Green Room Games
or The Elmcombe Luvvies

Short story (The fourth and last in the Elmcombe series)

An upstairs window was flung imperiously open and Yvette Fletcher-Bell leaned out, her long blond, greying hair blowing in the breeze. "I want to speak to you, Peter," she called. Peter Preston who had been trying to sneak past unnoticed cursed under his breath,

"What's that?" he called back. "Can I speak to you later, Yvette. I must take Jess out for her walk."

Jess of course agreed and pulled on the lead in case Preston showed signs of slowing down.

"Come in for coffee," said Yvette, "on your way home." She shut the window even before Preston could stammer an excuse. He sighed. Invitations for coffee at the Fletcher-Bells were generally bad news. They usually meant that Yvette had conceived another of her 'ideas' and needed someone to do all the hard work.

Peter decided that trying to creep past on the way back was out of the question. Mrs Fletcher-Bell, when on the prowl, was ultra-persistent and would keep at least one eye, if not both, on the street outside. He'd never make it. She was quite capable of posting her husband, Hubert, on permanent watch to look out for him. Preston sighed and decided he would have to bow to the inevitable. She would get him, if not on the return journey, at least some time in the near future. She would outline her plans, however irrational they were, and eventually he would agree to co-operate.

Having made the decision, though, and once he and Jess were into the fields and Jess had been let off the lead and was investigating smells, November had stripped the trees of most of their leaves. Frost had hardened the ground but there was still a little warmth in the sunshine. Preston allowed his thoughts to wander into more pleasurable areas. These involved his, recently gained, friend, Sean Fuller. Friend? Well, that was a weak word for his relationship. Lover. Partner. There were other, less salubrious, terms which could also describe the relationship. Fuck buddy. Bed mate. Pecker sucker. Prick pal. Bum chum.

Certainly Sean visited him as often as he could, stayed overnight and they made love. Preston, though, wasn't sure what future there was for the two of them. Sean was engrossed in his career as an archaeologist. He was preparing for his doctorate and a great deal of his spare time was taken up in writing his thesis. Occasionally Preston wondered whether Sean might like to work permanently at his cottage in Elmcombe instead of the rather grotty Feltenham flat. In his mind's eye he could see the two of them sitting together, Sean reading some academic tome or perhaps writing assiduously while he . . . Yes, what would he be doing? Well, he knew what he wouldn't be doing. There wouldn't be any quiet, educational activity on his part. He'd be up, fiddling with something in the kitchen, providing a distraction to Sean's industry. or worse being unable to keep his hands, lips, any other parts off that slim, sexy body, that heart-stopping mouth, the dark glossy hair that just demanded to be stroked or have fingers run through. And Sean, of course, good-natured as he was, would eventually tire of the interruptions and they would have a row - and that would be dreadful.

Best leave arrangements like they were for the time being until the relationship was less emotionally charged, Preston decided and whistled Jess out of the wood where she had gone in search of a pheasant.

"So what do you think Hyacinth wants us for?" asked Preston. Hyacinth Bucket was Preston's private name for Yvette Fletcher-Bell after the arch-snob in the TV comedy series 'Keeping Up Appearances'. The two were very much alike, both monsters in real life though funny when their activities were related to others out of their reach.

The answer to Preston's query was soon to be revealed, even though Jess' response had only been a wag of the tail. Jess quite liked Yvette who gave her biscuits though to get the biscuits she had to put up with kisses and baby talk. Preston thought that Jess always looked a bit embarrassed when this happened.

"Come in, dear," said Yvette. "And how's my ickle lickle doggy girl?"

'Dear' - that sounded very ominous.

Coffee, not even instant, and chocolate biscuits were provided (dog biscuits for Jess). Preston sat down warily in a chintz-covered arm chair which enfolded him in a soft, prison grip. In fact there was a lot of chintz around the room, the covers of another armchair in which Yvette sat, a sofa, the curtains. Hubert came into the room, looked uncomfortable and went out again.

Preston bit the chocolate biscuit and the bullet. "Well, Yvette," he said, "what's all this about?"

Yvette gave him a sharp look. "The Season of Good Will is almost upon us," she said giving the words their appropriate capitals.

"Oh come on, Yvette. Six weeks still to go before Christmas. I'm not a Scrooge but it's a bit early to start thinking about it already."

"Funny you should mention Scrooge, That's just what I wanted to talk to you about."

Preston cast his mind back wildly. What was she talking about? Was she going to accuse him of being mean? There was the occasion a couple of weeks back when he had refused to lend Hubert his saw, maintaining that it was already on loan to the Wyndes and they hadn't returned it yet. The truth was that the last time Hubert had borrowed it it had come back in such a blunted state that Preston had had to have it sharpened professionally. He wondered what it had been used on. Hubert was not exactly a DIY expert and perhaps hadn't realised that a wood saw was not the appropriate tool to cut metal with.

But Yvette was explaining. "I thought we could brighten the Christmas Festivities with a little Thespian activity," she said. "You know what a literary artist Hubert is - not to mention a musical composer of some merit."

Preston hadn't. He thought Hubert's main accomplishments lay in the sinking of quantities of whisky (and of course the blunting of saws).

Yvette paused, obviously waiting for some comment.

"I never realised," said Preston.

"Well, Peter dear, he's used his not inconsiderable skills to adapt Charles Dickens's little story into a musical play. What do you say that we put on a public performance or two to cheer up the village over the holidays? We're a talented little group, I'm sure you'll agree and with six weeks to practise we could come up with something verging on the professional." She looked at him her eyes wide with enthusiasm.

Preston gasped. It was worse than he'd expected. Much, much worse. The implications were horrendous. By definition Hubert's version would be dreadful. Preston's own acting abilities were zilch and a musical . . . Amateur musicians playing off key. He doubted whether most of his friends could sing - Susan Crownhatch excepted of course (which would just show up the others even more).

And there would be rehearsals - lots of them if Yvette was going to be in charge. So when Sean rang up to say 'OK for this evening?' Preston would have to say, 'Sorry, I'm doing the play tonight.'

"What do you think?" asked Yvette.

"Er," he said, and choked on a biscuit crumb.

Yvette waited until the paroxysm had died down a little.

"Yes, I expect it is a little bit of a surprise," she said. "But I think you'll see the potential when you read the libretto."

Preston knew he was never going to win but he made a feeble protest. "I'm hopeless at acting," he said, "and I can't sing. I sound like an old crow. I'd ruin the production for you."

"Don't be so modest," said Yvette. "I'm sure you'll do very well. And, as for the singing, well, perhaps you could join the chorus."

"There's going to be a chorus?"

"And dancing."

Preston reeled out.

* * * * * *

"You'll never guess what the mad woman wants to do now."

Preston sat with his friends Rick Tarr and Fred Sheldon who owned the Bed and Breakfast establishment along the road. The Aga was going full blast and the kitchen in which they sat and drank coffee was warm and cosy. Fred's three dogs, a Jack Russell, a large black and white spotted Dalmatian and a Pug which snuffled all the time, were spread out in supine contentment on the floor.

"What's she doing now?" asked Rick, peering through designer spectacles.

"You won't believe it but she wants to produce a Christmas play with all of us in it." He expected cries of horror and was surprised at the reaction he did get.

"Sounds fun," said Fred. "I've always seen myself as an actor manqué."

"The smell of the crowd, the roar of the greasepaint," said Rick. "Can't wait to get my slap on and strut myself on the stage."

"Not a great deal to strut," said Fred cynically. "But yes, it could be amusing."

Preston looked at them, horrified. "You can't be serious," he said. "It's Hubert's adaptation." He waved the libretto and script which Yvette had forced upon him as he left. "He's even written the music. Can you imagine?"

Fred took it from him and skimmed through the first few pages. "It's not bad," he said. "In fact it's really quite good. I don't know about the music. You'll have to ask Rick about that. He's the musical one."

He tossed it over to Rick who found the scores. Reading the dots - which Preston always found something of a miracle - he hummed a tune. "Catchy," he said. "Listen to this, Peter. If we go upstairs there's a piano."

They filed out closing the door on the three dogs which complained audibly.

There was a large room in the front of the house which was used for breaking the fasts of the B & B guests. At other times of the day the tables were moved back and it was used as a television room. Against one wall was an upright piano. The tone was slightly honky-tonk but Preston was surprised at Rick's virtuosity. He was even more surprised at the tunes from Hubert's score which Rick played. "The first one's a sort of prologue, I suppose. Victorian people skating on the ice."

He played the tune which was an attractive mixture of smooth melody with a syncopated base.

"Is that your invention?" asked Preston.

"All Hubert's own. Now listen to this." There was a sudden discordant sequence of chords. "Entrance of Scrooge," said Rick.

"Enter left," said Fred, "scowling at the people enjoying themselves. Two businessmen meet him and ask for some Christmas donations for the poor. They are rebuffed by Scrooge. Then there's a song - 'Bah! Humbug!' then he stalks off followed by Bob Cratchit who is late for work. That's the first scene."

"It IS quite good," said Rick.

Preston made a sound which, in times past, would have been written 'Pshaw'. "I'm having nothing to do with it," he said.

He didn't exactly sweep off but he left soon after and pointedly left behind the script of 'The Christmas Carol' adapted by Hubert Fletcher-Bell.

* * * * * *

To Preston's surprise and perhaps secret annoyance several of his friends and acquaintances became quite enthusiastic about Yvette's 'project'. Susan Crownhatch, who was a member of the church choir, and, in spite of that, quite a good singer, told him she'd seen the score and there was a lovely part for her in it.

Scrooge's old girlfriend.

And Jane Wilson, the photographer from the cottage opposite to Rick and Fred's B & B, decided that she's like to play the ghost of Christmas Past. After all it was a fairly androgynous character and she looked about as much boy as girl. In any case she had slim, narrow hips which Preston envied.

He did though, feel just a bit left out of things but consoled himself that all his time was available should Sean decide to come over.

"You see," he explained to Jess on their morning walk, "it's all a question of priorities and mine are firmly centred on the body of my lover and not poncing about looking foolish in front of the village. I prefer fucking to farting about."

Jess, who wasn't easily shockable, wagged her tail and went to investigate some intriguing smell.

Susan, and her friend Paula Clamphill, each with their Labrador, caught up with him by the stile at the end of the field and Susan insisted on talking 'Drama'. Paula also seemed to be interested in the forthcoming theatricals and asked whether there could be a part for her.

"Of course, dear," said Susan. "I don't think Yvette has cast Mrs Cratchit yet."

Preston snorted.

"You're just envious," said Susan.

"It's just that Sean and I prefer to do things on our own."

Paula giggled as if she knew what sort of things Sean and Preston got up to. "Ladies aren't supposed to know things like that," said Preston loftily.

"What ladies?" asked Paula.

"You two boys still going strong?" asked Susan, then swore lustily as her dog, Mischa, took off after a van which had appeared on the horizon.

"Blast that bloody dog," she said. "Mischa come here!"

The Labrador reluctantly returned. Obviously a van on the horizon was much more interesting than a sedate walk across the field. To emphasise her point, she rolled in something dark, viscous and smelly.

"You disgusting bloody bitch," said Susan.

Preston decided that Jess, compared to Mischa, was a positive angel and slipped her a biscuit when the others weren't looking.

"Who's playing Scrooge?" he asked.

"I don't think Yvette's found anyone yet," said Susan.

"Isn't that a bit rash?" asked Preston. "He is after all the main character."

"Yvette's always very optimistic," said Paula. "She's a 'things will turn up' sort of person."

Preston was well aware of Yvette's 'optimism'. It usually resulted in someone else getting lumbered with a considerable amount of work they didn't really want.

"I expect Rick or Fred will do it," he said.

"Oh no," said Susan, "they've both been given parts that are onstage at the same time as Scrooge."

"Hubert?" suggested Preston.

"Playing the piano," said Susan.

"The mystery lead," said Paula. "Perhaps she's roped in a real celebrity."

I wouldn't put it past her," said Preston. "She's not averse to a bit of blackmail."

"I don't know why you don't do it," said Susan to Preston. "You'd make a lovely Scrooge."

"Thanks, darling," said Preston, "but it would need more than Yvette's wiles to drag me on stage."

Both Susan and Paula looked at him and Preston felt a chill feeling run down his back. However neither said a word and Preston called Jess to heel and they started for home.

* * * * * *

Preston was expecting Sean that evening. He was coming for a meal so Preston had invested in a chicken (free range of course) which was roasting in the oven surrounded by some roasting potatoes which had been parboiled first so that they would be fluffy inside and, hopefully, deliciously crisp outside. He'd succumbed to the lure of vegetables in a pre-packed bag from the supermarket and which would take no more than three minutes in the microwave and of course didn't need preparation.

Fresh fruit and yoghurt for afters sounded suitably healthy and some real coffee to finish.

Sean had said he would arrive by 7.30 pm and so when no one had arrived by a quarter to eight, Preston, the cook, started to get nervous and kept peering into the oven and noting the colour of the meat and potatoes and fearing that golden brown was degenerating into charcoal black.

"Where's he got to?" he asked Jess, who wagged her tail and looked anticipatory, what with the smell of the roasting meat which was filling the air.

At 8.03 pm - Preston was watching the clock with neurotic diligence - the front doorbell went and he sighed with relief. Sean stood on the doorstep looking pale and wan.

"What's the matter? Are you ill?"

"Just exhausted," said Sean. "Can I come in?"

Preston realised he was blocking the doorway and pulled him in. "Food will be ready in three minutes," he said.

"Don't I even get a kiss first?"

Preston repaired the omission which put the vegetables back by a further three minutes, but, Preston thought, it was worth it.

"Now," he said, emptying carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and some sprouts into a microwaveable bowl, "tell me why you are late."

"The woman," said Sean, sinking into an armchair. "Your friend opposite. She grabbed me and wouldn't let me go."

"Yvette? She didn't try anything sexual?" Preston had long had the idea that Yvette Fletcher-Bell was a bit of a nymphomaniac on the quiet. On one occasion, breathing wine fumes, she had cornered him in his kitchen and advanced in a very predatory fashion. He had only escaped, he told himself, by pushing past her and going into the front room.

"She didn't need to," said Sean. "She's able to work her will just by persistence alone."

"I'm quite aware of that," said Preston. "But what did she want you to do?"

"I'm starring as Scrooge in her Christmas pantomime - or whatever it is."

"WHAT!" Preston's horrified shout invoked a bark from Jess who came to see what was wrong.

"I said I couldn't act very well, and I really didn't have the time but when she said that you were in it as well and would be rehearsing all hours, and the only times we could see each other would be at the rehearsals, I gave in. You should have told me you were in on the act."

"The bitch," said Preston. "I knew she was devious but this is too much. I have always refused to have a part in the play."

"But," said Sean, clearly bewildered, "she said you were playing Bob Cratchit."

"She's a lying, devious, manipulating, underhand, duplicitous, guileful cow. We'll go over there NOW and tell her we're not going to do it."

At that moment the microwave pinged. Had they known it, it was the sound of Fate taking a hand in the proceedings, but at that moment it just sounded like a call to food and both realised they were very hungry.

"Eat first," said Preston, foolishly, fatally, "then we'll go over. Open a bottle of wine, will you, while I dish up."

But of course by the time they'd eaten the meal - surprisingly good for Preston was hardly a master chef - drank a few glasses of wine each, said various foolish things about each other - as people in love are prone to do, and were lying contentedly together on the sofa, it was only then that they returned to the subject of Yvette and her machinations.

"I suppose," said Preston lazily, "we should go over and tell Yvette what a cow she is."

"Um," said Sean and did something with his tongue in Preston's ear that made the latter squirm with delight.

"She shouldn't be allowed to get away with it," said Preston, feeling for various erogenous zones that he knew Sean was particularly addicted to.

"You've got too many clothes on," said Sean.

"So've you."

They remedied the fault, revealing - in Sean's case - a chest, smooth and still lightly tanned from the dig on Gunner's Tump. Preston kissed it appreciatively, his tongue playing tag with the nipples, running down the cleft between until it reached the flatness of his stomach, He tried to go even lower but the waistband of Sean's trousers stopped him.

"You've still got too many clothes on," said Preston. "There's something in there that wants to get out."

"Let it out then."

Preston drew down the zip and fumbled amongst some soft white underwear feeling a hardness inside. He decided that he would prefer to search with his mouth so he inserted his head, smelling the warmth, the sweetness, the scent of maleness. His lips found an opening and kissed inside, his tongue exploring the soft silkiness of skin covering the hard interior.

"Oh," said Sean. "Turn yourself around so I can do the same to you."

They adjusted themselves. Still with their trousers on, it felt even more erotic to taste, lick and take in each other's most private parts.

Preston managed to get his hands in as well and clasped Sean;s buttocks, his fingers probing the cleft between, touching gently Sean;s hole. He ran his finger over it and felt it open to his touch. He pushed a finger in and felt it sink into the soft, warm, interior. The prick in his mouth twitched. Preston buried his finger even further.

Sean groaned. For a moment Preston's prick was released. "Don't make me come already," said Sean.

Preston stopped just enough to say, "Don't be silly. You can come more than once a night."

Indeed he felt himself approaching a climax. He pushed himself into Sean's mouth, at the same time pushing his finger into Sean, so that they were joined as one in a circle of ecstasy. The muscle of Sean's arse twitched and pulsed and at the same time Preston felt a gush of liquid fill his mouth. He heard his own groan and knew that delicious moment when his loins turned to jelly, the frenzy at the very centre of his being erupted and he came, gloriously, forcefully, triumphantly.

Afterwards they lay together happy in each other's company.

"So, what do you want now?" asked Preston, some time later.

"I think wine would taste odd after that," said Sean. "Lets have a cup of coffee. I'll make it." He busied himself in the kitchen. Preston dozed contentedly on the sofa. There would be more sex when they got to bed.

"You know," said Sean's voice from the kitchen, "that play of Yvette's might be fun."

"No way."

"You see we'd be together and I rather fancied myself on the stage at college."

"You've acted before? I thought you said you were no good."

"I always have trouble learning the lines but yes I did, and later admitted I'd done some," said Sean. "That's why Yvette offered me the part of Scrooge. In fact I did quite a bit of acting at college. Classical stuff mostly, 'The Jew of Malta', 'Tis Pity She's a Whore' - "

"Typecast," interrupted Preston predictably.

Sean ignored him. "But we also did 'Brigadoon'. So I sang and danced. A musical is always fun." He came in with two mugs of coffee and sat down beside Preston.

"What about your work?"

"I'm tailing off for Christmas," said Sean. "Anyway I need a bit of a rest. I could stay here, if you'd like me to. I'll have to pop into Feltenham a couple of times but I could make this my base."

That was something that appealed to Preston.

"What do you say?" asked Sean his hand sensuously stroking the back of Preston's neck.

"That's not fair. I'm being seduced."

"Not yet, but certainly later."

"Are you sure you really want to," said Preston, weakening.

"It'll be great fun."

Preston groaned. "It's not fair," he said again. "all right, but I'll have only the smallest of parts."

Sean laughed and put his hand in Preston's lap. "I wouldn't exactly say that," he said.

* * * * * *

Preston's capitulation, as it could be seen, wasn't greeted by the embarrassing smiles and nods of everyone else as he feared it might be. In fact everyone was very kind and no one even said, 'I told you so' or similar, for which he was very grateful.

They rehearsed at the Scout Hut which smelled vaguely of antiseptic and feet, a smell which Preston associated with the changing rooms at his secondary school. Yvette sniffed disapprovingly and fumbled in her handbag for some Eau de Cologne which she sprayed around. It didn't really make much difference but they soon got used to the smell and then didn't even notice it. There was a scout flag and a union jack at one end and chairs all around the other three sides.

Yvette spent some time ordering Hubert to place some of the chairs which, she said, stood for items of scenery though she didn't specify what they were. "Just don't knock into them," she said.

"Now, Peter," she said to Preston, "how's your singing?"

"Abysmal," said Preston. "I'm completely tone deaf."

"Nonsense. Everyone can sing." She told Hubert to play a song that they all knew. He made a flourish on the piano and eventually settled down to a recognisable version of "I'm just a girl who cain't say no" from 'Oklahoma'.

Yvette looked a bit startled but called out the words gamely. "Right everyone all together. 'Kissing's my favourite sport'."

They sang, rather tentatively, led by Susan's confident contralto.

"Other girls act coy and hard to catch
But other girls ain't havin' any fun.
Every time I lose a wrestling match . . ."

"Now the last line, Peter, on your own."

"I get a funny feeling that I've won." His voice quavered, not hitting any of the right notes and finally petering out on the last high one.

"Hm," said Yvette. "Well, dear, can you dance?"

"Sorry. I've two left feet."

"Never mind. You'll just have to be back row of the chorus."

At the moment the 'chorus' consisted of five people, Susan, Paula, Rick, Fred, and Jane Wilson, the photographer. Rick and Fred would, after the opening number, the skating one, become the two businessmen who approached Scrooge asking for charity for the poor and getting a rebuff. Back row of the chorus therefore was hardly hidden from the audience.

"We'll have a go at the choreography first," said Yvette. She showed a couple of steps which made her look a little like a distressed swan. "It's meant to show them skating on the ice. Can we try it?"

They tried it, and apparently the results didn't please her at all. She put her hands behind her back, leaned forward and stood on one leg. Now she looked slightly less like a swan and more like a pouter pigeon. "You must give the effect that you're skating along, so change your legs and move your body gracefully over each one."

Preston did and fell over.

"You're really not trying, dear," said Yvette.

Sean, from the side of the hall where he was waiting his entrance as Scrooge, looked as if he was about to explode into uncontrollable laughter. Preston determined that if so much as a titter escaped him, Preston would sweep out.

"Shall we walk through the first scene?" asked Sean.

Yvette nodded. "Play that chord where Scrooge enters," she told Hubert. "As he does so, the chorus forms a tableau while Rick and Fred come forward to speak to Scrooge. She arranged the depleted chorus so that Preston sat down on a chair and Susan, Paula and Jane grouped around him.

"Sitting down I can do," said Preston.

"She's a bit of an ogre, isn't she?" said Paula.

"I'm not afraid of her," said Susan.

"Please no talking by the chorus," said Yvette.

Neither Susan nor Paula said anything.

Jane smiled and snapped her camera.

* * * * * *

"You've got quite a good voice," said Preston after the rehearsal was over. The cast were walking towards Fred and Rick's house to have a drink and nibbles, as Fred put it.

"I told you it would be fun," said Sean.

"Fun!" said Preston in a tone which bordered on bitter loathing.

"It'll get easier," said Susan. "Soon as you've got the steps." There was a slight hesitation before she added, "and the tunes."

"Huh !" said Preston.

Sean linked his arm and gave it a squeeze. "The thing I'm wondering about is learning the words," he said. "I've got a rotten memory and there's so much in Scrooge's part."

Preston was slightly surprised to feel almost pleased that there was something at least the Sean wasn't perfect at. He squeezed Sean's arm back and wished that they were going straight home rather than stopping off for some of Rick and Fred's jollities.

The cast arranged itself around Rick's front room. There were no B & B 'guests' at this time of year so they were using the whole house. Sean stood around, not quite sure where to sit. Jane, who had bagged the sofa, patted the seat next to her. Preston, who had wanted to sit next to Sean himself, but had been too polite to sit down first was mildly amused to see Jane give Sean flirtatious glances.

After a couple of glasses of wine, though, Preston got into the swing of things remembering that Sean was staying with him for an undecided length of time. That couldn't be bad.

The three dogs were in their element; they loved company and Preston felt a pang of guilt that Jess had been left alone all evening. The dogs even enjoyed the frozen sausage rolls that Fred had shoved into the oven and weren't perhaps as well cooked as they might have been.

"We need more actors," said Susan. "Doubling the parts is all very well but at this rate we'll be acting opposite ourselves if we're not careful."

"We need some children," said Paula, "the Cratchit kids for a start and of course Tiny Tim."

"And then there's Marley's ghost," said Rick.

"Colonel Wynde," said Preston. referring to his neighbour, Brian. "He'd be perfect for the part."

"As long as he keeps to the script and doesn't wander off into some anecdote of his own," said Jane. Preston noticed that she was sitting very close to Sean.

"And Mrs Wynde as Mrs Cratchit," said Preston. "I'll speak to them tomorrow."

"More wine anyone," said Fred, waving the bottle.

"I must get back to Jess. She doesn't like being left along in the dark," said Preston.

"Pets are like kids aren't they," said Paula whose husband was looking after her Bella.

"And I'll need to get back to Mischa. She tends to get bored and chew things," said Susan, though Preston noticed she glanced rather regretfully at the bottle.

"Next rehearsal tomorrow," were Fred's parting words. Preston wasn't sure whether they were said maliciously though his eyes seemed to glint behind his spectacles.

Jane was chatting to Sean as they left, her hand rather proprietorially on his arm. Preston pushed down a sudden stab of jealousy and told himself not to be so stupid.

Suddenly the pug threw up - obviously an excess of sausage rolls. The cast hurriedly made their exits.

When Sean and Preston got in, Jess made a great fuss, leaping up to Sean and scarcely paying Preston any attention. "Hm," he said. "I guess you attract all the bitches."

"Not always," said Sean.

"What about Jane?"

Sean looked at Preston, surprised. "Jane?" he said. "We were just discussing photography. You know how useful that is in my job."

"She was all over you," said Preston.

"No she wasn't." Sean looked at him. "You're jealous," he said.

"Course I'm not." Preston went into the kitchen and filled the kettle. "Do you want anything before bed?" he asked.

"Only you," said Sean.

There was a silence then Preston appeared at the doorway. "Perhaps I was, a little jealous," he said. "But I'm not now."

* * * * * *

Never work with animals or children, goes the famous old theatrical maxim. Though most of the cast had dogs, these were not likely to be called upon to feature onstage, however, the script did call for children. There were the Cratchit offspring including the redoubtable Tiny Tim and the 'intelligent' boy who features towards the end to purchase the huge turkey as large as the boy himself. Yvette decided she could probably get away with five (assorted genders). More would be a problem because they were bound to get bored from time to time and start running around, less would make the Cratchit family dinner look a little skimpy.

Trouble was that none of the cast had children of the requisite age or appearance. Rick, Fred, Preston and Sean were childless, Jane was unmarried, Paula, Susan, the Fletcher-Bells and the Wyndes all had had children at one time or another but these had fled the coop some time before and most of these were doing their best to bring up families of their own, unfortunately in other parts of the country.

One suggestion had been to trawl the local Primary School. St Edmunds. Paula, who seemed to know practically everyone in Elmcombe, was a friend of the headmistress and she was despatched to find suitable, willing but amenable kids, not too lively, but extrovert enough to be able to speak out so that they could be heard in the back row of the Parish Hall, which would be the eventual venue of the production if Yvette remembered to book it. If the kids had any talent, that would probably be an advantage.

Luckily for Preston, by the time the children arrived for their first rehearsal, he had learned the steps of his routines well enough not to trip himself up, or indeed other members of the chorus. By now this had been increased to ten people including the local postman, a fireperson (as Fred insisted on calling her) named Hazel, three Morris dancers, Brian, a rather attractive male checkout assistant from the local supermarket, whom both Fred and Rick seemed to have fallen for in a big way, and the woman caretaker of the hall. This last said she might as well join the group as she had to stay until they finished to 'clear up the mess', as she put it. Yvette wasn't particularly pleased by this comment but by this time she was desperate for cast members so had refrained from expressing her disapproval. Anyway the woman, Lily, could dance and had quite a pleasant singing voice and who could ask for anything more.

So rehearsals proceeded, actors showed how adept they were at learning their lines, remembering where they were supposed to be and trying not to knock down the scenery. This was probably the easiest part as scenery was minimal and Yvette said she was relying on a painted background which she would rough out herself and then all those cast members who knew one end of a paint brush from another would fill in the spaces. Mrs Wynde, Fred and Susan, who all painted in their own right and considered themselves fairly adequate artists controlled themselves with difficulty. Chairs, tables and Scrooge's bed of course would have to be more or less three-dimensional and these were marked out in chalk on the Scout Hut floor (part of the 'mess' as Lily pointed out) and generally speaking the cast remembered where they were.

* * * * * *

"It's going to be a success," said Yvette a couple of weeks later which everyone decided was tempting fate. It may have just been coincidence but it did seem that from that point, everything went downhill. The focus of this seemed to be James Harrison.

James, a large boy, who liked to be known as Big Jim, was playing the 'intelligent boy' from the last act. After his experiences with the Three Spirits Scrooge leans out of his window and calls down.

"What's today?"

"Eh?" said Jim, looking up.

"What's today, my fine fellow?"

"Today? Why, Christmas Day."

"It's Christmas Day!" said Scrooge to himself. "I haven 't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hello, my fine fellow!"

"Hello!" returned the boy

"Do you know the poulterer's, in the next street but one, at the corner?" Scrooge asked.

"I should hope I do," replied the lad.

"An intelligent boy!" said Scrooge. "A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey; the big one?"

"What, the one as big as me?" returned the boy. Yvette hoped that this would get a laugh, considering the size of Big Jim.

"What a delightful boy!" said Scrooge. "It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my lad!"

"It's hanging there now," replied the boy.

"Is it?" said Scrooge. "Go and buy it."

"And the rest!" exclaimed the boy.

"No, no," said Scrooge, "I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell 'em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I'll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes, and I'll give you half-a-crown!"

"Cor," said the boy and ran off.

"I'll send it to Bob Cratchit's!" whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. "He won't know who sends it. It's twice the size of Tiny Tim."

"It ain't much of a part," said James returning on stage, "if that's all I have to say."

"But you do it extremely well," said Yvette in a conciliatory tone.

James, though, was not to be mollified. "'E's got lots more to say - and 'e's in more scenes."

'E' was Martin Palmer who played Tiny Tim - and looked the part being thin, undernourished , though his mother assured them that he ate like a horse, and had an winsome expression which made everyone want to pat him on the head and indulge him.

"That James," said Fred, "has pretensions to stardom."

"Unfortunately he has neither talent nor looks," said Rick.

Preston thought they were being a little harsh on Big Jim until he heard the lad in conversation with Martin. Preston himself was sitting behind the piano, hoping that he wouldn't be discovered by Yvette who, if she had seen him, would no doubt have found something for him to do. Most of the others were rehearsing a scene where the charwoman, the laundress and the undertaker divide up Scrooge's personal possessions after taking them from his dead body. The chorus was supposed to be there humming a sort of dirge in the background but Preston had had enough for the evening. He could never keep the tune anyway. Soon he and Sean would go home together.

The two boys were sitting in an area the kids had fenced themselves off with chairs to make a little private place. "You know why you got the part of Tiny Tim?" Preston heard Jim ask Martin.

"No," Martin said.

"Think about it. You're 'tiny'."

"I'm not fat like you," Preston heard Martin say gamely.

"That's muscle," said Jim. "What you got between your legs?"

"What do you mean?"

"Your willy. That's why they picked you. It's tiny. No bigger'n my little finger."

"It is so," Martin's voice though sounded unsure.

"Tiny Willy Winky," Jim's voice sneered. "Let's see it, if you're so sure."

"No. Leave me alone."

Preston wondered whether he should interfere. Shouldn't kids be allowed to sort out their own problems. Like chickens, settle their own pecking order. But Martin sounded genuinely upset.

"No. No. Please don't."

Preston stood up and cleared his throat. "What you kids doing?" he asked, He peered over the chairs, hoping that they weren't actually doing anything.

Tears were running down Martin's face and Jim started back and hid his hand behind his back. Martin's trouser zip was half open.

"What are you doing?" repeated Preston.

"Nothing," said Jim. "We was just fooling round."

"Do you want to continue in this play, Jim?"

"Er. Yeah."

"Well, in that case I should stop this 'fooling round' with Martin or you'll find yourself out on your ear. Understand?"

Jim grunted and skulked off, looking embarrassed. Martin dried his eyes. "You'll be OK," said Preston. "And don't worry about any - er - tininess. You'll grow. Take my word for it."

Preston looked around to see what the others were doing. The practice of the scene seemed to be over and he looked for Sean, but he, to Preston's annoyance, was chatting animatedly to Jane.

Yvette clapped her hands for silence. "One or two things," she said. "Some people haven't learned their lines too well," she said, looking at Sean. "There's too much noise from the Cratchit kids when they're not actually on stage. Remember absolute silence is essential when you're not actually acting."

James looked smug. "And that applies to you too, James," she said. "Right, everyone, next rehearsal Wednesday. Hubert, my coat."

The Fletcher-Bells swept out to their car. They could have given Preston and Sean a lift but it probably never occurred to them. The rest of the cast made their way out, chatting and feeling vaguely embarrassed that Lily had to stay behind to clear up.

Outside there was talk of a visit to the pub, but the kids had to be seen home and Rick and Fred had something they wanted to get home to, so they broke up. Jim retorted that he didn't need anyone to see him home and ran off by himself. Sean seemed to have been co-opted by Jane who had linked her arm proprietorially in his. Preston felt left out and wished someone would link his arm. He was though rather surprised when a small hand grabbed hold of his and a diminutive figure marched alongside him.

"Aren't you a little too old to do that?" asked Preston.

"No," said Martin complacently and the grip tightened. "I always hold my dad's hand."

The pretty checkout assistant who played Bob Cratchit walked on the other side. "I could hold your other hand," he said.

"You're much too old," said Martin.

"That's telling me," said the assistant whose name was Brian and who had a nice smile. "I always feared the day someone would tell me that."

Preston laughed. He wondered whether Brian was coming on to him. "What started you in the acting game?"

"My mum," said Martin.

"Exhibitionism," said Brian at the same time.

"What's that mean?" asked Martin.

"Showing off," said Preston.

Brian poked him in the ribs.

Preston wondered whether he should allow such familiarities but then considered what Jane might be doing with Sean. They were walking just ahead still arm in arm. Every so often Jane would turn her head and look up at Sean with what appeared to be adoration. Behind Rick, Fred, Susan and Paula walked in an untidy group with the three Morris dancers and the postman. They were chatting and laughing.

"Hooligans," observed Brian.

Martin, a very serious-minded little boy, said. "They're not really. My mum calls people like that 'convivial'. I think it means they're having a good time."

"Are YOU having a good time doing this play?" asked Preston.

There was a slight pause before the answer. "I guess so."

"If it weren't for James." A statement rather than a question.

Martin nodded.

"We'll sort young master James out," said Preston. "Eh, Brian?"

"Too right," said Brian and linked arms with Preston, who hoped that Sean wouldn't notice and then, after a moment's consideration, hoped he would. Brian was after all very attractive.

"Let's sing," came the voice of Rick from the group behind. He started the verse of 'Bah Humbug' and everyone joined in the chorus.

Sean turned round. "Hooligans," he said.

"We're just being convivial," said Martin.

Everyone laughed.

* * * * * *

Life seemed to be dominated by the play. Whenever any of the cast met, walking the dogs, shopping in the local Co-op, dropping in to each other's houses for morning coffee or afternoon drinks, the topic (or variations of it) was always the same. Sometimes it was the disaster of the previous rehearsal, at others the often sheer effrontery of Yvette's behaviour. "She really is a little dictator," said Susan.

Paula, who always looked on the more benevolent side, said, "Of course a director has to direct."

"Not in that autocratic way. She almost made the fire person cry the other night. And all she did was come in at the wrong time."

Rick and Fred were more interested in Brian. Sean had gone into Feltenham for an archaeology meeting (whatever that meant) and Preston, feeling lonely, had called in to the Bed and Breakfast residence for a consoling g-and-t.

"Are you two timing Sean?"asked Rick. who tended to be blunt.

Preston was surprised. "Certainly not," he said.

"You seemed to be getting rather close to the little tart, Brian, on the way home last night."

"He's a nice guy," said Preston.

"He's certainly got a nice arse," said Fred.

"Has he?" said Preston airily. "I haven't noticed."

Poppy, the Dalmatian, came over and laid her head on his knee. "You've got such a simple life," said Preston looking down, "As long as you're fed and walked and stroked, you're happy. And you don't mind who does it."

"What's so different about us?" asked Rick. "I saw that Jane 'stroking' your Sean on the way home."

"They're just friends," said Preston. "She's helping him with some photos for his thesis."

"Come into the dark room," said Fred," and see what develops."

"There's nothing going on between them," said Preston sharply. The tone of his voice made Poppy lift her head and look at him.

"Of course there isn't," said Rick. "Fred can be a bit of a fuckwit sometimes. Take no notice of him, of either of us. We're just silly, drama queens and sometimes we try to stir up trouble. But we do care for you."

Suddenly Preston wanted to get out. He wanted to see Sean. He wanted to be sure that Sean was in Feltenham at that meeting and not at Jane's house.

"Phone Jane, will you," said Preston. "Ask if you can speak to Sean."

"You don't want to do this," said Fred. "I just made a stupid joke. Rick's right. Sometimes I behave like a complete arsehole."

"You don't want to ruin what you've got with Sean," said Rick.

"I've got to know," said Preston. "I don't want the feeling that something's going on behind my back."

"I'm sure nothing's going on at all," said Fred.

Preston looked doubtful. "Anyway he's due home soon now," he said. "I'd better be off. Thanks, guys."

They watched him through the window as he went down the road. Rick looked at Fred who nodded. He picked up the phone and dialled Jane's number.

"Hello, Jane," he said. "I suppose you haven't seen Sean, have you? I wanted to have a word with him . . . Oh is he? Could you put him on? . . ."

There was a longish pause. "What am I going to say to him? Rick asked, covering the mouthpiece with his hand.

"Ask him, who he really wants to fuck," said Fred bitterly.

"Come on. Be serious."

"Ask him if he knows what Peter wants for Christmas. Say you've been trying to get hold of him all afternoon and have been ringing everyone you can think of. Say you just got lucky when you tried Jane. Then ask him what he's doing there."

Rick held up his hand. "OK," he said into the mouthpiece. "Sean, I've been trying to get hold of you all afternoon . . . "

* * * * * *

When Sean got in about half an hour after Preston arrived, he seemed casual. The kiss was perfunctory and Preston thought he could smell a vague perfume on his clothes - or was it on his skin?

"Where have you been?" asked Preston.

"You know," said Sean. "I had an archaeology meeting in Feltenham."

"What was it about?"

"Oh you don't really want to know," said Sean. "Test me on my words for the play. will you. It's getting close and I still haven't got the third act right. That scene with Cratchit." He sounded ill at ease, as if something was troubling him.


"Wait, I'll get you the script."

"I don't need it," said Preston. "I know the words."

"Cratchit's part? How do you do that?"

"I guess I've got a photographic memory. I know the whole play. Heaven knows I've heard it often enough."

Sean gave a whistle of appreciation. "You must be a genius," he said.

"Well, I'm not a fool," said Preston.

Sean didn't seem to notice the bitterness in his tone. Perhaps he was being stupid, thought Preston. He looked at Sean, tried to catch the look in those grey eyes but, perhaps it was imagination, but they did not seem to want to meet his.

"Start from the beginning of the third scene," said Sean. "I really can't get that right."

Perhaps Sean was just worried about the lines, the play, the first performance of which was in two days time. Thank God, thought Preston, that I'm just in the background. No one notices me and I've got all of two lines to say, and if they were missed out, it wouldn't make the slightest difference. Who am I kidding, he thought, there's something wrong. I'm losing him - and suddenly he felt infinitely depressed. Leadenly he said the first of Cratchit's lines and waited for Scrooge to answer.

It wasn't a very good evening. Sean seemed to have forgotten even more of his lines than usual and Preston hadn't enough enthusiasm to encourage him. What if he and Sean broke up? What if he never saw Sean again after this Christmas play. What if he never woke again to see that dark head on the pillow next to his, feel his strong body pressed up against his, Sean's arms holding him, his lips pressed against his. Unhappiness made him peevish.

"You're not trying," he snapped, after Sean made yet another botch of a line which Preston had already given him twice.

"Of course I'm fucking trying," said Sean. "I just can't seem to memorise properly."

"What about when you were in college?" asked Preston. "Did you have the same problem."

"I suppose so."

"Well, then it turned out OK in the end, didn't it?"

Sean looked pessimistic.

They had another go at the scene which, if anything, was even worse. Eventually Sean lost his temper with himself and swept off to bed. Preston was sure that the play wasn't the real cause of the friction but that Sean was just fed up with him and that their relationship was as good as over. Miserably he sat on the sofa on which he and Sean had made love so many times and stared at the blank screen of the TV. He could go upstairs, creep into bed with Sean, perhaps have sex and it would all appear to be OK again. But if Sean really was fed up with him, was having it off with someone else - Jane? - nothing would have been solved. Nothing sorted.

And if he asked Sean to tell him truly what the situation was - and Sean admitted that everything was over, Preston felt he couldn't bear it. He didn't want to know for certain. This limbo of doubt, horrible though it was, was almost better.

He switched off the table lamp and lay down on the sofa, feeling the tears form. You're just feeling fucking sorry for yourself, he told himself but it didn't do much good.

* * * * * *

The following morning they both overslept. Preston had an appointment with his Bank Manager for 9 o'clock; Sean said he had to get to Feltenham for a meeting. It was raining and they rushed around getting ready and getting in each other's ways.

"Missed you," said Sean. "Why didn't you come upstairs to bed?"

Not enough to come down and get me, thought Preston. "I fell asleep on the sofa," he said trying to get to the wash basin which seemed full of Sean's shaving gear.

"I'll put on the kettle," said Sean. "Won't have time to have a coffee myself. The bus leaves in three minutes."

"Take my car," said Preston, mouth full of toothpaste.

"Are you sure?" Sean pounded upstairs again. "Won't you need it?"

"Wouldn't offer if I did," said Preston.

Sean gave him a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. Of course with a mouth full of toothpaste, tongue probing was probably out of the question, but Preston felt Sean could have tried.

"I'll go straight to the rehearsal this evening," said Sean. "See you. I'll grab a sandwich in Feltenham."

Footsteps running down the stairs, the door banging, silence in the house. Preston was alone. Oh well, he thought, there's always the Bank Manager.

* * * * * *

"Tomorrow's the dress rehearsal," said Yvette. "So this evening we'll just clear up any loose ends. A straight run-through and I'll try not to stop you at all. Where's Sean?"

Sean hadn't arrived and, Preston noted, neither had Jane. While they waited, the cast sat around chatting. Brian came over and sat beside Preston, drawing his chair close so that their thighs touched.

"Sean's worried about his words," said Preston. "But I don't know where's he's got to this evening."

"He'll be OK," said Brian. "We'll all be OK." Brian grinned and Preston realised again how attractive he was. Smooth skin, soft, dark hair cut short, a tip-tilted nose, brown eyes that smiled even when he wasn't.

"I've never done anything like this before," confessed Preston. "Luckily I have so little to say or do, no one would even notice if I never came on stage."

"Except the headmistress," said Brian nodding at Yvette who was impatiently waiting for the late arrivals, and taking it out on poor Hubert who had inadvertently knocked over a music stand while shuffling the score.

"I expect we could all do with a bit of luck," said Preston gloomily.

"Never say that," said Brian. It's the most dreadful BAD luck. You say 'Break a leg'." Seemingly innocently he laid his right hand on Preston's leg but rather higher than perhaps would be acceptable, his fingers just touching the end of the most excitable part of Preston's anatomy where he dressed to the left.

Preston restrained a start and waited for Brian to take his hand away but instead of doing that, he moved his fingers so that they touched and rubbed against the end of his penis. Preston could feel the start of an involuntary tumescence. He turned to look Brian full in the face, into those smiling brown eyes. Clearly Brian knew exactly what he was doing.

"What you doing later, Peter?" he asked.

What was he doing later, Preston wondered. If last night had been an indication when he and Sean had quarrelled, ostensibly about Sean forgetting his words, but really, Preston thought, about whatever Sean was really doing with whoever. Then had followed a lonely and not particularly comfortable night on the couch. In the morning a hasty peck on the cheek and then nothing.

"Nothing much," he said. Where was Sean?

"Come back for a drink to my place," said Brian. His fingers moved, and Preston, suddenly aware of the protuberance in his jeans and how anyone might notice, sat upright.

"That would be nice," he said. "I don't know what the others are doing."

"I wasn't exactly thinking of inviting any others," said Brian pointedly.


The conversation was broken off by the noisy arrival of Sean and Jane who came in together, apologising for their lateness but giving no real excuse. Yvette immediately called everyone to start and the rehearsal began.
Yvette had picked out what she considered the most important of the scenes and Preston wasn't in many of them. Brian playing Bob Cratchit of course was and they didn't really have any opportunity of carrying on their interrupted conversation. Preston watched him as he played the part, becoming a little, put-upon clerk, then, as the scene ended, reappearing as Brian to give Preston a beaming smile, the tip of his tongue gently appearing between his lips sensually licking the top one before disappearing.

Rick was sitting next to Preston. "He's a regular little prick teaser, isn't he?"

Preston pretended to look puzzled. "Look at him," said Rick. "Come hither all over the place, but I bet if you took him up on it, he'd be away like the wind."

Preston wondered if Rick had tried. "Oh I don't know," he said. "He looks pretty sincere to me."

"You mark my words," said Rick. "When it comes to actually getting together, he'd act all surprised and hurt as if you'd mistaken his intentions."

"Well," said Preston - and was almost about to reveal the earlier incident when Yvette's voice cut in.

"Rick, aren't you supposed to be on stage? You really must attend. What if this had been a real performance?"

Rick went off grumbling and Preston went over to have a chat with young Martin who, as Tiny Tim was practising with his crutches.

"You getting on OK with James?" he asked.

"He's a big jerk," said Martin.

"But he's not been - er - getting at you again?"

"It's embarrassing. He still calls me 'Wee Willy'."

"We must do something about that," said Preston thoughtfully.

The rehearsal went on, Sean's memory seemingly having made somewhat of a recovery. Everyone was on stage for the final chorus of 'goodwill to all men' after Scrooge's rehabilitation and then they lined up to take a bow.

"Do we need to practise this?" asked Fred.

"Nothing worse than a straggly bow at the end of a performance," said Yvette firmly. "Principals in front, chorus behind them."

By chance Preston was standing behind Brian, who dropped slightly behind the rest so that he was almost touching Preston. Then he felt Brian's hand grope back and grab him between his legs, grasping his cock and balls. A gentle stroke soon had Preston rising to the occasion.

"Front row bow," said Yvette, and Brian's arse was pushed into Preston's groin who couldn't help but push back.

"Brian, you're not in line," said Yvette. "Step forward so that you're with the others."

"What about later?" whispered Brian.

"I don't think I'll be able to," said Preston.

"Brian, will you get in line." Yvette's voice reached a shriek.

Still Brian lingered, so Preston said in desperation. "Tomorrow perhaps. Give me a ring."

Brian stepped forward, Jane snapped a photograph and the rehearsal was finished.

Sean, Jane, Rick and Fred crowded round Preston so that further speech with Brian was impossible. Preston tried to ignore the animated chatter and asked himself what had made him accept Brian's suggestion. Then Jane kissed him good-bye and he smelled her scent, the same one that had been on Sean yesterday.

Sean was in a much better mood that evening, probably, Preston, thought because the rehearsal had gone so much better - possibly because he had been seeing Jane. He pushed the thought out of his head. Sean was in the kitchen checking on the lamb chops under the grill. Preston stood in the doorway watching. He admired the M-shape that his dark-coloured hair made at the nape of his neck. For a moment Preston paused to view the picture, framed as it was through the doorway. The light from the centre lamp shone on the silky-soft hair, the angle of his cheekbone. It was a sight that induced an almost physical spasm of emotion in the pit of Preston's stomach and a desire to plant a kiss on that special place. He feared though it might be met with an involuntary drawing back which would tell him the worst.

He compromised with "That smells good."

They ate together and talked of the play and Preston said how Sean was developing into the part of Scrooge.

"That guy, Brian, is a great help," said Sean. "He seems to know when I'm struggling and almost gives me the next line."

"Yes," agreed Preston. "He's really nice."

That night, though Sean was affectionate, they cuddled and Sean drew back from actual love making. Preston almost expected this and didn't press him.

"After this is all over . . . ," said Sean. He didn't complete the sentence.

Yeah! Yeah! thought Preston. And then . . . ? He turned over so that his back was towards Sean and felt him cuddle round his body, but it wasn't the same. Later, in his sleep, Sean turned away and it was only then that Sean was able to sleep.

* * * * * *

Sean was off to Feltenham the following morning. It was, he assured Preston, the last time until January. Be that as it may, but it still left Preston alone again - and suspicious - and very low-spirited.

He had forgotten Brian and when the phone rang in the middle of the morning, and a sultry, almost enticing voice said, "Peter, what about it?"

"What about what?" asked Preston, genuinely mystified.

"Come round to see me some time?"


"How many other admirers have you got?" asked Brian.

Preston made up his mind. "When?" he asked.

"Now. Why not?"

Preston could think of many reasons, though he said, "Now?"

"Let's meet at the 'Lady Jane Tea Rooms', ten thirty, and take it from there."

Immediately he put the receiver down, Preston had his doubts. He told himself though that he needn't turn up - but that would be embarrassing when they did meet at the rehearsal that evening. Then, of course, it needn't go any further than a coffee together and an explanation that he couldn't cheat on Sean - even though he was pretty sure that Sean was cheating on him. He showered and left for his 'date'.

Why Brian had chosen the Lady Jane Tea Rooms, Preston didn't really understand. It was very middle class and usually only patronised by elderly ladies with blue rinse hair. Perhaps it was because the two of them were unlikely to be recognised by any of the cast - though why Brian should bother with this, Preston couldn't understand.

There were only three tables occupied when Preston arrived. The ladies looked up at him almost as if he had no right to be there and Preston almost looked around to see if there was a notice saying 'Ladies Only'. He sat down at a table near to the window so that he could see Brian coming and perhaps head him off before the two of them became the subject of animated conversation by the clientele.

A waitress took his order and didn't offer cafe latte or some similar modern alternative. She didn't seem surprised when he said, 'White coffee, please'.

"Cup or jug, sir?" she asked.

"Er jug," he said. I'm expecting a friend."

Was there a slight raising of the eyebrows as he said this? A sudden hush in the conversation revealed that the patrons had heard his order. The waitress returned with a jug of hot milk, two cups and saucers, a coffee pot and a bowl of sugar. It was all very civilised but Preston felt uneasy. He wished Brian would turn up. Surely he had said ten-thirty and it was now nearly a quarter to eleven.

He sipped his cup to make it last longer. If Brian was much later, the contents of the jug would be cold. Two ladies left and were replaced by four others. Then two more. Suddenly the place seemed almost full. Would they be wanting his table soon? He felt uncomfortable and foolish.

The waitress appeared. "Your friend not arrived?" she asked.

"Probably held up," he said. "I won't wait."

He paid the bill and went out, feeling almost as if he'd been released from prison. The traffic passed down the High Street. Perhaps he should ring up Brian, though would that sound over eager? Had he been dumped? The embarrassing possibility made him uncomfortable. He suddenly remembered Rick's verdict on Brian from last night: 'a right little prick teaser'.

But why should Brian have arranged the appointment if he intended to break it. Could it have been a test by Sean? These possibilities swirled round his head but he dismissed them as stupid. He'd go home, give Brian a ring. There was probably a completely rational explanation. Perhaps he, Preston, had made a mistake about the place - or the time.

But when he rang, Brian's answer phone told him: 'Sorry. You've caught me out or unavailable. Leave a message and I'll get right back to you. Promise.' Even the pre-recorded message sounded devious, especially that last word, and Preston put the receiver down before the tone.

The dress rehearsal was to be on the stage of the Parish Hall where the performances would take place. This would be the first occasion when the cast would be in situ, as it were. Apparently Yvette had arranged for some stage hands to come along in the afternoon and they would be responsible for moving on and off the 'scenery', Scrooge's bed, a table around which the Cratchit family would have their meal, some chairs and stools. The whole thing was played in front of a back cloth showing a Victorian snow scene.

The cast assembled, This time, though, it was Brian and the Fletcher-Bells who were late. Ten minutes later Yvette and Hubert arrived, Yvette looking ghastly.

"Most dreadful news," she said, before anyone could say anything. "Poor Brian's in hospital. He got knocked down by a car this morning and is in hospital. Complications mean he won't be out for over a week. The play is ruined. Bob Cratchit is of course a major part. The performances will have to be cancelled, the money given back."

Preston had mixed emotions. In one way he was pleased that he hadn't been dumped; in another he felt sorry that his 'fun' with Brian had been curtailed, and then he realised how guilty he would have felt had he had sex with him - and then of course he was sorry Brian was in hospital and presumably in some pain.

"I'm so sorry, girls and boys, after so much hard work."

"Wait a minute," said Sean. "What about Peter?"

"What about him?" asked Yvette a trifle waspishly. "No doubt he feels as disappointed as the rest of us."

"No," said Sean. "He knows the play. He knows Cratchit's part. He's tested me often enough without using the script."

"Now wait a minute," said Preston.

"You could do it," said Sean.

"But the singing."

"He could do a Rex Harrison," said Sean.

"What's that mean?" asked Preston.

Well, Rex Harrison can't sing either, so he sort of said the words for his songs in 'My Fair Lady'. You could do the same."

"I don't think so," said Preston.

"Well," said Yvette, doubtfully.

"It's worth a try," said Fred.

"Just don't go over the top," said Rick.

"Honey," said Fred, "no one ever paid to see someone under the top."

"I couldn't do it," said Preston in a decided tone.

"Let me talk to him," said Sean.

They crowded round him.

"By himself," insisted Sean.

He took Preston off to the cloakroom and sat him down on a bench. "Sweetheart, you can do this thing. You're going to make me proud of you. It's been so good staying with you these past few weeks that I hoped we'd sort of somehow be able to make it permanent, that is, if you think it's a good idea." He kissed Preston. whose mind whirled.

"But. . . I thought . . . I thought you were fed up. These past few days, nothing seems to have gone right. You and Jane . . ."

"Me and Jane!" Sean laughed. "I'm sorry about my tantrums. Just nerves. I'll expect the same from you when you decide to take on the part."

"And Jane?"

Jane's just been taking some pictures of you. You know she's been snapping away at the rehearsals. We just decided on ones of you and me together. She's enlarged and framed them. We were going to make a surprise presentation after the whole thing was over but if you thought she and I were doing anything else. . ." He broke off with another burst of laughter.

"You're the guy I'm with," he said and kissed him, the sort of kiss that went on and on, made Preston's senses reel, got him excited almost beyond measure so that they pressed each other's bodies together and almost performed coitus there on the tiled floor.

"Wow," said Preston.

"Double wow," said Sean. "Will you give the part a try?"

Preston swallowed and tried to get his mind - and his libido - back to the prosaic subject of the play.

"OK," he said. "I love you, Sean."

"That's another commitment entirely," said Sean. "And I'll prove I love you too, tonight."

They went out almost shyly and the cast burst into applause.

* * * * * *

Well, of course there were problems. It's only in fiction that everything goes absolutely right, but Preston's spoken performance was impeccable, his 'singing' passable. No one forgot their lines of bumped into the furniture and who can want more of an amateur production?.

Little Martin had a minor success when he tried on the Victorian costume with its tight trousers. Preston persuaded him that he should fold up a spare sock into a sausage shape and stuff it in. Big Jim took one look and gasped and then looked foolish. Even Yvette noticed. "Do you think you could - er - 'arrange' yourself a little, dear," she said.

"If you've got it," said Preston slyly, "there's nothing much you can do with it, except show it."

Yvette blushed and said nothing more.

At the end of the first night, they took their bows, Sean standing next to Preston in the front row, holding hands. As soon as the curtain fell, Sean grasped Preston in a clinch and kissed. him. They only just managed to pull apart as the curtain rose again to the continued applause.

Afterwards Preston caught Martin who was quietly receiving admiration for his part as Tiny Tim. He took him aside. "OK with James?" he asked.

Martin looked at him. "Fine," he said.

"The sock worked then," said Preston.

"What sock?" asked Martin innocently. "Never needed it."

Over celebration drinks, the cast planned a visit to Brian in Feltenham hospital on the following day. But Sean's real celebration was with Preston that night in the double bed. And Preston privately vowed he'd never mention the Brian incident to anyone.

* * * * * *


Note: If Brian's accident and Preston's subsequent 'triumph' sounds too much like the theme of the film '42nd Street' where the lovely Ruby Keeler takes over from the injured Bebe Daniels and becomes a 'star' it's pure coincidence! In fact the same thing happened to me in a production of 'Brigadoon' where the lead dancer broke his leg and I had to take over at the last moment. I didn't in fact become a star of course. This story is just a case of art imitating life imitating art.

Date started: 2, Saturday October, 2004

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