Sample excerpt

Warning: Contains description of drug abuse

Copyright strictly reserved by Albert Clack

Sir Roger Nutley stood in front of the full-length mirror in the Number One dressing-room of the Theatre Royal, North London, reflecting on how wonderful it felt to be working again. Even though he had not been convicted, his trial two years earlier for alleged rape and sexual assault had resulted in ostracism and unemployment. The tabloid newspapers had made his life hell because of something that was alleged to have happened almost half-a-century ago.

Meticulously he checked his costume, as he always did. To be honest, there was not much that could go wrong with this particular outfit; but he was an old-school professional, and he knew that attention to detail before stepping out in front of the public was important.

While he was examining himself in the mirror, the backstage tannoy high on the dressing-room wall spoke in the crisp, well-articulated Yorkshire tones of Fiona Holland, the visiting touring company's Stage Manager: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your fifteen-minute call."

Sir Roger locked his dressing-room door, sat down opposite the mirror, took out a blue-and-white j-cloth from his make-up bag, and carefully wiped a small area of the surface in front of him. Then he returned the cloth to the bag and took out a clean, white handkerchief, a playing card, a cardboard packet of plastic drinking straws, and a small plastic grip-seal baggy.

He removed a straw from the box, unsealed the top edge of the baggy and poured a small quantity of fine, white powder on to the cleaned area. Using the playing-card, he deftly rearranged the powder into two neat little lines.

Holding his right nostril closed with his index-finger, he picked up the straw, leaned forward and inserted one end into his left nostril. Then he lowered the other end to one of the lines, sniffed and slid the straw along, snorting until the whole line was up his nose. He repeated the operation with his right nostril.

Within seconds, a rush of energy swept through his brain. He felt completely energised, as if he could sprint a mile while singing at the top of his voice. Along with the euphoria came a sense of incredible mental clarity. He packed away his cocaine paraphernalia, leaned back, and relaxed.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your beginners' call. Sir Roger Nutley, Mr Dean and Ms Comerford to the stage please." Jason Dean was playing the much younger lead role of Hamlet, Sir Roger was Polonius, and Claire Comerford was Queen Gertrude.

Sir Roger walked along the corridor and opened the door marked Stage Left. He was always early; another old-hand practice. Claire Comerford came into the darkened wing a moment later and whispered to him: "Here we go for another flaming row with my bloody son, then." "You should have brought him up better," Sir Roger whispered back with a playful grin.

There was an enthusiastic hubbub from the auditorium as the audience settled into their seats for the second half. The passionate cadences of Rachmaninov's Prelude No 2 in B Flat Major were warming the public up over the theatre's sound system for the continuation of Shakespeare's Danish tragedy.

"They're a good lot this afternoon," whispered Claire. "I always like matinee audiences," said Sir Roger. "They know how to enjoy themselves." The music ended, the house lights were extinguished, the stage was flooded with light, and the curtains parted.

Just a few seconds before striding purposefully on to the stage, Claire totally took on her character of Queen Gertrude. She was followed immediately by Sir Roger as the courtier Polonius, delivering the opening lines with compelling urgency.

"He will come straight. Look you lay home to him." To which Gertrude, hearing Hamlet approaching, replied, "I'll warrant you, fear me not. Withdraw, I hear him coming." Polonius walked upstage and slipped behind a heavy curtain to eavesdrop unseen on the conversation between the Queen and her son, Prince Hamlet.

Jason stepped on from the opposite wing, asking: "Now mother, what's the matter?" The argument between Hamlet and Gertrude swiftly escalated to the point where Gertrude protested: "Thou wilt not murder me? Help, ho!" This so alarmed the concealed Polonius that he cried out: "What, ho, help!"

Hamlet, thinking that the hidden eavesdropper was his uncle, Claudius, against whom he had vowed revenge, stabbed the curtain with his sword. He knew that Sir Roger would be standing well back. Polonius, still out of sight, gasped: "Oh, I am slain!" Gertrude, shocked, turned on her son: "Oh, me, what hast thou done?"

From behind the curtain, Sir Roger uttered a further, muted cry and an unpleasant gurgling sound, and there was an audible thud as the dying Polonius fell to the floor out of sight. 'The old goat made rather a noisy meal of that tonight,' thought Claire, uncharitably.

Hamlet pulled the curtain aside and began dragging the inert Polonius out on to the stage. Then he realised to his horror that Sir Roger's head was hanging limply at a bizarre angle from his neck. Jason dropped the body and cried out, "Oh, my God! He's been murdered."

Claire Comerford, who was facing the audience and thus could not see the lolling head, thought Jason had dried, and stepped in with an improvisation: "Of course he has, my prince, and that by thee."

But by now the audience, too, were gasping with horror. "No," shouted Jason, "I mean he's really dead. His neck's broken." He turned to Fiona at the control board, offstage left, and called: "For Christ's sake - curtain!"

Copyright strictly reserved by Albert Clack

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