Stephen C McQueen had two C.Vs.
Alongside the real-life resumé of all the things he had actually achieved, there was the Nearly CV. This was the good-luck version of his life, the one where the close-shaves and the near-misses and the second-choices had all worked-out; the version where he hadn’t been knocked off his bike on the way to that audition, or come down with shingles during the first week of rehearsal; the one where they hadn’t decided to give the role to that bastard off the telly.
This extraordinary phantom career began with Stephen almost-but-not-quite winning huge praise for his show-stealing Malcolm in Macbeth in Sheffield, then consequently very nearly giving his heart-breaking Biff in Death of a Salesman on a nationwide tour. Soon afterwards, the hypothetical reviews that he would probably have received for his might-have-been King Richard II had to be read to be believed. Diversifying into television, he had come oh-so-close to winning the nations hearts’ as cheeky, unorthodox lawyer Todd Francis in hit TV series Justice For All, and a number of successful film roles, both here and abroad, had quite conceivably followed.
Unfortunately, all these great triumphs had taken place in other, imaginary worlds, and there were strict professional rules about submitting your parallel-universe resumé. This unwillingness to take into account what had taken place in other space-time dimensions meant that Stephen was left with his real-life C.V, a document that reflected both his agent’s unwillingness to say no, and Stephen’s extraordinary capacity, his gift almost, for bad luck. It was this real-life version of events that brought him here, to London’s glittering West End.
When Stephen was eight, on a day trip up to London
from the Isle of Wight with his Mum and Dad,
Piccadilly Circus had seemed like the centre of the Universe, an impossibly
glamorous, alien landscape where absolutely anything could happen,
the kind of place where, in an old British Sixties musical, a dance-routine
might break-out at any moment. That was twenty-four years ago. It had since
place-of-work, and coming up from the hot, soupy air of the tube station into
the damp November evening, all Stephen saw was a particularly garish and
treacherous roundabout. Nearby an adenoidal busker was doggedly working his way
through the Radiohead song-book, and
the chances of a dance-routine breaking out seemed very slight indeed. Stephen
barely even noticed Eros these days, surely the most underwhelming landmark in
the world. If he did bother to look up, it was only to check the digital clock under
the Coca-Cola sign, to see if he was late.
He was late. He quickened his pace.
The Hyperion Theatre stands on Shaftesbury Avenue, in between a
kitchen-equipment whole-salers and an
Steak-house of the type found nowhere
in America, the kind of restaurant that always contains at least one woman
weeping. As usual, the short stretch of pavement between the
tube and the theatre was packed. Still looking a little blue-grey from his own autopsy, he fitted
in surprisingly well, pushingand jostling his way through the crowds; the disorientated
coach-parties, the dazed and pale shop-assistants, the
caricaturists of mixed ability, the doleful, homesick Spanish students offering
him flyers for English classes. He hurried past an excessive number of
bureau-de-changes, past the disreputable fast-food outlets that sold sticky,
iridescent orange mounds of sweet-and-sour pork and ‘pizza’ - thick wedges of
grey dough, smeared with tomato puree and candle-wax cheese. Maybe he should
eat something. Maybe a pepperoni slice. He glanced at the wedges, perspiring
under high wattage bulbs, the pepperoni glinting with oily red sweat. Maybe
not. Maybe he should wait until after work. 19.03 now, which meant that he was
technically late for the half-hour call. The theatre was in sight, and looking along
Shaftesbury Avenue he could see the immense billboard of Josh Harper looming
above the crowds, three storeys high.
On the billboard, the 12th Sexiest Man in the World stood in a
puffy white-shirt, open to the waist and a pair of tight black leather breeches
with the flap on the front unbuttoned on one side,
as if straining to contain a lively mammal. In his right hand he held a rapier with which
he lunged towards the passers-by on Shaftesbury Avenue, whilst in his left hand
he held a book high above his head, as if to say ‘I’ll just finish this duel,
then get back to writing Don Juan’.
Across his pelvis were scrawled the words Mad,
Bad And Dangerous To Know in an extravagantly loopy hand, designed to
denote literary class iness and historical authenticity. ‘A
tour de force! Josh Harper is Lord
Byron’ it said underneath, the italicised ‘is’ settling the argument once and for
all, ‘Strictly Limited Season!’ Four months ago, back in August, when
he’d first seen the billboard, Stephen had amused himself by imagining that
‘Strictly Limited’ referred to Josh Harper’s abilities as an actor, but he
wasn’t sure if anyone else would find this observation funny, or accurate, and
besides, there was no-one to tell it to.
Stephen glanced once more at his watch;
minutes past now, nine
minutes late, unforgivable for
the understudy. Still, he might get away with it, as long as Donna wasn’t at
stage-door. He hurried unseen past the huddle of autograph hunters – eight today, not a bad score –
‘Ten minutes late,
Mr McQueen’ said Donna, standing at stage-door. Donna was the
manager, a surly, big-faced games-teacher withlarge, blunt face, like a painted
shoe-box brittle ex-Goth hair, surly n embittered .
Permanently dressed in regulation faded black denim,,
she carried the regulation big bunch of keys, which she now twirled round on
her finger like a six- shooter.
‘Phew!’ said Stephen ‘it’s like Piccadilly Circus out there!’
‘Doesn’t get any funnier, Stephen.’
‘Sorry, Donna, it’s the tube…’
‘Not an acceptable excuse…’ grumbled Donna, dialling her mobile.
‘You’re cheerful today, what’s up with you?’
‘He’s not here’ said Kenny the door-keeper, from behind his desk.
‘He’s not here? Who’s not here?’
‘He’s not here’ scowled Donna.
Stephen became aware of the sound of the blood in his head.
‘But it’s nearly curtain-up, Donna!’
‘Yes, I’m aware of that…’
‘Well – well, have you phoned him?’
‘Brilliant idea’ said Donna, taking her
phone away from her ear and waggling it at him. She licked her lips, pushed her
shaggy fringe out of her eyes, readying herself to leave a message for the man
himself, and for a brief moment she precisely resembled a 14 year-old girl
a boy out for a date at Wimpeys.
‘Josh, sweetheart, it’s your Aunty Donna here at the theatre. You’re
late, young man! I’ll have to put you across my knee…’ she
saucily into the air, tweaking the studs in her ear-lobes. ‘Anyway, we’re very worried about you. Hopefully you’ll
walk through the door any second now, but if not, give us a call. Otherwise,
we’ll have to send young Stephen on…’
Stephen stood nearby, un-hearing, rocking backwards and forwards slightly
on the balls of his feet, making the high, humming noise he made in times of
stress. Here it is then, he thought.
At last - the Big Break. After all,
this had never happened before. The 12th Sexiest Man in the World
was always on time. Until this
moment, Stephen had been quietly accepting of his fate, doomed to shadow not
just the most successful, most popular, arguably the most talented young actor
of his generation, but also the healthiest and luckiest. Josh
would there18Josh Harper was
invincible. No matter what glamorous debauch he’d been to the
night before, no matter what timehe’d stumbled out of some Soho drinking den or
premiere party, no matter the quantity of drugs or booze he’d consumed, there
he’d be, 6.50 on the dot, signing autographs at stage door, flirting with the
wardrobe department, dimpling his cheeks, tossing his hair. If,
God forbid, someone shot Josh Harper, he’d smile, and reveal the bullet gripped daintily between
his large white teeth.
But not today. Whilst Donna cooed onto Josh’s voice-mail, Stephen was
a number of lurid scenarios -
Josh Harper tumbling down the treacherous cast-iron spiral staircase of his luxurious warehouse apartment…
Josh Harper struggling to pull his shattered leg from beneath the faulty home gymnasium, the phone lying just inches away…
Josh Harper clutching his belly and sliding beneath the
wood table of the exclusive
sushi restaurant, his handsome face a virulent green…
Josh Harper smiling bravely as plucky paramedics race to extract him from the wheels of a runaway Number 19 bus...
‘I…I can’t…can’t feel my toes…’
‘Not to worry sir, Mr Harper, we’ll have you out in just a mo…’
‘But you don’t understand, I’ve got to be at the theatre in five minutes’
‘Sorry, but the only theatre you’ll be seeing tonight is the operating theatre…’
‘Right, Stephen’ sighed Donna, looking at her watch, and thinking the unthinkable, ‘We’d better get you in costume then. Just in case…’
Stephen was barely
aware of the journey down the corridor to the Number 1 dressing room. He had a
vague floating sensation, as if Donna were pushing him on a gurney. So, this is how it is, he thought, this is what good luck feels like.
Though by no means a spiteful man, Stephen had been
about just such a glorious catastrophe, six days a week, twice on Saturdays and
Wednesdays, for the last nearly four
months now. The nature of the job meant that, for Stephen to
achieve some success would inevitably require Josh to suffer some sort of pain
or discomfort; an incapacitating diseaseW;break please. This was, after all, the
harsh algebra of the Understudy’s job - for Stephen to succeed, Josh would have
to suffer; an incapacitating disease, or a flesh-wound of some sort, something
in between flu and a mild impaling, something to take him down for between,
say, 48 and 72 hours. Just long enough for Stephen to do the show tonight,
refine his performance for tomorrow, get Terence the director back in, the
casting people, the film producers, maybe even a critic or two, maybe
discreetly call some other, better agents, the real high-fliers. The snap of an
Achilles tendon, the wet pop of an appendix, a spleen even, were all that
separated Stephen from the chance to turn his life around.
They were in Josh’s dressing room now, Stephen pulling off his coat and shoes, Debs from wardrobe standing by, holding the costume, laundered and pristine, as Stephen started to undress. Donna was on the phone to stage-door. ‘No sign of him yet? Right we’ll give it five minutes, then we’ll make an announcement…he’s here, getting ready…yes, I know…okay, well keep me posted…’
Thank God, thought Stephen, he’s not okay.
Debs from wardrobe held out Byron’s leather breaches, and Stephen took them solemnly, and started to pull them on. He had never boxed professionally, and was unlikely to ever take it up, but he imagined that this is what it felt like before a big fight; the reverence, the sense of ceremony. He tried to clear his head, to find some kind of calm, focussed place, but in his mind’s eye, he was already picturing the curtain call…
some time now, Stephen had had an intangible,
almost supernatural sense that things were going to get better, and call it
fate, call it the stars, call it simple statistics, he just knew that this was
it. He imagined himself at the curtain
Donna and rest of the team stand ing in
the wings, big-beefy moist-eyed stage-hands with tears in their eyes
applauding, pushing him reluctantly back onto the stage, the roar of the audience in his hit,
nearly knocking him off his feet. Sence ears,
as they rose, as one to their feet, then squinting out into the bright lights,
spotting the faces of the people he loved,
Alison his ex-wife, Sophie his daughter, his parents, his friends, all grinning
and laughing, screaming and shouting. Yes, there
was no doubt about it, after all the years of waiting around while success
passed him by, it was finally going to happen; he was going out an Understudy,
but he was coming back a…do
‘Fuck me, bollocks, shit, hi people, sorrysorrysorry I’m late…’
…and panting, and tossing his hair, the 12th Sexiest Man in the World tumbled into the dressing-room, entering, as always, as if someone had just thrown him a stick.
Stephen stopped putting on his leather trousers.
‘Josh! You were about to give your Aunty Donna a heart-attack!’ beamed Donna, skipping to the door and tousling his tremendous hair. ‘Mr McQueen here was just about to go and put your cozzy on…’
He turned and looked at Stephen, as you might look
at a suspected pick-pocket. ‘Oh, sorry, Steve mate, didn’t see you there. You apologetically, head cocked to one side. must have thought it was your big break come at last, I
‘Well, you know…’
‘Well,Joshrubb not today, I’m afraid, Steve
my friend. Not today...’
Stephen forced something that approximated the shape of a smile
As was so often the case when Josh was around, he had the feeling that if a
dozen flame-tipped arrows had somehow embedded themselves deep in Stephen’s
chest, it was very unlikely that anyone would notice.and
started to climb out of the leather trousers. It was like landing on the moon,
and being asked if you wouldn’t mind staying behind and watching the capsule.
‘So what is your excuse then, you bad boy?’ Donna scolded Josh, indulgently.
‘No excuse, just had a bit of a personal situation on the home-front if you know what I mean.’
Stephen handed the leather trousers back to Bev, who smiled sympathetically and rehung the costume on the rail, ready for its rightful owner. Stephen saw that Donna was now sitting on his own pair of trousers.
‘Excuse me, Donna…’ said Stephen, standing a little behind her.
‘Well, Josh, you’re a very, very naughty boy’ mooned Donna, enthralled.
‘I know, I know, I know!’ said Josh,
grabbing her in aaking
Donna’ large hands, and gallantly kissing the knuckles. ‘Tell you what, you can
come round and spank me after the show…’
‘…I might take you up on that…’
‘…and so you should…’
‘You’re sitting on my…’
‘…I will then…’
‘…Come to the dressing room…’
‘…if you could just…’
‘…I’m looking forward to it…’
‘…just let me…’
‘…Not as much as I am. Bring a bottle! And a friend!’
‘…Oooh, saucy boy…’
‘Do you think I could get my
trousers please, guys?’ said Stephen, grabbing them, and tugging.
finally glanced at him, disentangled himself from Francis, looked at his watch,
and tossed his locks.Donnastood,
for breaking the spell
A moment passed.
‘Well, I’d better get the old make-up
on! Can’t keep the people waiting…’ he said, held Donna’ head between two
hands like a basketball, kissed it with a loud ‘mmmmmmoi’, and settled in front
of his mirror.
In the corridor, Donna scowled at Stephen.
Stephen. ‘What are you looking at?’ she scowled. ‘Your neck’s gone all red, Francis’ ‘I keep telling her, Steve, he’s a happily married
man’ chipped-in Kenny, from his desk. She tutted, and then peered at ‘You
look awful, by the way’ she said. ‘Your face is completely grey.’
Stephen rubbed his hairline and examined his fingertips for traces of
Small smudges of blue and
grey. He couldn’t tell Donna he’d been moonlighting. ‘Just a little bit…glandy,
that’s all’ he said, rubbing either side of his jaw-line with his finger-tips
to prove the point.
‘Honestly, Stephen, you’re always
ill. If it’s not your glands, it’s pleurisy, or gastric flu, or your misplaced bloody coccyx’
she said, then stomped off to get ready for curtain-up,
her prison-warder’s keys as she went.
Stephen stood for a moment and watched her go. Once again, he was left with the sneaking suspicion that understudying someone like Josh Harper was a little like being a life-jacket on a jumbo-jet; everyone is pleased that you’re there, but God forbid they should actually have to use you.