Darren is in London – "not that it has the vibrancy of Berlin or even of Prague, God knows, but at least it's Europe, at least it's not the bloody United States, or worse, Alberta, but at least they have culture," he says to Richard on the phone, the mobile that's costing him a ridiculous amount of money to have activated here but he couldn't manage without it – when a flutter of black in his peripheral vision catches his eye, and he looks up. A man is striding down the sidewalk, a man with stringy black hair and an oversized nose, and, Darren notes delightedly, a long, flowing black cape that billows around him in dramatic swirls. It gives the man an air of authority and vague menace. Darren decides he must have one made for himself.
"Look, I'll call you back," he says, punching the end call button in the middle of Richard's squawk, and holds up the phone to snap a picture. The man – the chap, Darren corrects himself, he's in England now – wheels around and glares at him. There seems to be a stick in his hand. How odd.
"What," he says, his voice slow and deep and glorious, "are you doing?"
Later Darren is sure he said something brilliant. He must have. He doesn't quite remember. In fact, he's not altogether sure what it was about the man on Carnaby Street that made him want to take a picture. All he remembers is that it was something he was wearing. Something black, he thinks uncertainly, but there's no way to tell; when he brings the picture up on the tiny phone screen, it's blank.
Anna doesn't really like the opening-night galas, but of course one must attend, and so she does. At least she's used to it now, and when she sees her reflection in the glass doors, she no longer thinks she looks silly, an out-of-place country girl trying to pretend she belongs in the city. Grandma Conroy would have called the evening gown a ridiculous extravagance. But it would be nice, Anna thinks wistfully, if she could wear it someplace else, not just to the opening-night galas.
She smiles and greets the dignitaries and the sponsors, says a few words to the Minister of Culture and her husband, and manages to avoid Richard, who looks upset about something. When she has a few minutes to herself, she rushes to the bar to make sure they have enough of the red wine – it looks like a red-wine crowd – then checks in with Maria. The G841 gel finally came in and the tech is installing it now, thank heavens, and the prop chair that one of the interns broke while using it as a ladder has been fixed. She slips back into the foyer, leans against the wall, and closes her eyes.
"Here," says a young woman with an American accent. "You look like you could use some wine." Anna opens her eyes to see a vaguely familiar-looking woman holding out a glass of white wine. She takes it automatically.
"I don't really drink at these," she apologizes.
"I don't see why not," says the woman. She takes a drink from her own glass and wrinkles her nose a little, but there's a sparkle in her eyes and in her smile, something sympathetic and conspiratorial, and Anna places her; she's one of the sponsors, or his date, anyway. Stark Industries. Her name was something unusual, and Anna is on the point of remembering it when she adds, "Pepper Potts. I'm here with –"
"Mr. Stark, yes," and the way she says it makes Anna revise her assessment. Not his date, then. "I'm his assistant, and I know exactly how you feel. John at the bar said you prefer the pinot grigio."
Anna looks over to the bar, and John nods and smiles at them. Something loosens in her heart, like a tight belt being taken off. She clinks her glass against Pepper's, and their eyes meet, and they drink.
The taxi pulls up just as Richard walks by the Windsor Arms. A woman, elegant and imperious, gets out – no, two women, but it takes him a moment to notice the second one, who is holding two bags and a notebook and a phone and trying not to fall off her high heels.
"…and make sure the dresses are all hung properly, Emily, because you can't trust these people to know what to do with clothing, and make me a reservation at that French place with the little fountain in the foyer, and – oh." This last syllable is said with such iciness that Richard suddenly realizes the woman is looking at him.
He'd been staring, listening, because she sounded a little like Holly when she was on a roll, and somehow he'd come to a stop right there on the sidewalk, right between her and the doorman who is holding open the ornately-arched front door. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he mumbles, and steps aside, but she's still looking at him with pity and disdain. No, not at him; at his suit.
"Such a quaint town, Montreal. And such oddly-dressed natives, don't you think, Emily?" she murmurs as she sweeps by him.
"Actually, this is Toronto," he says, but the door has already closed behind her.
Oliver imagines that to Geoffrey, who is looking up from the fallen Lear directly at him – although perhaps he is too intent on his role to see him – he looks as though he is fading out. But to him it seems that the makeshift wings of this makeshift stage are not exactly fading out but rippling, changing from curtains and flats to walls both more and less substantial than the ones in the world. There is a corridor. There are doors. There is a mist in the distance. It's all rather bland and unfinished-looking.
In Oliver's opinion, the Afterlife could use a good decorator. And maybe some mood music. Something Wagnerian.
He tries doorknobs at random. Most don't move, but one gives, and he finds himself back in the church, in the room given over to Charles Kingman for his dressing room. They exchange a glance in the mirror before Oliver nods and steps out of the room again. A man's death should be private. He should know.
The corridor stretches onward toward the mist. It looks infinite, but then suddenly it comes to an end, and he finds himself in…a cabin? A rough-hewn room done in Early Macho: the walls hung with antlered heads and rifles (or possibly shotguns; Oliver's not clear on how one tells the difference), the sofas covered with plaid throws straight out of the Hudson Bay catalog. A man and a woman are sitting at a square table, playing cards, and for a moment the woman, who looks up at him and smiles, reminds him of an older, gentler Ellen.
"Well," says the man, "I suppose that eventually we all have to trust them to live their own lives, don't we."
"I suppose," says Oliver.
"That's what having children is all about," he pronounces decisively.
"Bob," says the woman, touching his hand.
"So. You play bridge, by any chance? Or whist? There was this game that Frobisher used to like – I don't remember the rules exactly but if you got three of a kind you had to make a noise like a chicken, and –"
"Bob," the woman says again.
"Well. How about you sit down, and we'll get started."
Oliver stares at them, at the rustic wooden table and chairs, at the ridiculous antlers. He was no saint, he knows that, but surely he does not deserve this for eternity.
"Don't worry. This isn't your destination," the woman says, with a kindly smile.
"Ah, yes, right," says Bob. "I'm just – we're just here to help ease your transition. Most people, they die, they're dead, there's no difficulty. But when you've been a ghost for years, it's a little harder to let the world go. When it's finally time."
They look at each other for a moment, and then Bob pats the place beside him. "Well. Are you in? Of course, most games are better with four."
Oliver remembers the glance he exchanged with Charles Kingman. "I think a fourth will be here shortly," he says, and he takes his seat.
Paul had thought he knew the Toronto area fairly well, but after filling up at a gas station in some suburban town, he can't find his way back to the highway. The off-ramp has no matching on-ramp, and the signs for westbound traffic direct him through a maze of tree-lined residential streets before disappearing entirely, leaving him stranded in a small, well-preserved older downtown.
Sandwiched between a children's clothing store and a Greek restaurant is a building which looks as though it used to be a movie theatre. The Art-Deco style vertical marquee reads: The Merely Players. He finds himself drawn to it; he parks in front and gets out of the car, studying the building's façade.
There's a movement behind the clear glass of the ticket window, and then one of the doors opens, and a man says, "Can I help…" before trailing off and squinting at him. "Well, this is unexpected."
No kidding. Paul can't help but stare. "I guess so."
They scrutinize each other for a moment, and then the man puts out his hand. "Geoffrey Tennant. Are we related?"
Paul considers several possible responses before deciding against any of them and just giving his name. They shake hands.
"Right, you're in – television, aren't you? People have mentioned the resemblance, but I don't actually watch TV. I think the series my wife was in cured me of that," he says, and a little thrill goes through Paul, a strange electric frisson at the thought that the stories they performed have somehow lived on and led to this.
"And you direct for the stage," he finds himself saying. "This is your theatre."
"Such as it is," agrees Geoffrey. "It's not bad, really. Would you like a look around?"
And Paul follows him into the building, looking at the posters on the walls (Coriolanus, The Water Engine, Freedom's Ring – this last "a new work by local playwright Nahum Adetola") and at the aged wallpaper tarted up with new trim, at the rows of limp seats and the proud proscenium, and listens to Geoffrey tell him about the building, and the stage, and his company.
They have reached the light and sound boards when Paul stops Geoffrey's monologue with a hand on his shoulder. "Are you happy?"
Geoffrey doesn't seem to think the question as odd as Paul belatedly realizes it must be. He considers for a moment. "I believe I am, yes."
"Ellen is Ellen," says Geoffrey, and they both laugh. They walk back to the front door. "You should come back some time when we're not black," he says. "We have a full season planned."
"I'll try," says Paul, but the next time he drives that way, he can find neither gas station nor off-ramp. He's not particularly surprised. He has been given a rare gift, and he will hold it to his heart and not look for more. Geoffrey is happy, and Ellen is Ellen, and all's right with the world.