The stage was empty, the curtains closed and the props neatly stacked. All but the dressing room and the back stairs were in darkness and shadows. Most of the actors and stage hands had left soon after taking off costumes and tidying sets.
Betty, just back from a week’s holiday and just in time for the tonight’s show, having missed the 2 ‘o’ clock train from Leeds, thought that it was probably lack of rehearsal time that had sullied her performance tonight, either that or the mysterious disappearance of her lucky black tap shoes.
There was a strong smell of stale tobacco smoke and the air was cooling quickly. Old pipes groaned, floorboards creaked and windows rattled. West Wyke Little Theatre wasn’t a place to be alone, at night, if your sense of proportion was prone to distortion or your belief in the unnatural was anything but absent.
As Betty hurried to get changed she could hear Harry shuffling down the back stairs as he made his nightly rounds making sure doors and windows were locked and gas heaters were turned off. According to Harry, acting types had no common sense and were likely to leave cigarette butts smouldering away in ashtrays and flimsy costumes too near heaters. “Goodnight Harry” shouted Betty from the top of the stairwell; “I think I’m the last so I’ll drop the latch on the stage door.”
She heard a distant “Goodnight Betty” as she closed the door behind her.
Hurrying along Chapel Street, Betty clutched her scarf and collar tightly around her neck. The clippity-clop of her heels echoed around the terraced street. The echo accompanied by one, then several dogs howling and two cats wailing into the chilled, night air. She had arranged to meet Stan at the Old Nag’s Head around 10.15 pm for a drink before closing. Still annoyed that Stan didn’t offer to come and pick her up after the show, Betty wasn’t best pleased either that she had forgotten to pick up her cigarette case and lighter from the dressing room table before leaving. All things considered it had not been the most convivial of evenings so far.
The bar was quiet for a Saturday night with only a few regulars playing dominoes and righting the wrongs of the world at large. Betty spotted Stan at the far end of the bar huddled in conversation with a slim and grey looking fellow. “Stanley Brown you can buy me a large Gin and it after the night I’ve had,” grumbled Betty “who’s your friend?”
“Just a mate Betty love” replied Stan as his ‘mate’ scurried off towards the door giving only a cursory nod of his head as he pulled the brim of his Trilby down to cover his sunken grey eyes. Stanley ordered a couple of drinks.
“Well, aren’t you going to ask me?…” enquired Betty. “Stanley Duggan, I could swing for you at times, I’ve been away all week and you can’t even be bothered to ask me if I’ve had a nice time”.
“Have you had a nice time Betty love?” asked Stan.
“Ooo! You drive me crazy at times Stanley, now pass me my drink and give me a cigarette,” said Betty.
Stan passed Betty his cigarettes and reached behind the bar for a largish box wrapped in brown paper and tied loosely with string. “Here you are Betty, you say I never give you anything,” said Stan.
Betty was just lighting her cigarette and gasped with surprise making her eyes water and eyelids screw up tight. “What is it Stan,” asked Betty as the smoke cleared and a large grin grew across her face.
“Open it and see,” said Stan.
Betty tore at the string and paper with gusto and opened the box to find a new pair of silver satin tap shoes. “Oh Stan,” exclaimed Betty. “That’s where my shoes went, isn’t it?”
Stan went on to explain that he didn’t know what size shoe she took or what sort they were so whilst she’s been away he’d borrowed her tap shoes to get her some new ones. Betty was over the moon with her surprise present and stared star-struck into Stan’s eyes as he went on to tell her the trouble he’d gone to making sure that he was buying the right type and that his friend Bill had just dropped off the new ones as Betty came in the pub.
“Time gentlemen please” shouted the landlord. Betty and Stan drank the last dregs of their drinks and buttoned up their coats in readiness to face the chilled night air. “Why don’t we call for some fish and chips on the way home and whilst we’re at it I can drop these shoes off at the theatre and get my cigarettes,” said Betty.
“The theatre will be locked and I’ve got plenty of tobacco” replied Stan.
“Harry will be still there,” said Betty, “As I dropped the catch I could hear him shuffling along in his over-long trousers with his pockets stuffed with keys and screwdrivers, you know he never leaves until late”.
“You can’t have done,” said Stan, “don’t you know, haven’t you heard? They found Harry last Sunday at the bottom of the back stairs as dead as a doornail and as cold as ice”.
Betty shuddered as they stepped into the cool night air, dogs howled and cats wailed as Betty, quietly, retraced her steps of the evening’s events. A distant “goodnight Betty” sent a sharp, cold, chill down Betty’s spine making her cling tightly with both hands to Stan’s arm as they made their way into the night.