Permed grey heads, immobile though their bearers move, shrubs in a frosty garden. Bald patches, risen bravely above the tree-line. Brassy halos of fuzz radiating from the orange-tinted scalps they barely conceal. Obedient blonde bobs, tucked behind one ear. Poker straight platinum waterfalls, tossed over shoulders. Grey ponytails, protruding from vaguely arty-looking middle-aged men with inventive facial hair.
Shoes shuffle in the direction of the auditorium. Wingtips. Oxfords. Sensible black leather sandals with low heels and small peep-toes, barely-black feet safely encased within. Bulging insteps and a cane, moving slowly, one-two-three. A pair of strappy gold stilettos stomps past, followed nervously by tottering red platforms. An unrepentant pair of trainers squelches doggedly in pursuit.
Tweed blazers. Double-breasted jackets with brassy buttons. Twin-sets. Some jaunty bow-ties, sported with panache by jolly octogenarians. The occasional daring of a bolo tie. Some of the more adventurous grey perms wear diaphanous dresses with multiple hemlines, which give the ladies in question the appearance of having been swathed in an array of expensive tablecloths. One across the shoulder, one around the midriff, there, are you quite covered, we’ll add one more, here, like so. Such an interesting effect. Hold it in place with an interesting brooch. And let’s drape an interesting silk scarf over the top – more draping, yes! – drape it interestingly over your shoulder, there; the more garish the better, and of course it must have an ethnic print.
Thirty minutes til curtain-up. The café is doing a roaring trade. A middle-aged couple eats lunch in silence. They don’t look at each other. Her lipsticked maw devours a chicken and pesto panini, putting me suddenly, horribly, in mind of Goya’s Saturn. The man forks pasta furiously into his mouth, moustache wobbling as he chews. He checks his watch. Twenty-five minutes to go.
The gift store is heaving with men in sports jackets and slacks, in that voluminous, American golfing-dad cut. Waistbands slant crotch-wards beneath prodigious paunches; sharp trouser-creases slump, defeated, on tasseled loafers. Mobile phone cases on belts, keys jingling in pockets. They butt through the merchandise like tug-boats, moving slowly, nosing their way cautiously around the opera DVDs. One has berthed himself beside the sale rack, unmoors himself again, points his prow at the cash register. Another holds a ‘Rheingold’ t-shirt up to his front speculatively, returns it to the rail, hunts for a larger size.
Twenty minutes to go. A worried-looking woman in a mid-calf-length floral dress hovers by the ‘Music for children’ section. Seizes ‘Baby Needs Bach’, in a last-ditch attempt to rescue her grandchildren from their steady decline – oh, she’s sure of it; the amount of television those toddlers watch is a scandal; they even have their own iPads – into the ignominious pits of philistinism. ‘For grandparents who refuse to leave all their hard-earned cash to uncultured swine’, it could be subtitled, but isn’t. Baby Needs Beethoven, as well, according to another title on display.
I check, but it seems that Baby Doesn’t Need Schoenberg.
Fifteen minutes to go. Wine glasses are drained. I am borne to my seat on a tide of murmuring punters, up endless flights of stairs, up, up again, all the way up, to the very back of the auditorium, the nose-bleed seats, where the paupers squint at the stage. We are passers-by gazing longingly into a softly-lit restaurant from a cold winter street. I look at my neighbour’s binoculars with envy, peer down at the orchestra. Is that a man or a woman? I am seated in the very last row, brick at my back, horrifying emptiness in front. Pasted to the wall of a grain silo, I am helpless, held in place by trumpet blasts and the grace of God.
The orchestra swirls in its pre-curtain cacophony. The crowd scurries up and down steps, rhubarbing excitedly, shuffling into their appointed seats, step-stop, step-stop. Here comes another. Do I stand or can I sit? I’ll sit. I can’t set a precedent of standing up every time someone comes along: what am I, some kind of athlete? I’ll just do the awkward thing with my knees that everyone does in theatres, pull them as far in to the left as I possibly can, it’s a bit uncomfortable. No, damn it, it’s no use, he’ll never fit, the space is too small, he’ll have to squat over me, his arse will be in my face, he’ll end up sitting in my lap, I’ll have to get up, but he’s very close now, I’m surely going to end up touching him if I get up, oh God, but there’s nothing for it only to rise, unfortunate pelvic thrust as the seat folds up behind me, I put my hand on the seat back for support, I wonder if this is some kind of yoga pose, he shuffles past, there goes his rump, TOMMY HILFIGER in scrolling marquee, oh Jesus, must not touch it by accident, I look away determinedly, rapt at the sight of the exit sign, step-stop, sorry, excuse me, step-stop, and he’s gone. Thank Christ. I sit down again.
The lights dim. The crowd falls silent. Showtime.