The ghost light glows steadily on the empty stage. Once, just once, it flickers, as if someone has breathed across the filament.
Out, out, brief candle.
+ + + +
The week they sign the lease, Geoffrey and Ellen fuck in every room in the newly minted Theatre sans Argent.
"We had to," Ellen insists, shrugging back into her shirt. It's a dusty, echoing space and there's a chill in the air. "It would be bad luck if we didn't."
Geoffrey smears her lipstick off his mouth with the back of his hand. "There are times that I am deeply grateful that actors are superstitious people."
"Actors!" Ellen says, slipping her arms around her waist. "Don't say it like you're not one of us."
"Now and again," Geoffrey says, gazing down at her. "Hopefully no one will lay about my actors with any more broken bottles, but I suppose life is unpredictable."
"Thank God," says Ellen with passionate relief, and Geoffrey chuckles and leans down to kiss her. One breath turns into two, turns into three, turns into a knowing synchronicity of breath and pulse and lips and hands, and, well, it isn't as if they can't use a little extra luck.
+ + + +
The moniker isn't quite accurate any more. The theatre is not exactly sans argent. The idea of Richard Smith-Jones and Darren Nichols in charge of her precious festival was, at long last, too much for May. Geoffrey went to see her in the hospital, fragile and tiny in the stark white bed the doctors had her confined to.
"I owe you a wedding present," she said. "Congratulations, Geoffrey."
He took her small dry hand between his. "You don't owe me anything and you know it, May."
"Nonsense," she said briskly. "You brought the festival back to life, for a little while. That was good enough to keep me holding on. I'm only sorry I won't be around to see your next project."
"Is it that bad?" Geoffrey asked quietly.
"Not yet," she told him. "I have some time. But I won't be gallivanting over to Montreal to see all of your productions. You take Ellen and the rest and go build a new theatre, Geoffrey. Go build something worthy." She took a shallow, labored breath. "Go stick it to Misters Smith-Jones and Nichols."
"I'm sorry about all of this, May," Geoffrey said, holding her hand to his cheek. "I wanted to do better. For you. For Oliver."
"You did fine," May said gently. "I'm only sorry I couldn't see your Lear."
Geoffrey let out a sigh that was almost a chuckle. "I killed a man for that Lear."
"Nonsense," May chided. "You made the last months of a man's life worth living. You gave us a little of the good old days. Now go and make better ones."
Geoffrey hesitated, her frail cool fingers still tucked against his cheek. "I'm sorry about New Burbage, May."
She sighed. "Even when Oliver was there, things were changing. He was too distracted to notice what was happening. By the time you arrived, it was too late."
"Shakespeare figurines," Geoffrey murmured. "Shakespeare dolls for your dashboard with wobbling heads. And now, of course, all the East Hastings merchandise your heart could possibly desire."
May tried to breathe deeply and coughed. Her eyelids fluttered and hitched as she blinked, as if her eyelashes were a heavy burden. "All's well that ends well, Geoffrey. Remember that."
"I'll try," he said, and kissed the back of her hand gently before he left.
Ellen came with him to the funeral, and to the meeting with the executors, after which suddenly they were in charge of a great deal of money, enough to buy a warehouse and renovate it into a nice theatre, with a big auditorium for the main show, a smaller auditorium off to the side, and two black boxes just in case, plus the maze of dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces that the various productions would require. At the last moment, with a lot of grumbling, Geoffrey approved the gift shop and café the architects insisted would fit perfectly into an empty space at the front of the building.
Geoffrey didn't cry until they put the portrait up at the front of the theatre, and then he lifted his glass, gazed into her painted eyes, said, "To May," and burst into tears.
"Well," Ellen said later, taking off her makeup. "At least your timing was good."
"Just come to bed," Geoffrey said, knuckling at his stinging eyes. "We'll start over again in the morning."
"Everything always looks better in the morning," Ellen said, slipping under the duvet. "Something about coffee, maybe. It'll be a fresh start for both of us. We'll find a new place to live. We'll start talking to actors. Everything will be fine. You'll see."
"The golden age is before us, not behind us," Geoffrey murmured, and Ellen curled up on his chest. "And no damned swans this time."
+ + + +
If you build it, they will come.
Ellen is his rock, of course. Nahum is there one day when Geoffrey comes to survey the progress of the construction, hands in his pockets, nodding to himself. Frank and Cyril decided they could just as easily open a garden store in Montreal as in New Burbage. "Anyway, je parle très bien français," Cyril says.
"What?" Frank asks.
"Nevermind, duckie," Cyril says, patting Frank's hand and rolling his eyes.
They spend the time between the contract and the opening watching plays: sometimes just Geoffrey and Ellen, sometimes with Cyril and Frank, sometimes Geoffrey and Nahum, sometimes Geoffrey all alone in the dark, surrounding by people, watching magic happen, or try to happen, waiting for that moment of transport.
There's no Jerry, and no Maria, and no rotating cast of actors eager for the glory of New Burbage, for the grandeur of the Rose. But there are new actors, eager young ingenues and seasoned workhorses, and they find a decent pub.
The week before the theatre opens, Geoffrey and Ellen rechristen the place. It's almost Christmas; they've got the whole place decked out in fairy lights and garlands for the opening until the perfume of pine and cinnamon overwhelms the whiff of new carpet and fresh paint, and the theatre has that magic anticipatory hush.
"Better safe than sorry," Ellen says dreamily, looking flushed.
"At least it's warmer in here now," Geoffrey says.
"You're such a romantic," Ellen tells him. "I can't believe I married a grinch."
"Kiss me again," Geoffrey says. "Maybe something will grow three sizes."
Ellen slaps at him, but she's laughing.
They cut the ribbon the day after Christmas, amid a crowd of shining faces. Cyril plays the piano; Geoffrey pours wine and shakes hands until his arm aches; none of them can stop smiling. And Anna is there, smiling briskly, almost swallowed up in a hug from Nahum.
"You came back," Geoffrey says, flabbergasted.
"Of course I came back," Anna tells him. "I couldn't let you do this alone."
"Thank you," Geoffrey says, shaking her hand.
"It's not going to be like before," Anna tells him.
"God, I hope not," Geoffrey says fervently.
"Well, I for one am glad you're back," Ellen says. "I don't think we could do this without you."
"Not for long," Geoffrey agrees.
"Show me around?" Anna asks Nahum, taking a glass of wine from the bar.
"With pleasure," Nahum says, and they walk away, their heads leaning together, murmuring to each other.
After everyone leaves, Geoffrey and Ellen sit on the edge of the stage in the glow of the ghost light, dreaming their shared dream in silent communion.
+ + + +
The Teens Take Theatre Therapy program was all Anna's idea. Geoffrey growls under his breath as he waits for his coffee.
"Our lady of infinite compassion for the seriously fucked-up," he says out loud to nobody, and then regrets it very slightly. T4, the interns are calling it. Geoffrey calls it T-Farce, but only under his breath. Anna, having spearheaded a revolution, is not to be trifled with.
"Geoffrey, we need this," she reminds him at least once a week. "Richard had some terrible ideas, but getting young people involved with the theatre was good for us. We have to invest in the next generation, and these teens need someone to take an interest in them. Besides, you put me in charge of community outreach. This is what we're doing, and that's the end of it."
Anna doesn't get him coffee anymore. Geoffrey is okay with it. And the program does bring in some money, and a lot of good will - Anna arranged a partnership with local theatre and counseling and education students, Ellen and Frank and Cyril agreed to spend a few hours a week working with the kids, and it turns out the well-to-do of the community will pay handsomely for tickets to the premier of an amateur production featuring troubled teens. Geoffrey's avoided them so far, despite Ellen's hints, but he won't be able to evade Anna's less-gentle urging forever. There are still two weeks before the workshop, though; surely he can come up with an excuse before then.
One of the kids (Geoffrey can't remember their names, but this is one of the boys, dark hair, brown skin, sullen attitude) slouches in with coffee (black) and sets it down on the corner of Geoffrey's desk.
"Thanks," Geoffrey says.
"Whatever," the kid says, slumping down in a chair. Geoffrey waits. The kid stares at his own thumbs, poking through the cuffs of his sweatshirt. The holes seem to be intentional. Geoffrey thinks he had a sweater like that once. He waits. The coffee is just out of reach. Geoffrey rolls his chair far enough to get it and then settles back. The silence stretches out. Geoffrey sips at his coffee, burns his tongue, sets it down, and looks at the kid, who is still determinedly cataloguing every crease and nick on his thumbs. Geoffrey realizes he's fidgeting with his own cuffs, picking at a frayed strand of yarn.
"So why is Hamlet so fucked up?" the kid says, finally.
"Well," Geoffrey says slowly, cupping his hands around his coffee, "to start with, he's a prince. That's a lot of pressure."
The kid snorts. "Whatever."
"He's going to inherit a kingdom," Geoffrey says. "He doesn't feel ready to be king. He's been a prince all his life. On the other hand, when his father dies, his uncle takes over, meaning that the job Hamlet's been told is the entire point of his existence is suddenly no longer a possibility. He's old enough to be king, but he's stuck being a prince: in a relationship that he's not sure can ever go anywhere, with friends he doesn't like who don't like him, stuck in this castle in the middle of nowhere, and now his uncle's all over him to be more royal. His mother doesn't seem to care that Hamlet's grieving, aside from which she and Claudius are apparently completely wrapped up in each other, to Hamlet's confusion and disgust. Imagine if your parents were making out all the time and didn't seem to care one way or the other what happened to you."
"I don't have parents," the kid says. "That's why I got stuck in this stupid program."
"Well," Geoffrey says slowly. "Hamlet feels that way too. Not about the program, but about all of the things that he's expected to do at university and as the heir to the throne. He's caught in between being a prince and being a king, dealing the struggle of trying to grow up, and suddenly his father's ghost is giving him this impossible task, avenging his murder and killing the new king, and he feels like he's lost both his father and his mother, and God only knows if his uncle won't kill him too."
"Huh," the kid says. His dark hair falls over his eyes.
"It's a lot to deal with," Geoffrey says.
"I guess," the kid says. He gets up and slouches away.
Geoffrey tilts his head.
"That was different," he says to no one in particular, and burns his tongue on his coffee again.
+ + + +
"Why Hamlet?" Geoffrey asks Anna. "For the kids, I mean. Why did you choose that play in particular?"
"I thought it was relatable," Anna says with a shrug.
"It seems like a lot to grapple with," Geoffrey tells her.
There's a steely glint in Anna's eye. "They're strong, Geoffrey. They can handle it. I'm not going to shortchange these children by giving them less than the best for their introduction to great literature."
Nahum comes up to the desk, bringing Anna a mug of coffee. She gazes up at him, and her face softens.
"Thank you," she says. "You really don't have to do that. I have an assistant now."
He reaches down briefly to squeeze her hand. "It is my pleasure."
"Nahum, what do you think about the theatre therapy group doing Hamlet?" Geoffrey asks.
"It is an important play," Nahum says. "It is a play about the tenuous nature of happiness and the certainty of death. These are aspects of life that children can understand."
"Of course you'd agree with her," Geoffrey grumbles, not really meaning it.
"Geoffrey, if you don't like it, you can get over it," Anna says, sweetly but firmly. "If the program goes well, I'll be happy to take your suggestions for next year. Until then, the Teens Take Theatre Therapy program is doing Hamlet, because it's a play people have heard of, and a play people will pay to see, and it looks good on the students' resume."
"I bow to your expertise," Geoffrey says, sweeping her a bow. Nahum smiles.
"Thank you, Geoffrey," Anna says.
"Thank you for coming back from Bolivia and keeping me from running the theatre into the ground in the first year," Geoffrey continues. "Thank you for starting this essential program which will garner us an excess of goodwill from the community."
"That's enough," Anna says, amused but firm. "Go do theatre things. Save yourself for Twelfth Night."
+ + + +
A few days later, a coffee appears again, set on the desk by a brown hand half-muffled in a dark sweater.
"Did Ophelia off herself or what?"
"And hello," Geoffrey says, emerging from his papers. "What exactly is your name?"
The kid scuffs his shoe against the rug. "Don't laugh."
"Why would I laugh?" Geoffrey asks.
"It's Will," the kid says, scowling.
"Ah," Geoffrey says. "Well. Will. What do you think? Did Ophelia intend to kill herself? Did her foot slip? Did Claudius in some way cause her death?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking you," Will grumbles. "You're the theatre guy."
Geoffrey leans forward. "The beauty of Shakespeare is that the plays leave so much up to your imagination. Is Hamlet crazy? Is Macbeth? You have this rich tapestry of characters, but in these scenes, even as well as we know these people, even as alive as they are when they rise from the page, we don't know what's going through Ophelia's mind when she goes down to the river. We don't know the depths of her madness and lucidity. We don't know how far Claudius will go to ensure Hamlet's unhappiness and isolation. It comes down to each actor's interpretation of the character: her gestures, her intonation, the way she holds her body. Is Ophelia a victim? Is her death the only part of her life that she can truly control?"
"Do you ever just answer a question?" Will demands.
"Yes," Geoffrey says, and sits with his hands folded around his coffee.
"Asshole," Will says, and stomps out.
+ + + +
"What's the story with Will?" Geoffrey asks, blowing on a spoonful of soup.
"Will?" Ellen asks, reaching for a slice of toast.
"In the teen theatre program," Geoffrey elaborates, gesturing a little and spilling a considerable amount of soup out of his spoon.
"I don't know," Ellen says. "Why?"
"He's an interesting kid," Geoffrey says.
"How did you even meet him?" Ellen asks. "You haven't been to the workshops."
"He brings me coffee," Geoffrey says. "Nevermind. I'll ask Anna."
+ + + +
"Ask him yourself," Anna says, barely looking up from her paperwork.
+ + + +
The next time coffee appears, Geoffrey asks the first question.
"So. Will. Tell me about yourself. What brings you to the Theatre Sans Argent?"
Will shrugs. "My social worker told me it was this or art therapy."
"Ah," Geoffrey says.
"I don't communicate," Will says, making finger quotes. "Whatever."
"How do you like the theatre so far?" Geoffrey asks.
"It's okay," Will says, slumping into his usual chair and taking an After Eight mint from the bowl on Geoffrey's desk. "I guess your place is all right."
"Better than art therapy," Geoffrey says dryly.
"Before you ask," Will says, "I'm not fucked up about being in foster care. Never knew my dad - some guy from India, Mom said, one night stand, blah blah blah. She died when I was eight. No family. No worries."
"So you're living with a family?" Geoffrey asks.
"Group home," Will says, crossing his arms. "The last family wanted someone warm and fuzzy, which I'm wasn't. So now I'm in the home with the rest of the rejects. Fuckin' fantastic. Couldn't be happier."
They sit in silence. Steam rises from the black coffee.
"Did you have a question?" Geoffrey asks, opening his hands.
"Polonius is an asshole," Will says, heaving himself out of the chair.
+ + + +
They develop a kind of routine. Every couple of days, Will grumbles in, interrogates Geoffrey about some close reading of Shakespeare while Geoffrey drinks his coffee, and then slouches away again. Geoffrey starts waiting for the shuffle of Will's sneakers on the carpet. He comes in early so that he can spare more time for Will's questions. On bad days, Will drags him out of his black moods, and Geoffrey can see he helps lighten the boy's load other days. Not every day - it isn't magic, this connection they're working on, more like a lifeline for a couple of people who've been in dark places and know the way out. One tug, all's well. Two tugs, I need a hand. Knowing there's someone on the other end of the conversation helps. They don't talk about Will's situation again, only about the play, but they communicate all the same.
He digs out old copies of other plays and puts them in a box for the Theatre Therapy's next season. He finds one of his scripts for Hamlet, with all its scribbled notes, and pushes it across the desk to Will, casually, as if part of his breath, part of his heart isn't going with it.
And Will smiles, and for a moment, Geoffrey sees something incredible: a kid who still has hope, somewhere buried deep.
+ + + +
"I think we should foster Will," Geoffrey says.
"Who?" Ellen asks. "Oh, from the theatre therapy program? I've been talking to him. He seems unhappy."
"Of course he's unhappy," Geoffrey says. "He's all alone in the world. He's trapped in a group home with a bunch of other sad teenagers, and his social worker made him go to theatre therapy."
"So you think we should adopt him?" Ellen asks.
"Foster him," Geoffrey says. "He's in a group home right now. I did a little research. Group homes are only a temporary solution for most kids, and he's older, so he's not likely to find another family. We have an extra bedroom. We're married. We're employed. We're...stable." He adds a coda in his mind about his depression, which hasn't magically vanished, and Ellen's mood swings, which haven't either, but things have been good since before they opened the theatre, or at least, good enough.
"Yes," Ellen agrees slowly. "We are now." He can tell she's thinking along the same lines, and reaching the same conclusion: they're all right, not perfect, but walking away from the slow-sliding disaster of their lives before.
Geoffrey cuts a bite of his chicken. "Just...something to think about. I mean, it couldn't be immediate. There's an application process."
"I'll talk to him," Ellen says. "Not about this, obviously. Just to get to know him." She darts a glance at Geoffrey; surprisingly, she looks happy, thoughtful.
"What?" Geoffrey asks.
"We were going to make a baby once," she says. "Back before everything happened. Maybe...maybe it isn't too late to be a family."
"It hasn't been too late for anything else," Geoffrey says, and they smile at each other.
"I'll think about it," she says.
"Thank you," Geoffrey says, taking her hand. "Thank you for humoring my madness all these years."
She shrugs and squeezes his hand. "We're all mad here, aren't we?"
"We few, we happy few," he says, and they finish their dinner holding hands.
+ + + +
Geoffrey has a dream: they're in a boat, he and Ellen and Will, and they're rowing together. Occasionally the motion of three oars pulls them in a circle, and the boat rocks, even on calm waters, but they don't capsize. The sun comes out and the breeze picks up and the world is ablaze with light.