It was the first and last time I visited a theatre. I’ve never been a cultured man, because I’m still a boy at heart. If I went to see a play now, it’s certain I would be ejected from the premises for disruptive behaviour. The temptation to cause mischief is too strong, and that’s entirely due to what happened to me in that original audience, when I sat near the back with my girlfriend.
Natasha was seventeen, a year younger than me. She didn’t care for the amusement arcades and rickety rides of the funfair, so I was forced to think of a more sophisticated venue for our introductory date. Uncle Max suggested the local playhouse. A roving company had established itself there for a single evening with a new romantic drama. I hadn’t read any reviews, but it seemed ideal. I was at the age when I believed poetry could soften up any woman.
A big mistake, for the production in question was an experimental piece. I don’t remember the name of the author, but he wasn’t famous. I reckon he was that tall fellow who was flapping around the lobby when we entered. Natasha had her arm linked in mine and I felt very much like a genuine grown-up lover. We were the youngest there, but I don’t think we looked out of place. Uncle Max had lent me his smartest suit in exchange for several of my best comic books.
I bought the tickets with money earned from my Saturday job in the newsagents, and we passed into the auditorium. The usher showed us our seats and luckily our row was as distant from the stage as possible. I didn’t want too many people sitting behind me when I chanced a kiss. We sat down on the squeaky seats and waited for the theatre to fill. The interior was grand but faded, with chipped plaster cherubim clinging to the ceiling and frayed velvet drapes.
The cheap sculptures which occupied every nook and recess in the sidewalls reminded me of the background characters in my comics. They were poor representations of people and animals, hidden by potted plants but obtrusive enough to trouble the eye. When I directed my gaze at the stage, they poked themselves into the corners of my vision. Strange to say, it actually hurt. Tears hatched like eggs under my lids. I decided to save all my sly glances for Natasha.
But something new caught my attention. If you’ve ever wondered who pays for a private box in a crumbling regional theatre, then you’re on your own. I already know. It’s no mystery to me because I saw him enter with his wife. It was Mr Lucas, the newsagent who employed me. He stood for a full minute before taking his seat, which was a real chair rather than a folding contraption like ours, fiddling with the creases on his trousers. Either he was embarrassed or else he hoped to give everyone a reasonable chance to notice him.
An unfortunate incident, as it turned out. It reminded me again of comics. Apart from Natasha, they were my main passion. I liked the ones full of superheroes best. Mr Lucas allowed me to read them fresh off the shelves while I waited to serve customers in his shop. I wasn’t ashamed to be still under their spell. Uncle Max was also an enthusiast and had convinced me they were good fun at any age. Not that I planned to reveal my hobby to Natasha. She was too perfect, with her long tumbling hair, to tolerate such a simple pleasure.
Anyway, I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind and prepared for the beginning of the play. The audience wasn’t vast but adequate for this place at that time. We settled as the lights dimmed. Somewhere, in the bowels of the building, there must have been a man whose task was to dim. I took that responsibility later, in respect of Natasha’s view of me. But her love, if there was any, went out abruptly, and this swelling gloom was gradual and less alarming.
The ragged curtains parted to mild applause. No scenery, no props. A man on a bare stage. Frankly I felt let down. Just a single character, muttering. This was supposed to be daring theatre, a minimalist romance, but it came over as mean. I was constantly expecting other actors to run on, to liven up the drudge. But they didn’t. A monotone speech and jerky postures. A glut of meaningful pauses.
I began to sweat. Was I really going to have to sit through another three hours of this? The very concept was appalling. Then the spotlights died, one at a time. I assume the author wanted to manipulate atmosphere directly, as well as through the words of his character. But the process didn’t work for me. Soon the entire stage was black except for the man, wrapped in his unearned halo. Then his feet disappeared and the darkness crawled up his legs to his knees.
The beam of the remaining spotlight was being narrowed to achieve an unspecified psychological effect. The man was talking about love, but in an unbearably cryptic fashion. I’m sure he made important points, but I don’t know what. Ask the author yourself, if you can find him. Now all that was left of the character was his mouth. Two pink lips and a set of bright teeth, hovering in the void.
This seemed to be an echo of many of my favourite superheroes. They tended to wear sealed costumes and masks that covered their faces apart from the mouth. They had names like Antman, The Phantom Joker, Dr Squid, Captain Superb, The Green Clown, The Red Herring, The Excessive Clump, Buttertalons, The Dull Gleam, Nadir the Octaroon. They were all loners, individualists, mavericks. Generally, but not always, they fought on the side of good. They never recommended their tailors.
I was falling into a trap set by boredom. I willed myself to ponder on something, anything else. I had recourse to a last desperate measure. I turned in my seat without warning and kissed Natasha on the lips. She slapped me. A loud slap. In the almost total darkness it wasn’t obvious to our neighbours what she had done. They would have worked it out, of course, but I couldn’t bear the dishonour. Call it reflex or immaturity, but I smothered the truth with a shout:
“The Undeniable Grin has struck his enemy!”
There was a selection of giggles, then someone added: “He must have very long arms to reach you from there!”
I nodded, although the gesture was lost in the murk. “They are made of elastic and can stretch halfway around the world!”
To my astonishment, nobody objected to this absurdity. Not a single complaint reached my ears. Instead, the audience supported me. There was a squeal and a sudden cry of rage:
“The Undeniable Grin has pinched my thigh!”
A voice asked: “Why? What did you do to him?”
The actor on stage fell silent. Maybe he had forgotten his lines in the excitement, or perhaps he was simply waiting for us to finish before returning to his monologue. He fell silent, yes, but he kept grinning, a wide floating smile in the dusk, and this was his fatal error. It seemed an admission of guilt. In our minds now, he was this farcical superhero, this implausible mutant, and for an unknown reason he was opposed to us, radiating harm from his hub of power.
The pause was brief. Invisible and nonexistent arms snaked out from the stage and violated us. We screamed.
“The Undeniable Grin has poked me in the eye!”
“The rascal has stolen my wallet!”
“He groped my wife without permission!”
“The bugger has filled my mouth with obscenities!”
“He’s forcing me to have unnatural thoughts!”
“About me, probably! And stop tickling me there!”
“It’s not me. It’s The Undeniable Grin!”
“He persuaded me yesterday to declare myself bankrupt!”
“He made me gamble away my salary on the horses!”
“Everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life was really the fault of The Undeniable Grin!”
“That’s true for all of us!”
And so on and so forth. I can’t imagine where all this nonsense was leading to. Perhaps it would have ended in a party. But it went beyond a joke before the management could react properly. There was a loud thud, the tipping of a heavy object out of a soft one and over a low edge into a vertical distance that ended on a hard tiled floor. One of the tiles cracked. When the house lights came on all at once, we were no wiser. It took long minutes for our eyes to adjust to the glare, but when they did we saw how simple the answers were.
The low edge was the wall of the private box, the soft object was a chair and the heavy one was Mr Lucas. His wife was standing and looking down at his broken body. Her hand was held to her mouth and she tried to appear shocked as she groaned:
“The Undeniable Grin has murdered my boring husband!”
All eyes turned to the stage, blinking guiltily as they accused. The poor actor was a man after all. He must have changed back. Having had so many amazing feats attributed to him, it seemed unlikely he was capable of trumping any of them. But he did. As his body came back into sharp focus, his grin utterly vanished.