The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt, is one of my favourite paintings, and I had the pleasure of seeing it at the Belvedere in Vienna, many years ago now. It also introduced me to Egon Schiele, and Kokotchka: in one room I saw more paintings that I loved than anywhere I’ve been before or since (even Monet’s vast sequence of waterlilies isn’t as emotive!)
This year’s theme for the WEP+IWSG bimonthly Flash Fiction hop is Art. There are paintings I like, and some I actively dislike among the badges, but they are all beautifully done by Olga Godim (especially The Kiss), and the whole thing run expertly by Denise Covey and her team. Thank you all.
As for today’s tale: I spent a long time thinking about it, a short time writing it, and then couldn’t work out what to cut out. Eventually I stopped, and I’m offering you 1350 words instead. I’m sorry. I’ll try and make the next one 650 to make up. I hope you enjoy it.
“See you later, pretty boy!” Jake laughed and his cohort laughed with him.
Their derision echoed down the school corridor as Nile pulled his bag from his locker, lingering to hide his face until everyone had gone.
He loved English Lit. He loved Shakespeare. But… why had Ms Simpson picked him?
It wasn’t that he didn’t like to read the part. He didn’t mind acting these things out, either. Acting gave him a feeling of being someone… someone else… someone with no acne… someone with confidence. Confidence in himself and in who he was… whatever that was. Nile shrugged his bag over his shoulder and left through the school gates, still mulling over his fate. Why him?
“Nile! This is wonderful news. What a clever boy you are.”
He cringed. ‘Clever boy’ sounded like the parrot. Just don’t say pretty.
“It’s because he’s pretty,” his sister Aimee joined in. “Everyone knows that Leonardo di Caprio got the part because he was pretty, not because he could act.” Aimee’s disdain for ancient film stars knew no bounds.
“Don’t be silly,” his mother had turned her back on them, but that didn’t leave her out of these sorts of conversations. “It’s the leading role, the most famous role in all of Shakespeare’s plays…”
“Hamlet.” Nile cut in. “Henry V, MacBeth, Julius Caesar—”
“—and Romeo.” his mother finished, nodding as she enforced her point.
“Can we come and see?” Aimee’s tone indicated more glee at seeing him make a fool of himself than admiration.
Oh yes. This was his chance to make a complete fool of himself in front of hundreds of people. All of whom lived nearby. Could he ever walk down the street again?
The first rehearsal took everyone by surprise. There were girls in the room. Far more girls than the cast list warranted. And who was Juliet? Nile scanned them all, worrying. He knew some of them from junior school. Not Katie, please. Ramona would be okay. Nancy? Well, okay if necessary. Who would play the nurse? There were the two mothers to fit in. What were the rest of these girls doing here? Giving moral support?
“Right, let’s get going, then. I can see you’ve all been checking out the cast list. Here’s the news. The Montague knights are boys, the Capulet knights are girls. So our take on rival houses adds a frisson of sexism. Not only do the families resent each other, they resent each other’s gender. Okay?”
Various nods and ‘ohs’ scattered themselves around the cast.
Nile nodded. This sounded good. The tension between the houses, the sparring… it would be easy to see how ridiculous it all was, in the context of boy and girl. But who was Juliet?
Ms Simpson named the cast for the first few ensemble scenes, and they worked on Act one, Scene one for the next hour. Nancy played Lady Montague, and… Fedor played Lady Capulet! Surely…no, that wouldn’t work. ‘I do love a woman’ was the line.
“Thank you all. That’s good. I’ll work out a detailed rehearsal schedule and send it out during the week, so you don’t have to be present when you’re not really needed. But – make sure you are here when you are needed. No excuses. No ball games, mother needing you home, broken leg. Nothing disturbs the rehearsal schedule. Do I make myself clear?” The raised eyebrow indicated a response was needed.
“Yes, Ms Simpson,” came the gloomy chorus.
“Good. I’ll see you in class, or next week.” She left, and there was the usual rush from the boys not to be the last one out of the room. Nile hung back, but stayed close enough not to tangle with the girls. Nobody seemed keen to make herself known to him.
Over the next few weeks, rehearsals continued, but he still had not met Juliet. Their scenes were all slated for late in the rehearsal period, only a week before the first night. He’d protested.
“Just learn your lines, Nile. You’ll be fine. You’re a good actor, and you just have to act head over heels in love. There’s little scenery or business, or blocking. It’s mostly between you and Juliet. You’ll be fine with a short rehearsal together.”
He started to sleep badly. He woke up in a sweat, imagining having to kiss Ms Simpson playing Juliet. And further, one of the girls not rehearsing with the knights was Katie. Another was Jade, a tall, plump girl with a Jamaican heritage. She was on the Track & Field team, and she was good. She’d be better climbing up to the balcony than he would. When would they finally start rehearsing that scene? He knew his lines, at least.
Then his dreams took a sinister turn, when Jake, the class bully, started appearing in them, sometimes as a friar, and sometimes as the nurse! He looked carefully at his next ensemble rehearsal. Jake wasn’t there. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen Jake much since this started.
Finally, Ms Simpson called him for the balcony scene. “I’m walking this through with you without Juliet today. And I’m walking Juliet through it tomorrow.”
Nile’s shoulders dropped, his mouth opened, and then he shut it again. When???
More bad dreams. That kiss! Katie as Juliet. Kissing Jake. Oh no, that was the worst… he sat up in bed, shivering, and nauseous. He went to the bathroom to wash his face.
“You okay, honey?” His mother appeared behind him.
“Yeah, just nerves, I guess.”
“You’ll be fine. You’re a great actor. I’ve always known that.”
“Sometimes it depends who you’re acting with, Ma.”
“Well, get back to sleep. I’ll make pancakes in the morning.”
But he overslept and skipped breakfast.
At last the scenes would be complete. He’d done them all except the ones directly with Juliet. Including the death scene with Jade ‘standing in’ — without the kiss.
It was a ‘closed set,’ Ms Simpson explained. Nobody would see them rehearse except the three of them. Nurse had rehearsed with Juliet, so wasn’t needed here. They just needed to run through all their scenes together today.
And Nile looked at Jake.
Jake looked back… terrified.
When Nile came to, it was still rehearsal day and Jake and Ms Simpson were walking through the balcony scene without him.
“Back with us, are you? Okay, you can take over now. From ‘And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.’”
They finished the scene, and went on to scene six with Friar Lawrence, in which Ms Simpson did the honours.
“You see,” she said when they finished. “You two work well together. Jake makes a fine Juliet and your Romeo is everything I thought it would be. Tomorrow we’ll run through your parts in the final scene, then we go into dress rehearsal on Monday.”
Dazed, the two boys left the rehearsal room, and walked side by side down the hall. Halfway to the gate, Jake stopped. “That final scene…”
Nile turned around. “Yes.”
“You don’t suppose she actually wants us to …”
Nile nodded for several seconds before he said “yes.”
The nightmares kept him fighting his bedcovers all night.
At dress rehearsal Ms Simpson intervened with exquisite timing as Romeo looked down on Juliet’s face “and then you kiss her ‘dead’ lips. Make it a good one. Slow and lingering. You love her, don’t you?” Nile rolled his eyes.
She did the same when Juliet bent towards Romeo, but Jake was expecting it.
On first night, it brought the house down when Jake, hard man of the grade, made a loving lingering kiss on Nile’s ‘dead’ body, having received a mere whisper of lips from Nile.
The second night it was a truce, more than a polite brush, but enough to indicate passionate love.
The last night, Nile decided his reputation would be ruined if he didn’t act it right out, so he took Juliet’s body and held it close, and for longer than anyone had imagined. Jake had to get his own back on his final scene.
The thing was, both of them discovered they enjoyed it. Ten years later, they married.
© J M Pett 2021
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