The carpet is thick and porous like time. It insulates the conversations of the waiting people, cushioning their edges so that they melt together into one mellow hubbub. The lobby is opulent: gilt patterns tattoo the deep purple walls and heavy red curtains weigh down the archways which lead to the stalls and to the stairs for the circle, making them look like the sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes of some exotic animal. A camel, perhaps, with its dreamy, drunken gait. A bar adorns one end of the room like a living exhibit with the great, intriguing display of downlit bottles its backdrop. A barman inclines himself across the mahogany counter to listen to a soft word, spoken like an incantation, then turns towards the display and surveys it solemnly. His practiced hand selects a bottle and the appropriate glass like reuniting lovers and he pours the appropriate measure with sacramental reverence. He has the air of a priest, a librarian of rare books, or a museum keeper. I am pleasantly reminded of every bar I’ve ever been in. Slow, significant conversations between bent heads and shared breath in faraway hotels and dark saloons rise out of my carpeted, curtained memory to mingle with the voices of the people around me in the lobby. I think of the cool, polished surface of a glass in my hand whose skin was once just as smooth and crystalline; now withered, blurred, as if its very outline is losing its integrity. As if, as you age, you begin to dissolve.
A gilded antique clock stands out on one wall, its gold hands shiningly self-assured and magnified by its glass dome while mine are shrunken and tremulous. It is flanked by two ornate sconces which glow sombrely like a royal escort, as if the clock is the prince of Time, demanding respect and subservience. I am impotent under its gaze. The clockwise motion of those gold hands permits no exception: time moves forwards and its impassive face is insensitive to the fears of the old. The stance of the hands tells me there are ten minutes until the show starts.
I watch the waiting strangers with pleasure. Each face is unfamiliar and, as my gaze travels over the assembly, one seems to replace another as if they are inherently transient, stable only in the mind that perceives them. I see lips painted red, moving seamlessly and wordlessly, occasionally revealing straight, white teeth like porcelain, the kind that have become fashionable in the last ten years. I see firmly-starched trousers which move reluctantly like stiff sails against a stubborn northerly wind; fabulous silks and satins and velvets that give the exhilarating impression of simultaneous travel to a hundred exotic lands; hands of every colour and character, waved and contorted in silent, ingeniously expressive choreography. Looking down, I enter a whole new realm. Feet adorned in a remarkable array of stiff materials like striking, angular, modern art pieces, posed against the thick carpet, shuffle around, unsupervised by their owners, betraying a complex system of relation, comfort, discomfort, impatience. It’s like a silent ball, and I am the only spectator.
A pair of shoes bears a path directly towards me. Turquoise patent leather: pretty, well-polished, passionate, as I believe shoes should be. When I look up, their owner is standing in front of me. She’s holding two glasses of water and she smiles. She has smooth, pragmatic hands.
“Hello, dear.” I say. I raise my eyebrows, waiting for her to ask to look at my programme, or to check when the show starts. Instead, she offers me a glass of water and I am taken by surprise. I am thirsty. “Oh. That’s kind of you.”
I am captivated by her face. There is so much personality in her eyes, so much emotion traced onto her brow, so many words evoked by the angle of her lips that it is hard to look away. She has dark, roasted-chestnut hair, the colour that I used to cut out of magazines when I was a teenager. Something else – she lacks that impatient, infernal energy that seems to infect the young and compels them to hurry about, desperate to occupy their eyes and ears at all times as if they might apprehend something terrible if they were to slow down a moment. This woman is patient. I can’t keep myself from smiling back at her.
“Are you looking forward to the show?” I ask. She nods enthusiastically and her eyebrows slope upwards to form an earnest mountain, making her look younger.
“I love it.” She says with passion that makes her voice swell like a concerto. “The music is …” She waves her hand and shakes her head as if words fail her. I smile again, feeling an unexpected rush of tender familiarity towards her. I understand the feeling she is talking about, though I don’t remember seeing this show before.
“Are you here on your own?” I ask. She looks at her shoes for a moment, then back at me. Her eyes shine inexplicably.
“Are you?” She replies. I shake my head.
“I’m with my daughter.” I tell her. “She went to get drinks, I think.” I glance back over towards the bar and am once again immediately swept away by the richness of the furnishings and the glamour of the people, blinded by all that sparkles: glasses, jewellery, the barman’s eyes. “She’s got …” I gesture vaguely to designate my daughter’s hair around my own face. “She’s wearing …” I indicate smart pin trousers. I find it hard to hang onto appearances these days. I suppose I’ve encountered so many people in my life that they’ve filled up my mind and become susceptible to getting jumbled together. One image is very much like another. The faces that are clearest to me right now are this woman’s and that of the clock on the wall behind her. “When she was younger, she had the curliest hair you’ve ever seen.” I tell her. It’s much easier to picture my daughter forty years ago than to try to remember what she is wearing tonight. “It used to stand straight up – straight up in the air, as if she were hanging upside down. We tried everything to get it to … to obey gravity, you know. We grew it long, we cut it short, we put olive oil all over it. She slept in a hat every night for six months.” The story makes me laugh out loud. I can see her, Little One, with all those curls springing up into the air to form a defiant halo. I am surprised to find that I can’t remember whether she loved them or hated them. Too many years have started to drop across the memory, each one a gossamer veil, layering one over another, obscuring the details. My clumsy old hands are helpless to grasp onto anything. “It was no use, though, her hair was that way until she was seventeen. Some things will be as they are and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I look around again, beginning to get anxious. “I hope she hurries back. She’s got our tickets.”
I glance at the clock. The minute hand jerks forwards one pace as if nodding tauntingly at me. The face appears, uncannily, to be taking on expression.
“Don’t worry.” The woman says, putting a hand on my arm. I am surprised by her kindness but, at the same time, I wonder if I should be uneasy. People like me get taken advantage of all the time. We are too old and too trusting. Vulnerable. When does that word sneak up and attach itself to you, stripping you of whatever you were before? Overwhelmed by the cold, deadening weight of all the time that has gone by, like drowning people we grab unquestioningly the hand that is offered. I have been warned about scams and cons. Don’t trust a stranger. In my hand I am holding the glass of water that she brought me. Did I ask for it?
“I’ve got a friend in the show.” She is telling me. “He plays the spy. I can’t tell you how excited he is to be on stage.” She shakes her head, grinning. She has an easy smile and expressive eyebrows; an endearing combination.
“Isn’t that wonderful?” I say distractedly. I am searching the lobby again, but it is impossible to pick out anything constant or anyone familiar. It is blurred, nauseating, like the view from a runaway carousel. The richness of the colours begins to feel smothering. The walls are thick and heavy, groaning under the weight of their adornments. The clock leers at me from the wall, so contorted by the malevolent expression that it has become difficult to read the numerals. Snatches of conversation, fragments of facial features, the peculiar, particular motion of each of those different fabrics become dizzying. “I think I’d better …”
“She’ll be here.” The woman says. I look at her suspiciously. Her eyes are green. “Jessica will.”
“Do you know her?” I ask. I narrow my eyes at her face as if I might find among her features a clue to decrypting a puzzle. She smiles, but there’s something strange about the smile, as if it is fighting another, more serious, expression. I glance back at the clock. Which face to trust? I am no fool.
“Yes, I know her.”
“She’s got my ticket.” The show will be starting soon. I hunt the crowd with my eyes, fighting the uncomfortable awareness that I am not entirely sure what I am looking for. Wild, curly hair. But, no – her hair became straighter and darker as she grew up. How ridiculous: of course I should recognise my own daughter. She was wearing pin trousers, was that it? And turquoise shoes? No, I am confusing things.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we invite you to please take your seats in the auditorium.”
Currents of people form in the lobby as folks pull out their tickets and consult them, then lead each other towards the appropriate archways. The barman smiles graciously as empty glasses are returned to his counter and last-minute refills are requested. A little of the art is sacrificed as he hastily tops up glasses on demand. As people begin to filter out of the lobby, more and more of the carpet becomes visible, like an archaeological site being gradually excavated. There is something sinister about its spongy emptiness. Where before there were too many people and faces to keep track of, what is left behind is a mounting sense of isolation. I feel like I could be absorbed by it and lost. The clock stands out starkly, gleefully approaching zero hour. Perhaps I preferred the commotion, the confusion of before.
“Where is she?” I mutter to myself, expecting Jessica to materialise from within the crowd as it recedes.
“Let’s go and find our seats.” The woman says, touching my arm again. I look at her. We find ourselves in the new calm of the emptying lobby. She is still smiling. I find it difficult to remain suspicious of her when her expression is so readable to me. Her eyes are wide and sincere, her smile warm. I notice a pattern of freckles from her left temple leading up into her hairline. The pressure of her hand on my arm alleviates some of my agitation. I am no fool. I pat her arm.
“You go ahead, love. I need my ticket.”
She pulls hers from her bag. Then she takes out another and passes it to me.
“There you go.” She says. I squint down at it doubtfully and am taken aback to read my own name. The woman offers me her arm. Set against the purple and gold and marble hall with her dark hair and turquoise shoes, I wonder if she is some kind of guardian angel. No, I am going soft. Yet there is inexplicable tenderness in the way she stands there. A benevolent stranger – there is such a thing. She raises her eyebrows to show that it’s time for the show to start. I beam at her and take her arm, squeezing her hand in gratitude. She squeezes in return and we head into the theatre, turning our backs on the clock.