A Treading the Boards Novella
A trip down to Cornwall is just what Ryan Penniford needs to recover from the daily grind of London life. Ryan and his amateur dramatics society, the Sarky Players, are traveling to Porthcurno to perform at the stunning Minack Theatre.
Stuart Box has returned to Cornwall after earning his PhD, and is killing time as he looks for a job back in London. Spending time with Ryan from the Sarky Players is a great way to take his mind off things.
During their first meeting, sparks fly, but not in a good way, and they must work to get past their initial hostilities to discover they have great off-stage chemistry. Stuart soon learns Ryan is not the superficial man people assume he is, and Stuart likes what he sees. The feeling is entirely mutual.
Pity Ryan is only visiting for two weeks, but both men want to see where this holiday romance might take them.
STUART SPLUTTERED as he took a deep breath of sea air. He must’ve been away from Cornwall for too long if the once restorative powers of the sea made him sound like he had bronchitis. He lifted his heavy rucksack into a more comfortable position and set off down the coastal path and away from where he’d asked his friend to drop him.
No one had thought to tell the weather it was meant to be high summer—the gray sky threatened rain. The strong, warm wind buffeted Stuart, despite him being weighed down with the possessions from his now ex-house share. July in Cornwall could be amazing, but not today. The weather gods must be suffering from a hangover and were taking out their annoyance on the inhabitants of Porthcurno. Stuart stepped to one side to let a family of five pass by, the little boy taking great delight in antagonizing his two older sisters with a constant barrage of whys.
He should have asked to be dropped closer to the service road to his mum’s cottage, but he’d been away from the sea for so long and jumped at the chance for a twenty-minute walk following the coast. He hadn’t factored in the heavy rucksack on his back or the way the straps might dig into his shoulders. When would he learn not to romanticize the mundaneness of daily life? Maybe if he’d got his head out of the clouds, he’d have a job rather than be slinking back home to do his job-hunting. His PhD in molecular developmental biology was all very well and good, but it didn’t help his temporary employment chances in the Cornish tourist industry while he looked farther afield for an academic position.
As he approached the bar gate across the path to a small collection of cottages, he saw Malcolm leaning against the gate. “Back again, I see. Big Smoke too smoky for you?”
Malcolm had been a fixture of the village for as long as Stuart could remember. The only thing that seemed to change was the extent of the gray hair on his head and in his beard.
“Not exactly. But it’s always nice to be back by the sea.”
“I dare say you couldn’t have picked a uni farther from the sea if you tried.”
“London’s not quite that bad, Malcolm.”
“Well, your mum’ll be glad to see you. Talks about you all the time.”
“She’s always been one to bore the neighbors.”
Malcolm patted him on the shoulder and opened the gate. Walking toward the cottage brought back a flood of memories from growing up there and playing with Malcolm’s cheeky Tibetan terrier. Shirley, Malcolm’s wife, used to spoil him rotten, making Stuart chocolate chip cookies during their frequent babysitting stints.
“Your mum’s not sent me deaf yet, lad. Even after living next to her for all these years. Speak of the devil, ’ere she comes.”
Moments later Stuart was engulfed, not really caring that some people would consider him too old to be hugged by his mum.
Malcolm chuckled. “Careful there, Fi. You’ll break the lad.”
Fiona pulled away, and Stuart was powerless to stop her pressing a wet kiss to his cheek. “Nonsense, my little man’s made of sterner stuff. He won’t break from a mama cuddle.”
Stuart wiped away the bright pink lipstick, knowing complaining would result in a matching smear on the other cheek. Malcolm waved a good-bye as he headed for his own cottage. Stuart let Fiona lead him inside.
“It’s so lovely to have you home, Stuart. Even the cat’s missed you.”
“If Sprocket’s missed me, then it’s only because she had one less minion to open her food.”
Stuart unbuckled his rucksack, shrugged it off his back, and set it down to rest against the kitchen table leg. The sense of nostalgia hit him hard as he saw nothing in the large kitchen had really changed from his last visit home; a mixture of cooking paraphernalia and the odds and sods that made up Fiona’s craft supplies still cluttered the surfaces. The only difference since his visit last Christmas was a new oil painting above the inglenook fireplace.
Fiona glanced over her shoulder as she filled the kettle at the sink. “Oh, that. It was an early birthday present from a friend.”
“Your birthday’s not until September.”
“It’s a good job he gave it me when he did, since we’re not that sort of friends anymore.”
Stuart groaned, opened a cupboard, and grabbed the biscuit barrel before sitting at the table. “He was one of those friends.”
“Yes, if you must know.” Fiona busied herself making a cup of tea. “Nice chap. Bit too clingy at the end.”
“Not another one mistaking a holiday fling for finding his true love?”
“It’s not my fault, Stuart. I can’t help being friendly.”
As long as she was careful, he didn’t mind her being a free spirit. He’d had a long line of “uncles” while growing up, and the majority of them had tried to bribe their way into his affections to get into his mum’s good books, as his extensive Lego collection could testify.
“I know, just be careful.”
“Anyone would think you were the parent, not the other way around.” She laughed as she placed a cup of tea on the table in front of him and ruffled his hair. “Y’know, I’m not exactly a mumsy mum.”
“Who said I wanted one of them?”
“Good job too.”
Stuart knew that Fiona Box had been accused of a lot of things in her time, several of them not so pleasant, but being mumsy wasn’t one of them. She tottered around the kitchen in her high-heeled slingbacks and tight jeans, wearing a long top cinched at the waist by a wide belt. They’d had a blazing row over her dress sense two days after his sixteenth birthday, Stuart embarrassed at having a mum younger than everyone else’s and dressing like it too. One very painful month of seeing her miserable in shapeless cardigans and sensible black trousers made him feel such an arse that he’d apologized. She’d cried, and never again would he ask her to change for his benefit.
Fiona pulled a saucepan out of a cupboard. “Right, what you want to eat? I could do orange dinner?”
“I see your cooking skills haven’t got any better?”
“Nothing wrong with fish fingers, chips, and baked beans… hardly stunted your growth, did it? I thought at one point if you were going to grow any taller, I’d have to have the doors altered.”
“That serves you right for bringing me up in a hobbit’s hole.”
Her mobile vibrated on the table, and she checked it and frowned. “Arse.”
“I was hoping to give my tickets for tonight to Mel, but she can’t go.”
Stuart fished around in the biscuit barrel in the hope of finding another chocolate digestive. “Why aren’t you going? I thought you went to see all the plays?”
“You’re home. I can’t leave you when you’ve just got back.”
“Bollocks to that.” He claimed the last chocolate biscuit hiding under a garibaldi. “I don’t need a babysitter. I’m sure whoever your date is will be disappointed if you cancel.”
“Cheeky bugger! So you know, I haven’t got a date. I bought those tickets months ago. I’d hate to see them both go to waste.”
“I could come with you… just as long as it’s not a Chekov.”
“Really? I thought you’d have better things to do than want to be seen with your old mum.”
Stuart shrugged. It wasn’t as if he minded going out with his mum, and he hardly knew anyone around Porthcurno anymore. Most of his friends had escaped Cornwall and not come back, except for obligatory family visits. “Since when’s forty-one old?”
“If you’re sure….”
“As I said, as long as it isn’t Chekov…. I couldn’t bear another bloody awful version of The Cherry Orchard.”
“Never fear. It’s Rebecca.”
“That settles it. I’m a good Cornish boy; I like a bit of Du Maurier. And it’ll give me the chance to speak to Mike. I’m hoping that while I’m here for the summer, I’ll be able to volunteer at the theater like I used to. I can’t spend every minute filling in application forms.”
“Lovely.” Fiona beamed. “Oh, will Tim be coming to visit?”
“Subtle, Mum. Real subtle. I told you we weren’t together together.”
“He sounded so nice on the phone.”
Stuart huffed. “He was nice, really sweet, but he was always planning to head off overseas with Médecins Sans Frontières and we were just killing time.”
“Oh. You all right about it, love?”
He’d also come to the conclusion years ago that he had a much more open relationship with his mum than anyone else he knew. She’d bought him his first pack of condoms and tube of lube when he’d told her he was gay. A little early for a fourteen-year-old, but still, her heart was in the right place. At least she waited until he was seventeen to buy him the Gay Kama Sutra.
“Yeah, fine. Tim was never going to be Mr. Forever. I’m happy enough being single for a while. He was probably a bit too nice for me.”
“No such thing as too nice a man.”
“If you say so. Let’s just leave it at he didn’t push my buttons, all right?”
She wrinkled her nose as if deciding whether to continue digging or not. Much to Stuart’s relief, on this occasion she seemed satisfied to leave it be. “Fine. Take your bag upstairs. We’ll head out after dinner… and don’t forget to bring a cushion.”
Stuart drained his mug—the tea was at the perfect temperature to be dealt with in a few gulps—got up, and grabbed his bag. “I’ve been going to the Minack every summer for as long as I can remember. Do you really think I’d pull a rookie mistake like not bringing a cushion?”