Euromance               © David Shaw-Parker 1989

In 1968 I was fourteen years old and my school had organised two European trips; a weekend with two football matches in Belgium for the swarthy youths of the school first eleven and another for a whole week in Paris for selected swots of the French Class. Though I loved football I was an unswarthy adolescent but our French teacher, Mrs. Allcock, pretty much laid her job on the line by claiming that although I was no budding linguist, if I could impersonate native Francophones as instinctively as I could impersonate teachers,I should make a good french speaker and thanks only to her, I was chosen for the Paris trip - much to the understandable pique of the parents of far more deserving candidates.

Although the Swarthies’ weekend excursion to Belgium appeared the more exciting prospect, a whole week away from home was far preferable to a mere few days, even in the mixed but chaste company of the Swots: Sandie Shaw was flirting in the UK top ten with ‘Monsieur Dupont’and Peter Sarstedt was singing about the Boulevards. 

The Swots’ days in Paris consisted of marching along the chic side-streets of Passy in crocodile fashion, visiting the grand museums, collecting cheap little nickel effigies of the Eiffel Tower to take home to our parents and, worst of all, being in bed by six o’clock just when a few of us suspected the rest of the world was having fun.

Raymond Powell, Kim Morley and I plotted to sneak out; a dangerous venture, especially for a Swot; while a knowing sports teacher might turn a blind eye to one or two of his alpha-male Swarthies shinning keenly down a Belgian drainpipe after dark, a Swot risked punishment of a far more stigmatic kind in the form of aghast disbelief from our teachers, eliciting sanctimoniously intoned reproaches; ‘We are shocked, David; we are shocked! What must we make of this?’ The disgrace would be lifelong; the loss of reputation irredeemable: and, in my case, poor Mrs. Allcock might lose her job.

But we did it. We were as good as our plan and we sneaked out. The apparent simplicity of our escape seemed to intensify our fear of being discovered for before we knew it, we were safely across the rue de la Tour and sitting in a café nearby with our pyjamas on underneath our trousers. We ordered three demi-panachées [half-shandies] and watched the world from our table in the corner.

Nothing happened. There were no secret trysts in evidence except our own; no strange goings on; nothing mysterious - a few people were just going home. One lady passed by with a poodle, a man stopped to buy a newspaper, a car tooted its horn. But it was enough. We were Europeans. We had seen the Paris we weren’t supposed to see.

Feeling sure, as we paid our bill, that the waiter would be in league with Mrs. Allcock, we crept back across the road and into our dormitory unheard, unobserved and giggled ourselves to sleep receiving only a ticking-off at breakfast the following day for whispering.

© David Shaw-Parker 1989

The Prop Table       © David Shaw-Parker 01.06.2018

He always locked the door. People would say; ‘Why do you lock the door?’

At 6.55pm the announcement from the dressing room tannoy rang out:       'Ladies and Gentlemen of the company, this is your half-hour call,' and addressing his reflection before the illuminated mirror, he began the studious if not expert application of his own make up.

He preferred not to have visitors during that precious thirty five minutes before the performance, and there was a polite written notice on the door to that effect. Visitors unsettled him; they would always ask him how he was, or if he needed anything, - as if he were lying in some hospital bed - or attempt to begin mundane everyday conversations, as if to purposely divert his state of mind from the urgency of the matter in hand. He liked his preparation for the play to be gentle and stressless, although the corridor outside was alive with distant laughter.

When the make up was finished, he dabbed at his face with a tissue and rose to change into his costume; the fresh brown shirt with the collar stud, the cayenne tie and the light grey woollen suit which he wore for the opening soliloquy of the play.

When he was dressed, he settled in his armchair, so that his costume would begin to feel more like his own everyday clothes, lacking only his newspaper and spectacles to complete the character. But those he preferred to collect after the ‘Beginners’ call, from the prop table in the stage-level corridor. He could have had these items brought to his dressing room but then, that would involve visitors and unnecessary knocking on his door.

With solicitous delicacy, he took time to glance at a few first-night cards as well as two telegrams and five minutes later at ten past seven precisely, almost predicted another announcement over the dressing-room relay; ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the company, this is your quarter hour call.’

At the ‘five minute’ call, he would always refresh his memory with a soft recitation of the first paragraph of his opening speech, - just the first paragraph - but for now, it would be pleasant to look at his greeting cards whilst from the little loudspeakers, the soft murmur of the audience entering the auditorium had a soothing, soporific effect.

Blinking his eyes, he became aware that he must have nodded off. The cards and telegrams had slid from his lap. He checked his watch.7.27pm. He had clearly slept through two tannoy announcements from the Deputy Stage Manager, either of which would surely have woken him: the first at 7.20 and the second at 7.25 for ‘beginners to the stage.’

But the hum of the tannoy had disappeared. There would be no show-relay. He must report that. 7.28pm. Precisely. The curtain wouldn’t rise until 7.30. More or less precisely.

No time, now, to run through the few opening lines: luckily, he was ready - not exactly late, but cutting it fine to say the least - and he knew he must make allowance for the possibility of a disapproving glance from stage management when he picked up his spectacles and newspaper.

Trotting guiltily out of his room and down the stairs, he reached the corridor only to find that the prop table wasn’t there. In his haste, he was piqued as to why no-one had bothered to tell him why it had been moved. The sign on his door might indeed discourage visitors but surely a tannoy announcement could have been made.

He looked about him. There seemed to be no-one to ask: no fellow castmembers; no-one from wardrobe; not even a member of stage crew.

Aware of perspiration on his back and, independence compromised, he decided to seek out the deputy stage manager at the prompt desk and ask as to the whereabouts of the prop table with his spectacles and newspaper, without which, the opening soliloquy would be impossible. 

There seemed to be so little light backstage, and edging his way to stage left, he only found himself staring at a prompt desk long disused with disconnected wires reaching out like desperate fingers from an almost impenetrable network of cobwebs. He smelled the urine of mice. 

In a less anxious state of mind, he might have taken time to notice an empty, abandoned stage, proffering its naked devastation to a long forsaken auditorium, resplendent only with the rancid mould of rotting upholstery, thistles and rusting metal.

But surely, there had to be a performance tonight. His costume had been prepared for him, there had been tannoy announcements with activity from the auditorium in the background.

Desperate to encounter anyone at all, he blundered through the scene-dock door and outside into the loading bay where a little boy happened to be sitting upon a low brick wall, just about succeeding in trying to unwrap a small cake.

‘Young man, I’m looking for the prop table.’ called the man in the grey suit as he approached , reaching out his hand to the startled boy.

‘My spectacles? My newspaper? It’s no good without them, you see...’

The boy could only shake his head, barely aware the he’d dropped his cake.

‘Do forgive me, old fellow,’ said the man with a distracted smile, annoyed with himself at having astonished the boy, and he bent down to recover the little package, returning it to the shaken lad, who could only look on in disbelief as the man in the grey suit gave a smile of helpless apology before evanescing politely and agreeably into warm twilight air.

© David Shaw-Parker 2018
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