“Look!” I say, pushing my chair back from my desk so that my colleague Martha can see my outfit. “I’m the woman in black!”
At least, I think she’s impressed.
She doesn’t look impressed.
Perhaps I should have gone harder with my theme dressing. Worn a bonnet. Contracted some terrible wasting disease.
Or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t look any different to any other day. I took the black many years ago. I don’t need to dress up. I’m already the woman in black.
By the end of the day, I’m feeling less enthused about my sartorial choices. The long black wafty skirts of my dress have already become the victim to a splash of sriracha from my lunch and a white stain further down towards the hem that I can’t identify the source of.
Oh well. I suppose I can just blame it on the wasting disease.
And anyway, I have other things to think about. Like what to have for dinner.
We decided on the Delaunay Counter, as it’s just around the corner from the Fortune Theatre and I wanted schnitzel. But which one? Pork or chicken? With a silent apology to my ancestors, I go for pork. With a salted caramel hot chocolate on the side. A concoction that turns out to be a glass mug filled with a chocolate sauce that requires a spoon in order to consume it, topped with whipped cream so thick it just got a job writing for the Daily Mail. Thus I have put together what may well be a contender for the least kosher meal ever devised.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Martha admits, not for the first time, as we walk over to the theatre.
Martha is one of those innocent souls that doesn’t mind admitting when she’s a bit scared.
“It’ll be fine,” I say with the faux-confidence of someone who really doesn’t want to see a scary play by herself.
You see, I’ve seen The Woman in Black before. Took my whole family for my brother’s birthday years’ and years’ ago. Ghost Stories was in the West End at the time and he fancied a bit of theatrical horror in his life. I don’t remember why we chose The Woman in Black over Ghost Stories. Perhaps the fact that one of them feels like it’s been running forever, while the other was only going for a few months had something to do with it. I did end up going to see Ghost Stories a few weeks’ later. By myself. Still get the shudders every time I sense a whiff of bleach in the air.
But The Woman in Black should be fine. Martha would be okay. Unless…
“I wonder if we’ll be sitting on the aisle,” I ponder aloud.
“I hope not,” says Martha. She hasn’t seen the play before. But she’s an experienced theatre-goer and knows full well that bad things can happen to people sitting on the aisle. “Gosh, it’s tiny!”
It is tiny. The foyer of the Fortune is so small the box office is practically out the street.
After picking up my tickets, we have to back out slowly the way we had come in order to squeeze ourselves back in through the door that will take us down to the stalls.
Or take Martha down to the stalls, at least.
So storms on ahead while I try to juggle bag, tickets, and purse in pursuit of programme ownership.
“Sorry,” I say to the world in general as I side-step the programme seller in order to fit myself into the tiny bit of foyer space going spare in order to negotiate this important transaction.
Tickets stuffed in pocket, purse returned to bag, and programme stowed safely under my arm, I make my way down the stairs and try and find Martha.
There’s a sign at the bottom. Stalls on the right, bar on the left.
Well, she can’t have turned right. I still have the tickets. She must have gone left.
I go into the bar. No sign of her.
The ghost has got her. The Woman in Black.
Not me. The other one.
I get out my phone and send her a message. “I’m in the bar.”
A woman in ATG livery rushes past. “The show’s about the start if you care to go through,” she says cheerfully.
I want to tell her that her theatre ghost has kidnapped my friend, but she’s already gone, telling the next person that they are free to bring their drinks in with them.
I check my phone. No reply. Martha never doesn’t reply.
She’s definitely dead.
Shit. I mean… who’s going to proofread my programmes now…
Oh, and other reasons for being sad.
I’m frantic now. The usher tasked with ushering us all into the theatre is looking at me. She wants me to go in.
I turn around, ready to search the bar for any tell-tale trails of ectoplasm on the carpet.
Martha beams at me, phone in hand.
“The loos are so strange!” she says, as if I haven’t been having a panic attack imagining her being trapped underground by a spectre with an impeccable taste in dresses. “There’s so little room they’re like, fitted in a triangle.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” I say weakly. “Shall we go in?!”
We go in.
No one checks our tickets, and there’s no one to direct us to our seats.
I glance at the nearest seat. It’s marked with a 1.
“We must be around the other side,” I say, leading the way across the back of the stalls to the other aisle.
I pull the tickets out of my pocket and check them again.
“Here we are, row G,” I say. “And we’re on the aisle! Do you want to-“
“No,” says Martha, before I can even finish the question.
I step back and let her into the safety of the second seat.
Looks like I’m going to have to be the brave one tonight.
There’s a group of young boys sitting behind us. Very young. Very loud too. Filled with bravado and pre-teen hormones.
This is going to be fun.
Heavy curtains are drawn over the doors and the lights dim. This is it. It’s happening. There’s no escape now.
The play starts gently. A man. On stage. Reading what sounds like a diary entry. He’s really not very good. I sympathise. I’m not good at public speaking either.
There’s another bloke to. An actor. He’s trying to give the reader advice. Less description. More emotion.
I frown at him. Fucking rude. The reader is doing his best! And some of us are just naturally wordy…
Now he’s explaining that recorded sound can replace the reader’s florid paragraphs. Which is all very well for a reading, but what am I supposed to do?
Oh dear. I’m beginning to empathise too much with this reader-chappy. Not good. Not good at all. I mean, usually it would be. I’d almost go so far as to consider it excellent. A positive boon, even. But feeling as if you are sliding your feet into the shoes of a character in a horror story is never going to end well.
He’s getting the hang of it now, this reading-aloud stuff. Even trying his hand at a bit of acting, dropping accents and charactisation all over the place as the pair of them tell this tale from his youth, back when he was sent to the funeral of an old lady, to pay his respects on behalf of the firm he works for.
The lights dim further.
There’s a blast of that recorded sound, loud enough the shake the floorboards. Lights flash across the backdrop.
A train, blaring through a station.
I jump. Martha does to. She twists around like a panicked cat and grabs onto my arm.
Boyish screams from the row behind is quickly replaced by embarrassed laughter delivered at a level at least three octaves lower.
Martha detaches herself and whispers an apology as I pat her hand.
I shrug my reply, hoping to convey that I’m totally cool with it all and that I’m a big brave girl, who ain’t afraid of no ghost, and that if my arm can in any way offer comfort over the course of the next ninety minutes or so, then it is at her disposal.
I think she got it.
Someone’s walking down the aisle.
I turn my head slowly, holding on tight to my seat.
It’s a woman. Dressed head to toe in black.
I brace myself, determined not to show fear. I have to be brave. For Martha.
The woman passes, wafting cool air over my cheek.
A second later, she’s gone.
I breathe again. I laugh, feeling silly.
Plus, as an aspiring theatre ghost, I have a reputation to protect. I can’t have the other ghosts laughing at me.
The house lights switch on.
Martha and I look at each other in confusion.
“There’s an interval?” she asks.
I’m surprised too. The whole performance is only two hours.
The boys sitting behind and around us start making their presence known, turning Martha and I into a pair of whack-a-moles as we stand up and sit down and stand up again to let them past.
They’re laughing and pointing at the stage, turning into a bunch of mini-Sid James’ as they make Ooo-err style noises.
I look over to see what has been the cause of this Carry On.
The safety curtain is down. And painted all over it, is an illustration of a woman. Ten feet tall and as blue as a Na'vi. She’s also completely nude, apart from a length of blue cloth wrapped around her hips and a red mask across her face.
“I sometimes forget that boys are,” I say to Martha, nodding towards the naked lady.
“Was that what it was?” She laughs.
The mood lightens. The theatre is bright and warm. We are far away from tales of heavily-draped women who hang around in graveyards. There’s nothing to be scared of here.
Our joviality doesn’t last long.
Half way through the second half Martha clamps down on my wrist. Hard.
“God, I’m so sorry,” she whispers. I laugh to show I don’t mind.
But as the yelps from the boys behind us die down and our attention returns to the stage, I give my wrist a quick shake. Martha is hella strong. That girl lifts.
I find myself laughing harder and harder as the play goes on. Snorting as loud sounds and dark figures attempt to do their worst to be.
It’s all for show, and I don’t know who I’m trying to convince. Me. Or Martha.
Oh god. Oh no. There she is. The woman in black. Her face. Oh my god, that face!
Be strong, Max. Be strong. Be strong be strong bestrongbestrongbestrong.
The tale ends.
We’re thrown back into the theatre. The actor and the reader drop their characters. The lights are bright. The laughter is back, if a little strained.
But there’s one trick left to play.
“I didn’t see any woman,” says the reader-chappy, after the actor congratulates him for finding such a creature.
The programme bares him out.
“Cast: Arthur Kipps - Stuart Fox [that’s the reader-chappy] / The Actor - Matthew Spencer.”
There’s no mention of a woman in black.
“That’s a great role,” I say to Martha as we gather our things. “The woman in black. Just walking around looking terrifying.”
I wait, needing to hear Martha confirm that she too saw the woman in black.
“Yeah,” she says, but she’s half distracted by her jacket.
At home I pull out the programme and go through every biography line-by-line, searching for my woman in black.
“Nina Deiana,” it reads. “Vision Productions.”
I smile. She was definitely producing visions for me.Read More