“You must be Pippa,” she said, holding out her hand.
I nodded, feeling shy for the first time in a while and shook her hand back. Hers was strong and vibrant.
She ushered me into the building and it was then that I knew I had passed the test. I was meant to come here.
Though falling apart on the outside, inside the theatre was opulent in a museum-type way. The halls had plush, dark green carpeting, creaky chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and tapestry paintings of classic performances and plays, from Roman theatre to Shakespeare, hung from the walls, competing for space with fading posters of shows long past. There was a staircase leading to the balcony level that had gold-glazed railings, that even though they were old and chipped, still gleamed like the heavens. The theater itself had rows of velvet and gold-trimmed seats in a deep, wood brown.
Then there was the stage. It wasn’t a big theatre but it was big enough for me. The red curtains were embroidered with metallic swirls and hung from the edges of the stage while ornate fixtures framed it from above. The stage was a worn wood that had seen decades of dancing feet. I immediately saw myself up there too, receiving red roses that were chucked from the crowd.
At that moment I knew I’d do anything to get the position but as fate would have it, I didn’t have to. I guess Lisbeth liked me or saw potential in me or perhaps took pity on me, but I was more or less hired on the spot. I would be starting in two days and would be in charge of makeup, wardrobe and cleaning on performance and rehearsal nights. I would also attend any cast and crew meetings that she would arrange. The pay wasn’t very much considering some days I’d be working every night and others I’d barley be working, but it was something and I would have been a fool to turn it down.
My luck improved later that night when one of the main actresses, Anne Todalen, made an appearance.
Anne was 22-years old and had been acting with the company since she was my age. She told me she finally worked her way up and this was the first year she was a featured player. She also told me that she was looking for a new roommate. Anne was renting a small apartment not far from my boarding house and said her previous roommate got married, leaving her unable to take care of the rent on her own. I assured her that I wouldn’t be getting married anytime soon.
“Sure, but look at you,” Anne said to me after we said our goodbyes to Lisbeth. “You’re beautiful. Once our actors get a glance at you, they’ll all be fighting for your hand.”
I laughed and blushed at the compliment as we made our way out of the theatre and into the September night. Being with Anne made me feel safe in the seedy area and what she had said tickled my fancy. Perhaps I would finally meet a man who I’d love in more than one way.
Anne wasn’t bad-looking herself. She had a face and body that was made for performing. She was tall and not reed thin, which was good for being seen on stage. She had a pretty face with a wide mouth and nose that was slightly too large, but paired with her sparkling eyes and high cheekbones, her parts created a sum that was just as intoxicating as her personality.
The next day I moved out of the boarding house and settled into a place that would become my home for the next five years.
Anne’s apartment was on the top floor of a white-washed building which was a real drag when you came home from shows absolutely exhausted but it was a place I loved to pieces. It was a tiny one-bedroom apartment with a shoebox bathroom and a balcony that only fit two chairs and no table. Some of my best memories were sitting on that tiny space during the summer and smoking cigarettes over beer and vodka as Anne and I watched the city wind down from another long day.
Because Anne had the bedroom to herself, I got the sofa in the living room. These were pre-Ikea times but us Swedes still knew about the “futon” before the rest of the world. It was comfortable enough and though I lacked privacy, I didn’t have to pay as much in rent. My salary barely allowed me to live as it was but Anne was paid more and was always generous with her budget. She would often cook on the days we had off and would make too much, so I had no choice but to help eat it. I knew she did this on purpose, so I didn’t feel bad about her charity, but the food was so good that I didn’t care. Besides, I knew it made her feel good to do things for me. Like me, she didn’t have the best upbringing either and we both leaned on each to replace that.
At first my job was extremely nerve-wracking. Back in the country, I never had a problem being loud and outspoken but in the theatre, I was in constant awe of everyone around me and constantly aware of how I didn’t measure up. From Anne, Marianne and Henri, to Frederick, our star player, to the supporting cast of Paula, Johanne, Vala and Peter, each actor was larger than life.
It should be noted that not everyone was as lovely as Anne, either. Frederick was a menace to me and to everyone around him. He was relatively famous in Sweden for his good “dark” looks (though to be honest, I think he resembled a monkey in a tuxedo) and over-the-top acting style and he never let anyone forget it, especially someone like me, who, as a cleaner was the lowest of the low. Every time I would do his makeup before a performance he’d ask if I had washed my hands and even when I said yes, he would make some comment on how no dirty housekeeper should be allowed to touch his face.
I wanted to slap him in his ape face, but of course I never did. I held in my feelings and harsh words and dealt with it. And with time I began to see how he would grate on everyone else’s nerves. He once refused a kissing scene with Anne because she smelled of herring. The remark was ridiculous because everyone in Sweden smells like herring.
Eventually though, my work got better as I settled into the role. I became less nervous about putting makeup on the actors and after a while, when we branched out onto more fantastical plays, I was able to do some really creative artwork with my makeup. Clowns, fairies, witches, starlets – I was able to do a range of looks from just my own imagination. The clothes became more interesting too and I quickly taught myself how to sew in my spare time. Before I knew it, I was making clothes for the cast - as well as myself. Another way your frugal Pippa was able to pinch pennies.
It was as my career was getting more fluid and comfortable though, that other parts of my life were getting…strange.
One night I was cleaning up after a performance. It had been a particularly tiring night with everything going wrong. The stage scenery had fallen during a scene, Paula fell and hurt her ankle during a dance routine and had to be replaced by Anne’s understudy. There was a snowstorm outside and only half the theatre was full. By the time everyone was done, they just wanted to go home. I told Anne to go on right ahead and not wait for me. She was exhausted from performing five days in a row and in pain and I had at least an hour of cleaning up to do. I told her I’d take a cab home, a necessary expense sometimes and especially when the weather was foul.
I was sweeping the floor in between the seats when I heard a peculiar laugh fill the theatre. My heart stopped and I listened with my ear cocked. Everyone had gone home, hadn’t they? Perhaps one of the actors was still hanging about.
I looked around but couldn’t see anyone.
“Hello?” I called out. I waited for a few tense moments then shook my head and resumed sweeping. Sometimes, when I particularly tired, my eyes and ears played tricks on me.
Then I heard the laugh again, followed by a thump-thump of wood. I flung my head in the direction of the stage and gasped.
There was a teenage boy sitting on the edge of the stage, his long legs kicking up and down against the side.
“Can I help you?” I called out, squinting at him to get a better look.
He wasn’t one of the actors but he could have been a patron who fell asleep on the balcony or something of that nature. He was wiry and tall with a shock of red hair and a freckled face. He wore a huge grin, like he was enjoying himself as he watched me clean, like that was the greatest entertainment on the planet.
He didn’t answer but I wasn’t about to be intimidated by someone who looked at least a couple of years younger than me. Still, I clutched the broom hard in my hand as I walked over to the aisle and slowly made my way toward him.
I noticed then that he was holding an apple in his hands. Its shiny red color flashed as he quickly spun it around. He had on leather shoes, shortened pants and suspenders over a dirty white shirt. A newsboy cap sat on his head. It was not the style of our times. He looked like he had just come out of an orphanage with only used clothes from yesteryear on his back.
Still, he continued to grin at me. It began to unsettle me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He tossed the apple up in the air and caught it just as he jumped off the stage. I staggered a few steps back, not wanting him to get too close to me. Up close he wasn’t as tall as I thought, just long-legged, but I felt uneasy around the stranger and probably because he was a stranger.
“Jakob,” he said, holding out one hand for me. “Pleased to meet you.”
I eyed his hand, wondering if I should shake it or not. I then looked to his eyes. They were a strange grey color, as if they had no color at all and there was no discernible ring around his iris. The grey just sort of bled out into the white of the eye, creating a marble statue effect.
Somehow, as I was lost in those strange eyes, I found my hand in his. He pumped it twice, firmly, then dropped it to his side.
“I’m…” I said, then stopped myself. Was it safe to reveal my name?
“You’re Pippa,” he said. He smiled and took a huge bite of his apple.
“How did you know my name?” I asked, startled.
He shrugged and looked around him. “I know a lot of things. Not a very good gig, is it?”
I was still wondering about my name, so it took me a second to realize he was pitying me.
“It is what it is,” I said haughtily and the grip on my broom tightened.
He shrugged again, chomped on the apple and walked past me, sauntering up the aisle to where I was earlier.
“Well I won’t keep you,” he said over his shoulder.
I hurried on after him. “Where did you come from? How did you get in here?”
He raised his shoulder, about to shrug once more, but I took my broom and poked him square in the back. Hard.
“Ow,” he cried out and turned around. A piece of apple shot out of his mouth and landed at my feet. I hated knowing I’d clean it up later.
“Tell me how you got in here or I’ll report you to the police!” I kept the broom in front of him, wielding it like a sword.
“I’m always here Pippa. You’re not very observant, you know. Your head is in dreamland.”
What on earth did that mean?
He read the confused expression my face and put his hand out, lowering the broom. He had this way about him that was almost hypnotic, like he had some spell over me that went in and out of range.
“I’m here to help you. And calling the police would do no good.”
“Help me?” This was starting to feel as outlandish as one of the plays we put on.
“You’ll see. When you’re ready.”
And then he walked out into the foyer and through the front door. A gust of white snow blew in and danced in the air as the door closed behind him.
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