|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
He comes down here now and again, weekday afternoons when he should be at school. School's all right; he doesn't mind it that much. Usually it will be a few of them: him and Neil Smith and Kevin Leary. Jon Roper maybe, some days. It's a laugh. They don't do it all the time though. You have to know how far you can push things. You always have to know where the invisible line is, that you're not supposed to cross. The point beyond which you are 'going too far.' Him and Neil and Kevin and Jon always stay on the right side of that line. It's just a laugh. One day Jon found a bit of a dirty mag on the ground, shoved under the bushes. They had a bit of a laugh over that, too. There was no harm in it, after all, it was just lads being lads. But then Kev saw someone coming, a woman with a dog. So they dropped it and ran off.
In the dream though, he is on his own; Neil and Kevin and Jon aren't there. He's thinking of the bit of porn Jon found that day and he's poking around under the briars with his stick to see what's there. It's weird what you can find if you look. What he finds is a postcard lying face down on the ground. One corner sticks out whitely from a clump of stringy grass and when he picks it up it is damp from the last night's frost. He turns it over. It's not anything dirty, though. Just a painting. Well, a photo of a painting, like the kind of thing you'd get at an art gallery. It shows a man sitting on the edge of something, although you can't see what, because of all that red cloth he's got draped round him, velvet or silk or something, and because there are so many black shadows. The shadows are black because the light shining on the man's chest and right side is so bright. Sean thinks it's like the bloke was sitting in the dark a moment ago, lost in thought, and then someone switched a spotlight on him suddenly, and caught him out.
As he looks down at the postcard, Sean feels a flutter of panic rise up into his chest. He wants to drop the card back into the grass where it came from, because if he doesn't he's afraid of what might happen. He's afraid he might become that man. Already he can feel the soft fabric against the backs of his calves, under his left forearm, hanging precariously over one thigh. He mustn't move; it's been so carefully arranged. A slight draught shivers over his exposed skin, and then the light comes on, and he is caught.
When he wakes up he is still alive and the plane is still in the air. For some reason he feels as though all the breath has been punched out of him, and he has a nasty feeling he was making some kind of whimpering noise in his sleep. He decides to blame it on the double Jack Daniels, and makes a mental note to order another one at the first opportunity. He shifts round in his seat. Sitting next to him is an elderly man eating dried fruit from a paper bag. The man wears a pair of bifocals halfway down on his long, fleshy nose and the paper bag is resting on a newspaper folded neatly on his lap. He is looking over at Sean with a kindly smile on his face, which makes Sean think he might have been right about the whimpering. He makes a half-hearted attempt to return the smile and fishes around for the book he was pretending to read earlier.
"You don't enjoy flying, then?"
The elderly man's smile increases in kindliness, suggesting that he has no problem at all with travelling at unnatural speed hundreds of feet above the earth in a metal tube.
"Er, not a big fan, really, no."
"I see. Fig?"
"Nah, I'm alright thanks."
"Well, if you're sure."
Sean wonders if he's offended, but after a small pause, the man turns round again and peers over his glasses with a conspiratorial smile. He seems to have something on his mind.
"So what's bringing you to New Zealand? I hope you don't mind me asking, but I can tell from your accent that you're not one of us."
That film, thinks Sean. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In a minute he'll starting pointing at me and he'll do that high-pitched scream to warn his fellow pod people.
"Oh, er, work. I'm working over there."
"Ah, I see. I'm just wondering -- do you think perhaps that sitting so close to the window might be, possibly exacerbating your problem somewhat? You may disagree of course, I'm just wondering. Because I'd be very willing to change places if it would make things easier for you "
"Cheers mate, that's really nice, but I quite like a window seat. I know it doesn't make a lot of sense, but as long as I'm not actually looking out, it sort of helps a bit."
Sean shrugs and offers a conciliatory 'isn't life weird?' grin. It doesn't work. The kindly smile frozen on his face, the man stows away the bag of figs and pointedly shakes out his newspaper. He is obviously making preparations not to speak to Sean again for the rest of the flight, but Sean's found his book now, and anyway, he's not too bothered, really. He shifts about in his seat a bit, and then, as he always does, gives in to temptation and looks out of the window, at the vast and terrifying amounts of nothing on the other side of the glass. He wonders about how cold the sea will be and how long it will take to swallow him up.
The bookshop is insane. This is the only conclusion Sean feels able to come to -- the shop itself has just gone mad. It's not the man who runs it, who seems perfectly normal for an aging scholar in a purple kaftan; it's the actual shop. From the outside it's a disused church made of whitewashed wooden boards, but once you've been lured over the threshold it becomes a chaotic jumble of threadbare carpet off-cuts, cardboard boxes full of ancient 45s, bare light bulbs hanging at weird angles from a network of string and cable woven across the ceiling, and everywhere, crammed into every last conceivable inch of space, books. Old and new, hardback, paperback or with no backs at all, they squeeze onto shelves, spill from crates and lie in mounds on rickety trestle tables that threaten to collapse under the weight. Like the Tardis, thinks Sean, who's popped out for a quick ciggy, if the Doctor had been some kind of weird time-travelling academic, that is. He sees Viggo leave the shop and walks over to meet him, dropping the cigarette-end into the gutter.
"Find anything good?"
Viggo smiles vaguely at Sean as though Sean is very far away and he isn't entirely sure who he's smiling at. He is carrying a large blue and white striped polythene bag full of books.
"Amazing place, really, just unbelievable. Fascinating guy, I could have listened to him for hours, he's like this incredible source of all this stored-up knowledge, you know Can't help wondering what kind of life he's led, you know, before he set this place up Look, he found me this wonderful book on Rothko, isn't it great? It's a first edition. Oh, wait - I got you a present."
"Oh, right. Ta very much."
Startled out of his nice, restful ignoring-Viggo state, Sean reaches over and takes the yellowed postcard Viggo is holding out.
"It's to remind you of your youth, in ancient times."
It's a painting, or at least, a photograph of a painting. The kind of thing you might get in an art gallery. A seated man holding a staff, his body banded in light and shadow, eyes downcast. A quantity of fabric -- red velvet, white cotton, fur -- is arranged just so around his lower body. It hangs down over his right thigh and falls to the floor. In just a moment, thinks Sean, Derek will call 'Cut,' and everything will be minutely rearranged, the cloth pulled up a little here, down a little there. His left hand moved half an inch to the right. His head back a touch. He will sit on, still and stiff, holding the pose. He will have an ache in his right shoulder. Sean turns the postcard over.
'Dear Celia,' he reads, in faded blue ink. 'It was so lovely to see you last week. Perhaps next holiday you'll be able to stay longer, if you'd like. Miffy and Bunny are missing you already, and wish you all the very best at your new school. All our love, Auntie Mary and Uncle John.' There are two kisses. At the bottom it says, 'Caravaggio: St John the Baptist, c. 1604, Oil on canvas, 172.5 x 104.5 cm (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City).' He turns it over again, wondering briefly who or what Miffy and Bunny were. Then he stands for a long time, just looking at it.
"Did I get it right? That was the guy you played, wasn't it?"
"What? Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, that was me. Cheers mate. Well spotted."
Viggo smiles, pleased, as they start to walk back to the car. "Great film, by the way. Really captured that sense of light and shadow you get in the paintings. Quite amazing. Must have been an exciting project to work on, I imagine."
"Yeah... Seems like a long time ago though. Funny, I was thinking about it a bit when I was on me way out here. Dunno why." He hands the postcard to Viggo. "Don't look much like me though, does it?"
Viggo considers. "No, I guess not. Actually, he kind of looks a little like Orlando. Don't you think?"
Sean takes the card back and looks at it, surprised, and obscurely irritated. How the hell did Orlando get into this conversation? "Er, yeah. S'pose it does a bit. Still, I were younger then. Could pull it off."
He grins quickly at Viggo and pushes the card absently down into his jacket pocket as he reaches in to fish out the car keys.
Later, lying in bed, he is surprised to find the covers have turned red. A deep, luminous red, falling in folds over his skin. The light makes the insides of the creases look like sharp black scars, although they are quite soft to the touch. This is true scarlet, says Christopher Hobbs, the designer. Not an easy colour to find, these days.
He is careful to hold the pose still. He is the painting and the painting is him. Light spills on the scarlet cloth and is absorbed by it. This colour soaks stuff up, sponge-like. Sean watches as Derek darts onto the set like a small sparking minnow in a stream, hands fluttering this way and that, radiating enthusiasm. Tilda, who's sitting at Sean's feet, stretches, shaking the cramp out of her limbs, and calls over a suggestion to Derek. The director turns and flickers a brief smile at her, and then he smiles at Sean, and Sean feels a warm orangey glow creep over his skin as though he's a two-bar electric fire that someone's just switched on. He suddenly finds he's fiercely happy to be here, to be doing good work. He feels alive. He's never met anyone quite like Derek before. He smiles back. Someone runs up and pulls at the draperies briefly, then away again. Action. The cameras roll. He holds the pose.
He is awake. The light on the bedclothes is pale and weak, early morning sun. There is nothing scarlet in the room that he is aware of. He shifts over in the bed, and his body aches from weeks of sword fighting.
"You ok, Sean?"
"What? Yeah. Sorry, what were you saying?"
Viggo begins to tell him again about the weather this morning down at the lake, and how amazing the mountains looked, rising out of the mist, and how the fishing and stuff helps him get into character. That seems to be the gist of it, anyway. Sean relaxes and begins to drift away to the sound of Viggo's soft, in-the-background voice. Orlando is sitting opposite and a little to Sean's left, talking to Billy. His elbows are on the table and he is leaning forward, making a point with the help of his fork, on the end of which hangs a slice of tomato, wobbling annoyingly in the breeze. Sean is aware that he's been staring at Orlando for a little longer than is polite, but he needs to know how the tomato situation will work out, so keeps on looking. Eventually Orlando appears to notice what he's holding and the tomato makes its way to his mouth. His throat moves up and down as he swallows, then he spears a bit of lettuce with the fork and resumes waving it in Billy's face. Sean looks back at Viggo, smiles and nods. Then he finds himself wondering what will happen to the lettuce.
"Sorry, Vig -- didn't quite catch that. What did you say?"
The postcard is still in his jacket pocket. It's not as if he really means to leave it in there, but he's not quite sure what he'd do with it if he took it out. He tries it one evening, pinning it up in the kitchen next to his snaps of the girls and that photo of Viggo's he likes, but when he comes into the room later and the harsh overhead strip-light stutters into life with a faint pinging noise, he catches sight of it and it looks all wrong.
He finds he's conscious of it all the time, even when he's doing something else, like making an omelette. He keeps thinking it's staring at him when his back is turned, but when he looks round, it's just a picture of a man without enough clothes on, and Sean's doing the staring. The whole thing is kind of off-putting, and it turns out that the omelette tastes like crap, so he takes the postcard down and puts it away in a drawer. But then he starts to feel like there's something missing, something bothering him; something that nags away at the edge of his consciousness like the beginnings of a sore throat. He doesn't like feeling like that. It pisses him off. It pisses him off because when he thinks about it, he's having a really good time here in New Zealand, doing this film. In fact, he doesn't think it would be going too far to say it's pretty much the best fun he's had in ages. And here he is, standing in the kitchen, getting freaked out by a fucking postcard.
Eventually he takes the postcard out of the drawer and puts it back in his pocket.
So yes, it's still in there now, with other things like his keys and his money, and the tatty end of an ancient packet of extra-strong mints. When he reaches in, his fingers slide across its smooth, slightly matte surface, and he feels a sense of reassurance, although what he might need reassuring about, he couldn't say. When it catches on his sleeve and falls to the floor in the middle of the pub, in a spectacular shower of small change, he isn't sure why he snatches it up in embarrassment, like it was a signed photo of Barry Manilow, or a picture of Peter Jackson in the nude.
"What's that, then, Seany-babe -- is it your secret lover?" Orlando is hovering, making little grabs at the card with his free, drinkless, hand. "Ah, let me look, go on. I won't tell anyone outside of this pub."
"Funny. You the cabaret tonight, are you?"
"Yeah, I'm doing a magic act later. Aha! See? Sleight of hand, that is!"
"That's not fuckin' sleight of hand, you just pinched it off me, you little bastard!"
"Oh, now, look at that. He is just lovely, Sean, congratulations. Have you been together long? Oh, wait, don't answer that 1604! Well, you know what they say, mate. You're only as old as you feel--"
"I was just going to say Ducky."
"Right." Sean turns away and tips beer down his throat because he suddenly finds he's not sure what he's going to say next. He thinks for a second about getting up and walking out and going home. His face feels hot, but then it's a warm night, and the pub is full of people, and the people are full of alcohol. Orlando, especially, is full of alcohol. His breath smells of beer as he leans over, too close, and sniggers into Sean's ear. Sean thinks maybe Orlando will bugger off and go and sit with his little hobbit friends, but he doesn't. Anyway, he's still got Sean's postcard.
"Oh, mate, I'm sorry. Here you go. It's really, really, a really really nice picture. Really. I really mean it." Orlando is doing his best to look contrite, and Sean thinks he preferred it before, when he was just being a twat. He picks the postcard out of the small puddle of beer Orlando has put it down in, and wipes it carefully on his jeans.
"So like, what's the story, then? Why are you carrying this picture of this bloke around with you, anyway?" Orlando is obviously in the mood for a chat.
"It's, erm, just it's Caravaggio, you know? I was in the film. Vig found it."
"Oh, right. Cool." Orlando turns a bright, slightly vacant grin on Sean and nods knowledgeably.
"Have you seen it, then? The film?"
"No. Is it good?"
"Yeah. I'm in it."
"Oh. Cool. Who do you play?"
"I'm Ranuccio. He's like this gambler -- real bit of Italian low-life. Caravaggio has a bit of a thing for him, right, so we kind of get into this weird fucked up love triangle with Tilda Swinton, who's my girlfriend. And then she dies, and he kills me. And then he dies."
"Yeah. D'you want another drink, mate?" Sean would really like to get off this subject now. He buys himself a pint, and Orlando a bottle of something that in an ideal universe wouldn't be allowed to call itself beer, and hopes the thought of fresh alcohol will distract his attention. With any luck, it'll distract it right over to the other side of the room.
"Cheers. So -- this bloke in the picture -- is that him? Ranuccio?"
Jesus Christ, shut the fuck up. "Kind of. It was one of them arty films, y'know? I mean, the painting's of John the Baptist, but Derek had me being the model for it. Dunno why. Just meant I had to sit still for bloody ages. Right fuckin' pain in the arse, to be honest."
Sean wonders who it is that's saying these things, and why they feel the need to use his lips and teeth and tongue to do it. He feels a strong desire to punch the amiable grin right off Orlando's face, for making him take stuff that should have stayed in his head -- delicate, painful, confusing stuff -- and talk about it, and turn it into shit.
Orlando sits in front of him, twisting idly on his barstool, using the heel of one hand to push away from the edge of the bar. He laughs in a friendly way and takes a swig from the bottle. Sean watches his throat move as he swallows. He seems to put so much energy into even the smallest action; it almost makes Sean feel tired, and Sean's always thought of himself as a pretty active guy. Health and youth and confidence seem to emanate out of the pores in Orlando's skin; even half-cut and dressed like Andy Pandy on speed, still the guy's like the perfect photo-shoot, the one that sells stuff. The one that gets people promoted. The one that has people queuing right out the cinema door and halfway down the street. It's as if he's lit up from the inside.
Sean needs to say something real, something that means something, before he evolves into his own dad.
"You look really different without the hair."
Yeah. That was something that needed saying all right. He's willing to bet that no one has ever said that to Orlando before. Still, at least it's true and he means it. Inside his pocket, he runs his thumb over the surface of the postcard and looks at Orlando. It doesn't look that much like him, really. It's just because he's young and he's got a pretty face.
"What, d'you mean, like, the wig, or the real hair?" Orlando passes a hand self-consciously over the butchered mess that is his scalp.
"The wig, I meant. That thing you've got on now looks bloody awful, by the way."
Orlando laughs. "It's cool, man! It is!"
"Looks like summat's crawled on your head in the night. Some kind of little weasel or something."
"Fuck off!" Orlando is leaning back, nearly collapsing off the stool in indignation and delight. Sean smiles with quiet, good-natured evil. The conversation is back on solid ground.
He is not quite sure how or when it happens, but somehow this comfortable state of affairs turns into him and Orlando walking rather unsteadily along an empty stretch of road, swigging from a bottle of Smirnoff. He's not sure, either, where they're supposed to be going, but he thinks that as long as the vodka holds out, it's probably ok. There's something he really needs to say to Orlando. It's very important, but the words aren't coming out all that easily. Also, his feet seem to be having some sort of argument with the ground, and it's quite distracting.
"Connery -- no, listen -- Connery the thing about Connery "
"He's Bond, man! James Bond!" Orlando lurches into Sean's shoulder, just to make his point perfectly clear.
"Yeah, but the thing what I the thing about Connery, right, is--" Sean stops. He has just noticed something.
"Dark, in't it?"
"Sean!" Orlando lurches again, helpless with mirth, loses balance, and grabs at Sean for support. He is still standing, but he finds that part of him is now closer to the road than it used to be. With extreme care, he puts the vodka bottle down on the ground for safekeeping, and stands swaying and gasping, doubled over and hanging from Sean's jacket with one hand. Sean looks at the bottle and thinks he'd quite like to pick it up, but he can't see how this can be achieved without a certain amount of falling over.
"Sean!" Orlando struggles to get his breath. "It's dark it's dark because it's like, night-time!" He gazes up into Sean's face with an expression of overwhelming pity. Then he falls over.
Sean steps around his prostrate form and rescues the precious bottle from the carnage. He takes a lovely, warming mouthful, and stands still to appreciate it. Then he notices something else.
"Can you hear that?"
"No. I dunno. Hear what?" Orlando raises his head weakly from the tarmac.
Sean takes a step, and a swig, and another step. The vodka runs hot and familiar in his veins. Central heating for actors, that's what it is. It makes him think about going for a little run, so he does. He can still hear the noise; a light whispery sound a short way off. Then he remembers Orlando, goes back and attempts to raise him to a vertical position by pulling his arms out of their sockets.
"Come on, you daft bugger!" Orlando does as he is told, obviously deciding an armless Legolas might not go down terribly well, what with the archery and all.
"What?" asks Orlando again.
"It's the sea, in't it?"
It is the sea. It's there, just round the bend of the road, big and wide and restless, disappearing into the sky. It's been there the whole time, or so Sean supposes. He stands still in the dunes and listens to it and tries to breathe it in. Its wild, salt sharpness whips into his face and takes some of the comfy vodka heat out of him. Orlando comes up behind him and lurches into his back with a thud. He is out of breath, clutching at the leather of Sean's jacket as he leans against him. Puffs of warm air are pushed scratchily out of his lungs and disturb the hair on the back of Sean's neck as Orlando says, "Hiya, mate," and "Fuckin'ell," and "It's the sea!"
It's the sea all right. Sean sits down next to Orlando, who has collapsed on the sand, and passes him the bottle. It is cooler on the beach, and very empty and very dark. Realistically, Sean thinks, they can't be all that far away from the pub, but you wouldn't know it. To his left and right, the coastline curves round in a wide black arc. Bits of it seem to be alive in an uncivilized, inhuman sort of way. The sea swishes and sighs like a beating heart. Somewhere behind them, there is a light scrabbling, scuttering sound. He twists his head around, staring into the night, but there's nothing. Just a whole load of New Zealand. For a small place, thinks Sean, there seems to be a lot of it about.
The peace and the quiet and the emptiness are all starting to creep Sean out a little bit, even with the unnatural quantities of vodka and beer he's consumed. He shifts about in the sand and coughs once or twice into the darkness, in an attempt to somehow make his presence known; but he realises it makes no impression at all, on anything. He will have no effect on this beach, on this weird, beautiful, not-really-real country. He will leave no mark. The tide will roll in again and erase all evidence of his existence. The sun will rise bright and clean over the ocean, and blot him out.
He stares out to sea, trying to distinguish the lighter stripe of grey where the horizon is. Beside him, Orlando does the same, or at least this is what Sean thinks, until he turns to pass the vodka, and their eyes meet halfway. Sean hands over the bottle and makes sure not to look away too quickly, in case Orlando thinks he is embarrassed. He's not, of course, because there is nothing for him or anyone to be embarrassed about. At least, Sean thinks, there won't be as long as they both keep drinking the vodka. When he glances back, just to make sure Orlando isn't embarrassed either, Orlando's looking at the sea.
"Cool out here, innit?" says Orlando.
"Fuckin' freezing," agrees Sean, although really he's still liking the fresh feel of the night on his vodka-lit skin. He pulls a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and lights one.
"We ought to sleep out here, under the stars!" There is a dull thud as Orlando's back thumps down on the sand.
"Were you in the scouts or something? Anyway, there aren't any stars, it's too cloudy."
"Oh yeah. Well, maybe not then."
They don't speak for a while. There is a lot of quiet on the beach; they are surrounded by it. Sean feels invaded by the quiet; it pushes up against him uncomfortably and tries to get in. It whines at his ear like a mosquito. He'd like to stop it doing this, really, but he seems to have forgotten how that works.
Orlando hasn't. "You know that postcard?" he says, and it's as if a hundred little tiny bells start ringing in Sean's head, trying to warn him about something.
"Well, no. Not that, really. I was just thinking about the guy, the painter -- Caravaggio? I mean, all that stuff that happened in the film, what you were saying. Was that all, like, true then?"
Careful, the bells warn, their voices high and tinny. Stick to facts. Facts are nice and safe. We all like facts.
"Er yeah, well. I suppose. Some of it. I mean, like, I know he was a painter and he did kill some bloke, and he had prostitutes and whatnot modelling for him. But Derek I think he wanted us to feel like we were playing real people, you know? It was like -- Ranuccio was just this bloke, someone you could meet down the pub on a Saturday night, not something out of a history book."
Orlando nods, his face a dark shape in the gloom. Sean wonders whether he's bored, or taking the piss, but it's quite impossible to tell. Sean feels as though the alcohol is plucking words from his brain, and pulling them out of his mouth in a long string. He wonders distantly whether he's making any sense at all. The alarm bells are still ringing, but he can't be bothering with that now. He wants to listen to what he's saying.
"'Cause art, you know, it's just a job innit, at the end of the day? It's not all cutting your ear off and prancin' round being deep and mystical and all that crap. Like acting. I mean, it's work, in't it?"
Orlando nods again. "Yeah, I s'pose you're right."
"Sorry. Going off on one there." Sean laughs a bit, takes a swig from the bottle and a drag on his cigarette.
"No, no, it's cool." Orlando's eyes are wide open with sincerity. "It's interesting."
He does seem interested. He's a bit like a baby bird, waiting to be fed. Sean thinks that, when you get him on his own, he's not that much of a twat. He wants to feed the baby bird; it makes him feel generous and good and kind.
"I used to think I maybe wanted to be an artist, actually."
"Yeah. I was really into the drawing and that. I went to art college for a bit. Weren't really my cup of tea, though. Bunch of pretentious posers, you know." Words push their way through the brassy confusion of ringing bells and into the fresh air. "I thought Derek'd be like that, but he weren't really "
"What was he like?" Orlando's voice is a newly quiet, understated thing. Sean feels it nudging him along.
"Well, he were a nice guy, you know? Very nice, very down to earth." The woeful inadequacy of this description smacks Sean in the face and makes him cringe. "But, I mean, it's hard to describe, because he wasn't like anyone else. He seemed to have all this energy -- I dunno where it came from. He'd just get an idea and suddenly we'd all be going with it, you know? You just got sort of caught up by him." Sean claws at his brain for the right things to say. He wants to say what he thinks because, well, that's the kind of bloke he is. Except that all he can think of to say about Derek is that his face was the most alive thing Sean had ever seen, and that he smiled a lot, and that when he did it made you feel like some kind of electrical appliance, and that he was beautiful.
"He was all right. He weren't a bullshitter."
"Can I have a drag -- is that okay?" Orlando is eying Sean's cigarette.
Sean feels relieved, for some reason. He feels as though he's been let off the hook. "Yeah. You can have one of your own, if you like." He laughs and pulls out the packet again, shaking it a bit.
"No, it's all right, I just wanted a quick puff." Orlando reaches over and takes the cigarette from Sean's hand. His fingers feel light and dry where they touch Sean's briefly. He watches a small orange spark appear in the darkness near the grey ghost of Orlando's face, and vanish again. Then Orlando reaches over to hand it back. "Where's your hand? Can't find it Oh, there it is."
He places the cigarette back between Sean's fingers with his light, dry touch, and when Sean raises it to his lips, it tastes of someone else.
"Ta. So, you liked working with Derek, yeah?"
"And all the gay stuff, or whatever -- that didn't bother you, then?"
Sean immediately revises his opinion of Orlando. The bloke is just a twat, after all. He wonders why people always have to bring that stuff into it. Why people always have to talk about everything. Why they can't just leave things alone.
"I didn't think about it. Wasn't the point. It was a film about a painter. I was in it. It was a good part. End of story. Why do you ask, anyway?" He tips about a ton of acid into the question.
"No reason," Orlando says mildly. "I'm not having a go. Just wondered. I mean, I've done that stuff, a bit."
"Really?" What, this is supposed to interest him in some way?
"Yeah. Well, kind of. In Wilde -- I was a rent-boy. It was just a bit part, really, but "
Acting. He's talking about acting. Of course he is. Isn't he?
"I haven't pissed you off, have I?" An uncertain note creeps into Orlando's voice. "It's just that -- well, I haven't been, y'know, in the business very long, and "
"No, no " Hideous embarrassment prickles up the back of Sean's neck and creeps over the tops of his ears. "You've not -- I'm not bothered, like."
He doesn't sound it, particularly. He laughs half-heartedly. "Might
as well try and pick up some tips from you old veterans, eh?"
"Sorry," says Orlando. Then nobody says anything at all. The wind has picked up a bit, Sean notes. He thinks that this is the most uncomfortable silence he's ever not heard. He wonders what happened to his vodka-fuelled central heating. The bottle is empty.
Orlando clears his throat. "It's just I actually think you're a fucking good actor, man." His head is pushed down and from what Sean can see, he appears to be digging a small hole in the sand with a twig or something. The little cloud of bounce and ease and confidence that usually hangs around him seems to have evaporated.
"Yeah? Cheers, that's really Thanks." Sean is touched.
"That's ok. I mean it. Actually, I think I might nick that fag off you, after all."
"Sure." Sean scrabbles around for the packet and Orlando shifts closer to take it from him. He's almost close enough, probably, to feel Sean's breath on the shaved bits of his scalp. As he leans in, Orlando's arm presses lightly against Sean's; it feels warm through a layer of denim, and another one of leather. Orlando has taken the packet; he's holding it in his hand. So is Sean. Sean looks down at his own hand, holding the cigarettes, and wonders why it's still there. He can hear Orlando breathing.
"Sean?" says Orlando.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Sean is fairly sure he doesn't want Orlando to ask him any more questions, but he says "Yeah," again.
"How drunk are you?"
"Me? I'm pretty much pissed out of me 'ead."
"So am I," says Orlando.
"Oh," says Sean. "Yeh?"
"Yeah," says Orlando. "Very." He's looking at Sean as though Sean has a camera, and he's taking photos for some teen-girly kids' magazine. Although, Sean admits to himself, he probably doesn't know that's what he looks like.
"I'm so drunk," says Orlando, "I don't even know what I'm doing."
What he is doing is tugging on the cigarette packet, pulling it towards him, and because Sean is attached to the packet, he is being tugged along too. This is, of course, the point at which Sean should let go of the cigarettes, but he doesn't, even when Orlando pulls them right round and hides them behind his back. This forces Sean to lean towards Orlando at a very odd angle, which is probably why his breathing has gone all weird and strained. Orlando is breathing funny, too. Sean can tell, because he's suddenly very, very close to Orlando's face. He smells warm and alcoholic.
"I dunno what I'm doing, either," says Sean, and he thinks his voice sounds weird. "Good," says Orlando, whose face is an unseeable blur. He breathes on Sean, and he's not really that annoying, not that cocky. Not really. His hand, resting at the back of Sean's collar, is hesitant, uncertain, bird-like. Something heavy seems to fall down inside Sean, and then he just does it. He can't really believe it, but he does. He kisses Orlando. It hadn't seemed like a great leap to make, somehow. After all, their faces were so close together already, and Orlando's eyes had flickered closed, the lashes falling like little dark feathers so he wouldn't even see if Sean moved forward (just a tiny bit) and rested his mouth lightly against Orlando's mouth. It could be a drunken stumble, a slip in the dark.
Except now he's done it, and it isn't that at all. It's him kissing Orlando Bloom, and he knows it. It's his lips on Orlando's lips, applying just the tiniest whisper of pressure, and then, when that whisper is answered, the tiniest bit more. It's him reaching up and moving his hand over the back of Orlando's head, and his tongue trying to prise Orlando's mouth open, as if there's something in there that he needs. It's his body shoved up awkwardly against Orlando's, his cigarettes falling with a muffled sound onto the sand as his hand slides underneath the denim of Orlando's jacket. It's him, all this, and he knows it. So maybe he does know what he's doing, after all.
And now he's doing it, he can't help but wonder what all that fuss was, with the alarm bells in his head. Is this what he was being warned about? It doesn't seem so bad. It's easy, in fact, and really quite nice, and he doesn't have to talk or think at all. He's in a quiet, warm space where it's just him and bits of Orlando; soft, isolated bits of Orlando that he is able to concentrate on and deal with one at a time. Like the place at which Orlando's jaw meets Orlando's neck, where Sean can detect traces of an aftershave he'd have advised against, himself. Like the part of Orlando where the waistband of his jeans rests just barely on his hipbone, and the area of flesh directly above this which shivers slightly when Sean draws his hand across it. In this space there is no chitchat, no jokes, no questions asked. There are only simple things, small movements, small sounds.
Now Orlando's mouth is very close to Sean's ear, in fact for a little while it is on Sean's ear. Then it is just very close again as Orlando says, "Come back to mine, yeah?" The quiet, warm space they are in together expands and contracts, the way things do sometimes on the edge of sleep or a fever. Sound is absorbed by it, deadened; Orlando's voice is as soft as a snowdrift. The space holds its breath, waiting for an answer.
Sean says, "I dunno I dunno. Wait -- wait a minute." He removes his right hand from underneath Orlando's T-shirt. Part of Orlando's back is exposed to the night air where the material has bunched up, and Sean pulls the hem back down, smoothing it flat over the little bumps of Orlando's spine. He stands up. Away from Orlando and the small, soft space, it's colder than he remembered. In front of him, the sea does what the sea does. It holds no answers. The sea can't tell him what to do, and neither can the beach, spreading out on either side and fading into the darkness, or the black smudges of trees behind them, or the wide road leading back the way they came. None of these can tell him anything. He looks at Orlando, who is sitting on the sand where Sean left him. The night has drained him of colour, left his face indistinct, expressionless, his eyes dark hollows. He leans backward, his arms stretched out behind him, casually supporting the weight of his body. He gives Sean no clues either. He just waits. Sean takes a few steps in no particular direction, and then he notices that he's got sand in his shoes. He feels it, softly gritty, through his socks. He turns back to Orlando.
"Yeah, all right," he says.
He wakes just before dawn, disoriented and thirsty. He has a strange feeling that the door and windows are in the wrong places. He half remembers a dream he had earlier in the night, in which he'd gone back to the beach and found Derek there, sitting on a red velvet blanket and watching the boys surf. He'd said to Derek, "I thought you were dead," and Derek had smiled his bright smile and told Sean about his great, great grandfather, who had farmed sheep on the South Island. Then they'd driven to Sean's parents' house in an open-topped sports car, where they'd found Orlando and Elijah Wood trying to unblock a drain with a draught excluder. After that, it's kind of hazy.
When Sean turns over onto his side, his body feels different, somehow. Used in unusual places. The inside of his mouth tastes alien, unfamiliar, even through the foulness left by alcohol and cigarettes. There is something warm and alive next to him in the bed, and of course it is Orlando, asleep, facing away from Sean and toward the wall (the wall is in the wrong place too). He is lying with one fist next to his cheek on the pillow, as though trying to punch himself in the face. The other hand is pushed against his chest, and his knees are bunched up into his stomach. He looks like a gangly, overgrown child who has tried to fold himself up into a ball.
Sean puts a hand on Orlando's side where the sheet stops covering him, and looks down at this new combination, comparing the difference in texture. He runs the hand lightly up over Orlando's ribs to his shoulder, and down his arm, noting the darker colouring there where the skin has been exposed more often to the sunlight. Orlando does not wake. He makes a small noise in his sleep, that is more than a breath but less than a snore. Sean shifts a little and his body remembers with a sudden thrill what it was like to be underneath Orlando, the unexpected weight of him, the hardness of new-built muscle sliding under smooth skin. It remembers Orlando's hyperactive twitchiness, all fingers and thumbs, clutching and feeling and grasping and leaving little marks on its flesh. It remembers a light huffing breath, half a laugh, half not, spreading a damp heat across its surface and deeper, into its bones.
Sean flexes, stretches, yawns. Turning onto his back he is reminded, by the way his brain seems to take a second or two to catch up with the rest of him, of how much he had to drink last night. It's not a hangover yet, just a quiet fuzz round the edges of everything, but he knows from experience that that's not necessarily a good sign. He wonders vaguely whether Orlando has any aspirin handy. Raising his head, he scans the small room, ghostly grey in the first light of dawn, but sees nothing particularly encouraging. Orlando seems to be one of those pathologically tidy people, which surprises Sean. On the little bedside cabinet next to him sit a lamp, tissues, his own watch. Nothing else. A shelf on the opposite wall with CDs arranged neatly in a line. He can't see from here, but he guesses they're probably in alphabetical order. Even Orlando's clothes, while not actually folded, have somehow all made their way to the same chairback, where they hang smug and self-righteous, looking down on a sad little puddle consisting of Sean's jeans, underwear, shirt and jacket.
The jacket reminds him of something, and he pushes the covers off him, sits up and swings his feet down to the floor. The early morning air is cool on his bare skin after the heat of the bed, and a small, persistent pain is beginning to make itself known somewhere at the back of his right eye. Ignoring it, he reaches over and picks up his jacket, feeling inside each of the pockets. Money, keys, no cigarettes. The cigarettes are still at the beach. Sean feels a twinge of guilt at this. He's a litterbug. Mints, a tissue, his postcard. He takes the postcard out and sits back down on the bed. It's somewhat the worse for wear now, a little bent from being in the pocket. One of the corners is dog-eared, the printed side starting to peel away from the backing. A light brown stain has bloomed where Orlando put it down in the beer. Probably, thinks Sean, he should stop carrying it around with him all the time. He sits looking at it, at the pretty boy sat still, one shoulder thrust forward awkwardly, the light harsh on his bare arms. It's just a postcard. The kind of thing you might buy at an art gallery. Viggo was right. It reminds him of his youth, in ancient times.
Orlando is still asleep. He seems to put as much effort into being unconscious as he does everything else in his life. His mouth is slightly open, and the fist of his left hand gives a little twitch, the fingers beginning to uncurl. He's a strange kid, Orlando, Sean thinks. It's like he's got all these layers, of bounce and cockiness and sweetness and naivety. But underneath it all there's a toughness, a hard kernel of something that he, Sean, has never really had. He feels as though he's been involved in some sort of competition with Orlando, and he isn't sure who won, or if anyone did. Perhaps it doesn't matter. He lies back down and pulls the sheet up over him. Orlando stirs at the movement, one of his feet pushing backwards and hitting Sean's knee. He doesn't wake. Sean contemplates things, like the likelihood of a cup of tea in the near future, and the day that's starting -- the luxury of a day off, with no work, no swords, no wardrobe, no wigs and makeup. No fighting orcs, no interminable waiting around in unpleasant weather. Just hours and hours of delicious emptiness, waiting to be filled by him. He wonders what he should do with them. The tea would be a good start, and then he doesn't know. He thinks perhaps he'll wait until Orlando wakes up, and then decide.