In the summer after PhilipÕs ninth birthday, when his parents were still arguing over who was going to take the television, his mother decided that a week-long theatre school would make for a suitable summer treat – or at least a way to distance him from the complications of moving house and being without a father for the first time.
For Philip it was a week of pure pleasure. Every day his mother would drop him off at the school where the activities were being held – empty in the holidays apart from the theatre company who had taken it over – and a blissful day of playing, acting and singing would follow. Philip threw himself into the frantic drama games, the scenes they practised repeatedly and, above all, the songs. He loved the catchy tunes and singing them with the simple choreographed movements they learned at the same time. These would all be put together in a new play to be performed at the end of the course: ŌArthurÕ, the story of Arthur PendragonÕs discovery of the sword in the stone, the lessons he learned from the world around him and his ultimate ascension to the throne.
At the start of the week, Philip had hoped he would be allowed to play Arthur; he knew that he was the best at singing and definitely stood out from the others as an actor. In the end a small boy with ginger hair was given the part, but Philip didnÕt mind too much as he was given plenty of other things to do (he was playing a fish, a soldier, a teacher and a wall). In any case, Philip liked the ginger-haired boy, even without knowing him very well.
There was a girl called Kayleigh at the theatre school. She was not good at anything, except making herself stand out in every scene. She was a needlessly exotic fish, a soldier so pushy she would never have kept her job, more of a pantomime dame than a teacher and the most flamboyant part of the wall. Philip hated her from the day the theatre school started – though he could hardly say why, as at that stage they hadnÕt even started rehearsing.
But Kayleigh was clearly a favourite of the people in charge. In ŌGrandmotherÕs FootstepsÕ, Kayleigh was often chosen to be Grandmother (she was not a fair Grandmother, choosing to notice every little movement Philip made but to ignore her friendsÕ clumsy advances). On the second day she was chosen to demonstrate how to be a fish (Philip thought her goggle-eyed, gulping demonstration merely exaggerated her ugliness and was sure everyone else was thinking the same). Kayleigh earned a whistling solo in the playground song by bursting out and whistling it before anyone had even asked her to – Kayleigh whistled by breathing in through her teeth so it was a thin, feeble sound, whereas Philip had a clear, piercing whistle that was always in tune so he would have done a far better job. But there was not a lot he could do about it.
Worst of all, when the man in charge (an actor whose name was Gav) said that he needed somebody to play ArthurÕs best friend Kay, it was Kayleigh who stood in front of him and looked into his face with a goofy grin and big, girly eyes. ŌOf course,Õ chucked Gav, ŌKayleigh ought to play Kay!Õ Everybody laughed except for Philip. He didnÕt think it was fair that Kayleigh should get such an important part by making herself standing out like that, and it certainly wasnÕt fair to choose her because her name sounded a bit like the name of ArthurÕs best friend. It was a part that Philip would have loved to play, because he had come to love the ginger-haired boy playing Arthur almost like a best friend, even though they hadnÕt spoken to each other yet.
As it turned out it wasnÕt a big part, but Kayleigh used it to make herself even more the centre of attention. In the final scene it was Kayleigh who got to shout ŌLong live King Arthur!Õ as Arthur walked up the two steps to the throne. Kayleigh made the line as showy as possible by screaming at the top of her voice and putting one foot on the steps up to ArthurÕs throne. As the week went on, she started to stand on the bottom step and put one foot on the throne itself. Philip couldnÕt understand why nobody told her to stop it; it was perfectly obvious to him that she didnÕt want to be ArthurÕs best friend at all – she wanted to be King.
The week passed, and on the final day of the theatre school one scene still had to be dealt with. In it, Arthur flew with a group of swans and discovered the true meaning of peace and harmony. There were to be five swans in addition to Arthur and they would sing a song – Philip felt sure that he would be part of the scene, as he was the best at singing. On that day everyone was helping to paint a huge picture of a castle that would form the backdrop to the play. Philip was daubing grey paint onto the picture when he became aware that Gav had started to choose swans for the scene. One by one, Gav pointed to people, who stood up to be fitted for a special Ōswan hatÕ, cleverly designed by the costume lady (a bad-tempered woman hated by everyone). Four swans were chosen and Philip was not one of them, but Gav seemed to be looking around for somebody to play the fifth swan, unsure of who to choose.
Philip wasnÕt sure what to do. Perhaps he should go and stand in front of Gav like Kayleigh had done, but he didnÕt want to act like Kayleigh and surely Gav had already noticed that he was the best singer? On the other hand, he didnÕt want to let the opportunity slip by altogether while somebody else was chosen to be a swan. Much as Philip hated the costume lady, he could see how lovely the swan hats looked on the people who had already been chosen and he was very keen to wear one himself. But Philip didnÕt move – instead he continued to add grey paint to the castle wall as if he wasnÕt at all interested in anything else, while his heart beat faster and faster and he hoped with all his heart that Gav was about to point in his direction.
‘He would make a good swanÕ, a voice said. The ginger boy playing Arthur was pointing at Philip. ŌHe would make a good swanÕ, the boy repeated.
PhilipÕs heart went out to his King and Master. He had known that somebody must have noticed what a good singer and actor he was and could barely contain his gratitude that it was the ginger-haired boy; he knew immediately that he would do anything in return, for he now loved the boy like a brother (though Philip still didnÕt know his name).
Gav paused thoughtfully, then pointed towards Kayleigh. Everybody else, Gav said, could have a break outside. Kayleigh smiled smugly as she was fitted for her swan hat. Philip didnÕt want a break – he wanted to be a swan.
There was a small consolation when Philip was one of the people chosen to be a Squire in the final scene. Squires did not do much except bring ArthurÕs armour and weaponry to him in a procession; it was not as good as being a swan, but it was better than nothing.
That evening they prepared for the performance. In the classroom being used as the backstage area while the parents noisily filed into the hall, Kayleigh carefully laid out her different costumes on a table. Philip watched her with a feeling of envy and hatred. The swan hat ought to be his. It was completely unfair that Kayleigh was being both a swan and ArthurÕs best friend.
On a sudden impulse, Philip walked over to the table and deliberately knocked KayleighÕs swan hat onto the floor.
Kayleigh looked at Philip accusingly and their eyes met for several seconds. The exchanged glare said everything that needed to be said; she hated Philip as much as he hated her and both of them knew it.
Then KayleighÕs mouth twisted into a small, triumphant
smile. She had won. She was a swan and she was Kay; she had the biggest and the
best parts and there was nothing that Philip could do about it.
In the excitement of the performance, Philip almost forgot all about Kayleigh. He sang his heart out in the songs, enjoying the sound of his own voice whilst lapping up the pleasure of being part of the group (except for one sour moment when it came to the whistling solo). He gave every role his all, even the relatively dull section when playing the wall, for which he stood so still that he felt the audience might actually believe that he was a wall.
In the interval they all sat in their backstage classroom, excited and nervous about the second half. The boy playing Arthur sat on a table and the others crowded around him, because he was popular and funny. Pleased to be the centre of attention still, the boy entertained them with made up fairy stories. He told a story which he called ŌThe Princess and the Pea BrainÕ and everyone laughed so hard they could hardly breathe. Everyone loved King Arthur.
Philip sat at his feet and listened, as enraptured as everybody else and proud that Arthur had decided to be friends with him. At that moment he realised that Kayleigh hadnÕt won at all; she could keep her stupid swan hat, she could stand on the steps to ArthurÕs throne as much as she liked, because Philip was really friends with the King, the ginger-haired boy who everybody liked. That was what mattered. And it was then that Philip knew he had a role that was ten times better than being a swan.
He was a Squire.