They each bought a ticket for the matinee performance of a revival or Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw on the afternoon of 13 June 2012. They had not met since late April in 1974.
How unlikely is that, she thought. She was on the Charing X branch of the Northern Line on a filthy summer’s day, and her mind was full of him. What if they were to meet after all this time?
She had a reasonable seat, very reasonable when you consider she had only paid £10, in the centre of the stalls. Another older woman, same type as herself she thought, sat next to her on one side, a much younger Indian couple on the other. She looked around. The theatre was less than one third full (that explained the cheap tickets then) but at least the audience was largely clustered in the same area. Most of them looked of an age to have seen the play in the years following its appearance in 1967. Orton’s last, probably best, play before his deeply regretted and very violent death at the hands of his lover. Perhaps some of these people had acted in amateur productions like her.
She couldn’t see him, but she wasn’t trying too hard. It might be rather difficult if she met his eyes across the stalls now. In any case, there would be little point in Fate arranging for them to be in the same place at the same time after all these years if He wasn’t going to also ensure that they bumped into each other. She could afford to relax and wait for the moment. She exchanged a brief chat with her pleasant neighbour about the joys of solitary afternoon theatre attendance and settled back to enjoy the drama.
The play opened in a private psychiatric clinic; Dr Prentice persuading Geraldine Barclay (her part) to take her clothes off as part of her job interview as his new secretary. The characters and the dialogue seemed familiar but the production sped along at a furious pace which their own amateur group, enthusiastic as they were, could never have attained. It was very racy, and raunchier than she remembered, too, she thought. She would put the question to him.
“We didn’t all take our clothes off, did we? In the play I mean. Not completely naked?”
He would be bound to remember, wouldn’t he? He was always more than ready to pull hers off, and then his own during that exhilarating illicit year. They were in their mid-twenties, both married. Allocating her a part was a guaranteed way of ensuring they met at least twice a week. Actually he had been a poor producer, was it his first play? She and the others would sit around after the run- throughs rather bored whilst he read and reread his notes. She remembered staring at him as he scratched his ginger curls and fuzzy facial hair. She loved his sombre yellow-brown eyes, his muscular shoulders visible through his filmy cheesecloth shirt. He rarely came out with anything to help them bring the production to life. Perhaps each of them was too preoccupied by their own erotic adventure to give due weight to Orton’s farce with its continuous shifts into sexual exploitation, anti-psychiatry diatribes, gender confusion, mistaken identities, nymphomania, transvestism, incest, adultery, blackmail and bribery.
He should have stuck to his band probably. He smelt of eucalyptus (he had problematic sinuses) and Kingfisher beer and grown-on-his-balcony marijuana. Somehow, seated at his drums on his red stool he acquired a grace and authority which he couldn’t maintain when he was at floor level without the glamour of the incessant beat. She remembered the gig where she had first noticed him. Where she had first noticed him noticing her. She wore the briefest of miniskirts, everyone did, and her long black loose hair whirled in the balmy African air as she threw her all into dancing for him, as near to the front as she could decently get. She couldn’t remember if they had spoken that night.
She would ask him. In the interval they would find each other. She did remember having a row with her pompous young husband about relieving the babysitter. It was ridiculous how he fussed so much when the joy of those carefree days was knowing that your reliable housemaid was there to look after your little darlings whilst you worked, loved, played. Her husband had a moral code which didn’t easily fit with their new lives as quasi-colonialists. Was that the night he had charged off without her, leaving her to walk home alone hugging the dark ditch through the streets of the small town on Zambia’s copperbelt where they and their two children had found themselves living in the early 70’s?
Geraldine: I couldn’t allow a man to touch me while I was unclothed.
Prentice: I shall wear rubber gloves.
The man acting Dr Prentice produced a huge pair of electric blue household rubber gloves and the house fell apart. She had forgotten how many astoundingly witty lines there were. Perhaps they had played it more for the biting social comment, which no longer bit, she thought.
At the interval her new friend, Joan, suggested they went outside for a breath of air and an ice-cream. She explained she was meeting someone and wandered upstairs towards the Dress Circle bar. She had dressed up for this occasion and felt rather chilled in her green and gold wraparound frock, bare legs and high heeled sandals. He was bound to notice how much weight she had put on, anyone would, but surely he might admire her still well-turned ankles, her still shapely tanned calves. She bought herself a Pinot Grigio, added some lumps of ice, positioned herself centrally, and helped herself to an olive from a dish on the bar.
“Excuse me, I’ve paid for those!”
Overcome by embarrassment she apologised and tottered away clutching her drink. Of course, in those far off days they always tried to tempt you with dishes of this and that, salty snacks that would keep you drinking. How awful. Nowadays you paid for everything. Look at Ryanair. How glad she was that he hadn’t spotted her. She poured her drink into a plastic beaker and hastened back to her seat.
Her neighbour was enjoying her Madly Truly Vanilla ice cream.
“Still chucking it down!” she laughed. “You know, he lived round the corner from me, Joe Orton. Him and Keith Halliwell. Terrible what happened.”
They exchanged phone numbers agreeing that it might be rather nice to have a companion occasionally when going to the theatre.
“Only revivals, though!” said Joan.
They had found other projects to offer them cover after What the Butler Saw. A couple of one act plays, then a reading of Under Milkwood in a mock Greek amphitheatre. They had made love in his van under acacia trees and he had come too early.
“How can I help it when I see your beautiful face in the moonlight and I can’t restrain myself?”
She was flattered of course but suggested next time he keep his eyes shut.
Then there was the weird poetry he had written for her to read while his jazz band played for the 1973 Zambian National Arts Festival. She had found it terribly difficult, she remembered. He had been a little tetchy with her, explaining about improvisation and how different it was than having a hard and fast script. She had stuck to acting after that. Perhaps that was when the passion began to abate.
He couldn’t be in the Upper Circle, could he? She wasn’t enjoying the second half so much. The young Indian couple hadn’t come back after the break. She didn’t blame them. Nor did Joan, she discovered later. They both thought the production had climaxed too soon; at the end of the first act really. The cast had a hard job in the second act trying to keep up the tension.
Back on the Northern Line she wondered if she should get off at Goodge Street and pick up some Polish sausage from the deli. Her husband loved it. It would be great with the potato salad she had made that morning. She must remember to pick up his prescription.
Maybe he had bought a ticket for another day.
Maybe he was dead.
She decided to make do with the smoked mackerel she had intended for tonight and stayed fast in her corner seat whilst steaming commuters packed themselves into the carriage at Tottenham Court Road.
I won’t tell him where I’ve been, she thought. It might lead to telling him other stuff. I’ll be glad to get out of these shoes.