Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2010 Results




So Beyond Ham, It’s Almost Kosher

Copyright © Barry Rosenberg 2010


Kurt Ironhand burst into the room, shouting, “I heard a noise.”

“Me, too.” Notso-Curt Copperfeet followed him.

They prowled around the settee, saw nothing and headed for the far wall. “There!” Kurt pointed.

They both reared back, their gaze fixed on the corner. A body lay on the ground.

“It’s Alan.” Notso’s voice shook. “And he’s lying in a pool of blood.”

“Not a pool.” Kurt fought to control his voice. “That’s more like a bloody lake. He must’ve lost two litres.”

“Two, at least.” Notso nodded. He looked up and suddenly gripped Kurt’s arm. “What’s that on the wall?”

Kurt’s gaze followed Notso’s. “Writing! Writing on the wall! In his own blood.”

“What’s it say?” Notso looked away. “I can’t bear to look.”

Kurt’s voice slowed. “The… writing… on… the… wall...”

“Yes! Yes! But what does it say?”

“I just said…”

“But you said…”

“That’s what it says!” Kurt snapped.

“Oh!” Notso lifted his eyes.

Big red letters painted out the message: the writing on the wall…

Notso’s face furrowed as he glanced down at the body and up again at the writing. “But what does it mean: the writing on the wall? I mean, with his last breath, it should mean something.”

“Cut! Cut!” A slender figure flounced down the aisle. “And you should mean something, too, darlings. The phrase the writing on the wall is a portent, usually of doom and disaster. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen here, darlings, unless you pretend to act, at least a little.”

Kurt made a face. “The problem is, I can’t tell if this is meant to be a real thriller or a sort of comedy thing.”

“They managed to in Broadway,” Theo, the director, cried.

“Off-Broadway,” muttered Alan, the corpse. “Or was that off Off-Broadway?”

“No need to be catty!” Theo waggled a finger. “And stop trying to upstage. You’re meant to be dead.”

“I only wriggled. I had an itch!”

“Darling, corpses do not wriggle. Corpses do not itch. I thought you were method-trained. Learn to get into a corpse’s body.”

“Yeah, right. Like be a zombie. Like be the director.”

“What!” Theo’s eyes opened wide. He pulled back his ponytail, waved his arms around and generally seemed ready to launch into a hissy fit. Instead, he burst into laughter. “Okay darlings, let’s take ten and have a coffee.”

Kurt Ironhand leapt off the stage. Notso-Curt Copperfeet walked down the steps.

Alan sat up. “Oops!” He grasped at air. “I’ve been down so long, I can’t get up.”

“Deep breaths, darling,” Theo called over his shoulder. “Deep breaths.”

“I was singing the blues,” Alan said.

They trooped into the foyer. Nambour Conservatorium had a small area in the front where they sold coffee and biscuits.

“This is all that’s keeping us afloat.” Theo gloomily switched on the jug. “This plus the beer and wine.”

Notso patted him on the shoulder. “You mean this is the writing on the wall for us?”

“On the wall, darling. On the floor, on the ceiling. Anywhere you care to look.” Theo sounded fed up. It was so unlike him that a silence followed. He’d been brought in to make the theatre work but it wasn’t working. It looked as if Theo was going down the gurgler.

“It’s not a very good play,” Notso ventured.

“It’s a bloody awful play.” Kurt tossed his script onto the bar.

Alan, who was sufficiently anal-retentive to make a very good corpse, felt an impulse to straighten the pages. “Who chooses these plays and why?”

Theo brushed back his ponytail. “A committee, darling. What else?” He looked at his watch. “Okay, darlings, once more unto the breach and all that. It’s Thursday avo and I want to get to my dance class at six.”

“Ooh, dance!” Kurt tried to pirouette.

The cast trooped back onstage but an hour later, Theo clapped his slender hands. “Fine, fine. Subtext being, ‘bloody awful again’. See you here tomorrow, darlings.”

Kurt rubbed his bony jaw. “Is there anything we can do about the play?”

“You could try acting.”

“No, I mean, be serious. No one can actually act this.”

Theo had large dark eyes and they thoughtfully perused Kurt. “Darling, you’re right, so right. You know the script. You perform it as well as can be done. Perhaps think of little ways of bringing the meaning out.”

Alan slung off a salute. “Will do, boss. The search for meaning is on.”

Theo, however, didn’t believe in his little homily. There was no little way of turning this lump of coal into diamond. He was going to have to go the whole hog. If only he could find out what the hog really was.

“Double or nothing!” he shouted to the empty theatre. “Forget writing on the wall. We want pictures on the wall and music and dan…ce.” He did a Fred Astaire down the gangway.

*****

Theo went onto his class. He had a little secret. It wasn’t dance. It was boxing. And not boxercise, either. It was real macho-man stuff and he didn’t think knowledge of that would fit well with his thespian image. As he changed into black shorts and a black sleeveless muscle-shirt, Brutus, a man with massive biceps, whacked Theo on the back.

“G’day, bro. How ya going?”

Theo, barely flinching, returned a swift jab into the ribs. “Fine, darling. Did you just tickle me?”

“Haw-haw.” Brutus laughed. “Haw!”

They went into a large hall dotted with punch bags, skipping ropes and speed bags. The centrepiece was a boxing ring. The class started with one-minute turns at each station. Theo lammed into the punch bag, having it out with the script. In minutes, the normally cool director was sweating and slugging like Rocky - about Rocky X, definitely not Rocky I.

Ten minutes later, Brutus was holding a punch shield while Theo was pounding into it.

“That’s a mean punch, bro,” Brutus gasped. “Who’re ya hating t’nite?”

“A play.”

“A play? Ya mean the actors?”

“No.” Theo’s tone was very precise. “I mean the play.”

“Hold on. Hold on.” Brutus held the shield away. “Are you going at the play like you’re going at this?”

“E tu, Brute?” Theo used his glove to swipe at the sweat pouring off his forehead. “So now you’re a theatre critic?”

“I ain’t a critic. But you hit the play like you’re hitting the shield and I reckon all the guys here will wanna come and see it.”

“You do?” Theo looked around. There were around thirty men and women. No doubt, each had partners or families. Hmm, a special deal for them and he’d have one good night of bums on seats. Yes, he definitely could hit the play a bit harder. “Brutus, my darling, you’ve just earned a free double. In fact, I might even ask your help in directing the bloody thing.”

“That’s great.” Brutus lowered the shield ready for more punching. “But why call me darling?”

“Because you are so precious…s.” Theo imitated the gollum from Lord of the Rings. “Come, let’s have a bash in the ring.”

*****

Kurt paused as he opened his car door. “You got a moment, Notso.”

Notso-Curt Copperfeet, born Bill Smith, had changed his name on the advice of his spirit guides, Big Chief What-Am-I-Doing-In-The-Great-Southern-Land and Little Squaw Live-With-It. Notso brushed back his lank fair hair. “Wife’s not expecting me back till late.” Outside of the theatre, he fell back on his native north English accent.

“Okay, follow me home in your car.”

That was only a ten-minute drive across Nambour and, on arriving home, two and a half children ran out to greet them. The half was a bow-legged Staffy. Notso received almost as many hugs as did Kurt. He also puckered his lips in hope, however, he didn’t get a big kiss from Kurt’s wife.

Kurt shooed them all away. “It’s safe in my study.” He approached a door with three keyholes and, to open it, three separate keys had to be inserted in the right order. Kurt grinned. “It helps to be obsessive-compulsive. Things stay where you put them.”

Notso was deeply impressed on stepping through the doorway, as the study was a hi-tech media centre. Kurt slid a disc into a machine with a giant screen. “Pull up a chair, belt into your popcorn and shut up. We’re going to watch some classics.”

With a puzzled look, Notso gazed at the screen. His expression went through a series of I-sees as first Charlie Chaplin came on scene then Buster Keaton and then the Keystone Cops. Notso’s jaw dropped.

“You think we can do that?” Kurt asked.

“Us?” Notso dropped his hand into a big box and was so bewildered that he stuffed popcorn into his ear - or perhaps, he was already in rehearsal. “Yeah? Uh, maybe.” He managed to find his mouth. “Yes, I think we can.” With a silly grin, he chewed noisily but mechanically as his mind rehearsed the antics on the screen.

*****

Alan lived in Coolum Beach, smack bang on the coast. In the wee hours, trawlers left its shores and went fishing. Some of the catch went to local restaurants and small traders. Nearly all of which was sold by the time that Alan was able to head home. In Bli Bli, however, he did have a semi-secret supplier in the form of a small fish 'n chip shop. So on his way home, Alan stopped in the small shopping centre. Over the roof of his car, he could see the unexpected sight of a Norman castle. It was a huge affair with turrets, spires and circumscribing crenulated walls. Its activities were well advertised on the Sunshine Coast, including a notice on the window of the fish 'n chip shop:

Bli Bli Castle Open Day

Medieval Festival

Jousts

Markets & Fayre

Entry is free

Alan read it. “I’ll have to dust off my suit of armour,” he thought and grinned.

He was a tall thin man with high-cheek bones and a curved beak of a nose. He made a good corpse, an excellent corpse. But no way could he imagine himself clanking around in heavy armour. It wasn’t just the weight. It was also the height. The tallest suit would only reach down to his knees. He’d be like a kid in shorts. Waiting and grinning, Alan considered the menu: prawns, flathead, whiting. Whiting! He startled and then, to his embarrassment, he laughed out loud. Whiting and a scaled-down suit of armour. Yes, he could now make a contribution to the play.

*****

At two on the next afternoon, all of the cast were present.

“Darlings,” Theo was flushed with excitement, “I have an idea.”

“Us two, too.” Kurt indicated himself and Notso.

“And t’me.” Alan was so excited that his northern accent was scarcely comprehensible.

“Oh.” Theo made a little ‘o’ with his mouth. Who to go first? “Okay, let’s kick off with Kurt.”

Kurt began but not with words. He and Notso performed a perfect little mime.

“Beautiful, darlings, beautiful.” Theo waved his hands. “And you’ve got more?”

Indeed, they had. Ideas poured out and a ripple of excitement ran through the cast. Actors spoke, performed, and Alan even sang his blues: I’ve been down so long, I can’t up.

Finally, Theo clapped his hands for silence. “We’ve only got a week.” He scanned their faces. “Can we do it?”

Everyone looked at everyone else. Then in one voice, they shouted, “Yes!”

“Okay, let’s take it from the top.” Theo threw out his arms. “And this time, we’ll be so far beyond hammy, it’ll almost be kosher!”

*****

The door burst open. It flew off its hinges, somersaulting two figures into the room.

“I heard a noise!” Kurt Ironhand shouted.

“I’m not surprised.” Notso held the door to the audience and shrugged as if to say, Who wouldn’t have heard a noise? The audience giggled. Unexpected dust from the door, however, made Notso sneeze.

“I heard a nose!” Kurt Ironhand shouted.

He looked sideways at Notso. He couldn’t help it, nose hadn’t been in the script, even their modified script, and they both started to snigger. The audience, having heard rumours, happily joined in.

Resting the door on the wall, they prowled around the settee. Seeing nothing, they headed for the far wall.

“There!” Kurt pointed dramatically.

In pure mime, they both reared back in perfect unison. Notso then tried to hide behind Kurt as they both gazed into the far corner. A body lay on the ground.

“It’s Alan.” Notso’s voice shook. “And he’s lying in a pool of blood.”

“Not a pool.” Kurt’s voice warbled melodramatically. “That’s more like a bloody lake. He must’ve lost twenty litres.”

“Twenty, at least.” Notso nodded thoughtfully. “Only twelve more than average.”

Kurt opened his arms wide. “Yes, but Alan used to be a real whale.”

Notso looked up and suddenly gripped Kurt’s arm. “What’s that on the wall?”

Kurt’s gaze followed Notso’s. “Writing! Writing on the wall! In his own blood.”

“What’s it say?” Notso looked away. “I can’t bear to look.”

Kurt’s voice slowed. “The… whiting… on… the… wall...”

“The… the what?”

“The… whiting… on… the… wall...”

“Oh!” Notso lifted his eyes. Big red letters painted out the message: the whiting on the wall… “That’s fishy!”

“He is wearing a fish costume.”

They dragged Alan from behind the settee. He was wearing a too-short costume with glittering scales. They dropped him and he died. The audience applauded a good death so he sat up and did it again. The audience howled.

“He’s either dead…” Kurt began.

“Or else he had a whale of a time!” Notso finished, pronouncing the h so that the audience tittered.

As Theo had predicted, the night was a night of pure ham, the actors laughing as much as the audience.

“More ham,” the audience yelled. “Give us more ham.”

At the end, the cast pulled Theo on stage.

“Blame him,” Kurt shouted and the audience happily booed and hissed.

Everyone went out grinning and, unusually, even stayed to chat with the cast.

As The Nambour Times reported on Monday, “It was so bad, it was brilliant.”

And, of course, Theo’s contract was renewed.

----------------------------------------------------
Bio:
I was born in London in 1943 but moved to Canberra, Australia in 1970 after completing a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence. Towards the end of 1974, I left research to: teach tai chi and yoga; work in the Australian Public Service; and more recently to work as a craftsman. Since 1997, I have been living on the Sunshine Coast, Qld, with my artist wife, Judith. I have published academic papers, poetry and had plays performed. Most recently, I have been writing speculative fiction including The Gift and A Fishy Romance: http://www.theweekender.com.au/features_det.php?id=355