Under The Stairs
Fifteen minutes, Sir Robert.
A timid knock from one of the gofer boys, no doubt, with that worshipping look in the eyes, as irritating as it was gratifying. No knighthood, no eminence, could ever do away with the uneasy churning in the guts, the dry mouth, the accelerated heart beat.
Sad old bugger. He grinned at the crinkled face in the mirror, at the rueful reflection; he now needed blackening treatment of the hair to play Richard III, and the fact that, even thirty nights into the run, when everything which was likely to go wrong probably already had, he could still be so ridiculously nervous, like a kid on a date.
He stood for a final look, the assumption of character on the final opportunity to see his physical appearance. No hunchback, no crutch swinging like a sword. No Richard the camp pantomime villain, no Richard the bizarre cripple. Even with a heavy Tudor political agenda
hovering, Shakespeare managed to make Richard multi-layered: a hard-bitten political operator human enough to resent a smart-arse elder brother, and yet sexy enough to woo the wife of a man hed killed in battle. Ruthless enough to keep the throne while insecure enough to want it as some kind of self-justification. Leader enough for men to follow him into battle; depraved enough to slaughter inconvenient children. Richard was a bit Hitler, a bit Wellington, even a bit Nelson. He most certainly wasnt Sir Robert Bowden, product of the English class system, RADA trained doyen of the English theatre. He had to let Richard in, walk him to the stage, and then let him take over.
As he looked into the mirror, aware of time and opportunity ebbing away, an unfortunate image suddenly intruded, Robbie Bowden, ten years old, gazing into the entirely pointless mirror outside his fathers study, big-eyed and frightened.
Oh, God. Bowden banged the dressing room door and started towards the stage, trying to reimpose Richard, but Richard was trailing along indifferently behind him while Robbie clamoured at his side. Overwork, not enough r. and r., he thought fiercely, hasnt everyone been telling you. The inability of a tired mind to force away unwanted images, age weakening personal discipline against a mounting clamour of memory.
Now voices too, clear enough behind the closed door of his fathers study.
For heavens sake, Henry. His mothers half forgotten languid drawl, a little speeded up, as near as she ever got to anger or even real animation. Why cant you just spank him, like any normal father? Why so elaborate?
He will get enough of that at school, I dont doubt. While under my roof, he must understand that the price to be paid for abusing liberty is to lose it. I would rather he understood that as a child than found out the hard way as an adult.
Robbies eyes filled at their cold-blooded punitive calculations, utter humiliation balanced against dark terror, the tough love his deeply hurt father would still defend even after a drunken denunciation by his son years later, creating a chasm which remained until his death.
In the darkness of the wings, an adoring gofer again, with yes, the worshipful look in close up. Ten minutes, Sir Robert.
He knew exactly why he liked to wait here in the dim quiet, seeing nothing but a glimmering from the stage front, hearing nothing but audience noise at two removes, events happening without him, life going on. He had known why for a long time, but it still mattered.
I have said to you on more than one occasion, Robert, that I will not tolerate you smoking on any part of these premises. I allow you to go where you please and associate with whom you please on the basis that you will not take advantage of your liberty to blatantly flout my instructions. On the rug in front of Fathers desk, desolate, he saw the red, genuinely angry face while only half understanding the words.
King Richard had wandered off; he could only hope not too far. Somehow, his ruthless, dictatorial persona seemed to watch sardonically in the darkness of the wings, his aristocratic lip curling in contempt.
And you choose not only to disobey me, but to do so with two of the most notoriously ill-behaved and vexatious village boys.
Robbie had to think for some seconds before realising that it was Simon and Joe who were being described, friends whose easy smiles and unforced good nature never failed to brighten up his time away from his fathers towering expectations and his mothers exhausted indifference.
Im sorry, Father, really I am
You will be locked in the cupboard under the stairs until such time as I choose to let you out.
Down on his knees, a glimpse of the threadbare rug accompanying the whisper in his mind, Father is wrong, Father is cruel; shameful moisture across his eyes and cheeks.
Please Father, no. Please, Father.
Bowdens eyes moistened again, even after such a time. His head screamed for Richard.
Five minutes, Sir Robert.
He was aware of people nearby, looking at him from a distance, moving quietly and respectfully around him like satellites. He knew it, relished this kind of darkness, a kind of obscurity which allowed him complete control.
Once, in the pitch dark under the stairs, there were eyes watching him. Creatures watching and assessing, and little shuffling and sniffling noises, unexplained touches on his feet, and his hands too if he dared to put them down rather than clutching them under his armpits. Creatures working out how to damage him, where and when, how to keep him helpless while they damaged, invaded, hurt with their hands and tentacles everywhere, while there was nothing he could do except scream, scream on in the shuffling, smelly darkness, being slowly destroyed. Every time under the stairs happened, the same terrors surrounded him and his will ebbed away until he was too quiet, defeated, helpless to resist.
But this time, the caught-smoking-time, a spark flashed. A rescue arrived, directly from Simon and Joe and what the three of them had become together. He and Simon and Joe watched cows getting up on each other and laughed, they held mirrors against the sun and burned insects
slowly, they made noises to make old Maggie Duncan come out of her cottage and laughed at her while squatting in her garden. Simon had watched girl guides setting up their tent and bared his bum at them. Joe had left his chewing gum on the bench where the old men always sat. And both
of them loved it when Robbie pretended to be someone else, the funny voices, the strange movements. They both laughed themselves into contortions, shaking up and down, holding their sides, folded over on the ground, when Robbie peered at them through the trees and pretended
something was eating his leg, because when he first started doing it, theyd really believed it, and that made it even funnier.
He stood up. He found himself actually looking behind him to see if King Richard was coming. A spasm of terror, that ultimate actor dread, being found out, a rabbit in the footlights. Even as the curtains started to part, he remembered again his escape from under the stairs, the accurate and absolutely convincing breathing attack, great screams of noise as he lay on the floor gasping and heaving, the door opening, the light galloping in all around him, the pride rising in him that not only Simon and Joe could be fooled, manipulated, fitted in to his own version of reality.
The act going on, sending him scarlet in the face, making his eyes go wild, creating terror and the most gratifying amazement all around him. Even his mother shaken out of her perpetual detached torpor, and the long, fractious conversation in the study which banned under the stairs
for ever afterwards. And gave him enough confidence in his own talent for deception to cover almost every future circumstance which might mean punishment, and ensured that, even when it happened, it wasnt, ever again, under the stairs. That was the day the darkness ended.
He strode on to the stage with all the bravado he could manage, like that cupboard door springing open to an abundance of rediscovered light again, and King Richard leapt angrily into him at the sight of all these faces, these presumptious gawping peasants, who had the temerity to lift their eyes directly towards his regal person. His face darkened, his eyes narrowed, he aimed a murderous, threatening look at a bland, unconvinced aristocratic face in the dress circle and saw the man actually flinch away from him.
Now, he snapped, like a politician at his failing agent, is the winter of our discontent
London disappeared slowly as the big car glided noiselessly through it. Stage acclaim, dressing room luvvying, theatre door autographs; it all really did seem to be sound and fury signifying nothing these days, and London, instead of exciting and intriguing him as it always used
to, was becoming a place to get out of, as soon as possible, with the refuge of his spread in the country, still darling Lizzie, Peter, the one child now at home, and the sanctuary of normal existence.
Tonight, the wind down seemed to have dived even further down than usual. He wondered why it had taken him until his late forties to suspect the significance of the ever-closed study door, the place where his father virtually lived, examining figures, doing deals, making as sure as he could, that the family got richer, for no other apparent reason than to allow him to stay in his study doing the same thing, day after day, handling the world at a distance. Or sitting under his own dark stairs, the prison his inhibitions and his wifes indifference had made for him, whistling tunelessly in the dark, making money for the sake of something to do. And Robbie, the smart little boy who usurped such affection as his wife could muster, needed a taste of the prison so he could handle it when his turn came, when smiling and doing tricks were no longer enough.
He saw Henry Bowdens horrified pallor again as he trembled at the head of his elegant dinner table while his son spat out his catalogue of abuse, his voice still deliberate, defiant.
My responsibility, Robert, was to bring you to the state of manhood, not indulge you to the point where you would become a spineless weakling drinking and whoring your way through life. Manhood is difficult and demanding; it is a state one learns, not assumes.
He saw himself again, staring blankly into the open coffin, looking from his fathers pale, exhausted remains to his mother, smoking casually as she gazed meditatively out of the window and across the family lawns. Some time in the next few days he would phone her and she
would answer, Robert. How delightful, in a voice which would mean, quite unmistakably, that she had been interrupted and would wish to resume whatever she was, or more probably wasnt, doing as soon as possible. He had broken their jail and sailed away, further and further, until both of them were just dots on their two funny little islands.
Tom the driver wasnt a chauffeur to the rich and famous for nothing; he knew when to keep his mouth shut. In the mirror, he saw Bowdens eyes glinting in the darkness and he turned his attention to the road ahead.