Traditionally performed at Christmas, British pantomime is a popular form of family theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, topical references, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. It’s a popular family Christmas outing, often on Boxing Day, with storylines based on children’s classic stories and fairy tales – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, for example. Standard jokes include villains creeping up on the hero and his sidekick who are always looking the wrong way. Audience participation is strongly encouraged – “He’s behind you!”, “Oh yes, he is!” and “Oh no, he isn’t!” are standard responses.
A Fairytale Ending
It was just as the kids in the audience screamed “He’s behind you!!” that Henry threw up.
Tom, as he struggled to mop up the vomit with a handkerchief, now knew for certain that an ice cream feast before the pantomime would indeed, all end badly. Nearby children scooted away as though burned.
As the smell started to roll through the warm, packed theatre, Tom could see the usherettes confer and then split up. One came straight towards him, looking determined and carrying a fire bucket, the other diving out of the door. Henry, like the villain, was washed luminous green. He was trying hard not to cry. Ignoring his new leather jacket, bought to cheer himself up, Tom drew the boy into a hug.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Tom,” Henry whimpered. Tom grinned.
“No sweat. Feeling better?”
Henry nodded, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. An actress glared down with a most un-fairy-like demeanour and Henry looked tearful again. Tom glared with raised eyebrows and to his surprise, the dancing bear came to the edge of the stage and shouldered her out of the way. The fairy stumbled, clutching her fake amethyst tiara and stalked into the wings.
The bear tipped his hat to Tom and then gambolled around, distracting the front row of the stalls from the mess in the aisle. By this time, the usherette was on her knees with rolls and rolls of kitchen paper. Tom thanked her and urged Henry him gently towards the exit. With “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the dame ringing in their ears, they made their escape.
Henry leaned against the foyer’s red velvet wall and gathered his breath.
“Fancy some air?” Tom asked, eyeing him.
The freezing air cuffed his ears. Henry, his coat still in the cloakroom, shivered and shuffled. Tom unzipped his jacket and Henry wrapped his arms around Tom’s waist, snuggling against him.
“I’m sorry. I know you didn’t want to come at all!” Henry sniffed. Tom paused. He couldn’t lie outright, Henry knew him too well.
“I was looking forward to being with you.”
“Thought it would cheer you up.”
Tom remembered the bear shoving the princess off stage, and chuckled.
“It has,” he said, and pulled him close.
They stayed like that for a few minutes, until Henry wrenched away with a moan. It was fair warning – he threw up in the gutter. Tom patted the skinny shoulders as Henry heaved.
“We need to go home. I’ll get your coat,” he said, and left him. Ten minutes later, he was still hovering around the cloakroom, waiting for Henry’s coat. Finally, the doddery attendant handed over the jacket and he dashed outside.
Henry was gone.
Tom stared up and down the road, and ran his hand through his black wavy hair. Where was Henry?
He turned back into the theatre and ran up and down the foyer, shouting.
“My nephew’s gone!”
The manager, bustling towards him looked suitably alarmed.
“Do we need to phone the police?”
“Yes! No. I don’t know!”
The manager hesitated and then strode away. He returned, shrugging on his coat. They walked, shouting Henry’s name, looking down the lanes that trickled off the main road. Minutes ticked by. Tom gripped Henry’s jacket, wondering how the nine year old would fare in this freezing wind.
“We need to call the police,” the manager said, half an hour later, and Tom nodded miserably. As they walked back to the theatre and its blaze of lights, Tom pulled out his phone to call his sister. After a sharp, horrified conversation Sarah was on her way.
In the foyer bar, Tom put his head in his hands. Yes, he’d not wanted to come tonight. This place was too full of memories, good and bad, the most recent just plain bad.
But this – Henry disappearing into thin air – now marked the theatre as a true hell. He closed his eyes and Olivia, her eyes swimming with tears, filled his mind.
“But why?” Her rich voice had risen an octave in pain.
“Because I can’t just wait around until you come back from touring! That’s no way to run a marriage!”
“So I have to give up my career? Would you?” she cried. Tom had gritted his teeth.
“My job is safe. Can you say that about yours?”
She stared, disbelieving. “Tom. People marry actors all the time. They make it work, find a way. So will we.”
He shook his head, silent. She slipped his ring off her finger and placed it on the table. He hadn’t seen her walk away. She had taken a slice of his heart with her. He had flitted around like a ghost, Sarah said. In a bubble of misery, he drifted through the year. Only approaching the theatre had a spark of light pierced the fog. The past hour had extinguished it.
Henry stood awkwardly with the man in the bear costume. Tom leapt up and grabbed him.
“Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!”
“I got cold, and found Bertie -”
“Bertie!” Henry said, indicating the bear, who clicked his heels and bowed his head like royalty. “He took me backstage!”
“And you’ve been there all the time?”
“Well, you were ages!”
“I – you cheeky little – ”
Whatever he was going to say was lost in his sister’s scream as she ran into theatre, and gathered a protesting Henry in her arms.
To keep warm, Henry had wandered up and down the street. The welcoming glow from the stage door beckoned him. The bear had pulled the shivering Henry into a dressing room and fed him hot tea. Having thrown up earlier, Henry was now hungry and plain biscuits had followed with some muffled conversation.
While Sarah thanked the bear, the manager and the theatre, Tom was silent. The bear nodded and jigged a bit and when Sarah had left, Tom looked at the grinning costume.
“You haven’t said a word,” he said curiously.
The bear put its head on one side.
“I saw you shove the bloody prima donna on stage. That cheered my night up, I can tell you.”
The bear nodded.
“I didn’t want to come. This place has lots of history… of me being an idiot, mostly.”
The bear sat down.
“There was a girl… she was a good actress. But I didn’t know if we could make marriage work and I couldn’t bare the thought of failing. Excuse the pun.”
“I miss her.” The words burst from him and he felt their release. “I should never … but it’s too late now.” His chin settled on his chest as desolation swamped him.
The bear took off the gloves and fiddled with fastenings. With a heave, the giant head came off.
Olivia, flushed and slightly sweaty, smiled at him, the costume swamping her tiny frame.
“Oh no, it isn’t,” she said.
Editor’s note: If you loved this story, you can find more of Sara’s work on Amazon.