Last year I made it into the finals of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge and finished 10th with ‘Curtain Call’. I knew my story had to be clever and polished. It was an open genre but had to feature an undertaker and a sunrise. I spent a lot of time in the theatre as a child, and had a clear image from a production of ‘Under Milkwood’ by Dylan Thomas, where the actors were positioned around the theatre, and would speak when their spotlight came on. I really wanted to capture theatrical lighting, the excitement of opening night and the moments in amateur theatre when the audience take a deep breath and hope that no one forgets a line. I also wanted my undertaker- as a twist- to save someone’s life.
In the end I tried to write my story as if it was a theatre production. I tried to capture the chiaroscuro lighting and the black and white moodiness of German Expressionism. I also left myself and the audience with some unanswered questions, a few little secrets tucked away. Unfortunately the American judges couldn’t grasp the ambiguity, and suggested I hint that the husband is sick early on, which entirely defeats the purpose of the story. See what you think….
The smell in the theatre on opening night was unmistakable. Mixed with the usual scent of mothballs and fresh paint, the audience added a base note of cigarette smoke and top notes of floral perfume and breath mints. Rosie was sitting in the front row, off to one side, wishing she had a friend with her. Her mother had insisted that this was a ‘grown-up’ play, not normally suitable for ten-year-olds. She was allowed to watch it because her parents were playing leading roles. She had been reminded on several occasions that the play was not real, it was all an act. Rosie glanced at the front page of the program.
The Final Curtain
‘Can you ever truly know a person?’
Performed by the Cedarwood Amateur Theatre Society
The lights dimmed, voices hushed and Rosie held her breath in the expectant blackness. She could hear the heavy drag of the curtain drawn back and squinted to make out shapes on stage. But when the light came, it was from the back of the hall. Standing in the centre of a milky white spotlight was her father. All heads turned to see him in a formal blue suit, his face unnaturally pale and his hair combed neatly back. He did not speak but kept his eyes straight ahead as he moved slowly within the spotlight towards the stage. He turned to face the audience for a few seconds, before laying down on a plinth, centre stage, that was shrouded in heavy green velvet. The spotlight flickered then, and went off. Rosie inhaled sharply, but released her breath when a warm wash of light spilled across the stage, revealing the whole set. Her father was lying still on the plinth, but she could see her mother now, playing the undertaker in a neat beige suit and red lipstick, arranging fake roses and placing them in a vase on a table stage left. She approached the central figure, made an exaggerated gesture of closing the man’s eyes, and neatly folded his arms across his chest. At stage-right there was a painted window framing an outdoor scene; a green hillside, the silhouette of a tree and a sun rising, or was it setting? It was hard to tell.
Rosie had been coming to this theatre since before she could crawl. She loved the make-up, the props and especially the costume room with its rows of woollen suits, stiff crinkly taffeta dresses, maid’s uniforms, army coats and hat racks with strings of fake pearls, bow ties and the assortment of masks and wigs. She loved to climb into the rafters and look down on the stage during rehearsals or curl up on a blanket backstage as the final night afterparties slipped on until the rowdy early hours. But this time Rosie hadn’t been allowed to watch any rehearsals and when she asked why, her mother said that the director had made all the crew sign a studio agreement not to discuss details.
Home had become increasingly tense in the lead up to opening night; there were slamming doors, curt exchanges over the dinner table and a battered cigarette pack had been fished out from a bottom draw. All this culminated in a late night heated argument when Rosie, ear pressed to the wall after lights out, heard her father say, ‘I told you, it didn’t mean anything.’
‘Don’t you dare tell me you were getting into character.’
‘What a cliché. You disgust me.’
The play itself was made up of a series of monologues. The undertaker would open a door, welcome a character to the stage and then take her exit, leaving each person alone to pay their respects to the dead man. The light would change to a muted blue as each character triggered a flashback or memory. First was his brother who made the audience laugh as he reminisced over daring childhood adventures, then made them cry over a petty conflict that would never be resolved. Then came a childhood friend. A sporting coach. An officer in uniform. In between flashbacks, the set returned to the present as the woman in the beige suit arranged paperwork, trimmed the man’s nails, made phone calls. When she welcomed a young woman with blonde hair and a flowing floral dress to the stage there was a long pause, as if someone had forgotten a line. In the audience, Rosie could hear muffled voices, whispers behind her, someone sniggering. During her monologue the woman gave an impassioned performance in the blue light; she clutched the man’s hand, she draped her blonde hair across his face and appeared to cry real tears. She made to leave the room and then paused before sweeping melodramatically back to his side. As the audience drew in a collective audible breath, she kissed the man hard on the lips, making her exit all the more dramatic.
During intermission, the audience were abuzz with cheap wine and conversation. A few journalists were asking people what they thought of the play, the acting skills of the dead man, if it was a successful deconstruction of identity? Rosie sat on her own with a watery hot chocolate. She kept thinking of her dad, arms crossed, eyes closed. Kept thinking of her parent’s fight. Kept thinking of those tears and that kiss. Those angry words.
In the final act, the curtains were drawn back to reveal the same room, but on the following day. The light was different now, it was that of an early morning, and through the painted window the sun was rising. A soundtrack of sparse birdsong bought a kind of fresh lightness to the stage. Bunches of flowers and cards encircled the man on the plinth, and to one side rested a wreath made of ivy. The funeral was over and the woman in her beige suit was finishing up. She took a white folded sheet and flicked it open, before fluttering it over the dead man’s body. She took a long look at the audience, the perfect image of serene composure, before leaning down and whispering something in his ear that no-one else could hear. And that should have been the end of the play. The curtains should have closed and the audience should have given the cast a standing ovation during the final curtain call. But instead the man’s body gave a sudden jerk, his hand fell out from below the sheet and Rosie could see it contort into a fist. She saw the quick rise and fall of his chest as he clutched off the sheet with his other hand, revealing his purple red face, bulging veins, eyes rolling back. The audience were frozen. He was very convincing. There were a few voices, open mouths, but no one moved from their seats. Then he put down shaky legs and staggered off the plinth onto the stage, all the while clutching at his chest and sucking for breath. When he collapsed and started convulsing, a few people in the audience climbed out of their seats and made for the stage. Rosie saw her parents then as if she were looking through a foggy tunnel. She saw her mother drop to her knees beside her father and commence CPR. She tilted his head back, put her red lips to his, and gave him three quick breaths. Then she yelled for someone to call an ambulance before starting on the chest compressions.
The cast never got to complete their final curtain call on opening night. Instead, a famous photograph now hangs in the foyer of the Cedarwood Amateur Theatre. It depicts a dramatic tableau. In the foreground the few audience members still sitting are simple silhouettes. The greater part of the frame is taken up by a stage littered in crushed flowers and broken vases; the white light stretches the deep shadows into a mosaic of jagged fragments. At the back of the stage stand a few actors, their forms partly obscured by darkness; a man in an army coat, another in a sports uniform. At stage left the light falls on a blonde woman, crying thick mascara tears. Her shoulders are curved over, her arms are wrapped around her knees, and the floral patterns on her dress give the illusion that she is a part of the crushed flower carnage. A man dressed in a dark blue suit is propped against the right wall of the set. His hair is slicked back, his face is a greying shade of pale, but he is smiling with lips that are smeared with a greasy gash of bright scarlet lipstick. On his right sits a woman in a beige suit, her hair dishevelled, holding the man’s hand. On the left is a girl of ten who is leaning in and stroking the man’s face. Framed in a painted window on the wall behind the trio is the simple scene of a sun setting. Or is it rising? It’s impossible to tell.