Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This time, a struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
His life, until now, has been a tangled stream of successes, failures and inevitabilities; a prodigal son, born into a semi-wealthy family; the kind of family that somewhat resentfully deems itself upper middle-class. The kind of family in which the mother resignedly allows herself to slip into the role of ‘wife and mother’, tentatively slipping off the job title she possessed during the haze of her twenties; the kind of family in which the father talks ambiguously of work, the pressures of which keep him confined in the office until late; the kind of father that has two mobile phones. This family is a cliché.
An only child, content with his own company and familiar with lonely walks through autumn leaves. This is Mark. When Mark was ten, he was already a teenager; during his A-Levels, he was thinking of mortgages. Allow Mark to be your protagonist. Try to let Mark take on the role you so desperately want him to fulfill.
This was Charlie Marsh’s life. For seven evenings and one afternoon every week, Charlie became Mark, “a cruel and dangerously compelling character, that manipulates and captivates his audience” (London Evening Newspaper). After seventy-five performances (seventy-six after that evening), Charlie was able to seamlessly and silently recite the narrative that accompanied the opening scene and, leaving behind his concealed position in the wings, take up his station in the centre of the stage.
“I am not likeable.” Mark recites, a deliberate veneer of menace apparent on his pale face. “I’m not an endearing protagonist. I fulfill a role, just like you; just like the owner of the shop around the corner; just like the cabbie that drove you to that interview that time. Everyone has a place and everyone has a role — the ‘goodies’, the ‘baddies’ and those oh-so tragic victims that we love to pity. I am not a victim. I like to hurt people.
Smiling inwardly at the audience’s unease, Mark continued. “I like to hurt people because I can. I have a desire to cause pain. I have hurt over seventy people, killed one hundred and been punished for none of these crimes. I am, what your police like to call, a ‘seasoned and cold-blooded killer’.
Tonight’s audience, just like the seventy-five that preceded it, shuffled uncomfortably in their seats, unpleasantly tantalised by this façade of danger. Mark slipped silently from the stage.
In the wings, Mark was lost and life was breathed once again into Charlie Marsh. Poor Charlie Marsh. Not a “prodigal son” and certainly not “born into a semi-wealthy family”, Charlie had spent the autumn of his twenties scouring the free papers for acting roles.
“We don’t have anything suitable at the moment, I’m afraid.”
Countless times, Charlie had sighed as he hung up his phone, disheartened and with the unpleasant recollection of his diminishing bank balance now, even more prominent.
This morning, Charlie had looked in the small, rectangular mirror over the sink in his white and functional bathroom.
“Describe yourself in three words” had been one of the questions directed at poor Charlie as he tussled with composure during his thirteenth phone interview.
Charlie studied his pale reflection; his dark, loosely curled hair; his angular and not-without-charm cheekbones. Then, with another sigh, the lines embedding themselves defiantly in his forehead, the yellow stains gradually bleeding across his front teeth (an unpleasant reminder of his failed resolution to “quit for good this year”).
“Describe yourself in three words.” Charlie repeated aloud. “Nothing-to-lose” and, with a brazen two-fingers-up at The Resolution, he lit a cigarette and slammed the door.
“I always miss the applause,” Charlie whispered to no one in particular. From his concealed position in the wings, Charlie could feel the audience’s gratification and approval as the play’s denouement determined Mark’s downfall and the victory of Mr. Good Guy. With Mark off-stage, supposedly defeated, Mr. Good Guy stood, angelic under a beam of white light, announcing the “triumph of good over evil” and applauding the police’s “success and courage in these dark times”.
“I always miss the applause,” Charlie repeated. With this morning’s nicotine now barely impacting his blood stream, he slipped away. Once again, unnoticed; once again, poor Charlie Marsh.
His newly awakened senses noticed the lady and the pram as he crossed Henrietta Street. The lady, young, heeled and business-like, had her back turned (just for a minute, honestly) away from the pram and was busying herself with the cash machine’s illuminated key pad. Charlie, once again unnoticed in the shadows, shuffled past, his camel duffle coat defending his thin frame against the November night.
“Oh Jesus, my baby!” A scream lit up the darkened street. Pedestrians stopped their commute, couples unlinked their hands, Henrietta Street watched as baby and pram rolled rebelliously into the road. Of course, a cab was coming, speeding probably. Illuminated and predatory, the cab drew closer, the navy pram all but invisible to its poor, heedless driver. The lady, presumably rendered immobile by terror, or grief, probably both, continued to scream, painfully and piercingly from the pavement.
“Hang on!” A voice called and a man doubled back, sprinting, from his statutory position just a little further along the pavement. Our Hero, attempting what none of the frozen onlookers deemed possible, pounced fearlessly into the path of the (still–ignorant-to-the-imminent-hazard) taxi, grappled with the pram and scooped up the baby, emerging breathlessly to the sound of gratitude (from the mother) and applause (from the mesmerized crowd).
“Oh my goodness, I can’t thank you enough!” The mother exclaims as the mystified baby is returned to her outstretched arms. “At least tell me your name?”
“Mark. My name is Mark.”
As he walked away, the stunned audience thought they heard the whispers of the sound of the sentence “I always miss the applause”.
We’re still after your stories based on London at Night, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.