Friday, 24 January 2014

Freudian Slip


They were treading on my dreams, and they were not treading softly. The crowd had risen as one, giving a tremendous round of applause to the woman on the stage. She was beaming and clutching a vast bunch of flowers, while I stood in the wings, thinking of what might have been.

It was all terribly unjust, you see. I am extremely attractive. I have a very symmetrical face and excellent skin. My figure is close to perfect for the ballet – just curvaceous enough to create an alluring shape in low-cut dresses, yet not so much that it impedes movement or detracts from my poise and rhythm, which is excellent. As for my dancing, I have met and watched every single one of the world’s leading ballerinas, and only two have possessed a more impressive range and control of movement than me. And one of them is now dead, which places me within a whisker of the top position.   
      
And yet. She was on stage, taking a bow, embracing Joseph – sweet, trusting, handsome Joseph – as though she really knew him, really cared for him, really understood him. Smiling and smiling, and yet a villain. Basking in the mindless adulation of the crowd, who quite clearly had no conception at all of what constituted a great performance. Laila had been rigid when she ought to have been fluid; tentative when she ought to have been confident; and unsteady when she ought to have been poised. Her timing had been wrong on two separate occasions, her death scene was stilted and unconvincing, and the less said about her positioning during Joseph’s lifts, the better. 


It was partly Mike’s fault, of course. He was just not a very good director. His productions were hopelessly pedestrian. My presence might have rescued this one from mundanity and cliché, if he had deigned to consider me for the lead rather than relying on the second-rate but biddable Laila.

As the applause began to falter, she reluctantly left the stage, glancing back frequently at her adoring public. By now the wings were thronged with members of the company and the backstage staff, rushing, jostling, pushing. For just a moment Laila passed by me, close enough to reach out and touch. There was no flicker of recognition, and I felt strangely inhibited from reaching out to grab her shoulder or speak to her.    
         
I stayed in my dressing room, staring at the mirror as the noises off faded away and fewer footsteps passed my door. I wasn’t likely to be disturbed. No-one was expecting to see me here tonight. Eventually, the footsteps outside vanished completely, except for the distinctive sound of John the caretaker limping through his rounds.

John seemed out of sorts. He had witnessed the accident a few nights ago, when someone fell from the old lighting gantry into the orchestra pit. I was there myself when it happened. Moments like that never seem quite real somehow, and nothing anyone says can quite prepare you for the sheer horror.

The worst part of an accident is the sound. Sometimes it’s the squeal of brakes, or the shattering of glass. Other times, the crunch of bone or the screech of twisting metal. This fall was no different. After a barely audible scuffling and a terrified cry, there was a loud metallic clang as the falling body struck part of the lighting array. For an instant of agonised eternity there was nothing – scarcely time for a scream – and then a horrible cacophony as the body scattered music-stands and stools.

Later, in the harshly-lit sterility of a hospital basement, a doctor will lean over the corpse, and describe the fatal injuries in clinical detail. For now, it is clear to everyone, even the two faces peering down from the gantry, that life is extinct. The electrical signals in the brain fade and fizzle to nothing. For the onlookers, the urgency of the moment of crisis begins to abate.

“Do you still call an ambulance if she’s dead?”

John was a friend of the dead woman. Longer than anyone else, he stayed kneeling by the body, clutching her hand in his own. Gently, a paramedic prised their hands apart, as they loaded the body onto a stretcher. Others in the company, less friendly towards her and now further up the casting pecking-order, were not so stricken, and faced the difficult question: is the pretence of an unfelt grief desirable or not?

With the door a little ajar, I watched John return to his usual position in a booth by the stage door at the other end of the corridor. He picked up a discarded evening paper and flicked through the sports pages.

John was in the enviable position of being entirely unbothered by the emptiness of a deserted theatre. I had never shared his insouciance, being of the view that there was something inescapably unsettling about the absence of human beings from a place specifically designed for human interaction. Every empty seat, every closed-up booth in the foyer, every unoccupied stool in the bar, exudes wrongness and dissonance. Where there should be animated chatter, or enraptured yet audible hush, there is only an enveloping silence. The modern world, the world of high-speed internet and supersonic flight and skyscrapers, seems suddenly distant and irrelevant. It could as easily be the early years of the nineteenth century as the present day. Most perturbing of all, the old ghost stories come to mind.

The one that everyone knew was the Bedford case. The eternal triangle. Lord John Bedford, hero of Victorian imperial adventures, his second wife, the radical pamphleteer Rosaleen Williams, and Poppy McSween, the actress. Lady Bedford and Miss McSween formed what the more daring of the popular newspapers coyly referred to as a “scandalous attachment”. One evening, after a show, Lord Bedford arrived unexpectedly at the theatre to find his wife and Miss McSween embracing in the latter’s dressing room. In a fierce rage, he shot them both. By the time the police arrived, he was in a near-catatonic state. The circumstances of the shooting were hushed up by his political allies, and he died in an institution five years afterwards.

The peculiar stories began circulating almost immediately. They were the standard fare of Gothic horror: funny noises after hours, bloodstains that vanished and reappeared, furniture that rearranged itself overnight. For a few years between the wars, the Bedford Ghost (a weeping, white-faced, staring apparition of Lady Bedford) was one of the best-known hauntings in the whole country. On a few occasions at the height of its notoriety, daredevils had declared their intention of spending a night alone in the theatre, only to emerge – seemingly rather disappointed – in the bracing rational light of dawn to report that there had been no blood, no gunshots, no ungodly noises, no unclean spirit, no hovering chairs, and above all no lady in white. The sole exception had been an ex-Army officer, who told a lurid tale of banging doors and spectral figures in the cheap seats. It caused a sensation for a few days, until some enterprising cynic discovered that Captain Sutton’s account appeared to have been lifted verbatim from a cheap paperback volume of ghost stories.

The stories fell off a little during and after the war. Presumably during the struggle against Nazism there was quite enough real terror and violence close at hand to occupy peoples’ minds, without delving into the metaphysical. More recently, the strange reports had begun again. I remembered the story recounted by Cathy, one of the makeup girls, who had left a bag backstage and returned to retrieve it. By her account, Lord Bedford’s old box, high up above the stage and unused for decades, had been suffused by a strange glow as if, to use her own words, “someone had covered a lightbulb with a green cloth”. It wasn’t as terrifying as some of the other tales we’d heard. It lacked the grotesque immediacy of a phantom bloodstain or the spine-freezing terror of a hand on a shoulder in an empty room. But it had a sort of insistent oddity.

Even so, no-one believed Cathy. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that no-one wanted to believe Cathy, not least those who had their own stories of the bizarre. After all, you tell yourself, if Cathy was drunk or tired or credulous, it’s more than likely that I was too. It’s easy to be a sceptic in a crowded Soho pub on a sunny afternoon, or at a smart after-party where there are friends and lovers to impress. Inside an empty theatre late at night, alone with the silence, the stern tones of rationalism dwindle to a hoarse whisper.

**

With few windows backstage, it was too dark to see much. What little ambient light there was came from the lamp at the stage door and the occasional bright green EXIT sign. It would have taken a very exceptional human being not to be a little nervy. However, I was determined to have another look at the gantry. High above the stage, concealed from most of the audience by the Victorian trompe d’oeil atop the proscenium arch, it ran the full width of the auditorium. The only way to reach it was through the old attics, and the only way into those attics nowadays was to climb a single narrow staircase, the bottom of which was nestled away behind an inconspicuous door in the back of the box office.

It had led a charmed life, that staircase. It was two centuries older than every other part of the theatre, a relic of an earlier building that had stood on the same site. For unknown reasons, the Regency-era builders had decided that it should be incorporated into the new theatre, as the main access to the attics, rather than sharing the fate of the Jacobean house of which it had been a part.
  
On the day after Edward VII’s coronation, the theatre had been almost gutted by a fire. According to a contemporary description, it had started late in the evening and burned out of control before the fire brigades could bring their hoses to bear. Most of the entire front of house had been obliterated. Anything that would burn had done so. The beautiful grand staircase, the elegant bar with its irreplaceable antique furnishings, and the fine panelling of the box office, painstakingly rendered by a long-dead craftsman, had all vanished in moments, and yet the old staircase survived. 

On one level, I knew, its fortitude was not especially remarkable. It was entirely enclosed by stone. What was definitely remarkable was that the door at the foot of the staircase was wooden, and yet showed no signs of scorching. The survival had been much remarked upon by witnesses, and naturally led to a certain amount of speculation. Inevitably a connection with Lady Bedford was suggested, and it was only a couple of weeks before someone claimed to have seen a spectral figure standing in the midst of the blaze, close to the staircase.

Years later came a direct hit on the building during the Blitz, from a high explosive bomb no less, presumably intended for something more vital to the British wartime economy than a decrepit theatre with a reputation for testing the Lord Chamberlain’s patience. That also failed to do any serious damage to the staircase, despite starting a fire.

Three near misses. And three exceptional escapes. Once by human agency, and twice by mere flukes of chance, or fate.

**

After the fall, the police came. Questions had to be asked given the presence of other people on the gantry at the time. They were a strange pair, the officers, like no other policemen I had ever encountered. One was very tall and thin and severe, all angles and suspicion, a veritable Inspector Goole. The other was short and fat and convivial. There was an air of darkly surreal unreality about them, as if they’d wandered in from a Beckett play.

The fat one asked most of the questions, under the unyielding eye of his colleague. He had a chummy voice that didn’t sound quite right, like an actor who had thrown himself into the role of a friendly man without really perfecting it.

The other had thin, light-coloured hair framing an ageless face, and carried himself with an air of serene omniscience. I don’t think anyone could have failed to be unnerved by the way he spoke. I suddenly understood why people get flustered and tell pointless lies to the police. You wouldn’t want this man to know things about you. You wouldn’t want him to know where you’d been, what you’d felt, the devices and desires of your heart.

Eventually they were satisfied. John was the last to be interviewed. The odd couple conferred briefly, and then left.

**

The large rehearsal room. Just hours earlier it had been a hive of activity. now it was all shadows and stillness, the only source of light a dull glow from a streetlight outside. There were a few odds and ends left lying around, the usual detritus of a ballet company. Practice shoes, bottles of water, hairclips, clothes pins and parts of costume. I suddenly felt disembodied, as if the darkness had taken on physical form and I were merely a dream or an illusion.
 
A steep stairway led from the rehearsal room to the auditorium, emerging near the stage. From the top of the stairs, a broad central aisle climbed to the large double doors that led into the foyer. At the doors, I turned and glanced back, and was suddenly aware of what looked like a small slim figure moving in the deep shadows.

It was hard to be sure. A few of the intricate reliefs on the front of the private boxes were visible, and a little of the old-fashioned pattern on the safety curtain. But everything else was just indistinct blackness, gradually filling with my worst imaginings.

In the foyer, something was awry. The door to the box office was open. It had a tricky handle, which meant that it didn’t always stay shut. Evidently the handle had stuck again, for the door was open by several inches. I entered, to find that the stairway door was ajar. That was more unexpected. For a moment I hesitated on the threshold, listening to the strange creaking coming from much higher up the old oak steps.

The staircase opened out into a cramped semi-attic, more or less deserted apart from some costumes and props from decades ago and boxes of old programmes. Only a threadbare curtain draped across a small, low archway separated the attic from the gantry. Beyond the curtain the wooden boards of the attic floor gave way to the narrow metal walkway, about two feet wide. As I approached the curtain, moving silently and warily, I heard a noise, low and indistinct like a stifled sob.

It was Laila. Inevitably. Who else would be up here? It was always going to have been Laila. Looking through a hole in the curtain fabric, I could see her sitting cross-legged on the walkway. She looked exhausted. Gone was the effusive starlet who had accepted the bouquet of flowers. In her place was a shrunken, desperate-looking shadow. I suppose I ought to have felt a little sympathy for her, but I am not a forgiving personality. I bear grudges. I remember insults.
 
She was looking straight down into the dark. I wondered if she’d seen me earlier. It wasn’t likely. The view from her perch was a partial one.

For a moment I considered leaving her alone with her thoughts.

No. We had to speak.

“Hello Laila,” I said. “Can’t you sleep?”

At the sound of my voice she reacted violently, almost losing her balance. She recovered quickly, pulling herself to her feet and squinting towards the curtain with a look of mingled surprise, bewilderment and fear. 

“Anastasia?” Her voice was strangled and broken.

“Sign of a guilty conscience, they say,” I continued offhandedly.

Gingerly, she picked her way along the walkway, her left hand clinging to the guardrail with a white-knuckle grip. I wondered how hard she had been holding that rail the night of the fall. When her hand slammed hard into the small of another back, and her victim fell a hundred feet to the unyielding floor below.

“It was an accident, you know that, Anastasia. I tripped. I stumbled and I put my hand out to steady myself. It was instinct. You were right in front of me.”

She appeared to have almost convinced herself that she was telling the truth. An interesting psychological phenomenon, that. But for all her supposed belief in her own innocence, she was shrinking back from the curtain now, planted to the spot. In a sense, I could hardly blame her. In her place, I too would have reluctant to face me. Or at least, whatever it was that I had become. 

“You pushed me, Laila.”

I noticed the fingers of her left hand tighten still further on the guardrail.

 “I didn’t. That’s not what happened.”

“You were right behind me, and there was a hand in my back, and I fell.”

“No, no. I fell myself,” she insisted, nearly hysterical. “I lost my footing, and I put my hand out and I caught you as I went down.”

She was still gripping the guardrail, holding on for dear life.

“It was your idea that Joseph and me come up here with you," I said. "You had it planned all along. You knew I was a better dancer than you, and you wanted Joseph for yourself. You pushed me.”

She didn’t reply this time, and even in the dim light I could see that a great mental battle was being fought. After a few moments her face became hard and resolute. She reached for the curtain with her free hand and pulled it back. For an instant, she flinched, her eyes averted. It was clearly a considerable effort of will just to force herself to look behind the curtain.

It was a mistake. With an almost comical look of bafflement on her face, she let out an airless, gasping wail and stepped hurriedly away, losing her footing as she did so. She fell backwards off the walkway, arms flailing wildly, managing at the last moment to grab one of the thin stanchions that ran up to the guardrail, thereby arresting her descent into the void below.

She really ought to have kept hold of that guardrail. 

As she hung off the walkway by her fingertips, straining with all her strength to pull herself back up, I noticed that the metal around the bolt which secured the stanchion to the walkway looked fatigued. I regarded it with a detached interest, as a pathologist might view the diseased organ that had brought a cadaver to his dissecting-table, and came to the conclusion that it was unlikely to bear the weight of a grown human being for too long. Even one with the lithe figure of a ballerina.

Dangling there in the darkness, she looked vainly towards the doorway, confusion in her eyes.

“Are you there, Anastasia? Where are you? I can feel this thing breaking. I’m going to fall.”

“Yes, I expect you are", I said.

“Why won’t you help me?”

“I’m sorry, Laila. It’s just not possible.”

With a horrible screech, the top of the bolt sheared right off. The stanchion, now unfixed at one end and twisting at the other, swung out into empty space, pivoting from the fastening at its top end to the maximum extent of its arc, with Laila still clutching its base. Her face was contorted with the kind of unalloyed physical terror that only a few people ever experience or behold. I had some insight into the sensation myself, thanks to Laila’s murderous jealousy. Nevertheless, I looked on her without compassion, and when her sweaty hands could no longer grip the smooth metal, and her last despairing reach for the walkway had failed, and she fell away into the darkness of the orchestra pit with a long scream, I felt no pang of regret or sadness.
                               
Still, though. The worst part of an accident is always the sound.









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