He tightened the knot of his scarf snug around his throat as he emerged from the lift, falling into the short-stepped shuffle of commuters that were filtering through the ticket barriers. Some joined the throng of people wandering towards the piazza, others traversed the street to lean against the “20% Discount Today Only” stickers emblazoned across the windows of Oasis, the generic meeting point from Covent Garden tube. Bleeping himself through the barrier, Brian paused momentarily to pick up an Evening Standard before joining the stream of tourists, the obsolete hollers of the newspaper vendor following him as he walked.
James Street was congested with the usual muddle: red-vested restaurant touts brandishing 2-4-1 Maxwell fliers; eagle-eyed chuggers armed with superficial smiles, ingratiating small talk and a clipboard; Big Issue sellers resident in the indent between Boots and Sketchers, this time the lady with a dry frizz of purple hair and a sad-eyed dog. To the right of the tube was a charred steel drum sheltered by a tatty red and white tarpaulin and loaded with burning white coals. A dozen pebble-like chestnuts roasted slowly on the grill, later to be sold for £2 per plastic cup. Opposite, a metallic man with a comically large nose sat on thin air, legs crossed, arms folded and comfortably cupping his chin in assumed thought. Other street performers were stationed further down the street: a magician loudly rallying spectators together for his next show, a Jack Sparrow, tapping his foot impatiently while waiting for the life-size gnome to vacate his slot on the street, and a 19th century sailor dressed in full ceremonial garb.
On reaching the crossroad, marked at each corner by traditional Victorian pubs (The White Lion and The Nag’s Head) Brian turned left. Away from the bustle of the tube station, the street was quieter. The glass-fronted restaurants however were brimming with diners enjoying pre-theatre dinner. Hugging his jacket close to his chest as he passed, Brian glanced up briefly at the helical bridge linking the top floor of the buildings either side of him, then abruptly turning right. He fished his ID from his breast pocket, swiped it across a transparent square on the wall and a glass door swung open; he stepped inside.
He arrived in a room no larger than an over-sized cloakroom – a small reception desk, a cluster of chairs and a water machine. Loosening his scarf, he went straight to the desk where a woman with short blonde hair and rosy cheeks was examining a TV monitor. He caught her eye with a smile.
“Any mail for me today Ruby,” he asked. Ruby nodded, disappearing behind the desk and busying herself in a unit of pidgeon holes heavily stacked with paperwork
“Gimme a min,” she called, her voice muffled.
While waiting, he turned a circle listlessly before wandering over to the row of seats. As he sat down, another figure entered the reception via a side door. She was barefoot and wearing an over-sized hospital gown. Loosely fastened by a tie in the small of her back, it rustled like paper as she moved. She was completely bald and deathly white, with pale chapped lips and wide hollow eyes sunken into pallid, puffy cheeks. As she turned to show her side profile, Brian’s stomach squirmed uncomfortably. The back of her skull appeared to have been hacked away: the crown of her head a squashy, squiggly mess of raw red and pink tissues.
As she leant over the reception desk to see where Ruby was, she caught sight of Brian. She grinned sheepishly. Incongruent with her appearance, it gave her a slightly crazed look.
“That goddam makeup department,” Brian smiled, getting to his feet. “Your head makes me squeamish every time!”
“Gotta look the part haven’t I,” she replied, running a hand delicately across the top of her skull as if modelling a designer hat.
“Just finished rehearsals?” he continued, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek.
“You bet. Wrapped up and ready for curtain up. Got those vocal chords prepped?”
Brian tugged his scarf lightly and cocked his head. “Always.”
Two hours later, the cavernous auditorium of the Royal Opera House was filled with the murmuring chatter of an expectant audience; front of house staff ushered latecomers into their seats, coughs were cleared and programmes rustled. As the lights dimmed, a whispering hush fell until the audience were waiting the in silent darkness. As the royal red velvet curtain parted, the orchestra began to play and the silence of the theatre was filled with the melodic lines of the opening overture.
Standing in the shadows in the wings of the stage, Brian felt a ripple of adrenalin. Though unable to see them, he knew that hundreds of people were waiting for him. Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes, hands behind his back and brow furrowed in contemplation.
A few minutes later, the music suddenly crescendoed. Looking up, he stepped from the shadows and into the dazzling spotlight on-stage.
First published on Urban Stories.