SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: Silence by Keith Baker

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... for a murder mystery dinner at Groundlings Theatre

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Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub

‘I’m sorry Gilbert,’ Judith Pullman said. ‘Unless things improve, I’m closing the play at the end of the month.’

He knew the production director was right, however it still hurt.

The play, She Who Screams Loudest, had been running for seven months. For the first five months, Gilbert Bartlett and his co-star Vanessa Martin and a younger pair, Jenny Franklin and Jake Hanaway had enjoyed standing ovations. Then the magic died and the audiences dwindled.

The cast agreed it wasn’t their acting. Judith’s only contribution on one performance was that ‘your voices sound unusually brittle and angular.’ They were sitting in the tea room of the New Theatre Royal. A small genteel Victorian setting, complete with a black and white tiled floor.

‘I know,’ Gilbert said. ‘We’ll just carry on for the next couple of weeks.’

Rehearsals for that Monday morning had been cancelled and Gilbert was in no mood for company.

He wandered into the magnificent auditorium with its ornate carvings of mermaids, dolphins and anchors decorating the walls and the tiered balconies that rose to the domed ceiling above.

Sitting in the circle, he was aware of the afternoon cinema session starting. He hated these movies, introduced a couple of months ago – to him they were an intrusion into the very essence of the theatre.

Blocking out the sound of exploding mortar shells, the drone of enemy planes and the accompanying film score, he fell into a fitful slumber. Curses from below dragged him awake. He peered over the balcony rail.

The movie had stopped and the engineers were trying to figure out the problem. Settling more comfortably in his seat, he resumed his slumbers.

It was late afternoon when he finally woke in near darkness and blessed silence. The engineers had gone. His ears adjusted to the quiet.

That was when he heard the noises. Just above the threshold of sound, he could hear strange music, punctuated with rising crescendos that burst into silence. Then the mutterings started.

The words were unintelligible but something niggled at the back of his mind, something familiar.

There were rumours among the cleaners of ghostly voices in the auditorium.

‘I wonder if it’s the actors of a long-forgotten era complaining about the movies,’ he thought to himself wryly.

That evening the magic returned and the sparse audience applauded loudly, however, it was a return to the dismal response for the Tuesday and Wednesday performances.

Late Wednesday night a frustrated Gilbert was back sitting in the auditorium. The enemy planes of the late night movie still invaded his domain. Fuelled by the constant noise, his resentment turned to a burning anger.

With an almighty swipe of his foot, he kicked a nearby fuse box. The deafening silence filled him with acute embarrassment. Guiltily, he crept across to the other side of the circle.

A short time later, the ghosts returned. Gilbert listened intently. In the early hours of Thursday morning, he left the theatre deep in thought.

By late morning, the engineers still hadn’t found the problem and the Thursday afternoon cinema session was cancelled.

Gilbert went back to the scene of his crime and quietly refitted the dislodged fuses. After a good performance on Thursday night, Judith, with ill grace, cancelled the Saturday afternoon cinema session, on Gilbert’s insistence.

‘I hope you know what you’re doing,’ she said.

The day of the Saturday performance duly arrived. At the interval Gilbert stepped out from behind the fire curtain.

‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen,’ Gilbert began. ‘I hope you have enjoyed the first part of the play, I shall only keep you a few minutes.

‘Over the past few months our audiences have deserted us. In desperation, I would like to call on the ghosts of this theatre to help explain what is happening, may I ask for quiet please.’

Nodding to the sound engineer who turned up the volume, Gilbert uttered a short sentence in a strange language: ‘Treblig Lliw Nialpxe.’

Once the reverberations had ceased and the audience had recovered their hearing, Gilbert finished his speech.

‘Thank you for your patience, I hope you enjoy the rest of the play.’

The following day, as requested, Judith and the cast assembled in the circle.

‘Jenny, can you please check there is no-one else in the theatre?” Gilbert commanded. ‘Nobody here,’ came her reply after checking the sloping stage, the impressive fly tower, and the new dressing room and studio.

Gilbert said to Jake: ‘Go downstairs and make sure the audio system remains off. Now we sit and wait.’

The minutes ticked by. Suddenly out of the stillness, from the very fabric of the theatre, boomed the message: ‘GILBERT WILL EXPLAIN.’

The ghosts had spoken. Stunned, everyone looked at Gilbert.

‘Nothing from the audio system,’ came a shaky voice from below.

Judith was the first to recover: ‘That was your voice.’

Gilbert beamed at her. ‘Go on...’

‘Was that your incantation from last night?’

Gilbert nodded. ‘But replayed backwards.’

Vanessa looked bewildered. ‘Gilbert, enlighten us.’

‘The theatre is designed to optimise the acoustics. Walls, balconies, seats, and even the pillars are made from materials that round and soften the words as they bounce around the auditorium. The materials also absorb some of the sound, tiny layer upon tiny layer.

‘Until a few months ago there were only rehearsals in the morning and performances in the evening. Then late night and afternoon cinema sessions were introduced.

‘With constant noise in the theatre the surfaces became clogged with sound and stopped working for us. Judith said we sounded unusually brittle and angular.

‘No wonder we had poor reviews. When the theatre is quiet, the sound is released back into the silence. Our theatre ghosts are the soundtracks of recent events but played backwards.’

‘So what’s the answer?’ Judith asked.

Gilbert paused. ‘If you want the magic of the theatre to return, I propose you drop the afternoon cinema session and allow the theatre some peace and quiet.’

As well as being part of PWH, novice writer Keith Baker is a member of Writers @ Lovedean. The writing group meets every Friday at 10am at Lovedean Village Hall. For more information, visit thewriterslovedean.co.uk.

Send your short story to the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub via e-mail at hubinthenews@gmail.com. For more information check out the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub on Facebook.