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The Bugger's Opera

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It starts with an old group photograph. The Victorian handwriting difficult to read: Theatrical Group – or maybe it's 'Troup' [sic], I can't tell – Kandahar.

His fingers are crabbed with arthritis, and I see their faces between his grimy fingernails as he points them out, while his old, cracked voice intones names you'll never see on any war memorial.

"We called him Dirty Gertie," he says, pointing to a crouching man in a big fake beard. "He was a sapper in the 2nd Bombay Company. Buried alive then crushed by one of his own tunnels."

He starts coughing, and I push the glass of water toward him, but he takes the gin instead. His finger moves across the row of faces: some in costume, some in uniform.

"Silly Milly, Tawdry Audrey. Hercules and Hylas. Dolly and Edna." The finger lands on a gaunt face, coyly hidden behind a huge fan. "We called him the Memsaab. Would have dressed like that all day every fucking day if they'd let him." 'Like that' was in something resembling the costume of an Afghan Begum.

"And him on the end, that's Myrna the Turner. Boasted he could turn any man queer. But a good man, kind. Taught me to read, and got me out of more than a few scrapes. He fought at Maiwand and crawled back wounded: begged me to put him out of his misery, but I was only a kid, didn't have the guts. So it was Tiger who did it, then made me keep watch while he went through the pockets. Tiger kept the gold watch, gave me the pocket knife."

"And you were ... what? Sixteen?"

"I told them I was sixteen," he says, "but I don't know I was even fifteen."

"I can't imagine how horrible it must have been."

"Yeah." The old man grins, showing a few blackish teeth and one gold one. "I swore that next time I'd be the one to slit the throat and get the watch."

 

"So it's a love story between two men?" said the Artistic Director. "Set during the Second Afghan War?

It was over twenty years since I talked to Mack, but his story had stayed with me. "More of an ensemble piece," I said. And I talked about the Stonewall riots and The Boys in the Band, which was still playing in New York. "It's time," I said. "It's a new decade. The 1970s are going to be our decade."

"This isn't America," he said.

"It's London," I said. "The London of Oscar Wilde, and Rochester, and Lord Byron. The London of James I – of Christopher Marlowe, for God's sake. Edward II was four hundred fucking years ago. Have we really gone so far backwards?"

He sighed and stared down at the script. "You'll have to change the name," he said.

 

"The Beggar's Opera," Mack says. "That was my first. The other lads said not to go – they're a nest of queers , they said. But I didn't care one way or the other. Back in London I'd envied the girls for being able to earn a warm bed and a few pennies lying on their backs: easier than begging, I thought, and less risky than picking pockets. I joined the army because getting shot at in the desert seemed preferable to spending another winter on the streets; I joined the Theatrics because getting fucked was better than getting shot. They said the Memsaab fixed it so 'his boys' stayed safe, you see."

"In the end there was as much acting as there was fucking. Some of them took it real serious. Dolly had been on the stage before he joined up – only the music hall, but he fancied himself a classical actor – Shakespeare and all that.

"He said I was a pretty thing, said I should play Ophelia when he 'played the Dane' next year. And I said I'd have to learn to read first. (I'd got it into my head that reading and writing and sums was how you got on in life.) So Myrna said he'd teach me. And he did. And do you know what? He didn't even try anything on. Which was disappointing, since Myrna was a lovely looking man – perfect cheekbones, and classy.

"So in the end I started, you know, fluttering my eyelashes and all that. And he laughed and said I was too young for him, and maybe in five years. So I said I'd keep him to that and he said I should.

"Anyway. The Beggar's Opera. I was playing a whore, and I didn't have many lines, but I did have lots of kissing, mostly with Dolly, who was playing a highwayman called Macheath. And Edna was jealous, though he shouldn't have been because Dolly loved him like it was fucking Romeo and Juliet.

"'What's Mackie short for anyway?' Dolly asked one day.

"'Macbeth,' I said. Edna had told me to say that, said it would be funny, and I didn't know then he had it in for me.

"Dolly went pale and yelled and me and said I should know better, in a place like this, with Afghan shells coming at us every day and told me to get out.

"And I had no fucking idea what he was on about, but I squared up for a fight, because that's all I knew – that or run, and there weren't nowhere to run to.

"So Myrna stood up and got between us and said I didn't mean anything by it, and besides it weren't really a theatre we were in, and anyway, didn't I need a stage name, and did I look more like a Betty or a Mavis?

"So the others were laughing, and shouting out names; only Dolly and Edna weren't, and Dolly had turned on Edna because he saw straight away who had put me up to it.

"I went up to Dolly, swaying my hips like a girl, and said 'Mrs Macheath' seemed like a good name to me. And Myrna shoved me away and said don't be an idiot, but somehow it stuck. I never got a stage name, other than Mackie, and when I got back to London, I was Macheath.

"The next day, Dolly was late for rehearsal, which wasn't like him, and the Memsaab sent me to go and find out where he was.

"He was in the hospital. He'd been shot in the guts by an Afghan sniper the night before, and there weren't nothing anyone could do. Edna didn't even see me there, thank God; he was weeping like a baby, and Dolly was trying to sit up and say something. I thought it might have been 'the show must go on', though Edna said it was 'the rest is silence'. Anyway, whatever it was, he didn't say anything more, because then a big clot of blood and stuff came out of his mouth and he slumped back dead.

"The show did go on, though Edna never came back to the Theatrics, and the part of Macheath was taken by Tiger, who was a better actor – and a better kisser – than Dolly ever was. But I'm going to need more gin if you want to know any more than that."

 

"Because he thinks he's Bertolt fucking Brecht, that's why," said Johnnie.

"Who?" said Jim.

The theatre I eventually found wasn't even off West End. It was barely off off West End.

"It's a good story," said George. "I just don't see why we need all of this fucking about with plays within plays within plays. It doesn't even make any sense, and it takes away from the emotion, you know?"

"That's the whole point," I said. "And if anything, I think I'm Gay."

That got me a room full of blank looks. I told myself they were the right actors for these roles, but dear God I missed Cambridge.

"Let's take it from the top," I said.

Johnnie sighed. "You are about to listen to an opera for buggers," he said.

 

"By the time we opened, Myrna was dead," Mack continues. He gestures to the photograph. "A quarter of them died at Maiwand, and Tiger was there too. He says they were winning until some girl turned up on the battlefield. She ripped off her veil and started waving it and singing, and the ragheads rallied like she was Joan of fucking Arc. Tiger shot that bitch in the head.

"We were under siege too. Some said we should give up, but the Memsaab said the show must go on. It would be just the thing for morale, he said.

"Well, there wasn't much food around for the first night party, but by then Tiger and me had a sort of understanding with the quartermasters, and Myrna's gold watch somehow turned itself into ham and pickled eggs and a bottle of brandy. It's what he would have wanted.

"While the others were busy, me and Tiger went to the costume store. I said I needed help with my frock, but when we were there, I grabbed his wrist and started kissing him. Not like I did on stage, but hungrily, to let him know what I wanted. He fumbled with the laces on my bodice, and then gave up, pushed me down onto the ottoman, and threw my skirts up over my head.

"He whistled and said I had the prettiest arse he'd ever seen on man or woman, and I was to tell him what I wanted him to do with it.

"I said to fuck it, of course. I'd been desperate for someone to for weeks, what with all the bawdy dressing room talk, and he was always my first choice.

"That's Tiger there." He points to a dark mustachioed face. "He wasn't even blacked up – Tiger was a mulatto, and it was to his advantage out in the desert. The rest of us were red and peeling from the sun, but he stayed a lovely golden brown. And God, his body was perfect. I was too young to have put on much muscle, and most of the rest were getting skinny because of the short rations and being holed up in the city, but not Tiger. He did his physical jerks every morning, and although the others laughed, by God it showed.

"And his lips! Every time I saw him, I thought about those lips round my cock. I still do.

"Anyway. As I said. I told him to fuck me.  I was maybe sixteen by then, maybe not quite that, but I was green as fucking grass. So when he reached over and pulled a gobbet of lard out of Tawdry Audrey's make-up box I didn't know what the he was about, but I didn't say anything because I wanted to pretend I'd done it before.

"At first his fingers felt cold and kind of weird inside me, but then he found the right place, and I made I don't know what noise, grunting like a pig.

"'Are you all right?' he said. 'Tell me if it hurts!'

"'Of course it fucking hurts,' I said, 'but by God I'll kill you if you stop now.'

"And his fingers came out, and I thought 'this is like having a really good shit, only better.'"

Mack pauses and looks up at me. "Is this turning you on?" he says. "Is that why you're asking me about all the queer shit? Only you can wank if you want to, I won't be offended, but I'll have to charge you more."

I feel myself blushing. "Er ... no thank you," I say. "It's for a play. I'm researching a play based on the photograph, and some of my grandfather's letters."

He shrugs. "Well, it's all the same to me. Let me know if you change your mind. I might have to charge extra if you want me to go on with the sexy stuff anyway."

"Sure," I say, and put another fiver on the table.

He grins and pockets it. "Well, then it was the main event, if you know what I mean. He goes in really slow at first and I'm shouting 'harder, harder', and I grab my own cock, which was a mistake, because I come too quickly, and although it's like heaven at the time, afterwards, waiting for him to finish, it doesn't feel so good any more. And I wouldn't have said anything, but then he notices, and pulls out, and I finish him off with my hand.

"He was a real gent, was Tiger. There's not many like him."

 

"In case you hadn't noticed," I said. "There was a little something called the Theatres Act 1968, which abolished all stage censorship. And that was ten years ago – ten years incidentally being how long I've taken to persuade someone to put on the blasted thing and get it as far as rehearsals."

"In case you hadn't noticed," said the Artistic Director. "There is another little thing called the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, and they're already making my life hell." He sighed. "I'm sorry, I really am. It's a good play – it would maybe turn out to be a great one – but we just can't put it on. Not here, and not now. I'll pay you for the rehearsals so far, of course, but we can't go on with it."

"I'll change it," I said. "I'll change the title. I'll change the content. The queer stuff could be a subplot – I've got lots of ideas for a main plot."

"Go on then." He looked at his watch.

"All right," I said, thinking on my feet. "Did you know Doctor Watson – from Sherlock Holmes, I mean – was supposed to be in Kandahar at that time. We'll make it a mystery. 'Watson's first mystery' – not even Mary fucking Whitehouse could object to that. It's before he met Sherlock, of course, but he's already interested in crime and ... and ... OK, so there are these theatrical types and one of them dies in suspicious circumstances and he investigates."

 

Mack downs the rest of his gin, but he still doesn't seem particularly drunk.

"All right," he says. "So then there was a voice: 'Disgusting', it says, and I look behind me, and it's Edna, with this horrible grin on his face. 'I know a certain Brigadier who's going to be very interested to hear about this,' he says.

"'Fuck you,' says Tiger. But we both know what'll happen if he does tell. The Brigadier had his own little crusade against 'immorality' you see, and had been gunning to catch the Theatrics in the act for months.

"So Edna just shrugs and walks off.

"We look at each other, and Tiger does up his trousers, and I go through my own clothes, and get Myrna's flick-knife, and we follow.

"Anyway, it was a dark night, and no-one was around who wasn't on watch – the short rations meant everyone was conserving their energy. We followed him around the city walls. I suppose he heard us, but didn't care.

"We were catching up with Edna, but it took me by surprise when Tiger leapt, pounced like his namesake, and wrestled him to the ground. Before I knew it, Tiger had his knee in his stomach, and had smashed his head down onto the stone, knocking him senseless.

"'Is he dead?' I breathed.

"'Of course not,' hissed Tiger. 'Where's that knife?'

"I grasped it, but Tiger shook his head. 'Not the throat – the wrists – make it look like suicide. No. Let me do it.

"But I'd sworn to myself after Myrna never to be such a coward again. 'No,' I said. 'It's me he hated. This is my job.'

"'Hurry up then. Nice deep cuts from the elbow down to the hand. Right in the middle ..."

"Now, you might have heard that in later years I got a bit of a reputation for my knife work, but that was my first time, and it weren't easy. There was more resistance than I thought as the knife cut through muscle, the sinew, and the pulsing arteries, and finally hit bone. I remember the ripping sound as I dragged the knife along, and I remember thinking 'this is it, then', and it wasn't a good feeling.

"'We should run,' I said, once I was done. I felt the knife in my hand, warm and sticky with his blood, and I was still thinking 'this is it, then', but now it was thrilling.

"'No. I've seen men survive worse than this . We need to watch him die.'

"I nodded, and watched with fascination as he bled out. Once, his eyes fluttered open, and his lip curled as if to say something, but he couldn't manage it. And then his breathing slowed and stopped, and then so did his heart."

"Later, it made me blush with shame to think how easily we could have been caught, though we did our best to hide the bloody footprints, and burned our costumes. Tiger told the Memsaab this was an overreaction to a sexual mishap.

"The surgeon – Doctor Watson – examined the body and said looked like suicide, and asked the Memsaab whether Edna had been out of sorts of late. The Memsaab said he hadn't been the same since his 'friend' had died. Doctor Watson blushed and hemmed and excused himself, and wrote 'suicide' on the death certificate.

 

"Frankly?" said the Artistic Director. "It's shit. Utter tripe. It only comes to life when you've got minor characters buggering one another, and that's starting to feel very dated."

"Buggery never goes out of fashion," I said. But as I said it, I realised it wasn't that simple.

"Gay is good," he said. "Gay and gloomy is better. But it has to be about AIDS, or maybe Nazis. No-one cares about the Second Afghan War any more. No-one's even heard of it. I don't see why you're bothering. With your reputation, you can attract big money, but not unless you let go of 'Watson's First Mystery'. Dear God, even the title puts me to sleep."

"Well, maybe I can go back to an older version," I said. "Get rid of the Watson stuff, concentrate on the minor characters."

He shook his head. "No. Apart from anything else, where are the Afghans in it? Where are the women? If you're writing about Empire nowadays, it needs to be about Empire, and not just white men's experience of it. Not campy shenanigans. Not even homophobia and poverty and social class."

Now, that drew me up short. It got me thinking, and it got me phoning my friend Aziza, who'd been a playwright back in Afghanistan before she had to leave.

 

"You know what my last memory of Afghanistan is?" says Mack. "After the siege had been lifted, we were sent to Maiwand, me and Tiger – the last survivors from that photo of yours – and there was this grave, with a red cloth draped over it, and flowers, and stones with those weird squiggles they have instead of writing over there.

"Our guide told us it was that girl – the one from Maiwand, the one Tiger killed (if he was telling the truth). The locals saw her as a sort of martyr and treated her grave like a shrine. He translated the song she sang on the battlefield for us:

With a drop of my sweetheart's blood,
Shed in defence of the Motherland,
Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead,
Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden!

"And me and Tiger looked at each other and laughed, because that's not love, is it? Fuck all motherlands, fuck all fatherlands. There's not much I've cared about in my life – well, other than to go on living it, and in as much comfort as possible – but what I had with him was as good as it got. Anyone cares more about the British Empire than a good fuck with a good friend is a fool. And that's all I have to say on the matter."

 

Malalai of Maiwand is credited as being by three authors. Aziza - quite rightly - gets top billing, and there's me, and there's 'M'. People ask us who he is, and we just smile. Aziza says she wishes she could have met him. I suppose he must be long dead, though I can't help feeling he would have cheated death just like he cheated everyone else. And on the first night, there was an old man in the back row, and the reviewer from the Financial Times got her bag stolen and ... but I'm an old man too now, with an old man's foolish romanticism. Too old to pay any heed to reviews, or at least to admit that I do.

"Pure genius."

"Incoherent and obscene."

"The weirdest fucking shit I've ever seen in my life."

I suppose I'll have to find something else to write about now.

And that is all I have to say on the matter.