My November entry for Furious Fiction had to include the following: someone PACKING A SUITCASE, the phrase “ACROSS A CROWDED ROOM” and the words CHARM, CRUSH and FAINT.
It was just me in Row H, up towards the back of the circle in seat 10. The bell hurries those sipping drinks in the bar and the stragglers sucking in those last drags outside, crushing butts beneath polished shoes.
Men in sports jackets and women wearing floaty floral dresses and pants suits file in, escorted to their plush seats by ushers. Lights dim, the chime stops, and I settle in when I see a familiar figure stumbling up the carpeted steps towards me.
George, my charmless, unkempt colleague, side steps along my row and flops next to me. The seat groans as he repositions himself, a waft of body odour and hops assaulting my senses.
“Ay, how’s you?” his crooked teeth faintly visible as he grins. “How cool is this, gettin’ to see a show fuh free?”
“Yes, it was very nice to be given a complimentary ticket. I haven’t been to the theatre in such a long time. I’m really looking forward to this,” I smile and turn my body away.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be bonza!”
“Shh,” the old woman sitting in front scowls, making me giggle.
“That’s our cue to be quiet,” I whisper, resuming my previous position.
Red velvet curtains part to reveal a lanky teenage boy standing side-on, forlornly packing a beaten brown suitcase on a bed. A woman enters, holding a knitted jumper in one palm, with a dog-eared book and a package tied with twine underneath her other hand. She passes these items to the boy. He adds them to the case, pushes the lid down and clips it closed. They hug as the curtain falls.
A single light shines on the boy standing alone on the stage, battered suitcase at his feet. He puts his hand to his forehead and leans forward, as if searching for something – or someone – from across a crowded room. Smiling now, he picks up the suitcase and runs towards the front edge, then into the wings.
A crowd fills the stage, some people chatting in groups, others walking from one side to the other, a couple studying a map and four forming a queue at a ticket booth. The boy with the suitcase enters, but I’m distracted by a sharp wheeze in the next row. Puzzled, I lean forward to ask if the older couple in front are alright and see the cranky woman choking.
George is already at the end of the row and headed towards the woman. The whites of her eyes are visible as she stands, struggling for breath. Fear cloaks the circle. He grabs her by the shoulders, spins her around and pulls her slight body back towards his chest.
A set of dentures fly from her mouth. She breathes in deeply, turns and flops into George’s arms. He manoeuvres her back into the seat.
“Thank you,” she croaks.
“All good ma’am,” he says, patting her hand. “A free show and a Heimlich! What a night,” he winks at me.