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Orlando ripped the covers off the bed and flung them into the corner. He lay down on the top-sheet and stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep and missing Craig. It was still a sticky, uncomfortably warm night, the room illuminated every few minutes by a flickering of lightning, but heat and the light show had little to do with the reason why sleep evaded him and why he spent most of the night tossing and turning. It had only been two days, but it felt like an eternity since he’d last slept with Craig in their bed in Toujours.
In the morning, he emerged from the bedroom tired, hollow-eyed and headachy. Marton was sitting at the dining room table scanning the real-estate section of an old newspaper. He uttered a quiet, “Morning,” as Orlando passed him on the way to the kitchen.
Orlando made coffee for the two of them and joined Marton at the table.
“I’m going back to Toujours this afternoon after I buy a car. I’ll be back tomorrow. God, I miss him so much all ready!”
He went and showered, dressed in jeans and tee-shirt, and gathered together his wallet, phone, keys and sunglasses. He took the spare keys for the apartment from the hook on the kitchen wall and put them on the table in front of Marton.
“You’ll need these,” he said, “And help yourself to anything. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
For once, shopping wasn’t a fun activity but a chore, something else to delay him and keep him from Craig for that much longer. He bought a newspaper from the first newsstand he came to, sat in a small café with more coffee and leafed through pages of car ads until he found what he was looking for. He caught a taxi to the car lot, pointed to the Jeep parked outside – a later model than Craig’s but much the same – and said he’d take it. He didn’t bother to negotiate a deal but simply gave his bank details, signed the necessary papers and drove out of the lot barely an hour later.
He parked the car in town and did a quick flit between several stores. From a deli, he bought fresh pasta, a jar of sauce and some garlic breadsticks. From the gourmet food shop next door, he bought a pound slab of McGillvray’s mocha fudge, remembering how Craig once described it as an edible orgasm. He found a florist and paid for a dozen Black Velvet roses, the ones that reminded them both of the walk. On the way out of town, he stopped at a liquor store and bought a chilled bottle of vintage Moët.
When he arrived at Toujours a couple of hours later – parking the Jeep quietly and unobtrusively away from the house – he found Craig sitting out on the deck in a pensive mood.
He put everything carefully down on the bench seat, loving the way Craig’s face had lit up as he rose, murmuring, “How’d you know I was missing you so much?”
They reached for one another, kissed and clung together.
“Because I was too,” Orlando said, “I wanted to come back and say goodbye properly because we couldn’t the other day – Marton being here and everything. I wanted to let you know how much I love you – and that bed has been such a fucking lonely place these past two nights.”
Craig nodded, “Mine too, horribly lonely.”
Orlando kissed him again. “I’m sorry.”
“I was in such a tearing hurry to get back to town and get things moving. I was thinking only about me. It was only when you weren’t there I realized it. So yeah, I had to come back and see you again. Just to tell you I’m sorry. So anyway, I bought some goodies to make it a little bit of a party tonight.”
Craig looked down at the things Orlando had deposited on the bench. “So I see. All the elements of a really good orgy of self-indulgence, Bloom. We’ll probably make ourselves sick.”
“We never did in the past.”
They gathered up the little bundle of luxuries and took them inside. As he watched Craig putting the roses in water, Orlando asked, “Did you get anything done?”
“No. I tried and failed miserably. Pretty pathetic, aren’t we? Should I just give up and go back with you?”
“Nah,” Orlando chided him gently, “Give it another couple of days at least.”
“You are staying the night, aren’t you?”
“Well if you don’t want me to – “
“That’s not even remotely funny.”
Craig put the roses aside, eyed the slab of fudge for a long moment then opened it and broke off a chunk. He held it up and smirked. “Would you like to come and have some fun with me, little boy?”
Orlando grinned. “I always thought you’d make a first-class pervert.”
“Only with you.” Craig held out his other hand. “Come to bed. We’ve got a couple of nights to catch up on.”
A little while later, they lay together sated and drowsy as the past sleep-deficient nights caught up with both of them. The sun was beginning to set when hunger – neither had eaten anything all day other than a bite of fudge – drove them to the kitchen to prepare a meal. They took it out onto the deck where it was cooler and more bearable. The Moët remained in the fridge unopened.
“We’ll save it for next time,” Craig said.
They showered under tepid water and then returned to a bed remade with fresh cool linens. They made love again, slept a few hours, were woken up by another storm moving in just after three -- no rain in it, just a loud, bright symphony of thunder and lightning, and an eerie sensation of making love under a strobe-light.
They slept late, swam for an hour and shared a fruit brunch. It was mid afternoon when Orlando reluctantly announced he’d better be getting back, swearing to Craig that he’d still miss him but that he wouldn’t be so girly about it next time.
“Write!” he ordered, as he started the Jeep, “Just get one chapter done, even if it’s complete crap. Just make a start, yeah?”
“Alright, I know I should. It’s nothing but procrastination and laziness. Are you coming down for the weekend?”
“Only to read your first chapter.”
Craig feigned disgust. “That’s blackmail!”
Orlando snickered, “I know. I’ll let you know about the weekend.” He pouted a kiss at Craig, “Take care. Talk soon. I love you!”
A couple of hours later, he let himself into the apartment and found Marton working at the dining room table. Orlando indicated all the papers spread out on the table. “Have you been doing that all day?”
“No, just for an hour or so. I went out looking at real estate yesterday.”
“Oh. Find anything?”
“I made an offer on a place this morning, just down the road – easy walking distance. Close enough to be in easy contact but not so that we’ll be in each other’s back-pockets.”
“Yeah, okay. Fair enough.”
Orlando went into the kitchen and made tea for himself and a cup of coffee for Marton, the way he liked it – very strong, black and scalding hot.
“We need to keep some sort of distance between us, for propriety if nothing else,” Marton said as if there had been no pause in the conversation at all. “This city’s rife with gossips. One whiff and we’ll be crucified.”
“So when will you know – about the place? Is it like this or what?”
“Similar. Just somewhere to spend the night and have my mail delivered.”
They ordered in some Chinese for dinner and spent the evening pouring over what they simply referred to as ‘the stuff’. Orlando finally admitted his complete hatred for the opera.
“It’s really a fucking chore to listen to it. I’ve managed the whole thing three times but it didn’t get any easier. If anything, it sounded worse each time. I think opera just isn’t my cuppa tea.”
Marton smiled wryly. “I wasn’t expecting you to learn it word for word, just to get a feel for it and to familiarize yourself with the story. There’re only three real references to it in the play. One, the main character has taken her name from it. Two, she did so because her only memory of her mother was of her listening to it constantly. And three, there’s a loose correlation between the two plots. That’s all you need to know.”
Orlando nodded, relieved. “Thank Christ for that! But – it’s weird, y’know, the kind of whacked out memories you keep from when you’re growing up. Sometimes you don’t even realize they’re in your head until something triggers them. I mean, I can remember something a bit like this when I was a kid – I was about ten years old, I think – and there was this lady in our street who used to drive the whole neighborhood completely batty by playing classical music at full blast. She’d have Beethoven’s Fifth rattling the glass in every window in the street. If anyone ever complained, she’d sort of look down her nose at them as if they were dead common and make some snooty remark about how only a certain class of people could appreciate that kind of music, and she was of that class. One day a neighbor bashed away on her front door trying to get her attention to complain but the lady inside just wasn’t having any of it. So the neighbor went around the back of the house and looked in the back window and there was the lady of the house blissfully doing her vacuuming and she was wearing a pair of these earphones – you know, the huge ones they wear on building sites and around heavy machinery. The neighbor just pissed herself laughing and went tearing off to spread it round the street. This poor sad cow was never left in peace about her stupid pretensions.”
Orlando sat for a moment, smiling at the memory. “I think Aida’s mum was a bit like that, thinking that owning a copy of this opera and playing it constantly and being able to hum along with it – it was her own way of thinking herself better than her position, of making herself seem a little more special. And maybe Aida does that by having this up-market name instead of something like Mitzi or Fifi, and she wears velvet instead of sequins, and sheer stockings instead of sleazy fishnets. She goes out and nicks them from shops, by the way, the most expensive imported stockings she can find. She nicks them because the expensive ones – the ones she can’t afford to buy for herself – are the only ones she’ll wear. She thinks of herself as better than them – like you said, there’s almost a bit of royalty about her – but it’s all in her head, and when it all boils down to it, she’s really not much better than them.”
Marton looked at him, his brow furrowing slightly. “Where do you get these things from?”
Orlando shrugged. “Overactive imagination, I s’pose – I dunno. Feel free to ignore them, they’re just stupid bits of – “
“No,” Marton interrupted, “Not stupid.”
“Then what? You always look at me as though I’m coming out with all this crap that doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, I’m just completely amazed at how you manage to keep adding all these extra layers and dimensions to her – she’s becoming a really complex little character.”
Orlando momentarily caught his bottom lip between his teeth in a gesture of uncertainty. “Is that a good thing?”
“Yes, to a point. Great for film – I can see a scene like that, her going out and stealing those expensive stockings – but a stage version of her has to be kept simple. You can’t spend a great deal of time trying to explain every one of her motivations. She simply must 'be'. The stage Aida should be a fully-formed character who needs no prior explanation – every character and scene has to be able to stand alone as they are. All these additional little bits of background you’re coming up with are really very good so make sure you write them down. But at the moment we should be trying to condense and simplify everything – characters, relationships and scenarios. Think about it.”
Orlando's mind seemed to make a sudden gearshift, catching Marton by surprise.
“I think I learned right from the start what the business end of this game was all about. It’s like a weird game of Monopoly or something but instead of using paper money, you use yourself. If you’ve got heaps of obvious talent, you’re rich but if you’ve got looks, you’re fucking loaded and you can buy just about anyone or anything. The thing is, if you’ve got the looks and a bit of talent, people always seem to bypass the talent and home right in on the looks and then it just all comes down to sex. A pretty face, throwing a good fuck or giving a fantastic blow-job – they’ll get you further than talent. It makes you lazy and it eventually fucks up the way you see things. I was so convinced Craig wasn’t interested in me – back at the very start – because he didn’t ever try to fuck me. We spent quite a bit of time together just talking, and we went to the theatre and it’s only now – looking back – it’s like we went out on these dates and we were starting this lovely little courtship – but I didn’t recognize it because there was no sex involved. I’d already gotten it in my head that if he didn’t want to fuck me, he just wasn’t interested in me…”
Marton remain silent as Orlando’s voice trailed away. Then Orlando frowned to himself as he attempted to concentrate his thoughts into words. “He made me laugh and he made me feel good about myself – that I was interesting and that the time he spent with me wasn’t wasted just because we didn’t end up in the sack. I was so used to it – the payoff. Even now when things should be completely right and I should be over that sort of thinking…” Again, his voice trailed off.
“Sometimes I get this weird feeling – like panic, or fear, or something like that – that I’m completely alone and everyone’s gone forever. I haven’t had it for a long time now because Craig and I have been together for the past year. I think just coming back here without him sort of triggered it again. That’s why I had to go back to Toujours.”
“And if it happens again, what’ll you do?”
“Go back to Toujours if I can. If I can’t, can I phone you?”
“Because the talking is the important thing – it’s not just the sex, although being held is nice. I’m such a cuddle-whore and he’s completely spoiled me for a whole year – I’m sorry, this is so stupid, really, and I’m boring and embarrassing the hell out of you. I’m sorry.”
“No it’s not,” Marton said, prompting quietly, “Keep going. I want to understand where you’re coming from.”
“Even I don’t know that. All I know is that something seems to get lost in translation between what I’m feeling and what I end up doing. Sometimes there isn’t any connection and afterwards I think, ‘Why the fuck did I do that?’”
“I think everyone asks that of themselves now and then.”
“Whenever I’m with someone I like and respect and admire, I just automatically want to be with them. I want to get inside them or at least to get as close as possible to them. I love the closeness. I love the connection.”
“Why not Craig then – back at the start? Why didn’t you approach him yourself and start something? As far as I know, I doubt he’d have knocked you back.”
“He said he was already in a relationship with someone at the time and that – well – he’s always been the faithful type.” Orlando sighed and gave a little grimace of something akin to pain. “Why does he have to be so perfect? It’s so easy to think sometimes that I’ve gotten the better deal and somehow he’s been cheated.”
“He adores you. He’s never been happier in his life. I’d say he has everything he ever wanted so don’t ever think you’re not good enough for him.”
They lapsed into another drawn-out silence which Orlando was the first to break with another sigh and a very quietly uttered, “Sometimes, y’know, I don’t think I deserve him.”
~ * ~
“Alright,” Craig conceded as he turned the last page of the manuscript, closed it and handed it back to Orlando who had lurked around expectantly the entire time it took Craig to read it. “I admit that between the two of you, you’ve made a hell of an improvement to it but I still think it’s dark and off-putting.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a fucking paperback romance!” Orlando sighed, exasperated. He had almost convinced himself that this final version might have piqued Craig’s interest enough to get involved – but he knew an immovable brick wall when he saw one.
He tossed the manuscript aside and went to stand in front of the glass sliding doors. He would have loved to have gone for a walk just now but outside, beyond the rain-speckled glass, the sea and sky were various shades of grey, and the pauses between squalls of wind and rain were rarely more than about ten minutes.
‘Make the most of it,’ Marton had warned him, ‘It might be your last free weekend for a while.’
Yeah, right. Great!
He’d driven down that morning, just as he did most Saturday mornings. It wasn’t worth risking the long drive down to Toujours on the Friday evening when a week’s worth of accumulated fatigue would have made concentration difficult. He had been looking forward to the day and a half with Craig, catching up, perhaps borrowing the horses for a few hours, following it up with a lazy wallow in the tub with a bottle of wine, and then an early night.
He’d made the two-hour trip in driving rain that showed no signs of clearing any time soon. After only a couple of hours, he was developing a galloping case of cabin-fever.
He and Marton had spent the last three months or so rewriting the play, changing existing dialogue and adding more, bringing in an additional character and modifying others, and then tidying-up and compacting each scene until any one of the final six – divided into two Acts – could stand alone in their own right. His role was a leading role in every sense – it would require him to be on-stage the entire time and every other character and portion of dialogue would revolve around, and respond to, him alone.
When he hadn’t been working with Marton, Orlando had been spending the rest of his time either in the gym or dance classes, or in costume fittings, make-up and hair sessions. It was tiring and all-consuming, and most nights he literally fell into bed and slept deeply, rising reluctantly in the mornings feeling stiff and sore, though that was gradually lessening.
On the weekends he returned to Toujours while Marton did whatever Marton did – he never really said but Orlando had a feeling he was in a weekend relationship as well.
“When are you casting the other parts?” Craig asked, “Any people in mind?”
“Only one definite. Marton said he’d only ever seen Karl Urban as Jack. That’s why we’re dragging out the prep work before the full rehearsals. Karl’s not free for another month but it’s not like he has to get into shape or anything. He just has to lie in a bed, whinge a bit then eventually die.”
Craig grinned at the dry response, detecting a definite note of Csokas humour in it. “No-one else?”
“He’s sent out synopses and invitations to audition to some of the locals here and over in Aussie. He has this wish-list in mind but doesn’t expect to get them all. Not every bloke likes the idea of putting on a dress.”
“Not every bloke looks any good in a dress,” Craig reminded him, “And think what a depressing experience it would be trying to manage it while you’re standing next to them doing the same. Talk about destroying a man’s self-esteem!”
Orlando gave a little snort of laughter. “He’s booked the Maidment Studio for auditions and rehearsals, and the Skycity for the main event.”
“I always preferred the big Maidment over Skycity – two hundred and fifty less people to see my first-night balls-ups. Still – at least he didn’t get overambitious and sign for the Civic or Aotea. I practically wet myself every time I had to go out on-stage at the Aotea. Three times the size of Skycity – you’d have died of fright – but of course things like that don’t bother our Marton.”
Orlando smiled absently, murmuring, “Yeah, he’s fearless.”
Craig watched him as he stood silhouetted in the window, plain black jeans and sweater emphasizing his reed-thinness. It had worried him at first, realizing how thin Orlando had become until Marton had reassured him that it was a diet and exercise thing. Yes, Orlando was definitely eating enough and no, he hadn’t lost any weight, merely altered the ratio of muscle to body fat. At the moment, Orlando was as superbly fit as an Olympic athlete. Still, Craig was often shocked at how tiny and birdlike Orlando felt, how he seemed to almost disappear in his arms, a little bundle of limbs and a mane of thick, dark hair.
He crossed the room and stood behind him, gathering him close. “What a cruddy day. I should have driven up to town rather than you coming down here. We could have gone out and put to rest some of that stupid gossip.”
‘They made such a huge public production out of their apparent commitment,’ the GayNZ gossip column had snipped in the first blind item, a few weeks previously ‘but has the romance of it all worn off already? Everyone’s favorite ex-soap star is twiddling his thumbs down at his coastal hideaway, head buried in the sand in more ways than one, while his imported SO samples the delights of K Road with another. Those who shook their heads and swore it wouldn’t last, must be feeling somewhat validated.’
Other columns and websites, both local and overseas, had since caught on and added further commentary.
‘Half the fandom is still obsessing over Hobbit-hobnobbing and completely missing some significant elf-antics going on across the water,’ snickered the satirical LA-based site “Middle Earth Confidential”, ‘Just as titillating but a whole lot prettier to watch!’
Orlando sighed. “It’s not like we weren’t expecting it. Does it bother you? Do you ever wonder – you know – if there’s any truth in it?”
Craig turned his head slightly, nuzzling Orlando’s hair and inhaling, and wondering why people often claimed that some things could be readily smelled – like pheromones, and rats, and adultery, and the lingering scent of another body. Orlando smelled comfortingly of the herbal shampoo they normally bought – the stuff that didn’t remind him of salons. He asked in a carefully neutral voice, “Should I?”
“No. I’d like to see them put in a day like I normally do just to see if they’d be in the mood for shagging at the end of it.”
“And if the positions were reversed and it was me up in town being talked about, how would you feel?”
Orlando gave the hint of a shrug. “I’d wonder more about them and why it all matters so much about who is or isn’t fucking around. It’s not like it affects their lives or anything – oh yeah, that reminds me. The Kiwi Sixty Minutes asked Marton if they could do a feature on him, a local-hero type of thing, looking at all the things he’s done and what his plans are for the future now that he’s back for good. He says they’re bound to have a look at the play, and then me, and they’d probably try to drag you in as well, maybe with a mention of the gossip. He said to tell you that it would be a handy bit of advance publicity but it wouldn’t break his heart if it didn’t happen. He’s basically left it up to us whether he agrees to do the show or not.”
“Tell him I’ll defer to his impeccable judgment and let him have the final word. Marton isn’t someone who’ll be railroaded into anything.”
Craig pulled him momentarily closer, murmuring against his hair, “Anyway, why don’t I race you off to bed and we’ll loaf away the rest of the day, hmm? No point in going anywhere – the weather’s such a complete write-off – and there’s a bed all freshly made and begging to be messed up.”
“Sometimes I think you’re only interested in me as a sex-object,” Orlando complained, following him willingly to the bedroom and feigning resignation as he raised his arms over his head and allowed Craig to peel off the sweater.
“Ah Bloom, you’re so much more than that and you know it!” Craig chided him gently as he unbuttoned and unzipped Orlando’s jeans. “Though one wouldn’t think so, just to look at you, all skin and bone – oh alright, and a bit of muscle – but there’s so little of you to get a hold of.”
“Yeah, well don’t whinge to me. Take it up with Marton. I just do as I’m told.”
“Do you do as you’re told for everyone?”
“Only for Marton at work,” Orlando replied, the laughter playing around his mouth, “And you at home. I’m so disgustingly obedient when I want something badly enough.”
“I’ll remember that.” Craig dispensed with his own clothes, leaving them in an untidy pile on the floor as he followed Orlando into bed.
It was nice just to pull the covers over themselves and reach for one another, cuddling and murmuring almost in unison that this was what was missed most of all, not just the sexual act but the closeness of a familiar body, the silken warmth of familiar flesh.
They made love as they usually did – usually having little to do with routine but everything to do with that sense of knowing – knowing that Orlando loved to be taken first, taken quickly and roughly, he vocal and demanding, and his orgasm akin to a cry of pain. After a necessary recovery time, Craig would then allow himself to be seduced to completion, Orlando’s movements slow and languid as he teased him to almost there, almost, and then slowing down again until Craig was practically begging for an end to it. They’d hold each other again – as they usually did – enjoying the luxury of time and the absence of necessity, snoozing and intermittent murmured conversations.
Outside, the wind pelted rain against the windows and drowned out the low roar of the sea.
“Why don’t we plan a little something for when the production’s over?” Craig said as they lay there drowsing, his face resting comfortably in the warm curve of Orlando’s neck. “We could head across the water and visit our trans-Tasman cuzzies for a couple of weeks.”
“Mmm, which ones?”
“I talked to Hugo on the phone the other night, did I tell you? Saw him in a marvelous two-parter on the telly during the week and wanted to let him know how much I enjoyed it. David was in it as well. I should have taped it so I could watch it again. He sent his best, by the way. I thought it would be nice to catch up with some of them, you know?”
“Mmm, yeah, nice.”
“And we could head up to the Reef for a few days afterwards.”
“Mmm. Won’t it interrupt your writing?”
“I’ll make it a planned interruption.”
After a few minutes of silence, Craig asked, “Just out of curiosity – what exactly do you and Marton do when you’re sleazing your way down K Road?”
He heard the amusement in Orlando’s voice as he replied, “Research. We compare drag queens – their acts, and their costumes and make-up – and we check out the audiences as well. It’s fun. He said that once we’ve sorted everything out – like deciding who else is going to be putting on a dress with me – we might do a surprise show somewhere, just to see if we get the same audience response. Completely without publicity beforehand.”
“Can I come and watch?”
“You can help me get tarted-up before the show if you like.”
“Only as long as I get to undress and de-tart you afterwards.”
Orlando moved then, disengaging himself and turning so that they faced one another, so close that their foreheads and noses touched and a kiss was there for the taking. “I know you’re reading that crap on the Internet, even though you go apeshit at the thought of me doing it and taking any notice. Why do you do that?”
“Because I’m a nosey Parker,” Craig replied without missing a beat.
Orlando dissolved into laughter. “Yeah, you are and a complete idiot as well. Next time you think you’re going to start believing any of that shit, feel free to come up to town and see if there’s any truth to it.”
“That would imply that I don’t trust you.”
“Sometimes I think you don’t.”
“No, it’s everyone else I don’t trust – “
“Yeah and it takes two to make it happen.” Orlando helped himself to the kiss. “I love you. Whatever else I do or say, that’s the only bit that matters, right? I don’t want to have to stop and think too hard about everything I do just because the chances are that someone – maybe someone who knows you or someone else who does a column – is going to misinterpret it and then it’ll get back to you with a totally different meaning. It just amazes me that everyone speculates about what I’m doing up there with Marton when the real juicy gossip could be about what you get up to down here with some secret lover that no one even knows about. They just grab at the fucking obvious. Don’t you do it as well.”
“I’m not,” Craig sighed, “And I don’t.”
“Bullshit,” Orlando whispered almost affectionately, “You’re a fucking snoop and yeah, a nosey Parker and one day you’ll make yourself sorry. Don’t make me sorry as well.”
~ * ~
“I don’t know why I didn’t see it in the first place,” Marton said as he told Orlando of his decision a couple of weeks later. “I’ve been trying to cast various actors as drag queens but forgetting that – strictly speaking – only one of them has to know how to act and the rest only need to know how to perform.”
As they did most evenings, they were sharing a meal at Marton’s apartment, which now looked more like a busy workshop than a place of residence. The actual furniture was sparse. The main living area was dominated by several long portable worktables and a number of large freestanding cork and whiteboards. There was barely a square inch of space that wasn’t overwhelmingly cluttered with papers, clippings, magazines, swatches and lengths of fabric, photographs, printouts, sketches, plans and various scribblings.
“I don’t know how you can stand all this mess,” Orlando had said one evening. “Is there some kind of order to it? Is it some weird filing system?”
“Externalizing the chaos allows me to keep my mind clear of it.” Marton had replied offhandedly.
Thinking it over, Orlando thought he probably had a point. Marton might reside in the middle of all this visual disorder but his thinking was definitely clear as a bell.
“You mean we should just use real drag queens?”
“Yes, why not? Any objections?”
“God no, some of them looked fantastic. But how would you choose them? What criteria would they have to meet?”
“Appearance.” Marton took a sip of wine from his glass. “You’re right. Some of them looked quite sensational.”
“Well don’t make them too gorgeous. I don’t want to be upstaged.”
“If that’s your attitude, I’ll – “
“Joke,” Orlando grinned impishly, “I think I like the idea of being surrounded by some of the better looking ones. If the audience is watching them most of the time, they won’t realize I can’t dance for shit.”
“It would be too obvious a ruse to have you up there looking stunning while surrounded by a collection of grotesques. They’ve got to at least match you for appearance. Whatever it is that makes you stand out from them will be all about attitude. And that’s where acting comes into it.”
“Yeah, alright. What else?”
“Their attitude to direction. If they’re going to carry on like prima donnas – as they have a reputation for doing – I’m not touching them. And they’ll have to be reliable and willing to work hard.”
“Any in mind so far?”
“We’ll go through those notes we made while we were trawling our way through the clubs with a fleet of gossips in our wake,” Marton responded with a note of dry humor. “Hopefully adding a dozen more potential fuckees to the equation might confuse them enough to drop it.”
Orlando paused, a fork-full of salad halting in mid-air, and studied his face, “It’s pissing you off, isn’t it?”
“More for Craig’s sake than anything. It’s all so tiresome and relentlessly one-tracked.”
“He wouldn’t know anything about it if he didn’t go deliberately hunting for it,” Orlando said as the fork finished its journey. He chewed, swallowed, wiped his mouth and then asked thoughtfully, “Why do you think he does it?”
Marton regarded him for a moment in silence. “He told you all about Mark in the letter so you must have realized how devastating it was for him finding out that the man he loved was openly cheating on him, and that the only person who didn’t know all the details was himself.”
“So he’s keeping an eye on me then?”
“I’d say he’s keeping an eye on everyone. He won’t worry as long as it’s only me in the picture.”
Orlando gave a hesitant laugh. “He thinks you’ll keep an eye on me too?”
“And will you?”
“Yes,” Marton said, “Why wouldn’t I? I have an investment to protect.”
Orlando shrugged and finished his meal without speaking again.
Afterwards, they cleared away the dishes and Marton produced a manila folder containing a collection of meticulously typed, sorted and stapled commentaries on the performers who’d caught their attention at the clubs they’d visited.
Orlando shook his head in amazement. “Jesus you’re so fucking efficient. You watch someone for about ten minutes and suddenly there’s a whole file on them. Did you work for some government in a past life or something? Just – how the hell do you find the time to do all this shit? You’ve got a secretary hiding in the cupboard, haven’t you?”
“It’s my substitute for sex.” Marton’s replied in a deadpan voice. Only the glint of humor in his eyes hinted that it might not be so.
“So, is there anyone?” Orlando asked, never quite sure when Marton was serious or just taking the piss. Suddenly he was intensely curious.
Marton averted his eyes and opened the first written commentary. “There might be, not that it’s any of your business. How about we take care of this instead? We’re just over three months from opening night and only two roles have been cast. I want it wrapped up in two weeks or less.”
~ * ~
Armed with a wish-list of half a dozen names and a supplementary list of a dozen quite acceptable substitutes, they did another quick tour of the clubs, this time venturing beyond the realm of the audience and into the dressing rooms. Conversations were had and offers were made. Every name on the wish-list ended up with a tick next to it.
From Palazzo, they poached Kyle and Brett – both tall, sequined and blond-wigged, and so uncannily similar in appearance, they might have passed as twins. They tempted blond and naturally gorgeous Sam from Wunder Bar, part-Maori Tony from Finale and Jamie – 'You’re not related to Elijah Wood, are you?' – from Sinners. The five principles were then invited to attend a casting session the following week from which another half a dozen back-up queens would be selected.
The supporting role of Belle was still uncast when Mark Ferguson phoned Marton and asked for it.
“I’m between jobs, the gig looks fun and I’ll try anything once, including drag,” he’d insisted, “Besides, mate, people seem to think you’ve got some sort of Midas touch. For that reason, I’ll do it for minimum rate and lunch money.”
“I wouldn’t insult you by paying minimum,” Marton had responded briskly, “Convince me you can look passable in a dress and I’ll pay you the same as the rest of the queens.”
“We’re all dieting here, Fergs. You’ll have access to all the lettuce you can eat and bottomless cups of black, sugarless coffee.”
“Yes. There’ll be no fat queens on my stage so if you’re carrying the odd extra pound, I suggest a few sessions at Westside to sweat them off. Drop by the Maidment Studio in a week’s time and let me look at you.”
A week later, Ferguson joined around twenty other hopefuls as, one by one, they tottered in bought or borrowed high-heels, gowns and wigs past a panel consisting of Marton, Orlando and five professional drag queens in full working regalia.
“Number Seventeen in red’s a bit rugged,” Brett muttered, receiving universal agreement from the others.
“Nice arse though,” Kyle added as an aside then called out, “Number Seventeen, you want to shake it a little, sweetie?”
Mark paused, hands on hips. “Shake what, mate?”
“Ooh, isn’t he butch! The bum, lovey! Bit of attitude needed – you know, shakey-shakey! Give us all a bit of a wiggle and a thrill.”
Mark gave him a mock-sultry look, turned and strode the gauntlet with an exaggerated swing of the hips.
“Don’t do that or you’ll – “ Kyle broke off, winced and contributed to the chorus of groans as one high-heeled shoe succumbed to gravitational pull and collapsed sideways, wrenching an ankle painfully.
“Or you’ll fall off your shoes, lovey,” he finished, “Gawd, you can always tell the amateurs can’t you? First thing they do is try for hiplash. Any volunteers to kiss it better?”
“He can act,” Marton said after he’d managed to contain his laughter, “I’m seriously considering him for Belle but only if we can drag him convincingly. Is there any potential there?”
“Oh there’s always potential, Hon’!” Sam assured him, “There’s a slut in every bloke just begging to come crawling out to play.”
“Just give us the tools and a couple of hours,” Brett put in.
“And we’ll find her,” Kyle finished, adding in a louder voice, “Number Seventeen, go and sit down and put your feet up, lovey, and while you’re at it, say your last goodbyes to that horrible dress. Didn’t your Mum ever warn you what people say about boys who wear red dresses?”
Marton cast Angela Petterwood – un-auditioned – in the only female role in the play, that of Aida’s maternal grandmother. He had worked with the veteran actress in the past, both in theatre and television, and was fully aware that her retirement had been merely the result of a drought of suitable roles for women in their sixties.
He cast another local character actor, John Meagher – fortyish, experienced in theatre and in almost continual employment because of his versatility – as the club owner and the bane of Aida’s life. He had actively sought Orlando’s approval over that casting due to the nature of their stage interaction.
“Yeah, if you say so,” Orlando had agreed without hesitation. “He actually looks like a bit of a sleaze. Must be the false teeth or something – the plastic smirk.”
“He’s a reliable actor,” Marton assured him, “We were lucky to get him”
“Well that’s all that counts, isn’t it?”
With casting finally completed, Marton organized a pre-production get-together to take place at his apartment on the following Saturday evening.
“Am I at the right place?” Orlando asked in amazement as he arrived half an hour early in case Marton needed any help setting up. The living area had been tidied beyond recognition and the cluttered worktables had been cleared off and reassigned to buffet duty. They’d been draped in crisp white linen cloths and he stood aside and watched as an efficient team of caterers began to set out glasses, cutlery, crockery and an assortment of cling-wrapped dishes.
“Might’ve known you’d have all this taken care of,” he muttered as Marton pinned some sheets of paper to one of the corkboards, now lined up flush with the wall. “Anything I can do?”
“As you said, it’s all taken care of,” Marton said, adding, “Heard from Craig at all? Is he still coming up?”
“He rang just before I came over. Trouble starting the car but he said it’s overdue for a service. He was on his way but he said he might stop in Hamilton just to have it looked at so don’t expect him before nine.”
Marton nodded absently and headed for the kitchen, calling back, “Open the windows would you? It’s getting a bit stuffy in here.”
Orlando went across to the plate glass sliding doors leading out onto a terrace and pushed them open as far as they’d go. The air was crisp and cold but quite still. The doors wouldn’t remain open for too long.
Marton joined him a moment later and handed him a glass of white wine. “Something to launch the party,” Marton said, raising his own glass. A tiny ping rang out as the two glasses touched. “Here’s hoping everyone gets along.”
“It’s really moving now,” Orlando sighed happily, “Really picking up speed now the casting’s been done. I can’t wait for rehearsals to start. It’s felt so much like treading water up until now. I know it’s all complicated and everything – getting it all sorted out. I’m used to just showing up, rehearsing and then doing the show. I didn’t have a clue about any of the rest of it. Someone else’s hassle, mate, nothing to do with me.”
Marton didn’t attempt to hide his amusement. “Just as well I enjoy it then.”
“Yeah, just as well.”
“Are you alright with everything so far?”
“Oh yeah, really pleased! Can’t wait to work with the queens. They’re so amazing and incredibly funny. That casting session reminded me of working with the Hobbits. We just laughed so much and had such a great time.”
“I’ll read them the riot act first thing this evening just to let them know that it’s not all about fun and games.”
Orlando gave him a quick disapproving look. “Not going to be a total killjoy are you?”
“No, but I’m working on a tight budget and a rigid timetable. I can’t afford delays and fuckups caused by tantrums and temperament. I think it’s best to get it into their airy little heads right from the start.”
Orlando snickered. “Your prejudice is showing. I don’t think any of them are stupid at all. A bit frivolous, you know, but not stupid. If you thought any of them were real nutcases, you wouldn’t work with them, would you?”
Marton grinned and raised his glass again in salute. “Alright, you’ve got me there. Frivolous but not stupid. I’ll warn them they can be as frivolous as they like, just not on my time.”
The party had been scheduled to start at about seven-thirty. A polite five minutes after zero-time, there was a brisk knock at the door and Marton opened it to greet the five principal queens sans drag. All were clad in tasteful variations of shirt and trousers.
Orlando stared at them from across the room, disappointed but fascinated. They all looked really quite normal – like ordinary men around the same age as himself. Brett, Kyle and Jamie had short, neatly-styled hair, Tony’s was longer and straight, Sam’s a tousle of blond curls.
He watched them laughing and chatting amongst themselves and envied them their confidence and the comfort of their close-knit circle. He wondered if this was how people felt when they’d seen the Hobbit and Elf clique together years ago, or the Fellowship as a whole – and if they’d felt excluded and wished they could have been part of it.
Now he was the outsider.
It was one thing to sit around and have a laugh with them as he’d done at that casting session, but another thing to try to be like them. They were the real thing, he was the pretender. He was the one who could get it wrong, who could upset or offend them by making a caricature of the role, and they could laugh at him and bitch about him behind his back because he was really incredibly bad, but for them it was just a job – something to go in their résumé, a bit of unexpected cash and a smidgeon of fame.
All the good feelings of accomplishment he had so far accumulated about the role of Aida suddenly evaporated in an instant.
Oh please let them not think I’m a wanker for trying to be like them and fucking it up…
“Orlando, hi, nice to see you again,” Brett was saying as he crossed the room towards him, the others following in his wake. Orlando smiled and forced himself forward, hand outstretched and welcoming them with an impression of ease that he knew was complete bullshit.
Very soon, trays of drinks and canapés started circulating and the door was opened every couple of minutes to new faces and lively greetings. The background music was unobtrusive and conversation began to flow comfortably. The nervous moment passed, the polite small-talk was dispensed with, Angela cracked a rude joke and suddenly everyone began to relax.
Marton allowed half an hour for the first couple of drinks to go down then called a temporary ‘business break’ before the serious drinking started. By then, the only members of the cast and crew not present were Karl and Mark who knew the ropes well enough anyway. His ‘reading of the riot act’ was almost solely for the benefit of the queens.
“I’ve contracted about a dozen of you for the duration of the production and you’ll all spend time on-stage in rotation. You’ll all be equally choreographed, rehearsed and costumed but none of you will have a full-time role, however,” Marton paused for effect, “Should we go to film, you’ll all be short-listed as extras and a few of you might even pick up some lines. Nothing promised yet, but keep it in mind.”
A little murmur of excitement rippled amongst the performers.
“Now,” he continued, “Let’s get the conduct clause clear in everyone’s head. First of all, you’ll behave yourselves. I don’t have the time or patience for hair-pulling and cat-scratching bullshit. Try any diva rubbish and you’ll be booted straight out.”
“God, isn’t he butch!” Kyle whispered to anyone who could hear. Orlando looked down at the floor and swallowed his laughter.
“Personally speaking,” Marton went on, “I already have a partner and I’m not remotely attracted to men in dresses, so don’t even think of trying to court favors with me.”
“I’m not a queen, Marton,” Angela reminded him with an affected simper. “Are we on then?”
“That goes for you too, Miss Petterwood.”
He waited for the laughter to die down.
“Secondly – and this is for everyone here, including non-performers – you’ve all signed a duration-of-production contract and you’ve accepted my terms for performance and payment. Step out of line once and you’ll be deemed as having voided that contract. I’m a professional. I only work with other professionals. Thirdly, I’m really big on respect. I’m rabid about it! Respect yourselves, your fellow performers and especially all our behind-the-scenes and technical people because, believe me, we need them more than they need us. Arrogance in any form will not be tolerated at all.”
“Hear, hear,” Angela affirmed.
“The only cast member we’re not expecting here tonight is Karl Urban, who you’ll all be familiar with anyway. He’ll be joining us in another week or so when he gets back from New York. Mark’s on his way apparently. He had to go off and rescue someone with car trouble. I think that’s about it for now so go ahead and help yourselves from the tables and bar, get to know one another, and I’ll do the rounds and have a word or two in turn with everyone.”
Orlando prised himself reluctantly away from the principal queens and began to circulate amongst the non-performers, surprised at how many of them wanted to talk about the film trilogy and working with all those special effects. After about an hour, he made his way back to the group and attempted to pick up the conversation.
“You can look and be quote-unquote normal when it’s necessary,” Jamie was saying as he picked from a plate of assorted canapés, “You know, when you just know people are going to get wanky about it and stand with their backs against the wall because they think their arses are in danger. It’s mostly around family though. Mine are experts at the guilt and disappointment thing. 'How could you do this to us!' I’d love a buck for every time I got hit with that line.”
“My Mum got a bit suspicious when all her makeup started going missing,” put in Brett, “I was an only child so there wasn’t anyone else who could have nicked it, but she never said anything. Then one day my Dad caught me wearing mascara, shadow and a bit of lip-gloss and beat the shit out of me, and I got the dreaded ‘No fucking son of mine, bloody poof, queer, fairy, pansy, fag, pervert and a partridge in a pear-tree!’ Couldn’t sit down for a week – and Mum still never said anything. I started pinching makeup from Woolworth’s after that. Never clothes though. I mean really, Woolie’s for clothes! No, only Queen Street boutiques for them – I always had expensive tastes – and I’ve got a shoplifting record as long as my arm to prove it.”
Sam nudged him, “Hon’, you could have saved yourself from a life of crime by taking a sewing class in high school like I did. When I was fifteen, my career guidance officer hauled me into his office one day and shoved in my face the list of subject choices I’d made for the next year. I’d picked all art stuff, music, domestic science and sewing. He said I must’ve been mistaken so he scrubbed out cooking and sewing and put in woodwork and computing. I stood up, leaned over the desk, kissed him, and told him to change the fuckers back the way they were or I’d walk out of his office and wouldn’t be back ever. He changed ‘em. I only did a year of sewing but it was enough to learn the basics. I do all my own cossies now and save a fortune.”
Orlando sipped his drink and simply listened as stories, gossip and confidences were exchanged amongst the group. Occasionally curiosity would prompt him to ask a question, tentatively in case there was a risk of causing offence.
“What made you – I mean – when did you know? How did you know you wanted to do all this stuff? Was it a sudden thing? Did you just decide one day?”
“I think for most of us,” Kyle began, “We started out knowing something was missing but not knowing what it was. I did theatre in high school and as soon as I got the first full make-up it was like, ‘Bingo, baby! Found it!’ Always knew I was queer but drag was more of an accident.”
“In the play, Paulie becomes another person – he becomes Aida – as soon as he starts putting his makeup on,” Orlando said, “Is that how it is for any of you or is that – you know – a bit far-fetched?”
“Drag’s definitely got a lot to do with state of mind, lovey,” Kyle assured him, “Not just a case of putting on a dress, heels and a bit of lippy. Especially when you’ve made a career out of it. I’m one person in day-clothes. I’m another in a dress. As soon as I sit down in front of a mirror and start putting on the pancake, I start changing, like a caterpillar into a butterfly. Yeah, I know, cliché alert, but that’s the only way I can put it.”
“That’s what I want you to teach him,” Marton’s voice sounded from behind, “How to project a sense of gradual metamorphosis. He still hasn’t quite got it right.”
Kyle regarded Marton with speculative green eyes but his response was directed at the entire group. “Well we’ll just have to have a few girly make-up sessions then, won’t we fellas? Show him how it’s done.”
Marton returned the look and then moved on.
“I already get that feeling though,” Orlando ventured almost shyly, “I did right from the start. As soon as I started experimenting with stuff, sometimes I’d feel like I was having this weird out-of-body thing. I thought Craig might get a bit of a kink out of me dressing up but he never did. He never really liked it much.”
“Not many people do, Hon’,” Sam sympathized, “It’s usually the straights who freak out most but even some queers get a bit squeamish about it all.”
Brett looked around, “And where is your lovely other half? Not coming tonight?”
Orlando looked at his watch. “He should be here soon.”
“I had my first queer crush on Guy Warner,” Kyle admitted as he swished his finger around in his drink then sucked the tip suggestively. “Got so bad I’d get a woody every time I heard the Shortland Street theme music.”
“Still do if the rumors are true.” Tony muttered.
“Only sometimes, lovey – when I’m not otherwise distracted. My family used to shit bricks every time I announced I was going to marry Guy Warner when I grew up.” Kyle sighed. “The happiest day of my life was finding out he was one of us.”
Orlando stared at him, not sure whether to laugh or not because it was all rather funny in a way, yet at the same time, a little sad. “Yeah? Why?”
“Because everyone loved him, sweetie. Before finding that out, all I’d ever heard was that no one could possibly love a queer. I cried when he married that Carmen. Everyone else cried when he left the show but not half as much as I did the day he got married. He shattered an illusion. He put the fear of God into me that maybe there was some truth to that horrible rumor that you could think yourself straight but only if you worked at it hard enough. I felt betrayed. I thought he’d deserted us, me most of all.”
“I thought he was a bit of a twat in Shortland Street,” Bret said, “When he did the elf and there was a picture of him in drag doing the rounds – what’d I say, Ky’ – ‘Who the fuck’s that bitch in the wig!’ Of course he thinks I’m talking about Leggy, because everyone’s talking about Leggy. And he says, ‘Oh, that’s Orlando Bloom, isn’t he hot stuff’!’ So we go and see the film and he says, ‘Here he is, here he is!’ And I’m going, ‘Where, where?’ And he pointed you out getting off the nag, sweetie – and yes, you looked fabulous! But you weren’t the bitch I was steaming over. So, I was just sitting there twiddling the thumbs and checking the watch and then he suddenly appears. ‘The dwarf breathes so loud we could’ve shot him in the dark,’ and I swear I just wet myself, darling, I just lost it. What’d I say, Ky’?”
“You said it again, ‘Who the fuck’s that bitch in the wig!’ and I told you it was Guy Warner.”
“’Guy Warner, I said, the twat from Shortland Street!’ I swear I’d always thought he was the straightest queer I’d ever seen and there he was mincing around in that divine wig! He was my instant pin-up boy, wasn’t he, Ky’?”
Kyle nodded enthusiastically. “Yep, Haldir piccies all over the walls at home. Next to my – Oh gawd, look he’s just walked in the door with Number Seventeen and my bloody knees have just turned to mush!”
Orlando glanced around and craned his neck, catching a glimpse of Craig and Mark being greeted by Marton. He excused himself from the goggle-eyed group and made his way over to them.
As he approached Craig, he attempted to look at him with the objectivity of someone who had never actually met him, just to see if he could work out what all the fuss was about.
Bit over medium height, bit over medium build, an untidy hairline irreparably ruined from constant cosmetic shaving in order to make the Haldir wig look more natural. A nice face – open, animated and friendly, nice eyes – a kind of grey-blue similar to about half the population. He could dress really stylishly when he wanted to, and be really scruffy when he couldn’t be bothered. Tonight he was sort of halfway between the two and much the same as everyone else.
Nothing special at all until he caught sight of Orlando coming towards him, and Orlando likened it to a switch being turned on and everything lighting up, and he experienced a little glow of pleasure himself knowing that the reaction was for him alone.
They held one another for a moment, shared a swift kiss and a murmured, “How are you?” Nothing too intimate for a crowded room in someone else’s apartment, even though it was Marton’s place and he’d seen much worse.
Behind him, Orlando knew the queens would be watching, and that he was the one envied now. It more than made up for the prior feeling of exclusion.
He took Craig’s hand and gave it a gentle tug. “Come and meet everyone. I want to show you off.”
He made introductions and then mentally distanced himself again, just to see if he could see Craig as others saw him, to watch how others reacted to him. After an initial minute or two of 'awestruck', the smiles had broadened and the flirtation had started, openly and aggressively.
“Predatory bunch, aren’t they,” Craig commented later on as they wandered home a couple of street-blocks away. He said it cautiously in case Orlando took it as a slightly personal attack on his co-stars and newly-made friends.
“Yeah, they are a bit,” Orlando agreed, tired and a bit tipsy, and really looking forward to bed tonight. “It’s probably just an automatic thing, you know, ‘Hi, let’s fuck.’ Better keep you away from them in future.”
“Funny, I was thinking I’d like to keep you away from them. And it wasn’t just me getting the once-over, sweetheart. You did, Fergs did, Marton did – I’m convinced the only person who couldn’t have gotten lucky with one of them is poor Angela and she seemed the one most keen to.”
“You were the one they wanted most, after Marton.” Orlando had seen that look between Marton and Kyle and wondered if it was going to lead anywhere.
“As if I’d be tempted.” Craig squeezed his hand and then drew him closer. “I’m on Marton’s team. I’m really not into men in dresses. I’d only make one exception, though, and that’s for you because I get such a kick out of taking your dress off.”
“He says he’s not into queens but that’s not the impression I got tonight.”
“Ah, but none of them were wearing dresses, were they?” Craig reminded him. “He told me about the official warning he gave them about trying their luck with him. Wonder if it’ll work.”
“He told them he already had a partner. Does he?”
Craig shrugged. “Not as far as I know but he’s so secretive, it’s entirely possible. I, however, have a theory about our Marton.”
Orlando punched in the security code on the main door to their apartment building and held the door open to allow Craig to go through first.
“Going to tell me then?” he asked as they rode the lift up to the eighth floor, sneaking a quick cuddle and a kiss as they did so.
“Okay, it’s like this.”
They exited the lift and wandered along the corridor to the apartment. Orlando had his keys ready.
“He’s never actually been seen with anyone,” Craig went on, “I mean he’s forty years old and never been publicly linked to a single person. It’s incredible that he’s gone to such lengths to keep his private life private, but he’s certainly managed it. There have been rumors of course, and one or two people have claimed to have been to bed with him, but they’re the sort of people who’ll claim to have bedded the Pope if there’s a free drink in it for the telling.”
Orlando opened the door and locked it behind them. “Yeah, and Marton?”
“I have this insanely romantic theory that Marton has this one secret absolute love-of-his-life who, for some complicated reason, isn’t available but might be one day, so he’s sort of saving himself. Doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing you could imagine him doing?”
Orlando froze on the spot and watched Craig as he went on ahead to the bedroom, trying to disengage himself again, trying to imagine that he himself was Marton and that was the love-of-his-life walking toward the bedroom, the one he'd been waiting for...
“Yeah,” he said to an empty room, “I can just imagine it.”