A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
The two of them didn't speak much on the journey home, out of the corner of his eye Fran watched Sam chewing his nails as they sat together on the tram. What exactly was he going to do with the boy? Ideally he'd like to send him back to his family, if Fudge ever ran away from home and he didn't know where she was, or even if she was still alive, he knew he'd feel as if someone had ripped his heart out of his chest, and he wouldn't be able to eat or sleep or breath until he had found her again. The boy's parents must be worried sick about him, but it seemed highly unlikely that Sam would consent to returning home, at least not yet.
Fran decided that the only course of action for the time being was to put Sam to work in the theatre, the boy looked fit and strong, and they could always use an extra pair of hands around the place. Maybe he could get get Fudge to teach Sam the ways of the theatre, like Fran she'd grown up in The Empress and she loved the building just as much as he did, and she'd most likely enjoy having someone to boss around. He hated to think what she would say if she ever found out that he didn't truly own the place any more.
As they walked from the tram stop to Fran's house he explained his plan to Sam. "So what do you know about? Can you do carpentry, or plumbing? I could use a plumber." He asked.
"Cows, I know about cows." Sam replied morosely.
"Hmm, not much call for that I'm afraid, but I'm sure we can find you something, here we are." He pointed up at a tall thin four story house at the end of a row of a dozen other identical houses. Fran trotted up the front steps, unlocked the door then gestured for Sam to follow him inside.
"Fudge! Fudgie! Are you home?" Fran shouted, the lack of reply suggested that she wasn't. "My niece." He explained to a puzzled looking Sam. "She lives here too."
"She's called Fudge?" Sam questioned.
"Yes, well actually she's named Gertrude, after her grandmother, but no one has ever called her that, we've always called her Fudge."
"It was just a nickname that stuck." Fran shrugged. "Felt wrong calling a baby Gertrude. I think you can stay in the downstairs bedroom, come on, I'll show you."
The basement floor of the house contained a bedroom, the kitchen, a small draughty almost outside toilet and the steps up to a concrete yard. The bedroom itself was somewhat cluttered, they generally used it to store things that they couldn't think of anywhere to keep, but Fran wasn't about to give the boy the good guest room or he'd have to turn him out every time someone else came to stay.
"It's a bit of a squash I'm afraid." Fran said as he opened the door to let Sam in, switching the light on because being below pavement level the window let in little natural light even on a bright sunny day. "But then it's not like you have much luggage, or any luggage come to that."
"I guess I don't." Sam took his coat off and hung it over the back of a pair of stacked up chairs, and Fran could see that not only was the boy's coat wet, but so was his shirt underneath.
"Gods, have you been out in this weather all day? You need to change your clothes or you'll catch pneumonia, I'll lend you something of mine. Get that wet stuff off and I'll be back in a minute."
When Fran returned to the basement with some of his old clothes and a towel he found Sam sat on the bed clad only in his underpants, looking up at him and chewing on his thumb nail.
"You want me to do something in payment?" He asked Fran quietly, a blush spreading across his cheeks.
It took Fran a few seconds to get the boy's meaning, and when he did he was monetarily annoyed that Sam could mistake his motives like that. Then he realised Sam didn't know him, and for all he knew Fran made a habit of bringing home stray boys to use for his own ends.
"No, I do not." Fran sighed. "Here." He threw the clothes onto the bed. "Just put them on."
As Fran was about to leave Sam stood up and turned around to pick up the towel, and Fran caught sight of his back. From just above his buttocks as far up as his shoulder blades the boys skin was striped with painful looking welts, some of them were even crusted over with scabs where his skin had been broken.
"Good gods, what happened to you?" Fran blurted out in shock.
"My father did it, with his belt." Came the flat reply.
"Your father? Why ever would he do a thing like that?"
"Because he caught me..." Sam flushed a deep red, leaving his sentence unfinished.
Fran had no idea what to say, what kind of person did that to their own child? "That's why you ran away, your father caught you...erm...with someone, and beat you."
"I'll leave you to get changed." Fran shut the door behind him, thinking that in light of what he'd just seen perhaps trying to send the boy back to his family wasn't the best plan after all.
Sam didn't really know what he was suppose to do now. The man called Fran had gone out, telling him to make himself at home, but Sam wasn't sure what that meant so he stayed in the room, lying on his back on the bed.
The light fascinated him, he'd never seen an electric light before he came to the city and he spent a few minutes flicking the switch on and off, trying to guess how it worked. When that got dull he'd laid down and simply stared at it, attempting to sort the events of the last few hours out in his head.
Fran had looked horrified when Sam had offered himself to him, so he'd come to the conclusion that the man must think he was as disgusting as his father did, but he'd also seemed shocked when he saw his back, so perhaps Fran wasn't quite as bad. He found it hard to understand why Fran had brought him to his house if it wasn't for sex, but at that moment it was his best option. Considerably better than being out in the freezing rain, or being "tried out" by one of Mother's employees anyway.
Sam was exhausted and pretty soon he fell asleep, and it was some hours later when he was woken by a knocking at the bedroom door. The small sliver of sky that was visible from the basement window was black, and all he could see was his own reflection thrown back at him in the glass.
"Um...hello." A voice said from the other side of the door. "It's Fudge, Uncle Fran sent me to check on you. He told me all about you, how you were going to be staying with us for a while and how he rescued you from Mother. Are you in there?"
"Yes...hello." He replied, sitting up and rubbing his face.
"Good." The door flew open and in stepped a short girl of around his age. She was dressed in a dark blue coverall that was too large for her and was liberally splattered in paint, the bottoms were rolled up to reveal that she had a pair of workman's boots on her feet, that were equally paint covered. Her skin was just about the darkest that Sam had ever seen, her hair jet black and poker straight, cut in a sharp line just below her ears, parted on one side and held back off her face with a barrette that was decorated with a large red flower. She had big dark eyes set into a heart shaped face with a wide forehead and a narrow chin, and she reminded Sam a little of a field mouse.
"Are you wearing my uncle's clothes?" She asked as soon as she set eyes on Sam.
"Yes...he lent them to me." He replied defensively.
"It's all right, he doesn't like that shirt anyway." Sam looked down at the shirt, he hadn't really taken it in before, but now he noticed that it was patterned with a bright yellow and a mustard yellow check.
He looked back up at the girl again, wondering why she was dressed like she was. Back in the village girls didn't normally wear trousers, the only exception being Jack's adopted sister Dana, but as everyone had thought Nanny's children were a bit strange this didn't really count.
"I know what you're thinking, you're thinking that I don't look much like my Uncle, aren't you?"
"Um..." He hadn't been, but now she mentioned it he could see that she what she meant. Fudge was a completely different colour to Fran, but other than that they were quite similar, they both shared the same small, slight build and face shape.
"It's because I take after my father, he's a Surosian prince."
"A Surosian prince?" Sam questioned. He very vaguely knew where Surosia was, it somewhere in the north west of the Northern Continent, and he also knew that there had been war between them and his country of the Twin Islands recently, which the Twin Islands had won, but that was all.
"Yes, my mother had a grand affair with him. They were very much in love but his father wouldn't let him marry a foreign commoner so she had to leave him when she fell with me, but one day Mama is going to take me there to meet him." Fudge grinned happily at the thought. "And he'll show me around the royal palaces and he'll introduce me to the king."
"You've never met your father?"
"No, but I will one day." She insisted. Sam almost wished that he had never met his. "You have to come with me, Uncle Fran wants you to come and see the theatre, he says you can work there with me."
"Oh. What do you do?"
"Everything!" She exclaimed. "Everything except performing anyway, I leave that to Mama. Has my uncle told you who she is?"
"No." Sam shook his head.
"Ava Aviva, the Parnell nightingale!" Fudge looked at him expectantly.
"Ava..." He frowned.
"Aviva, the Aviva bit is a stage name. You must have heard of her, she's just about the most famous female singer on the circuit."
"Sorry, I haven't." Sam replied.
"How can you not have? She's performed in every major theatre both here and abroad."
"I've never been to the theatre." Sam explained.
"Never!" Fudge looked at him as if he'd just told her that he'd never worn shoes.
"No. I've never been to a city before now. In my village we used to have a troop of actors that would come through sometimes and do plays in the village hall, and I saw them twice though."
Sam had seen them perform two different plays. In the first one a girl dressed up and pretended to be her brother, and everyone in the play took her for her brother, even though she was clearly a girl in boy's clothes. In the second one a man pretended to be another man by putting a hat and false beard on, and everyone in the play took him to be the other man, even though he obviously wasn't. Sam had thought both these plays to be pretty stupid.
"That's drama." Fudge rolled her eyes. "The Empress is a variety theatre, you know, singers, dancers, comedians, magicians, spesh acts. Come on, I'll show you."
Sam had never seen a palace, but he couldn't imagine that one could be grander or more splendid than The Empress. They had entered through the foyer, and he'd been impressed by the two cut crystal chandeliers that illuminated its elegantly wood panelled interior, but that was nothing compared to the auditorium, as Fudge had told him it was called. The walls were lined in a rich blue shot silk and beneath his feet lay a thick blue and gold patterned carpet. The ceiling stretched far away overhead and was painted gold and cream and and covered in plaster relief of flower swags and frolicking cherubs. All around him were hundreds of seats, every single one empty and all upholstered in a plush gold fabric that glowed in the light of dozens of wall brackets, each of them with four branches and every branch containing a single electric bulb.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Fudge asked as she watched Sam taking it all in.
"Yes." He agreed. "But why is it empty?"
"Because it's the start of the week, we don't start doing shows until mid week."
"Oh." Sam wasn't quite sure he understood, but he nodded anyway.
Above them on the stage was a huge canvas that filled the whole area, top to bottom and side to side. It was half painted with a picture of a peaceful flower meadow in the foreground, and snow capped mountains fading away into the distance. A tall dark haired man stood on a wooden platform erected between two ladders and was adding to it with paints from a number of jars by his feet. As Sam watched him Fran came and joined the pair of them between the seats.
"What do you think of our theatre?" Fran asked him.
"Beautiful." Sam said, noticing Fudge and her uncle exchanging pleased smiles at this. "Why is that man painting a picture up there?" He pointed to the stage.
"It's not a picture, it's a back cloth, our new flower meadow back cloth, I commissioned it."
"But what's it for?" Sam quizzed him.
"For an act to perform in front of, and to transport the audience into another, more beautiful place." Fran replied. "You see they come here for all the things they don't have in their lives, glamour, beauty, excitement, fun, views of mountain pastures."
"But it's not real, it's just a painting." Sam pointed out.
"Right now it is, yes." Fran agreed. "But when the lights are on it, and a pretty girl is standing singing in front of it a kind of alchemy happens and paint and cloth become, at least for a short while, as real as the audience wants it to be."
"I see." Sam replied, not at all sure that he did. Not least because he had no idea what "alchemy" meant.
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