I saw it as soon as I came up the steps at Oxford Circus. The words were there, booming black on still-white paper; the glaring headlines, the name that had been on everyone’s lips for the last three weeks. Even if I’d been suddenly struck blind I wouldn’t have been able to escape it: the paperboys were calling out the headlines in those half-musical tones that rang out like the cries of a strange bird.
“Lord Cartwright acquitted! Lord C found not guilty! Get your Evening Standard here-yah!”
I froze, right on the steps, and someone cannoned into me from the back and tutted, and I staggered a little in my one pair of good shoes, which had heels slightly higher than I was used to. Someone grabbed me under the arm as I started to fall. They righted me and were gone before I had a chance to thank them – indeed, I just about realised they were young and male before they were lost in the crowd. More than a little shaken, I limped up the rest of the steps, going with the streaming crowd, and approached the newsstand. I fumbled in my bag for a coin and took up the evening newspaper with trembling hands.
It was impossible to try and read it standing there. I hurried into the relative shelter of an office doorway and then realised I had no time to stand and read, even though I wanted to. I bundled the paper under one arm, hiding those shouting black headlines, and began to walk quickly down Great Regent’s Street.
As I scurried along, my feet aching in the unaccustomed shoes, my mind flew from one person to another, wondering whether they knew and what their reaction would be to the news. Inspector Marks, Gladys, Dorothy, Mrs Anstells, Mrs Watling and – just as I rounded the corner to see her standing outside the Connault theatre, almost hopping from one foot to another in an fever of impatience – Verity. Of course.
“Where have you been?” she said in an agonised tone as I hurried up to her. “The second bell’s about to go. Come on, come on, I’ve got your ticket, let’s go, go, go!”
I didn’t have time to tell her about that evening’s news. I didn’t have time to tell her anything at all. She grabbed my arm and whisked me through the theatre reception area, waving the tickets at the man standing by the foot of the stairs. “Sorry, Harry, she’s just turned up, we’ll go straight on up,” Verity said and pulled me bodily up the stairs.
“Where are we sitting?” I panted as we rocketed past the entrance to the Dress Circle.
Verity gave me a wry look over her shoulder as she steamed ahead of me. “Gods, Joanie, where else? Free tickets though, so we can’t complain.”
I didn’t have enough breath in me to complain. We eventually found our row and stumbled through the darkness to our seats, falling into them in a breathless tumble fortunately mostly right side up. Luckily our seats were towards the end of the row, near the entrance.
Giggling, Verity and I subsided, trying to control our breathing. There were a few irritated glances and tuts from the few people around us, but this was the Gods, after all – people didn’t expect much. They weren’t bad seats, apart from being high enough to give you vertigo. I leant forward, carefully, and looked at the stage, the boxes either side, the curtain which seemed to quiver in anticipation and felt a surge of excitement. I loved the theatre. I loved everything about it.
We didn’t have drinks, or a programme, or opera glasses or anything like that, of course. I didn’t care. Under cover of darkness, just as the orchestra struck up, I shrugged off my coat and leant back against the red velvet of my seat. I felt Verity grab my hand and squeeze it as the curtain went up, and the lights began to come up over the stage. I threw her a grateful grin – she was the one who’d organised these tickets, after all; her uncle, Tommy, was in the play. As I looked over her way, I could see we weren’t the only late comers. A woman was fumbling her way towards a seat a few chairs along from us. It was too dark to see much – I could only see the curve of her cloche hat and the gleam of some sort of jewellery around her throat. I squeezed Verity’s hand back, as a sort of thank you, and turned my attention towards the stage.
It was a very thrilling play. Caroline Carpenter played the lead role, that of a missionary torn between the love of two men and her religious calling. I’d seen Miss Carpenter once before, and she’d been so good that it was mostly the idea of seeing her act again that had made me want to see the play. She was very beautiful, with a kind of languid grace that gradually tightened into a marvellous taut intensity as the emotional tempo of the scene grew. Tommy, Verity’s uncle, was playing against type as the ‘bad boy’, the lover who would only be bad for her. Knowing Tommy as I did, it should have been quite comical to see him stalking about the stage, his red hair dyed black and a thin black moustache shadowing his sneering lips. But Tommy was gifted too and he made it seem natural. The leading man, Aldous Smith, was new to me. He was good too, not quite as talented as Caroline and Tommy but certainly watchable, not least because he was almost as pretty as Caroline Carpenter.
Breathlessly, I watched as the drama unfolded before my eyes. I’d reached that happy state where I was so engrossed I had almost forgotten I was at the theatre – instead I was there, with the actors, on the deck of a cruise ship sailing for Africa. I was almost unaware of Verity sitting beside me, of the musty smell of the worn red velvet of the theatre seats, of the fact that I was surrounded by hundreds of people, sitting around me, and beneath me, in the dark, equally engrossed.
The final scene of the first act wound to its dramatic conclusion, with the lady missionary looking as though she was going to succumb to the charms of the dastardly adventurer. A moment of ringing silence fell across the stage just before the curtain came down. After another moment of silence in the dark, the theatre exploded with applause. The lights came on, strong enough to make you blink, and then it was as though reality rushed back in to fill the gap.
I sat back in my seat and blew out my cheeks, looking over at Verity. She had a starriness to her gaze that I knew I would see in my own eyes if I had a mirror handy – the look of someone coming back to Earth after an hour of transportation into another realm.
“Golly,” Verity said, smiling. “What a dramatic play. Isn’t Tommy good?”
“He’s wonderful,” I agreed. It was only then I realised how hot it was up in the Gods. I unbuttoned my cardigan and slipped it from my shoulders. “Shall we get a quick breath of air in the interval? Or stay here?”
Verity was saved from replying by a minor kerfuffle occurring in the row of seats in front of us. Apparently a man was seated at the end of the row, blocking access for the four increasingly irritated people who were trying to get past.
“I say, do you think you could move and let us past?” one of the women said in an increasingly vexed tone. The man at the end of the row took no notice. He was sitting with a hat pulled down over his eyes, and it was difficult to see his face.
I don’t know what made me take a second, sharper look at him. His stillness, perhaps, or the way his head was leaning to one side against the back of the seat. I was just opening my mouth to say something – I’m not sure what – when one of the men in the group before us leant down and shook the man by the shoulder. The two women made noises between gasps and squeaks, but the man doing the shaking took no notice. He was a stout fellow wearing a rather dusty-looking topper. I hoped he’d removed it for the performance.
“Bally fellow’s out of his mind with drink,” he said and shook the man again, harder this time.
I moved forward, one hand on Verity to bring her with me, but by that time, it was too late. The body of the man in the end row seat fell sideways, and we all saw the scarlet mess that was his shirt-front. There was a moment of silence to equal that of the one heard at the end of the first act, and then the screams began, as loud and emphatic as those of an opera singer.