Publish Date: August 2020
He’s the Banksy of the international theatre scene – daring, anonymous, renowned. So when playwright ‘Draven’ bequeaths his latest play to the rural Rivervue Theatre, the stage is set for drama.
Props-maven Mackenzie Russell is no fan of the Larrikin, the subject of Draven’s new play. But she is a big supporter of her hometown, Brachen, where the guy is a local legend. She would no more let Brachen’s reputation be trashed than she would pull on a costume and perform in Draven’s latest masterpiece. Her secret stage aspirations are strictly private.
But someone needs to tell that to Dylan North, the enigmatic loner sleeping rough in Rivervue Theatre’s fire-escape, after he catches her running lines in the props room. Dylan just wants to keep a low profile; he knows that his rough appearance and poor language skills make people uncomfortable. Except Kenzie – with her, Dylan feels more at ease than he’s ever been before and he’s fast becoming her biggest fan. In more ways than one.
But theatres are founded on drama and this one is packed full of secrets. Hers. His. The Larrikin’s. Draven’s.
Secrets that if revealed could tear the town, the theatre—and Dylan and Kenzie—apart.
Copyright © 2020 by Nikki Logan. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harper Collins Australia.
Tread the Boards
‘Well, hello again, mister.’
It was the third day in a row that Kenzie had seen the dark grey pooch running around on the riverbank adjacent to Rivervue, playing some imaginary game she couldn’t hope to understand. Three quarters of his face was the same dark, silken grey as the rest of it, but it had a large white quarter over its left eye. The Staffordshire terrier was new to this part of town; in fact, to the whole town unless he’d never had a vet visit in his life. Pretty much every dog in the district—and cat, and ferret—had come in past her reception desk, which is how she knew that this boy wasn’t local.
The grey nomads often travelled with their canine pets in the behemoths they towed with their spotless 4WDs. Occasionally a hippy family might take one with them on the road. The very rare tourist might bring a dog along. Sometimes a dog just wandered into town on worn paws and decided to stay for a while.
Was that this fella?
‘How about it?’ she asked aloud. ‘Are you travelling solo?’
He just kept bounding around, white-tipped toes flashing as he leaped. Giving her a heap of doggie side-eye.
She crossed to the riverbank. ‘Oh, you want to play?’
He didn’t say no.
Kenzie crouched and braced herself on spread legs. Doggo copied her, his strong tail wagging in anticipation. She held his gaze, then darted left and it was on. His clawed feet were better suited to the damp, grassy riverbank than her lace-up boots; he had the edge in this battle of the species, so it wasn’t much of a contest. He was clearly enjoying himself and since only she watched the clock in Props HQ, and since she hadn’t stopped for lunch in four years, and since she wasn’t paid anyway … she could spare the time.
But eventually she began to tire, and the game’s challenge level had been dropping as the dog’s gallop circles grew wider and slower and further away from her. At last, he paused back near the theatre in a kind of silent farewell, his tongue lolling below his two-tone face. Doggo then galumphed off toward the bushes siding Rivervue’s dock.
‘Is that you conceding?’ she called after him. ‘Did I win?’ Then, louder and into the empty air, ‘Humans one, dogs nil.’
He’d probably be back same time tomorrow. She’d try and get close enough to see if he had any identification on him. He had a collar, so maybe one of those tags jingling from it had something useful on it. Maybe she’d liberate the microchip scanner from work long enough to scan all the usual body parts.
If Doggo had a home, she’d help him get back to it. Though in her experience homes tended to lose dogs more than the other way around.
Must. Not. Collect. Dog.
The stern talking-to helped. A little.
There was precious little levity in and around Rivervue Community Theatre right now with their fate being so uncertain, what would it hurt to get themselves a bit of a canine mascot. If only for a few days.
Kenzie’s ever-rational mind convinced her that she had more chance of being able to check its ID if it was reliably returning to one spot for food or water. She dusted herself free of grass spatter and strolled back toward the back dock and the pile of props she’d laid out ready for a good clean. She knew every item piled there, including the big, multi-purpose bowl she mostly used for making papier mâché. Fat-bottomed enough not to tip over and deep enough to only need topping up every few days. Just right so Doggo would have somewhere to come back to for a guaranteed drink. It wasn’t good science to stalk a dog when it had politely decided to part company, so she’d just steal a quick look around to see exactly where the terrier was hanging out and leave the water bowl nearby.
She wasn’t about to hound the hound.
It was only as she peered in behind the grevillea that fringed the long edge of the dock she remembered that the fire doors were even there. Before these shrubs got their roots into the groundwater and had gone mad, she’d taken shelter upon the landing back there once or twice on rainy days. The exit was not terribly exceptional, just a pair of outward opening doors and an overhang for weather protection. In all her years at Rivervue, she’d never seen the area used to serve its purpose.
But now someone had found a use for it.
And not just a four-legged someone.
A bulging hiking pack and a road bike were leaning against the fire exit wall and a canvas tarp spread on the ground in front. A heavy tail thumped against it.
‘Sorry, pup,’ she murmured, feeling as though she’d stepped into someone’s house rather than into a public fire exit. ‘Just bringing you this.’
He showed no interest in the bowl as she lowered it.
Not thirsty, then. Or hungry. That was encouraging.
Kenzie turned to leave the content dog to it and—ooof!—she spun straight into a wall. A human wall. Towering compared to her short frame with a large hoodie half-obscuring a hairy, unkempt face. Gloved hands came up to steady her.
‘I’m so … sorry!’
The hitch in her apology bought her half a moment to take in the man’s appearance more fully. Dressed for the morning cold, though the layers of clothing were worn. He was also overdue for a shower and a shave. Brachen liked its beards a little more designer and a little less feral than the careless tangle disguising the man’s features. So, he definitely wasn’t from around here. And one glance at his bike put an end to any thoughts that its owner was just passing through while training for the Tour de France. That road bike was purely functional. As was the man’s mismatched clothing. She took a closer look at his collection of belongings hanging loosely on the sides of the bike—a step up from the old shopping trolley suitcase she’d seen on the side streets of Sydney.
Not the first time that homelessness had come to Brachen, but definitely the first person they’d had living in Rivervue’s fire exit. That she knew of. It took her completely unawares. One of those moments where what a person thought they knew didn’t necessarily have any bearing on the world that everyone else lived in.
The dog leaped up and ran over to them both. It insinuated itself perfectly between them and helped break their awkward stance with his hands on her shoulder and hip, where he’d steadied her.
‘Sorry,’ she breathed.
She hated that it might be fear making her voice so tight. A man down on his luck was not necessarily any danger to her.
But he didn’t give her any kind of courtesy in return. He didn’t even acknowledge her. He just kept right on moving back toward the fire exit like she was a ghost. Or like he was.
Though, those large hands had felt corporeal enough.
‘Okay. Well …’ What exactly was the right protocol for this situation?
The guy settled back down onto his tarp and pulled out a battered old book. Doggo settled in beside him, business very much as usual.
Kenzie lifted a hand in limp farewell.
That was probably the last she’d see of the friendly Staffie. People living rough chose out-of-the-way nooks for a reason. Privacy. Safety. The guy would likely move on now that he’d been sprung. Anyway, whoever he was, he seemed to be taking good care of his buddy and reasonable care of himself; there was no need for the vague anxiety curdling her stomach.
She retreated through the branches of the clumped grevillea and left them to it.
When she turned up to the back dock the next morning, her prop bowl sat at the base of the theatre door. Dried and wiped clean. Had they gone already? Ridiculous that a vet nurse should have so quickly grown attached to a mutt—she met dogs every day—but Doggo was extra lovely. Such joy in him. Like every moment was precious.
Curiosity took her back to the thick shrubs just to know for sure, but it was caution that gentled her movements as she parted a few branches to peer through. The guy was living rough, he wasn’t a sideshow attraction.
A weird kind of pleasure fluttered over her skin.
He looked very much as she’d last seen him, except this time he was giving his dog a once-over much as Dr Evans might do on the exam table at work. He clapped his hands together in an exaggeratedly slow way and Doggo turned and stood calmly while he articulated first one joint and then the next. A quick thumbs up and he then pressed all the fingers of his right hand together and opened and closed them several times like they were a hungry baby bird. The dog knew what he wanted: he opened his mouth and held it while the guy inspected his teeth. He even tolerated an intrusive finger rubbing along his gumline.
Then the thumbs up again.
As he took the dog into a sit with its left forepaw up, it dawned on Kenzie what she was looking at.
Sign language. He’d used sign language to train his dog.
Immediately any weirdness from yesterday melted into a puddle of compassion.
The man was deaf. And living rough. Lord … How hard must that be?
It took no time at all to back away and turn for the suspension bridge. Five minutes later she was back with two coffees and the last croissant from Dasha’s Saturday morning bake.
She purposefully crashed through the shrubs. How ridiculous … Giving a deaf man a heads up that she was coming.
Two faces turned her way at once, but only one was happy to see her.
‘Hey, pup,’ she crooned as the dog ran over to her, its strong tail whipping up a breeze.
The other pair of eyes were wary and not terribly welcoming. Though they were a spectacular shade of hazel, reminding her of the Brachen River when it was low.
‘Hi!’ she said, very slowly, miming in his general direction with the lattes. She crossed to him and thrust one forward with an overly bright smile. He glanced up at her face and then back at the cup, his brows folded.
‘Coffee,’ she added helpfully and then winced.
He was probably confused because she hadn’t bothered asking him whether he wanted one, not because he didn’t know what coffee was.
Oh, God. She was terrible at this.
But he reached out and took a cup with those long fingers that had just been training the dog so gracefully. They were cleaner than she would have expected.
Aaand … there we go adding insult to injury. Why was she even allowed out unsupervised? Truly.
He raised the coffee to his lips, tested the temperature then nodded his thanks. The dog sat by her legs, his weighty little back end half on her feet as if he wanted to stop her leaving anytime soon. It gave her the chance she needed to check the dog’s tags for a name.
He didn’t respond to his name but that was okay; he barely knew her. The name was certainly apt enough given the quarter-mask of white over the left side of his face. There was a phone number too and it brought her eyes back to the guy now watching her so closely. Was it his number, or—?
Awesome. Add social profiling to her list of offences. If he’d stolen Phantom, he was taking awfully good care of him.
‘I’m Mackenzie Russell,’ she said, as normally as she could, keeping her face turned toward him so he could read her lips. ‘I volunteer here at the theatre.’
Did he even know it was a theatre he was living behind?
For the longest time he just stared at her but then he reached into his pack behind him and pulled out the book she’d seen him reading. It was Foucault. In the original French.
Okay! Immediately, her understanding of him shifted on its foundations. Homeless and into French philosophy.
He flipped the book open to its inside cover where a name was written in neat, dark ink.
‘Dylan North?’ she said, looking up at him. He casually tossed the book back amongst his belongings and extended his hand. She moved her coffee to her other hand before shaking his. ‘Nice to meet you, Dylan.’
This is where anyone else would have said, ‘And you’. Dylan just gave her a thumbs up, like the one he’d given his dog.
At her feet, Phantom wagged his tail.
‘When did you get into town?’ He held up one splayed hand. ‘Five days?’ Wow. He’d really been hidden well back here. ‘Well, welcome to Brachen. The coffee’s on us.’
Again with the thumbs up. A very multi-purpose little digit.
‘Oh! I got this for … um …’
It was only as she started to say Phantom’s name that she realised what an awful thing it was to have bought an hours-old pastry for his dog without giving any thought to whether the man would be hungry too. But he read her as easily as his Foucault and he flipped open another pouch in his satchel so she could see the collected works of the Soy-Min Noodle company in there along with a couple of apples. Wild-picked, by the looks of them.
He followed the action with a relaxed smile. It was at once as reassuring and comforting as it was transformative, morphing him from slightly scary vagabond into non-threatening—and weirdly intriguing—traveller.
But mostly it said that her ineptitude was understood and forgiven. And that was a lot from a man who hadn’t actually said a single word.
‘Okay, thank you.’
Her gushing was only partly relief. The other part of it was nerves. Different to the nerves she had yesterday when he was a shabby stranger lurking in the fire exit—now he was a little bit handsome, Foucault-reading cyclist who talked to his dog in sign language and was a little too fond of pot noodles.
Totally different men.
And this one here had a steady gaze that got her pulse thumping.
‘Well, I’ve got some painting to do so …’
The farewell was as much for Phantom as it was for Dylan, and somehow both their silences conveyed gratitude as she passed the croissant over. But she wasn’t used to such hush—even as a person who spent hours straight on her own beneath the stage—and everything she said felt awkward.
That’s probably what her breathlessness was about … right?
‘Bye then.’ It almost felt natural to accompany it with an overly bright thumbs up.