The Show Must Go On
No infringement intended, nor profit made! Feedback very much encouraged!
This took on a life of it's own from it's original plot bunny stage. And then again as I got about halfway through it. Some characters just won't leave you alone until you tell their story.
A super special shout out to Katbybee for her generous loan of "Benjamin Newkirk." :) Thanks a bunch! (If you haven't read "Prisoners of the Christmas Truce" go do yourself a favor. :))
His eyes were carefully focused on her, as she leaned forward to get a better look in the dressing room mirror. Her hands danced with the make-up brushes, delicately adding color and shape to her already beautiful features.
"There," she declared with a final flourish across her face. "What do you think? Do I look passable?"
His already tender treble voice jumped a few feminine octaves, "Gorgeous, Dahling. Simply Gorgeous!" He flicked his hand to accent his words, just as he had seen high end actresses do.
"Cheeky Monkey!" She dusted his nose with her powder brush, causing him to giggle in response. She shook her head before turning back to give her hair one final check.
Little Peter Newkirk drew his legs up to his chest and rested his chin on his knees; a contented smile softly rose on his cheeks. He was happily sitting on his mother's dressing table, just as he did every Friday night before her evening performance. He never tired of the elaborate ritual to accentuate her high cheekbones and bright blue eyes. The only thing he looked forward to more was the time when she was on stage and he had free reign of the theatre.
"Now Peter, we haven't time to dilly-dally after the show tonight, alright?" She leaned forward on the table, making sure her eyes were locked with the boy's. "I have two sets tonight with ten minutes in between. I want you back here and ready to go when I walk off that stage. No excuses. No shenanigans. No issues that I need to speak to anyone about. Do I make myself clear?"
Peter sighed heavily. "Yes, Mum."
"And no mischief tonight, please? I just want one normal night where we get home at a decent hour and nothing goes missing."
"But, Mum! I swear the rabbit w-"
"Wasn't my fault!" Mum finished his sentence; her exasperated tone implied how much she believed what she was quoting as she folded her arms across her chest. "I know, we've been over it more than once. The fact remains that at the end of the day Mr. Winston's rabbit was not in his hat OR its cage where it should have been. And YOU were the only one around who could have changed that. At least the only one who could make a clean get-away."
There was a heavy thump on the door. "Oy! Two minutes to places in there!"
"Thank you, two!" She called. She turned back to the boy with a sigh. "Please just say "Yes, Mum" and stay out of trouble for me tonight?"
She smiled as she cupped his chin in her hand. "That's my good boy." She quickly placed a soft kiss on his hairline. "I love you, my naughty little monkey. I'll see you as soon as the last number finishes!" With a flourish of her skirt, Mum ran out of her dressing room and softly closed the door behind her.
Peter counted to ten, slowly, before jumping from his perch and racing out the door. With a practiced grace and speed, he sprinted through the hallways of the small theatre, dodging performers, stage hands, and moving set pieces. He skidded when he reached the end of the hall, grabbing the iron ladder attached to the wall that lead to the catwalks above to keep him from sliding past it. He hopped up, hardly putting his feet to the floor before shimmying up to the crawlspaces above the theatre.
There were only a handful of people who knew the Royal Emmerson Theatre as well as six year old Peter Newkirk. Exploring every inch of this space from the time he was able to walk, he knew every conventional way to get from one area to another and even a handful of unconventional ways. He had played more than one trick on some of the workers and performers. He delighted in their exasperation when he appeared somewhere he wasn't only moments before with the most angelically innocent of looks.
More than one worker had also said that he was lucky his mother was as talented and popular with the patrons as she was, or they would both be out on the streets.
Peter reached the top of the ladder and jumped off, his feet lightly landing on the metal walkway above the stage. He peeked his nose over the curtains, and backdrops. He could see Winston the Wonderful was on his final trick, showing the audience a shiny coin with his left hand. With a large flourish, he grabbed the coin in his right fist and held it up to the audience to see. With a shout of magic words, the coin disappeared as he rubbed his fingers together. The audience cheered and hollered as he took his final bow.
Peter tightly clamped his hands over his mouth. He often watched Winston the Wonderful's performance from his topside vantage point, mimicking his movements. He dug out his old bottle cap from his pocket and held it up in his own left hand. With a large, dramatic flourish, he grabbed for it with his right hand, but instead of grabbing the coin, he let it drop into his left palm. He then showed his imaginary audience his empty hand. With a magic wave, his coin also disappeared from where they thought it would be. He bowed to his audience, soaking up the applause for his amazing trick.
Piece of cake.
He put his precious bottle cap securely back in his pocket and set his feet up like a runner about to set off for a race. This was the tricky part. Crossing the catwalk quickly enough so no one noticed from down below, but slowly enough as to not make any noise and be discovered. Just as the applause began to die down he took off. Light and nimbly, he darted across the catwalk.
The Emcee was on the stage again as Winston gathered his supplies. Peter grinned, just in time. His mother usually did two sets each night. One group dance with the other ladies, one solo. He sat down at the edge of the catwalk, careful to keep his legs curled under him and out of sight of the audience.
As the Emcee waved his arms in introduction the piano started playing a jaunty, rhythmic tune and the patrons started whistling. In a grand line, all the dancers started flowing in from the wings on the stage, bouncing in time to the music. Their legs kicked, their skirts twirled and swirled. They linked arms and paraded about the stage. It was even more impressive from the air, where Peter could see their attention to detail in making perfect circles and turns. He might have been a bit biased, but he always thought that his Mum was the most beautiful and graceful out of the lot of them.
He scanned the backstage area, another advantage of being so high up. Within moments he found Mr. Ellis, the theater stage manager. He stood behind the closest leg curtain, his eyes transfixed on the dance in front of him. His black hair was slicked back and the ever present pencil tucked behind his ear. He would usually pay at least one visit to Mum's dressing room each night, sometimes bringing her a flower, or Peter a small candy. He always had a moment to listen to Peter's stories, or patience to explain how a particular piece of equipment worked.
Sometimes, Peter wished that Mr. Ellis would be waiting for them at the end of the night, instead of his father.
Peter sucked in a deep breath, pushing away his dark thoughts as he turned his eyes back to the stage, where the dancers were just about to finish. His favorite part, finale was just about to start. He was mesmerized as the ladies formed a long kick line and one at a time and each did a back flip while their arms were still linked with the others. As usual, the crowd roared to their feet with applause.
Far too soon the music came to an end and the dancers, still in their finale line, waved as they sashayed off stage into the wings. Peter couldn't help himself and clapped along with the audience.
It was then that Peter's eyes were drawn to the thin form of his mother, just inside the wing curtains where Mr. Ellis had been. She was leaning against the inside wall of the stage, just out of sight of the audience. Mum's chest was heaving, gasping for lungfuls of air, her arm protectively wrapped around her middle. Mr. Ellis was at her side, his own arms under hers holding her upright.
Peter stood, a pain constricting in his throat. He hadn't noticed anyone knocking into her or dropping her. And Mum had done that particular dance dozens of times.
Peter raced down the ladder, his feet hardly touching the rungs. This time he grew annoyed as he dodged stage hands and performers in the hall, almost ready to shove them out of the way.
Peter arrived back at his mother's dressing room within moments. He stopped himself from rushing in just as he realized the door was slightly open. He skidded to a stop, his attention caught by a deep, gentle voice drifting from inside.
"You can't hide this much longer, Sarah. You know that, right? It's just not safe in your condition… for either of you."
Peter crouched down, holding the door open just enough for one eye to peer in. He could see Mum, sitting at her dressing room mirror, her face buried in her hands. Mr. Ellis was still next to her, one hand resting on her shoulder.
"Just let me finish out the week at dancer's wages, please Freddie?" Mum looked up, her eyes bright with tears. "Just a few more days. And then I'm sure Miss Rosemary in the costume shop could use an extra set of hands, couldn't she? It's our busy summer season. She can't possibly keep up with twenty-one shows a week all by herself!"
Mr. Ellis sighed. "Does Ben know yet?"
Mum shook her head as her delicate hands fell to her lap. "I haven't had the right moment yet. He's… well, being Benjamin. But he'll know soon, I promise. If nothing else, I'm beginning to fill out. He'll take notice like you did."
Mr. Ellis gave a derisive snort, turning his back to Mum. "That lazy sod couldn't take notice of something if it fixed itself to his face."
Mum's eyebrows furrowed, a spark of anger flickered in her eyes. She stood up, her fists clenched at her sides, her voice icy. "That Lazy Sod just happens to be my husband, Mister Ellis. I'll thank you not to speak of him with such a tone."
Mr. Ellis raised his hands, "I apologize, Sarah. Truly I do. I know how you feel about him. But you know me own feelings on the subject."
Mum took a deep breath, her hands relaxing as she took a step back. She turned her back to Mr. Ellis, trying to regain her composure. "It hasn't been easy for him, since the War. He's been trying, honest he has. He just can't catch a break."
"Not unless it involves a whiskey bottle." Mr. Ellis muttered. He shook his head when he noticed Mum cross her arms over her chest. Immediately, Mr. Ellis reached over and physically turned Mum back towards him. "I'm sorry, that was out of line, even for me. I just can't stand the way he speaks to you, Sarah. Or finding new scrapes and bruises on your boy. He's no china doll, I know that. But no child is that clumsy, especially not a nimble cat like your Peter. You and that lad of yours deserve better."
"I love him, Freddie." Mum reached over and clasped Mr. Ellis's hands in her own. "I love him more than words could ever say. Ben is such a good, kind man. Charming, funny. Everything you could ever want in a partner. But it was the War… that damned War took so much away from him. His job, his friends, his body. Very nearly his mind. We're all he has left. I couldn't stand myself if I were to let it take me from him, too."
Mr. Ellis let his eyes fall to the floor. He drew in a deep breath as he turned her words over in his head.
"You can finish the week," Mr. Ellis said. "But on a light performance schedule. No fancy flips and turns, got it? I'll speak to Miss Rosemary. I'm sure she'd welcome some sewing help for the next few months. Only on one condition, you tell Ben. A man who's got the right to love you has a right to know the truth."
Mum's eyes crinkled as her mouth drew into a wide, beaming smile. "Oh, Freddie, you're a Love." She stood on her toes to place a soft kiss on Mr. Ellis's cheek. "There is a lucky woman out there, waiting for you to find her."
The smile on Mr. Ellis's face didn't quite reach his eyes as he squeezed Mum's hands.
Peter took three silent steps away from the door. So many thoughts swirled through his head. The only thing he was certain about was that he shouldn't have heard any of that.
And that there was a rather large change coming.
He took a deep breath as he shifted his weight. Before he could change his mind he raced forward, this time sure to cause as much noise as possible.
"Mum! Mum, are you alright?" Peter shoved the door open and ran for his mother. He barreled into her, wrapping his arms tightly around her legs. "I saw your performance, and I was worried about you! Did you fall? Are you hurt? What's wrong?"
"Oh, Peter!" Mum said, kneeling down to be eye level with her son. She reached down and cupped his chin in her hand. "It's okay, I'm alright. I just overexerted myself a little, lost my wind. But I'm fine now, see? Mr. Ellis was taking good care of me. Everything is alright."
"Peter, Me-Lad!" Mr. Ellis said gently. He stepped closer and ruffled the boy's hair. "I'm so glad to see you. Everything is just fine, see? Mum just needed a little breather, right?"
Peter's eyes moved between the two adults. There was definitely something hanging in the air, something Peter couldn't quite catch. But as he looked at his mother's face, she seemed almost the same as she had before she went on, save for a sheen of sweat and her face slightly flushed. There was a special glow in her smile that he hadn't noticed before, as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
Peter nodded slowly before burying his face in his mother's arms.
"Alright, now that we've got that covered," Mr. Ellis said. "Your light performance schedule starts now. Relax, take some time. Let Peter here coddle you a bit in your dressing room before Ben comes to fetch you, alright? I'll see you tomorrow."
"Freddie?" Mum stood. She reached out and grabbed Mr. Ellis's hand. They were frozen for a moment, eyes locked into each other's. "Thank you."
Mr. Ellis grimaced once more before dropping Mum's hand. He turned and walked out, shutting the door softly behind him.
"Mum, are you really alright?" Peter asked, trying his best to hide the quiver in his voice.
"What's all this about? Of course I'm alright! Haven't you ever seen a working girl before?" She grabbed a handful of skirt and rubbed his cheeks to rid the evidence of any tears. "But I do need to tell you something. Something very special that I haven't told anyone yet. Well, Mr. Ellis knows only because he figured it out. You're the first one I'm going to willingly share it with."
"For now, yes. It's a very special secret. Something I'm going to need your help with. You think you can do that for me?"
A smile spread on Peter's face. "Oh, yes! I can help you with anything! I'm almost seven, you know!"
Mum wrapped her arms around Peter and squeezed. "I knew you were my good boy, Peter-Love." She left one arm draped around Peter's shoulders as she guided him to the chair on the other side of her dressing room. She lifted the boy into her lap and held him close. Slowly, her body began to rock as her hand traced gentle circles on his back. "You know Mum and Da love you very much, right? No one will ever come along to change that." Peter rested his head against her chest, savoring the sound of her heart beating in his ear.