The Lesser Tufted Mundy
Summer in Oxford, and there’s a constant end-of-term hum in the air. The mood has persisted all the way down from Llandudno, following them through Southampton and Eastbourne and onward to Canterbury, making the whole company a little giddy. In the late afternoon a group of swings sit on benches outside the theatre, demolishing pastries and giggling in the sun, eyes delighted behind oversized shades as they make plans for tomorrow and the end of their Oxford run.
Their dressing room is the smallest, but it catches the most sun, and Dawn and Rachel have taken up residence in the corner, a selection of sweets between them as they sit cross-legged on the floor. Adam’s standing at the mirror, making a start on his make-up, and Zak is catching marshmallows in his mouth as Rachel throws them at him from the other side of the room. Alex is folded up on a chair, nursing a mug of tea and reading the paper, pretending not to laugh at Dawn, who pulls faces at him between nibbles of chocolate buttons. There’s a mix of peace and mischief in the air that belongs, exclusively, to a tour in summer.
They’ve almost forgotten Ben’s there until Callum gets in and calls up a greeting to him as he dumps his bags by his chair. Ben beams back at him brightly, and everyone looks up, instinctively drawn to the force of his grin. He’s perching on the ledge of the tiny, high window, knees pulled up to his chest. All the girls can really see of him is the white crescents of his shoes, but he’s there, and they just know he’s smiling. A mop of dark, fluffy hair falls across his face, and the sunlight from the window catches on his twinkling brown eyes, starbursts of light dancing in them. The soft lines of his smile are a study in friendliness and he’s a nonsense of sweetness; kind-voiced and open-faced.
His phone has died – of causes unknown – and his digs, despite possessing a comfortable bed and a stylish bright red toaster, are not equipped with internet. He’s learnt, over the course of three afternoons, that the only place in the city where his laptop gets signal is high up along the theatre’s back wall. His pre-show-prep time has been accordingly reassigned so he can email friends and family and assure them he’s not fallen into an orchestra pit or been kidnapped by a swing-gone-rogue. It’s taking all his powers of concentration to type without dropping his laptop onto Adam’s head, the back of which bobs about somewhere near his feet, but he makes the effort all the same, figuring it’s a good exercise in balance, and also not entirely convinced it can be safe to share a dressing room with a long-limbed man suffering a concussion.
‘You look like a baby bird,’ Callum remarks suddenly, leaning against the dressing table and ignoring Alex’s grumble of complaint as make-up scatters every which way. The girls both ‘Aw’ and Adam chuckles, but it’s Zak – in a cheeky and high-spirited mood – whose eyes light up with glee.
‘And here, we can observe the Lesser Tufted Mundy,’ he beams, jumping up and onto a chair. He adopts his best David Attenborough whisper, a glint in his dark eyes as he peers up towards where Ben is sitting. His stance is all-drama, a half-crouch, head at an angle, one hand pointing up towards Ben, fingers splayed for effect. ‘The juvenile, out on his own for the first time, scavenging for free Wi-Fi in the wild,’ he adds, snickering shamelessly and dodging expertly as the girls – scolding half-heartedly – launch sweets in the direction of his back. A marshmallow bounces off his shoulder, landing in Alex’s tea.
‘Juvenile?!’ Ben squeaks, pulling his most outraged face, the effect somewhat offset by the sunshine on his bright, enthusiastic face, highlighting his warm, unwavering smile.
‘Lesser Tufted?’ Adam cuts in. ‘Have you seen his hair today? I don’t think he’s even brushed it.’ His voice is soft and mischievous as he speaks, not looking up from his mirror, attention still on his make-up, supposedly. In response, Ben twists himself precariously to deliver a harmless kick to his friend’s back, not bothering to hide the curve of amusement in his smile. He’s too powerfully friendly to muster annoyance at the dressing room’s collective decision to mock him without mercy, but he can’t deny revenge is sweet. Adam is jarred, just slightly, by the kick. Enough for an eccentric black line be shooting up across his forehead. He pauses for a moment to study the effect, leaning in a little closer, eyes thoughtful. A second later and he straightens up, starting work once more like nothing happened, painting around the line as though it isn’t even there. Ben just laughs – the sound bright and exasperated – before gathering his laptop (and his life) up in his arms as he shifts his weight a little way along the ledge.
He jumps down with impressive grace, and no-one in the room so much as flinches. It occurs to him that sharing a room with three acrobats is not the way to win praise for death-defying leaps. He just catches Dawn smiling at him knowingly from over her sweet packet, and his whole face lights up with it, his lips curving up and up until he’s forced into a grin. She tilts her head, eyes pixie-bright as she tosses him a marshmallow by way of reward, and she arches one eyebrow, impressed, when he catches it artfully.
‘How did you even get up there anyway?’ she asks, her delicate features scrunching up suddenly in pretty confusion, and Ben chuckles as he moves over to his mirror.
‘How do you think?’ Adam puts in before Ben can reply, drawing himself up to his full six-to-ten feet in height, and somewhere beneath his make-up, one perfect eyebrow is arched playfully. His eyes meet Ben’s in the mirror. ‘You should really be nicer to me.’ The two of them share a smile before Ben cuts the moment and sticks out his tongue. Adam narrows his eyes and supresses a grin before turning away, and Ben notes it down as a victory.
Humming happily, he pops his marshmallow in his mouth, glancing back over his shoulder at Dawn with a shrug.
‘I’m actually an evil genius,’ he explains, before laughing at her sceptical look. ‘Hey; one smile from me and he’ll do anything,’ he adds, head bobbing towards Adam. ‘It’s all part of my plan to rule the world; get the giants on my side.’ He nods sagely, lips curved in a smirk which is sweeter than anyone’s should be, and Dawn shakes her head slightly, folding her arms.
‘I think I could live with you ruling the world,’ she concedes quietly.
On the other side of the dressing room, Alex prods gingerly at the marshmallow still floating in his tea.