Today's Reading

Suddenly he can't be bothered to make tea. He goes to stand at the stable door, looking out across the recumbent forms of the dogs into the cobbled courtyard. The big kitchen, where a long line of smiths once plied their trade, has blackened beams supporting its ceiling, and a slate floor and it is still the heart of the house which— over the years—has been extended to include the adjoining barn and converted into a very comfortable home.

'Camilla and I want you to have the smithy and the barn,' Archie said to him, forty years before. 'We think it's unfair that Dad's left it all to me just because he didn't approve of you being an actor.'

Mungo was very touched but not surprised: the gesture was typical of his older brother's sense of fair play. Archie, a partner in their late father's law practice in Exeter, still had the house, Home Farm and two small cottages, but he was welcome to them. Mungo loved the smithy. It was a perfect place to keep as a bolt-hole from London; coming down on the train from Paddington with his friends, giving parties. Camilla aided and abetted him. She loved his theatre friends, filled his fridge, asked them all up to the house for dinner.

Pretty Camilla: fair hair, fair skin inclining to freckles, generous, practical. She managed Archie, their children and the dogs with cheerful competence. His friends adored her, brought her presents, played with the boys, whilst Archie watched with contented tolerance. Archie and Camilla were his still centre. They'd get a babysitter so as to dash up to London to watch him perform on each first night, going backstage to congratulate him, and camping overnight in his tiny flat. And when he became famous they revelled in his success, shared in his good fortune and celebrated on a grander scale.

Leaning on the stable door in the sunshine, Mungo reflects on the glory days. It was good, back then, to return to his bolt-hole; sometimes alone, more often with a few special friends. He'd never much liked being alone. In those early days Izzy had been his most constant companion: Izzy—and a little later, Ralph.

Izzy's birthday. He hadn't needed the reminder.

Darling Izzy: sexy, complicated, highly strung. She'd started in musical theatre: Ado Annie in Oklahoma! , Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Lois Lane in Kiss Me Kate. He saw the potential actress, masked by low self-esteem and dramatic mood swings, and he persuaded her to audition for Puck in The Dream at the RSC, and later for Ariel in The Tempest. These roles brought her the attention of the critics, and acclaim—and, later, her partnership with him brought her great fame—but her heart remained faithful to those early days.

'I'm just a song-and-dance man,' she'd say. 'I'm terrified that suddenly everyone will realize I'm a fraud.'

They were in rep in Birmingham just beginning rehearsals for Twelfth Night when she first met Ralph Stead. Izzy was cast as Maria, Ralph as Sebastian, Mungo as Feste. They shared gloomy digs and rehearsed in draughty church halls, but they were happy, the three of them. Izzy taught Mungo how to project his voice, singing with him to encourage his light tenor voice: 'Come away, come away, death' and 'When that I was and a little tiny boy.' They practised alone in the hall when everyone else had gone home, Izzy picking out the tune on the ancient piano. One evening she stopped suddenly, looked up at him as he leaned beside her.

'Oh, darling, isn't it hell? I think I'm in love with Ralph.'

Mungo remembers the mix of anxiety and excitement in her brown eyes, the odd clutch of fear in his gut; a brief, sharp foreshadowing of disaster.

'So what, sweetie?' he said lightly. 'So am I. Everyone is in love with Ralph.'

'Are you jealous?' she asked him much later, when she and Ralph became lovers. 'Don't be, Mungo. I need to know you're on my side.'

'I'm always on your side,' he answered. And it was true.

As he leans on the stable door it seems that he can hear her voice, singing somewhere from the lane below him near the old Herm: 'A foolish thing was but a toy, For the rain it raineth every day.'

When he finished singing that, on the first night, alone on the stage at the end of the play, there was a moment's hush in the theatre before the audience exploded into ecstatic applause. Even now his eyes fill with tears as he remembers it; remembers the warm congratulations of the young cast, Ralph's slap on the back, and Izzy's hug, her voice breathing in his ear: 'Oh, well done, well done, darling. That was just perfect.'

Just perfect until terrible old love spoiled it all so disastrously.

'Damn and blast!' says Mungo violently, surprising himself. After all, why should the past disturb him so much today? Because it's Izzy's birthday?

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