One day Gresham Poultice found himself unable to continue his normal route home from work. Policemen had cordoned off an entire street, possibly to look for a bomb or maybe to do some arresting, and his way was blocked by two burly constables. He asked the constables what the matter was, and how soon his route home would again become available. They glared at him as if to say, it is police business of such complexity it could not possibly be understood by a mere passer-by. In fact, they had been told to stand at the end of the street, look important and stop people coming through. They had no idea why, but they weren’t about to admit it to Gresham.
This encounter left Gresham highly agitated. He always took the same route home, he didn’t know any other. If you started taking unfamiliar roads, who knew where they might lead? Gresham re-traced his steps to the preceding road junction and, to avoid going all the way back to work again, was forced to make a choice between right or left. A coin would serve. He checked it carefully to make sure it wasn’t a double-headed one and then flipped it. Heads means right, tails means left. It was heads, so he took the right turn. At the next junction he repeated the procedure, then again at the next, and very soon he was in an area of town whose existence, like that of guardian angels, he had never even guessed at. There’s a clue there, just in case you missed it.
Gresham looked around. The area was seedy and run-down. He deeply suspected that poor people might live here. He read the Daily Mail every day so he knew exactly what to expect if they found him. They would put him up on bricks and steal his shoes. He scanned the area for a friendly policeman or an escape route and, just across the street, saw a life-sized poster of himself. He looked again. It was definitely him. “It Is I!” thought Gresham. He didn’t feel very comfortable with that, so revised it to, “it’s me!” And indeed it was. The poster was affixed to a building that appeared to be a place of public entertainment. A cinema or dance hall perhaps. Above the building a sign read: Theatre of Me. Gresham thought this a fine choice of subject and crossed the street to investigate further.
The building seemed deserted. After admiring his portrait from many different angles, Gresham peered through the glass let into the doors. The cleaners hadn’t been here recently, that was for sure. He pushed on one of the doors, expecting it to be firmly locked, but it gave under the pressure and opened just enough to allow him to squeeze in. For a moment he was caught between his fear of shoe thieves and the potential embarrassment at being discovered somewhere he had no right to be. But he girded up his loins and made his way deeper into the building. He passed the glass cubicle where the money would be collected, this too was deserted, and followed a trail of footprints in the dust until he came to a door to the auditorium.
Gresham pushed open the door and his eyes were met by an astonishing sight. An empty auditorium. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom he realised that it wasn’t quite empty. Somebody was sitting in the front row as if waiting for a performance to begin. He recalled the sign above the theatre and wondered if he would be expected to put on a show. He could do a mean PowerPoint presentation and knew the first verse to The Good Ship Venus, but neither seemed quite appropriate to the occasion. At least he might discover the meaning of his portrait, and even get a copy to put up at home, so he continued towards the stage. The man in the front row sensed his presence and came forward to meet him. Meanwhile Gresham’s guardian angels Wetherspoon and Allbar, of which he was totally unaware, girded up a few loins of their own in preparation for the coming encounter.
“Are you here for the play?” inquired the man.
He looked to Gresham like a magician turned conman. His open manner insinuated that there were no rabbits in his hat, and that Gresham’s wallet would be perfectly safe with him.
“I might be,” replied Gresham guardedly. “How much does it cost?”
“Twenty pounds,” replied the man.
The angel Wetherspoon prepared the invocation of the questing hordes and whispered sweet nothings in Allbar’s ear. Allbar shook the spittle from his ear and bit Wetherspoon on the nose.
Gresham thought a moment. This man might just have wandered in from the street, as Gresham had. There was no sign of any show starting. It all seemed a bit suspicious and twenty pounds was twenty pounds, after all.
“What about my portrait? Out front? There was a picture of me.”
“Oh, that,” said the man dismissively. “It’s just a trick. Doesn’t even require any skill. It’s a camera, a computer, a screen, that sort of gubbins. As soon as anyone else comes by, their picture will be up there instead. My nephew’s idea.”
Allbar was writing his name in holy fire on the armrest of one of the seats. Wetherspoon blew it out again.
Gresham was disappointed but decided to make the best of it. “What about this play, then? When does it start?”
The man looked at him appraisingly.
“How would you like to be the most important man in the world?”
Now, Gresham had always suspected that this was his destiny. Everything that happened to him seemed much more immediate, more detailed, more significant than anything that happened to other people. He was intrigued, but not particularly surprised. It was no more than his due.
“I’d like that,” said Gresham. “But how?”
“You pay your money and the play begins,” replied the man.
Wetherspoon and Allbar were in the foyer searching hopefully for ice-cream. An invisible note pinned to Gresham’s tie read: Gone for snacks. Back soon.
Gresham looked around. “In here?” he asked.
“The man sighed. “Are you an actor? Do you visit the theatre frequently? No. So of course your play doesn’t take place here. You leave the theatre and you wait for the action to start.”
Gresham was confused. “You mean street theatre?”
“Oh, it could take place anywhere. In the street, at work, in your own home. You will be the star of the show, the most important man in the world. The actors will take their cue from you.”
“But how will I know who they are? Do I have a script? Will I have to do anything illegal?”
“Oooooh,” cried Allbar, making the interdimensional sign of the handbag.
“Will I have to do anything illegal?” mocked Wetherspoon.
Luckily nobody heard them.
“You have no script, you just improvise. You will know when it starts. You will be the most important … but I can see you’re not interested.”
The man made as if to return to his seat. Gresham grabbed his sleeve. The most important man in the world! Of course he was interested. He thrust his money into the man’s hand. “What do I do now?” he asked.
“You leave, you go about your business as usual, you wait for it to start. Keep your nose clean, listen for your cues, and don’t plug any wooden badgers.”
“What does that mean?” wailed Gresham, but the man, already walking away, ignored him.
“I thought that went rather well,” said Wetherspoon.
“We can stand down our loins now,” agreed Allbar. He considered for a mament, “although I do rather like mine girded.”
“Rules are rules,” said Wetherspoon. “Personally I’d have had nothing to do with that bloke. He looked the wrong sort to me. But you can’t interfere with free will.”
Back in the street Gresham looked nervously about him. The poster had indeed changed and no longer showed his portrait, but he had more pressing matters on his mind. The street lighting had come on and he was cheered to see that the few passers-by lacked the venomous fangs of the asylum-seeker. He plucked up the courage to ask the least ruffianly of them for directions. “Are you in it?” he asked hopefully after acquiring the information, but the stranger just looked at him askance and hurried away. He was encouraged to find that he was only a few streets away from his home and determined to employ coin navigation more often.
Gresham trudged up the three flights of stairs to his bedsit and let himself in. He wondered if he had missed any cues on the way, but the encounter in the Theatre of Me was beginning to seem distant and unreal. He was now regretting parting with so large a sum without asking for proper identification or a receipt. He looked out of the window to see if there were any actors in the street. Buffy was waiting under a street lamp for one of her many boyfriends to come by and pick her up, as she did every night. She might be an extra, if there were such things in the theatre. Gresham tried to recall all he knew about show business. It wasn’t much. There was no business like it, that was one fact. They had even made a song to help you remember it. He knew you were supposed to worry about your character’s motivation. That was easy. He wanted things to start so he wouldn’t feel such a fool for giving up the money. And you were supposed to ask for direction, only there was nobody to ask. And suppose they said East, then what? He had so much to learn.
Gresham was about to don his PJs and dressing gown ready for an hour of sudoku before bed when there was a tap at the door. "This is it!" he thought. But it was only Larkin from the bedsit next door. Gresham’s neighbour derived a meagre income from writing verses for greetings cards and headstones and entering children’s poetry competitions under a variety of assumed names. “I called earlier but you weren’t in.” Larkin invented an invitation for himself, pushed past Gresham and flopped into the room’s only easy chair. “Look at this, Gresh,” he said, holding out a sheet of paper. Gresham took it. There were a few lines typed on it. They read:
Deck the halls with wogs of golly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la,
Chinamen say velly solly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Gresham turned it over but there was nothing on the back. “What is it?” he inquired, mystified.
“It’s for a non-PC Christmas card. There’s all these people who hate political correctness and no cards for ‘em. Un-tapped market. What do you think?”
Gresham thought he’d rather receive a dead rat at Christmas but it didn’t seem polite to say so. He handed the paper back to Larkin. “Do you think it will sell?”
Larkin shrugged. “Who knows? Nobody knew I Love You So Much My Dear Mum would sell until they tried it.
“That’s a Christmas card?”
“Mother’s Day. Best-selling verse for six years running. If I had that sort of talent I wouldn’t be living in this hovel.”
Gresham was a little offended. He’d got his room rather nice with stuff from the catalogues and brochures. His tasteful plastic chandelier, his miniature fountain that played a medley of show tunes, even his amusing pig in an aeroplane with the motto Pigs Might Fly. They made a place home. Larkin didn’t put any effort into it. It was entirely his own fault if he chose to live amongst rotting pizza boxes and un-washed underwear, some of it his own. If he was in the play it would most surely receive dreadful reviews and fold within days. Gresham eventually managed to eject Larkin and, since his sudoku time was now used up, went to bed.
Wetherspoon and Allbar stood on either side of the sleeping Gresham’s bed as was their wont. Wetherspoon went first.
“I spy with my angelic eye…”
“I haven’t told you the letter yet.”
“Okay, tell me the letter.”
“It’s Gresham. Listen, I know what’s going to happen next.”
“Wrong, it was Gresham’s curtains. I get another go. What’s going to happen, then?”
“You can’t have Gresham’s curtains,” said Allbar. “That’s a cee for curtain. He’ll go back tomorrow and the Theatre of Me will be gone.”
“Oh, it’s going to be one of those adventures, is it? I know how they go. There will be a junk shop where the theatre used to be…”
“… and the bent and wizened old man behind the counter will tell him that the shop has been there since the relief of Mafeking …”
“… since the Ordovician period of the Palaeozoic, in fact …”
“How?” Allbar was hopping from one foot to another. “I’m dying for a piss, Wethers. Can you hold the fort for a bit?”
“It’s against regulations,” said Wetherspoon doubtfully. “There’s supposed to be two of us on duty at all times. Oh, go on then.”
On his return Allbar repeated the question. “How?”
“How could it have been there since the Ordovician? Who would have built it? Not even any air-breathing animals around as I recall. I was there.”
“Do you have to take everything so literally? The shop’s been there for a long time is all I was saying.”
In such inconsequential and totally inaccurate speculation the two guardian angels passed a pleasant and uneventful night. The Theatre of Me was as solid as a theatre made of theatre and the man who had briefly owned Gresham’s twenty pounds was sleeping off the effects of his purchases under a pile of costumes behind the stage. Thus ended the prologue. All was now set for the play to begin.
(To be continued.)