With a smile of recognition they moved quickly towards each other and, saying nothing, kissed briefly, their lips touching. He never kissed anyone like that. He saw the surprise in her eyes. Then, moments later, they kissed again, lips still closed, still chased, but this time with a hint of pressure. He felt himself heading towards the edge of a cliff. Suddenly his arms did what he needed them to do – not what he wanted them to do – holding her away from him, his hands on her shoulders, her own hands on his upper arms.

“What was that?” he asked, not to her, but to the world in general.

“I don’t know!” she lied back, feigning a laugh. If that was her acting, it was what he needed.

He had spent Christmas with Mags, their first Christmas together. It had been a conscious decision, a statement of intent almost. He had sensed if not seen the raised eyebrows of some members of his family, those who believed that Yuletide was about them as a collective and that it was somehow sacrosanct to break that tradition. If Mags’ family felt the same, she didn’t say.

At the last minute they managed to find a minuscule cottage to rent, crammed into the middle of a small Ambleside terrace, and when the weather allowed, spent the days wrapped up against the bitter winds walking the hills. In the evenings they huddled by the fire and watched re-runs of old movies on the ageing television and struggled to cope with inadequate wi-fi. They told each other that it didn’t matter. It was ‘romantic’. Without openly saying as much, they placed apostrophes around the word.

They had slept together naked from the outset. It had seemed the natural and simplest thing to do. Perhaps that’s just what young people did anyway. From his own experience Mac had been unable to know for certain, so he took his lead from Mags. Whatever she seemed comfortable with was just fine for him. He didn’t know if she operated from instinct or experience – but he hoped the former. They made love most nights, ever since they had started sleeping together semi-officially, except when Mags came to bed still wearing her knickers, the signal that she was off-limits for a few days. Luckily Ambleside was knickers-free – which felt right. As it was Christmas.

Although he had no idea what it was supposed to feel like, all of this – Christmas, their intimacy, their unspoken routines, even the way she seemed to know when he needed tea or coffee or just some time to himself to read – felt like growing up. As if it was how adults were supposed to behave. Telling his family that they would be away, together, for Christmas; wasn’t that adult too?

They left Ambleside on the 29th, each of them unable to avoid separate New Year’s celebrations. They would give him Christmas, his father had said reluctantly, but not both. Not yet. Mags agreed that it seemed a reasonable compromise; they couldn’t afford the cottage for any longer anyway, so would have to return to somewhere. The new term would come soon enough; it wasn’t as if it would be long before they were reunited in their shabby-chic Portswood flat over the Indian fabric shop, trying to ignore the Bollywood-style music permeating through the floor as she struggled with The Wars of the Roses and he with The History Plays.

The gap, he knew (and this as he reflected before the fire in a quiet moment during their last Lake District evening) would give him a chance to recalibrate in readiness for the new term – and, more importantly, the start of rehearsals for his new play. The general consensus in his circle of thespian-type friends was that he was mad to take on ‘Waiting For Godot’. Okay, his directorial debut had been something of a success, but there was a world of difference between Pinter and Beckett. “What do you want me to do, ‘Romeo and Juliet’?” he had asked. He liked Godot; it made him laugh. And its limited cast and almost non-existent set was ideal for a student production. He told his tutors that, because it was ‘sparse’, it would impact his final-year studies less than other plays might. Both he and they knew that would prove to be a lie.

Mac had assumed he would be working with an all-male cast. He had seen Godot twice before. It seemed to fit men. But he was determined to keep an open mind when it came to auditions, even though he had essentially already pegged a couple of parts for friends who had worked with him on ‘The Dumb Waiter’: Harry would be perfect as Vladimir, and Rich would suit Lucky down to the ground, providing he could persuade him to do it. Getting the right person to play Pozzo was key, but any short-list he may have unconsciously been compiling was annihilated as soon as he heard Rosie speak.

Her appearance that morning had surprised him in multiple ways. First, she was a girl – and a good-looking one at that; a million miles from the Pozzo he had previously seen and the one he had in his head. Secondly, she was a first-year. He knew she studied English because he’d seen her around the Department. And she looked like a first-year. A single term was never enough to roughen the edges of kids just out of school; never enough to really launch them on their journey towards adulthood – or Christmas cottages in the Lake District, come to that.

Having established that she was indeed in the right place and that she knew what she was doing there, Mac had asked what part she was interested in. He expected her to say that she didn’t know, or didn’t care.

“Pozzo,” she said. “Obviously.” The second word was delivered in such a way as to have him immediately question why he hadn’t seen it himself. And then, unbidden, she had launched into Pozzo’s first long scene in Act 1, miming to perfection his interaction with Lucky as if Rich were already there with her. Mac forced himself to remain calm throughout.

“Why Pozzo?” he had asked once she had finished and the small ripple of applause from those in the rehearsal room had subsided.

“Because Vladimir and Estragon have to be men. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have Pozzo as female? Don’t you think?”

“To be honest, I hadn’t considered it.” he said.

Although he told her he’d let her know in a couple of days, by the time she’d walked out of the room he’d made up his mind.

He ran it by Mags, just to make sure.

“Was she any good?”

“Simply brilliant,” he found himself saying. “I need to check that it would work – a girl as Pozzo, that is – but otherwise…”.

“Sounds like fun.” He had Mags’ endorsement.

“We start rehearsals the first week back, ok?” He and Rosie had been sitting in the refectory drinking coffee. It was the last week of term. He had given her the news and briefed her on the rest of the cast. She was clearly delighted.

“I’ve met Harry, I think; and I’ve seen Rich around. He’ll be good as Lucky. I’ll enjoy treating him badly!”

There was something in the way she made the comment that caught him by surprise, though he was unable to define why that might have been.

“Why do they call you Mac?” Her question had been tangential, unprompted.

“MacDonald? My name?”

“Yes,” she ignored the sarcasm, “but why not Michael or Mike or Mikey or something? That’s you name too, right?”

“Do I look like a Mikey?”

She looked at him quizzically then smiled.

“Fair point, Mac.”

He knew then that she would be just fine.

If he was more excited about Godot than he probably should have been, he didn’t show it – or possibly was not even aware of it. He took a copy of the play to Ambleside however, and had Mags read out some of Pozzo’s lines, just to give himself a chance to orientate, to hear a woman’s voice in the part. Of course Mags had protested. She didn’t know the play and was as far away from an actress as it was possible to be – “Your opinion,” he told her. But there was no denying that she was female, and even though she read the part badly, it was different enough to get him thinking.

He had been first to the rehearsal room. He always tried to make sure he was first. It gave him a chance to arrange the chairs where he wanted them, or to deploy any props that might be needed. The first few sessions were just read-throughs really, but he had found with the Pinter – and with his own limited acting experience – that having something to literally hang on to from the outset could be useful. He had been standing in the middle of the room when Rosie entered.

When they heard Harry and Rich approaching, Rosie had been in the room no more than twenty seconds. It was warning enough for him to release his hold. Her own hands fell to her sides. As the door opened a second time, Mac turned and walked towards the chair he had allocated for himself in the centre of a tight arc. Perhaps he had another twenty seconds to regain his composition. Sitting on the end chair to his right, he didn’t look at Rosie again until Patrick had entered and they had all sat down.

For a moment he was lost for words – and then was suddenly conscious that they were all looking at him. He tried to imagine her as Pozzo; he tried to imagine them all in their new guises, but it was impossible. It would be impossible for at least a couple of weeks, and – in Rosie’s case – perhaps permanently so.

[copyright Ian Gouge, 2017]

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