In this story we meet again the friends from 'All the Colours of the Rainbow'.
"I need a cute young man."
Of course this is met by cheers and guffaws, not the half stifled sniggers in Miss Rutherford's class of four terms ago.
"We thought you already had one, sir!" comes a voice from the back of the room. Well somebody had to say it.
David Morgan blushes as Brussels (his old nickname is back in favour) smiles and pauses just long enough before he continues.
"Oo! An orgy!" is heard amongst the wolf whistles and cat calls.
Perhaps I had better explain. It's the start of the new school year. Mel's sister year have all left to move on to higher things - or work if they can get a job. For example; Virginia has gone to ArtsEd in London and Presscock Prescott is doing something sporty at Loughborough.
It is nearly a year since we put on the Parents Evening with that play. The one where Mr Sproat and I were in an embarrassing situation. Me, because my shorts fell down; Brussels because the play that he had written was, frankly, embarrassing. Even he agreed. So now it is the year below who have to do the Parents Evening. We get to join the Drama Group and do the School Play to be put on one day in the last week of term. Since it is our exam year the Drama Group is voluntary. In spite of last year's embarrassment, I'm hooked. The lure of the greasepaint is too strong and I have signed up. Melanie and Paul have too and with a little persuasion from me, so has Tony.
We were a bit surprised to find Mervyn Sproat as the master in charge of the group since he had recused himself from teaching our year after that Parents Evening. Tony and I asked him about it after our first PE class of term. With a straight face he said things aren't as hard around us as they used to be now that he has David at home to take him in hand if he gets too stressed. Then he grinned like the cat that got the cream. He has certainly been more laid back since he and Mr Morgan moved in together. Mr Morgan has also settled in well after that unfortunate incident with Tony when he first started. He is going to help with the Drama Group. Tony and I think that is so he can keep an eye on Merv and make sure we don't give him a stroke.
There is no real choice of play. It makes sense for us to do the set text for this year in English Literature. In theory this should help us understand the play and get us through the exam. So in common with Rep companies across the land we will be attempting a rendition of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'.
There aren't many girls in the Drama Group this year. The few I asked said they were too busy doing science and maths; one even said she wanted to do Accounting instead of Eng. Lit. Good grief!
Mel says the real reason they won't join is because with Merv and David running the group they think it will be full of gay boys like Tony and me. Meaning there will be no opportunities to hunt down and snare potential boyfriends. Straight Paul is a bit miffed with that analysis, but laughs it off saying that being with the group will give him some respite from fending off the hordes of female admirers. Sure! Like: which admirers? No, like me, he just needs the extra insights working on the play will bring.
So that is why the group is gathered in a classroom one evening after lessons have finished, listening to Brussels open this first session by saying he wants several cute boys. He stills the cries of 'Orgy!' by raising his hand a few inches, smiling as he does so.
"If you want an orgy, you can organise it between yourselves."
Once again his timing is spot on, waiting for the snorts and chuckles to reduce before continuing;
"Remember this is your production. David and I are only here to help you. But let's see if you agree why we might need several cute boys. What can anyone tell me about 'Twelfth Night', not the play, the medieval custom?"
Merv's opener has relaxed us and got us interested.
"Lord of Misrule." someone chips in.
"Yes, and what does that involve?"
"Swapping roles where the fool is king for the day and the king acts as his servant?" comes the unsure reply.
"Yes. So a day for feudal society to let its hair down and the king to be reminded how his more lowly subjects live and how they see him. What other role swaps might have taken place?" Mr. Sproat asks. He gets a couple of answers.
"What about that last in a more general sense?" We must all have blank looks on our faces because Merv continues. "Gender role swap? Men doing women's roles and vice versa."
There are nods around the room as we take that in.
"Has anyone seen or looked at the play?" he asks.
Mel says she has read it through.
"Did you find anything that would explain why Shakespeare would have called the play 'Twelfth Night'?"
"One of the central characters is a woman who dresses up as a man, basing herself on her twin brother who she believes dead." Mel replies.
"She falls in love with her employer and the Countess falls in love with her believing her to be a boy."
"Good, so as well as gender fluidity there might be some ambiguous sexuality." Brussels looks round the room. "You may want to develop some of these themes as you study the play and start to work on the production. Now what can anyone tell us about the Elizabethan theatre?"
"It was the flowering of popular secular theatre, partly due to the banning of religious plays by Elizabeth in 1558." Every so often Tony has to show off!
"Very good. What other restrictions were placed on the theatre in that period?"
I know this one.
"Women actors were banned." I say
"So how did they get round that problem?"
The penny drops.
"They used cute young men." I blurt out as I flash a grin at Merv and David Morgan.
"A boy dressed up as a girl dressed up as a boy would really fit with the idea of Twelfth Night." says Paul, thereby letting us know he is still with us.
"I was going to suggest you consider doing the play with only male actors to highlight some of the ambiguities. It would also get round the problem of there being very few girls in this group. I would also suggest the girls do the non acting jobs that boys usually manage to grab. Director, Stage Manager, Props and Lights, that sort of thing. David and I will leave you to discuss if that is the sort of production you want and will go and put the kettle on. Everyone want tea?"
Well that's appropriate for Twelfth Night: the masters making tea for the pupils!
"Do we have to go with Brussels suggestion?" Paul asks when they have left the room. "How many women's parts are there?"
Someone opens their copy of the play and checks the Dramatis Personae.
"Three. Viola; the twin sister of Sebastian, Olivia; the Countess and Maria; one of the Countess's servants"
"There are three girls here. We don't have to use boys in drag." says Paul.
Mel jumps in before anyone can agree with him; "Yes we do, because I don't want to act. I want one of those boy's jobs Mr Sproat was on about."
We kick ideas around for a bit before we agree to go with an all male cast in keeping with the first production. It should give that extra twist to the relationship between the male and female characters. There is a bit of banter about which boys should be given the female roles. Mel says she can think of two who would do nicely and probably revel in it. Why is she looking at Tony and me?
With that settled it is not long before the girls have got us to agree that Mel is to be the Director, Susie; Stage Manager and Cath will take command of the light and sound console. Something makes me think they had that worked out before the meeting.
Before any dissent can break out, the tea boys, Mr Sproat and Mr Morgan, wheel in their trolley. I had seen them hovering by the door, diplomatically waiting for us to reach a consensus on these major points without their influence. Merv plays mother and pours the tea while David hands round a tin of what are obviously home-made biscuits. They are very good.
I start to move towards Mr Morgan to ask him for the recipe as I might be able to persuade mum to make some, when I see Mel has beaten me to it. I overhear her asking where he got the recipe.
"I got it from my friend Betty. I'll bring you a copy tomorrow." Satisfied Mel moves away.
"Would you bring me a copy as well please?" I ask.
I have to ask a supplementary question.
"Is your friend Betty the same Betty that Miss Rutherford mentioned when she told me you were moving in with Mr Sproat and that I was the matchmaker?"
"Yes, she is Miss Rutherford's... friend too."
Interesting, he nearly said something else there, but must have realised it was not his place to say it. Before I can ask anything else we are called to order by the Director, Mel.
"Would you all read through the play and think if there are any parts you want to play and any interesting points you think we should highlight. I will try and catch up with you all before next time when I would hope to do some auditions and allocate the parts and agree some approaches to the story.
"Thank you all and thank you to Mr Sproat and Mr Morgan for the tea and biscuits. Same time next week."
We all head off home. I wonder about calling in at the Indian opposite the school for a couple of their extra hot samosas to snack on but think better of it. Mum is doing a chilli tonight. I don't want to take the edge off beforehand.
Mel is really into the directing thing and must have studied the play before that first meeting. She meets up with us during the next week and suggests which part each of us might like to do, making sure she gets the cast she wants. The auditions at the next meeting are just to make sure we are not totally inept at acting.
She gives Tony the role of the Countess Olivia. Mel thinks he can cope with falling in love with a girl dressed up as a boy, because the girl is actually a boy! I get Maria and Paul is Sir Toby Belch. I think she has done that to wind him up. It means he will get to have a female admirer except it will be me in drag.
Bruno, Cath's boyfriend and whose family runs the Italian Restaurant in town will play Duke Orsino, and Raj and Naveem, the boys from the corner shop, will be Sebastian and Viola. They are not sure how Naveem's role will go down with their parents but they think they can win them round, especially if they say it is the lead. I hope so; even I can see he is a natural. Cute as hell too! But straight.
Mel leads us in a discussion about costume. How clothes show the status of a person and how that is particularly relevant to Shakespeare's plays where, with only male actors, costume would also be the indicator of gender. It helps us understand a contemporary audience would accept that Viola could successfully pass herself off as a man.
Mel also explains there is a message in the play about marriage as a means of social advancement. Sebastian, Viola and Maria all make marriages above their status. She is coming out with some interesting insights and I wonder if Merv and David have been helping her but they say not.
We are going to emphasise the homosexual elements in the plot as it fits the overturning of convention associated with Twelfth Night. Homosexuality was illegal in Elizabethan England.
It turns out to be quite a gay play.
Mel shows us that Antonio's love for Sebastian is more than just that of a friend and he will put himself in danger as well as act as Sebastian's servant in order for them to stay together. The Countess Olivia falls in love with Viola as Cesario, but has no interest in other men, expressed by her rejection of the Duke Orsino. Viola/Cesario falls in love with the Duke, who finds himself fancying Cesario. The plot is resolved to suit convention by Sebastian and Viola being reunited as brother and sister and the Duke marries Viola and The Countess, Sebastian.
But there is still ambiguity in that resolution. Orsino's last remark as he leaves with Viola is that she will remain as the boy Cesario until she actually puts on her dress. There is an implication that he actually prefers her as Cesario. Olivia saw something in the manners and features of Viola as Cesario that attracted her and there is enough similarity between brother and sister for Olivia to transfer that desire to Sebastian. Sebastian is bi enough to accept marriage to Olivia and the social advancement that will bring. If Antonio tags along as his servant, Sebastian can have some of the other on the side. Crafty sod!
As the term progresses the play starts to come together. We have all learnt our lines and more. I know I shall be able to write some meaningful commentary for the exam and regurgitate whole chunks of the text in support, which, of course, was the object of joining the group. We feel we are accomplishing something and it is fun too.
Bruno and Naveem are really into it. Are they sure they are not gay? Poor Tony drools at Naveem and I have to remind him who his boyfriend is. Mind you, I am drooling too; Naveem is good looking to the point of pretty and has a slight campness about him that suits the role. Raj, as Sebastian, is being pursued by a lustful, and very definitely not camp, Antonio. I get to blow kisses at Paul. It winds him up every time.
Mel uses her schoolmarm voice to good effect, especially when Tony starts to zone out over something, usually Naveem! At least we don't have to worry about him being kissed by a girl. That definitely would make Tony zone out. Only Cook's veg curry is able to bring him round from that.
David and Merv are on hand to provide technical advice and keep us supplied with tea and lemon bars.
David had brought the lemon bars one week and they were so good, we all asked if he would bring them every week. Of course Mel asked for the recipe. He had it ready on a piece of paper and gave it to her, but when he turned to me he said he thought Tony and I might enjoy looking it up and gave me a URL. I thought it would be on a cookery site but it was actually on a site with gay stories! We enjoyed both the stories and the lemon bars when I made some.
It is the day of the show and we are all looking forward to the performance. We think it should go well although we are nervous of course. Mel arranges for us to meet up in the canteen at lunch time for a pep talk.
Cook has done something different today. A Chinese style chicken and black bean sauce with rice and prawn crackers. Very nice but a bit bland for me!
Then disaster strikes. Raj starts sweating and looks frightened. He says something in Urdu to Naveem, who, good brother that he is, tells us to lay him on the floor and loosen his clothing while he is dialing 999 on his mobile. We get Raj settled and hear Naveem asking for an ambulance, explaining his brother has had an allergic reaction and giving details of how to get to the canteen. He kneels down by Raj as they want him to monitor and keep describing how Raj is as they head towards the school.
Mr Sproat is on duty and comes over to find out what is happening. As soon as he realizes what is up, he tells us to organise a clear route through the tables for the ambulance crew and for someone to go to the school gate and guide the ambulance to the canteen. Merv joins Naveem and starts to check Raj's pulse and breathing. He asks if anyone knows mouth-to-mouth, explaining that if he has to start CPR, it is easier and better if there are two doing it, one for each procedure, better still if they can swap over every couple of minutes as the chest compressions are hard work to administer.
Fortunately it is not necessary. The ambulance crew arrives and quickly assess and stabilise Raj. They are talking to Naveem and tell him that Raj will have to be monitored in hospital overnight. He should also consider carrying an adrenaline auto-injector or 'epi-pen' in future. Raj is trolleyed out to the ambulance then shipped off to hospital. Naveem goes with him.
As he leaves, I hear Naveem tell Mel he will be back in time for the performance. The show must go on!
But can the show still go on with no one to play Sebastian? Nobody has understudied the role. No wonder Mel looks worried. It's something she should have thought of. Then I see her face clear as if she has had an idea. She grabs Susie and Cath and they head for the Girls' loos. Why do they always go in convoy? I suppose this time they want a conference about Mel's idea. They must be hatching something if they don't want us boys to hear it.
Five minutes and they are back out with smiles on their faces. Cath goes over to Bruno to whisper sweet nothings in his ear and Mel calls us to order.
"Bruno's cousin, Gino Brughiera, is home from college and has agreed to step in and do the part. They have been doing the same play at college and Gino knows the speeches. I will skip classes this afternoon and run Gino through the action. Although critical, it is not a big part, and if everyone keeps their wits about them, we should get through OK." Why did Mel look at Tony at that point? "I've texted Naveem so he knows we are on tonight. Good luck everyone. See you later."
We are getting ready for the performance when Mel introduces Gino who is already in costume as Sebastian.
Gino says "Hi everybody." Like Bruno there is just a trace of an Italian accent.
Tony and I nudge each other; we both think this Sebastian is drop dead gorgeous. Our tongues must have been hanging out as we get a knowing smile from him. Move over Antonio!
Before Tony and I can make total fools of ourselves, we are all distracted by the arrival of Naveem. We gather round to hear the news of Raj.
"He's alright and they expect to let him out tomorrow. He sends his best wishes for tonight."
"What actually happened?" asked one of the cast who had nipped out of school at lunchtime.
"He had an allergic reaction to seafood. He has had it before and recognised the symptoms so he alerted me to what was happening. Fortunately his reaction wasn't too bad, but each time it happens it tends to be worse. Dad says he is to carry an 'epi-pen' in future."
"What triggered it?" I ask.
"It was his own silly fault this time. He ate a prawn cracker, thinking they were, like a lot of snacks, flavoured with artificial flavourings. They are made with real prawns. Dad said we can't blame Cook; he got Brussels to check and it said prawn crackers on the board, not prawn flavoured crackers! Raj shouldn't have taken the risk."
"Get yourselves ready, you lot. Curtain up in twenty minutes." Mel is in schoolmarm mode.
When I am not on stage I am watching the play from the wings. The audience seems to be enjoying it, laughing in all the right places. It is supposed to be a comedy after all. The language seems to be easier to follow in performance than on the page.
Gino is good, doing the stage business, timing the speeches well and matching Naveem's accent after hearing it in Act One. However it is Naveem who is stealing the show. I am not sure his dad approves. Susie has spotted him in the audience and says he has had a face like thunder ever since Viola's first entrance. We are not to let him back stage during the interval which is after Act Three
The interval is nearly over and I am in the wings standing next to Susie ready for my entrance in Act Four, Scene Two when Mr Morgan comes up.
"Crisis averted! He couldn't get in here for all the parents congratulating him for having such a fine actor for a son. The sin of pride overcomes the sin of wrath"
The curtain goes up for Act Four and we can see Naveem's dad, this time with a big grin on his face. Sebastian and the clown start Scene One. As they go past us Sebastian winks at us. I watch them walk on. The lights catch Sebastian's face and I realise who it is. I turn to Susie.
"You had better send someone out for a curry from across the road. Tony is going to zone out when he has to kiss Gino."
She smiles. She knows.
"Under control. Vindaloo takeout in the microwave in the Green Room waiting to be zapped. And some extra hot samosas for you if you keep your mouth shut."
Samosas! Alas Tony your fate is sealed. Definitely trapped.
Tony, as Olivia, makes his entrance from the other side of the stage. That lust is no act as Olivia makes her pitch for Sebastian. I try not to giggle. They leave the stage at the end of the scene arm in arm.
I take a deep breath to compose myself, gather up my props and walk on with the Clown to start Scene Two. I manage to keep focused and get through the scene. As we come off Susie stops me.
"Stand by the microwave; they kiss at the end of this scene. And you had better be ready to take over as Olivia if we can't bring him round."
Hell, I thought I had finished. At least I know the words. I won't need to act much, as Countess I can stand still and make everyone work around me without it being too obvious. I set the microwave running.
The lust is there again as Olivia goes on with the Priest and makes her marriage proposal to Sebastian. The kiss is snatched at the end of the scene after Olivia's last speech. Gino, or should I say Gina, has got him. Tony zones out and Sebastian and the Priest steer him off stage and into the Green Room.
I retrieve the vindaloo from the microwave and spoon feed it to him. Shit, it's not working. I signal Susie to hold curtain up for Act Five for a bit. If it goes up I'll have to get changed quick to make Olivia's next entry.
In desperation, I feed him some of my samosa.
"That was Virginia, the cow had me trapped." he wheezes before continuing, "What the hell was that you fed me?"
"Just one of my samosas." I say as I look round for Susie to tell her the curtain can go up but she must have seen Tony come round and the action is already under way.
"They are a bit hot aren't they?" Tony nods in reply to my question
"Serves you right for lusting after Sebastian. Now go and get ready for your next entrance. It's Act Five and you have about one minute."
I take him to the wings where he can hear the speeches and mentally find his place in the play. Then he is on and the action rolls on to the final curtain.
When the applause has died down we retire to the Green Room. After congratulations all round;
we corner Mel and Virginia.
"Bitch!" says Tony as he steels himself to give Virginia a peck on the cheek. She smiles and is about to give him a full on kiss, tongues and all, but I have to stop her.
"Don't set him off again; I've eaten all the samosas."
She laughs. "I'm surprised you didn't guess it was me when we were introduced. Brughiera is the Italian for a moor or heath."
"We were expecting a boy." Tony says.
"Judging by the looks you were both giving me, you thought you had found one. I'll bet you were hard under your gown, Tony."
Tony blushes and puts on a coy smile.
"Yes!" Virginia punches the air and turns to Mel. "That's another fiver you owe me!" she turns back to Tony. "Good job you were. I gave her odds of twenty to one."
"Did any of the boys guess?" I ask.
"No, the only boy who knew was my cousin Bruno. We had to tell him so he could answer truthfully if anyone asked him to confirm 'Gino' was his cousin. You two are still the only others that know."
"Well you did disguise yourself well." I say, nudging my non-existent bust so she could tell what I meant. She laughs again.
"I've strapped myself down. I am not that big there. I used to prop it up to make it look bigger when I went out with Roger. I might keep it strapped down for a bit. I quite like the look."
"So do I." Tony, Mel and I all chorus.
There is pause. Then Mel leans in and speaks softly so as not to be overheard.
"I don't want the boys to know, and certainly not Merv and David. It rather blows a hole in our premise of no female actors. Also Virginia has been doing the play at college and keeping in touch. That is where I was getting some of my ideas from and why she could drop into the part so easily."
"Don't worry, we'll not say anything." I say then I turn to Virginia. "And if Tony gives you another kiss the boys will know you can't be a girl. Just hold his balls while he does it, that should stop him zoning out!"
That earns me a smack round the head from Tony, which is spotted by Paul who is coming over.
"Lover's tiff!" he shouts which gets everyone's attention just in time for them to see the kiss. Mission accomplished.
"Thanks, Paul, your timing was impeccable." says Mel. Paul goes off preening himself thinking she means his performance on stage.
Things are winding down but before we go Tony has to have a photo of Gino and me. That's Gino on the left.
This work of fiction you'll perceive
Refers unto another's text
In my words I doubtless weave
Errors of fact meaning and design
And willingly I concede
That all mistakes are mine.
But if you wish to me quote
In your assess-ed test
Upon the other's works
Remember then the risk is thine!
Yet stay again gentle reader
To tarry while you ponder this:
If our stories you've enjoyed
Well liked will be your compliment
Instead if you we have annoyed
Be firm but gentle with complaint
As you explain within your letter
And maybe next time we'll do better.
Copyright © 2017 Pedro. All rights reserved
This story is part of the 2017 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Crimson". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 22 July to 13 August 2017 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:
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