Mrs Midnight and Other Stories

BOOK: Mrs Midnight and Other Stories
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MRS MIDNIGHT
and Other Stories

Reggie Oliver

Tartarus Press

Mrs Midnight and Other Stories
 

by Reggie Oliver

Published by Tartarus Press, 2011 at

Coverley House, Carlton-in-Coverdale, Leyburn,

North Yorkshire, DL8 4AY, UK

All stories
© Reggie Oliver, 2011

All artwork
©
Reggie Oliver, 2011

FOR A.T.

MRS MIDNIGHT

What’s the worst thing about being a celebrity? The intrusive press coverage? Forget it! I do. No. It’s being roped into these charity projects, because nowadays you’ve got to be hands on, or they mark you down as a complete toe-rag. Oh, look at Lenny Henry
,
they say
,
look at Julie Walters: they weren’t prepared just to swan around like celebs, they got their hands dirty, their feet wet: they endangered some extremity or other. And if you present a programme like
I Can Make You a Star
, you’re generally assumed to be someone who got where they are by being lucky
,
or sleeping with the right people, so you have to prove yourself all the more. Well, I got to be the presenter of
I Can Make You a Star
by sheer hard graft, and it tops the ratings because I am bloody good at my job. My qualifications: a first class honours degree in the University of Life, having passed my entrance exam from the School of Hard Knocks with straight A’s in all subjects. That’s the sort of bloke I am, as if anyone gives a flying fuck. Pardon my French. Anyway, that was why I was recruited to head up the Save the Old Essex Music Hall project.

The Old Essex: what can I say about the Old Essex? It’s a glorious relic of those magical bygone days of Music Hall? No, it isn’t. It’s a filthy, rat-infested, dry-rotten, draughty, crumbling, mildewed dump that hasn’t had anything to do with show business for well over a hundred years. Most recently it has been a hangout for winos and junkies; before that it was a warehouse and a motorcycle repair shop. Before that, God knows. The only reason it’s survived is that some nutter slapped a preservation order on it. A few of its original features have remained intact, not that they’re much to write home about. But I can’t say all this, can I? I have to say something like: ‘It’s an amazing piece of living history which must be revived to serve the needs of the modern community.’ Call me a cynic, if you like. I prefer the word realist.

The Old Essex fronts onto Alie Street, Whitechapel, and it was in some godforsaken courtyard round the back of it that Jack the Ripper did for one of his victims. Which one? Look it up for yourself. I have never understood why people should take the remotest interest in that squalid old monster, whoever he or she was. Eh? Well, why shouldn’t it have been a
she
? I’m no sexist; I’m an equal opportunities sort of guy, me. I merely mention the fact, just to give you an impression of the kind of glorious, heritage-packed part of London we’re talking about. As a matter of fact it was shortly after the Ripper murder that there had been a fire at the Old Essex, after which it stopped being a theatre, and embarked on its chequered history as a hangout for bikers and junkies. God knows how or why it escaped the Blitz: the Devil told Hitler to give it a miss, I reckon.

It was a mad March day when I first saw the Old Essex and the rain was blowing in great icy gusts across the East End. Even though it was eleven in the morning the sky was nearly black, and streetlights were reflected fitfully in the water-lashed pavements. There were three of us who got out of the minicab outside the Old Essex, all kitted-out with yellow hard hats, Day-Glo jackets and torches. There was Jill, a bloke with the stupid name of Crispin de Hartong, and me, Danny Sheen, as if you didn’t know. There was also supposed to be a camera crew, to film the whole thing for posterity, but their van had got lost—a likely story!—and they didn’t show up till a lot later.

Jill was the reason I was in on the project, as a matter of fact. Her name is Jill Warburton and she has some sort of cultural adviser job in the Mayor’s Office and had adopted this project as her baby. I hadn’t much taken to her when she first rang me up because she had a posh accent, but at least she wasn’t pushy so I invited her to come round to see me at my house in Primrose Hill. After a few minutes in her company I felt easier about her. I’m not saying she’s a raving beauty or anything, but she looks nice. She’s tall and quiet. She laughed at the jokes I made, and she wasn’t faking it. That counts a lot with me. I know it sounds weird of me to say this, but she seemed to me like a good person. So I agreed to help the project, before almost instantly regretting it, and that was why I was here, about to inspect a derelict building in the pouring rain.

The other bloke tagging along, Crispin de Hartong, was there because he was an architectural expert. He was also a minor celeb who pronounces on that TV property makeover show,
Premises, Premises
. . . you remember: he’s the poncy type who goes in for shoulder length blonde hair, bow ties and plum-coloured velvet jackets. I got the impression that he had his eye on Jill, and maybe that didn’t exactly endear him to me.

The frontage of the Old Essex is mostly boarded up now to stop the druggies getting in. Jill undid a number of padlocks and we entered. At least we’re out of the rain, I thought.

We shine our torches around and immediately Crispin starts raving about pilasters and spandrels and architraves. I don’t want to hear all this rubbish, especially as I know he is just showing off to Jill. I only want to look.

We are in what I suppose was once the foyer. It is quite a narrow space and everything has been covered at some stage with a thick mud-coloured paint. The floor is covered in rubble and bits of plasterwork that have fallen from the ceiling, some of them quite recently, so I am glad we are wearing our hard hats. Our feet crackle and crunch on the floor. The most powerful thing in this area is the smell: it’s a mixture of damp, decay, dust and death. You know when your cat has brought a dead rat or something into the house and has left its remains somewhere. Then you get that awful sweetish smell that seems to stick in your nostrils and as you haven’t the nose of a dog and your cat can’t tell you, you drive yourself mad trying to find out where it is coming from.

The other thing that I don’t like is that there’s a draught that feels like it’s come straight from the Arctic, but, like the smell, I can’t locate its source. I wet my finger and put it up to gauge the direction, but it’s no use. Now I have a numb finger.

‘Let’s go into the auditorium, shall we?’ says Jill. She opens another temporarily padlocked door and we enter the Hall proper.

This is something of a shock. After the reeking claustrophobia of the foyer, it seems vast. The roof looks as high as a cathedral’s and we can see a little without our torches because grey shafts of light come down at crazy angles from holes in the roof and from broken windows on either side high up. Through these shafts of light little sprinkles of rain fall down from outside like silver dust. We have come in under a gallery which curves in a great horseshoe around the auditorium supported by thin wrought iron columns. Facing us is the desert of an auditorium stripped of its original seating, and strewn about with all sorts of debris from its motorcycle and junkie days.

‘Watch out for the odd used needle,’ said Jill. ‘As you can see we haven’t even begun the clearing up operation.’

Beyond the auditorium is an oblong black hole which I assume to be the orchestra pit and then the remains of a raised stage, its floorboards cracked and rotten, with a dirty great hole in the middle. Part of the stage is thrust forward into the pit beyond a great rounded proscenium arch behind which hang a few tattered threadbare remnants of curtains and stage cloths. Close to the stage, at either side under the wings of the gallery I can just detect the remnants of two long bars where customers once drank as they watched the entertainment. I feel as if I am breathing an eternity of dust and decay. I don’t think I would have liked the place even when it was alive. It would have been too much like a giant version of those Northern clubs where I once had a brief inglorious career as a comic.

‘Get off! We want the bingo, not you, yer boring boogger!’

That voice from the past echoed in my head almost audibly. I look round at the others, half expecting them to have heard something, but they were just staring at it all. I was left to my own thoughts. The night I ‘got the bird’ in that club all those years ago was the night I quit the show business for tabloid journalism. It was the best move of my life. And now I’m presenting
I Can Make You a Star
, and the man behind the ‘Get off . . . yer boring boogger’? Cancer, heart failure maybe: he had been a fat bloke with a face like a potato. I can see him now through a haze of booze fumes and cigarette smoke, and his voice still echoes. No, revenge is not sweet.

Meanwhile Crispin had said the thing that people always seem obliged to say when they enter some great cultural edifice: ‘What an incredible space!’

I was happy to be spared the necessity of saying this stupid, meaningless phrase myself. Anyway, Jill was paying no attention; she was on her mobile to the camera crew.

‘Look, where the hell are you . . . ? Hold on, you’re breaking up. . . . Look, just come now. . . . The doors are unlocked. . . . We’ll be here for another . . . fifteen minutes—’

I shivered and said: ‘Wouldn’t it be better to cancel them and come back some other time when the weather’s a bit better?’

‘No, I’m sorry, Danny,’ said Jill. ‘I just can’t afford to waste them. We’re on this incredibly tight budget.’

I thought of offering to pay for the camera crew to come back later, much later, but something prevented me. I thought it might lower me in Jill’s estimation, but why should I care about that?

‘You know,’ said Crispin, pausing after this introduction in that way people do when they feel they have something incredibly important to announce, ‘I have a theory that this could be a very early Frank Matcham.’ He looked at me. ‘Matcham, you know, was the great theatre architect of the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries and—’

‘I know who Frank Matcham was,’ I said. I caught Jill’s eye and she smiled, but even this little victory didn’t make me any happier. I was cold, I needed a drink; I was beginning to hate the Old Essex with a passion. The idea of waiting around here for another quarter of an hour for a poxy television crew made me livid. I strode away from the other two towards the bar on the left side of the auditorium.

‘Careful how you go,’ said Jill. ‘The floor can be a bit treacherous.’

As I crunched over to the bar, I heard her and Crispin having an earnest discussion about Matcham and architecture: ‘The Old Essex was thoroughly renovated in 1877 by the firm of Jethro T. Robinson who was Matcham’s father-in-law, and so it could be. . . .’ I didn’t want to leave those two together. After all, Crispin may have been a ponce but at least he was her age and her class; he wasn’t a twice-divorced forty-year-old father of three, as I was. But I felt so angry.

What was I doing here? I shone my torch. The bar was in surprisingly good condition with a fine marble top, cracked in two places and thickly overlaid with dust, but otherwise intact. I began to shift a lot of debris to get behind the bar. I had this vague idea, you see, that I might find some ancient bottle of Scotch or Brandy, or something. A likely scenario! Even a bottle of Bass would have done.

I managed to squeeze behind the bar by shifting several wooden joists and a broken chair or two. It probably wasn’t at all safe, but I didn’t care. There were some shelves behind the bar into which I shone my torch. Their contents consisted mainly of rubble, the odd dead rat and, as Jill had predicted, a used needle or two, but at the back of one I thought I saw a wad of paper. I reached in a gloved hand and tentatively drew it out.

It was a sheaf of handbills from the Old Essex days. They were singed at the corners and buckled with damp but still legible. I was excited almost in spite of myself. The date on the top sheet was 1888, the year of the fire at the Old Essex, the year it closed down. The acts were listed and some of the names were familiar:

GUS ELEN

ALBERT CHEVALIER

MARIE LLOYD

DAN LENO

LITTLE TICH

Then there were others who were not known to me.

LITTLE Miss ELLEN TOZER

The Juvenile Prodigy

THE GREAT ‘HERCULE’

Astonishing Feats of Strength

And then, this:

Mrs MIDNIGHT

And her Animal Comedians

I don’t know why, but that name Mrs Midnight struck a chord somewhere. Was her name really Midnight? It sounded too good to be true. And what, for God’s sake were ‘animal comedians’?

I looked up from the bar where I had laid out the papers and across to the stage. I was not shining my torch in that direction, but I thought I caught sight of someone sitting just behind the proscenium arch in what legits call the ‘prompt corner’. It looked like a great bulky old woman with a shawl over her head and shoulders, wearing a floor length dress, but I could barely see more than an outline in the gloom. The figure was leaning forward slightly and quite motionless. The face was completely obscured by the cowl of the shawl, but I had the impression that it was staring in my direction.

BOOK: Mrs Midnight and Other Stories
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