“You!” Seb pointed a frustrated finger at the quivering dark-haired lad who stood centre stage. “Are not meant to be happy about this!”
The kid opened his mouth to speak, wide kohl-lined eyes filling up with an amateur fear that Seb wasn’t going to cave into this time. How much stage direction did they need, for fuck’s sake?
“You’re not meant to be smiling,” he continued, voice bouncing off the echoing acoustics. “It is a sombre moment. The point is to try not feeling anything. You want to be numb. You want all those conflicting, hurtful, gut wrenching emotions that are eating you up inside to stop. You want to fucking die!”
Silence imbued the Art House Theatre. The kid on stage did nothing but stare back, a slight nod of confirmation but also, maybe, perhaps, a slither of recognition and, Christ, pity. A few creaks of seats from behind in the stalls indicated that the others watching on were finding this confrontation a little awkward. But Seb needed authenticity. He had to lay his heart and soul on the line for this one. And this straight out of Guildhall quotation marks actor, hadn’t learned the first thing from reading the goddamn script. It was as though he’d skimmed read it on the District Line and filled the blanks in with ignorance.
Seb slid his gaze to the other one hovering behind. The blond one. He offered up a nervous smile that suggested he got it. He probably would. He was the better actor. He’d been whipped out of Les Mis for this. Plus he looked like he would know a thing or two about gut wrenching heartache.
“Right. Go again.” Seb waved a hand then leapt off the stage and into the first row. Slapping the middle seat down, he fell into it and snuggled in between Martin Chang and Noah Fitz. His band mates. The two thorns in his side. Or maybe his conscience. Both of their unease was noted in a quick exchange of glances over his head.
“Don’t say it.” Seb huffed and folded his arms, his leather jacket rasping at the seams.
“Should have paid out for professionals,” Noah did say it, slinking farther down into his seat as the stagehands above returned the set to the start of the scene.
Seb hung his head. “He looked the part, okay?”
“Looks aren’t everything—” Noah was then cut off by a loud clang from behind.
All three whipped around, peering over the back rests. Two children’s heads lurched up as they scrambled onto their seats in the back row of the stalls.
“Sorry, daddy!” the pig-tailed six-year-old in the middle held up an iPad. “It didn’t break this time!”
“All right, sweetpea. Just be careful, yeah.” Noah widened those authoritarian father eyes.
Seb rolled his.
“And you’re looking after your sister, aren’t you? Sharing and all that?”
The girl nodded, although the bite of her pouting bottom lip suggested she wasn’t exactly being truthful. Her four-year-old sister beside her was probably used to being cast aside. Seb wouldn’t know. Nor understand. He hadn’t been brought up with siblings. And he’d always been given everything he’d ever asked for.
Which reminded him—
He glared at Noah to hurry the fuck up.
Noah smiled, but it faded from his face when he hollered a quick, “Beth? Lottie?”
The two girls peered up from behind the blinking screen. “Yes, daddy?” they called back in a perfect unison fit for the acoustics in the closed off Art House theatre.
“Uncle Seb’s looking at me like he wants to rip that iPad from you and smash it over my head.” Noah popped a chewing gum into his mouth. “Dial it down, yeah?”
“Okay, daddy.” Beth’s hushed whisper still trailed down to the front row and the volume on the game she was playing faded to its lowest setting.
Noah met Seb’s gaze once more. “All right?” he barked.
“On all days. On all the effing days…”
“Can’t help it, can I? Ann’s back at work.”
Seb tsked. “Between those two and that one,” he nodded to the carry cot perched on the seat beside Martin in which his baby slept covered in mounds and mounds of blue blankets, “we might as well just call ourselves the Daddy Drop Offs.”
“Leah needed a break,” Martin said, gently rocking the car seat. “He doesn’t sleep. Ever.”
“Except to one of my songs sung by a kid who wouldn’t know emotion if it spat at him.” Seb needed to get a handle on his temper. They didn’t have long left to rehearse this and he’d needed his band mates here to help with the music, but their work slash life balance wasn’t as one sided as Seb’s was.
“Sebastian, darling!” Then that all-familiar, grating, New York accent travelled down from the back seats to the front row and irritated him further.
Seb pinched the bridge of his nose. This morning could not be going any worse. “Yes, Sylvia?” he placated.
“Can I just add a little insight here?” she asked, swishing her dark hair over her shoulder as she sauntered down the left aisle toward the stage.
“No, fuck off.”
Noah’s two girls giggled behind him and Martin gasped, tucking the blanket around his baby son’s ears as if four month old Rocky would be able to hear through his snoring and decipher the curse to use as his first word.
“Darling, you invited me to come take a look whilst I was here in London.” Sylvia stopped beside the first row of seats, hands on her slender hips. “The least you can do is respect my professional opinion on this.”
Dressed in skinny jeans and a tucked-in floaty black top with her hair stylishly tousled, Sylvia Ricci still radiated a youthful star-filled glow that was impressive for a woman nearing her fifties. Seb’s mother defied aging. Unlike Seb, who had noticed the few flecks of silver running through his dark hair that morning and plucked them out in an attempt to pretend they had never existed.
“I can handle this, Syvlia.” Seb clenched his jaw. “It’s my sodding show. Go be the babysitter or something. Call it research for playing the part of a granny one day.”
“Chance would be a fine thing,” she said, rather poignantly.
Seb met her gaze, challenging and forcing down the retaliation that burned on his tongue.
“It’s not like I’ll ever have the real thing, is it?” Sylvia sighed, ruffling a hand through her hair.
“Because your maternal instincts are just second to none, Sylvia.” Seb’s sarcasm could have scraped the black paint of the walls.
“I could have a second chance at that, couldn’t I. But no—”
“What did you want to say about the performance?” Seb cut her off before she could be the other mother figure in his life who yearned for something he couldn’t give them.
It wasn’t only his fault.
“Oh, right, yes.” Sylvia bounced on her knee-high boots, radiating an excitable glow. “If you want your two boys up there to really perform this scene, then you need to explain the story to them. Let them get inside your head. They’re straight out of acting school, darling, they can’t expect to know the depths of true emotional anguish just yet. Wait ‘til they’re rejected a few more times for being too fat, too skinny or too beautiful.”
“Mum,” Seb warned, yet Sylvia smiled at the rare use of that word. Not that it meant much to Seb, usually it was his way of getting her to shut up. Often it worked.
“Tell them the scene.”
“I just did.”
“No, you barked orders. Tell them what happened. Tell them why this part in particular means so much to you.”
Seb inhaled a deep breath. Then, leaping out of his seat, he clambered up on to the stage to stand in front of the two kids. He shouldn’t really be referring to them as kids. They were both the right age to be playing their roles. Early twenties. Perhaps it was Seb’s milestone thirty that made him feel that anyone still in their twenties was a kid. Considering these two were practically cover models, bodies honed to perfection and standing there in just a pair of boxers each, Seb should refrain from thinking they were children.
He pointed to each one and rushed the words out, “He loves you, you love him. You’ve not told each other because your stupid. No, sorry, that’s not right.” He shook his head, swiping fingers across his brow in the hope to invigorate the memories to words. “It was a bit too early for those declarations. I mean, what was it? A week? Two? When does anyone know if something is right? Or what love is?”
He looked at the two actors for validation. They stared blankly back. Seb huffed. “You’re leaving,” he pointed a finger to the dark-haired one, then back to the blond, “You don’t know but he senses somethings up. It’s a tender moment. It’s not about sex. It’s not about getting into bed. It’s about realising that what you have is special, but you can’t keep it.” Seb then glanced down to his mother. Was he asking for approval? He’d never sought it from her in his life. But something about her encouraging smile gave him a warm tingle, so he continued, “The song, this scene, is about wanting to pause time. Stop feeling. Live in this moment, forever. Together. Get it?”
“So you loved him then? At this point?” That was actor one, dark hair. Ben something or other.
“So why didn’t you just tell him. Now. Like, when he came out to you, why didn’t you just say it?”
Seb bared his weight from one foot to the other. Hands on hips, he worried on his bottom lip and stared up at the stage lights above. Good, fucking question. Why hadn’t he? What had stopped him back then from holding on instead of letting go?
“What if he had walked away?” he finally said, drifting his gaze back to the men in front of him. “Like my mother did?”
A startled cough earned its way to Seb but he didn’t turn around. He was focused on getting this scene the way he needed.
“I was scared.”
The two actors glanced at each other, an understanding flickering between them. Seb breathed out a sigh of relief then waved two hands, jumped down from the stage.
“Okay, band, go!” he hollered and the band at the top of the stage, elevated from the main set, called into action with a drum lick starting the song.
The two men returned to their first positions just as the accompanying lead and base guitars filtered in, followed by a gliding violin. Seb held his breath as Ben—as Seb—started to sing his lyrics. His song. His feelings.
“Isn’t it weird,” Noah whispered out the side of his mouth, “to have your life played out on stage like this?”
Seb didn’t reply. He was too mesmerized, enthralled, enraptured by what was happening on that stage. It was like looking through a mirror to the past.
“The drummer’s decent,” Noah added then turned back to the scene, allowing Seb to indulge himself in that moment once again.
Every hair on his body stood on end as the scene played out. Ben’s voice was higher than his, more classically trained, but it worked the song well. Especially when the duet started up and they entangled themselves in a dance that near broke Seb’s heart. They’d got it. They understood. And they sang to the empty theatre, bar the Drops and their children, about wanting to pause time as they clung onto each other and fell onto the bed centre stage.
The music climaxed. Everyone held their breath.
It was Sylvia who clapped first, followed by Noah and Martin who stood for the ovation. Seb, however, was frozen. That scene had done what it was meant to. Paused him. He was back there. That time, that heart wrenching moment.
“Well,” he finally croaked out. “If there’s a dry eye in this house when you do that on opening night, I declare them robots.” He shrugged. “Or Daily Mail press.”
Ben “Seb” clambered off the makeshift bed and hauled the other actor up by his arm. They both beamed their pride and gratitude down to the front row. And that, there, almost caused a painful lump in Seb’s throat. That view. That had been the start of something quite…spectacular.
The start of somethin’ else.
Stage lights switched off, musical instruments clanged, and various people shuffled out from their hidey holes around the theatre, declaring an end to the day’s rehearsal. Good job as the phone in Seb’s back pocket rang, and he shuffled out from the front row behind Martin carrying his baby to the aisle to answer it.
“How’d it go?” Jay asked the other end of the line.
“It was…” Seb glanced up to the two actors, heads together, as they made their way back stage to the dressing rooms. “Doable.”
“Good. How long you gonna be?”
“Why?” Seb followed the others up the aisle, through the red velvet curtain that led to the steps leading to the main foyer which doubled up as a café and bar.
“Mum’s called an emergency meetin’.”
“About?” Seb waved off a few of the stagehands and other various staff as they clambered out to the street.
“Check your news app. Court Yard. Asap.” Jay clicked off.
Seb didn’t have a chance to thumb through his apps to check whatever it was as Noah bundled up behind him, two daughters held in each hand with Martin bashing the carry cot into Seb’s legs. The baby within squealed.
“Thanks for coming today,” Seb said. “I know it wasn’t scheduled. But I needed you there. This is yours as much as it is mine.”
“It’s good, Seb.” Martin tapped him on the shoulder, shushing baby Rocky as he did so. “Really good.”
“Yeah,” Noah agreed over the screeching baby. “Never thought our songs would fill a fucking West End musical, but they kinda rock.”
Seb snorted. “Rock musical.”
“You and Jay off celebrating?” Noah asked, an almost painful jealousy that he couldn’t do the same.
“Apparently we’ve been summoned to meet his parents.” Seb glanced down at his phone to open the BBC News app and read the first story. “Oh…Oh. Fuck.”
“What is it?” Martin asked.
Seb grinned and pocketed the phone. “It’s been passed.”
Noah and Martin shared confused glances.
“We can get married.” Seb tucked the phone into his back pocket, his heart thrumming with excitement. It could happen. It could really happen.
This year was getting better and better. Jay had finally been called up to play for the national team. The Drops’ musical had gone into production. And now he could legally marry his east end Cockney boy.
Bring it the fuck on!