Aziraphale Felton remembers the first time he saw a performance by Anthony J. Crowley.
His dear friend, Tracy, had invited him to go see Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in the stead of her fiancé, who was not shy about expressing his disinterest in the theater arts. So, the bookshop keeper happily agreed to join her that fateful spring evening. Although he had gone to watch many productions of Hamlet before, considering it was his favorite Shakespearean play, nothing could’ve prepared him for this particular rendition.
The bibliophile wasn’t prepared for the sight of scorched tresses and amber eyes as Hamlet stepped onto the stage. He wasn’t prepared for his confident stride across the wooden floor as if Shakespeare himself directed it to be. He definitely wasn’t prepared for the eloquence of his speech, velvety as decadent chocolate mousse.
He recalls how awestruck he felt as his lines were flawlessly delivered. “To be or not to be... that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die... to sleep...” Every word and pause of breath was laced with such melancholy it was as if Aziraphale was hearing that soliloquy for the first time...
To say he was smitten was an understatement. He was completely enchanted... as if no one else onstage existed in his presence. If demons were real, surely that auburn-haired fiend must be one if he could captivate him with the mere inflections of his voice.
After that, Aziraphale never missed the opportunity to watch Mr. Crowley’s grace the stage again. Throughout the years, he would scour the newspaper for his name in upcoming shows and every few months or so, he found himself in the same space as that enthralling man. At times, the shop keeper felt childish at his behavior, as if he was a teenage groupie obsessed with their favorite rock star.
However, with every play he caught he was reminded why he had grown such an admiration toward him. There wasn’t a role Mr. Crowley couldn’t encapsulate. He could capture the mischievous nature of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream while also perfectly portraying Macbeth’s descent into madness. A true chameleon in his skills.
While the bibliophile appreciated his parts in the classics, he also fancied his roles in more contemporary productions. In particular, his favorite had become Strung Pearls in which Mr. Crowley played a stockbroker who had a secret life as a female Cabaret dancer in the 1920s. One of the many reasons Aziraphale held this piece close to his heart was the stunning beauty of his character’s alter ego, Annette. Her fiery locks styled in pristine finger waves and adorned with a black feather headband. Her ruby maxi dress with tasseled fringe matching the color of her sinuous lips. Her slender arms dressed in black, satin gloves. Her willowy neck draped with an elegant pearl necklace.
Another reason was that it was one of the few times he truly got emotional during a performance. At the climax of the story, Annette is recognized by some co-workers at the Cabaret bar she performed at and is confronted by them as she exited. Aziraphale can still see the image clear as day: Annette’s brilliant smile utterly quashed by the despair of being discovered.
“You must have me mistaken,” she defended firmly, trying to maintain the guise afloat. Trying to protect the identity that had brought her so much confidence and joy over the past year. The boat was sinking though as the two men circled her like hungry wolves, smiling wickedly.
“Nah, you’re right,” one jeered. “The lad we know is a bit of a prick. Besides, you’re much too pretty to be him.” He ran his hand lecherously across her rouged cheek which Annette swiftly smacked away.
Aziraphale knew full well it was all acting but he couldn’t help feel anger flaring inside him as they mockingly laughed at her.
“Ohh, ‘she’s’ got some spunk,” the other taunted
“I wonder what else ‘she’s’ got,” he remarked crudely, pawing at her skirt.
Annette tried to pull away but the other restrained her. “Get off me, you bastards!” The femininity of her voice finally faltering as she continued to beg, “Please, someone! Help—“ The man holding her placed a hand over her mouth, stifling her pleas.
The stage went dark, the only thing that could be heard was the men’s maniacal laughter and a successive pattering noise.
After that... silence.
Aziraphale wrung his hands in anticipation, waiting for the lights to return. When they did, his heart nearly shattered at the pitiful sight before him. The spotlight shone on Annette curled on the floor, silently weeping, mascara running down her sharp cheeks. Her ruby dress and black tights were torn, her gorgeous locks were tousled around and the pearls of her necklace were scattered around the ground like angelic teardrops.
Oh, how dearly he wanted to scoop her into his arms and shield her from everyone’s staring eyes.
She took a staggering breath, the line between reality and acting fading as she recited, “Here... on this dirty alleyway floor... is the final resting place of Annette Dubois. For you see, this world does not deserve her. It does not deserve to be graced by her beauty and elegance... Her optimism and kindness.”
He closed his eyes, the tears rolling down matching Aziraphale’s very own. “Perhaps, I never deserved her to begin with either,” he huffed bitterly. “Perhaps, it was selfish of me to expose her to the cruelty that blights this planet.”
Aziraphale swallowed the lump in his throat desperately wanting to comfortingly answer, “No. You deserved to be her. You deserved to be happy.”
The moment he opened his eyes again, was Aziraphale’s final reason as to why he was so fond of this enactment. Because when those amber eyes looked out toward the crowd, they fell upon the tearful azure of his own. The bibliophile’s breath hitched and it felt as if time had stopped altogether. Internally, he was congratulating himself for splurging on an orchestra seat.
A mournful sigh passed the actor’s lips as he continued to stare back at him. “I suppose that is why I shall bear the punishment of my folly and not she.” With shaky arms he began to lift himself off the floor until he was on his knees; humbly resigning to his fate. “Come morning, I shall return to my old life. I shall strip of these rags and mend to the bruises and cuts. I shall hand in my resignation if word of my deviancy hasn’t gotten me dismissed already. I shall do this... so my beloved Annette may rest in peace.” He winced in pain as he rose to his feet to proclaim, “For she does not deserve our pity... only our remembrance.” He limped off the stage, the clicking of his single, remaining heel following behind like a phantom.
Aziraphale is sure he was the first to be on his feet, face streaked with drying tears as he applauded resoundingly. His heart was filled with relief when he saw that lively grin had returned to Mr. Crowley’s face as he returned to the stage for his bow.
After the curtains closed, Aziraphale snapped back to his mundane reality. However, as he was readying himself to depart he felt something beneath the sole of his tan loafers. As he lifted his foot, his eyes caught the iridescent glint of the object and gathered it up quickly, trying not to hold up the row of spectators trying to make their exit as well. In the well-lit lobby, he examined the small artifact and recognized it as a pearl from Annette’s costume. It may not have been a real by any means but nevertheless the plastic bead was priceless to the shop keeper. He smiled admiringly at his new treasure and secured it away in his coat pocket.
In a way, Aziraphale felt as if finding that precious memento was a sign from the universe. That night in his bookshop, he sat at his desk with a blank piece of paper and a fountain pen, contemplating the words that could possibly express the esteem he felt toward the dashing thespian. Finally, he brought the inky tip to the eggshell paper, letting the word flow at their own volition.
Dear Anthony J. Crowley,
I know I am merely one admirer among the countless you surely have. Nevertheless, I would like to take the opportunity to say thank you... Thank you for gracing the stage with your acting prowess and for enacting each character you play with the humanity they so rightly deserve. Getting to witness your work has truly been a blessing. Maybe this letter is impertinent but I do hope it serves as a reminder of the impact you have. I wish you all the best as you continue to touch lives through your career.
The letter remained in his desk drawer for a week until the bibliophile plucked up enough courage to send it off to the theater house so Mr. Crowley would receive it before his next show. Actually... it was more like Tracy dragged the courage out of him. She even accompanied him to the florist to help pick out a lovely arrangement of yellow lilies to pair with the handwritten dedication.
After taking that leap, Aziraphale’s one-time gesture became a sort of personal ritual to send Mr. Crowley messages of gratitude for every show he went to. Truthfully, the only thing he hoped to gain out the tradition was the chance to give the actor something to smile at before he took the stage. He never expected what was about to unfold.
It had been a particularly slow day at the book shop, so he is pleasantly surprised to see a young woman browsing around. He chipperly greets, “Hello, miss. Are you looking for something particular? I’d be happy to assist. And may I add that I find your tartan dress very stylish.”
She adjusts her round spectacles before answering with a smile. “Oh, thanks that’s very kind of you but I actually wasn’t looking for a book. Although, it is quite an impressive collection,” she compliments.
“Why thank you,” he accepts. “I am quite fond of it as well. Most of these pieces have been passed through generations of my family. Oh, but enough about me. What can I help you with?”
A smile of victory crosses her face. “So, you are the owner! Then you must be A.Z. Fell, right? Or, I guess you could be Co.,” she deliberates.
He chuckles at her sudden excitement. “No, you were correct the first time around. Although, A.Z. Fell is my pen name so you can just call me, Aziraphale.”
The brunette extends her hand out. “Nice to meet you, Aziraphale. I’m Anathema Device,” she introduces politely.
He briskly takes her hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Device.”
“Thanks. Now, I do have some business that I would like to discuss with you.”
“Yes, of course. Would you like to step into my office?”
“Oh, no, I’m fine here. It’s nothing so formal for that. I’m actually here on behalf of my boss,” Anathema reveals. “Do you know Mr. Anthony J. Crowley?”
Aziraphale feels his heart skip a beat at the sound of his name and he sputters, “I— yes, I do! Well, I don’t know him personally but I’m a big fan of his work!”
“Yes, and your appreciation has been duly noted,” she beams. Anathema rummages through her carpetbag and pulls out an envelope with To A.Z. Fell inscribed in the front. “Which is why I am here to personally invite you to his next performance next Saturday.” She holds out the envelope toward the stunned man. “This is your ticket; front row seat, of course. And as a bonus, after the show I will personally escort you backstage to meet Crowley,” she pitches.
Aziraphale’s mind reels at her offer and starts pacing the floor not really sure what to do with himself. Surely, he had to be dreaming. At the very least it must be a cruel joke.
“Is there a problem?” She quirks an eyebrow at the fidgety man. “If you’re busy that day I can reschedule.”
“No, no. There’s no problem. Everything’s is tickety-boo,” he claims nervously. He stares at the offering in her hand and composes himself a bit. “All of that is very kind, Miss Device, but I couldn’t possibly accept.”
“It was really no trouble setting this up. It’s the least we can do to show our appreciation,” she assures.
“That’s nice to hear and I do appreciate it but... I’m nobody to deserve such a gift.” He gently nudges her hand back toward her.
Anathema’s expression softens sympathetically. “But you do deserve it... You’ve been his biggest supporter. Anytime he gets one of your gifts, he gets this glimmer in his eyes,” she explains kindly. “Trust me, I’ve worked with the man for two years and the happiest I’ve seen him is when he reads your letters.”
He silently gulps, “Really...” In the recess of his mind, the bibliophile feared his gifts were a nuisance. A way to sate his silly infatuation. Never did it cross his mind that it would actually hold any significance to the thespian.
“Yes, really.” She holds out the invitation again. “You've already done plenty but... it would mean a lot to him if you could make it.”
Aziraphale recognizes the sincerity in her voice and hesitantly takes the present from her. As he holds it in his hand, the worth of it finally hits him. He gives her a huge, appreciative grin and bashfully giggles, “Alright then. I’ll be there!”
Anathema perks up with delight. “Excellent!”
After she explains some of the last details, Aziraphale walks her outside to where her bicycle is parked and bids her adieu. After she rides away, he quickly reenters the shop to call Tracy.
He doesn’t get her on the first try but she finally picks ups on the second attempt. “Terribly sorry, darling, but I’m in the middle of a session. Mind if I phone you later?”
“Sorry for interrupting, Tracy, but I had to tell you the big news! I’m meeting him! Mr. Crowley, that is! I'm meeting him next Saturday,” he announces.
There’s a pause on the other end. “One moment, please.” He hears her put the phone down and clap her hands together. “Unfortunately, the spirits are not in a cooperative mood so we are going to have to pick this up later.” There’s some protest as she presumably shoos them out of the room. She picks the phone up again. “Tell me all about it.”