In fairness, I hadn’t had a drink on the way there so this story shouldn’t really qualify.
I was still relatively junior at the Theatre Company but I had been selected to work on the first major event for some time with The Patron at their Country House. The jockeying and cajoling that had been going on in the months prior to secure individuals’ places on the rosta (working, performing or attending) had been quite something to behold. But somehow I had found my way towards the front of the queue.
Individuals who had previously declared themselves to be meritocratic lefties had all of a sudden been revealed as swooning acolytes, bewitched at the trappings of privilege and yearning to brush shoulders with the rouched aspects of countrified aristocracy and thus gain some respectability by association.
The principal jockeyists were The Friends Manager and The Company Manager. Two ladies of a certain age who had, for the last year, eyed me with the degree of uninterested but clearly active disdain that they reserved for junior members of staff who were most certainly, in their eyes, just passing though (at least in comparison to their own long-standing commitment to the company – a commitment that was not, it turned out, to be reciprocated at the next round of redundancies).
The Friends Manager was an ex Deputy Stage Manager who had been prematurely retired from Prompt Corner due, in a large part, to her puffing-faced obesity. The Company Manager was a cropped-haired singleton whose only declared interests in members of the opposite sex were restricted to The Patron and Cliff Richard.
But it was The Posh Boy who was in charge of proceedings. Our new Campaign Manager who had been hired to kick-start a long-delayed capital programme and who had been selected for his tousle-haired and olive-skinned good looks. Such was his influence in his latter-dayed consultancy period on the overly-hormoned members of the fundraising classes, he was dubbed ‘Jesus’ – something, I’m sure, to do with his ever-flowing locks and his seemingly-miraculous results on organisations’ coffers.
The Posh Boy had spent weeks seconded in the Deputy Artistic Director’s office as they devised a suitable entertainment for the occasion – something that was going to turn out to be little more than some under-rehearsed verse readings on an elaborate set evoking a particular corner of The Patron’s garden but with an extra contingent of over-sized flower pots, stacked in a manner that made them look like Bill and Ben after a particularly violent and mutually-damaging fight.
Little attention had been given to the VIP end of the guest list. The process consisted of The Vice President being in cahoots with the Patron’s office on the usual, boring subject of whether the issue of fundraising was too much of a vulgarity for the occasion. Thus the usual array of overly-entitled ex-performers and ex-donors was assembled.
The journey to the Country House was conducted, company-wise, in a rather crappy coach – all frayed and greyingly-worn seventies seat covers and a back row loo that could be smelt from the car in front. The actors and administrators were nervously jocular and every other joke was delivered on the theme of how out-moded fawning over patriarchal patrons actually was. The Company Manager and Friends Manager were side by side in the front row, silently trying not to crack the layers of makeup that had been inexpertly applied for the event.
The Posh Boy met us on arrival with the air of someone who was supremely used to finding himself in such surroundings. The rumour quickly circulated that he had, in fact, stayed over the prior night. We were dispatched to a converted barn that was to serve as reception space, performance space, dressing room and holding pen for the rest of the day and evening. The ‘big house’ could be seen at the very top of a long hill far away. The ‘At Home with The Patron’ moniker quickly started to feel a little like something for the advertising standards people.
A hush quickly descended upon the group as we awaited the Aristocratic Entrance. Esteemed guests had also started to arrive in everything from clapped-out vintage cars through to, in one instance, a helicopter. Most of them kept their distance from the scruffy-shoed artists whilst one or two came forward to awkwardly ask questions about the latest production of Anthony and Cleopatra and whether the leading lady had quite recovered from the surreptitious pictures of her nude scene that had appeared in the Daily Mail.
I had been handed a clipboard and was doing a terrible through to non-existent job of checking off attendees. The Friends Manager was to my left hand side, breathing heavily and not helping.
“Hello Darling”, said the Aide of the Patron as he entered with a swoosh. “Are we all set?”. He was addressing The Posh Boy who appeared to be his new best friend but who was clearly, for the first time, a little unnerved by the new arrival’s exceptionally thrusting manner and confidence.
“Christ alive. What’s that?” he said, on spotting The Friends Manager. He was still addressing The Posh Boy but could be heard by anyone within a painfully small radius. The Friends Manager stopped breathing whilst a slightly more muttered debate ensued. The Aide was using words such as “grotesque” and “fat” whilst The Posh Boy was using ones such as “valued member of staff”.
The Friends Manager had still not breathed.
The Aide rolled his eyes strainingly as he swooshed out again, stopping to pinch every vein of his face in mine and the Friends Managers’ directions whilst doing so.
“Garden Tour everyone”, The Posh Boy falteringly called, a little flush-faced and less confident-looking than before.
The Patron finally made an appearance directly prior to the performance, the fake-informality of the occasion falling as squarely on its backside as The Patron’s did on something approximating a throne that had been placed in the front row of a seating arrangement that was made up, in the remainder, with plastic chairs. The Posh Boy was summoned to sit next to him and everyone else did a terrible job at (not) informally and (not) casually arranging themselves around them.
The poorly-rehearsed verse reading went as butt-clenchingly badly as you could expect from two ‘stock’ actors who had been cast on the basis of their availability and their willingness to do it for free. The Company Manager had placed herself directly behind The Patron and knowingly and loudly laughed at all the obscure puns in the hope that The Patron would notice her and refer to the time three years ago when she had helped him with the coatrail after a performance of Bartholomew Fair. He didn’t.
I was sat between The Friends Manager and The Company Manager at dinner where they proceeded to get utterly shitfaced and compete with each other, across me, on the subject of their exchanges with The Patron. None of either of their stories seemed to involve The Patron actually talking to them or even looking at them. But their belief in their life-long bond with Him was immovable – even moreso after the sixth glass of organic red wine that was accompanying dinner. In fairness to my theme, I had joined in with drinking the slightly-chilled red, but my relative inexperience at this point in time was making me feel a little empty-gutted.
A weird hush descended upon the other end of the room after an hour or so. A ripple of overly-noisy movement and scraping of chairs seemed to be accompanying the arrival of the hush, in tandem. People were starting to stand, in waves, as The Patron passed through, clearly done with proceedings and off to bed. He was heading our way. The Friends Manager stopped breathing again. The Company Manager was starting to breath at a rate that risked hyperventilation-related fainting.
The Patron paused near to the three of us with a look on his face that suggested he had smelt something triggering from his past, and he kept on walking. The Aide was close behind and on arriving near to us adopted a look that confirmed that the smell was either us or in fact the drains. He audibly uttered an “Ugh” on seeing The Friends Manager and kept close to his master.
“Oh. Oh. Oh,’ gasped The Company Manager.
Oh Fuck, she’s having some sort of fit, I thought.
“Oh Cliff”, she finally breathed, clearly confusing which of the two men in her life she had swooned over tonight.