Caroline Parker paced the back of the stage trying to calm her nerves. It was her big break, something which she had worked hard at and she really shouldn’t let her nerves ruin it for her. She didn’t come all the way to Madrid to fail. Being chosen as an understudy for Maria Rodriguez was half a dream come true, now the other half had fallen onto her lap when Maria decided she had had enough of the leading man’s unreasonable behaviour.
Caroline couldn’t understand why he was being so difficult, being harsh to Maria and even vulgar at times, spewing obscenities that made even the men in the cast gasp in embarrassment. Maria, being the leading lady and a prima donna, certainly wouldn’t stand such a humiliating experience and after a few weeks of rehearsals, decided to call it quits. That was where Caroline came in.
“All right, can we start now? Where’s Carlos?” the stage director asked, looking around the theatre. He’s such a pain in the arse, being late was one thing, he had an ego bigger than his head, Juan Perez fumed silently.
“Did someone just called my name?” the booming voice of the primo baritono was heard even before the owner appeared.
“Carlos, please, we’re running out of time,” Juan rubbed a hand over his face in exasperation. He had lost a leading lady for the time being, they needed to get started with her understudy in order to be ready for opening night. They had only three days to persuade Maria to come back and they seriously needed a Plan B if that failed.
“I see Maria is absent. That’s alright, she can’t act to save herself, let’s see what this lady can do,” Carlos inclined his head in Caroline’s direction.
“I want to hear her sing first,” he said before Juan could get everyone ready. All the roles were worked out and everyone knew what they were supposed to do on stage; the stage design was set, the costumes, props and lighting ready. However, Caroline needed more practise since she hardly had a chance to rehearse with Carlos.
Juan rolled his eyes heavenwards before motioning to Caroline to sing her part. She stood in front of Carlos and sang one of the solo parts in The Beauty and The Beast, with conviction in her eyes and emotion in her voice. Carlos was impressed but the fact that she was so young played on his mind. Would she be able to handle the pressure of singing night after night?
Caroline sang the words she had spent nights memorising and had paid a lot of attention to Maria when they rehearsed. She felt good; her voice was in top form and somehow, it wasn’t difficult to let the emotion flow. She had often imagined singing beside Carlos and worried about her nerves showing but strangely enough, she didn’t feel nervous at all. It was as if she was made to sing for him.
“Enough. You’ll do,” he said curtly.
Caroline bit her lower lip, stifling a response to that. She wanted to tell him she could do much more but having seen his temper, she wasn’t going to risk it. She would bide her time and show him what she was made of.
When the rehearsal ended, Carlos turned to Juan and was immediately deep in discussion.
“Where did she come from? What credentials have she got?” he asked the director.
“She has performed in New Zealand and Australia before. She’s half-Spanish, and speaks Spanish fluently.”
“But why get someone so young? She doesn’t look to be over twenty,” Carlos kept his conversation private as there were others around them, most notably the new girl. He didn’t want to scare her off for he thought she was quite good and besides, they needed a leading lady.
“Maria suggested her. Seems like they are related in some way,” Juan replied. “Carlos, you have to help get Maria back. Opening night is just a few days away, we might end up with just half the audience if news that Maria isn’t performing gets out,” he pleaded with his leading man.
“Trust me, Juan, we’re better off without her. I’ve done enough stage performances to know that. So what if she can sing? She needs to know how to act too. This girl, What’s her name, can sing, and there is emotion not just in the voice but on her face too. That’s what we need.”
“But she can’t draw the crowd,” Juan was getting frustrated. The audience wouldn’t be pleased with a substitute, especially one who was unknown in this part of the world.
“We will hype her up with some interviews. Have a journalist come and witness our rehearsal and let him or her write about the experience. Get Carmela, she always gives good review when I’m acting,” Carlos gave a little snigger and the connotation behind his words wasn’t lost on his director.
Sighing, the short, bald-headed director nodded his head, “All right, we’ll do as you say, but please, let me run the show from now on, ok?”
“Ok, boss,” the star winked before heading backstage. By now, all the crews and cast members had either left or were still backstage preparing to go home. He mingled with those who were left before Juan called him into his office to further discuss their plan for the press interview. Juan hated to have to depend on his leading man for matters like this but as long as Maria was still missing in action, Carlos’s plan had to be put into action just in case.
They discussed at length how they would explain to the public the missing lead actress and explored the possibility of getting another lead on such a short notice. That option was soon scrapped as no one would be able to just jump into a lead role with only three days to spare. Then there was the problem of explaining to the owner of the opera production company the missing lead actress. Since Maria had only decided not to turn up for work this morning, the boss had not been informed yet. Juan hated to be the bearer of bad news but he had no choice. But before he faced the music, he was going to find an alternative solution.
Caroline was congratulated by the other colleagues for a job well done. Although none of them said anything, they were actually pleased that Maria wasn’t there anymore because pitting Maria against Carlos was like setting off a deadly firework. Nothing got done when the two got together. They often couldn’t decide who was worse: the leading lady who thought she was the queen who commanded the stage and the cast, or the leading man who demanded perfection from everybody, including himself.
Caroline picked up her bag and was getting ready to leave when there was a tap on her shoulder.
“Maria!” she jumped as if she had been accosted by a ghost.
“Surprised to see me?” Maria smirked.
“Sorry, I was too absorbed in my thoughts. Where have you been? Juan has been trying to contact you and so is your agent,” Caroline lowered her voice, trying not to attract too much attention, especially that of Carlos Marin. He would definitely have a lot to say to Maria and none of what he said would be pleasant.
“Just needed to cool off. That infuriating man drives me crazy! But I’m not going to let him get to me. This is my show, I will star in it whether he likes it or not,” Maria’s eyes held a glint of determination and Caroline’s heart sank. So much for good luck!
“So you’re coming back for tomorrow’s rehearsal?” she could still hope though.
“I’m sorry to dash your hope, Caro, but I must do this, or I will never be able survive in this harsh environment of the musical theatre. Competition is tough, you should know by now. There are so many people vying for the lead role of this show; if I walk away now there might not be another opportunity for me elsewhere for they would hear of me being unprofessional. I’m sorry, girl, but you’re young, you still have time on your side,” Maria touched the younger woman’s cheek lightly, as if wishing she had her youthful and flawless complexion.
Resigned to fate, Caroline mumbled that she understood her distant cousin. She might have had her hope dashed but she couldn’t fault Maria for standing up for her right to be up on the stage. In fact, she admired Maria’s courage to face the monster that haunted her day after day ever since they started rehearsing for the musical. How ironic that the man who tortured her would be playing the beast in the show. It must be quite easy for Maria to assume the role of Belle for she knew first-hand how the Beast really was.
Maria made her way to where she thought Juan would be, in one of the offices, not far from where she stood with Caroline. Caroline stood and waited and sure enough, there was an explosion of noises coming from the room the minute the prima donna walked in with her head held high and in a haughty tone announced, “I’m back!”
The noise came from Carlos, who was sitting in the office chatting with the director.
“Why are you back? The rehearsal is over and you’re no longer a part of this act!” he shouted at her.
“Carlos, calm down. Maria, please take a seat,” Juan stood up and indicated the chair next to Carlos.
She slid into the chair gracefully, “I wouldn’t have walked away if you hadn’t been so foul-mouthed and bad tempered. I’m the leading lady and I command as much respect as you.”
Though her voice was quiet and even, there was an underlying resolve in it which was not lost on Carlos. God, he hated this woman! He hated her guts and he couldn’t wait to see the back of her. He wouldn’t have accepted this role if he had known she was the leading lady. He should’ve checked first.
“If you think you could just walk in and out of the cast as you like you’d better think again. You’re irresponsible and unprofessional,” he ground out those words.
“And who are you to tell me? You’re as unprofessional as I am, putting personal feelings into your work. What happened between us should be buried long ago but instead, you’re still holding on to it, letting it hamper your success and the show. You would’ve been so much more successful if you had learnt to let go of the bitterness, Carlos. I know you thought I did you wrong by walking away, but I did what I thought was right for both of us,” Maria’s tone started off edgy but ended softly, as if she was tired of fighting.
Juan looked on intrigued. He knew there was a history between the two of them but exactly what it was about he hadn’t a clue.
“We are not here to discuss about our private lives,” Carlos spat out, his eyes raging with anger that he looked as if he was going to strike her. But he never once raised a hand at her so she wasn’t worried. Although he had a volatile temper, he was never a woman-basher. Three years of living with him had taught Caroline how to handle his temper, well, most of the time anyway. It seemed like he had become more difficult after a year of separation.
“Fine! We will not discuss that, we will discuss about our work instead. I am willing to put in all my effort to make this show work if you would just let me,” she looked hard at him, daring him to take the challenge.
“Yes, Carlos, let’s work together to make this a success. I know you want perfection, and Maria coming back on is the perfect solution. What say you?” Juan gently persuaded. If it was any of the other cast members showing such childish behaviour he would’ve screamed his head off at them, but these were two of the biggest stars in the Spanish musical scene, he had to tread very carefully.
“What about that young girl, Caroline? She’s good, she should be given a chance having come all the way from New Zealand,” Carlos had calmed down considerably by now. He hated what Maria had turned him into, a beast worst than the Beast of the story, though really the Beast wasn’t that bad at all. He thought he could keep his emotions under wrap but each time when they sang their duet, he was reminded of how betrayed he felt when she walked out on him.
“She’s here as understudy, she will remain as understudy unless Maria isn’t able to perform,” Juan laid down the rules. He had enough of the bickering from both parties; it was time to regain control of the situation.
Carlos stormed off the office before he had a chance to hurl more expletives at his producer and ex-partner.
Caroline stood outside the theatre, not sure what she should do. It was clear she might get little exposure here. When she made the decision to uproot from New Zealand, she knew it would be tough. She had only just made it in the musical theatre scene in her own country, being in a foreign land now she had to start all over again. When she agreed to be Maria’s understudy she had been perfectly ready to be on the sideline. However, the brief hope of really clinching the role for herself had made her less content to be an understudy now that the hope was dashed.
She decided to go back to her rented apartment. She had an acting class later on and she wanted to get some rest. She took a step forward and was about to cross to the other side of the road when she felt a sudden tug on her arm which caused her to whirl around and lost her footing. Her face went smack into a muscular chest, her red lips leaving a stain on the white shirt.
“Let go of my hand,” she struggled, pummelling the chest with her free hand, thinking she was about to be abducted or attacked.
“Dios! Stop it will you?” the man bellowed.
She stopped. Why did he sound so familiar? She looked up and almost jumped back in surprise when the honey-brown eyes of Carlos Marin stared down at her.
“Car…Carlos! Wha…what are you doing?” she stammered. Coherent speech deserted her as it was difficult enough trying to still her fast beating heart; that scent he wore was wrecking havoc with her senses and that chest! So muscular and did she see some chest hair sticking out of his semi-buttoned shirt? Why hadn’t she noticed all that before? Because you were too busy observing Maria, her sub-consciousness reasoned.
“Let’s have a drink. I want to talk to you.” He was still holding on to her arm and without waiting for her to reply, began pulling her towards the bistro that was just behind them.
“Let go of me, Carlos,” she hissed. She wasn’t accustomed to rough treatment and she wasn’t going to get started. She shrugged wildly and managed to free herself. Standing straight and tall, she began to straighten her blouse and hair, which had become scruffy with her struggles.
Carlos stood beside her and observed the fiery look she gave him. Ah, the young one had quite a temper of her own. He smiled.
“I’m sorry for scaring you, Caroline. What would you like to drink?” He walked over to a vacant table and pulled out a chair for her. She gave him a suspicious look before sitting down. What did he want with her?
“Just coffee. Thank you.”
He ordered a coffee for her and a diet coke for himself.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out but you still have your parts to play,” he plunged straight into the crux of the matter.
“Look, I’m an understudy so I understand that. Thank you for trying to make me feel better,” she wasn’t so easy to be won over after having witnessed how direct, cutting and even a little ruthless he was while at work. She couldn’t help but wondered if he had other reasons for wanting to talk to her.
Caroline’s looks told Carlos that she was on high alert. He was surprised by her attitude; so forthright and distrustful. What had he done?
“Well, I was thinking if you’d like to have some other opportunity elsewhere, I can recommend you to other production companies. You might get a big break, who knows?” he took a sip of his drink and observed her.
She looked down at the coffee that she was absentmindedly stirring, her mind working overtime trying to figure out where that would lead her. Did he really mean it or did he just want to gain something from her? What did she know about him, the man on the street, not the actor on stage? Nothing. Dare she trust him?
Sighing, she replied, “Thanks, Carlos. That’s really nice of you but I’d like to see out my contract on this show. I’m still quite new to the musical scene here even though I’d been singing and performing back in my home country for a few years now so it would be a good way of gaining some experience. With a lead actress like Maria, I think I’ll be able to pick up a lot of tips from her.”
“You really think she’s that good?” he sounded disgusted.
“Yes. I don’t know why you pick on her but she’s not a prima donna for nothing.” She knew she was risking his wrath but she wanted to find out more about him and why he disliked Maria so much.
“I didn’t pick on her. She was…she wasn’t that good as before,” he struggled to keep his feelings in check.
“Whatever, Carlos. She’s back and that’s it. I really wanted the lead role but I can’t just snatch it from her. She was the reason I’m here and she’s really a very nice person. I wish you’d show her some respect.”
How dare she tell me what to do, this little slip of a girl! He fumed silently. Fine! If she wants to wait for another opportunity to fall on her lap, that’s her problem. He wasn’t going to worry over a little Miss Nothing. If it wasn’t the fact that he thought she had the potential, he wouldn’t have bothered talking with her. She was too young to be of any interest to him.
“Thanks for the coffee, Carlos. I do apologise for making a mess of your shirt. Perhaps if you’d pass it to me tomorrow, I might be able to get the stain off?” Caroline spoke up when he didn’t say anything. He was making her nervous and his thunderous look didn’t help either.
He looked at her, puzzled. What stain? Then he looked down at his shirt and noticed a red blotch right in front of his pristine white shirt.
“You did that?” he looked so surprised that she almost laughed, almost, because she didn’t know what to make of his mood right now. She just nodded her head instead.
“Forget it. Not worth the trouble,” he dismissed it with the wave of his hand and a frown.
Carlos watched as she crossed the road, her wavy hair bouncing behind her as she half ran and half walked. What a peculiar young lady, he thought. Most times when he offered someone a helping hand, they would always gladly accept it without any hesitation, but not this girl. He shook his head and wondered if all women from New Zealand were so headstrong.
Caroline got home that day with conflicting emotions; did she do the right thing to reject his offer? Did she take it the wrong way? Did he really just want to help her? Did she just lose an opportunity to make it in Madrid? Well, whatever the answer was there was really no way of finding out now; she was too proud to beg for a second chance. She just had to continue doing what she was doing and hoped that she shone bright enough in what little roles she played. And if she was lucky, some agents might pick up on her performance and offer her a lucrative role. Yeah, right, Caro, that sure is some plan, she said sarcastically to herself.
Carlos felt good. Everything was going smoothly with the shows; even Maria kept to her promise and gave it her all. It took him a while to put their differences aside and worked professionally with his ex-lover. Maybe he was wrong to behave the way he did. She was right; what happened in the past was already done, he should just let go. Blaming her wasn’t going to make him feel any better; instead, it was eating up inside him.
Maybe he was to blame for the mess in their relationship. They had started out so brightly; she was just an understudy while he had managed to break into the opera scene. Sure, his career started way before that, but opera was something new for him then. They had everything going for them but somewhere along the way, they lost it. Or rather, he lost it. He had become so consumed by his work that the relationship suffered. He climbed the ladder to the top with his hard work, and when he was known as a primo baritono, he made sure he stayed up there. He no longer had time for her, and was no longer the patient man that she used to know. It inevitably led to more quarrels, more tears on her part and finally she walked out.
Could he blame her? No, now that he thought of it. But he didn’t see it that way then; all he saw was another man in her life, someone whom she denied having anything to do with. Perhaps he should’ve seen it coming; why would she stay with a hot-tempered man who hardly ever made time for her? But he was too full of himself to see that. The famous Carlos Marin had his woman walk out of him. All he felt was humiliation and betrayal; he couldn’t bring himself to admit that he was at fault all along. Blaming her was easier.
From then on he hated her and told himself he would never take another woman seriously as he had taken her. Women aren’t trustworthy, why waste time on them? So he kept to short term flings, avoided anything that might potentially demand his heart. So far it had succeeded in keeping him happy, but seeing her again had unleashed the pent up emotions inside him; he still felt for her and he was afraid he would end up with another broken heart.
Tonight as usual Act One progressed well. That was until Carlos, with thirty-five kilos of the Beast costume made of latex on him, over-stretched himself by jumping too high. He fell and crashed into the boards. He could hear the crack of his bones and knew his ankle was broken but he couldn’t stop now. It was the climax of the first act and he had to continue. Despite the intense pain he felt in his ankle, he managed to drag himself to a chair where he hauled himself up to sit on it. Gritting his teeth, he continued to sing even as the pain shot up his leg. He somehow made it through and as the curtain fell at the end of the act, so did he.
“Let’s get him inside,” Juan ordered. Someone had already called for the ambulance and his assistant tried to restore order. It was a good thing that Carlos’ standby was waiting in the wing just in case something happened to him so the show could go on; now the main concern was getting Carlos to the hospital.
“Is he going to be alright,” a visibly distraught Maria looked at the director. Caroline stood beside her and offered her support. She looked at the unconscious actor and suggested they remove his costume before the paramedics arrive. It took three men to do just that and by the time the costume was removed, the paramedics had turned up and began to place him on a stretcher. Soon, he was on the way to the hospital.
Caroline was just as badly affected as she was, for she was beginning to feel more comfortable being around Carlos. The past few days he had been more tolerable and he was almost too polite with her. Maybe she was wrong about his motive for wanting to help her out.
A few hours later they made it to the hospital. Maria almost ran the length of the building and Caroline had a hard time keeping up with her. They saw one of the production crew members standing outside the room that Carlos was placed in and stopped.
“They performed an emergency surgery on his ankle. Seems pretty badly broken,” Jose replied. Before he could say much more, Maria had entered the room. There, lying in the hospital bed was her ex-lover, his ankle wrapped in bandage and elevated above the bed.
They chatted for a little while about his condition and Caroline was relieved to hear that he had a good chance of a full recovery if he listened to the doctor’s advice and did not aggravate his injury any further. Physical therapy was needed and the recovery would be slow and long, making him scowl as he mentioned it. Soon, the pain had become unbearable and he groaned a little. Caroline noticed it and immediately went to get the nurse. While she was gone, Maria reached for his hand and held it.
“It’s time for Mr Marin to rest,” the nurse said. She administered the sedative to ease his pain. Caroline leaned forward to whisper ‘get well soon’ before turning to Maria to say she’d wait outside for her.
So while Maria and Carlos were mending fences, Caroline got her first big break in a foreign country far away from home, but maybe not so foreign because it was her mother’s homeland after all. It was the start of a successful career for the aspiring actress who continued to study as she worked her way up the musical theatre scene.