"Nee-nor-nay!" shouts someone on the tube.
"Nee-nor-nay!" shouts back a couple of men on the platform.
Is this a sport thing? It sounds like a sport thing. Unless I have severely misheard, because right now I'm thinking this is a call and response between a fire-engine and a horse.
There are TFL people everywhere. Chivvying people along towards the exit. “This way!” they shout over the din. “Head towards the overground!”
I don’t want the overground, but I head there all the same, bumping along with the crowd until I’m eventually spat out into the sunshine somewhere on Seven Sisters Road.
“Sorry sir, there’s no entrance here,” says a TFLer to someone trying to sneak in past the half-closed metal gates.
“Cos of this fucking football,” spits someone venomously when their friend asks what the hell is going on.
Ha. Okay then. Permission to feel rather smug. It is a sport thing. Well done me.
Although, given the amount of times I get caught up with the Arsenal crowds while on my way home from work, you’d think I’d be better at identifying and avoiding the whole thing.
Trust me to book a show at a venue right in the middle of all this on match-night (is it called match-night? Fairly confident it’s not called match-night. I think we all know that I am lacking in the sport-related parlance. To my shame, I just… don’t care enough to develop my vocabulary in this area. Words are hard, you know. But at least I’m not calling it the ‘big game’ like I’m some socially inept loser in an American sitcom).
I zig-zag may way through all the crowd-control barriers that are blocking up the pavements. But now that I’m out in the open, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of crowds to control.
I don’t see much of anyone until I stumble on what looks like a party going on outside a grand old red brick building. There’s music. Very loud music. A huge crowd is sitting around outside enjoying the warm weather. And the roads are cluttered with parked cars.
I walk past them, heading down the path just beyond the grand old building, and towards their next door neighbour. There’s a courtyard separating this next building from the road. It is completely deserted. Surrounded on all sides, even the sound of the music seems deadened now.
Even so, the Bernie Grant Arts Centre is a welcome sight. Clean and modern and inviting.
The young woman behind the box office counter beams at me when I go in.
“Hello!” she calls, as I make my way across the foyer towards her. “What’s your surname.”
I give it.
“Smiles!” she says. And then says it again, opening up her voice into song. “Smi-les.” She laughs. “Sorry, I just sang your name. I’m very tired.”
I’m so surprised that I can only laugh in return. It was lovely though. No one has sung my name before. That’s a first. I really enjoyed it.
“Just to let you know, this show comes with some trigger warnings.”
There’s a laminated sheet on the counter: sexual violence and strong homophobic language.
“Thanks,” I say weakly. I can’t say I am looking forward to either.
There’s a note at the bottom, saying that I can leave and come back at any time. I don’t think I’ll need to, but it’s a comfort all the same.
“Is there a programme?” I ask, spotting a pile of books sitting there, just behind the counter. They’re pink, with the artwork for the show I’m seeing on the cover. A girl holding flowers. And the title: Funeral Flowers. I’m very much enjoying the dichotomy between the soft image and the morbid title. Very Pastel Goth. I really want to take one home with me.
“Sorry, no,” she says. “We only have the playtext. It’s five pounds. And no freesheet.”
Five pounds for a playtext is one hell of a bargain. And with no freesheet, I’m definitely buying one.
I get out my card.
The box officer prods the card machine. “Sorry, is it this machine? I can’t get left from right here. Perhaps it’s that one.” She indicates the card machine further down the counter. “Does that one say five pounds?”
“Thank you! Sorry,” she says again, as if there is any need to apologise.
“No, I get it,” I say. “Saturdays are hard. I feel you.”
She gives me my ticket. A proper, printed ticket. “The duty manager will come and fetch you at 7.25 to take you to the venue,” she says, before reeling off a list of places where I can spend the next ten minutes.
I head to the cafe.
It’s nice here.
Big windows. Long tables. A counter covered with cakes.
There’s big talk happening already, bouncing between the tables and the cafe staff.
“All the roads are closed!”
“I’m glad the show is only an hour. We’ll be out and gone before the football’s out.”
“Kick off is at eight, isn’t it?”
“If they win, they’re coming down to the hall. You know that, right? That’s why they put in all the public toilets.”
“The parades tomorrow.”
“If they win.”
“Jesus. So they’ve made all the preparations already then? Just in case they win?”
“All the road blocks and barriers and everything. And if they lose…”
“That’s money wasted.”
“Hundreds and thousands of pounds.”
“What a waste.”
A woman with a clipboard appears. The duty manager. “If you’d like to come through with me.”
We all gather our things and follow her back to the main foyer, by the entrance.
From the clipboard she reads out a list of trigger warnings. They’re really going hard on this. The signs. The mention when you pick up your tickets. And now this announcement.
I’m feeling properly prepped, and properly cared for. This is a venue that takes its duty of care towards its audience seriously.
The duty manager is taking us outside. Back across the courtyard.
It’s not deserted anymore. There are a group of teenage boys kicking a ball about.
We’re heading back to the road. Into one of those grand old red brick buildings.
The duty manager positions herself in the middle of the entrance foyer and takes people’s print-at-home tickets from them.
I show her my proper printed ticket.
She takes it from me.
I stare at her, not quite sure if I was getting it back.
I consider asking for it back. It’s a ticket. Not an admission pass. It should be mine by rights. I mean, what are they going to do with it? I’m the one who is going to treasure it, and store it, and get it out on wet Sunday afternoon’s to cry over. And no offense to the duty managers of the world, but if I leave it with her, it’s just going to get chucked in the recycling now, isn’t it?
I don’t ask though.
Because of course I don’t.
And I walk into the space ticket-less and slightly bereft.
The smell of flowers cascades over me as soon as I step through the door. Soft and cold, with the barest tinge of green sweetness.
There’s a young woman behind standing behind the table. That’s Emma Dennis-Edwards, the writer and performer of the show. She’s surrounded by flowers. They rest in great tubs around her feet. They cover the table, dipping their heads as they wilt in the close heat. They hang from the ceiling upside down, to dry out.
I did that once. Hung a flower upside down to preserve it. It was one of the flowers thrown onto the stage at Daria Klimentova's farewell performance at the Royal Albert Hall, when she retired from English National Ballet. I ran down to the front of the stalls after the applause had ended and the audience was filing out. Big burly men had already taken over the stage to sweep up the thousands and thousands of blooms that had been chucked on by adoring fans. I asked for one. And they were happy to oblige. It was only a cheap carnation. Bought in bulk to provide maximum impact in the flower throw. But I carried it home, so very carefully, so as not to lose a single petal along the way. And then I stuck it up with tape in my kitchen, the white petals pointing to the floor, so that the moisture would drip out and I might be able to keep a little part of the magic forever.
A few days later our cleaner threw it out...
I take a seat on one of the benches and breathe in deeply. I love flowers. I never buy them for myself. Too much money for too short-lived a pleasure. And I already have theatre for that. But I allow myself to soak in the perfume, almost feeling drunk as the fragrance seeps into my skin.
It’s a small room. Not even a theatre. A bare white space with benches, a few tables. And those flowers.
It’s soon filling up. Mainly women. Mainly women of colour.
They all stop as they pass through the door. There’s a moment. The awakening of the senses. As the smell of the flowers reaches them.
We all suck it up greedily.
Dennis-Edwards starts handing out flowers to the audience.
“You’ll see,” she says cryptically when someone asks why the floral presentation. “They’re for later.”
Dennis-Edwards starts by talking about her mum. Her character’s mum. Our storyteller’s mum. Her mum loves tulips. She thinks they’re elegant. Our storyteller is much more practical. She admires how versatile they are, and the number of colours they come in. A flower for every occasion. She’s equally dismissive about her name: Angelique. She has no patience for the backstory her mother tried to fob her off with on the choosing of it.
I like her immediately.
Angelique is studying to be a florist. Her mum is in prison. Her dad is not around anymore. She’s pragmatic about all of that too.
But despite this business-like efficiency, she’s passionate about flowers. She knows what they all mean. Red tulips symbolise true love. Lilies are for innocence. She’s working hard on her course. Not like the other girls. She has ambition. A shop of her own. Fashion week. Weddings. Funerals. The lot.
With an impatient beckon, she asks the audience members with flowers to come up to her table. She shows them a reference photo of an extravagant floral display. They’re going to recreate it. One by one the people with flowers stick in their stems to the offered oasis. Angelique rolls her eyes at their efforts. Don’t worry. She’ll fix it all later.
Anyway, it’s time to go to a party, and she’s taking us with her.
She hurries us from our seats, around her table and over to a large white matt over on the floor.
With cautious glances at one another, we take up places around the edge. Balancing on knees, or curling around our legs.
A few people decide that sitting on the floor is more than they signed up for, and head for the benches by the wall instead.
Angelique keeps on talking. The party isn’t going so well. She’s spotted her boyfriend with another girl, and his dealer, the one she really doesn’t like, is there.
And… oh god. Her voice sinks as she tells us what happens next. I clutch tight at my knees, twisting around to follow her as she moves around us, wanting to look away but at the same time not being able to take my eyes off her.
There’s a crash.
As one, our heads snap towards the window behind Dennis-Edwards.
A young girl peeks through the blackout curtains. It’s the boys with their football.
The girl’s mother gives her a look and the curtain is dropped back into place.
But the lure of the teenage boys and their football is too much for her, and soon she is peeling open the edge of the curtain once more to look outside.
Angelique moves around the space. She wants to show us the vase of blue flowers she has put in her new home.
They're basic but bright, she says. But perhaps more than that, they embody new beginnings, and hope. Of sun-filled days. Of her own shop. Her own life. Away from those who see her as a resource and not a person.
Outside, it’s still swelteringly hot. The party next door is still going. The music still blasting.
But the streets are empty. Deserted. I walk towards the tube station, swinging my jacket from my arm.
Everything smells of heat and tarmac and fast food.
Despite the pain, I miss Angelique’s world. Her lack of nonsense. Her drive. And the lush freshness of her flowers.
I should really go buy some.
Maybe for my birthday. That’s coming up in three weeks. Three weeks and one day. Not that I’m dreading it or anything.
Still, flowers would help. Peonies, I think. They’re my favourite. I wonder what they mean. Angelique would know.