Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Treading The Boards

Published 'Roadworks' 1999

Other than the redolent aroma of her stew wafting from the unattainable past, there was nothing else to remind Strontian of his mother. The darkness parted like curtains on a stage, the revelations too slow to come. He remained standing with his eyes tight shut ... until he met a hand lightly brushing his trouser flies.

Strontian's eyes flicked open, the brightness blinding them for an instant, before darkness brought itself together again like curtains. A man's voice was the least expected outcome of his predicament; the words even more surprising: "I've come up from the audience to shake your hand ... I've always wanted to meet someone famous like you."

"Who am I?" Strontian asked, overcoming previous difficulties to utilise his teeth in the way phonetics intended. The illogic had a strange logic of its own. He also felt that, only moments before, he had been sitting in the stalls: eyes lifted in awe towards the proscenium arch. The shilling theatre ticket was still grasped clammily in his hand; if he wanted his bladder let this would then re-admit to the auditorium.

In fact, the ticket was still there. But it seemed as if it were held within someone else's hand; Strontian couldn't feel his own hand at all; on top of all that, he was desperate for bladder relief, his worst fears having materialised. He should have let it at least three times before the beginning of the performance. He closed his eyes again, because one darkness was as good as another darkness, and why waste the battery? The man's voice was closer, as its owner homed in with the aid of echoes: "Gee whizz, who'd've thought I'd ever meet a star of stage and screen. This is a real honour. Will you give me your autograph? Mark it for my mother, will you?"

All the time that the voice was gaining its bearings Strontian was losing his. He clasped his mad privates, partly to prevent them being interfered with again and partly to staunch an even madder bladder. He was shocked gradually to discover they were not his privates—they were, without a shadow of doubt, somebody else's altogether, completely the wrong shape; the teeth in his mouth were certainly bone-carved differently, too.

The applause took an upward flight on the wings of hands. Strontian himself hooted and whistled vigorously in appreciation of an artistry and fame to which he could never possibly attain. He had earlier climbed the stairs into the old theatre. A series of oval mirrors on the walls rose with his reflection opposite each other on either side, making it seem as if he were looking into a diminishing tunnel of reflection ... except that his head was in the way to get a proper look. He dodged the head about believing he could see round the stranger whom he had only just recognised as himself. Strontian was bewildered, since mirrors had previously left him cold.

Life's a musical, he thought, noises picked out in asides, wordless undergrunts on the human hoof, unknowing looks, random rhythms, tripping sighs, melodies strummed on tangled harps, proscenium's flies ... and the auditorium was a temple of rusty golden wood. Other happy clappers who were to constitute the one-off audience were trickling into their tip-up seats, leaving wide gaps of empty ones with the best view—the latecomers obviously being more pushy than Strontian's co-arrivals. His own seat was in the middle of two strangers—complete strangers. Next door to this threesome was a row with seat-lids still raised, and then four other less complete people arrived, all of whom seemed to know each other very well.

He had bought a tub of vanilla ice in the foyer, but had lost the wooden "spoon". He stared at the runnelled cream-hard surface, wondering if he could scoop some out with his finger. Better not. The lady next to Strontian had eyes in the side of her head, despite the opera glasses with which she was practising by pointing them forwards at the safety curtain. However, he discovered a big splinter—harvested from his wooden high-sided bed at home—a splinter which had lodged itself in his trouser-zip and, eventually, he used this as a spoon for the ice cream.

Strontian often speculated about safety curtains. If one was raised too early, the audience's communal mind would be sucked into an endless horizontal pit. That was why they were called safety curtains. Meanwhile, the groundling orchestra had taken the strain and he could just discern the tip of the baton below the footlights; the curtain rose steadily and the houselights dimmed to an echo of darkness. The staged scene was brightly lit, by contrast. Actors sidled on, like real people; one of them raised a voice above the normal pitch; the face that owned the voice took a surreptitious glance into the black disguises of an endless audience. In sympathy, Strontian began to slap his hands together like lumps of steak. The others in the audience did not follow suit!

The ice cream felt cold at the core of his lap. He had once applauded on his own like this during a radio broadcast symphony concert when he thought the music had ended. Since then, nobody had spoken to him and merely glared shiftily. It was as if the whole Earth had been listening to his faux pas. People often felt that their embarrassment was so great that they wanted the earth to open up and swallow them. Strontian knew the feeling, if from the opposite direction.

Tonight's musical play continued. Or he assumed it did, since he was taken from the dark auditorium by an officious foreigner in an uniform who then set Strontian walking in the direction of the soup kitchen. There, he begged for the best bowl of vittles that they had.

"Do you think I'm made of dreams?"

Strontian looked bewilderingly at the speaker who acted as if he were handing out promises and fancies rather than bowls of stringy stew with doorstops of aging bread. Strontian had been kicked from the theatre into a world of dossers who, amazingly, possessed even less teeth than the erstwhile audience with which he had rubbed shoulders. He recalled his dear old mother asking a similar question about dreams, when she used to shell out for his pocket money from her shift work. "Dreams don't grow on trees, dear," she would also say. Strontian, being a small farthing of a chap, had peered through the window at the twin towering poplars, trees that had always stood upon childhood's endless horizon. She was right, of course.

The individual standing behind the stew trolley smiled with slanting lips—about to tell the story of his life. Being one of those ne'erdowell do-gooders, this character had to obtain the full benefit from the down-and-outs he serviced. "My own mother," he said, as if reading Strontian's mind, "had a heart attack during labour and I only arrived just in time, before she died."

Strontian nodded humouringly. The man scrutinised Strontian to gauge whether he was taking the mickey, but gave him the benefit of the doubt, much as Strontian had done for the man.

"I was adopted," the soup-man continued, "into a family of orphans. Down by the Fast Canal, where they've put up those unearthly blocks of flats."

Strontian's thoughts were wild. The Earth was the one planet which astrologers seemed to ignore. It was all very well the transitting Uranus being on the cusp of Scorpio whilst in trine with a natal Jupiter. It was the Earth at your back that counted. You could never turn to see the Earth protecting you. It is about time people realised—the earth might possess a shadow, but it definitely lacked an understudy.

Thoughts were medicine for the brain, and only nasty medecine cured. Strontian took out his large sharpened crucifix, which he often used simply as a stage-prop ever since it had lost its iconic power—more useful for cutting the bread into bite sizes and for stirring the still burping stew. "I bet you live in a posh house," Strontian sneered whilst brandishing the cross at the soup-man.

"Blimey, mate, put that away—anyone watching us would think you're threatening me." After a well-staged fracas in the flies, the soup-man wheeled his trolley into the wings.

Strontian was left alone treading the motherboards, about to fulfil the insistence of the plot. But, with a few death-bed lines left, there was, sadly, still a pair of sharp fangs in his mouth to tangle his voice. Of course, in any event, Strontian, being a vampire, was bound to act out a very unlifelike death. Blood-letting was his business. Corpsing his crime. God’s creamy red Correcting-Fluid his commodity.

Death, whatever its certainty or final sting, seldom gives warning of its final slicing blow that fells the body like timber; if there is a warning it’s not one that anybody believes. Nobody really expects to die; they think it only happens to other people—until it happens to them: which it will: it definitely will. A single member of the audience clapped vigorously for a short while; then the rest in desultory fashion more akin to silence than applause.

(The corpse, in extremis, pisses itself; even a blooder has a bladder.)

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