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Fiction

The darkness is gathering over the city. It is late March, just past the equinox, so darkness comes neither especially early nor especially late. It comes when it is ready, comes at the time when families have already gathered together again after the working day, comes after the lights of businesses and offices, those blocks of fluorescent false clarity, have already faded. For although this is a city, it is a small city, it is only, really, a city, by virtue of the soaring and splendid cathedral on top of the hill. Sometimes, for high days and holidays, that cathedral is illuminated, a beautiful beacon seemingly suspended on the horizon, but this is not a high day or a holiday, and the grey stone of the cathedral has faded, too, leaving just a contour on the deeper grey of the sky.

Then, slowly, but with a path it has no choice but to take, the darkness deepens, and such straggler lights as there were are extinguished. Oh, there will be lights in people’s homes, but this is not a place where people live. Or it is not a place where the regular folk, the safe folk, the folk who leave the offices and shops, the folk who go home to their families, imagine that people live. They see them in the daytime, and some are generous, and some condemn, but it is easy to forget them. Not out of callousness, more, if anything, out of discomfort and unawareness, or the firm belief that they will be attended to, that this is the kind of safe small city in the shadow of a cathedral where they will be attended to.

The cathedral chimes have struck midnight, sending their silvery and sonorous song over the city. The cathedral clock does not strike the quarters, and the strange hour is about to begin, the hour when, having sung its heart out with the twelve strikes of midnight it will seem to rest and only strike one time, just once, three times on the run. It will strike half past midnight, and it will strike one, and then it will strike half past one.

After that third strike of one, the time has come. It is a signal. Because they have been waiting.

While others sleep in their beds, the day begins. The people who are forgotten, or the people others would like to forget, are coming out to play. They are coming out from the shadows in the doorways of department stores and under the awnings of cafes, and from the railway platform, and from the bus depot. They are coming from places old and new, and from hovel-havens familiar and unfamiliar.

For some, this will be almost part of a routine, though it is never part of a routine. For others it will be their first time. They will be shivering on wood or stone, discovering that a coat will never serve properly as a blanket, and that the warmest day still yields to the chill of the night, and they will hear a low, persuasive voice, and feel a hand on their shoulders. Though nobody wants to scare them, that first contact can be frightening. But they have nothing to fear. Not from the Theatre of the Night.

They are being invited. They are being invited to a world where nobody asks about before or after, and nobody asks for further explanations. They are not detritus to be pitied or scorned there. They are part of something that comes to life on the third strike of one.

It is dark no more. The space among and between the dark and silent shops and offices is illuminated. It is illuminated with flickering lanterns and flaring torches. For this is the day in the night. This is the day you can only know if you know the night.

There is a swell of music, some from old radios, some from telephones charged on others’ power, and some played on recorders and guitars, and, from somewhere, the note of a flute. That is Sam. He is rarely seen, and yet everyone seems to have met him, to have looked into his big gentle eyes, and to have felt as if the music of his flute is just for them. Some are singing. There is a choir of the night. They sing old, familiar songs, sometimes classical, sometimes popular, and yet sometimes they change to music of their own making.

All is not entirely random here. Words have been written on scraps of paper, for somehow you can always find scraps of paper. Words have formed into poetry and story, sometimes even into drama, and the people gather round, and listen, as words as well as light and music fill the air. There is dancing, too, rhythmic pacing and twirling pirouettes, sometimes to the music that is played, and sometimes to a music that is silent except to the dancers.

Nobody ever seems to be hungry in the Theatre of the Night. Nobody asks too intently where all the food comes from, and everyone takes the food that is offered, whether it is something they have tasted before or not, and everyone drinks from the bottles of cider and the flasks of coffee, or just deep draughts of water. They drink because they are thirsty and when they are not thirsty, and sometimes the people who have drunk the coffee or the water seem to be more intoxicated than those who have drunk the cider.

There is someone new in the Theatre of the Night this March evening. She is called Laura, and she does not know if the Theatre of the Night seems like the strangest of dreams in a life that has become a strange, bad dream, or if it is more real and tangible and vivid than anything she has ever known before. She has a butterfly thought that she has heard of such a thing, but then has a moth thought that it was something sinister and something to be shunned, something that made you crave wakefulness and the light of day.

“Come, Laura,” says the man who has touched her on the arm. She has seen him before, and yet now he is transformed. She has seen a lanky, tattered man like a cartoon tramp, shuffling in gait, stooped, and not exactly humble in manner, but not proud. He is wearing the same clothes now, except there is a cape swirling round his shoulders, a silver cape reflecting the light of the lanterns and the flares and the candles, and his bearing is proud, though without arrogance, his presence commanding. “Who are you?” she asks.

“My name is Antony, but some call me the Ringmaster. I am not sure if I really like that, as this is not a circus, though we don’t shun the circus’ arts. But I have learnt to live with it. It is time for you to join us, Laura. It is time for you to cast off the chrysalis of day and embrace the light and the colour and the pageant that comes when the first strike of one has been sounded from the cathedral bell. Come and dance, Laura. You always wanted to dance.”

“When I was a little girl I did,” she says, with a sad smile.

“But here you can be once more what you set aside. We are all children in the Theatre of the Night, all of us children, and all of us as old as the hills. And your feet are itching to follow the music, aren’t they?”

Sam the flautist is playing a waltz that at the same time is jaunty and haunting, and the cacophony of different music underneath it and on top of it, and would into it, turns into harmony, into melody, into the music of the dance.

Laura takes the Ringmaster’s hand and he leads her into the spotlight around the circle of people. At first he dances with her, gently guiding and encouraging her, but soon her feet and her back, and all that becomes weary and stiff when you sleep on wood and stone become light and fleet and fluid, and she dances. She too, is wearing the same clothes, but the week-worn weary garments begin to float and swirl and shimmer as she dances. It is as if her dance has become part of the music. In the circle where she dances, it is lighter than day now, light with hundreds of lights, lighter than anything she has ever known. She had forgotten quite how much she loved to dance. If I had carried on with my dancing lessons I would not have been in this situation now, she thinks, briefly, I would have followed my dreams and not made wrong choices. But she doesn’t know if it’s true. She can’t know if it’s true, and anyway, it doesn’t matter. In the Theatre of the Night what was and what might have been doesn’t matter.

She is eager to see and hear what others do, and ends her dance with a graceful courtesy, and applause rings around the light in the darkness. A group of people run into the circle, and they perform a drama of their own making, and Laura is not sure if she has heard the story it is based on before or not, and that does not matter either, for it is both comfortingly familiar and invigoratingly fresh. They are not wearing costumes, or only a few coats and threadbare blankets arranged differently, and yet it seems as if they are, as if they are clad in silver and motley, and as if the circle of light has transformed into first a castle, and then a magic garden.

More come, and more, and more. Jugglers come and she catches the eye of the ringmaster who smiles as if to say, yes, I said we embraced the circus, too! They have no smooth wooden clubs or shining metal spheres. They juggle with discarded plastic bottles and half-crushed cans, but they do so with an art and a skill that make her forget that she never used to like juggling. A music group take the stage, and somehow an air guitar seems to sound exactly like a real one. As they are playing, the second strike of one sounds from the cathedral bell. Now it is one o’clock.

“Come,” says the ringmaster. “That is our signal to go to our other stage.”

Sam the flautist leads the way, leads them like the Pied Piper out of the town centre, and up the steep cobbled street to the cathedral close. Laura is worried that some of the older people will struggle with that street, with that gradient, with those hard cobbles beneath weary feet, but she need not have done. The parade of light bears all its members as if they walked on the softest down and the flattest lawn, and in what seems like the blinking of an eye they have reached the cathedral close and the circle of light forms again.

The Ringmaster speaks into the clear air of the night that is morning and the morning that is night.

Come those who went before

Come all and come once more,

Come and come with dance and rhyme,

With music break through time,

Come and join us here,

Come, the time is near.

From inside the cathedral, and from behind it, and from above it, from air and earth, they come. They come in their colourful costumes, and come with their lutes and lyres and with their chants and with their stately measures. Laura is sure she has seen the Lord of Misrule, and it is not the time of Christmas feasting, but it does not matter. She hears the godly chants of the choir from inside the cathedral, but it is not in conflict with the colour and the dance and the singing and the minstrelsy. And then the two worlds meet and meld, and the past dances with the present, and the lights shine brightly in the darkness, and the music sounds in the silence.

It ends as soon as it has begun. At a signal from the ringmaster, the flautist plays the recessional and leads them back again. But it is not a mournful tone.

All together, they dance one more measure and sing one more song, and then the cathedral bell strikes one for the third time, and the lights and the music and the dancing cease.

Laura is woken again by a touch on the arm. But it is not the ringmaster. It is a woman, a woman wearing sensible shoes and who has a well-meaning face. She tells Laura that there is a room in the hostel, and that it is never too late to make a fresh start, and that she is sure she would love a shower and a proper pillow and blanket, and a good breakfast.

Laura hesitates. But she lets the well-meaning woman with the sensible shoes help her to her feet (for her limbs have become stiff again).

It is light now, and yet for Laura it is dark. She took the coward’s way. If only I had stayed one more night she thinks, I have not learnt my lesson. That is another chance I have thrown away. The longing is there all the time, but of course she has spoken to nobody about it. The well-meaning who wear sensible shoes would put on their tactful faces but might make enquiries about illegal substances.

She is one of the success stories. She is one of the fresh starts. She has a job and a flat and is even learning to drive, and yet she would give it all up in a heartbeat to return to the time when the cathedral bell sounded one three times and she danced in the Theatre of the Night.

May 06, 2021 06:25

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3 comments

Rachel Loughran
11:02 May 06, 2021

What a unique, beautifully written, slightly spooky story! I enjoyed this a lot! There was just one line where I felt like there was maybe a typo: "I am not sure if I really like that, as this is not a circus, though she don’t shun the circus’s arts." Thanks for posting!

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Deborah Mercer
11:12 May 06, 2021

You have rightly pointed out an error, which I will correct. Thank you for your kind words!

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Rachel Loughran
11:22 May 06, 2021

You're very welcome!

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