Budgie’s house, Queensland, Australia. 15th March 2014.
I counted the cars parked up ahead as I drove up Budgie’s long driveway. Eighteen? No, nineteen. That was a tad disappointing.
I parked around the side of the house, to allow room for the flood of latecomers I was hoping for. I got out of the car, shut the door and examined my reflection in the driver’s window; my tie needed adjusting. I felt like James Bond with my black suit (second-hand but still rather dashing) and fancy car (I borrowed my dad’s Holden Statesman for the occasion; it was practically an Aston Martin compared to my dilapidated Honda Civic). The flowers were a glaring departure from the 007 theme though. I had seen Bond wearing a rose in his lapel, but never carrying a sixty-dollar bouquet of white lilies. James Bond, for those who don’t know, is a fictional character, the protagonist in a series of spy novels by Ian Fleming. Many of the novels have been adapted into motion pictures, including 1965’s Thunderball, starring Sean Connery. If you owned more than one copy of that DVD, I suppose you could say you had Thunderballs. (There you go, smartarse. Five down, five to go.)
I hurried around the side of the house, looking up at the delightful evening that had graced us. A slight breeze waltzed through the pleasantly warm air to the tune of chirping cicadas nearby and laughing kookaburras afar off. The fading sunset behind Budgie’s place made an elegant backdrop of soft purple, while overhead the first stars winked and glimmered, flirting with each other across lightyears of space.
Rushing with my gaze skyward, I stumbled on a crab pot left near the compost bins to dry. I fell on the ground, which was still soggy where Budgie had hosed off his fishing gear; dirt and mud stuck to the butt of my pants and my sleeve. I spilled the flowers too; a few petals dropped off. To make matters worse, I had sprained my ankle and couldn’t get up straight away. I gripped my ankle with both hands until the first wave of pain subsided, and then I sat there a few minutes longer. That one night I wanted to be debonair. I wanted to be fancy. Just a little bit. Just for one night. I couldn’t even manage that. I was so disappointed. For a moment, I thought about leaving. For a moment, I thought about doing something worse. I slapped myself on the cheek. I struck again, harder. I got to my feet and reminded myself why I was there. I picked up the bouquet, neatened it as best I could, and then brushed off my suit. It was dirty and damp, and now smelled slightly of fish.
The backyard looked better than I had anticipated: ten rows of foldout chairs either side of a neatly mowed aisle; the clothesline blinking green and blue and red, entwined in strings of Christmas lights; and Budgie as usher, buzzing to-and-fro in a smart red vest, his hair in a neat, enormous braid. People began taking their seats in front of the stage.
I limped around the back of the stage and found Rory there in full costume and makeup, in something of a trance—sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, his lips moving but making no sound. I cleared my throat. He opened his eyes and looked at me.
“Hi Rory, how are you feeling?”
“Great. What do you reckon?” he said, standing up and motioning to the backstage setup of props and lights.
“Looks amazing,” I said. “I like the costume.”
“Yeah? Not bad, huh?” He lunged forward in mock battle with his wooden sword.
“Oh, here,” I said, handing him the bouquet. “These are for you.”
He gave me a funny look.
“I hope they’re all right,” I said. “I heard it’s custom to bring flowers.”
“After the show,” he said.
“It’s custom to give flowers after the show. It’s bad luck to give them before the show.”
“Really?” I said. “Sh**, sorry, I didn’t realise. I’ll get rid of them.”
“No, don’t be silly,” said Rory, with a laugh. “It’s just a superstition. Put them on the table there, would you? What are they—tulips?”
“Lilies,” I said, setting the flowers down.
On the table were some cards from well-wishers—Mrs Grayson, our old landlady; Rory’s sister, Jill; and Rory’s old schoolmate, Spoony (a.k.a. Todd Jellett. Apparently, he earned the nickname Spoony in high school after buying himself a switchblade and asking people to call him “The Knife”). LaShawn had also sent a card; on the front was a woman in a bikini, and inside his message read, Sorry I can’t be there mate. Have fun. I know you’ll smash that sh** out of the park. LaShawn. I wondered if Broadway stars ever received cards like that.
“Lilies, huh?” said Rory. “I don’t really know flowers. Hey, you’ve got something on the back of your jacket. What is that?”
I reached around and brushed off my jacket. “Ah, that’s a fish scale,” I said, flicking the scale from my fingers. “I tripped over Budgie’s crab pot. Sprained my ankle.”
“Jeez, your ankles are dodgy.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You wanna get Neville?”
“Nah, I’ll be okay,” I said. “It’s nice that people sent you cards for opening night.”
“Yeah,” said Rory. “Did you read the one from Mrs Grayson? She’s sweet. That’s LaShawn’s one, obviously. Nils sent me a text, too.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “What’d he say?”
Rory’s eyebrows converged to squish the skin above his nose. “He said, ‘The show must go on.’ What do you make of that?”
He waited for my answer.
I shrugged. “Is that something people normally say before a show?”
“No, it isn’t.” Rory inhaled a deep breath and wiggled his shoulders loosely. “Oh well, I’m sure we’ll find out what he means.”
“Well, all right then,” I said, “I’d best leave you to it. I just wanted to wish you good luck—break a leg, right?”
“Yeah, that’s what they say. Thanks Miles.” He exhaled loudly and stretched down to touch his toes.
I went around front of the stage and found my seat in the fourth row.
I counted the people in the audience in front of me as I unbuttoned my jacket and sat down. Thirty-six. That was a tad disappointing. There was a guy behind me, in the back row, and then there was Budgie and me too, so thirty-nine in total. I was hoping for more, but the drive-in theatre in town was showing Grease, so, maybe thirty-nine was a good turnout.
The stage lights came on. Voices in the audience dwindled to a few whispers. The curtain lifted. A two-feet-high carboard battlement stretched the front of the stage. Rory entered, dressed as a medieval soldier. The audience watched in silence; I leaned forward in my seat. Rory walked the length of the stage, each step deliberate and telling, his serious gaze panning above the audience. For perhaps thirty seconds there was no sound but the slow clunk of his footsteps on the boards (and a kookaburra up in the hills behind the house), then he spun around and put his hand on the hilt of his prop sword. He remained in an anxious pose for a second, and then ducked down below the battlement. “Who’s there?” he called, from out of view. He jumped up and resumed his stance. “Nay, answer me,” he said, in a slightly higher pitched voice. “Stand, and unfold yourself.” The man seated in front of me leaned over and whispered to his date. She nodded. Rory once more ducked behind the battlement; there were a few seconds of scuffling before he rose on the other side of the stage, now having added an oversized fake nose to his soldier costume. “Long live the king!” he called, in the voice he had used at first. So commenced Rory’s one-man performance of Hamlet.
With ceaseless energy he zigged and zagged about the stage like a fly buzzing from dish to dish on the table at a barbecue. He would perform a line of dialogue, then race to his next mark, make a quick costume change, and then deliver another character’s lines. Back and forward, forward and back, as soldiers and servants, king and queen, noblemen, damsels, and the young prince himself—Rory gave a committed performance in every role of the play. The only character he didn’t physically play was the ghost of Hamlet’s dad, for which he used a basketball draped in a white sheet, lowered from above on a rope. He did, however, deliver the ghost’s lines; they were a little mumbled, but that was forgivable—ventriloquism is not an easy skill. Rory’s acting was impressive. I had seen him act once before—I suppose it was acting—it was when we were housemates and he performed a sock puppet version of Death of a Salesman—so I knew he had chops. But on stage in Hamlet… he was something else. He had the presence of a young Brando, and he brought something to each role, especially that of Hamlet himself. I found the whole spectacle enthralling.
The changing-costume-every-few-lines concept dragged things out a bit (and Hamlet is long enough even at regular speed). I noticed a few audience members getting restless. A couple of times in the second act Rory changed into a character’s costume, stood there in silence for a moment, and then almost imperceptibly squinted and shook his head before moving on to a new character—I think he was forgetting lines. A guy in the front row sighed loud enough for everyone to hear and looked at his watch long enough for everyone to see him doing it.
At the conclusion of Act Two there was a short interval. Budgie went around the side of the house, turned on the high-pressure hose and aimed it up into the big mango tree; a black cloud of chittering fruitbats dispersed from the high branches and flew away.
And then here it was. Act Three, Scene One. To be or not to be. This was the line everyone in the English-speaking world knew. This was the part every actor wanted. This was the soliloquy with which old Billy Shakespeare had ensured every great playwright for the next thousand years would be compared to him and come up short. This was why we were here.
The scene began, and Rory flitted between king, queen, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, seemingly as eager to arrive at Hamlet’s famous monologue as we were to meet him there. The scene progressed, and Rory slipped into a loose-fitting yellow dress and long brunette wig—Ophelia. In the moment it took him to deliver a short line in falsetto voice, a small red dot crawled up the dress and hovered at its padded bosom. Unbelievable. The idiot in the back row had obviously thought it would be funny to shine a laser pointer at Rory. I turned around to glare at him, but he was gone. Budgie was gone too. He must have been inside preparing the after-show refreshments. I turned back to the stage; Rory was changing into Polonius’s robes. He became a caring yet slightly silly old man, shuffling to the front of the stage, counselling the now invisible Ophelia. The little red dot reappeared and settled again on his chest, following him. From my seat I examined the audience members in front of me and concluded none of them were the culprit.
Well, someone was doing it.
I looked behind me again and squinted into the darkness—the back of the house, out by the shed, around near the garden—but I couldn’t see the source of the red dot. From the stage Rory noticed my frustration. As he was changing back into Ophelia’s dress, he shot me a glance that said, Is everything okay, bro? With a half-shrug, a shake of the head and an eye roll I answered, Some moron is trying to ruin the show. Donning the wig, he raised his head slightly and furrowed his brow, as if to reply, I don’t understand what you mean. In character as Ophelia, he received a book from Polonius. That impressed me, changing costume just for that, without even a line to deliver. The fellow in the front row couldn’t appreciate the dedication to art and threw his hands up and scoffed. Rory changed into the costume for King Claudius and delivered his lines. Jeez, he played the villain well. The red dot appeared on Claudius’s royal robes; I pointed at Rory then tapped my chest. He looked down and saw the red dot, and then he seemed to break character. He rolled sideways with acrobat nimbleness, while flinging off his costume with stripper precision. Crouching low, his eyes scanned above and beyond the audience, searching for the laser pointer. The red dot zipped across a prop stone column at the rear of the stage. Rory dived sideways and rolled, grabbing Polonius’s cloak and leaping to his feet. He slung the cloak loosely around his shoulders and rushed the line, “I hear him coming: let’s withdraw, my lord,” as he raced offstage.
Curious whispers circulated through the audience; Rory’s unorthodox exit had even sparked the attention of the rude man in the front row. After about five minutes, Rory reappeared onstage. There were gasps. Gone was the costume of the first two acts, Hamlet’s traditional outfit of all things puffy and frilly and feathered. Now instead, Rory wore black, modern tactical gear including boots, helmet, rifle, and a bulky bullet-proof vest. (I was familiar with the vest. Rory had taken to wearing it on occasions; it was one of the eccentricities he had adopted several years earlier. Others included refusing to organise any get-togethers with me, but showing up randomly at my house, often at night and at the back door; disappearing for weeks at a time; sending me postcards from England; and tackling me to the ground and drawing a gun if ever I said my knee itched.) Everyone in attendance leaned forward in their seats. Rory crept low, with speed, like a leopard closing in on its prey. His eyes peered out above us, into the distance.
To be or not to be… He spoke not only to himself, but to another, unseen. There was turmoil in his voice, and an underlying venom… to take arms against a sea of troubles… The butt of the weapon pressed firm against his shoulder, the barrel scanning, searching… To die, to sleep… He crouched, rolled, darted side to side. Constant, irregular movement, unable to keep still… in that sleep of death what dreams may come… His tone threatened, his face sneered, one eye to the rifle scope… the whips and scorns of time… Lowering the weapon, he stood tall and puffed his chest… But that dread of something after death… He spoke quietly, standing still. The red dot hovered at his chest… conscience does make cowards of us all… A whistle and thump, he reeled back as though struck. He recovered and looked afar off, to the trees near the creek across the road. His eyes narrowed. His voice rose… Be all my sins remember’d. I’ve got you, you son of a bitch!
Okay, he went off-script with that last line, but by that stage none of us cared. Rory leapt from the stage and ran down the aisle to a standing ovation. Rifle at the ready, he darted around the side of the house and into the night. The applause continued for a few minutes, then we all stood watching the side of the house, until a woman in the next row said, “I don’t think he’s coming back.”
We waited a few minutes more, taking our seats one by one. There was a distant crack, like fireworks.
The gentleman in front of me checked his watch. “We should probably get home, huh?” he said to his date.
She nodded and picked up her handbag. And so, the audience trickled out from Budgie’s backyard, aglow with wonder from the evening’s incomparable performance. Though everyone had expected to see the entire play, I don’t think anyone was disappointed with its spectacular premature conclusion. I even heard the impatient fellow from the front row say it was the best Hamlet he had ever seen.
I counted the sausage rolls on the kitchen table as I sat down. Six? No, seven. That was a tad disappointing. Budgie makes good sausage rolls and I was hoping for more leftovers. I was glad people had enjoyed them though. It was only me and Budgie there now; it was just after eleven o’clock. We sat and ate sausage rolls while I raved about Rory’s performance.
“You should have seen it, Budge. It was unbelievable. That last scene, I’ve never seen anyone play it that way. You know how Hamlet is all kind of melancholy and uncertain? Well, Rory had him totally different. It was the same words, but this time it was like, ‘No, screw you, death. I’m not afraid of you. I’ll kill myself right now. Or maybe I’ll just go and kill everybody else first. See how you like that.’ Oh man, it was so good. And his voice, it was like, ‘Boom. I’m here to kick some arse.’ And the gun too. You know, I only wish he had fired it. That would have topped it off, I reckon. To hear the shots. That would have made it real, you know?”
“And he didn’t finish it?” said Budgie.
“No,” I said. “I mean, after that speech he took off. We waited, but that was it.”
“Huh, that’s weird. He did the whole thing in rehearsal.”
“Yeah,” said Budgie. “The sword fight and everything, all by himself.”
“Hmm. I wonder why he cut it short tonight.”
Rory walked in the front door. He looked serious, and sweaty. He still had his costume on, except for the helmet. He set his rifle down by the door, along with a backpack.
“Rory, that was amazing!” I said. “Best Hamlet ever.”
He smiled. “Thanks Miles. Boy am I glad you were in the audience tonight. I owe you one.” He took a sausage roll and stuffed it in his pocket. “Hey, listen, Budgie, something’s come up and I have to go. I hate to leave you to pack up—”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Budgie. “Do what you’ve gotta do.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“England,” said Rory. “I have to leave tonight. It’s no good if I stay here.”
“But you only just got back,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. Sorry mate. One of these days we’ll have a proper hangout. Get drunk, get the guitars out. Like the old days. But for now, I have to get out of here.” He walked over to the door and collected his things. “Hey Miles—you really think I was a good Hamlet?”
“Are you serious?” I said. “You nailed it. I’ll never forget that ending. I was just saying to Budgie, the only thing that would have made it better would be if you fired the gun at the end, for effect.”
Rory’s eyes widened. “No way! It was pitch black out there around the house, and you never fire a gun if you can’t see what’s in your line of fire. That’s so dangerous. It would have to be… well, I don’t know. It would have to be the emergency of all bloody emergencies to shoot blind like that. No way.”
“All right,” I said, a little offended. “I was only making a suggestion.”
Rory’s devotion to gun safety seemed excessive. I thought he had been using a fake gun.
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