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In the Wings

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Adeline’s earliest memory is of the smell of the stage. She is four years old, allowed for the first time to watch her mother from the wings (although in which role, she can no longer recall), and the part that has most stayed with her has nothing to do with her mother at all. It is the smell of the wax and the wood, of the dust burning on the lights, of the greasepaint melting on the actor’s faces, of the musty smell of the backdrops hanging ready above the stage.

She loves it.

She knows then, without being able to voice it, that this is where she belongs. The smell of the stage strikes a chord in her soul; she already knows she must be here and nowhere else. Not because of the rapturous applause that greets the end of her mother’s monologue, or the magic of another place and time that only exists here, now, in this place - no, it is the smell that draws her in, that leaves her feeling utterly at home.

Of course, she learns to love those things too, later. And of course, at four, she doesn’t really realize just why she loves it so much, there in the wings. But the seed has been sown; Adeline Warren knows she belongs on the stage.

—-

At twelve, Addie is vivacious, rebellious, and funny—and utterly at odds with her mother. This time, as she stands in the wings and impatiently waits for the day to come, for it to be her turn on the stage, she cannot help but turn to Burt, the stagehand responsible for her props, and wink at him. He raises an eyebrow in return, and she grins sweetly, before mouthing along with her mother’s lines in a perfect imitation of her airs and graces. Burt stifles a chuckle just as the great Margaret Shaw herself marches offstage, pulling an unrepentant Addie along with her.

In the dressing room, her mother has no interest in her impressions of the others onstage, nor in Adeline’s thoughts on the play. Instead, she is all business.

“Adeline, it is time for you to start taking your progress seriously,” she tells her. “I should like to hear your Miranda by next week, and I expect you, this time, to live up to your Potential.” The last word is like a mantra, Addie hears it so often in the Warren household, and she suppresses the urge to roll her eyes.

“Mother,” she begins, “wouldn’t you rather see my Gwendolyn? I play her ever so much better...”

As usual, her mother’s expressive eyes darken. “Adeline, if you wish to become an actress, you need to devote your time to those roles that will allow you to demonstrate the full breadth of your Talent,” she says, sternly. “Do not waste your time now on Wilde, on comedy at all! If you cannot master Shakespeare, you will be nothing at all. Another Lindsey, who cannot raise herself above all but the most superficial roles. Poor dear...” Her mother’s cynical tone softens; even Addie knows she loves her sister, even if her stage debut was a total flop. “But you have the Potential”—that word again... how Addie could grow to hate it—“to be the greatest of us all.”

Her mother draws her towards her, hands on her shoulders, and presses her lips to Addie’s forehead. “Don’t squander that, Adeline. Be the actress you are meant to be.”

Addie’s chest feels tight with an emotion she can’t name. “I will, mother,” she whispers.

—-

Her worst memory is of the day her world changes forever. It begins with Alice rushing past her room, a telegram in hand, and the sound of her mother’s shriek echoing from her room. It is followed by a sound like nothing Addie has ever heard before, a wail that is almost inhuman, and it isn’t until Addie hears the sound of Marguerite’s feet on the stairs, running, that she is able to force herself out of her room and towards her mother.

It is Alice who breaks the news to them, though, and Alice who ‘phones the doctor for her mother, Alice whose chest she cries into, the words echoing in her head. “Your brother Andrew has died...”

It is only much, much later in the day, when she and Marguerite are sitting wordlessly in the kitchen with mugs of hot tea, that Lindsey appears, her face blotchy red, and haltingly explains what has happened.

“It was an accident with a car... the driver didn’t notice someone in the road, and d-d-d-dear Andrew had just stepped out to cross...” Lindsey sobs. By now, Adeline has run out of tears, so she just grasps her sisters’ hands and holds on until her knuckles go white while Lindsey cries and Marguerite takes in deep, gasping breaths beside her.

In the following weeks, her mother is subdued and raging in turn, and Addie stays out of her way to avoid being her target, studies her Shakespeare with intensity, and tries to stop the phrase that keeps whirling around her head.

Still, late at night in the light of the candle on her dressing table, she cannot help but stare at herself fiercely in the mirror and whisper it aloud: “What a waste of a life!” In the candlelight, her face looks hollowed out, menacing even. She is sixteen—Andrew was eighteen. She does not dare voice it, but inwardly she begins to vow to herself. I will not waste my time on this earth. Not even for a second.

—-

At eighteen, she thinks she has found her purpose; finally, she is making her stage debut; finally, she can live out her dreams. Her first professional engagement is even a production of her beloved Wilde: The Importance of Being Ernest, and she plays Cecily. Her mother cannot help but sigh at the news that this will be Adeline Warren’s introduction to the world, but Addie beams her way through rehearsals, delights in making the others on stage laugh when they shouldn’t be with her delivery, and feels in her bones that she has found her place in life. And after Andrew, her mother has softened in some ways—she even laughs when Addie comes home from a rehearsal and does her best impression of the director, a man of copious talent but even more copious girth, attempting to demonstrate how Addie should move girlishly across the stage.

The premiere is perfect in every way, and Addie floats to the after-party on a cloud of applause and euphoria. Meanwhile, in offices around London, the critics type away at rapturous reviews of her performance:

Latest Warren shows that famed theatre family saved the best until last!

Adeline Warren’s debut as Cecily a triumph!

Another Warren’s done it! Family legacy continues with beautiful Adeline.

Addie is unaware of all of this. At the party, her mother holds court on a chaise-longue and discusses her plans to introduce Adeline to James Chatsworth, son of her favourite director and “truly a rising star, quite worthy of dear Adeline.” Addie, not wishing to have her cloud of happiness rained upon by her mother’s plans, wanders into another room and nurses her drink in the corner.

“You were marvellous, you know,” says a deep voice from the opposite corner. “I’m surprised you’re not out there in the middle of the adoring crowd!”

Adeline looks up. Her eyes meet those of the handsome man in his naval uniform, and a blush spreads across her cheeks before she can help it.

“I’ll leave them to my mother,” she says lightly, feeling at once awkward and utterly unwilling to walk away. “What about you? Not a man for crowds?”

The naval officer laughs, and Adeline notices how nice his smile is. “Not so much, no,” he admits. “I’m only here as a friend of the stage manager - he thought I might like a taste of the theatrical life, and invited me along.”

Addie gives him a teasing smile, half-wondering at her own forwardness. “Well, then we should certainly get you in front of an audience, so you can taste it properly.”

He smiles at her, suddenly looking almost shy. “You know, I think I’d rather stay out here and talk to you,” he admits. “My name’s Forbes, by the way. William Forbes.”

He holds out his hand, and Adeline barely hesitates before grasping it. “Adeline Warren,” she says, and he laughs again.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Adeline Warren.”

His smile on her face is like a spotlight on her heart; falling in love with him is as easy as stepping out of the wings and into the light.

Addie smiles back at him, and never stops.