The poster seemed an immovable and ancient feature of the stone facade of the theatre, so perfectly was it fixed to the wall and so antique was its appearance. This impression of antiquity came not from any fading, yellowing or other cosmetic damage to the thin paper; rather, the advertisement was in perfect nick, as fresh and bold and inviting as it had probably been at the moment of its original printing. It was instead the imagery, the colour and the overall design that spoke of some bygone, even timeless, age: white-faced clowns in conical hats laughed silently, flame-haired girls in black leotards gyrated down the edges of the bill, great exotic animals glittered with gold and silver trappings like they’d been plucked from a march alongside Hannibal and strong-men and acrobats completed their long-forgotten routines with a dignified flourish. ‘MONKEY MADNESS’ was boasted by a subtitle in thick black lettering below a poorly-rendered illustration of caged primates at play. ‘POOLEY’S CIRCUS’ was the headline spelt out in blue on a gold sash, which clashed with the overall deep red background of the piece, and was held aloft by a tiny suited figure in a far-right corner. If one cared enough to squint, there was a name scrawled beneath the feet of this near-silhouette: Mr. Fate.
It was Mr. Fate alone that was the unlikely star at the Odeum tonight. The appearance of this promotion that relegated him to the status of a sideshow was surely little more than either the desperate trick of a showbiz pauper, trying to hoodwink a passing potential audience with the promise of greater and more varied thrills than those which were actually going to appear this evening, or admittance of defeat in the face of a current budget which couldn’t extend to any new marketing materials. To Richard, this seemed odd: surely a solo act at this venue, such a historic staple of the West End, would be expected to hold a much higher standard of operation, and be in possession of enough capital to at least be able to print up a solo bill? Richard couldn’t imagine the process by which this result had been signed off by everyone from personal agent to theatre manager, social media content producer to board member. He did not, however, quibble. After all, it was the tantalising promise of the unusual and unexpected that had drawn Richard to the hellscape of tourist-land against all his better instincts. It had been the limited but provocative copy of the Time Out listing (“Mr. Fate: Music Hall, Vaudeville and Variety Classics, Comedic and Musical, from an Accomplished Pro; remember how it used to be done and weep for the present”) that had first sparked an interest in him; it appeared to represent a temporary passing over at this theatre, for the length of a very limited engagement, of another musical adaptation of an old film that was familiar to far-flung overseas visitors mainly because it was also safe enough to have reached them without being withheld by their national censors, and this was surely be welcomed. Richard had only been made more curious by his inability to find out much more about the show or the performer anywhere else, as every online source for the theatre’s schedule or content repeated those same few words ad nauseam and without addition or amendment.
So he’d purchased his ticket online- at a cost far, far below the usual three-digit figure for even the cheapest, most pillar-obstructed plush velvet at the conventional shows- and now he stood in line for admittance at the Odeum for the first time in probably decades. The same gold-blue-red colour scheme of the poster was repeated in the simple awnings that had been fixed around the theatre’s doorways. There was no name on these boards and no further suggestion of what was to be seen within. Mr. Fate was, it appeared, an open secret not to be shouted about too loudly. Was the Odeum embarrassed? Did this explain the front of a circus, rather than the admittance of only a single disreputable performer? Was tonight- and the rest of the week- a stop-gap presentation that had arisen out of the commercial necessity of keeping the doors open even when more popular shows left an unfortunate gap in the calendar that needed filling? If the last of those suggestions were truly the case, then the men-behind-the-curtains must have been rubbing their hands together in unexpected delight: there were enough people outside, and within the foyer itself, to suggest an evening at at least two-thirds of capacity.
The crowd, Richard noticed, was oddly mixed. There were tourists, true, who stood around slightly perplexed, quite possibly utterly unaware of what tickets had been foisted upon them by whoever was organising their vacations, and on the verge of a nasty shock. There was also the expected humble elderly contingent, clearly anticipating a night of cloyingly sweet nostalgia, and currently blocking passages of entrance with their tiny, trembling frames. Other people were evidently aficionados of this sort of thing; a combination of scholarly-looking types, probably carrying Dickens’ biography of Grimaldi in their coat pockets, and men who lived up to every negative physical stereotype of the dedicated follower of obscure and esoteric interests. Amongst this lot, however, were two unexpected classes (and the emphasis was really on the word ‘class’ in one instance). First, there was a slice of the self-contented, clearly affluent, friendly but unfriendly, grey haired and silver-watched crowd that propped up the business of most genuinely culturally-important institutions in the city, while forever loudly twittering in their little groups about their shared holiday plans and cosseted opinions, all of which were both definitively received well in advance and frighteningly un-insightful. Richard knew that this type was as well-disposed to decorative nostalgia as their more age-advanced and modest forebears entering the lobby, even if their nostalgia was often of a supposedly superior sort; but he was still somewhat surprised to see them pick Mr. Fate over another evening spent in the company of the same Schubert symphonies they’d heard performed live six or seven times already. The presence of another societal subsection was far more startling: teenagers and twenty-somethings, the majority of them self-consciously retro in their appearance and dress sense, although retro in a way that spoke of very different periods and subcultures than the ones that Mr. Fate had winged his way in from. Richard found their appearance on this scene somewhat puzzling; even at such a low cost, he hardly imagined that this was the sort of thing that could part them from their cash, and he wondered where exactly they could have picked up an interest in, or even much awareness, of traditional vaudeville or the crusty mildew melodies of the music hall. Scattered about were the disbelievers who formed the rest of Richard’s tribe, and who were surveying the scene with much the same confusion as himself.
The doormen were mute; they swung the doors open to each ticket-holder with an unpleasant robotic motion, their eyes confessing their decision to situate themselves- in every aspect but the physical- in some other distant place. When Richard finally made his way past them he tried not to look at them too much; they were almost frightening to him, like zombies from show nights long-passed, reanimated by the devil dust Mr. Fate had blown into their restful faces once he’d prised open their coffins. Indeed, an odd drowsiness had settled upon the general evening since his arrival, for all the denseness of persons. Richard was reminded of the sort of hypnagogic drift that directed his thoughts on the verge of sleeping; he seemed now to be almost guided across the carpet, past the gilt-framed bills that added an ostentatious greeting note to those who had struggled their way inside, and towards the bar in the manner of a semi-sleep-walker, a somnambulist who would have fitted in well as an act alongside the rest of the circus folk that once populated Pooley’s Circus. A vodka with ice was in his hand without him being too conscious of its purchasing; he sucked on the decorative lime that he peeled from the edge of the glass unaware of any bitter flavour or breaking of social decorum. He noticed many of those around him bore a similar manner in their expressions and movements. They appeared to alternately glide or jerk about the place in a way that set Richard to thinking of another old treat: namely the mechanical jockeys that used to complete their horse races along steel beams in glass-fronted cases at the drop of a penny in the seaside arcades. Eyes were glazed all about; conversation was conducted haltingly in whispers or monotone; the teenagers looked ready for a nap, let alone the old folks. The only real point of great animation came from a middle-aged, rotund fellow further down the bar. Richard moved closer to him, hoping some of this life and energy would rub off upon him and knock him from his stupor.
He came to regret his decision almost instantly. The man was bloviating loudly and looking for a target who wouldn’t try to squirm away from the forceful flood of his words. His wife, obviously worn down by the constancy of his torrential downpours, was a mute and detached figure whose current perfect silence and stillness was most likely a consistent feature of her personality, and not a result of the same spell which had been cast upon most of the rest of the room. The man’s eyes fixed on Richard’s, and he extended his hand for the shaking in a needlessly violent motion. Indeed, every one of the man’s actions was made with the hope of projecting a self-confidence, a superiority, a great satisfaction that outranked that of his conversational partner. Richard was caught between slinking away and defiantly meeting him halfway. He opted for the latter approach. He shook the man’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, Richie. Nice to meet you. You looking forward to the show?”
Richard nodded, somewhat rankled at the patronising liberty taken with his name. “I’m curious about it.”
“Me too mate, me too.”
Graham’s voice was plummy and utterly untraceable to any particular region of the country. He wanted to be known as an everyman, and occasionally- purposefully, theatrically- he dropped an aitch or an arr in the hopes of further solidifying and signalling his position as such.
“What bought you here tonight?” Richard asked.
“I want to see if this bloke- this Mr. Fate- is up to it.”
“Up to what?”
“Up to it. I want to see if he can do it properly like he promised; like it used to be done. How it was done when we still had a sense of humour we could be proud of in this country.”
“Yeah. I couldn’t resist when I saw it. We need proper variety back nowadays, y’know. A good old laugh at teatime on a Saturday- that’s what held us together as a people back in the day. The ones nowadays, half of them try it and haven’t got the wit or the skill. Not since Jerry died. He was the last one, the last old pro.”
“I was never much of a fan.”
In truth, Richard thought Jerry was a twirling fool; a purveyor of hack gags- cleaned-up for the early evening audience- and mediocre dance steps, an old twinkle-toes with a barely-disguised mean streak. He’d always seemed the sort who’d knock a couple of quid off a contractor’s pay based on the length of time they stopped for a tea break and had outlived his time on television by a good few decades, supported by the last vestiges of a soppy audience. Richard’s contempt was probably audible in his clipped dismissal and it put Graham on the defensive.
“You’re wrong there, pal. He had something for the whole family. The whole lot could enjoy him.”
Strictly the dewy-eyed grandmas thought Richard, but he said nothing. Graham looked around for someone better to talk to. He could round up no one else and turned back to Richard to strengthen his argument.
“It’s lads like him who made us what we are. He made your struggles during the week- slaving your guts out- worth it; he made you forget it all. Nowadays, you turn on the television and all you get is hectored; everyone’s got something bad to tell you, everyone’s got something bad to say about you. You’ve got to feel guilty all the time. Like you want to hear all that after you’ve been sweating it at the foundry. You want a bit of glamour, a bit of glitz, a few cheeky laughs; it puts a new burst in you for Monday morning. Without people such as Jerry, I tell you, we’d have fallen behind the rest of the world a lot earlier; we’d have been too miserable to make it in after the weekend, and the whole bloody thing would have ground to a halt. Like it has now.”
“I’ve always preferred the sketch comedians from that time.”
It was an opinion offered as a peace-making gesture on Richard’s part, one chosen instead of- quite fairly- enquiring on the exact date that Graham had last toiled at the foundry.
“Fair play to you there, fair play. They were great. Don’t see much of their like either now. That’s all the special interest groups and the bloody elites diluting it all, telling us what we should like rather than giving us a bit more of what we actually do like.”
Richard, tiring of the same old talking-points, decided to change tack. “I don’t know if Mr. Fate is going to be much like Jerry. He seems to be doing something a few decades older.”
“It’s close enough, isn’t it?”
Richard supposed it was. He excused himself and went for another drink. Some of his sleepiness had worn off, and he now put that earlier strange mood down to the warmth of the lobby.
There was more of a crush now around the bar. Richard joined the back of it and noticed the woman next to him was crying. No, not just crying- sobbing, bawling her eyes out. Her partner held her to his chest, stroking her hair.
“I don’t want to go in, Charlie. I don’t. I don’t.”
Her partner pattered her on the head and pushed her face further into his coat. He said a few more comforting words, but the woman kept weeping; she began to shake more and more, and Richard thought her legs were going to give way. The man ushered her away and they were lost to Richard’s sight for a few seconds; when he caught a glimpse of them again through the throngs he could see that the man was all but forcing her towards the open doors of the auditorium. He whispered in the usher’s ear as they were asked to present their tickets, and the two of them together helped carry the woman to her seat.
Richard only had time to briefly consider if she had some form of agoraphobia before he was ordering his second drink. It arrived and he downed it one. The bell rung.
“Seats please, ladies and gentlemen!”
An usher, holding an old brass megaphone, was standing on the balcony that led to the upper stalls. His silver buttons gleamed in the overhead fluoresce; he wore little white gloves and thick, shining black shoes. His hair was slicked back so forcefully that his forehead and brow jutted forwards with an unnatural, furious tightness. He lifted the megaphone to his lips again.
“Enjoy your trip with Mr. Fate!”
There were a few cheers for this, which were followed by a low murmuring. Then Richard was caught up in a rapid pouring forward of the crowd towards the waiting doors. Behind him, he could hear a couple more members of the audience crying as they too were propelled onwards by the irrepressible movement around them. There was no question of turning back, or slipping out of the mass; everyone had very quickly become too tightly packed. Richard felt himself being lifted off his feet; the ushers gave up on checking tickets and simply stood aside to let the crowd through with vacant grins. Richard turned his head as the sobs behind him turned to screams; he tried to see if people were being crushed, as he felt he might soon be. He saw that a line of people was pushing the rest of the audience forwards from the very back of the congregation. The faces of these stormtroopers were red and contorted with the pressures of their exertion. Richard wanted to shout at them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, but his chest and lungs were being too heavily pressed to allow for speech. He focused only on his breathing- and blocking out the terrible wailing- as he was carried into the stalls. As he came through the door, a good number of those in front of him collapsed, and soon Richard too was rolling down the aisles with them, bruising his back as it hit against individual steps. When he stopped falling he was lying atop a groggy, near-purple middle-aged woman. He apologised profusely and helped her up. She said nothing, put a friendly hand on his shoulder, and then went in search of her seat. To his left, Richard saw Graham laughing delightedly in Row BB. He gave Richard a thumbs-up; apparently, nearly everyone here was desperately, devotedly on his side- they were willing to kill to get a bit of that old variety back.
Indeed, most of the crowd had reacted as if this display was the normal, accepted way of entering a performance hall. As people pulled themselves up or were caught against the backs of the first row of seats, they then worked themselves free, adjusted their clothes and hair, and wandered off with a calm, even contented demeanour. The banshees of the crush had been silenced; there was an expectant, excited hush in the place now. Richard could see a few others looking around with a similar sort of apprehension as himself, but the pressures of conformity soon weighed, and even they went about seating themselves in much the same way as the rest of the room.
Richard, too, followed their lead and sat himself down. Gazing up at the balcony and the rest of the stalls, he noted that his early guess of two-thirds capacity was an underestimation- surely, this was a near sell-out. Richard’s neighbours were composed mainly of the same geriatric folks he’d seen on arriving, broken up only by the occasional forty-something like himself, and a couple of youngsters- their dress sense caught somewhere between 1965 and 1995- perched somewhat uncomfortably at the end of Row KK. A few of the oldies were sucking on hardboiled sweets like they’d stepped out of some cheap advertisement. One of them proffered a bag of humbugs to Richard; he politely turned down the invitation.
There came a great whirring noise, and then a long musical note, the sound of which was somewhere between that of a church organ and the burst of a laser gun. The stage and its red curtains lit up in splashes of purple, blue and yellow light and an elegant behemoth of a Wurlitzer came up through a trapdoor in the orchestra pit. It shone in pure, blinding white, was topped by silver pipes, and was decorated by dancing green and gold bursts that hopped jauntily across the multiple cascading keyboards and up into a system of buttons and pullies. A man in a wide-cut grey suit, his hair also slicked back to an impossible point like the announcer’s, made an unlikely medley out of Autumn Leaves and Everybody Loves My Baby. There came coos of delight, hands clapping, other tunes being hummed in counter-point. Richard himself could not help but get caught up too, leaving behind any wondering about how exactly this instrument had been installed in the theatre, and how much such an operation would have cost. Surrendering himself, he drifted out of his body to float above the innocent pier of seaside memories, a wash of striped-bathing suits and Sunday bests below him. The music seemed at once an orchestrated version of the sound of two penny pieces clattering down in the push machines, the clicking of a hawker’s camera offering deckchair candids to pretty factory girls and dads in rolled shirt-sleeves, and the meetings of steel forks and plates cleared of haddock, chips and even lemon. Richard’s spirit perched itself upon the top of a helter-skelter, an enormous tower in red-and-blue spirals, that had grown to a size of several hundred feet, and was still soaring upwards, carrying him towards the muggy clouds of a hot bank holiday afternoon. Then he was cast off and was falling towards the grey nothingness of the sea, straight through the nailed boards of the pier walkways, before he was caught on a lattice of fine, oiled ironwork beneath the pier, and suspended- crucified- in perfect, beaming happiness. The dancers and fairies of the circus bill poster flew in loop-the-loops high above him, becoming angels; he watched them go, as an acrobat, carrying a cartoon weight, made easy work of walkathons up-and-down the inches-thin handrail of the platform above him. The music started coming to an end; Richard was struck by melancholy as he became aware that these weren’t his own memories, dreams or visions, but just the construction of some great shared store of memory and imagination, all of it infinitely sweetened beyond reality, and not much beyond ghosts flattened and mulched into universally familiar patterns. But it was all sweet, so, so sweet, that it hurt to reawaken to the murkiness of the theatre. The magic lantern clicked off. The Wurlitzer sunk back into its subterranean resting place, and he was left choking on his tears.
Before his nostalgia could curdle any further, Richard’s attention was stolen by someone shouting; he saw a youngster breaking for the doors. He was met by an usher who bear-hugged him and manhandled him back to his seat, letting the kid writhe and kick out the whole way. Once plunked back down, a guard was kept.
Before the audience could protest, a man appeared on the stage; a spotlight turned on him and made his face blue. The response was immediately rapturous, geed up by the tender majesties of the organ.
“You remember, don’t you,” the man said, in tones attempting for the sonorous but letdown by an underlying asthmatic weakness, “the glory days of theatres such as these?”
He approached the front of the stage, then dropped and backward-rolled and stood again on the spot he’d started from.
“Magic and laughter, tears and delightful delicacies. France’s finest legs kicking the cancan, jokes and routines from the funniest men alive that would send you- the audience- into convulsions. Indeed, didn’t it seem like every hall needed a standby St Johns ambulance, to cater to those whose collars had gotten too hot, or who had been forced into cardiac arrest by the brilliantine brilliance of the final punchline?”
Members of Richard’s row were nodding.
“Do you remember Charlie?” The man imitated the Tramp’s walk.
“Do you remember the songs?” He offered a line of a Flanagan and Allen favourite.
“Do you remember the tricks?” He produced a pack of cards from his suit pocket and showed a five of clubs to the audience. “That was your card, wasn’t it?”
There were chuckles. The man walked closer to them. Richard could see him better now; white paint had been caked upon a face approaching old age, marked by a surfeit of deep, dark wrinkles. Around each eye was drawn, in black wobbly lines, a large circle, and these were connected by an even shakier line across the bridge of the nose to form a false pair of round spectacles. His eyes were brown but animated, even fiery. His teeth were stained yellow. He repulsed Richard and made him involuntarily draw back in his seat to escape the gargoyle leer that was now fixed upon them. The stage had been claimed by a sad Pierrot partly infused by the spirit of a particularly malicious Harlequin.
“I am Mr. Fate,” said the man. He was acting as his own compere; there clearly was no support, no other attraction. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever played. I hope you’ll bear with me.”
A roar boomed over the theatre’s speakers and made every one start.
“Exit, pursued by a bear!” Mr. Fate bellowed. He ran off stage left; then his head appeared round the curtain, caught in a paroxysm of panting pain that was too real, too immediately suggestive of a genuine and sudden heart-attack victim, to be in any way amusing. Roaring and growling continued to fill the auditorium. Mr Fate ran towards stage right, his suit shredded and a large pair of boxer shorts, in the customary bright red love heart pattern, showing through the remains of his trousers. Now the audience- or parts of it, at least- laughed. He disappeared around the curtain again, and then stuck his face back out with the same grotesque expression upon it as previously, except now he’d become aware that no one thought this particularly funny, and brief flashes of both frustration and sadness passed across his otherwise fixed countenance. His response to this negation was to double-down: his fake agonies only became more outrageous, more monstrous.
He re-emerged into the fullness of the spotlight, with only his boxers and heavily-polished brogues remaining to cover him. The crowd liked that. Mr. Fate pretended to be embarrassed, shielding his modesty with outstretched hands.
“What a way to begin my show!”
He stepped up again to the lip of the stage.
“Like I said, I’m not used to venues of this size. Not at all, not at all. Holiday parks, holiday camps, that’s more my thing. Performing for the tanked-up inbreds who can’t afford a trip abroad, and who end up bored out of their skulls in the wind-blasted rot of coastal England. But even those places are going away. Good riddance, I say. Especially if I can get gigs at all the world’s Odeums, eh?”
The tone of those words had been serious- poisonous- and met with general bemusement. Mr. Fate grinned, stood back, and caught a cane that was thrown in from off-stage. He twirled it and picked up the tune of the Flanagan and Allen number again.
“We’re always on the outside
On the outside always looking in
We never know how fortunes are made
For the sun, when it shines, finds us still in the shade
We’re always on the ebb tide
But we’ll keep on trying till we win
For we know someday we’re gonna be on the inside
Instead of the outside always looking in.”
He performed a few rudimentary dance steps as an unseen small orchestra caught up the pensive melody; Richard thought Graham would be happy, as the routine seemed to have been half-inched from one of Jerry’s. It turned into a fake foxtrot and then a waltz, Mr. Fate taking his cane as a willing partner.
“Isn’t it hard to find a dame these days, fellas?”
The question was asked in a New York drawl. He followed it by throwing away his prop and dancing the Charleston, wildly and with a relish that belied his age. Then feet were caught in a choreographed tangle, and he was on his back, staring up at the stage lights. It was from this position that he performed the next and final verse, gifting the slender words a real, precious wistfulness.
“We’re very ordinary people
We never make any fuss
We’re the easygoing kind,
if you look around you’ll find
There’s a million like us
We’re always on the outside
On the outside always looking in.”
He rolled onto his stomach, resting his face in his hands and looking out cutely at the audience, then jumped up as the orchestra struck a new tune. He sang it in a quavering voice.
“Twas down in Cupid’s Garden
I wandered for to view
The sweet and lovely flowers that in the garden grew,
And one it was sweet jasmin, the lily, pink and rose;
They are the finest flowers that in the garden grow.
I had not been in the garden but scarcely half an hour,
When I beheld two maidens, sat under a shady bower,
And one it was sweet Nancy, so beautiful and fair,
The other was a virgin and did the laurels wear.”
The orchestra continued playing as Mr. Fate bowed to the audience and shuffled his way off-stage. There was applause, but also a palpable edge of disquiet; the song was much too old to be familiar to anyone in the room, as Richard suspected the first may well have been to most of the audience also. He had thought himself more likely to hear variations on Always Look On The Bright Side of Life or similar, but Mr. Fate was chasing some form of authenticity, with a wide historical remit, at the very least.
When he returned, Mr. Fate was wearing a top hat and tails. His face was still tainted blue by the spotlight.
“Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I welcome your kind response to my first routine. It is the sort of thing that one dreams of during yet another night in a motorway-adjacent Travelodge, kept awake by the howls of a domestic in your neighbours room while trying to keep down the cheap lager and slimy Hunter’s Chicken the janitor-cum-chef managed to under-microwave. It’s a tough life on the road, I tell you. A tough old life. You know, the other day in one of those places I met a fellow with one leg called Smith.”
He turned to the audience expectantly and was met with silence. He visibly sighed and made a tiny gesture to the gallery. A voice boomed out of the speakers, crackling, almost warped.
“One leg called Smith? What was the other one called?”
Some laughs, mostly polite.
“‘Cor blimey. Let’s go again, eh? Woman gets on to the bus and says to me ‘I say, is this the Barking bus?’ Me, I respond ‘No, madam, this one just goes toot toot’.”
The same response followed.
“A waiter in a top London restaurant was sacked today for having his thumb in the soup when he served it. A topless waitress has been dismissed for two similar offences.”
There was more appreciation for this one. Mr. Fate looked a little disheartened.
“That more your line is it? A little bit blue? Oh, I say! Boys will be boys, won’t they? Lucky for you, girls, otherwise you’d get no fun … now … listen!”
Mr. Fate spun and broke into a fit of maniacal laughter. The sound rang out through the hall; it grew to such a pitch that it could almost have shook the balconies and rattled the lighting system. Richard’s discomfort rose. He wanted to turn and flee from the sound, the horrible unceasing sound, but he worried that any break would be met by the ushers in the same mysterious manner as the teenager’s earlier attempt at gaining freedom. Richard turned his head, battling against the cackling assault that near-paralysed him, and saw the usher was still looming over the boy. Very few others around seemed to notice this or care very much.
A few laughs eventually rose to uncomfortably meet Mr. Fate’s, and this apparently spurred him into stopping. He smiled, and the orchestra played another tune. Mr. Fate once again broke out the same limited dance steps as earlier, enlivening them with a couple of strategically placed, still fully-trousered, moonings of the crowd, each one accompanied by a fluttering upwards of his coattails. He belted out the words with gusto.
“When I was a nipper only six months old
My Mother and my Father too
They didn’t know what to wean me on
They were both in a dreadful stew
They thought of tripe, they thought of steak
Or a little bit of old cod’s row
I said, “Pop round to the old cook-shop
I know what’ll make me grow.
Boiled beef and carrots, Boiled beef and carrots
That’s the stuff for your ‘darby-kel’
Makes you fat and it keeps you well
Don’t live like vegetarians, on the stuff they give to parrots
From morn till night, blow out your kite
On boiled beef and carrots.
When I got married to Eliza Brown
A funny little girl next door
We went to Brighton for the week
Then we both toddled home once more
My pals all met me in the pub
Said a feller to me, “Watcha Fred!
What did you have for your honeymoon?’
And just for a lark I said
Boiled beef and carrots…”
The invisible orchestra cut out, and Mr. Fate fell into a cross-legged sitting position.
“The great Harry Champion, that one. Truly great. Not like me, not like me. Oh, I know I’m not up too much,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it.”
He looked out at his wide-eyed following.
“I’m like so much of you lot. ‘There’s millions like us’. I came along too late, much too late for myself. Or I just let my time pass, without grasping it properly-“
He stopped and smiled sympathetically at them all.
“Doesn’t have to be that way, though, does it? Does it? That’s why you’re all here, after all. Because it doesn’t have to be.”
Someone in the audience whooped. Richard looked around to see who was so excited by Mr. Fate’s melancholic pleas and saw another member of the audience being restrained by the doors. The balcony announcer took hold of the woman’s wrist and dragged her back to her seat. It was Graham’s wife. Mr. Fate took no heed of her.
“I’ve given you a bit of a reminder of what was, in my own sorry way. Now it’s your turn to do the rest, to do what we’ve come here for. Now, we can get time back. Our time. Better, happier times, the real thing. And it will be better than this, I promise, so much better. Don’t you want that, boys and girls?”
The crowd grew more and more excited. The room was melting for Richard now; reality was dripping away and congealing on the floor in thick, gloopy puddles. He could see this was a false world before him; an alien world, a terrible place, a bad photocopy, an ersatz reproduction printed in the wrong hues and with the lines smudged. He tried to stand, but another usher came up behind him and pushed him down. He could see, out the corner of his eye, that a small army of them had arrived from somewhere- like they’d shot up out of the old floorboards- and were pinning down any resisters, any who weren’t now fixing the stage with the same rictus delight, or waxen death-mask serenity, as the rest of Richard’s row. Most of those being held were audience members of his age or younger, but even scattered amongst those of fewer years he could see others who were consenting and exuberant. So many in the hall now seemed to him possessed of some secret knowledge, an idea of a secret aim to the proceedings, that he’d arrived tonight completely unaware of. He wondered how many were like him. Who had spread the word to the others? Had it even been put abroad, or had the educated not otherwise just been drawn here by a mysterious instinct, a voice that whispered to their most futile desires? Had Mr. Fate this evening been in their heads, their hearts, telling them things from inside that could never reach Richard; trilling in the gaps between his gags and songs in a tongue only to be understood by the initiated?
“Cover their eyes!” Mr. Fate pointed at the usherette militia, directing them. A smooth, supple pair of hands cut off his view of the stage.
“Sing along!” Mr. Fate bellowed. “I need all of you that can manage! It won’t work without most of you willing- willing! I’ve got a sheet for you to read from, there’s no excuse! Start the music!”
The fantasy orchestra started up again. The Wurlitzer sounded deep, rumbling, sizzling hellfire from below the pit.
“Time again, time again!” Mr. Fate shouted, and leapt into the words of the song. The crowd joined, uncertainly at first, but then with great enthusiasm, with glory in their bellies and golden syrup in their mouths. The song turned from the rinkydink to the sublime; it could have filled the greatest cathedrals in the world and sent the sheer grey sullen spires of God toppling. Richard struggled against his captors, but more hands were placed on him, more held him in place.
“We’ll smile again
With the sun through the rain
As we welcome back those good old days we knew
No more goodbyes
No more heartaches and sighs
We’ll awake to realise our dream’s come true
Those happy days, happy ways
Are the things we sigh for
They’ll all come true, Mister Blue-“
Richard felt the ground shifting beneath his feet; the whole hall began rocking left and right at a tremendous velocity. The hands confining him slid and skidded across his face and body; behind him, the bodies to which they belonged tried to keep themselves upright. Flashes of blue and red light blinded him when his eyes were free. The sideways movements turned into great lurchings backward and forwards. Richard gritted his teeth and dug his fingernails into the hard plastic beneath the thick velvet of his armrest; blood started dripping down his fingers. Mr. Fate took an opportunity to encourage the crowd.
“C’mon now, ladies and gents, boys and girls! Don’t be frightened! The golden pathways are opening for you; all you’ve lost is returning, all that’s passed is coming back. This is what we need!”
Someone- Graham?- cried out. “England! My England!”
Mr. Fate finished the song with the audience.
“What ya gotta cry for
Turn the lights on
For the darkness has gone
Arm in arm let’s sing a grand refrain
The world is with us
So we’ll smile again.”
Everything stopped. The theatre was still. The hands were withdrawn from Richard’s eyes, and the ushers melted back into the walls’ scarlet shadows. Richard looked around him; much of his row was caught between a new radiant happiness- old faces crinkled in children’s expressions of wonder- and an ambiguous dabbing at wet eyes with the edges of hankies. The young couple at the end of the row looked around in search of something or someone, or some clue as to the outcome of this mass seance.
Mr. Fate, who had been missing from the stage when Richard’s vision had been restored, returned.
“You’ve done a wonderful job. Oh, joy of joy, day of days! Isn’t it a shame we don’t have any windows in this place? But I’ve popped backstage, ladies and gents, and let me tell you- this isn’t the same city we left behind! Oh, it’s so much better.”
He gave a little jig and sang a song of his invention.
“Start again, start again, oh what can be, what can we be, now we can start again. We’ve left the cruelty of our age behind; the bitterness and the division. Oh Christ, how cold we’ve all been, eh? How bloody, bloody cold. Well, throw off your shawls, Mother Brown! Chuck the hot water bottle out from under the eiderdown. Go you lot, go!”
The majority of the audience thew themselves from their seats and once again battled their way towards the door, clambering and clawing their way over each other to get towards- what? Mr. Fate’s promised land, a new shining paradise beyond the foyer? Richard watched the crush develop- the lost and lonely stragglers, regretful or befuddled, joining after the worst of the stampede- and remained rooted in his seat. Mr. Fate had gone again; the stage lights were dimmed and eventually shut off. A kinder, gentler usher than the earlier paramilitary equivalents appeared at his elbow and helped him gingerly out of his seat and towards the door. No words were exchanged; Richard’s guide, although pinched and grey, walked with a puffed chest and a solemn stateliness.
They passed through the foyer and then out the the theatre; the usher left him and went back inside. Richard looked about and his legs buckled, and his head almost hit the pavement as he swooned. As Mr. Fate had promised, the Strand was indeed not the Strand he had come in from; the cladding and chrome, the lurking monsters of concrete frames and glass exteriors were gone from the margins of the scene around Charing Cross, and the familiar chain restaurants and shops had been replaced on this great stretch of life. The occasional horse-and-carriage or cart held up the lanes of early motorised hackney carriages, half-open to the elements and stinking with their dense fumes. The buildings had taken an almost Victorian appearance, a long line of tall soot and smoke-stained facades dropping down into the striped canopies and block-colored awnings of fancy shops. The people hurried about- the pace of their lives had changed little- but they were long overcoats, wide-brimmed hats and suits in great acres of fabric or peculiarly dumpy and formless dresses.
A pair of brogues stopped at Richard’s crown. A hand came to meet his, and after a few seconds of exertion from a samaritan almost out of puff, Richard was standing with a comforting arm around his shoulder. The man holding him was Mr. Fate, smiling warmly with his yellow teeth and his flaking make-up.
“Bit of a shock, isn’t it? Even for the most willing ones, it will be.”
Richard nodded. He couldn’t form words.
“Nineteen twenty-six. For God’s sake, I wish I’d got a better year. I hoped to avoid the Blitz at least; I managed that. But the crash is right around the corner.”
He shrugged his shoulders. Richard stood gaping at him.
“Still, it’ll be alright for me. Entertainment’s always boomed in hard times, and I’ll be on a bill with the best- heck, I’ll steal most of their routines before they’ve even thought of them. Bully for me. I’ve got my public. It’s the others I worry about. I needed them- of course- but I worry they didn’t quite think things through. To be honest, I think I took most back further than they were expecting. Not quite a Christmas Eve recording at the BBC Studios, is it? All dancing girls in elf costumes, and the comedian as a great big erect Santa. That’s what they really wanted- if they ever really did know for sure what they wanted. Oh, well. They’ll pull through. They’ll find a silver lining, and so will you. Call me if you need help.”
Mr. Fate slipped a business card into Richard’s coat pocket. He started to stroll away, with a grand promenade air, but Richard stumbled over and grabbed at his poleyster sleeve.
“Is there any way back?”
It was all he could manage to say, and he had to lean right into Mr. Fate’s ear to make himself heard. Mr. Fate shrugged once again.
“Get a few hundred of those who want to go the opposite way in a room and give it your best shot. It’s the only way. You might be able to round up a nice little crowd after the crash. They might even be knocking down your door to go forwards a little. Good luck with it, if you decide to make a go of it.”
Mr. Fate patted his shoulder and was away and swallowed by the Saturday evening crowd. An old song resounded in Richard’s head.
“Life begins at Oxford Circus…”
He watched a car hurry past and contemplated throwing himself under the next, or beneath the hooves of a horse. But then one of the old contraptions stopped before him and he climbed in and asked for the place the song had named. As they merged with the rest of the traffic, and avoided the masses of jay-walkers and delivery boys who recklessly pelted off the kerb and slipped through the tiniest spaces between the cumbersome vehicles, he tried to send himself back again to the latticed metalwork underneath a long-distant pier, on a hot summer’s day from someone else’s photo album, but found the sun had long since already set and all the joys of the seaside had disappeared into the black of the night. He wept. Back at the Orpheum, a blue-overalled workman, overseen by a courtly, august shade in all-black, carefully extracted the POOLEY’S CIRCUS poster from the wall, rolled it up and pushed it inside a cardboard tube. He received a nodded dismissal from his inspector and went down the side of the building, bill in hand, towards the tradesman’s entrance. The shade watched him all the way, before turning, stepping back inside the theatre and motioning to a waiting usherette to lock the front doors.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and film-maker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli’, dealing with the rituals of modern British drinking culture, is currently in post-production.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Cruel” dark, legendary fiction also by Billy Stanton.
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