Maskerade Page 18


'Are they capable of playing?'

'They never have been, so I don't see why they should start now,' said Salzella. 'They're musicians, Bucket. The only way a dead body would upset them is if it fell in their beer, and even then they'd play if you offered them Dead Body Money.' Bucket walked over to the recumbent Christine. 'How is she?'

'She keeps mumbling a bit-' Agnes began. 'Cup of tea? Tea? Cup of tea, anyone? Nothing nicer than a cup of tea, well, I tell a lie, but I see the couch is occupied, just my little joke, no offence meant, anyone for a nice cup of tea?'

Agnes looked around in horror. 'Well, I could certainly do with one,' said Bucket, with false joviality. 'How about you, miss?' Nanny winked at Agnes. 'Er. . .no, thank you. . . do you work here?' said Agnes. 'I'm just helping out for Mrs Plinge, who has been taken poorly,' said Nanny, giving her another wink. 'I'm Mrs Ogg. Don't mind me.' This seemed to satisfy Bucket, if only because random teadistributors represented the most minor of threats at this point. 'It's more like Grand Guignol than opera out there tonight,' said Nanny. She nudged Bucket. '

'S foreign for “blood all over the stage”,' she said helpfully. 'Really.'

'Yep. It means. . . Big Gignol.' Music started in the distance. 'That's the overture to Act Two,' said Bucket. 'Well, if Christine is still unwell, then. . .' He looked desperately at Agnes. Well, at a time like this people would understand. Agnes's chest swelled further with pride. 'Yes, Mr Bucket?'

'Perhaps we could find you a white-' Christine, her eyes still shut, raised her wrist to her forehead and groaned. 'Oh, dear, what happened?' Bucket knelt down instantly. 'Are you all right? You had a nasty shock! Do you think you could go on for the sake of your art and people not asking for their money back?' She gave him a brave smile. Unnecessarily brave, it seemed to Agnes. 'I can't disappoint the dear public!' she said. . 'Jolly good!' said Bucket. 'I should hurry on out there, then. Perdita will help you-won't you, Perdita?'

'Yes. Of course.'

'And you'll be in the chorus for the duet,' said Bucket. 'Nearby in the chorus.' Agnes sighed. 'Yes, I know. Come on, Christine.'

'Dear Perdita. . .' said Christine. Nanny watched them go. Then she said, 'I'll have that cup if you've finished with it.'

'Oh. Yes. Yes, it was very nice,' said Bucket. 'Er. . . I had a bit of an accident up at the Boxes,' said Nanny. Bucket clutched at his chest. 'How many died?'

'Oh, no one died, no one died. They got a bit damp because I spilled some champagne.' Bucket sagged with relief. 'Oh, I wouldn't worry about that,' he said. 'When I say spilled. . . I mean, it went on happening. . .' He waved her away. 'It cleans up well off the carpet,' he said. 'Does it stain ceilings?'

'Mrs. . . ?'

'Ogg., 'Please just go away.' Nanny nodded, gathered up the teacups and wandered out of the office. If no one questioned an old lady with a tray of tea, they certainly weren't bothered about one behind a pile of washing-up. Washing-up is a badge of membership anywhere. As far as Nanny Ogg was concerned, washing-up was also something that happened to other people, but she felt that it might be a good idea to stay in character. She found an alcove with a pump and a sink in it, rolled up her sleeves, and set to work. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. 'You shouldn't do that, you know,' said a voice. 'That's very unlucky.'

She glanced around at a stage-hand. 'What, washing-up causes seven years' bad luck?' she said. 'You were whistling.'

'Well? I always whistle when I'm thinkin'.'

'You shouldn't whistle on stage, I meant.' It's unlucky?'

'I suppose you could say that. We use whistle codes when we're shifting the scenery. Having a sack of sandbags land on you could be unlucky, I suppose.' Nanny glanced up. His gaze followed hers. just here the ceiling was about two feet away. 'It's just safest not to whistle,' the boy mumbled. 'I'll remember that,' said Nanny. 'No whistlin'. Interestin'. We do live and learn, don't we?' The curtain went up on Act Two. Nanny watched from the wings. The interesting thing was the way in which people contrived to keep one hand higher than their necks in case of accidents. There seemed to be far more salutes and waves and dramatic gestures than were strictly called for in the opera. She watched the duet between Iodine and Bufola, possibly the first in the history of the opera where both singers kept their eyes turned resolutely upwards. Nanny enjoyed music, as well. If music were the food of love, she was game for a sonata and chips at any time. But it was clear that the sparkle -had gone out of things tonight. She shook her head. A figure moved through the shadows behind her, and reached out. She turned, and looked at a fearsome face. 'Oh, hello, Esme. How did you get in?'

'You've still -got the tickets so I had to talk to the man on the door. But he'll be right as rain in a minute or two. What's been happening?'

'Well. . . the Duke's sung a long song to say that he must be going, and the Count has sung a song saying how nice it is in the springtime, and a dead body's fallen out of the ceiling.'

'That goes on a lot in opera, does it?'

'Shouldn't think so.'

'Ah. In the theatre, I've noticed, if you watch dead bodies long enough you can see them move.'

'Doubt if this one'll move. Strangled. Someone's murdering opera people. I bin chatting to the ballet girls.'

'Indeed?'

'It's this Ghost they're all talking about.'

'Hmm. Wears one of those black opera suits and a white mask?'

'How did you know that?' Granny looked smug. 'I mean, I can't imagine who'd want to murder opera people. . .' Nanny thought of the expression on Dame Timpani's face. 'Except p'raps other opera people. And p'raps the musicians. And some of the audience, p'raps.'

'I don't believe in ghosts,' said Granny firmly. 'Oh, Esme! You know I've got a dozen of 'em in my house!'

'Oh, I believe in ghosts,' said Granny. 'Sad things hangin' around goin' woogy woogy woogy. . . but I don't believe they kill people or use swords.' She walked away a little. 'There's too many ghosts here already.' Nanny kept quiet. It was best to do so when Granny was listening without using her ears.

'Gytha?'

'Yes, Esme?'

'What does “Bella Donna” mean?'

'It's the nobby name for Deadly Nightshade, Esme.'

'I thought so. Huh! The cheek of it!'

'Only, in opera, it means Beautiful Woman.'

'Really? Oh.' Granny's hand reached up and patted the iron-hard bun of her hair. 'Foolishness!' . . .he'd moved like music, like someone dancing to a rhythm inside his head. And his face for a moment in the moonlight was the skull of an angel. . . The duet got another standing ovation. Agnes faded gently back into the chorus. She had to do little else during the remainder of the act except dance, or at least move as rhythmically as she could, with the rest of the chorus during the Gypsy Fair, and listen to the Duke singing a song about how lovely the countryside was in summer. With an arm extended dramatically above his head. She kept peering into the wings. If Nanny Ogg was here then the other one would be around somewhere. She wished she'd never written those wretched letters home. Well. . . they wouldn't drag her back, no matter what they tried. . . * * * The remainder of the opera passed without anyone dying, except where the score required them to do so at some length. There was a minor upset when a member of the chorus was almost brained by a sandbag dislodged from a gantry by the stage-hands stationed there to prevent accidents. There was more applause at the end. Christine got most of it. And then the curtains closed. And opened and closed a few times as Christine took her bows. Agnes felt perhaps she took one more bow than the applause really justified. Perdita, looking out through her eyes, said: of course she did. And then they closed the curtains for the last time. The audience went home. From the wings, and up in the flies, the stagehands whistled their commands. Parts of the world vanished into the aerial darkness. Someone went round and put out most of the lights. Rising like a birthday cake, the chandelier was winched into its loft so that the candles could be snuffed. Then there were the footsteps of the men leaving the loft. . . Within twenty minutes of the last handclap of applause the auditorium was empty and dark, except for just a few lights. There was the clank of a bucket. Walter Plinge walked on to the stage, if such a word could be employed for his mode of progress. He moved like a puppet on elastic strings, so that it seemed only coincidentally that his feet touched the ground. Very slowly, and very conscientiously, he began to mop the stage. After a few minutes a shadow detached itself from the curtains and walked over to him. Walter looked down. 'Hello Mister Pussy Cat,' he said. Greebo rubbed against his legs. Cats have an instinct for anyone daft enough to give them food, and Walter certainly was well qualified. 'I shall go and find you some milk shall I Mister Cat?' Greebo purred like a thunderstorm.

Walking his strange walk, advancing only by averages, Walter disappeared into the wings. There were two dark figures sitting in the balcony. 'Sad,' said Nanny. 'He's got a good job in the warm and his mother keeps an eye on him,' said Granny. 'A lot of people fare worse.'

'Not a big future for him, though,' said Nanny. 'Not when you think about it.'

'There was a couple of cold potatoes and half a herring for their supper,' said Granny. 'Hardly a stick of furniture, too.'

'Shame.'

'Mind you, she's a little bit richer now,' Granny conceded. 'Especially if she sells all those knives and boots,' she added to herself. 'It's a cruel world for old ladies,' said Nanny, matriarch of a vast extended tribe and undisputed tyrant of half the Ramtops. 'Especially one as terrified as Mrs Phnge,' said Granny. 'Well, I'd be frightened too, if I was old and had Walter to think about.'

'I ain't talking about that, Gytha. I know about fear.'

'That's true,' said Nanny. 'Most of the people you meet are full of fear.'

'Mrs Phnge is living in fear,' said Granny, appearing not to hear this. 'Her mind is flat with it. She can't hardly think for the terror. I could feel it coming off of her like mist.'

'Why? Because of the Ghost?'

'I don't know yet. Not all of it, anyway. But I will find out.' Nanny fished in the recesses of her clothing. 'Fancy a drink?' she said. There was a muffled clink from somewhere in her petticoats. 'I got champagne, brandy and port. Also some nibbles and biscuits.'

'Gytha Ogg, I believe you are a thief,' said Granny. 'I ain't!' said Nanny, and added, with that grasp of advanced morality that comes naturally to a witch: 'Just because I occasionally technic'ly steal something, that doesn't make me a thief. I don't think thief.'

'Let's get back to Mrs Palm's.'

'All right,' said Nanny. 'But can we get something to eat first? I don't mind the cooking, but the grub there is a bit of an all-day breakfast, if you know what I mean. . .' There was a sound from the stage as they stood up. Walter had returned, followed by a slightly fatter Greebo. Oblivious to the watchers, he continued to mop the stage. 'First thing tomorrow,' said Granny, 'we'll go and see Mr Goatberger the Almanack man again. I've had time to think about what to do next. And then we're going to sort this out.' She glared at the innocent figure washing the stage arid said, under her breath: 'What is it you know, Walter Plinge? What is it you've seen?'

'Wasn't it amazing?!' said Christine, sitting up in bed. Her nightdress, Agnes had noted, was white. And extremely lacy. 'Yes, indeed,' said Agnes. 'Five curtain calls!! Mr Bucket says that's more than anyone's ever had since Dame Gigli!! I'm sure I won't be able to sleep for the excitement!!'

'So you just drink up that lovely hot milk drink I've done for us,' said Agnes. 'It took me ages to carry the saucepan up those stairs.'

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