Hugh's first impression of the theatre is that there's a tattered homeliness about the place, with the floor marked with dirty footprints and the seats with tape over the torn red velvet. His seat is too small for him, his legs folded up somewhere around his ears, cheap crisp packet in his lap and spreading crumbs everywhere. He keeps his arm draped over the back of Emma's seat, the rough edge of her shirt sleeve brushing against his fingers. She inclines comfortably towards him but keeps her eyes on the stage. She's seen this play before, or read it. She'd given him a brief plot overview before they'd gotten to the theatre; the basic gist seemed to be that it was about falling in love with boys.
"We're going to a play about falling in love with boys," he'd said.
"It's not only about that. You wouldn't say that Harvey was only about an imaginary rabbit, would you?"
"Well, yes, you would."
"Not the best, no."
She'd shrugged helplessly, laughing at herself. "At least listen to it. There might be something for you there. If only in the words."
She knows this Fry fellow, he doesn't; his only recollection is of a tall bloke with dark hair and a bent boxer's nose performing Shakespearean monologues. Nevertheless, she's gotten them onto the guest list, so he can attempt to stick a shoe in the door if he's actually funny.
In the theatre, she tilts her eyebrows at him as the lights start to go down, an amused 'unexciting, isn't it?' expression. He tilts back at her, and then the lights are off.
His first impression of the play is that it actually is funny, which puts him at ease somewhat. His second impression is just of the sheer flood of words, the quicksilver allusions and puns coming one after another after another, and it leaves him a bit breathless. If he really thinks about it, he realizes, it isn't just about falling in love, it's something far simpler and sadder. Once the verbal hue and cry has died down, he gets the sense of an undercurrent of poignancy beneath it all, a sense of something lost.
Fry as an actor has that same combination of playfulness and poignancy. Typical, really, since he wrote it. There's something intriguingly contradictory about him, that playfulness trapped in a physically commanding presence, occasionally glinting out from under the surface.
Hugh touches his mouth absently, considering the possibilities.
When the cast finishes taking their bows, he leans over and says to Emma, "You know, Harvey actually wasn't about that rabbit, after all."
Pleased, she squeezes his hand. "I thought you might like it. Shall I introduce you to him?" Already she's moving towards the aisle.
"Should try, I suppose." He stands up on cramping legs and tries to catch up with her.
Backstage, she breaks away from him, hurrying across the floor, calling, "Stephen!" and the man himself is coming towards her and rumbling, "Hello, darling," and then they're coming over, Emma's arm linked chummily with Fry's. It's all too fast and he's not ready.
It's too late to do anything about it now, so he puts out his hand and barely manages to stammer out his name and his congratulations, and Fry shakes his hand with a faintly headmasterish aloofness, hands like shovels and it's been quite a long time since he's met anyone who's taller than he is.
"Would you like to have a drink?" Hugh says. "After all this is done, of course."
Fry looks at him with what could be amusement, or possibly curiosity, or even suspicion. Hugh makes reading people a habit; there's something off-kilter about this, not knowing quite what this man is thinking about him.
"I thought the one around the corner," Emma says. She links her arm about Hugh's without letting go of Fry's, her wide sweet smile defusing all argument. "I don't think the drink is too poisonous there."
Fry smiles down at Emma, then looks back at Hugh with the same amused/curious/suspicious dark blue look. "Yes, yes, of course. We should enjoy some diversions, shouldn't we? Half an hour, perhaps?"
"Half an hour," Hugh says. "When you're ready."
Someone's already coming over, gesturing to Fry and saying, "Stephen," so Fry only manages a quick, "Come round the stage door," before kissing Emma's cheek and shaking Hugh's hand again, and disappearing as quickly as he's arrived.
They go to the pub an hour later, cramping themselves into chairs that are too small and too close together, the lager a disquieting shade of brownish amber and sloshing over the tops of the glasses. Fry smokes constantly, distractedly, while Hugh lets his own cigarette burn down to the filter. Emma sits in between them; Hugh keeps his hand on the arm of her chair, watching her take everything in.
"What was it that Omar Khayyám said?" Fry says. "'Drink! for you know not whence you came, or why; drink! for you know not why you go, or where.' It's a rather self-defeating way to look at it, isn't it? Although perhaps most people react to an existential crisis by going out and having a pint. Or does drinking induce that sort of thing, where you're sort of slumped over and – you know that Khayyám was a mathematician – did just brilliant, pioneering work with algebra, and if you'll forgive me for saying so, the mathematicians I've known tend to be rather spotty little miserable people, so it's not surprising that he wouldn't be the best person to buy a round for."
His talk comes in volleys, in rambling bursts of linguaphilia, by turns bawdy and cerebral and often funny, and it's difficult to get a word in edgewise but often dazzling. He still isn't quite sure what Fry actually thinks of him.
Hugh thinks that this whole thing would be easier if Fry were a girl. There was always that fine edge of competition with men, always sizing each other up, the unspoken dare impress me running under the surface. It was much less dangerous with girls, really. You didn't have to worry so much about making an idiot of yourself with them.
"Same again?" Emma says, gracefully stealing a cigarette from Hugh's pack and rising. She gives his shoulder a reassuring squeeze as she strides back towards the bar. They both watch her, the common element suddenly absent, and then Hugh turns back to his drink and finds Fry looking at him through a fog of cigarette smoke.
"I suppose," Fry says, "that I should ask you why you invited me here."
He says, because he's no time to equivocate, "Well, frankly, it's because I'm looking for a partner."
Fry leans back a little. "Partner?" There's volumes of implication in his tone.
"For Footlights," Hugh explains. "The revue, you see. I'm writing – well, I'm meant to be writing, but I'd prefer it if I wasn't on my own."
"Surely you've got other writers in Footlights."
"Bits and pieces, you know. But it's not enough to base a show on." He touches his empty glass, pushes it away, lights another cigarette. "I'd like to work with you, I believe."
Fry picks up his glass, swirls the dregs about in the glass. "You believe that I can write sketch?"
"Well, yes, actually."
He'd been expecting another flood of words, either explaining why he couldn't do it or why it was a fantastic idea, but there's just an oddly shy smile, a quick nod, and Hugh puts his hand out again, saying, "Well, I'm looking forward to it, er –" He pauses, caught between professionalism and familiarity.
"Stephen. Let's not bother with the whole 'Fry and Laurie' business, shall we?" Fry – Stephen, now – shakes his hand. "Time is of the essence, yes?"
"I won't be back to Cambridge until Michaelmas starts up. But do come by my rooms then. I'll write down the address –" Just as he's fumbling for a piece of paper, Emma comes back, drinks balanced precariously in her hands. They both get up, unburden her, Stephen still groping clumsily in his pocket. When they all sit down again, she glances at Hugh, then at Stephen and back again, then impulsively kisses Hugh's cheek as she reaches out to touch Stephen's shoulder.
"So what do you think?" Emma asks him when they've gotten back to the hostel they've been camped out in during the whole of the festival. She sprawls out across the bed, stripped to bra and knickers, her arms and legs at all angles. Emma in private has an endearing unself-conscious gangliness, a temporary abandonment of public restraint. She seems malleable and casually feminine. Hugh kicks his shoes off and lies down beside her. She drapes a leg over him.
"It may turn out well," he says. "Get some experience out of it, at any rate."
"He's seductive, isn't he?"
"What do you mean?"
"He pulls people in. Like a moon." She stares solemnly at him and intones, "Gravitational pull."
"Are you trying to tell me that you fancy him?"
"It'd be rather a lost cause if I did." She abruptly rolls onto his chest, sharp little chin resting on his collarbone. "He's very much like you, really. A bit louder, though."
"You are telling me you fancy him." He throws a hand over his forehead, staring off at a tear in the wallpaper. "Bereft, I am bereft..."
She laughs, then forces herself to stop. "You'll be brilliant together. And the show will be brilliant, because you're brilliant. Will you write me lots and lots and lots of funny lines?"
"Oh, you great –" She thrusts her hands under his arms, tickling his sides; he rolls over, his weight pressed against her. She yelps, once, and then gazes up at him, her eyes huge and dark-lashed, endlessly innocent.
The day that Hugh gets back to Cambridge, he goes down to Queens', defended only by the rudimentary versions of four or five scenes, scribbled song lyrics, a fragmented tune or two. Stephen comes to the door like a headmaster, pipe in hand, and ushers him in, saying, "You've caught me in a state of dishabille." The place looks like a library reincarnating itself as a laundrette, books in piles on the floor, ashtrays everywhere, records beside the books, clothes draped over window sills.
"Cracks in the perfection," Hugh says. "How extraordinarily reassuring." He holds his papers out for inspection, schoolboy presenting a paper, and Stephen puts down the pipe with an embarrassed grin and then inspects the work, frowning. If he had glasses, he'd be peering down over the top of them.
"Hmm...this is quite nice...have you decided the exact shape of this yet? Like anything? Tea or water or bat's blood? Or shall we just be intensely serious about comedy?"
"Intensely serious, I should think."
"Quite right." Stephen snatches a ream of paper off some surface or another, then hands it to him. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours, after all."
Hugh inspects the notes, the strange loopy handwriting and typed bits of dialogue. "Have you got a biro?"
Stephen hands him one, then sits down among the chaos. "Now give me the full frontal, young master."
They spend four hours sitting across from each other, making notes on paper and passing them back and forth, dancing around each other, until they at least have an idea of what they think is funny and what needs to be done, and it's still not a show, not even a skeleton of a show, but there's a spirit of one floating around. Hopefully.
They go out to a café when they can't think of any other ways to be funny. Hugh picks at a slightly stale ham sandwich and Stephen drinks coffee. The café is full of people; there's a buzz around them like a thousand angry bees, but it doesn't seem to reach them. There's a pleasant sense of stillness with Stephen, he thinks, one he didn't expect to find; he realizes with a shock that it's actually easy to be with him.
"How long have you been with Emma?" Stephen asks him.
"About...er...well, since first term, anyway. I think."
"Young love," Stephen says and smiles. "'But there's nothing half so sweet in life as love's young dream...'"
Hugh laughs. "You'd think you were forty."
"I may very well be." Stephen gives him another shy smile. "I'm an ancient soul."
"Tchah," Hugh says, though his gut feeling is that Stephen's telling the truth. He thinks about ordering a cup of tea – his tongue feels coated with dry bread crumbs.
There's a striking looking girl standing at the front of the café and stirring milk into a cup: long drapey skirt and pale delicate ankles flashing under the hem, not much hip, long thin hands, hair dark and Gypsy-wild – intriguingly exotic, if a bit studied, a cool dark temporary presence in his line of sight.
"Care for one?" Stephen offers him a cigarette from his open pack. Hugh focuses his attention on the task at hand once again.
"Much obliged." He takes one, taps it on his wrist before he lights it.
Later, when he gets back to his room and phones Emma, she asks him how it went, and he tells her about Stephen being an old soul.
He spends almost all his time at Stephen's over the next two weeks, leaving lectures early, skipping lectures altogether, neglecting personal hygiene. Time passes in a blur of writing and talking. They talk as they write – they talk about comedy, they talk about comedians, they talk about what words are funnier than other words. The revue starts to take shape once they have a better idea of each other, their strengths and weaknesses. Stephen says it's Pinocchio becoming a real boy.
Sometimes, at the end of the sessions, they tromp back to Hugh's rooms at Selwyn together. It seems to help snap them out of the comedy immersion. Hugh sticks something on the record player, God only knows what, and drink cheap cider and only communicate with derisive snorts rather than words, until they both feel more human again and Stephen leaves. Sometimes Emma comes over – she likes to study in the little nook by the front window – and she always says, "Oh, hello," as if it's the most natural thing in the world, and comes to sit in between them, her palm warm in Hugh's, becoming as silent as they are.
The nights when he doesn't wind up staring at the television with Stephen are confusing: he finds himself at loose ends more often than not, snapping and sulking for no reason. It sounds so ridiculous, he doesn't understand it himself. He's been thinking about dialogue and blocking and lighting and what's funny for so long that his brain feels burnt as a loaf of bread.
There's a pub around the corner from Hugh's flat, The Rose and Lion, cheap and tawdry and often loud, where he goes if he needs time to himself. He walks through the door and sits down dazedly.
They've hired someone new behind the bar, he notices: a woman, dyed red hair and a short mottled apron over her jeans. He orders a beer; she brings it to him, stone-faced, not responding to either his 'thank you,' or his smile. It irritates him for some reason. When he orders another beer, she remains as sullen as before. It's like a dare, a red rag in front of a bull, and he finds himself becoming even more polite, smiling even more, doing his best to crack through.
He doesn't know why he's doing it; she's thirty if she's a day and dull and glazed-over as a cow, but he can't stop himself, just can't stop smiling, and it stirs something inside of him when she finally starts to smile back. She has a missing incisor, a neglected look about her, and he feels somehow victorious when she smiles at him.
He's there until they call time. He's a little drunk, a little wobbly. He goes outside and has a cigarette to steady himself, gulping down fresh air in between drags. He supposes that he must have stood there longer than he thought, because he hears a door clanging shut behind him and finds her locking up.
"Oh, hello," he says.
"You again," she says, with amused weariness. "Have you no home to go to?"
"I must. I believe so, anyway." He watches her pull at the door, checking and checking again. She tugs at a ragged sheepskin jacket, shrugs a handbag over her shoulder.
"Might I walk you home?" It comes out very clipped, very proper. There's no harm in it, he supposes, it's only a question, it doesn't mean anything.
She scowls at him, closing against him with the familiar wariness. It feels like a punch to the stomach. "You could be anybody."
"Oh, but I'm not," he says. There's the trace of a plea around the words and he doesn't know how they got there. "I'm hardly anybody at all."
She shifts onto one foot. "I know your face. You try anything..."
"Of course," he soothes. "Yes, that's quite right. It's just late, and I thought perhaps you..."
"Oh, fuck," she says harshly, finally. "It's not far. I don't usually –"
"I know," he says. "I know."
They walk through the street. People are still wandering out from the pubs; he hears drunken shouting muffled in the distance.
She tells him about her daughter, three years old, from a marriage that went all wrong. She and the girl are living with a friend in town. Her friend watches the girl when she's working. He feels a little sorry for her, a little protective: just another slightly dim, unimaginative girl trying to muddle through. Halfway through her recital of her small, sad life, she lets him put an arm around her waist.
They reach her friend's house. She turns at the gate, his hand on her hip, and says, "I'd better be getting inside now."
"My kiddie'll be waking up."
"And my friend's got work in the early morning."
"I understand completely."
"So I'll be leaving now."
So then he kisses her, just once, tilting her chin up with two fingers. She puts her arm around his shoulders, patiently, almost motherly, brushing against him with a soft giving touch. He pulls away.
"Good night, young man," she says, and goes inside.
When the door shuts behind her he realizes that he's not sure how to make it back to Selwyn. He turns around and tries to remember the way he came.
He has a list of reasons of why it doesn't count in his head, a list of things he could have done that would have made it worse. He tells himself that it only counts as cheating if the pants actually come off, or if it happens more than once. He hasn't gone too far, he's all right, he's fine. He tells himself that the things he hasn't done are more important than the things he has.
He is as faithful as possible without being faithful.
Sometime during the next week, he sends twenty white roses to Emma's room.
"I am somewhat handicapped," Stephen tells him, "by the fact that I know nothing about girls."
They're in Stephen's rooms, at a standstill. They've been attempting to write a scene between a husband and wife, something to do with the balance of absurdity and mundanity, and there's something there that Hugh can't quite wrap his head around but he doesn't know what it is yet.
"I don't think it's that," Hugh says. His hands are pressed to his eyes, in a hope that they'll get the blood flowing into his brain. "It's some concept, just something that's not working."
"I'm fairly sure it's me," Stephen says. "I'm afraid I'm at a bit of a biological disadvantage."
"Just because you don't, er –"
"Go to bed with girls?"
"Yes, well. That. I mean -" He turns towards Stephen and struggles to articulate what he's actually thinking. He realizes suddenly that he's never really thought about Stephen being gay before. It's got something to do with Stephen's basic aloofness, he thinks; despite the ongoing rush of double entendre and outright smut of Stephen's words, there's something physically detached about him, as though he's simply giving an objective report. "I mean, it's not as if – You know girls, don't you?"
"It'd be a rare feat if I'd managed to go twenty-four years without at least brushing against a daughter of Eve, wouldn't it? I just think there's more of an intimacy created when you're actually in bed with someone. Like the Biblical sense of the word 'know.' 'Then he knew her.' That's quite nice, I think. To use knowledge of someone's self, their true self, as being synonymous with making the beast with two backs. It elevates it somehow."
"You know, Stephen, my old girlfriends could all tell you how hopeless I was with them. I suppose Emma has her moments, as well, I've never asked her."
"Perhaps I'm just being an old romantic, then."
"I don't know," Hugh says. Suddenly seized by curiosity, a fumbling sense that he should at least make an effort with this person he's been working with for over a month, he asks, tentatively, "Do you, well, do you find you understand men better, then? Because of –"
"Good Lord, no. Anyway, it's been so long, I've managed to forget any understanding I've had of anyone. I have no wish to experience knowledge of anyone any time soon."
"What, not with anyone?"
"You sound bizarrely shocked. I would have thought it an obvious conclusion."
"So you don't sleep with anybody, then?"
"I have no wish to imagine my own face contorted in orgasm above some unfortunate patient soul in some utterly dreary surroundings. I'd rather be on my own."
"But aren't you lonely?" he blurts out, and then quickly shuts up, feeling himself blushing. Too personal, too curious, he feels like an idiot. Stephen looks startled, then amused.
"The human condition is one of loneliness. That doesn't change when your clothes are off."
"But actually choosing not to be with anybody, ever –"
"It's a bit different when you look like me," Stephen says. "I prefer thinking I have a choice, really. Plus, there's something so degrading about the actual act of coitus, isn't there? It's much better for the spirit to try for something higher. There's a word in Greek. Agape, which originally referred to love between a man and his God, but it got rather watered down, as things do, until it became this version of a perfect platonic love. It seems to me that we should all try for that, that transcending of the particular, where you've got no need for that love to actually be returned, you see. Absolute devotion without fear of rejection. It's perfect, isn't it?"
Hugh looks at him. Stephen tilts his head, rolling his eyes a little at himself, and gets off the couch. "That's enough philosophy bollocks for today." He picks up their abandoned sketch. "Let's leave this fucking thing alone until tomorrow."
On the way back to his own room, Hugh thinks about this, Stephen the most unlikely monk, above the concerns of the world. He's never met anyone who consciously strives for purity before.
Of course it's mad, this conscious ascetic choice, but then Stephen's never appeared to be ordinary in any way. But it's absurdly, almost old-fashionedly romantic, too, where you can love anyone, be devoted to them, even, without even bothering to let them know.
Stephen was born in the wrong era, Hugh thinks.
When he goes out with Emma that night, and she asks how the work's going, he just tells her that neither of them know anything about women. He doesn't really know why it feels important that he not say anything else, just a vague protective sense that he should keep it between Stephen and himself.
In his sleep, he thinks he hears Emma saying something, but she's absolutely silent when he manages to lift his head off the pillow. She's sitting on the edge of his bed, one leg tucked under her, looking off into the distance. He looks at her back, the fragile blades of her shoulders, and feels something catch in his throat. She becomes so unearthly when she's not laughing, and he wants to touch her to make sure that she's real.
"Emma," he says thickly.
She turns towards him. Her eyes look shadowy and faraway. "Hmm?"
For a minute, he thinks of all the things he could say to her.
"Come on then," he says finally, and opens his arms. She settles onto his chest, tousled hair falling across his chin, and he rubs her back until she falls asleep.
"The Green Man," Stephen says.
"Chips originally made in the fifteenth century. Wasn't that a film?" Hugh has his feet dangling off the end of Stephen's couch, script resting on his stomach. The paper is marked with pen slashes and insertions, which hopefully signals the end of the edits for the day. He reminds himself to get Emma a copy of it before rehearsal starts tomorrow. "I'd swear that was a film."
"Chips Made in the Fifteenth Century? I believe it was a rather obscure German film, originally. Made at the same time as Burgers of the Napoleonic Age and Renaissance Cheese Omelets." Stephen taps his pipe with long ink-stained fingers and crosses his legs.
"Thought so." Hugh smiles. "No, another film. With strange pagan rituals. Christopher Lee setting a man on fire. Something like that."
"Ah. The, uh, The Wicker Man?"
"Yes, that one. I always expect to go into the Green Man and find everyone strumming lutes and dancing around a fire. Praising Odin and so forth."
"Naked, I'd presume."
He's never talked so much to anyone in his life, Hugh thinks. He can't help wondering if he'd done something wrong, if there was a point he missed somewhere along the way. Once the show was actually written, he surely must have been meant to say goodbye, nice working with you, and only see each other at rehearsals and performances from then on, instead of him staying in Stephen's rooms, his feet up on the couch, safely ensconced in Stephen's kindness. He doesn't know how the conversation turned to pubs in the first place, if they'd started out talking about comedy or family or some half-remembered story, and if he should stop taking advantage and head off.
It's just so easy with Stephen that it sometimes terrifies him.
"Hugh," Stephen says. "Are you lost in reverie at the thought of naked dancing maidens, or is it something else?"
"The maidens," Hugh says absently. "Of course it's the maidens. How about the Unicorn?"
"Service as mythical as the creature. Comfortable chairs."
It feels like something that's always been there.
After rehearsal, he walks Emma home. He tries to put some music on, but he's distracted and she's nervous, pacing the floor while he goes through her records. She's not listening to anything he says. He's a breath away from losing his temper at her.
He puts the records back. "Think I'll just be going now," he says. "See you tomorrow?"
She stands in the middle of the floor, coltish, uncharacteristically awkward. He's interrupted whatever thought she was having; she looks at him like she doesn't quite know him. Finally she says, "Yeah."
Emma roughly kisses him goodbye at the door, and he walks out onto the street. He starts to head back to his own room, but then changes his mind. It's still early and he doesn't want to be by himself right now anyway.
He winds up in some pub or another, the name forgotten as soon as he'd walked in the door. The girl to the table at his right seems vaguely familiar – has he met her before? A party, perhaps? – and he's shouted his name at her and she's shouted hers back, but there's too many people around for either of them to understand each other. He buys her a drink anyway, poisonous-looking lager in a glass marked with dried soap, and she makes a face at the first sip but drinks it down. She has pale pink skin, mousy hair; she seems fragile and lost inside an oversized T-shirt.
He shouts overly earnest nonsense at her for twenty minutes. He's not sure if he's talking about his life or his interests or if he's actually saying anything at all, but she nods and laughs and when she shouts, "Come on, let's get some air," he's following her.
Around the back of the pub, he gives her a cigarette, which she dangles from the corner of her mouth. His matches keep blowing out.
"Here," she says, leaning in to block the wind. Her breast brushes against his arm.
He looks down at her. She stares back forwardly, crooking her finger around one of the loops in his jeans.
He kisses her up against the wall of the pub, his hands scrabbling under her shirt, past the fraying cotton of her bra. Her breasts are heavier than he'd thought, soft and formless under his hands, her nipple hardening against his fingertips. She spreads her legs, splaying against the brick wall and arching her back, as if she's having a fit. Her mouth tastes of lager and saliva.
Already she's grabbing at him with pickpocket fingers, pulling his zip down and wrapping cool fingers around his cock. He gasps around her tongue.
For an awful second, he sees himself, clutching a stranger in the middle of the night, and there are no more justifications he can make.
"I'm sorry," he gasps, struggling to get his hands out from under her bra, "I'm sorry, so sorry, I can't –"
She freezes, hand still wrapped around his cock, staring dumbly at him. He jerks away and manages to push down his screaming erection enough to get it back in his pants, still stammering, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Her confusion turns to accusation within a millisecond. "You seemed to like it well enough."
"It's not right," Hugh babbles. "I'm sorry, I can't. I can't."
Her eyes are full of tears, humiliated, furious. "What are you," she spits at him, "are you -"
Hugh turns around before she can finish, shaking like he's got a fever, and walks away without looking back.
Emma tells him that his female characters all sound like men in drag. She offers to edit. "It's not too late, is it?"
"This," he says, "will never be done. What's the difference?"
She disappears for a weekend. When he calls for the fifteenth time and she still doesn't pick up, he gets worried and goes over to her room, expecting the worst. Instead she opens the door and says, "Ah!" absent-mindedly, lets him brush a relieved kiss against her mouth, and then wanders over to her desk, holding out her work for inspection.
The script's covered in her careful writing, her precise changes. She sits on the edge of her bed and watches him, drumming her fingers on the cover. He grins at her. "Brilliant."
"Awful, rotten timing," she says. "Two weeks into rehearsal, and then to change everything."
He shrugs. "Tony's going to come round and ask to rewrite something any moment, I can feel it. And Stephen changes his mind constantly, I'm going to have to sedate him one of these days."
"Yes, that's the way it is, isn't it?"
"But this is quite good. We don't know about women, Stephen and I."
"I'd expect that of Stephen."
"I'll type this up tonight. We'll learn it in a day. And you wrote it, you shouldn't have any trouble remembering."
"Right. I should -"
"I'm glad I didn't come in and find you gnawed to death by something," he says. "I was worried."
"You always are," she says softly.
"Well. I'll take this back with me. I'll get it done tonight."
"Hugh," she says.
"I'd like to know their names, Hugh," she says.
He freezes at the door.
"Bloody awful timing," she says again. "I've been putting it off. I thought I could at least wait until after the show was over. Minimize the disruption." She hasn't moved from her spot on the bed, her fingers still, her leg tucked under her. "I suppose I didn't really want to know. Or maybe I just thought you'd tell me on your own. You'd finally stop lying to me."
"Emma," he says. "I haven't lied to you, I swear."
"Do you think I'm an idiot, Hugh?" she says pleasantly, still watching him. "Hm? You think people don't notice things, people don't talk? You haven't been exactly subtle."
"No," he says. "No, I never did."
"Then why are you fucking other women?"
"I haven't," he says. He wants to plead his case, make her understand, make her stop looking at him like that. "It doesn't count, Emma, nothing I did, nothing, it doesn't matter."
She stares at him. She could be made of marble, some pale unearthly creature. "You made sure it didn't."
"Yes," he whispers.
"I just want," she says, "to know their names."
He feels sick. "I can't," he says. "I never - I've forgotten, or I never asked."
"Ah," she says. "And how long have you been forgetting their names, Hugh? Two months? Three? Is it more than a year?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"Well, I want you to stop lying to me. But that'll never happen, will it?" There's a shudder in her voice, the slightest break. He starts toward her, instinctively holding out his hands.
"Don't," she says. She draws her knees up to her chin, a protective curl. "I'd rather you stay where you are."
"Emma," he says, softly, "please don't do this."
"You know, it's funny, I said to myself, I said I would prefer it if you fell in love with someone else. It would hurt, but I could stand that, because that's not something you can help, is it, when you fall in love with someone. I thought, if you just found one person, the perfect person - but you don't even know who they are. Like they were nothing." She touches her mouth. "It means nothing to you, we mean nothing."
"No," he says. "Never. I never thought that, ever."
"Then what? What is it, Hugh? Can you please just tell me, because I can't -"
"Emma - I'm so sorry." He can't look at her anymore, at her pale lovely face. He stares at his hands, the paper clutched in between his fingers, and wants to scream.
"I mean -" She's crying now, scrubbing furiously at the tears with the back of her hand as if she could make them disappear. Emma hates to cry. "I knew I would never spend my life with you anyway."
"Emma, it didn't mean anything. I never would -"
"But you did. Were you just trying to prove something to yourself? See how many girls you could charm into bed with you? Just to prove that you were -" Her breath catches. "My poor darling, did that prove you were lovable? Did it?"
"Oh, God," he says.
It's the love that hurts so much, the love twisted around her tears, and there's nothing he can say. He wishes she'd scream at him or hit him. He doesn't want her to still love him, not now, he doesn't want to know it.
She gets off the bed and turns away, rubbing her shoulder with one hand, a sharp truncated movement. "Would you please get out of here, please?"
"Take your fucking script and go."
He goes. He can hear her sobbing behind the closed door.
He goes back to his room, puts the script down (always thinking of the script, always keeping that in mind). He tries to call Emma but she hangs up when she hears his voice.
He knows, with a sick certainty, that she won't leave the show, she'll stick in until the very end, her mother had taught her that. Always practical, his Emma, always loyal. Except now she isn't his anymore, he's made sure of that, stupid fucking selfish wanker -
He goes out, walks up and down Grange Road without any idea where he's going. His hands are shaking. His mother would tell him that he's just wasting time, lazy, pointless. He doesn't know why he should be thinking about his mother right now.
On Silver Street, he goes inside the Anchor, where he tries to call her again, but her phone's either busy or off the hook. They're playing a song he doesn't know over the sound system. He holds the receiver in one hand, staring at it until someone says, "Are you quite finished?" and he drops the phone and walks away.
He's drinking something that tastes of apricots and soap, his throat closing around the bitterness, staring straight ahead of him and forcing himself to swallow. They keep playing songs he doesn't know, a slurred sludgy mixture of voice and synth, and it just makes everything that much more disconnected. He keeps thinking there's a point he's going to reach, soon, something will happen and he'll just know how to fix everything, he'll be instantly clear-eyed and brave, but he doesn't know when that point will come, so he just keeps drinking.
When they call time, he stands up and the world jerks and shudders under him, nauseatingly, and he needs to grab onto the stool he just left and hiss for breath in between his teeth for a moment. He doesn't want to go back to his room.
Stephen's college is two steps away, the guard at the gate near-sighted and sleepy, Hugh could walk in carrying a bazooka and no one would care. He stumbles up the stairs and pounds on Stephen's door but there's no answer there either. He's too dizzy to think of anything else to do, so he slides to the floor, eyes closed and back against the wood, feeling the world spinning crazily around him.
"Hugh," he finally hears from somewhere above him, "what are you doing down there?"
He opens his eyes. Stephen is peering down from his great height, color high in his face and eyes that are very, very bright.
"She's left me," Hugh says.
It takes a minute, but Stephen sucks in his breath. "Oh, no," he says, and Hugh thinks, Actual human feeling, isn't that something.
"I was trying to call her, from the pub, you know," he starts, but Stephen interrupts and says firmly, "Let's get you up from the floor first." He thrusts his hands under Hugh's arms, pulling his boneless weight up; Hugh leans against him as he fumbles for his keys.
"She won't even talk to me," he says plaintively as Stephen tugs him to the couch, "Stephen -"
"Yes," Stephen soothes. "Yes, yes, I know." He puts Hugh on the couch, arranging his legs like an invalid. Hugh's stomach lurches. "Water? You should have some water."
"I don't want any," Hugh says. "This whole time -"
Stephen brings him some water and he gulps it down anyway, though even swallowing makes him feel sick. Stephen sits down and waits for him to finish.
"You need to slow down," he says. "Now what happened?"
"Emma," Hugh says. "She's gone, just tonight, she's left -"
"It may be just a fight," Stephen says. "People do actually fight, it's not the end of everything."
"I don't know," Hugh says. "I tried - she won't let me touch her or anything."
"She's upset. I think if you'll just wait until tomorrow, when the drink wears off, you'll find she's calmed down."
"No," he says. "I mean, she'll calm down, I know, she's calm, she's a calm person, but she won't, not ever, she'll -"
"She knows, you see," Hugh says. "There were...others."
Stephen leans back. "Oh," he says. "Oh, Hugh."
He feels bitterness rising up through his throat. The room keeps spinning and spinning and won't stop. "Terribly sorry," he says, "but I'm afraid I'm going to be sick."
"Oh dear," Stephen says. "I - oh dear." He gets up and hurriedly rummages through his storehouse of a room. "Steady now." It's a fairly useless bit of advice; he's already retching by the time Stephen picks up the dustbin and presses it into his hands.
He clutches the bin in between his knees, coughing and spitting bile. He keeps his eyes tightly shut. Stephen touches his back, once, timidly, tentatively, and it just makes him feel worse, so he presses himself into the corner of the couch, trying to make himself as small as possible.
Finally his stomach seems to settle, or he just doesn't have anything left to be sick on. He puts the bin down, carefully, shoves it out of sight, out of mind. "Sorry," he says.
"Best to get it all out at once," Stephen says. "Can't poison yourself."
"Go away," he says weakly, ridiculously, considering he's only there by grace of Stephen's kindness in the first place. He still can't stop himself. "Go away. I'm wretched. I'm awful."
"You're drunk and you're upset. Those are very different things." Stephen gets up off the couch and goes to his wardrobe after inventorying Hugh with one last dark blue stare. "Here. Wipe your face."
There's a handkerchief against his mouth and forehead, cool linen that smells sharp and clean, brushing the sweat and spit away. "Aren't you going to say something?" Hugh pleads.
"Like what? What is there to say?"
"You could -" He isn't sure what he wants Stephen to say. "You could tell me what you think."
"By which you mean, tell you how badly you've behaved."
"No." He rubs at his mouth with the back of his hand, though it already feels dry. "Not - I just want something - you know, she hates me. She hates me."
"You know that isn't true."
Suddenly he feels half-choked with rage, shaking, and he can't bear to look at Stephen's eyes because he doesn't know what he'll do. "Why won't you fucking say anything, Stephen? You and her, you're a right fucking pair. Neither of you, you won't tell me, you won't say anything -"
"What should we say then, Hugh?" There's a schoolmaster's crack in the words that silences him. "You want me to tell you how miserable and unworthy you are? Make you feel secure that you've proven to everyone that you're actually a monstrous human being, so that now you're allowed to take those memories out and polish them on holidays, to wallow in that confirmation?"
He doesn't have an answer. Stephen softens.
"You're my colleague and you're my friend and I know that's never going to change," Stephen says. "No matter what you do."
"God," he says. "Stephen -"
"Emma loves you. But you hurt her. And that's what you should be sorry for."
"I know," he says. "I know."
"Get some sleep tonight. You'll come to terms with it."
"She's never going to come back to me."
Stephen doesn't say anything for a long time. "Maybe not." He throws the handkerchief in the debased dustbin. "But get some sleep now."
"Yeah," he says. "Right."
He wakes up on Stephen's couch with the sun in his eyes, feeling ravaged and numb. His head hurts and his mouth tastes foul, but his brain feels clearer. Stephen is already up, wandering through the room, picking up bits of paper.
"Hello," Hugh says.
"Good morning," Stephen says, incongruously chipper. "How's the dilution process coming along?"
"Progressing slowly," Hugh says. "What time is it?"
"Damned if I know," Stephen says.
"Thank you," he says. "For being here, and everything."
Stephen smiles. "I live here, Hugh."
"Well, of course, I know that, just..."
"It's all right," Stephen says, embarrassed. "I'd hope you'd do the same for me."
"I'd wanted you to hate me," he says quietly.
"Why does anybody want that?" Stephen says. "What does that accomplish? It's so much more difficult to love, really, why isn't that seen as being more fulfilling?"
He doesn't answer. Stephen sits down on the couch and lights a cigarette.
"I wish I could be like you," Hugh blurts out, before he has time to think about it, before he can choke it down.
Stephen looks startledly at him. "You - what?"
"Because it always seems so simple for you," Hugh says. "You're not all tangled about with girls, well, I guess it would be with boys, wouldn't it, but. You're above it all. Untouchable."
Stephen says nothing. He says nothing and he says nothing and Hugh suddenly realizes he's upset.
"Oh, fuck," he says. "I didn't mean it like - Stephen, I'm a fucking idiot."
"Well, it's the truth, isn't it?" Stephen says finally. He sounds small and resigned. "Stephen the Untouchable. It's so hard to understand, Hugh, when someone like you, when you're charming and handsome and athletic - and stop waving your arms about like that, it's true - says something like that."
"I just," Hugh says. "You seem to be in control, that's all, and I'm not."
Stephen tries to smile. "I do my best, you see. I like to pretend there's a choice. I mean, can you really imagine anyone wanting to be with me? Ever?"
"Stephen," Hugh says softly. Stephen says nothing. He pushes at his hair awkwardly and crushes the cigarette out.
Hugh realizes suddenly that Stephen isn't much older than he is.
"Here," Hugh says. He reaches for Stephen's hand, slowly, awkwardly; he's not used to this, he has the terrifying thought that Stephen's going to push him away. Stephen watches him.
He curls his fingers around Stephen's, feeling the warm skin of his palm. Their hands are similar, he thinks, long pale fingers and fine thin veins. He squeezes Stephen's hand.
"It's not so difficult," Hugh tells him. "To imagine."
Stephen starts to say something, but then changes his mind. Eventually, he shifts over on the couch and begins to play with Hugh's hair.
Months later, they take the show to Australia.