There’s still a smudge of make-up across his temple when he finally pushes open the heavy glass stage door. He’s been with the girls since the end of the matinee, eating their Jelly Babies and their chocolate and whining theatrically about his aching muscles and the absurdity of playing a kitten at thirty years of age. He’d pouted for emphasis, a playful glitter in his big brown eyes, and the girls had laughed and mocked him mercilessly, though Dawn and Becca had at least had the decency to hug him whilst they teased. Still, it’s been a long eight shows this week, he thinks, and there were times when people asked them ‘how do you do it’ that he’d been tempted to laugh and simply say he had no idea.
There’s a gutsy wind swirling down the street and Joel tucks his scarf around him a little more tightly; chunky and woolen and patterned jauntily in blues and oranges, yellows and greens. He stifles a yawn and readjusts his overstuffed bag on his shoulder, his other hand attempting to smooth down the tuft of fluffy brown hair that’s been whipped upright by the wind.
‘Excuse me, were you the white cat?’ a voice interrupts his escape. He’d been trying to duck past the small huddle of programme-clutchers, not really in the mood for a night of trying to explain just which one of the twenty-two of those onstage he’d been. But that question he has to stop for. Startled by it, slightly, if he’s honest.
He paused, his expression unguarded and stunned; just-parted lips, eyes wide and surprised. His mouth moves, he thinks, for a whole minute before he forms any actual words – his brain is still show-lagged and it takes more energy than you’d think to muster up the sting of disappointment needed for a stranger’s questioning gaze.
‘The white cat’s…a girl…’ he manages after a beat, still wading through a marsh of disbelief. It’s only Rachel’s splutter behind him that forces him to blink, straighten up a little. He steels his shoulders defiantly.
‘Sorry I just…saw the make-up…’ the programme-clutcher says through a wince, pointing to his temple and biting nervously at her lip. He sighs and forces out a smile, tilting his head.
‘My make-up’s white and brown,’ he explains, then steps aside to let Rachel in. She holds back her laughter long enough to introduce herself as the real white cat of the tour, and she signs the woman’s programme whilst Joel makes a bid for sweet escape.
‘Excuse me?’ So close. He winces but covers, turning his head. Trains his expression just enough to hide the resignation there, ending up somewhere nearer confusion, he thinks, as he regards a pig-tailed young girl, programme outstretched. ‘Were you Carbucketty?’
It’s the first time it’s happened all tour and it’s a jolt to the brain. He can hear Rachel guffawing manically as she tells of his earlier misfortune to a cluster of technicians up the street and he wishes she was still standing with him instead, because that might decrease her level of disbelief later when he tells her he found a fan. ‘You were my favourite,’ the girl is saying, relaying a moment-by-moment replay of every spin and leap he made that night. He’s powerless to do anything but grin and thank her, signing her programme in a rush. The others need to hear this before they leave.
‘Rach! Rach!’ She’s still laughing, back turned to him as he yells after her, and she half-skips a little way, pretending not to hear. ‘Rach, she said Carbucketty’s her favourite!’ he calls, gesturing to the girl. Rachel shoots a look over her shoulder, one eyebrow arched sceptically, lips amused. He folds his arms and scrunches his nose in childish insolence, and it occurs to him that this is the reason he’s still getting the role of kitten at thirty, probably. ‘Rach! Seriously!’ Rachel keeps walking, so Joel rolls his eyes and turns on his heel, looks back to his new biggest fan. ‘Thank you,’ he says again, and he shrugs, tucking his scarf around him a little more tightly; chunky and woolen and patterned jauntily in blues and oranges, yellows and greens. He beams as he readjusts his overstuffed bag on his shoulder, his other hand attempting to give the girl a small wave. He steps back and offers her one final nod. ‘You’re going down in tour history…well, when I get Rach to listen, at least.’