The dress circle bar had run out of gin. They didn’t seem to have had any gin, or much else, for quite some time now. Harry’s friend Simon leaned against the bar, disappointed.
‘No gin at all?’ he asked, the tired woman behind the bar nodded in ascension, ‘then what do you have?’
‘We have some lime… but it’s gone moldy.’
‘Just sherry, some port, not much.’
Harry was thirsty but he couldn’t be bothered joining the conversation, the ballet’s first act had exhausted him. He felt like this conversation had happened many, many times in recent memory. Why was he so tired? Was it this that was making him notice odd little things now? He could, perhaps, understand Simon coming to the ballet without having shaved for a few days, even though he was usually so fastidiously clean-shaven, but why would that extremely glamourous, gorgeous woman over there not have shaved her legs? Harry could see little prickles over her long, sublime limbs.
‘Did you see the man in the tuxedo out in the hall? With the red bow tie?’ Harry abruptly asked Simon, who was eyeing a tiny glass of sherry.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t appear to have any money… how silly of me. I apologize,’ he looked blankly at the barmaid and handed her back the glass. ‘Man in a tuxedo? No, I never saw him. Who wears a tuxedo to a mid-season run in the provinces? I was positive I’d come out with money.’
‘You did have money… earlier, I think. The man… he was just at the end of the corridor, before you get to the boxes. I never saw him once during the performance, though.’
‘The dancers look tired, they can barely move. I might ask for my money back.’
‘They work hard,’ Harry said before he stepped away from his friend and stood out in the hall between the bar and the seats, people were milling around in a confused manner, which wasn’t unusual, he thought, some people just don’t know how to behave in a theatre. He couldn’t see the man in the tux. He went, tentatively, further down the corridor, shaking his head at how dirty the thick carpets were. This place was going to ruin.
He stopped at the open doorway that led to the boxes. He tried to take another step, but he couldn’t; not from exhaustion this time but he simply couldn’t do it. He felt compelled to return to his seat. He tried again, forcing his will against this surely irrational fear but his legs turned to jelly and he had to reach for the rail. Then the call bell rang and the intermission was over. He had to return to his seat, and so he did.
Less than half an hour into the second act his body felt sore and numb from being in his seat too long already. Usually this sort of discomfort only kicked in after three hours of Wagner. He shifted in his seat, careful not to disturb his fellow patrons seated behind him. He was sat in the front row so he leant forward in a hunched position against the cushioned balcony. Harry thought he might fall asleep but then a cry came out from the stage, one of the female dancers had fallen, her legs seemed to have just given out, and a hushed – muted, really – cry came out from the audience. None of the other dancers stopped their performances – surely, Harry thought, that was taking professionalism too far?
He was now focused on the stage again and as he craned forward and squinted, perhaps it was the malaise he was feeling, he swore he could see dull red smears all over the stage, and the dancers’ shoes – they looked as if they had become rusty.
‘What is going on here?’ he whispered to Simon.
‘What do you mean? She just fell, carelessness.’
‘No, their feet, the stage… it’s covered in blood, these dancers are bloodied. And, listen, the orchestra are off, all over the place.’
‘Well, you’re right about that, I suppose. I mean, I’ve seen bad dancers, but this orchestra is always on the money.’
‘It’s brutal,’ said Harry before he was shushed by a fat man behind him.
He no longer had any interested in the performance. His eyes strayed through the darkness over the boxes, no one wearing a tuxedo there. He tried, fruitlessly, to seek him out in the stalls, but everyone looked the same. Then he covertly tried to check his phone; no signal, no Wifi, fine, but no time? The screen flickered and went blank, he pushed the button to make it light up again but the same thing happened. With this he stood up, nervous now, and creaked his way up the stairs to the exit. Two ushers in red waistcoats stepped in front of the double doors and held up their hands to stop him.
‘Stay in your seat please, sir; the performance is almost over,’ they said together, beaming at him.
‘I must leave,’ he said, louder than he would’ve like, several people behind him stirred and turned around, huffing.
‘You… can’t,’ they said, sounding confused, almost surprised, at this dictum.
They folded their arms and fixed him with their smiles. Harry, heart pounding and beginning to feel a little lightheaded, went back to his seat. He slumped there and thought of little but escape and the poor dancers. The girl who had fallen was curled up in a ball.
Eventually, after a numb eternity of applause, the curtain came down and the houselights went up. Everyone staggered to their feet and filed out, bumping into one another, hardly anyone spoke. Harry looked about as he was pushed along with everyone else, trying to look back toward the boxes on the off chance he might catch a flash of red. Of course, he didn’t. He saw the beautiful woman from the bar and thought how if, as on any other occasion, he’d wanted to spot her again, he wouldn’t. But there she was, looking as if she was leaving an all-night rave rather than a ballet.
As he emerged onto the stairway leading down to the lobby he observed nothing short of chaos; people were now coming back against the crowd, as soon as they got halfway down the stairs they turned on the spot and came back, as happy, were they not disheveled, as they might have been when they arrived before the performance. Harry somehow knew that there would be no leaving for him either and resigned himself to going back down the hall. The usherette accepted his already tattered ticket and added another notch to it, he had a mind to question this, but he was swept up in the human tide again.
He fought against the crowd and broke free to the end of the corridor. He looked around to find Simon, who was no where to be seen, then back again towards the boxes – and the man in the tux. He smiled genteelly and adjusted his crimson bow tie. The man’s eyes met Harry’s and in that connection Harry saw an emptiness, a void. His stomach flipped and bent him double. When he regained himself, the man was gone.
Harry strained once again to follow him down the corridor but he simply couldn’t. His legs were a jelly of cement. He stepped back and took a breath. Then he took several steps back into the milling crowd – ‘Do you mind?’ – he took a stance – ‘Well, really…’ – and burst forward as if from the blocks. His mind reeled and he felt bile at the back of throat but he broke through whatever barrier had resisted him before. He looked up from his position on the floor – shadows and shades. Moving, jostling shadows; as if from a shadow puppet theatre without any light – certainly this wasn’t the theatre he had stood in moments before.
Pulling himself up to his feet he felt calm, the fear broken like the barrier, that is, until he noticed the floor he was standing on simply wasn’t there. Just more of the same shapeless dark. He made to take a step forwards and tested it with the tip of his shoe; quite safe.
After a couple more paces he was confronted with the man in the tuxedo. At least, whomever… whatever he was, looked like a man. But he wasn’t a man, no man at all. Harry had never been more certain of anything, without quite knowing why, in his life. On first glance he looked like a perfectly respectable opera-goer: handsomely aged, a head of thick, well-groomed white hair and an impeccable tux; but he had an indistinct, shimmering quality as if he – much like the floor – was here and yet not.
Harry swallowed, realising for the first time how truly thirsty he was, and began to ask a question but was interrupted.
‘You should be getting back to your seat,’ said the apparition. The voice was flinty and refined, aristocratic even, but, again, there was an overlapping quality of booming menace, as if two voices were speaking as one. ‘You don’t want to miss the show.’
‘Who are you?’ was all Harry could croak.
The being sneered, ‘Impertinence.’
‘I-I think it’s a reasonable question,’ Harry said, adding, with his last reserve of confidence, ‘Under the circumstances…’
The being simply stared and began to turn away – at which Harry instinctively rushed to grab at his sleeve; only regretting at the last his action as the tuxedoed arm sharply flicked and a bony hand struck his cheek, knocking him to the floor. He tried, somewhat in vain, to get back to his feet but no sooner could he summon the energy than the struck cheek erupted with a burning chill that seemed to radiate throughout every cell in his body.
The being turned his attention back to Harry’s crumpled form, ‘You’re a tough little one. That usually renders your filthy kind unconscious, at the very least.’
‘If we’re so filthy, why touch us?’ Harry sputtered, struggling to prevent his tears from becoming cascading sobs.
‘One sometimes has to get one’s hands a little dirty in order to eat.’
‘You eat us?’ Harry was indignant.
‘Not in the vulgar concept to which you scum are familiar, but yes, I’ll play, I consume… parts of you. I enjoy – delight – in your higher brain functions.’
‘What do you mean? You feed off our emotions?’
‘Not all of them, not your baseness, your lusts, envy – you can keep those. I am a connoisseur of your enjoyment of what passes for your arts. And the ennui that follows you having too much – of a good thing.’
‘That’s why you’re keeping us here? To fatten us up on… culture.’ Harry made it up to his feet, he was resolved to the fact that this must be a dream. ‘This can’t be true. Why not just lurk in one theatre and then move on to the next? Fresh… meat. You’re going to kill us here; why not let us go after we’ve served our purpose?’
‘Do you take a bite of food and then become concerned over the wellbeing of the source?’
Harry bit his thumb, trying to wake from the nightmare. He bit it again, but it just hurt. He looked at his predator and mumbled, ‘People will come for us… you can’t take an entire theatre of people… You just can’t.’
The being shrugged, ‘You are removed.’
‘Yes, removed. Put in terms you might understand with more alacrity: you never existed.’
‘But… but that’s not possible. Our lives, our families-’
‘You’re a liar; it’s not physically – not scientifically possible.’
The creature shifted closer to Harry, as if it were a kaleidoscope, and leered over him, almost nose to nose. ‘You smug vermin, and your “science”. So content with your theories and your explanations. And yet you see nothing. We who watch the Frabrick also watch the Shaddows.’ Unclenching its teeth, it moved back then tapped Harry, helpless, in the centre of his forehead.
‘No gin at all?’ Simon asked the bartender. She slowly shook her head, leaning heavily against the bar. ‘Then what do you have?’
‘Have you heard this, old man?’ Simon asked Harry.
Harry stared desolately through his friend, muttering, ‘No, no, no.’
‘The man in the tux,’ said Harry, too loud, grabbing Simon’s lapels. ‘He’s doing this to us… we have to stop him. We can’t let him…’
Simon looked startled, and glanced around at the other staring patrons. ‘Well, I think we know where all the gin went.’ He managed a nervous chuckle. ‘Come on, Harry. Let’s take our seats, eh?’
Harry hadn’t the energy to resist even his friend’s mild coercions and was so led to his seat. Again. And again.
Towards the end of another interminable performance, Harry – shifting, restless, digging his nails into his palm – couldn’t bear another moment. He stood up sharply, though barely even disturbed the apathetic crowd.
He tried once more to leave the auditorium but before he was even half-way up the stairs the ushers blocked the way ahead. He stopped, tears began to run down his cheeks, his breathing was rapid and heavy, but he couldn’t go on. He turned on the spot to face the stage, the dancers were in their final movements, the ballet was reaching its finale. How did they have the energy? Harry was so tired. The music was soaring.
There was only one option: run. Harry ran as fast as his wasting muscles would allow, right over the balcony into what he assumed must’ve been a magnificent swan dive.
The music stopped and the audience began a rapturous, if limpid, ovation. This sounded, even for a couple of seconds, like the most beautiful thing Harry had ever heard. And then his neck connected with the back of a seat.