Thursday, 23 May 2013

Urban Stories: Covent Garden

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.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Spiderman Unmasked

Like the rest of Madrid, Plaza Mayor wakes up slowly. In the morning, it is refreshingly quiet and serene; you can amble across the cobbles without having to traverse the crowds, pause to take a photo without being harangued by a Mickey Mouse and take your pick of the terraces without having to stalk tables... The calm before the carnival.

As the morning drifts by, the street performers filter in one-by-one, preparing for the day’s entertainment. A year since I last visited, I watched as a steady stream of familiar faces arrived. The inexplicably successful snapping goat (a body of tinsel and a plastic head with a hinged jaw) remained resident in the north-west corner. Whether desperate or just enthusiastic, its jingles, snaps and shakes seemed even more animated than they were last year. The man masquerading as a baby, his face painted garish colours and nestled in an overly twee pram, took up position in the centre of the square. More disturbing than entertaining, his success is even more surprising than that of the goat. The headless sailors meanwhile had multiplied three-fold. Wearing identically ill-fitting suits, the bulge of their heads protruding clumsily from between the shoulder pads, they hovered awkwardly in opposite corners of the plaza. 

A few new faces had joined the ranks. The yellow zig-zag crest of a Bart Simpson bobbed through the crowd, alongside a short and squat Tigger, a Winney the Pooh and a host of less-recognisable characters. I was informed that one, which can only be described as a pink banana with a smile, was the sidekick to Spongebob Squarepants. Innovation must be running low… There were a few token Spanish acts: an ornately dressed matador waving a bilious red flag and a Carmen swishing the elaborate red skirts of a full flamenco dress, as well as a few notable absentees: the tango-tanned Elvis and the Charlie Chaplin were nowhere to be seen, nor was the Jesus Christ who made his debut last April (hardly surprising in a staunchly catholic country). 

In the business of the plaza, experience shows. By midday, the Tigger had retreated glumly to the shade of the central statue; the Goat, in comparison, had procured a generous hatful of change from passersby. Spiderman meanwhile, the undisputed ringmaster of Plaza Mayor, remained nowhere to be seen. Presumably, he was unconcerned with the slow trade of the early morning. As expected, just as the square was beginning to buzz, I heard the rattle of his plastic trunk being dragged unceremoniously across the cobbles. 

When I looked up however, Spiderman was nowhere to be seen. In his place, a large, squashy-looking Spaniard wearing an unbuttoned scruffy shirt, baggy knee-length shorts and flip flops. Running a hand absent-mindedly through his thick mop of black hair, he sat down on the trunk and looked around the plaza absent-mindedly. His round-shouldered slouch and perusing gaze curiously familiar, not to mention his possession of the trademark trunk, I was immediately suspicious. … Could this bushy-haired, broad-bellied Spaniard be the man behind the mask? After a moment or two he lumbered to his feet. Standing, his silhouette was unmistakable. The faded black T-shirt had risen to reveal a band of belly flesh drooping in a generous sag over the waistband of his shorts and he was rocking back on his heels, hands clasped behind his back. There was no mistake: Spiderman had appeared in the plaza without his disguise. Was this a first? Spiderman unmasked?

He didn’t linger long in the open. Taking hold of his trunk, he began walking towards a nearby restaurant and, waving a hand in greeting to the waiter, vanished inside. I imagine his metamorphosis from mere mortal into superhero was rather more cumbersome than most flash transformations; he didn’t emerge for some time. A booming “Venga! Hay criminales por aqui?!” alerted me to his reappearance. Slaloming through the crowd with his distinctive gait – belly first and breast bouncing slightly with each step – he began his shift by patrolling the square. Taking command of the plaza, he swept past the restaurants to high-five the waiters and greet the locals before setting to work with characteristic panache.

On his watch, even those observing from the safety of restaurant terraces weren’t safe. Quick to catch the eye of any tourist even mildly curious, he would swoop to their table, yoink them from their seats and work them through his extended repertory of poses: ultra-camp, then heroic, then sexy. When a slightly disorientated group wearing sombreros and dragging wheelie suitcases stumbled into the plaza – a potential jackpot – he was immediately ready for the pounce: legs bent and bouncing on the balls of his toes as they approached. While the snapping goat lay abandoned in a shimmery heap on the floor (its occupant having a quick fag under the archway) and the Flamenco dancer squatted dolefully under the shade of her umbrella, Spiderman dominated the square with ease. 

Undoubtedly the star of the circus, Spiderman's success is undeniable. When I first saw him in the scorching heat of August 2010, he was practically a permanent resident of the plaza: a guaranteed presence right from the first cafĂ© latte through to the evening aperitif. Now, he has the liberty to work to his own slightly sporadic timetable, has upgraded his worn out rucksack to a sturdy plastic trunk and has acquired a miniature statue of himself. He has even appeared in the local English newspaper several times. Needless to say, those in miscellaneous fancy dress have their work cut out if they’re trying to compete!

As you can probably tell, I’ve been following Spiderman for fair while...