Sunday, 23 September 2007

Cal--A Short Story

Nexis Pas
(c) 2007 by the author. The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

‘Try the Minister of Fisheries responding during question time.’

Richard thought for a moment. Then his brow cleared, and his hands closed around the lapels of an imaginary suit coat and pulled them forward away from his body. His face took on the bland glow of the successful politician. He almost grew jowls. He puffed his cheeks out once and cleared his throat and with the bored air of a cabinet officer explaining the obvious to the ignorant declaimed: ‘The Ministry has taken the report of the South Shropshire Bottom Feeders Committee under advisement. I can assure the Right Honourable Member for Mencombe Downs that the Government will, after a thorough study of the report and a judicious assessment of all factors, promulgate regulations to replenish the stock of bottom feeders in South Shropshire and will in all respects comply with and implement the provisions of The Act to Restore the Coastal Fisheries of South Shropshire. I am not at the present moment, however, prepared to offer a date for the completion of the Ministry’s efforts to save the bottom feeders of Shropshire, but the Right Honourable Member can promise the fishermen among his constituents that the bottom feeders will soon rise to their lures with mouths open for their flies.’

‘Does Shropshire have a coastal fisheries?’

‘It must. Would Parliament have passed The Act to Restore, etc., if it didn’t?’

‘Are we trusting the wisdom of Parliament now? In any case, should Rupert sound so pompous? Isn’t he supposed to be a wise counsellor to this minnow?’

‘Hal’s fans would trample you to death for that aspersion on the sprat. Hal is not a minnow. He’s more a sardine, practically a pilchard. He’s a good sole what knows his plaice. He’s a confused lost little adorable blue fish with pink spots trying to find his way home. The kiddies love him, especially when he and his merry band of rock fish sing “Fish Just Gotta Have Fins”. If you ever got up early enough on Saturday morning to watch the cartoons, you would love him too.’

‘I must do that some weekend. Now back to work. Don’t dolphins shriek and squeal? It seems to me they have those piercing cries. Maybe one of your fans clamouring for your autograph.’

‘Prosperrrrrr!!!!!!!!! Kin oi git yur ottergwaph?’ Richard contorted his face and body into a parody of simpering schoolgirl gushing.

‘That bad? You poor dear. I had no idea it was so terrible.’

‘Oh, clam up. Fat lot of sympathy I get from you, Cal.’

‘You get all you deserve. Now, what do dolphins eat? I’m certain they’re not vegans. Maybe if Rupert regarded the minnow as potential food and there was a threatening note in his voice.’

My name’s not really Cal. Richard started calling me that after the accident. He came home one day and caught me sitting in my wheelchair and staring in the mirror at the scarred mess my face had become and my misshapen body. I joked that now I wouldn’t need makeup or appliances to play Caliban, my most successful role on the stage. So Richard dubbed me Cal the Mooncalf. With his usual certainty that he would be the major actor on any stage, he appropriated the most important role for himself and became Prospero. He distributed the other roles among our friends and acquaintances.

The accident brought my acting career to an end, and sooner than I had anticipated, I became the director that I had always planned on becoming after a decade or two gaining experience on the stage. One can be a tyrant sitting in a wheelchair, and I am not above exploiting the fact that it’s hard to argue with a cripple in a motorised chair capable of speeds in excess of five miles per hour and equipped with battering rams at ankle height (actually they’re foot rests).

I also continued in my role as Richard’s designated acting coach, which is what I was doing that morning. I have been serving in that capacity since the first day we met. Richard just assumed that everyone at the Royal Academy was there to help him become an actor (no, that’s not right--he already knew he was an actor, we were there to help him become a great one). In our first class, the teacher drew attention to my reading of a line, and with that, Richard decided that I was worthy to coach him. Fifteen minutes of his charm, and I was too besotted to say no. Fifteen years later, I still can’t say no.

Richard had been hired to provide the voice for a character in a cartoon movie, an aristocratic British dolphin whom the hero encounters in his peregrinations around the globe and who is supposed to impart some cetacean wisdom and then speed the young fish on his way. Hal, the fish, was voiced by a popular American teenage boyband singer, and the enormous worldwide popularity of the cartoon among preteens had led to a full-length movie saga. Richard was scheduled to record his lines at a studio in Hampstead in three days. He was being paid an obscene amount of money to lend his name to this project. ‘With Richard Somerset as Rupert the Dolphin Duke’ had already appeared on the film’s website and in the advance advertising.

‘A hint of menace. That might work.’ He picked up the script and located the lines he wanted. A false smile played about his lips, and his left eyebrow rose just enough to telegraph insincerity. He licked his lips and, in an unctuous high-butler voice, read: ‘Hal, my dear lad, not all the fish in the sea are friendly. A little more caution is advisable. It is not wise to be as trusting as you are. There are those who would regard a hunk such as yourself as a delectable amuse bouche and might nibble your nipples.’

‘That’s the line?’

‘Well, I threw in the hunk and amuse bouche by myself. The script has “There are those among the denizens of the deep who would regard you as a delectable dish, a scrumptious snack.” I don’t know where the nipple nibbling came from.’

‘I do.’

Richard smiled at me and stroked my hair. We were seated beside each other at my work table, and his arm came to rest on my shoulders. ‘You remember. That’s sweet.’ He played with a lock of my hair between his fingers. ‘Your hair is still as soft as ever.’

‘Paul shampoos it every day. And I will never forget your nipple nibbling. It was . . .’

‘And how is Paul, he of the rugged looks and elephantine biceps?’

‘He is fine, devoted, admiring, worshipful, everything a general dogsbody should be. And how is Ari?’

‘Ari is fine, devoted, admiring, worshipful, everything a general fuctotum should be. He’s good in bed, which is his role, and when he isn’t studying every move I make, he’s mildly amusing, although his obsession with his stalled career is beginning to be boring. I think I shall replace him soon. Can you find him a part that will take him away to some distant location? Australia? or Hollywood? And then find a replacement?’

‘So now I am become “By appointment of Richard Somerset, purveyor of fine fuctota for the discriminating gentleman”?’

‘Your judgement is better than mine. After all, you were the first to recognise my potential.’

‘Everyone recognised your potential. I was just the lucky one that got to test it first. The Assorted Nymphs and Reapers hasn’t ever forgiven me.’

‘And how is the Assorted Nymphs and Reapers? Are you still Number One on his Evil People List?’

‘Oh yes, the latest is that he spent his youth fending off my obsessive advances. I started chasing you only when he finally, after much effort, made me understand that he was unavailable to an unworthy sod like myself. Apparently I caught you on my rebound, although you, you poor dear, were unaware that you were extending charity to a broken husk of a jilted stalker shamelessly taking advantage of your generous nature. Stop laughing. I’m not making this up. Miranda came round just to tell me as soon as she heard. He was holding court in his dressing room at the Guild and titillating his fans with gossip about us. It gets worse. If I had had a sense of decency, I would have slithered back to the bog in Brighton from which I had oozed and wanked off in private for the rest of my life. But no, I wantonly threw myself at you. You, a naive lad recently arrived from the Victorian era and unsuspecting that so fair a face could hide so much depravity, allowed me to fondle your tut-tuts and, knowing no better, mistook my fumblings in your nether regions for skilled lovemaking. Soon my talons were buried deep in your flesh, and you became enslaved to my unnatural lusts and perversities. With his help, you could have become the next Olivier. Instead you fell victim to a third-rate chorus boy with an insatiable mouth.’

‘That I did, sweetheart.’ That last bit was in an American accent, Richard channelling Bogart. ‘And I will tell everyone who repeats the story to me that it wasn’t your talons that you buried deep in my flesh.’ He smiled and kissed me on the forehead. ‘You know, Cal, it would take very little to put an end to his jealousies. All would be forgiven if you cast him in your next production.’

‘He would not suit. And in any case, I haven’t revealed my plans to anyone yet, but I have in mind a daring bit of casting. When it’s announced, the harpies will say he’s too youthful, too handsome, too dashing. But the performance will prove that he was the perfect choice. His will be the definitive interpretation.’

‘And what do you have planned for me?’

‘What makes you think I am planning to cast you?’

‘Because you are drawing this out. If you had someone else in mind, you would have said so without all this attempt to create a mystery. You always flirt when you’re trying to persuade me to take a part. Besides who else is too young, too handsome, and too dashing and capable of definitive interpretations? Now tell me.’ Richard leaned over and brought his face close. Those famous green eyes stared into mine. ‘Tell me, Cal.’ He can be very fierce when he’s not playing a tuna and very greedy when he remembers he’s an actor and I’m a director who controls a supply of good roles.

‘Prospero. You are going to play Prospero. Sutton has agreed to design the sets and the costumes. I want Cecile to play Miranda. Charles Delapierre for Ariel. Henry Fox for Gonzalo. Devon Hensome for Caliban. Ferdinand will be that young actor in that movie series about the wiz . . . ’

‘No. Devon can’t play Caliban. That’s your role.’

‘Richard, I can’t play Caliban anymore. It’s physically a very demanding role. And everyone would say that it’s too cute to cast a cripple in a wheelchair as Caliban. And they would be right. It would be a distraction and a circus stunt. Besides, I want to direct you as Prospero. We can make this a great production, Richard, one that people will brag to their great-grandchildren yet unborn that they were lucky enough to see. And Devon just needs some extra direction to get Caliban right.’

‘No, you have to be Caliban. I won’t play Prospero unless you play Caliban.’

‘Richard, be reasonable. Look at me. My acting days are over. I’d frighten the horses if I got up on the stage again. And I’m going to enjoy giving you orders and bossing you around. I will need all my skills to make you into Prospero.’

‘Cal, you have to be Caliban.’

‘Richard. Look at me. Really look at me for once.’ He glanced at my face, and then his eyes slid away. I cupped his chin in my hand and drew him back. We were face to face, separated by only a few inches, but as usual he wasn’t seeing me. I don’t know what he sees when he looks at me, but it’s not me as I am now. ‘Richard, I’m not Cal. Cal is just a fiction we use to make it easy on you--on both of us--to accept what happened. Cal allows us to distance ourselves from my reality. We can joke about Cal and his afflictions and ignore the fact that David is a physical wreck, that I’m only able to move about because of this wheelchair and its clever switches and because there are people like Paul I can hire to help me.’

‘I told you you didn’t need to hire anyone. I would do everything you need.’

‘I know you would, love. And that’s the problem. It’s cheaper to pay Paul in cash than to pay you in gratitude.’

‘You bastard. How can you say that to me?’ Richard has had the sort of career in which temper is an asset, and he has no reason to learn to control it. At times he can still be a petulant adolescent. He suddenly grabbed the arms of my chair and shoved me away. I rolled back a few feet before I recovered enough to brake the slide. Even before the accident, he towered over me, and as he stood up, he seemed to be even taller than before. ‘I hate this goddamn fucking chair. And I hate drunken drivers. And I hate fucking surgeons who can’t repair people. And I hate that I have to make do with that stupid twink instead of you. And I hate, oh god, David, I hate everybody who’s walking around when you have to be . . . like this. And I hate you.’ And he started crying. It’s been five years, and he still hasn’t come to terms with what happened. I let him indulge his misery for a moment and then wheeled the chair back to him and took his hand.

‘I love you too, Richard.’

And as usually happens when he overreacts, he soon got embarrassed. “David, I just can’t take this anymore. I can’t, I can’t be nonchalant and pretend to accept you like this.’ He stood there not meeting my eyes for a few seconds and pushing the papers around on the table. Then he shot me a look of anguish and rushed out.

He forgot the script for the fish movie. I’ll have Paul take it to him later. Richard will come around. Once he gets used to the idea of playing Prospero, he’ll come around. You see, he really does love me, and that surprises him as much as it does everyone. He’ll do it in part for me. And he’ll do it in part because he has so much ambition--he won’t be able to resist the idea of being triumphant in this role. He’ll convince himself that he’s doing me a favour and humouring me, and then he’ll come around. But you can see why I want him to play the part--all that rage. It will be contained, and no one will see it directly, but it will be there and everyone will feel it. When I’m through preparing him, he will be a superb Prospero. Besides, if he thinks he hates this chair and everything that goes with it, he doesn’t know how much I hate it and the drunken driver who put me here and how much I resent the twink who usurped my place in bed and the lover who let him in. Rage and resentment and love and jealousy and hate and the desire to undo the present--those are things that I understand. As for being nonchalant and accepting, what choice do I have?

Richard has never understood one thing, however. It’s not Caliban that I became that night. No, that brief eternity of metal meeting flesh turned me into Prospero, exiled to a wheelchair. But unlike Shakespeare’s Prospero, I will never get off this island, and I will never have to surrender my magic. And as Prospero I shall work such wondrous magic with this cast-off crew that founders on my shoals and finds refuge on my island. Come, Ariel, we have a tempest to conjure up. We shall affright the air these mortals breathe.

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