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The Understudy: Chapter 1

EXTRACT

Chapter 1 

 

Sophie

 

Dress Rehearsal – After Party 

 

‘Oh, for God’s sake hurry up.’ 

She’s standing behind me, hands on hips, a reverse image in my mirror. 

‘All right, I’m coming.’ I rub the bristles of a make-up brush over my palm, consider dusting my face with it one more time, then put it back into my make-up kit on the dressing table. No need to overdo it. 

‘You’ve been saying that for ten minutes. The party started half an hour ago.’ 

‘I know, but it’s just down the hallway and nobody’s leaving any time soon.’ And better to arrive a little late than too early, I think to myself. 

‘That’s not the point, Soph. If we don’t go now, I won’t get anywhere near Ben all night.’ 

‘And that would be a bad thing?’ I mutter, as I switch off the lights on either side of the mirror. ‘Well, it would be for me.’

I shake my head but push back from the dressing table. It’s set in a little cubicle formed by lockers built on either side of it and is identical to all the others that line the perimeter of the ladies’ chorus dressing room. 

I spin around to get out of my chair, but as I do I knock a pot of cold cream off the counter. It flies through the air and smacks into a metal wardrobe rack in the centre of the room, making a tiny ‘ting’ sound before smashing into several pieces and oozing its contents all over the floor. 

The rack is hung with our silk brocade kimonos in every glorious pastel colour of the rainbow. The sight of them, hung up in almost rainbow order, makes me want to sink my face into the fabric. But the shattered pot means I must attend to more pressing matters. 

‘Leave it,’ she screeches, already at the door. 

‘I can’t just leave it. Someone could walk in and cut their feet open.’ 

She rolls her eyes to the birch ceiling panels overhead. 

‘And besides,’ I continue, as I look about for something to clean it up with, ‘it’s brand-new carpet.’ She runs back into the room, pops the lid off a can of hairspray sitting on an adjacent dressing table and scrapes the cold cream into it. She pulls a locker door open and dumps the mess into a wastepaper basket before returning to pick up and dispose of the broken pieces. Then she grabs an orange hand towel draped over the back of a nearby chair and makes a half-hearted effort to clean up the residual cream. 

‘Right,’ she says when she’s done, pulling a tissue out of her pocket and wiping her hands with it. ‘Now, come on.’ ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you,’ she continues as she marches down the hallway towards the Green Room. 

‘People would kill to go to this party, and this could be our big opportunity.’ 

I smile. ‘For what?’ 

‘Oh yeah, that’s right, you don’t need a big break. You already have one.’ 

She’s walking so fast I’m having trouble keeping up with her. ‘Janet—’ 

‘Well, it’s true,’ she huffs. ‘You’re Madama Butterfly. I’m just in the chorus.’ 

‘Don’t let Margaret Gardiner hear you say that. Besides, I’m not Madama Butterfly,’ I correct her. ‘I’m the cover and I’m in the chorus too, remember?’ I slow my steps, forcing her to do the same. ‘And . . . we’re not just in the chorus, we’re in this chorus, in this opera house, and we’re performing at the opening. That’s amazing, you know it is.’ 

She stops and stares at me for a moment, then relaxes her shoulders. ‘Yeah,’ she agrees. ‘It’s a bit surreal, isn’t it?’ 

‘Not really, we are fabulous.’ 

She laughs, gives me a quick hug and we resume our march down the hallway. It smells of concrete and salt and earth. 

The noise hits us as we round the wall at the end of the corridor. 

‘Oh no,’ she groans. ‘I’ll never be able to find him now.’ 

She has a point. The Green Room is crowded. On this occasion it’s not just the Butterfly cast and crew that is partying, but the entire opera company, including management. Although I don’t know any of them by sight, there are probably some people from opera house management too, as well as members of the orchestra. I can barely see the bar at the back of the room, let alone one short dark tenor. 

‘Sure you will.’ 

I realise I will have to help her now, given it’s my fault we’re late. I’m not thrilled by the idea.

‘Sophie, darling, you made it.’

Miss Margaret Gardiner, Australia’s most celebrated soprano and the lead in the opera to be performed at the opening of the brand- new Sydney Opera House.

‘Miss Gardiner,’ I respond, with exactly the amount of reverence that’s expected of me.

‘Do come and join us.’

Why is she being so magnanimous? I look at the people standing with her around the bar table. The beautiful people, including my least favourite, Geoffrey Richardson. Whatever her reasons, it’s an invitation I wouldn’t dream of refusing. I throw Janet a quick glance.

‘And your little friend too, of course,’ Margaret adds, misinterpreting the look.

‘Ah no,’ says Janet. ‘I mean thank you, but I can’t.’

‘You can’t?’ Margaret stirs a pink plastic swizzle stick around in her cocktail glass and the sleeve of her kaftan slips down her arm to her elbow. It’s quite something, that kaftan; electric-blue chiffon embossed with gold leaf butterflies.

Silence falls over the group, and it’s so loud it hurts my ears.

‘No, I can’t, I need to find Ben.’

Margaret raises one perfect black eyebrow. Janet is refusing an invitation to join the beautiful people. Janet, who not five minutes ago was whining about not being given a big break.

‘Anson,’ Geoff supplies. ‘The tenor cover.’

‘Oh, I do know who Ben is,’ Margaret says.

‘And our best tenor, if you ask me,’ says Janet.

It’s not the smartest thing to say, given that standing right next to her is Armando Cecchi, Margaret’s leading man. A man who is in fact, rather than in Janet’s fantasy land, the world’s greatest living tenor and a man whose attention I have long been trying to attract. Apart from a brief smile in passing last week at the sitzprobe – the first, and seated rehearsal with the orchestra – I’ve made no headway whatsoever.

Armando smiles. ‘In that case, I should come and help you look for him, escort him off the premises.’

Everyone laughs, except Janet of course. ‘Thank you, but I work alone.’

‘Off you go then.’ Margaret doesn’t snap her fingers, but she might as well.

Armando watches Janet as she walks away. I can’t decide whether he’s watching her because he wants to know where Ben Anson is, or if he’s simply watching her; plenty of men do.

Margaret also watches for a moment or two, then she says, ‘I think another round. Armando, if would you be so kind?’ She executes a little half twirl to hold her glass out to him. She’s practised that move, I think, because it somehow makes the chiffon fall away to reveal a sapphire-blue silk slip that clings to her body in all the right places.

He turns his attention back to Margaret, taking the still half- full glass from her outstretched hand. ‘A champagne this time I think, darling, let’s celebrate!’

He nods and then, at long last, he looks at me. ‘And for you, Sofia?’

That’s interesting . . . He knows my name.

‘Oh, Sophie doesn’t drink, do you darling?’

‘You don’t drink?’

Bloody Margaret. ‘No, not really,’ I admit. ‘Of course, I’ll have a glass of champagne on opening night.’

The beautiful people titter, and I feel as though the halter-neck midi I took so long choosing, with its bare back and deceptively demure pattern of pink-and-blue flower sprigs, may have been a miscalculation. Only half an hour ago I had thought it was perfect.

‘I understand,’ he says. ‘A successful dress rehearsal is one thing, but opening night will be something to celebrate. Have you tried chinotto?’ At my blank look, he goes on. ‘It is an Italian soft drink, like Coca-Cola.’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘I brought some with me.’

‘From Italy?’

‘Yes, from Italy.’ His eyes are very brown. ‘The gentleman behind the bar was kind enough to put some in the fridge for me. I can get one for you if you would like to try it?’

‘You also brought cases of red wine, didn’t you darling?’ Margaret chimes in, laying a hand on his arm. There’s a gold bracelet around her wrist, studded with sapphires that tone with the blue of her kaftan. ‘Take my advice, Sophie, choose the wine. It’s so much better.’

‘She does not want to drink alcohol tonight, Margaret,’ Armando says, and it sounds like a rebuke. Geoff makes a face and Margaret removes her hand.

‘Perhaps a lime and soda,’ I say quickly.

‘Of course.’ Armando does this funny little thing then, not a bow and not a nod, but something in between, and the thick waves of his hair fall about his face. It’s a little too long, I think – for the naval officer role he’s performing, that is. ‘Anyone else?’

He spends some time taking orders and when he’s done Geoff says, ‘That’s a lot of drinks. I’ll come with you.’ I’d put money on it that the offer is not about lending Armando a hand, but about taking the opportunity to tackle him over that rebuff. He’s a baritone in the chorus – not for Butterfly, of course, because there are no baritones in this Butterfly chorus. He’s here as Margaret’s self- appointed minder, apparently he always has been. He’s so protective of Margaret it’s boring.

‘Oh God, be still my beating heart,’ says one of Margaret’s beautiful people as soon as they are out of earshot.

‘Amen,’ says another, waving herself with an imaginary fan.

‘You’re a lucky woman. Could he be more divine?’

Margaret doesn’t answer for a moment. She is tapping her scarlet- painted nails on the top of the bar table.

‘He’s a fabulous leading man,’ she says finally.

‘More than that, surely?’

Another pregnant pause. ‘I couldn’t ask for a better Lieutenant Pinkerton,’ she says, then looks at me. ‘He seems to have taken a bit of a shine to you.’

I pull my toes into claws in my wedge-heel sandals. ‘Oh no . . . I think he was just being polite.’

She nods and I notice a faint frown line between her brows, and dark shadows under her eyes. ‘He is very polite,’ she agrees. Another long pause. ‘I wouldn’t take his attention seriously if I were you.’

 

The Understudy

Immersed in the underbelly of the theatre world in the gritty streets of Sydney in 1973, this addictive debut will have you wondering just how dangerous ambition – and love – can be.

It’s opening night. The stage is set, the houselights have dimmed and the handsome male lead is waiting. This is your time. Your chance to prove you are so much more than the understudy.

You have worked so hard and would have done almost anything to get here. But not what they are accusing you of – never that. It’s simply bad luck that Australia’s darling of opera has gone missing, throwing the spotlight on you just as the whole world is watching history in the making.

But the show must go on and it’s all down to you. Take a deep breath and get ready to perform the role of your life.


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