The act of character
“Any other extinguishers?”
“Fire extinguishers... the reason I’m here.”
His words wouldn’t cooperate, both mind and hands equally unable to communicate what he wanted to say.
The gentleman standing awkwardly before him was there to do an audit of the fire and protection equipment that council demanded of them as part of the lease. Mike was sitting in the empty theatre that morning waiting for it to be done. A shaft of sunlight was spilling in from the open fire doors nearest him, basking his feet in a warmth not often felt in this darkened space. His shoes were off, legs accepting of this respite.
His was an amateur theatre company, but it had been operating for decades and each year the place became ever more grand. Mike recalled when the old tables bowed in the centre, how many wines that had been spilled, and soggy biscuit crumbs that had needed scrubbing from the carpet each night. He had been on stage, a star front and centre for so many shows. He had also worked behind the curtains, directed, produced, advised, assisted. He had helped run productions in almost every way so that now this beast, this thing of almost tangible, corporeal value was as much a part of him as he was himself.
“Um. Right. Yes, in the back.” He stood to show the way, as he had done for countless others on their first time here. The creaking in his knees was not so recent as to go ignored, but it resonated like the floorboards in the wings.
“Don’t worry. I know the way.”
It was a dismissal Mike heard in that voice. He wondered for how long he had been sitting silent in ignorance.
The cursor of his message on the screen still blinked back, the thing that had been the distraction all morning, and what his hands were so readily struggling to resolve.
Mike went to read it again. There were only a handful of words so far. Words meant to convey more than their sum. To communicate what should have been obvious, but they weren’t doing as intended. His hands had typed them out a dozen times already, almost the same number of typos having needed correction too. No matter how often his thumbs followed their pattern across the phone they still managed to fumble their placement.
The obvious answer was an emoji. But even the thought of that brought the taste of bile to his tongue.
“Emojis.” He mumbled, with more venom than intended.
Mike loathed emojis, which he did very much care to admit to all. Designed to encapsulate words, all they did was cheapen them. Hieroglyphs of the illiterate, and the taciturn. Or at least those too timid for a voice. No emoji could be spoken aloud. They belied sentiment, and no emoji would purposefully find its way into a text of his. However, one of the typos thus far corrected had resulted in the predictive text of his phone producing an astronaut’s helmet emoji. His brow had furrowed before he promptly deleted it. It was something so far from context it may well have been deliberate.
Mike had about fifteen minutes or so left. Five to get home. Another twenty to get lunch ready. Then there would be the necessary half an hour to feed a bottle to his son, and to feed himself as well. That last part was the only step he struggled with. Usually a cup of tea would suffice, but he had been living off countless pots of leaves for days now, and the fog around his eyes was no doubt in part to hunger. A familiar sensation when his mind was working.
At his age there was plenty of nostalgia that came up from having a newborn. He had children fully grown, and being a parent once more had thrown him back into younger days, the routines and revelations, the fatigue and nocturnal hours watching the cricket while whichever child it was struggled with their sleep. But the best of it was the exhilaration that came from witnessing a simple childhood feat. Seeing his son manoeuvre a toy, or crawl competently, or utter a syllable that he knew the meaning of, brought with it such delight. There were so many of these memories. So many interactions unrehearsed and unintended, lodged firmly in his mind as a great source of comfort.
On his phone right now, his eldest son’s name sat bold at the top of the screen. They had seen each other a handful of times in a handful of years. For mere moments. Too little. Too long. The name on the phone was more familiar now than his son’s face. He remembered how much they could talk when they did. Barely a second would pass in silence with their pace of their conversation. But so much of the everyday was lost over such time. Stories drained of intensity. Feelings dissolved when a hug could not be reciprocated. Here he was with an infant so dependent and an adult so not, a father’s task so very broad.
His eldest had kids of his own. Two. Mike’s grandkids. To be a grandad and a dad all at once was to play multiple roles. He had always been good at jumping between characters. Improvising. Even now, under pressure, he had a line for every occasion. The songs he sung to his youngest were always from musicals. The words he chose in happiness or anger were always fragments of dialogue from the thousand plays he had played. His mind raced to the corners of pages and pages and pages of acts. A voice for every theme. Always acting. But for the role most natural to him there were no lines to be learned.
The exit sign flickered brightly. A hallmark of every performance ever performed here. Beyond it the orchestra pit hung heavy with the brass required of the latest musical. To call the band an orchestra was an innocent exaggeration, but the pit was very full this time round. The piano was tucked nearest the wall, and through the sunlight Mike saw dust dancing in the air, stirred into action by his small movements. Subtle movements.
His eyes darted around the room. He still imagined the day they might instal balconies, raise the roof, capitalise on every bit of opportunity. Ambition helped breathe new life into this place with each transformation. The foyer had been the latest project. He remembered how hard he had worked to get that approved by the committee. Democracy in a theatre company was a stage play of its own. Politicians had an easier time of consensus. Perhaps he would write about that.
He craned his neck towards the back of the room. He remembered his eldest working the spotlight. Silent and steadfast in the lighting box. Then at the desk running the stage lights, a tiny LED brightening his features for the cast alone. The stage itself had not been for that boy. There was a confidence not yet formed. Reserved. A mathematical mind that came to the forefront of art. Yet, he had immersed himself in his father’s world, his yearning for connection something recognised too late. Now on his own path, Mike’s eldest did not venture into this theatre. Too many borders and too much distance lay between those hands and an entry ticket.
The gentleman from council returned. His boots thumping down the steps with a message of their own. Mike was forced to watch the slow spectacle as the man shot his eyes at the ceiling. It was a slight, deliberate. A disdain meant to intimidate.
“Is there a problem?” Mike countered. He felt so fucking tall today. Coiled and ready. Even with his drowsiness, no one would get the better of him here.
“Hmm. Insulation… I have my doubts.”
“Well we’re not auditing your doubts today are we?”
The gentleman was not amused. “I needn’t remind you of the policy of your lease, which states…”
Mike cut him off. “You needn’t.”
Tension hung in the air, and Mike savoured it. Bigger personalities had trodden these floors.
“I’ll need to check the fire alarm.”
“You do that.”
The gentleman edged away with the same ire he had entered with.
Mike swung his eyes back to the phone.
He started typing out a description of what was going on right now. The flood of paragraphs flowed until he realised how much whinging filled the screen and promptly deleted them.
A sigh escaped his exhale as he struggled to understand why this was so difficult.
Almost five years ago his eldest had moved overseas with his young family. A world of change had taken place, but he could still remember fondly their last hug. It was here, outside the theatre, a few seconds of passing from one life to the next. Even then he had felt something unspoken, something misunderstood. Something more that urged to be said. But there had been no rehearsal. No structure of how their goodbye should go. Their routine embrace filled the void for them, masking the words.
A few minutes remained at best now. The council man would be done shortly. Mike would have to lock this place up again until the evening, and then there would be an emptiness hanging in the air as there was each morning. The eerie echo of absence. A space between spaces when the clicks and cracks of this old structure moaned and groaned, dressed in curtains and decorated to impress. An actor every bit as necessary as those with opinions on skill versus talent. Mike knew where the nails were covered up, where the paint was peeling and the bricks cracked. He knew the art of misdirection, as much a tool of the magician as it was the thespian. They made magic here of a different sort. It was predictable, but magic still.
His phone remained lodged in his grasp, his palm slightly sweaty at the duration it had been held. He was never nervous on stage. At least not for a long, long time. He was safe there. His part was clear. Yet here he sat, legs now tight and twitching, lost for words and terrified of the audience that did not exist. There were no reviews. There was nothing to dictate the outcome, nor the delivery itself.
Mike knew though that a father’s words have weight. They are measured in units hard to describe, and they resonate. But the absence of them does the same too. He longed for memories for to be real once more.
Mike looked back at the gentleman from council again. The man’s heavy boots were as leathery as his face. Only exasperation was left. There was nothing else to say now.
“Thank you.” A sincerity acted in every way.
The man turned and exited the foyer doors. They swung back slowly, nothing else moving in their wake.
Alone again. Time was up.
This shouldn’t be so hard. But sometimes the most obvious of things were.
He deleted everything. A blank, white square taunting him into action. On it he typed deliberately, reading aloud as he went.
“Hi mate. How are yiu?”
Then he hit send. Typo and all.
Nobody was perfect.
About the author
I am a conservation biologist, but words and creativity have always been my favourite tools. I like to integrate possibility with fiction. I hope you enjoy what I share.
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