“Come close,” said a red jacketed usher, looming above us as she stood in the doorway of the van that will serve as our theatre. “I have a little speech to give.”
After my emotional trip to the Studio at the Vault Festival earlier that afternoon I was back, this time in one of their vehicle venues - parked at the end of Leake Street.
I was a little annoyed when I saw how close it was.
After trying and failing to get an answer out of the Vault Festival twitter feed as to how much time I should allow to get myself from a show in the Studio to a show in a vehicle venue, I could now see that time was zero seconds.
The check in point is literally just outside the main doors.
Thanks @VAULTfestival. You’re doing great work there not allowing yourself to get distracted from all that praise retweeting by indulging in a touch of customer service. Really super. Well done.
We do as the usher says, gathering close together - just as much to protect our shivering figures again the cold as to hear about our fate.
There weren’t many of us. Three sets of couples, and me.
“Once you come in,” red jacket continues now that we were suitably huddled. “You’ll be given a short opportunity to leave. But once the lights are off, that’s it. You’re stuck.”
A woman standing near me giggled nervously and her companion for the evening smirks. I’d already clocked the pair of them as out on a first date. She’s into tarot cards and healing. He’s trying to pretend that he doesn’t find that incredibly off-putting.
“If you really don’t like it,” says red jacket, “take your headphones off, and it will draw to a close naturally.”
Suitabley terrified, we were ushered into the back of the van.
A long table covered in a white tablecloth greeted us. Hanging above were dim lights, and bells, both hanging low. And either side - two rows of comfy chairs. With headphones.
“If you’re sitting on the right, take the headphones from over your right shoulder. If on the left, your left shoulder,” ordered the red jacket from the door.
After a little confusion about getting my left sorted from my right, I managed to pick the right (that is… left) headphones.
Further left and right disentanglement followed, matching up the big painted L and R on the phones themselves to my corresponding L and R ears.
“Can you hear me?” came the faint voice of the usher once we’d all managed this challenging feat.
She clapped. “Can you hear that?”
We nodded again. We could. Just about.
And with that she left, shut the door, and plunged us into darkness.
From the other side of the van I heard a door open, and someone coming in. Footsteps clomped around behind me. I had the remind myself there was nothing behind me other than the solid wall of the van.
An unseen voice instructed us to place our hands on the table. I did as I was told, setting my palms flat against the rough cloth. We were taking part in a séance, calling on the departed souls of our loved ones. We must not remove our hands from the table. That was very important. Or the spirits might break free.
I wasn’t overly fussed about that.
Or calling about the spirits of my loved ones, to be honest.
Any spirit would do me.
I’ve been hankering after meeting a theatre ghost for years. And if this was my time to finally get my ghoul on, there, inside a dark van parked on the end of Leake Street… well I wasn’t about to complain if the ectoplasm dripping on my shoulder belonged to a stranger.
I blinked in the darkness. It didn’t seem to make any difference.
I experimented. Closing my eyes, and then opening them again.
A few feet away, I spotted the glimmer of a light.
Someone had forgotten to turn their phone off.
A second later it disappeared.
The blackness took over.
The voices in my ear grew more frantic. Something was going wrong.
I clamped my hands down hard on the table. It was a touch too far away. My arms ached from being stretched out so long.
I wriggled forward, until my knees crashed against the solid block that was the table. It was really uncomfortable sitting like that. My muscles ached. I needed to move my arms, shake them out, but I didn’t dare.
My heart was hammering.
It was so cold. I hadn't taken my coat or shall off, but the freezing air had seeped under my skin.
I wanted to take my headphones off. I wanted to wrap my shawl tighter around my shoulders. But I couldn’t lift my fingers from the table.
My hands began to tremble.
Was it the cold, or terror? I knew it was all rubbish. No one was there. It was just a recording.
If only it weren’t so dark…
The trembling became a shudder. It wasn’t my hands. It was the table. It was rising up, taking my hands with it.
I bit the inside of my mouth, telling myself over and over that it was okay.
Noises clanged around us. It was so loud. My fingers twitched as they begged to cover my ears.
Louder and louder until I couldn't take a second longer...
The table shook violently as it sank back down to the floor.
The awful clanging stopped.
Something was moving around the room again.
Something… not human.
And then… and then the lights flickered back on. A faint glow, inching itself brighter until we were left blinking at each other across the table.
The pair on the first date had their hands stowed in their laps. They grinned at each other sheepishly. Those two will go far.
The couple that disobeys together, stays together after all.
The door crashed open. “Everyone out!” ordered red jacket.
We scuttled out of the van, our heads bowed. No one wanted to meet each other’s eyes, lest we reveal how scared we were.
Safely back in Waterloo and juddering off home on the tube, I checked my phone.
I’d tried to take a photo of the inside of the van, but my photo roll was completely empty. It jumped straight from the graffiti of Leake Street to the shadowy outside of the van. There was nothing to show for my time inside.
Now, either that’s just my crappy phone or...