Read an Excerpt
The girl sat on a narrow bench, center stage, her body bent forward, one elbow on her knee, a hand supporting her head. The thinker, deeply thinking, her body language seemed to convey.
She was dressed very simply, boyishly, in a loose grey knitted tunic cinched by a black leather belt, worn with black tights and ballet slippers. Her long reddish-gold hair was plaited, the plaits wound tightly around her head, so that the finished effect was like a burnished-copper cap gleaming under the pinspot shining down. The girl’s name was Katie Byrne and she was seventeen and acting was her entire life.
She was about to act for her favorite audience — an audience of two, her best friends, Carly Smith and Denise Matthews. They sat on straight-backed wooden chairs in front of the makeshift stage in the old barn which belonged to Ted Matthews, Denise’s uncle. Both girls were the same age as Katie, and had been friends since childhood; all three were fellow members of the amateur acting group at the high school in the rural Connecticut area where they all lived.
Katie had chosen to perform a speech from one of Shakespeare’s plays at the school’s upcoming Christmas concert. It was only two months away, and she had recently begun to rehearse the piece; Carly and Denise were also perfecting their chosen speeches for the same concert, rehearsing with her in the barn almost every day.
Now, at last, Katie lifted her head, stared out into space, and focused her blue eyes on the back wall of the barn, as if she saw something visible only to herself. Taking a deep breath, she began.
“‘To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them. To die — ’”
Abruptly, Katie stopped.
She jumped up off the bench, walked to the edge of the stage, looked down at her friends. Shaking her head, she seemed unexpectedly uncertain of herself, she who normally had such confidence and self-possession.
“I’m not getting it right,” Katie wailed.
“Yes, you are, and you’re wonderful!” Carly cried, rising, stepping closer to the stage, the stage on which they had started to act when they were children. “Nobody does Shakespeare the way you do it. You’re the best, Katie.”
“Carly’s right,” Denise agreed as she went to join Carly near the stage. “It’s the way you act the words, say them. You make sense out of them, and there’s never been a Hamlet like you.”
Katie burst out laughing. “Thanks for your compliment, Denny, but there were a few others before me ... Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton, to name a couple of them ... they were the greatest classical actors on the English-speaking stage, just as Christopher Plummer is the greatest classical actor today. And listen, I keep telling you, it’s all to do with understanding the meaning of the words, the motivation and intention behind them. And also with punctuation, knowing when to run the words on without pause, and when to pause to breathe....” She let the sentence trail off, knowing now was not the right time to give Denise another acting lesson.
Returning to the bench, she seated herself, adopted the thinker’s position, which was comfortable for her, and sat ruminating for a moment or two.
Whatever her friends said, however much praise they lavished on her, Katie knew that her performance was slightly off today. Her concentration was not what it usually was, and she wasn’t sure why. Unless it was because she felt guilty at being here this afternoon. Her mother wasn’t well, and she was needed at home to help out. And yet, selfishly, she had decided to steal this time at the barn in order to rehearse the speech from Hamlet, and persuaded her friends to come with her after school.
Then rehearse, a small voice inside her head instructed. She took several deep breaths, relaxed her throat, let the stillness of the stage envelop her, calm her.
Within minutes she was ready, and she launched herself into Hamlet’s soliloquy, her inbred natural self-confidence perfectly in place once more.
Listening attentively, Carly was transported by Katie’s voice, as she always was. There was a lovely resonance to it, full of nuances and feeling. No wonder, Carly said to herself, thinking of the way Katie practiced, was endlessly training her voice. They all knew how serious she was about acting. Katie was dedicated, disciplined, and very determined to succeed. Somehow, Katie knew how to act the parts she had chosen without having had too many lessons, while Denise and she sort of stumbled along as best they could. Fortunately, they were improving, thanks to Katie’s relentless coaching and encouragement.
They had first started acting together seven years ago, ten-year-olds with stars in their eyes. Denise’s uncle Ted had let them make use of the old barn at the far end of his property, and they had created a makeshift theater out of it. At that time they had made a promise to one another, had vowed they would go to New York one day and start their acting careers in earnest. Making it to Broadway was their big dream. Katie kept promising that the three of them would move to the city once they finished high school, and that eventually they would be stars on the Great White Way. Carly hoped this would come true, that they would have their names in lights, but sometimes she was filled with doubts.
Denise had no doubts whatsoever, and as she sat next to Carly, watching Katie on the stage, relishing her performance, she was absolutely positive that their dreams would soon materialize. Katie was brilliant, there was no question, and they themselves were getting better and better, mostly because of Katie’s intense lessons. When they went to New York they would find an apartment to share, go to acting school, and become professional actresses. It was all going to work, the dream would become reality, she was convinced.
Katie suddenly stood up, moved downstage right, and continued. “‘To die, to sleep — No more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep — To sleep, perchance dream ...’”
Flawlessly, and without faltering once, Katie went on to complete this most famous of Shakespearean speeches, her well-modulated voice rising and falling as she gave emphasis to certain words, less importance to others. And the quality of her acting was superb; after her initial hesitation, her seeming loss of confidence, she had gone forward sure-footedly.
When Katie was finally finished, she remained motionless for a second or two, her cornflower-blue eyes still focused in the distance, and then she blinked several times before glancing at Carly and Denise. And then she smiled at them broadly, sure in the knowledge that she had managed to get the speech right at last.
Her friends began to clap and cheer and they bounded up onto the stage enthusiastically, hugged her, congratulated her.
“Thanks,” she said, grinning in return, and hugging them back. “But don’t you think I should rehearse again tomorrow, just to make sure?”
They both drew away and gaped at her in astonishment.
Denise cried shrilly, “You don’t need another rehearsal! But we do. And you’ve got to help us tomorrow. I’ll never get my Desdemona speech right, and Carly’s still having trouble with her Portia, aren’t you, Carly?”
“I am a bit.” Carly sounded miserable. Then her voice changed, became more positive as she added, “As for you, Katie Byrne, you’re just awesome.”
“We’re not going to let you hog the stage tomorrow,” Denise announced with a grin, adding in a mock-threatening voice, “You’re going to rehearse us, because we still need it. And if you don’t, you might find yourself going off to be a Broadway actress all by yourself!”
“Never. You’ll both be with me,” Katie declared, pulling the girls closer, putting an arm around each one of them, glancing at Denise admiringly. Her velvet-brown eyes, full of hidden depths, were sparkling. She was never anything but high-spirited and happy, bubbling with laughter and good humor. She had a kind of golden radiance about her, with her long blond hair and pink-and-white porcelain skin. She was a genuine all-American beauty, slender, shapely, and long-legged.
In contrast, Carly, who had been Katie’s closest friend since they were toddlers, was very different. She was quieter, had a more introspective demeanor, was a little fey at times, and her seductive, rather dramatic looks belied her retiring, gentle nature. Eyeing her, Katie thought that even in her school clothes she looked voluptuous. Carly had a beautiful if diminutive figure, and with her short dark curls and pansy-violet eyes she had the look of a young Elizabeth Taylor.
With a sudden rush of emotion, Katie felt her abiding friendship and love for them both flowing through her ... they were her dearest, her very best friends.
“It’s the three of us or nothing!” Katie exclaimed emphatically. “And I’ll be glad to rehearse with you tomorrow. But listen up, you two, you’re much better than you think. Just remember that.”
Carly and Denise beamed on hearing these words, but neither girl made a comment and, arms linked, the three of them left the stage together.
As they always did, they went through the long-established ritual of sitting at the table, drinking a bottle of Coke each. Today they were intent on dissecting Katie’s performance, and generally discussing their parts, their set pieces for the concert. It was Carly who changed the subject, when she suddenly straightened in her chair and said to Katie, “Do you think your aunt Bridget will be able to find us an apartment in New York? Do you really think it’s all going to happen for us?”
Katie nodded. “I do. Absolutely. And she said we can stay with her at the loft in TriBeCa for as long as we want.”
Denise interjected, “Mrs. Cooke is sure we’ll be able to get into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She even said she’ll help us.” Denise reached out, squeezed Carly’s arm. “Don’t be such a worrywart.”
Carly let out a sigh, then she leaned back in the chair, relaxing, sipping her Coke. After a moment, she said in a reflective voice, “Just think, next year at this time we’ll be in the big city, attending drama classes and camping out at Aunt Bridget’s fancy loft.”
“Hey, it’s not all that fancy,” Katie exclaimed, grinning at her. “But it’s comfortable, I’ll say that.” She jumped up, headed towards the curtained alcove which they used as a changing room. Pulling the curtain open, she stepped inside, then swung her head, explained, “I’ve got to hurry, I’m really late to help Mom with supper.” She eyed the Portia and Desdemona costumes and other items strewn around haphazardly, and shook her head. “I just don’t have time to help you tidy up, I’m sorry.”
“That’s no problem,” Carly assured her. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter if it’s messy in here. Nobody ever comes to the barn except us.”
“Uncle Ted says that after all these years it’s ours.” Denise looked from Carly to Katie and grinned, then reached for the copy of Othello which lay on the table. She started to flip through the pages of the play, looking for the part she was learning.
Katie disappeared behind the curtain; Carly opened The Merchant of Venice, wanting to study Portia’s famous “quality of mercy” speech, wondering if she would ever master it, worrying about it again, as she had for several weeks.
Within seconds, Katie was stepping out of the curtained alcove, wearing her school clothes and struggling into her jacket. “See you in class tomorrow,” she said as she rushed across the floor to the door.
Denise flashed her bright smile, and Carly, looking up, asked, “Can you please bring the long black wig tomorrow, Katie? I think it might work for my Portia.”
“Yes, it’ll look great on you. I’ll bring it to school, Carly.” She waved nonchalantly over her shoulder as she left the barn.
Katie closed the heavy barn door behind her and shrugged deeper into her jacket. It had turned cold and she shivered as she hurried up the hill leading to the highway. Her mind was still focused on Carly and Denise. They were so much better than they realized, good actresses who were accomplished and knew what they were doing. But they didn’t give themselves enough credit, genuinely needed to gain more self-confidence, that was their main problem.
Mrs. Cooke, their teacher, who ran the drama group and taught acting at the high school, predicted great things for them all in the next few years because of their talent, dedication, and willingness to work hard. It pleased Katie that Heather Cooke believed in them with such conviction that she was encouraging their ambition to work in the theater.
Katie trudged on up the steep slope, continuing to think about her best friends, imagining what it would be like to be living in New York and studying at the academy. She could hardly wait for the time to come and she knew Carly and Denise felt the same way.
Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw rapid movement close to the mass of rhododendron bushes growing in profusion on the hillside. She stopped abruptly, half turned, stood frowning in puzzlement at the clump of dark green bushes. But everything was still, silent, and there was no sign of life.
Shrugging dismissively, Katie continued on up the slope, deciding that the dark flash must have been a deer. There were a great number of them in the Litchfield hills, and they were becoming bolder. Everyone’s gardens, her mother’s included, attested to that fact.
Within minutes, the hillside flattened out into a piece of barren land that stretched all the way to the highway. This cut through New Milford, ran up to Kent and the small towns beyond.
Katie paused at the side of the road to let a truck pass and then ran across to the other side. A second or two later she was on the dirt track that led through the wide meadows behind Dovecote Farm, a local landmark with its picturesque red barns and silos, and, in the summer, lush fields of rippling golden wheat.
At one moment, as she walked along, she glanced up. The sky had turned the color of old iron, bitter, remote, and forbidding. Dusk was slowly descending and the meadows were beginning to fill with shadows. Wanting to get home as fast as possible, she began to jog down the track and found herself plunging deeper into the fields. But soon she realized she must slow down. A faint mist was rising, wispy and vaporous, floating in front of her like a grey veil; trees and hedges were rapidly becoming blurred, turning into weird inchoate shapes looming all around her. Having tramped this dirt track from early childhood, her feet knew it well. Nevertheless, she found herself moving at a snail’s pace, growing more cautious, afraid of stumbling in the thick fog.