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Best laid plans, it is said, often go awry, but Ned had no knowledge of this saying. He woke fresh from his earlier than usual departure from the tavern, and was in good humour as he conducted his ablutions. Sean had walked Nora home before taking up his pitch along the road from the Olympia theatre, and Ned stopped off for a cup of coffee and a bun.
‘I’ll be buying the drinks tonight,’ he told Sean. ‘This role will be the making of me, you know.’
Sean wished him well and it was a jaunty walk that carried Ned into the theatre. The auditorium seemed to hold the cold, Ned’s breath as white as his frozen hands. In the pits he saw Sam McCarthy already sitting ready for auditions to begin. Daniel Johnson, the obvious Othello, was onstage with Kitty who nervously clutched her script.
‘Ned.’ Sam waved him over. ‘Come and meet Patrick.’
A tall young man unfolded himself from the bench next to Sam, reaching out to shake Ned’s hand. ‘Pleased to meet you, Ned.’
Sam handed both men a sheet of paper. ‘As per the posted notice we’ll be going from Act I, Scene II. Daniel, of course, knows the lines back to front and inside out. Do not let this distract you: I will be looking for the most convincing Iago, not the man who can memorise his lines the quickest.’
‘You are auditioning as well?’ Ned failed to hide his surprise. He had thought only he and Robert Stanley had signed up for the role, and Stanley was a milksop mother’s boy who looked ten years younger than his twenty five years.
‘Patrick played Iago in the Bristol production this summer,’ Sam told him.
Ned’s good mood seeped quickly through the cracks in his rigid smile. Patrick and Sam began to talk of the Bristol company, recounting an amusing incident that had occurred when Patrick’s trousers had ripped in a particularly awkward place mid scene. He sat down heavily on the bench and barely noticed as hush fell, Kitty delivering a strong audition that guaranteed her as Desdemona.
‘Next!’ Sam called out. ‘Ned Bennett, that’s you.’
Ned climbed the steps to the stage with legs that seemed less than firm, unsafe even though they were heavy. Daniel shook his hand and Ned took up his spot opposite the African American, always surprised by the way Daniel displaced the air around him, imposing himself on his surroundings.
It did not go well. Ned twice lost his place, stammering as his eyes flitted frantically to find the right words. He dropped the paper in a fluster, Daniel stooping to pick it up, placing a hand on Ned’s arm to calm him. As soon as he could, he leapt from the stage, head down and marching towards the door, intent on making it to the nearest tavern.
Sam came to find him not a quarter of an hour later. Ordering two gins, he pulled up a stool.
‘How did you find me?’
‘Mr Arnold saw you leave and I was lucky with my guess.’ Sam passed a full glass to Ned. ‘Everyone has bad days, Ned.’
‘Was there even a chance, though? Against Patrick I mean.’ Ned downed the gin and winced. ‘You were always going to give the role to him.’
‘Patrick is very good. He’s played the role a number of times, and he and Daniel work well together. I admit, I would have leaned towards him regardless, but I like you Ned. Patrick likes to travel around. He’s not loyal, and I think that you could be a great asset to this theatre.’
‘Thank you,’ Ned mumbled, unsure in the face of this unexpected compliment.
‘I want you to understudy. Play Cassio for me, do it well, and I promise you I will reward you for keeping faith in me.’
It was hard for Ned, to swallow his pride. But this at least was something good. Something he could use to offset the humiliation of admitting to his friends that he had failed. And who knew – perhaps something would happen to Patrick and Ned would be Iago after all.