Helen is standing in The Charterhouse courtyard. It’s early evening and the shadows are creeping their way up the old stone walls. The cherry blossom is swirling.
It’s like something out of a dream.
Not my dreams. My dreams usually involve me fleeing my childhood home, chased by some unseen figure. And being unable to close doors because they are too small to fit the frame.
Please don’t psychoanalyse me.
Anyway, it’s like something out someone else’s dream. The dream of a fictional character, rendered for the screen by a director with a large locations budget and a problematic CGI habit.
“This is just…” I say.
Helen spreads out her arms to encompass this magnitude of fairytailness that we had found ourselves in.
“You’ll like this,” she says, showing my something.
It’s a small piece of black card, with the letter C inscribed on it in gold sharpie.
It’s a ticket! An actual ticket!
Helen’s right. I do like this.
I want to get my own. We go inside. I’m immediately disappointed.
Modern. Everything is modern. The type of modern that looks like it was bought in baulk from an IKEA showroom. Acres of pale blond wood, punctuated by recessed lights.
I take my C-marked ticket with bad grace.
There's some sort of merch table action going on. We bypass it and make our way into the next room and... oh, yeah. That's the stuff. A wooden staircase, all boxy sides and wooden hounds guarding the lintels. Leaded windows. Towering paintings. And a statue of some dude in a ruff, who is possibly James I, but my history isn't good enough to confirm it, snuggling up against a hi-vis jacket. Helen makes short work of identifying the kings in the portraits, but I'm not wearing my glasses so I have to take her word for it.
"If you'd like to step into the library, there's a bar," says a woman with a bright smile. "You can stay here if you like, but..."
Nope. I'm done with this room. I want to see what else is in this place.
"I don't want to be one of those wankers that only likes old buildings," I say to Helen as I pause to take a photo of a door. "But I really like old buildings."
"I really like old buildings too."
"I have a theory," I start, as a theory has just occurred to me. "Ugly buildings get torn down. So only the nice old buildings survive. Apart from the Coliseum. But the Coliseum is so fucking ugly, it's actually fabulous." And anyway, the Coli isn't anywhere near as old as this fucking building.
Helen grabs me, saving an old lady from going flying as I turn around and around, trying to take in everything about this new room, all at once. The windows! The portraits! The fireplace! Oh my fucking god, look at that fuking fireplace. I could roast an entire hog in that damn thing.
But instead of a hog, there's a trunk inside. The wood so darkened by age it looks almost black.
I'm fairly confident there's a skeleton inside. Or possibly a pile of letters incriminating a minor lord of treason. I really want to open it to find out, but there are too many people around. (Helen grabs my arm again, saving yet another old lady from having to perform a three-point airborne manoeuvre).
The towering fireplace on one side is matched by a no less impressive door on the other. Short and squat, it looks designed for someone who barely clears five foot tall, but passed that loop on their belt-size centuries ago. I imagine a pair of liveried servants heaving with a specially designed stick, to lever their rotund master through the doorway, where he would emerge on the other side with a satisfying POP.
Helen offers to buy me a drink. I suspect in an effort to save the old ladies of the audience from further incident.
The bar is set up on a long table, with an arrangement so elaborate it must look spectacular in The Charterhouse's wedding brochure. Endless rows of shiny glassware are balanced on upturned crates. There's a smart little price list nestled next to the tumbers.
Wine. Beer. Soft drinks.
The holy trinity of pop-up bars everywhere.
I'm not much of a wine drinker even at the best of times, but drinking out of one of these squeaky clean glasses in this environment strikes me as ridiculous. Wine should be drunk out of a goblet. Or perhaps a cup carved from horn. Not glass that's been run through the dishwasher with extra rinse aid.
"What are the soft drinks?" asks Helen.
Two jugs. One orange. The other looking so watered down it could only be elderflower. No ice. Warm elderflower. Quite possibly the least appetising thing in the world. Next to warm orange juice that is. I pass, and return to admiring the fireplace.
"Okay, I'll take it," I announce to The Charterhouse in general. "I'll move in. Do you think they ever need those Guardian people? I could do that."
People are beginning to head upstairs. We follow them.
"Very Liberty," says Helen, examining the hound's head fixed on the top of the balustrade.
She's right. It is very Liberty. Although a bit lacking in the soft furnishings department. Or any department. This is a beautiful building, but a rubbish shop.
"Go ahead," offers Helen as a dapper-looking gentleman with a walking-stick waits for us to go in.
He indicates that we are the ones that should go, instigating a battle of politeness between the two of them.
I smile. This is a game the gentleman with a walking stick can't possibly win. I've seen Helen use her ruthless friendliness in action before. He's not playing with an amateur here.
But then he draws out a trump card so shocking I'm left reeling.
"I live here," he announces.
I'm sorry, you what?
"You live here?" asks Helen, clearly also requiring some clarification on the matter.
He doesn't offer any, other than confirming that he does indeed live here.
I didn't realise that was an actual option.
I can't let this opportunity go to waste. "Well, if you ever need a roommate..."
He laughs. "Promises. Promises."
That settled, we move on, following the crowd through a dark antechamber and then...
I mean... wow is pretty much the only response you can have to a room like this.
Helen is the first to find her voice.
"Look at the tapestries!" says Helen. "Actual, real tapestries."
"Look at the ceiling!" I respond.
Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!
The chandeliers! The walls! The floor!
If I thought the one downstairs was impressive, the one here is on a whole different level. Extending from wooden floor to intricately moulded ceiling, the fireplace is an extravaganza of religious carvings and inlays, picked out with gilt. There's a stone surround. And a brick backing. And suddenly I understand that woman who married the Eiffel Tower, because I am in love with this fireplace and ready for commitment.
"C?" says the woman on the door, seeing our tickets. "You're in the section right at the back."
We head right to the back, picking our way around the reflective stage that lies like a shimmering pool in the centre of the room.
Two rows of seating lie either side of the stage, with the section at the back is slightly separated from the main body, set at an angle and tucked away beside the piano.
"Where do you want to sit?" I ask.
Helen slides into the second row, but I pause.
There's no rake. If I've leant one thing on this marathon, it's to be very careful choosing a seat when there's no rake.
"What about sitting on the platform?" I ask.
The last row, right at the back, and almost around the corner, is raised on a high platform. But I suspect that its inferior placement will be more than compensated for by the extra height.
We try it out.
The view is staggering. From our elevated position, we have a clear view right down the stage. I can see everything. I feel like a king upon his throne. No, better yet: a queen.
I get out my fan. It's very warm up there. ("Don't faint," warns Helen. She knows I have form.) It's cooling, but more importantly, adds to the whole regal thing I've got going on.
A lady comes out. I lean back in my chair. I'm used to this drill. I've already seen this show. Back at the Old Church. And due to marathons beyond my control, I'm seeing it again. I would be mad at OperaUpClose for programming two London dates on their Maria Stuarda tour, but I'm sitting in the most beautiful room I've ever seen in my life. It's hard to get worked up about it at this point.
"The very room that Elizabeth herself met with her council," she says. "As she will later on in the opera."
I sit up. What the what?
Elizabeth? Here? In this room?
The opera begins. Donizetti is doing the very most. Epic sound fills the room, pressing us back against our seats. It's hard to remember to breath.
The piano is right next to us, and the pianist is flicking pages, conducting, and pounding out those notes in a fever of motion.
With Helen next to me, I get the giggles as Leicester bangs on about Mary's beauty to Talbot. "Ah, the poor woman!" he says. "And she was such a beauty." As if beauty enhances tragedy.
Helen leans into me. "Leicester is a fucking idiot," she whispers.
Leicester is a fucking idiot.
Oh, Donizetti. Your music is gorgeous, but you really don't know the fuck about anything.
I'm so glad Helen is here. I just knew this opera would rile her up. And no one gets riled up more eloquently than Helen.
Ignoring the sign that states very clearly that only staff and brothers are allowed past that point, I step onto the mezzanine and look down at the foyer below.
“But the sign said brothers,” says Helen, her mind always whirring. “It’s it still a religious order?”
Although I love the present tense, writing in it can be a total mind-fuck. Anyway, hello. I bring Do not be afraid. I bring great news. It turns out you totally can live at The Charterhouse. If you are over sixty. Don't have any money. But also don't owe any money. And some other rules that are too tedious to list here. I'm a little young to put in my application at the moment, but now that I finally have a goal worth pursuing in my life, I will be dedicating the next twenty-eight years to being poor (check) and paying off my credit card (no-cheque).Read More