Simon Brett

An Amateur Corpse


The cast party for the Breckton Backstagers’ production of The Seagull was held, like all their cast parties, in the rehearsal room. Drinks were served in the bar (known to the members as the Back Room) and were paid for by a collection made during the run by the Assistant Stage Manager. The choice, displayed on the bar, was cheap Spanish red in two-litre bottles or cheap Spanish white in two-litre bottles.

Charles Paris was the first to arrive in the Back Room after the curtain fell on the Saturday night. His friend Hugo Mecken had stopped off in the Gents on the way from the theatre. The cast were still creaming off their make-up and slipping out of costumes and most of their hangers-on were hanging on in the dressing rooms, spraying out wild congratulations and faint praise. Hugo, Charles noticed without surprise, had not gone backstage to congratulate his wife Charlotte on her performance as Nina.

Charles was conscious of his interloper status. So, judging from his sour expression, was the thin man in a cravat who stood behind the bar. Charles tried, ‘A glass of red, please.’

‘Are you a member?’

It was a perfect example of what Charles remembered being taught about in Latin school — a question expecting the answer no. It got it.

‘Then I’m afraid I can’t give you a drink.’

‘My name is Charles Paris. I was invited down here this evening to see the show because I’m leading the Critics’ Circle discussion on Tuesday.’

‘Ah. Well, in that case, a member will be able to get. you a drink.’

‘But I can’t get one for myself?’

‘Not unless you are a member.’

Charles was beginning to get angry. ‘And how much would it cost me to become a bloody member?’

‘Two pounds a year Social Membership or five pounds Acting Membership. Though for that, of course, you have to pass an audition,

With difficulty Charles didn’t say what he thought of the idea of himself, as a professional actor, having to audition for a tin-pot suburban amateur dramatic society. He channelled his annoyance into slamming two pounds down on the counter. ‘Right, there you are. I’m a Social Member. Now give me a drink.’

‘I’m afraid your application has to be endorsed by a member.’

Hugo appeared slap on cue from the Gents. ‘Right, here’s my endorsing member — Hugo Mecken. I’m Charles Paris, there’s my two pounds, now give me a drink.’

‘What’s the trouble, Charles?’ asked Hugo.

‘I’m joining the bloody society, so that I have a license to breathe in this place.”

‘Oh, you don’t need to — ’

‘I’ve joined. Red wine, please.’

‘And for me too, Reggie.’

Sour Reggie paused for a second, searching for another rule that was being contravened. Failing to find one, he ungraciously half-filled two wine-glasses.

They drank. Charles contemplated Hugo. Olive-coloured skin, his head a bald dome fringed with black hair, dark eyes darting about uneasily. The lips, heavy with indulgence in the good things of life, turned down, registering that the Backstagers’ Spanish plonk wasn’t among them.

Charles was conscious of the ‘silence. He often had difficulty in thinking of what to say to Hugo. It had always been the same, even when they first met at Oxford back in 1947. They had been friends, but conversation had never flowed easily.

And when they had remet a couple of months previously it had been exactly the same. A great warmth, affection for each other, but not a lot to say. A good working-relationship, socially no overt strain. Just a slight tension within Charles from a sense of Hugo’s dependence on him. Hugo was almost too hospitable, inviting Charles down to Breckton all the time, pressing a spare house key on him, telling him to use the place as his own.

But the re-established contact had been a godsend at least from the financial point of view. Hugo seemed likely to put a lot of work his way after what had been a very lean year, even by the modest standards of Charles Paris’s theatrical career.

Hugo Mecken was the Creative’ Director of Mills Brown Mazzini, a small but thriving advertising agency in Paddington, and he had introduced Charles to the lucrative world of commercial voice-over work. It was a strange world to Charles, one that he was still trying to come to terms with, to fit into his picture of what being an actor meant.

The pause had gone on too long for comfort. Charlotte’s very good.’ Charles volunteered.

‘Should be. Professionally trained.’ The shortness of Hugo’s response confirmed his suspicion that all was not well with the marriage.

‘I feel like ‘getting obscenely pissed,’ Hugo continued suddenly, and drained his glass.

It was a familiar cry. The word ‘pissed’ was of the seventies but the intention was one which Charles had often heard from Hugo thirty years before at Oxford. Sometimes it had been a danger signal. A sudden lurch of mood, a lot to drink and then bizarre midnight exploits, wild destruction of college windows or other fierce extravagances until the passion subsided into somnolence and, later, self-abasing recrimination.

While Hugo outstared sour Reggie into refilling their glasses Charles reviewed his friend’s marital history. First wife, Alice, married straight out of Oxford. Rather swish do in Worcester College Chapel at which Charles had been present. Two children soon after, all set on conventional course.

Then, over twenty years later, news from a mutual friend, Gerald Venables, that Hugo had contacted him in his professional capacity as a solicitor and wanted a divorce. He had upped and left Alice with two teenagers, and moved in with sonic twenty-two-year-old actress with whom he’d done a commercial.

A couple of years later, a scribbled note on Snoopy paper (strong contrast to the heavy die-stamped invitation to Worcester Chapel) asked Charles to a post-registry office piss-up in an expensive Soho trattoria.

Through hazes of alcohol, Charles could recall that riotous meal. Hugo and Charlotte dressed in identical oyster-grey velvet suits, a lot of advertising people, a lot of showbiz. A truly glittering occasion. Charlotte so young, so unbelievably beautiful, her complexion glowing and red hair sparkling in the coloured lights of the restaurant. And’ Hugo boisterous as a schoolboy, his bald dome gleaming, his face alive with the knowledge that every man in the room envied him.

Then it had all seemed possible. That one could start again. It even convinced Charles how right he had been to leave his own wife Frances. Somewhere, round some corner, there was a perfect young girl waiting for him, someone who could make it all happen again.

Mostly it had been the drink thinking for him. But there had been more than that. Hugo, in a good mood, was a fierce romantic and he could infect others with his enthusiasm. He could make everyone believe that the world was perfectible, that it was only a matter of time before paradise was re-established on earth.

Charles remembered acting in a play which Hugo had written at Oxford, a play full of soaring, impossible romanticism. But that had been a long time ago, when Hugo had been going to he the world’s greatest playwright, when he had been in love with Alice, when he’d ‘been on a permanent high.

As he returned with the drinks, Hugo was patently not on a high. He looked ill at ease, vulnerable, potentially petulant.

The rehearsal room was beginning to fill up now, as the stars of the Backstagers emerged in their party finery. Charles was relieved to see they all got the same vinegary reception from Reggie at the bar. (Maybe he had made the mistake of trying the wine.)

Hugo seemed to know many of the people who came in. Though not involved in the acting side, he was a regular of the Back Room, using it as his local, often dropping in for a drink on his way home from work. He dished

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