Final Curtain Call

Brushstrokes make him a different man. He tries his best to sit still as the young makeup artist works in silence, guided by the bright, spherical lights that line his dressing room mirror. She applies thick layers of black, purple, brown and red, transforming his face into a mottled oil slick of bruises.

She takes a step back, gently lifting the man’s head up by the chin. She squints and assesses her work, moving her head around to check his face from different angles before breaking her frown and nodding, satisfied.

“How do I look, my dear?” the actor asks.

“Perfect I think, Mr Mayweather,” she says, already starting to pack her brushes away. “If I hadn’t worked on you myself I might even think you were someone else entirely!”

The man smiles warmly at her. “Please, do call me Charles. Can’t have you calling me ‘Mr Mayweather’ night after night, like I’m some strict headmaster. Although I do recognise it might be hard at first, given some of my more noteworthy roles.”

The girl laughs, dropping one of her brushes as she races to tidy up after herself. “Yes, that’s exactly it,” she says, eyes fixed on her bag. “Thank you, Mr…Charles.”

He knows better than to risk the awkward embarrassment that would come with asking what she’s seen him in before, of course.

He spins around in his chair and looks at himself in the mirror. His whole face is a mess, but it’s the dark bruise on his right cheek that makes him really grimace. It almost looks real, he thinks. Like it has been there before.  

“I don’t look too different, I trust? They’ll want to know it’s me, you know. Front few rows, at the very least. Not to mention the producers. This face,” Charles says, raising an eyebrow and pointing at his bruised visage, “doesn’t sell tickets.”

“Very true,” the girl says, zipping up her makeup bag with a cursory glance around for anything she’s missed. “All done, I think. I’ll leave you to it; I’m sure you want a bit of peace and quiet before you go out there. Break a leg and all that!”

“Darling, I’ve been breaking legs since before you were born,” the actor says, winking at her reflection. “Figuratively, you understand. I think I’ll be okay.”

“Of course,” the girl says, grinning wide. But the actor can’t help but notice the smile slip away in her reflection as she turns to leave, a mixture of distain and relief flooding in as she escapes the dressing room. As she escapes him.

Charles sighs, taking a sip from the reassuringly heavy glass tumbler of lukewarm water in front of him. Good for the throat, he might have said, were anyone still around to listen. It felt like he had been forever surrounded by helpers, stagehands, producers, agents…not that he was complaining about it, given his particular circumstances. But now he was sat in his dressing room alone, with nothing but the countdown to opening night for company.

The countdown to opening night and his rucksack, sat in the corner of the room under the coat rack, exactly where he had left it. His attention had barely drifted from it all afternoon.

“Focus, Charles,” he mutters to himself, taking another sip from the tumbler. “Focus.”

He looks at himself in the mirror again. A weathered prize fighter stares back at him, brow beaten and lip split, nose out of joint and one eye all but closed for swelling. His face tells a story – one of failed potential, addiction-fuelled mistakes and desperate last chances. He grits his teeth, baring them at the man facing him.

“Get out of my way,” he snarls, all spittle and rage, “get the fuck out of my way!”

The illusion should be complete. But under the surface something feels wrong.

Perhaps it’s just first night jitters. This was the sort of role he’d been telling his agent he should be getting for years – a theatrical tour de force was exactly what his career had been in need of, he knew that. “It’s the sort of thing that Kingsley or that lad Tom Hardy would be all over,” he told her when the invite to audition had first come through. She had almost discarded it out of hand, but he could see the potential it held for him: buzz in the Evening Standard giving way to sold out shows and fans waiting out back for signatures and photos, then before the three month run was out he would already have a juicy role in some HBO-lite six parter lined up, signing off his time stomping the boards with an Olivier nomination and maybe a guest spot on Desert Island Discs. It was practically meant to be.

“Maybe manage your expectations a little, Charles,” his agent had said, every word cautiously laid out for him – and for his ego, he knew that much to be true. “It’s a young man’s game, you know. It’s easy to glamourise a run on the West End when you’re talking about someone like James McAvoy, coming off the back of the latest X-Men film with pockets full and fans desperate to get near him. The stage show itself is almost irrelevant; nobody really cares if they are any good in it or not. But you…well, you won’t get the same sort of treatment, is all. They’ll expect you to be focused.”

He glared at her then. But she had known him for thirty years or more, knew his circumstances, knew the battles he had faced. It’s hard to stay angry at the truth.

The bag in his dressing room seems to grumble, demanding his attention, forcing him to focus on the here and now. To focus on it. Charles takes another swig from his tightly-held glass, forcing the water through still-gritted teeth.

“…I just think that maybe a few more auditions for TV might be more productive at this point in time, Charles,” she had told him, voice solemn. “It’s what you’re best at, after all. Night after night of live performance, it’s…well, it’s a gruelling grind to get into.”

For a man of your age, he thought, the unspoken but glaring truth his agent had been avoiding in conversations with him for years. He looks at himself in the mirror again, looks deep into his eyes, artificial black-blue bruising bringing his all-too real yellowing whites into stark relief. She wasn’t wrong, he knew that really. But in many ways that made only things even more frustrating for him. He’d been in this game for decades, sharing the screen with the likes of McKellen, Dench, Gambon. Ken Loach even told him he might be “the next Welles” once, something his date for that particular awards evening said sounded a lot like it might have been a bone-dry joke. But what did she know, some nobody he couldn’t even remember the name of now? That night had been full of promise, cocktail after cocktail leading him in a heady haze through the glitz and glamour of the film industry.

He had potential, he was the star to watch. Why was it that everyone else was a now Dame, a Knight, an MBE? Where were his Oscars, his ‘with’ and ‘and’ credits, his applause-worthy guest cameos? He should be a national treasure by now.

In moments like these, he often told himself that he had been cheated somehow. Something had conspired against him, he thought, trying his best not to glance at the bottom of the coat rack in the mirror’s reflection. He had been dealt a bad hand, is all. But he wouldn’t be beaten – he would rise up and take what was rightfully his. He just needed to nail this one role.

Charles looks into the mirror, into the eyes of the stranger staring back at him. “Who are you, then?” he asks, voice morphing as the question leaves his lips. A broken man, out of luck and out of options. He has played such roles before – desperate men on the brink – to the point that you might even say he was known for it. So why was he finding it so difficult to get this one right?

He would be lying to himself if he said he didn’t know the answer.

The lights around him seem to dim as he scrutinises his face, all painted bruises and drips of stage blood. His hand trembles as he reaches up to touch his cheek and he flinches again, recoiling at damage he knows to be stagecraft but that feels all too familiar.

Again he finds his attention pulled towards the corner of the room – to his rucksack, crumpled but nevertheless catching on the one item contained within, weighing it down. The mirror seems to be conspiring against him now, ensuring the bag and its contents are at the centre of his vision whichever way he looks. He tries pull his gaze away but can’t. He never could.

He thinks back to his gradually dwindling catch ups with his agent, once daily now down to weekly or fortnightly, if that. To the meandering, aimless, endless hours sat in the dark at home, waiting for her to call with news, with a new role, with something to celebrate, anything. “But that’s the problem, Charles,” she said to him at the end of one particularly gruelling, hopeless session, her usual cool façade falling away for the briefest of moments. “It doesn’t really matter if you get the audition, the role, the plaudits, does it? You’ll be celebrating whatever happens. And that’s why you’re not getting the roles you used to. Keep on like this and you are doomed to fail.”

And was she wrong? No. He is a fading force, he knows that really, deep down. Washed up and washed out, doomed by his own actions, his own mistakes. Because once you lose the trust of directors and casting teams, frustrated by slurred lines, lengthy toilet breaks and an increasingly reliable failure to hit your cues, you lose them for good. You get thrown aside, forgotten, left to rot.

And if he’s being honest with himself, isn’t that reflected in his dressing room? All tattered red velvet and worn-out surfaces, the few mirror-bordering bulbs still lit only serving to illuminate the fug of dust as it glistens dull in the air around him. The very idea that this role might be the jolt his flatlining career needs – this decaying place – is ridiculous. This theatre is like life support running on backup power – it might sustain him for a little while longer, yes, but it will only be delaying the inevitable.

He knows the end, after all. He glances over to his bag again, then back to his tumbler.

“Five minutes, Mr Mayweather,” comes a voice from the hallway. Showtime. But what’s the point when you know you are pissing into the wind at best? What’s the point of all this if it won’t give him what he craves? He knows the truth: he can never get back what he has lost, never recapture his wasted talent, wasted potential, wasted time.

Time. He looks at himself in the mirror again, this time seeing beyond the make-up. Beyond the character, yes, but further still as he imagines the mask that he wears every day crumbling away. The mask he wears in auditions, when meeting people in the street, when playing the fool in bars, encouraged by hangers on who know the rumours well enough to call it a night rather than ordering him another round, taking him deeper into his hole. The mask is a vast weight that he carries every day, he realises, weighing him down.

He sees himself clearly for the first time in a long time. The make-up artist might have given him a familiar black eye and split lip, but she didn’t need any help making him look gaunt, withdrawn, old.

“I’ve done that to myself,” he says aloud, voice dry and strained. The words come painfully, but it feels like he is releasing pressure that has been building up for years, decades even.

He can never get back the time that he has lost, no. But he does have the time left in front of him, however long that may be and whatever that may contain. He has to make the most of that, he thinks. Not for the audience, not for his peers, not for the press or for his agent. He has to do it for himself.

The door to his dressing room opens up wide. “Are you ready, Mr Mayweather?” says a nervy-looking runner stood in the doorway, struggling to sustain eye contact with the actor. “I’ll take you across now, if you like.”

Charles looks at the runner and smiles, charm flooding his face again in an instant. “Always, dear boy. Let’s go.”

He rises up and takes one last look at himself in the mirror, toasting to his reflection as he downs the rest of his water and sets the tumbler aside, a prop he needs no longer. He sees the man he was and the man he has become, the man who lost his way and the one who has found it anew. And with that, he knows he really is ready – ready to play this role like it is his last. And he knows he can play the character, this broken alcoholic, this man on the edge.

It’s the only role he has ever known.

By TomAntonyDavies

Writing sort. Manchester, England.

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