Saturday, April 13, 2013

If she was honest with herself, Linda was pretty irritated when she and Peter won joint first prize in the office sweepstake. Ever since her birthday drinks night at the Coopers Arms, getting on for eleven months ago, he'd developed an irritating habit of finishing his sentences with "of course, Linda knows where I'm coming from. She and I are on the same wave length." And he'd accompany this declaration with a curious fluid gesture that she supposed denoted two equally matched lengths of wave.

Following the Christmas night out (drinks in the canteen followed by a meal at Bella Italia) at which her outfit had admittedly been a little more devil-may-care than usual, he'd taken to giving her long looks when he thought her attention was elsewhere. And three large glasses of wine into Pat Pickles' retirement dinner, he'd leant across the table to her and murmured that his wife didn't understand him.

So she'd been doing her best to avoid Peter Hands. Whilst Harold now seemed to be permanently either welded to the bookshelves in the Kennet and Avon mobile library or surrounded by his comb-overed friends discussing the next re-enactment and how best they could fashion battle axes from papier mache, she didn't see that a quick tumble in the hay with Peter Hands was a particularly smart solution to the fact that her life was starting to slide past her faster than the turning of the pages of a Danielle Steel novel.

She'd packed her gloomiest polo neck for their prize night at the Salisbury Arts Centre. They had a case in town that day so it made sense to combine that with their night at the panto though it was only October. She checked her face in the mirror before she left her Premier Inn room (it would be far too late to drive back after the show and besides, work covered the cost as she'd been in court). Satisfied that she looked respectable but possibly slightly severe with her hair drawn sharply back into a tight bun, she gave herself a final squirt of perfume (a recent change from a lifetime of anais anais to John Paul Gaultier's curvy lady  which she felt was a little exotic but smelt - of a different life. Needless to say, Harold hadn't noticed) and closed the heavy door behind her.

The first half was tortuous. Someone had had the bright idea of casting the Krankies as the Giant. They weren't very funny. And the celebrity addition meant the Giant got rather more stage time than you'd expect, alternately determinedly scaling and then clambering precariously down a rather vigorous beanstalk which occupied a healthy portion of the stage and disappeared up into the proscenium arch. Jack, played by some fresh face local girl, barely featured.

The on-stage frolics however, paled into insignificance beside the off-stage fervent frolics of Mr Peter Hands who seemed to find the darkened auditorium all the permission he needed to endeavour repeatedly to enfold her in his arms. She supposed he hadn't been to the theatre very often. Whereas she had grown up attending regular performances from the local university graduate theatre group who turned out a series of earnest, trying to be clever shows in which their ambition usually far outstripped their achievement.

She was debating what she might say to Peter when the lights came up for the interval. "Peter, I hardly think...." but she was speaking to his retreating back as he made a dash for the bar. She got caught up in the mass audience exodus from the seats so was a few minutes behind Peter when she got there. But was startled to observe some sort of fracas in the far corner of the room. On closer inspection, she spotted the wild-handed Peter tussling and brawling like an urchin with - his face was concealed as Peter was pinioned to the ground. But then a

yuk yuk yuk

and a

"Like to see you tryin' to put your 'ands where they're not welcome now, my lad!"

The well-fed Salisbury audience in their theatre-going best dress fell silent. Linda looked on, awkward in her baggy polo neck, wishing now that her devil-may-care Christmas dress had been given a second outing.

"Lovely Linda", says the highwayman, "I thought you could do with a bit of an 'and. Though looked like you've had plenty of 'ands to contend with in the first 'alf from where I was sittin'."

She stared mutely at him, cheeks pink.

"Do me a favour, mate" said Johnny Byron, attention turned back to a very limp Peter Hands, "keep your 'ands off 'er in future. I don't think she's ever so very interested."

He sprang up from the supine Mr Hands.

"Now, lovely Linda, this is by far the worst pantomime I've ever been to. What says you and I go and reconnoitre with my mate Tonka and have a drink or two. Said she'd be next door in Conrans, the Irish Bar."

He held out his hand to her, eyebrows raised, a saucily questioning look on his face.

She knew she shouldn't. She suspected that it would only end in trouble. But the whole of the well-fed well-dressed comfortably-off Salisbury Art Centre audience were staring at her in her baggy polo neck and she needed an escape route. She squared her shoulders.

"I'd be delighted," she said, placing her hand in his. He took her hand, span her round in an impromptu jive step and caught her up in his arms.

"We shall have ourselves some fun, lovely Linda. Just you wait and see."

She gazed up into his dark dark eyes and noticed they had a curious amber ring, just circling the pupil. She felt she might have been hypnotised. But gathered her senses enough to cast over his shoulder as they swept from the bar; "Bye, Peter. See you at work tomorrow."

Tonka turned out to be the loveliest lady with pink hair that Linda had ever met. Not that she'd met many people with pink hair. They weren't exactly ten a penny in Flintock. They had a great chat about their spectacular exit from the bar. Linda told them all about Peter Hands. "Aptly named, eh?" said the highwayman. She heard all about the other terrible pantomimes that Tonka had built set for. And then Johnny told her the tale of the Byron family cloaks.

Tonka had made her excuses somewhere around the fifth Jack Daniels and coke and scampered off with her musician boyfriend who'd been conjuring up a fine old tune on his fiddle. Whiskey wasn't really Linda's cup of tea but by the seventh JD (as the highwayman liked to call it), Linda had the bullet in one hand, the Byron cloak on her back and was singing along with the band. She thought back to her university nights, drinking tea and discussing knitting patterns and thought she had possibly never had so much fun.

The barman rang the bell and called for last orders. Byron cried "one for the road" and sprang up to the bar in one fluid movement.

"I'll need more than one for my road, lovely Linda," as he returned, doubles in hand. "I has got to get myself back to Flintock to my castle and mansion tonight. And the last carriage left before the interval."

"You don't have any way to get home?" she said, shocked that the highwayman couldn't simply summon a steed with a whistle and a snap of his fingers.

"Oh you don't need to be worrying about me, lovely Linda. I've walked many a longer road before. And will again. I'll be perfectly safe, like. The giants will see me right."

She scarcely heard his reference to the giants as she was turning over an idea in her mind.

"The thing is, Mr Byron..."

"Please, lovely, call me John, Johnny, whatsoever you likes but I'm 'ardly a mister."

"The thing is, Johnny, when I checked in this morning before my case, they didn't have any single rooms left and they said I'd been such a regular and loyal customer over the years that they would upgrade me to a family room."

" 'Ow palatial," said Johnny, impressed. "The very lap of luxury."

"But you see, you could have the other bed, Mr. Johnny. I'm sure Harold wouldn't mind. I had to share with Keith from accounts once when we went away on a team building exercise and Sharon had got the names mixed up. Harold didn't bat an eye."

"Well that would save me a spot of bother. I 'ave a carriage, you see, what leaves at 8 in the morning. If I just 'ad the means to wait around till that tipped up, I'd be laughin'."

"Then, please. It would be my pleasure. It's the least I can do after you saved me from Peter's naughty hands!"

They walked back to the Premier Inn, through the silent streets of Salisbury. And if there was a moment when she stopped in front of the cathedral, cast with centuries-old shadows in the modern day street lights, looked up to admire the early Gothic architecture and had the lightest of kisses brushed onto her forehead by a passing highwayman, sixty thousand tonnes of olde English stone was all that was there to bear witness.

"I've really enjoyed tonight," she said tentatively as they neared the hotel. "I wonder if we might go out again in Flintock?"

The highwayman didn't answer. Just started singing softly under his breath in a growling bass. She caught only snatches of the lyrics.

For the werewolf, the werewolf
Please have sympathy
For the werewolf, he is someone
So much like you and me

Feet echoing through the foyer, they took the lift up to the second floor in silence.

The doors slid open.

The carpeted corridor.

And the heavy door of room 234 swung shut behind them.

For Emma.


Blogger Emma said...

I had a small tear in my eye as her story came to an end! xx

12:51 pm  

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