IT'S ALL IN THE GAME
Frank sat huddled in the piss-stained side entrance of the abandoned theatre, a chill wind slicing through the alleyway to slap at his bloodied and battered face. Pip, Frank's tiny black mongrel, itself bearing the pain of a sharp kick to the ribs, whimpered in its struggle to reach his owner's face to lick away the hurt.
Relieved to find that Pip had suffered no permanent damage Frank soothed “Easy my little soldier, we’ve had worse eh?” But the cracks in the old man’s voice told a different story, his frail body abruptly overtaken by a rattling cough. The cold night persisted to spread its ink-black tendrils upon the pitiful duo as Frank’s stabbing headache replayed vicious flashbacks of earlier events.
The day had started well enough. Christmas Eve shoppers, mesmerised by the haunting clarity of Frank’s violin playing, had given their coins generously.
After a while, however, as the evening sky and the threat of more snow approached, drunken revellers soon replaced festive shoppers. Knowing the streets could get nasty once darkness descended, with Pip tucked safely in his coat and a warm sausage roll sitting in his pocket, Frank decided to return to the derelict pub which he shared with a few similar souls down on their luck.
About to turn into the dark alleyway, leading to the Red Lion, Frank spotted the girl standing by its entrance staring at him. She looked to be in her late teens with long black hair framing an ashen complexion and it was obvious by her dishevelled state that she’d been sleeping rough.
Suddenly, she dipped into the shadows of the entry and feeling inexplicably concerned about her, Frank felt compelled to follow.
“ Hey!” he called, as he spotted her walking further into the gloom.
“Hey! Don’t be frightened, please, just stop a minute!”
A flickering street lamp cast a dull light over snow-bedecked cobbles, allowing the strange illusion of the girl gliding over them. Pip popped his head up and let out a sharp bark. The girl stopped and turned to face the sound.
“What do you want?” The strength of the girl’s voice belied the fragility of her appearance.
“Nothing, except to give you this” and with an outstretched hand, Frank offered her the pastry he’d been about to devour moments earlier.
A few hesitant steps brought the girl closer towards him and reaching out, she quickly plucked the food from his palm. Frank could feel Pip's tail wagging furiously beneath his coat.
“You’re welcome. I’m Frank, by the way””
“Well Abbie, you’re hardly dressed for this weather are you?”
Abbie, as if seeing herself for the first time, took a brief inventory of her clothing. Scuffed trainers, black jeans and oversized black jumper.
“Don’t suppose I am” she shrugged nonchalantly.
“Look, I don’t know your story, nor am I asking for it but if you’re struggling for a place to get your head down, I know somewhere you’ll be safe.”
Frank could understand if the girl didn’t trust him. Why should she? Nevertheless, he felt uncannily obliged to offer help.
Abbie’s dark gaze studied Frank for a moment before she replied.
“I have a place” a thin arm stretched out to pat Pip on the head.
“See ya fella” said Abbie through a smile that almost dispelled the darkness in her eyes. And with that, she turned to continue on her way.
“Wait!” Frank urged as fingers numb with cold dragged an old blanket from his bag.
“Here, take this, I get the feeling you’ve not much in the way of warmth about you. Oh, and hold on”
Reaching into his pocket Frank retrieved some of the money he’d earned earlier from his violin playing.
“This'll help you get by. It was given to me in good spirit so think of it as a little Christmas present from a stranger, the ghost of charisma past” finished Frank with a chuckle harshly interrupted by his hacking cough.
A half smile teased a crease into Abbie’s cheek before she said...
“Thanks, old man. I welcome the blanket but I’ve no need of anything else. I’m to be off now and I suggest you and Pip do the same. The sky is heavy with devilment this night and there’s madness on the streets. Best we vanish into the shadows before we are devoured by them.”
And without another word the girl took to her heels, darting off along the passageway with amazing and sure-footed dexterity given the obstacle of the slippery surface which flashed beneath her.
As Abbie’s slight shape disappeared out of sight, Frank remained puzzled over her parting words and he couldn’t recall mentioning Pips' name.
Nevertheless, putting the exchange down to the peculiarity of youth and the hindrance of old age, Frank thought no more of it as he prepared to carry on down the dingy passageway towards refuge. The money which Abbie had declined would be well received by the poor souls there who could certainly do with some cheer this Christmas.
Propelled by a violent flurry of snow, Frank began to quicken his step. Around him, a vulgar medley of music, laughter, screams and sirens filled the night air as party-goers persisted with their drunken celebrations. Had this not been the case maybe Frank would have heard the scurrying feet rushing up behind him.
A hard punch to the head sent Frank sprawling to the floor. Instantly, Pip sprang from his haven within Frank’s coat and launched himself at the gaunt and glazed-eyed attacker, but such bravery only served to earn the dog a cruel kick to his side leaving him yelping in retreat.
“What’re you doing?” Cried Frank in shock.
“Shut it, you old bastard and hand that cash over”
Another punch to Frank’s head accompanied the demand and a trickle of blood dripped from Frank’s nose to fall in crimson starbursts upon the snowy surface from where he now struggled to raise himself.
“Take it.” A shaking hand opened to push its contents toward the mugger.
“You’ve more than that on yer” spat the thug “I watched ‘em throw their dosh at you as you fannied about with yer fiddle”
Knowing there was no way of reasoning with the drug-crazed thief, Frank hurried to retrieve the rest of the money from his pocket and quickly handed it over.
“That’s the lot! Now please, leave us alone” begged Frank, wiping a sleeve across his lip where more blood gathered.
“I’ll have that too!” A grimy hand snatched the precious violin.
With nothing more worth stealing the youth took to his heels, leaving Frank stunned, bleeding and lying in the ever-increasing layers of snow upon the ground.
Frank soon realised his hip had taken the fall quite badly, making it difficult to walk. He just about managed to make it to the sanctuary of the doorway, a few meters along outside the long-abandoned Empire Theatre, before flopping down in a breathless heap.
And that’s where Frank remained as he pushed the painful flashbacks to one side, in the hope of gathering some strength before moving on. A devoted Pip looked up into his master’s troubled eyes, watching them slowly close as exhaustion took over.
Meanwhile, the world beyond this sorrowful scene continued with the jubilant chaos of its own interests.
Unaware of how long he’d been huddled in the doorway, Frank gradually became conscious of a sound close to his ear.
“Frank. Frank!” a voice pressed “Open your eyes”
Reluctant to remove himself from the comfort of sleep, Frank gradually conceded to raise his eyelids. At first, he couldn’t make sense of the blur surrounding him but after a few blinks the girl he’d met earlier, Abbie, slowly came into focus crouching before him.
A few more blinks and Frank realised he was no longer in the doorway of the theatre, but actually inside it! Somehow sat in what was left of the front row seats, the stage ahead strewn with the detritus of time’s ravages, the area no longer the proud platform for curtain calls and excited encores.
Frank’s ever-widening eyes began to take in more of the scene around him. An impossible amount of candles, randomly placed, cast a soft and soothing glow upon the room.
All at once, Frank realised the peculiarity of his situation. Focusing back towards Abbie, who now sat perched on the edge of the stage facing him, legs casually swinging to and fro, he finally found his voice.
“I don’t understand. How did I get here? And where’s Pip?”
A loud ‘yap’ answered the second question as Pip appeared from behind Abbie to sit by her side, tongue panting with excitement, tail wagging furiously.
Abbie answered the first question.
“Well, you were pretty much out of it, but we managed. I’m more resourceful than I look” said Abbie, flashing one of her rare smiles before continuing “Who’s Maggie?”
The question took Frank by surprise.
“Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s all you kept saying when I found you in the doorway. Over and over again you said her name”
Frank shifted in his chair, both amazed and relieved to find that he felt a lot better than he had done earlier and a lot warmer too, despite the chill his dilapidated surroundings might suggest. Indeed, there was almost a cosy feeling to the whole setting as he began to relax further into his seat to answer Abbie’s question.
“Maggie was my wife”
“Tell me more, old man”
The strange pull which had drawn Frank to the girl in the first place crept up on him again as he found himself reacting to Abbie’s request.
“We were just two childhood sweethearts going about our lives like everyone else. We married Christmas time 1958 and we’d been together over fifty-five years before she was taken from me”
Reflectively, Frank continued.
“We married young, not because we had to mind, sadly me and my Maggie were never blessed with children, but because we knew that no one else in the entire world could ever dance with our souls as best as they danced with the other.
She was a beauty. A bonnie brunette with a wild explosion of curls she could never quite tame”
Frank smiled as images of Maggie, battling to control her ample tresses, hovered in his mind.
“Go on” Abbie gently persuaded.
“She’d kind, laughing, big brown eyes and a heart so tender and caring, she’d weigh herself down with the worries of the world. She was always helping folk out and never asked for anything in return. “To make a difference to somebody else’s day is payment enough” she’d say as she smiled.
Oh, and how Maggie loved Christmas! As soon as the tree was up and the decorations were in place she’d light the candles and I’d put the record player on and we’d wrap our arms around each other dancing to our song; Tommy Edwards’ ‘It’s All In The Game’, just as we had on our wedding night.” Frank sighed as another wonderful memory touched his heart. Then looking up at Abbie, he chided “You’re too young to know of it”
To which Abbie replied with a mischievous grin “You’d be surprised what I know!”
“You’re probably right” laughed Frank
And then the lightness of Frank’s mood changed and his brow furrowed, as he lost himself in the recollections of Christmases past.
“There’s more to your tale Frank.”
His expression becoming more strained, Frank struggled on.
“Maggie was diagnosed with dementia two Christmases ago. Social services suggested I put her in a home! But I wouldn’t do that to my Maggie! Where I was, she would always be.
Last Christmas I put the tree up, just like always. We were long passed the dancing stage but I sat with Maggie on the settee; holding her hand, as our song played on in the background.
There was a wonderful moment when she lifted her head, looked right into my eyes and gave me the most beautiful smile. Then, as quickly as she’d come home she was lost to me again.
That night, I lay down in bed beside her, exhausted, and fell into a deep sleep. I woke up choking and gasping for breath! Thick, black smoke was everywhere and when I felt for Maggie, she wasn’t there!
Next thing I know, I’m in hospital. Our home was a gonner. They found Maggie in the living room, seems whilst I was asleep she’d managed to go downstairs and light the candles; that’s how the fire started
All my fault! If I’d been more alert and remembered to lock our bedroom door like I usually did, none of this would have happened!”
Frank paused as his obvious distress took hold.
“You were not to blame. Nobody was.” Abbie consoled a guilt-ridden Frank as the rest of his story unfolded.
“We’d no house insurance. No savings left. I’d used all we had to look after Maggie, as was only right. Anyway, that’s how I came to live on the streets because without her I don’t belong anywhere”
A sharp yap from Pip brought Frank out of his maudlin reminiscences and with a chuckle Frank added.
“That little chap came to me shortly after I’d taken to living rough. He was a lost soul too, came out of nowhere and we’ve been together ever since
But enough of all that, it’s your turn now Abbie, tell me your story”
Frank shrank back into the dilapidated theatre chair, still astonished at how content he felt. With a bit of a shrug Abbie leapt from her seat on the edge of the stage and, with Pip under her arm, moved forward to sit alongside Frank.
“Nothing to tell, old man.”
“Of course there’s something to tell! There’s always a something to tell. What about your parents, where are they? Where did you live? How did you get where you are and where are you going?”
Abbie laughed; the sound, though not unpleasant, startled Frank as its echo chased the shadows across the crumbling walls.
“Oh old man, my story holds no place here this night. It is suffice to say that I carry my own darkness and we are company enough for the other. Our journeys are many and varied.”
“Any chance you could be more vague?” laughed Frank. This time, the sound of his own laughter caused him to start when he realised the usual sharp cough was not at the back of it.
For a while Abbie and Frank sat next to each other in comfortable silence; Pip lying peacefully across Abbie’s lap, in restful repose. Somewhere outside, beyond the collapsing building, with its sagging roof and aching timbers, a church clock chimed, heralding the arrival of Christmas Day.
Abbie was the first to breach the quiet when, smiling tenderly at Frank, she whispered “It’s time old man.”
“Time?” a puzzled Frank repeated. “I don’t know what you mean”
“You will. Look; look hard”
Frank followed Abbie’s gaze to the candlelit stage, a sudden wave of fatigue slightly faltering his vision.
Something was happening. A curious mist began to creep upon the stage, eventually swallowing it. Frank sat mesmerized, bemused but strangely not alarmed by the unravelling oddness. The glow from the candles was steadily being replaced by a different light that shimmered and glistened.
And then he heard it.
A series of delicate notes gradually blending together to form a familiar tune. Frank’s ears strained to confirm the melody.
As ‘It’s All In The Game’ began to gain momentum Frank couldn’t believe his eyes when the fuzzy outline of a Christmas tree emerged from the haze. Candlelight returning to dance around it.
The 2 seater, across which Maggie and himself had shared many a cuddle of an evening, begged to be sprawled upon once more. Paper chains hung from a ceiling that had no substance yet, impossibly, was host to an abundance of the colourful decorations.
In advancing wonderment, Frank’s eyes caught sight of the wisp of a silhouette hovering beside the record player spilling out their song.
And then the silhouette gathered texture.
As the final vapours vanished into the ether, a shape he recognised all too well and a voice he thought he’d never hear again cajoled him.
“Now Frank, you wouldn’t leave a girl to dance all on her own would you?”
Mischief flirted across Maggie’s eyes as she reached out to take Frank’s hand in hers. Franks incredulous eyes grew ever wider as tears of astonishment and joy brimmed upon the surface. Then suddenly, miraculously, Frank found himself removed from the theatre chair and transported back into his and Maggie’s home, Christmas 1958.
Once more Frank’s youthful arms pulled Maggie’s girlish figure tightly towards his chest as eyes, full of sparkles and lips, giddy with the promise of kisses to come, sought out the other.
Smiling, Abbie watched on until, eventually, the heartwarming scene started to flicker and fade away but not before Frank had the chance to mouth a warm and grateful “thank you”. Then, as the last line of their song, “ And Your Hearts Will Fly Away” drifted off, so did Maggie and Frank, the stage quickly returning to its original setting.
Pip yapped and wagged his tail as, through a contented sigh, Abbie ruffled his fur and said “See, ours isn’t a bad job all the time is it fella? But there’s more work to be done yet this night so we’d best not dally”
Making their way out of the theatre, the unlikely duo paused by the doorway whilst Abbie covered Frank’s snow-covered, earthly remains with the blanket he had once so selflessly afforded her.
“We sent him to a happier place, Pip. Unlike the place we’ll soon be sending someone else who crossed our path earlier. Yes, to use Maggie’s words, it’s time to make a difference to somebody else’s day. I’m sure Maggie would approve”
In another alleyway, not too distanced from the theatre, a rough, violent thug threw a violin roughly to one side and smirked as he took stock of the rest of his spoils from a busy night of muggings and beatings. Never knowing that Death and her trusted aid would soon be paying him a visit.
© Copyright Lynn Gerrard