
“No…” Michael managed to say, his forehead leaning on James’. “I’m… not drunk enough to let you… ruin your life.” And both realized they were aroused by the other’s closeness.
“Shit! Shit, James!” and making a huge effort to control himself, Michael said, trying to keep his breathing even:
“You’re leaving… right now…”
“Michael… My head’s been torturing me all these days. Thinking, trying to understand my attraction for you, that’s beyond measure… It’s more than something physical…” James tried to say, clumsily, without minding his own hard on. Michael left the kitchen with James right behind him, talking:
“You’re constantly in my head… And even with Anne-Marie, with Brendan… something seems to be missing, someone’s missing. It’s you!”
Michael doesn’t answer him, just walking to the flat’s entrance, where James’ things were left. The adrenaline started to minimize the alcohol’s effects.
“James, you better go…” and before he tried to say something: “You’ll thank me later… for avoiding something completely insane…” he handed him the helmet and the bag.
Not leaving any doubts, he opened the door. James’ blue eyes were fixed on him, a little wet. Michael didn’t look away, but he seemed to make a huge effort to blind himself against the disarray of emotions he was having.
When James finally left, Michael sinks. He sits on the ground aside the door and tears invade his eyes. He rests his head against the wall.
“Pathetic… so pathetic…” he murmurs, breathing deep and letting the tears flow freely. The song playing at the moment seemed to reflect what his soul was going through. An old song, for Michael loved 80’s bands. It was one of his favorites, Eurythmics. Annie Lennox clear and vibrating voice echoed in the room:
How many times do I have to try to tell you
That I’m sorry for the things I’ve done
But when I start to tell you
That’s when you have to tell me
Hey… this kind of trouble’s only just begun
I tell myself too many times
Why don’t you ever learn to keep your big mouth shut
That’s why it hurts so bad to hear the words
That keep on falling from your mouth
Falling from your mouth
Falling from your mouth
I may be mad
I may be blind
I may be viciously unkind
But I can still read what you’re thinking
And I’ve heard is said too many times
That you’d be better off
Why can’t you see this boat is sinking
Let’s go down the water’s edge
And we can cast away those doubts
Some things are better left unsaid
But they still turn me inside out
Turning inside out turning inside out
Tell me… Why
Tell me… Why
This is the book I never read
These are the words I never said
This is the path I'll never tread
These are the dreams I'll dream instead
This is the joy that's seldom spread
These are the tears...
The tears we shed
This is the fear
This is the dread
These are the contents of my head
And these are the years that we have spent
And this is what they represent
And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel?
'cause I don't think you know how I feel
I don't think you know what I feel
I don't think you know what I feel
You don't know what I feel...”