Confessions of a stage door keeper - The Drencher

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
In the 1980's I became part time Stage Door Keeper of the Albery theatre (Now the Noel Coward) in the West End of London. During my time there, many extraordinary things happened. This is one of them.

Submitted: July 07, 2016

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Submitted: July 07, 2016



The Drencher

I'm sitting at the stage door of the Albery theatre in St Martin's Lane one Friday morning.   I have my coffee, the second of maybe four that day, issued by the coffee machine that sits just inside the double doors which lead into St Martin's Court - the courtyard between the Albery and the Wyndham's Theatre stage doors.  As a perk of the job, I am allowed two complimentary coffees - so long as I note them down in the Coffee Log.   This is a small red note book that lives in the locked, handmade wooden drawer at the stage door desk, underneath the window that looks out over the court. 
It is a beautiful day, and although the sun doesn't quite make it through to ground level, I can see the blue sky if I crane my neck to look up through my "office" window.  It is hot and stuffy.  The air is still.  Having the double doors open makes no difference to the internal temperature, but makes me feel better.  I should open them.
There is a constant flow of pedestrians who drift through St Martin's Court, taking the short cut from Charring Cross Road to St Martin's Lane.  Most of them look through the little stage door window at me, and I look back with a small sense of pride.  I am Stage Door Keeper, and that's quite cool.   I hope they will tell their friends that they saw a real Stage Door Keeper.  They probably won't.
Sheekey's, the famous fish restaurant, is not yet open but they are taking deliveries.  Oysters, no doubt.  I don't like oysters.  And even if I did, I can't afford them - especially from Sheekey's.   Although I can't see it from where I sit, I know there is a delivery going on at The Round Table on the corner - the sound of beer kegs being rolled across concrete is the give away.
The phone - one of my main duties - hasn't rung all morning, and based on past evidence it won't ring until around six o'clock this evening, when I expect the first of the Company to arrive.   There are no rehearsals booked on either stage today, nor are there any "get ins" or "get outs".   All My Sons is playing at the Wyndham's, and Children Of A Lesser God is playing at the Albery.
All is quiet.
All is well.
It is on days like this when the stage crew take the opportunity to fix props, replace lightbulbs, mend sets, check the lines (theatre speak for ropes) and generally tinker.  The stage crew at each theatre comprises electricians ("Sparks") and carpenters ("Chippies") and they are all residents of the theatre - that is, they don't change when the shows do.   A group of people it would be difficult to impress.  Or shock.  They have seen it all before.
The Master Carpenter at the Wyndham's theatre is called Bill.  But he's not a "Chippy": he's the Master Carpenter.  Respect.
Bill has been Master Carpenter for five thousand years, and his DNA is now part of the bricks and mortar of the Wyndham's theatre.  Bill is medium height, barrel chested and stocky.  He has tattoos on all of his fingers which spell something when he interlocks the fingers of each hand.  I've never asked him what it spells.   He wears five rings - the most prominent of which is a silver skull which he wears on the middle finger of his right hand.   His nails are bitten short, his teeth are decayed - one is missing - and he doesn't shave.  His hair is short, mousy-brown with a fringe.  He reminds me of Desperate Dan.  Or maybe a Roman Centurion impersonating Desperate Dan.  He is solid: physically, in reputation and mentally.  And he is hard.   He values hard work, and looks to his team to be excellent in what they do.  They are.  He believes in justice, might be made from steel girders, and demands his pound of flesh.  He doesn't suffer fools gladly but, crucially, always gives people a chance to fail and learn.  Once. 
In short, you want Bill on your team.
As I sit contemplating the day, a door opens on the other side of the court, and Bill ambles towards the Albery stage door.   He is holding his tobacco tin.   He is not in any kind of a hurry.
I get up from my seat by the window, and walk round to the open double doors.
"Hey Bill." I say.
"Morning." he says.  "Alright?"
"Yeah.  You?"
Bill doesn't answer.  There is no need.
He has a London accent, not Cockney, just London.   He pronounces the "t" in "alright".   There is gravel in his voice.  A gritty determination.  Hard, but Just.  Fair.
"Coffee?" I ask.  He knows I'm not going to charge him.
"Lovely." he says.  He doesn't make any effort to find the money to pay for it.  I always give Bill a complimentary coffee.
I have already got the money in my hand from the float in the drawer.  I put it into the machine, and press the button for white coffee with sugar.   A plastic cup appears, and the machine makes clunking noises.  
There is a pause.  
Bill and I both watch the machine.
Coffee starts pouring into he cup, followed shortly afterwards by milk powder.  
There is another pause.  
Sugar then falls into the cup, and the machine beeps.
I pick up a stirrer from the little pot by the side of the machine, and stir his coffee.
Bill is now standing in the doorway, looking out into the court.   He is about to roll a cigarette. I pass him his coffee.
"You are a gentleman." he says.   That's what he always says.
You want Bill on your team.
Holding the cup in his right hand, he opens the tin with his left - somehow undoing the lid and flipping it under the tin in a smooth, well-practiced movement.  He surveys St Martin's Court, and the pedestrians walking past him.
Inside the tin is Golden Virginia tobacco, a small slice of apple and a packet of orange Rizla papers.  He lifts the tin to his mouth, and takes a Rizla paper between his lips, gently extracting it from the packet. Lowering his left arm, he shifts the tin in his palm, and teases out a portion of tobacco with his thumb and forefinger which he then palms, under the tin lid.   Then, with his third and fourth fingers he flips the lid back from under the tin, and snaps it shut tucking it back into his  back pocket, whence it came.
He is wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and steel-capped, tan coloured leather boots.   The steel is poking through the leather uppers.   The back pocket of his jeans is almost worn away by his tobacco tin that lives there.
He takes the paper from his lips, and sits it in the palm of his hand.  With his thumb, he gently moves the tobacco onto the paper and forming a channel with his first, second and third fingers, he massages the tobacco into place, folds a lip of paper over with his thumb and rolls it.  He tucks the non-gummed edge under the tobacco, lifts the paper to his lips and licks along the gummed edge in one confident gesture.  A final roll between his thumb and forefinger seals the tobacco into a tight, well-made, perfect looking cigarette - made with one hand.   He places it between his lips, and with his now free hand, pulls a silver Zippo lighter from his front left pocket, flipping the lid open and striking the wheel in one movement.  He lights the cigarette on first strike, and replaces the lighter.   I catch the smell of petrol.  He drags, inhales deeply and exhales slowly.   He takes a sip of his coffee.
"Lovely." he says.  
That's what he always says.
We stand side by side in the door way, watching the world go by.  
Oh the glamour of the West End.
As we watch, the Wyndham's stage door opens and Eric appears in the doorway.  He looks across the court and sees Bill enjoying his cigarette and coffee, and I register a flicker of recognition on Eric's face, and nothing on Bill's.
He walks across the court towards us, with the air of someone who has completed all of his chores, and now deserves a drink - or some more chores.
"Hi Bill." he says.
Bill nods.
"Time for a coffee." says Eric.
Bill nods again. 
Eric doesn't get a complimentary coffee.  He has to pay the full twenty pence, which he does.   The machine does its thing,  and Eric takes the cup and stands next to Bill, looking out into the court.
Master and apprentice.
Delusions of grandeur.
Eric takes a pack of ten Rothmans cigarettes from his back pocket, opens it with his thumb, removes one with his teeth, and holds it between his lips.   He replaces the pack, and pulls out a red lighter from his front jeans pocket.   He lifts the lighter to his mouth, slightly tilting his head to lift the cigarette a little.  With his left thumb on the striker wheel, he strikes.   The strike fails.  He tries again.  No luck.   He puts his coffee down on the floor, and this time makes a wind guard with his right hand, cupping it around the cigarette.  He strikes again.  Nothing.  And again.  Nothing.
Without even looking, and in a single fluid movement, Bill pulls out his silver Zippo flipping the lid back with his thumb and in one successful strike offers it up to Eric who leans forward awkwardly,  thrusting his jaws forward to light the cigarette.   I catch the smell of petrol again.  Away goes the Zippo.
Master and apprentice.
Eric bends down to pick up his coffee.
"Stage clean?" asks Bill.
"Yep." says Eric.
"Iron in?"
Eric turns to face Bill, and frowns slightly.  
Bill continues to survey St Martin's Court.  
Eric shifts the weight on his feet, and takes a sip of coffee.
"Iron in?" repeats Bill.
He can't ignore the question again.  Surely?
Eric shifts his weight again.
"The iron?" Eric asks, with a slight upward inflection to his voice.
He doesn't know what the iron is.
"The Iron, yes." Bill confirms, giving nothing away.  No clues.   I think that this must be a learning opportunity for Eric.
"I'm not sure what the iron is?" confesses Eric.
"Then say so." says Bill, turning round to look at him eye to eye, locked on, weapons primed.
A learning opportunity.
"Sorry." says Eric.
"It's the safety curtain," explains Bill, "It’s called the ‘Iron’."
"Oh right."
"When it's ‘in’," he continues, “it's down an when it's 'out' it's up."
They both sip their coffee.
"Is the Iron in?" Bill tries again.
"Um.  I'm not sure.  I didn't look." says Eric.
Oops.  Wrong answer.
"Then go and look." says Bill quietly, dangerously.
Eric takes a sip of coffee.
"Now," says Bill, leaving no room for misinterpretation.
Eric scampers off towards the Wyndham's stage door, and I let him in by pressing the door release button on my desk.  I walk back round to join Bill in the doorway.
We both stand there again, surveying the court and its passers by.  The sun casts sharp shadows across the walls opposite.  A ragged old pigeon swoops down and lands by what looks like a well-trodden piece of chewing gum on the paving stones, obviously in search of a meal.
“The iron’s out." says Bill after a few minutes of silence, shaking his head minutely.  Is that exasperation or incredulity?   I smile at Bill, who smiles back still shaking his head.
The stage door across the court opens again, and Eric reappears.  He walks towards us, but this time his manner is different: not so cocksure.  Apprentice.
"The Iron's out," he says to Bill, confidently.
Bill nods, and drags on his cigarette.
Eric takes his place next to Bill again, and reaches for another Rothmans.
"It needs to be in," says Bill.
"Ok," says Eric.
"Now," says Bill.
"Oh ok," says Eric, putting the cigarette back in the box, ”Do you want me to, er," he tries find the right words.  Bill doesn't help.  "... er, do you want me to lower-"
"Bring it in?" suggests Bill.
"Yes, do you want me to bring the Iron in?"
"I do," says Bill.
"I don't know how," admits Eric immediately, obviously trying to avoid the same trap as before.  You can't bullshit Bill.
"There are two red handles at head height behind the pross, prompt side, between the pass-door and the desk.  The one on the right is for the Iron."
Eric looks like he is trying to decipher what Bill is telling him.  I detect panic.
"Okay," Eric says slowly.  "Two handles?" he asks.
Bill nods.
"The one on the right is for the safety-, the iron." rehearses Eric.
Bill nods.
"What's the other one for?"
"That's the Drencher," says Bill.  "You don't want to touch that."  
No shit.
"Drencher?" asks Eric.
Bill nods.
"What's the Drencher?"
Bill's head turns slowly towards Eric.  Eye to eye again.  Locked on.  
"What do you think the Drencher is?" he asks.
Eric thinks.  Another learning opportunity.
“Er,” he starts, “The sprinkler system?  For fires?" attempts Eric.
Bill turns back.
"Something like that," he says.
Lesson over.
"Right.  Ok - so the handle on the right,” says Eric, as he turns around and heads back towards the Wyndham's stage door.   I buzz him in again, and rejoin Bill in the door way.
"Sprinkler?" says Bill incredulously, shaking his head with a tiny smile.
"Sprinkler!" I repeat, sharing the joke.
The Drencher is so not a sprinkler!
"Fancy another coffee?" I ask, taking his empty cup away and throwing it in the plastic dustbin by the machine.
Bill takes a deep breath, puffing out his enormous chest and raising both his shoulders before exhaling long and slow, to regain his normal dimensions.  
"Why not?" he says.
"On me," I say, putting a twenty pence piece into the machine.
"You're a gentleman." he says, pulling out his tobacco tin again.
When the machine has done its thing, I hand Bill his coffee - which he takes with his right hand - while he is rolling another cigarette with the other.
The world continues to go by.
We are both suddenly aware of a commotion across the court at the Wyndham's stage door.   Eric is fumbling around from inside the stage door, clearly trying to get out.  
There is urgency.  
He is shouting something, but it's difficult to make anything out.   I buzz the door to trip the lock, and it flies open.  Eric tumbles through the door into the court and falls awkwardly to his knees.   He gets up immediately and runs towards us shouting something, but it is still difficult to make out what he's saying.   He seems more out of breath that he should be.  Something is not right.   He reaches us and I can read fear on his face.  He is trying to say something, but can't seem to get any words out.   He sounds like he has a stammer.
"D.....D.....D.....D...." he manages, looking beseechingly at Bill.   "D....D...."
"What is it?" asks Bill - the voice of a seasoned captain, used to everything.
"The d...." attempts Eric.
"The d?" tries Bill.
And now, the terrible truth dawns on us. 
The Dredger.
Hundreds of gallons of water a minute being forced at mains pressure through thousands of small holes bored in an eight-inch pipe mounted behind the proscenium arch, designed to produce a wall of water filling the space from the top of the pross to the foot of the stage, creating a barrier of water which separates the auditorium - and audience - from the stage - and the company.   Staggering amounts of high-pressure water crashing down on the stage, smashing its way through the set and the props setup for Act One, cascading into the wings and backstage, down into the orchestra pit and into the stalls, through the stage itself into the workshops under it.  The sheer volume of water bulldozing the furniture on the stage into chaotic piles like storm driftwood, forced up against the flats which form the infrastructure of the set.  Relentless torrents.  A waterfall.  
Not a "sprinkler".
As all this is flashing through my mind, Bill is already running towards the Wyndham's stage door, he has thrown his cigarette and coffee down, and I leap to the button to buzz the door, and they both disappear into the theatre.
The devastation down there must be, well, devastating.   I have tried to imagine what is going on.  How will they redress the set, clear up the water damage, get everything dry for this evening's performance?  Will the show go on?  Of course it will, the show always goes on.  We have had full houses since the start of the run.  The show must go on.   How will they get rid of all the water?  I know there is a drainage system, but...
It is now two hours or so since Eric pulled the wrong handle.   Iron on the right.  Drencher on the left.
Maybe he wasn't thinking about stage right and stage left?  I don't know.   Anyway, I am sitting by my window waiting.  Watching.  There has been no sign of any activity from across the court.   I can only imagine what's going on down there.
Then, I see movement behind the Wyndham's stage door.   The door slowly opens, and Bill appears.  He ambles towards the Albery stage door.   He is holding his tobacco tin.   He is not in any kind of a hurry.   I get up from my seat by the window, and walk round to the open double doors.
"Coffee?" I ask.  He knows I'm not going to charge him.
"Lovely." he says.  He doesn't make any effort to find the money to pay for it.  I always give Bill a complimentary coffee.
I have already got the money in my hand from the float in the drawer.  I put it into the machine, and press the button for white coffee with sugar.   A plastic cup appears, and the machine makes clunking noises. 
I hand him his coffee.
"You're a gentleman." he says.
"Everything ok?" I ask.  
Bill takes his coffee, lights his cigarette, takes a drag, turns his head towards me and exhales.
He is calm.
He stands in the doorway, looking out over the court.
I stand next to him.
"Well," he says after a few minutes, "he won't do that again."
I smile.
He demands his pound of flesh, doesn't suffer fools gladly but, crucially, always gives people a chance to fail and learn.  Once.
You want Bill on your team.

© Copyright 2019 Nigel Shore. All rights reserved.

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