“There is no backstage,” muttered the man in the pinstriped suit. Perhaps there was. Perhaps there was not. But the absence of the backstage allowed the theatre master to place all his cards on stage. There was always a solo performer. The show began when the seats were full. Sometimes, the show began past midnight on chilly winter nights. Other times the midday sun would peer through the cracks of the walls to join the spectacle.
The theatre had no name. You went in when you pleased. You left when you pleased. Dinner was free; always. The theatre master was known to be generous to his guests. Dinner was whatever you had been craving and more. Dinner was always a feast at the table of the man in the pinstriped suit.
You would know if you had been there. There were some regulars who were always the first to sit for dinner. Then there were the experimenters and passers-by. They would gasp and clap when they were required, and slip away just before it was time to join the feast. Some days, the table was big. Some days, the table was small. But there were always guests at the table of the man in the pinstriped suit. Many whispered that he was a proud and superstitious man who never allowed himself a meal on his own for fear that the spirits would mock the empty seats at his table.
He was all of them, that man. He was the host, the master and the performer. You might forget his face, but you’d never forget his theatre. It was wooden, dark and covered in dark velvet drapes that had seen better days. The seats were not covered in dust. But everything else was. Some said there was magic in the dust. Perhaps the theatre master kept it there on purpose. Every time he moved an inch on stage, or raised a prop, the dust would rise, along with it there would be a flicker of light that turned the entire scene from a simple gesture to an act of theatrical perfection.
They said the man lived for his audience. He loved the applause and the cheers more than anything in the world. He would do anything for a full house. Many recalled the time his wife had run away with a younger man, and the shows that followed featured the doll of a fat old woman who was made to flirt with the younger men in the audience. The spectators loved it and for many days, the theatre buzzed with the spirit of entertained guests. There was another time when one of his regulars was banned from future shows, and soon after, many spoke excitedly of the new mannequin that was strapped to a spinning wheel while the theatre master threw daggers at it. Anything and everything the man could procure would be included in the new comedy segment—his audience’s favourite part of the show. The man in the pinstriped suit was clearly quite a beloved figure in town. And he was ready to do just about anything to make sure it remained that way.
He was so immersed in his shows that he never really saw her there at first. Perhaps she had been there for days. He would never know. One day he finally noticed her. The little girl was different from everyone else. She came in barefoot with her long hair let down. She stood by the aisle, never sitting down. For the first few feasts the little girl was nowhere to be found. But the man was intrigued by her presence and invited her to stay for dinner that night.
The little girl had little to say but she ate like a starved soul. Many adults looked strangely at this child who came to attend the show without a chaperone, but the theatre master was not concerned with such silly thoughts.
“How long have you been here?” he asked his new guest, careful to keep his volume low so he wouldn’t scare her away.
“A few months,” she replied quietly. “I was here when you had the daggers and the spinning wheel. I also watched you play with an old female doll.”
The man laughed. “How come I have never seen you before?”
“Did you need to?” She asked.
The man laughed again. He was not sure how to reply to her. She was clearly not flattered by his attention, neither was she easy to impress. The food was probably the only thing that made her happy, and that bothered the man very much.
“What was your favourite show so far? You liked the spinning wheel, eh?”
“Well,” she looked thoughtful. “The spinning wheel was quite silly. I liked your shows when there were fewer chairs and you stood under the lights and talked about trifle matters.”
“Oh, really? So you did not like the wheel?”
“I do not like wheels,” the girl replied curtly. She left soon after.
The girl was there at almost all his shows. He introduced newer card tricks and disappearing birds. He did, however, make a note to never bring out the spinning wheel when she was around. Some days, the little girl clapped and laughed. The theatre master had never felt as successful as when he pleased his new-found critic.
“Say, little girl,” he said one day. “Tell me a little about yourself. What do you like to do?”
“I like to be barefoot,” she promptly replied.
“Yes, I can see that,” he said impatiently. “But what else? What makes you happy?”
“Food makes me happy,” she replied.
“I can see that too,” he snapped. “But what else?”
“I don’t know,” she frowned, picking up a large glass of water in her little hands. “Why do you ask?”
The theatre master leaned forward, one hand twirling his moustache. “You are a patron of my show. Would it not be fitting for me to know?”
The girl put down the glass and slipped out of her seat. “I do not see the relation at all, sir,” She answered. Without another word, she turned and left.
The theatre master made a note to make the best feasts he possibly could. He had a special seat for the little girl in the audience, even though she never sat down. And her seat at the table was always the one closest to her favourite dishes, for although it would not be fitting to have her sit next to him, it gave the man immense pleasure to see her thrilled at the spread before her.
“Why do you never go backstage?” The little girl asked one day.
The theatre master stayed quiet for a very long time. “Because it’s lonely there,” he finally replied.
“But isn’t it still there? You could keep all your props there and practice for your shows.”
The man shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me. You know my shows; my props are always thrown to the side and no one bothers about them.”
“Oh really?” The little girl narrowed her eyes and stared at the man. “Are you afraid of going backstage?”
The theatre master’s eyes widened for a short while before his face became angry. “Backstage? What backstage?” He cried. “My show has no backstage!”
“Yet you hide the spinning wheel and daggers there.”
“Pshaw!” the man spat. “Listen, girl. You don’t know what you speak of.”
The little girl looked rather undisturbed by his irritation. “Don’t I?” she asked the man before she left once more.
The man in the pinstriped suit was rather shaken. He did not enjoy being spoken to that way. It bothered him that the little girl was so unruffled at his outburst, and the way she looked him in the eye before she left made him feel bare and rather strange. The man hardly ever went backstage. It was very dark there, and there he only hid things he never wanted anyone else to see. It bothered him that the little girl who had not known him very long could see right through him.
The theatre was closed the next day. When the little girl had come for the show, the man screamed that there was no show, and that the entire theatre was backstage for the day. The day after, he felt rather guilty and opened the theatre again. The girl had a special seat to her name and a giant feast waiting for her. But she did not come.
Her absence destroyed the performance. The theatre master dropped the cards and could not swipe away the silk sheets with grace. “It’s all her fault,” he muttered throughout his performance, angered by his failure. Bitterness made him bring out the spinning wheel; however, lack of practice and anger made him miss the wheel altogether and hit a nearby wall. His audience still clapped but he noticed a decreasing number of people seated at the table for a feast that seemed too large. “All her fault,” he whispered once more before he took a seat with his guests.
The little girl was absent for many shows. The heavy curtains in the theatre began to look dull and the people did not seem interesting. Many guests began to complain that the hot food had gone cold and the cold food had gone warm. The man in the pinstriped suit paid little attention to them and often stared out of the lonely little window by his stage. The shows were no longer the talk of the town.
A local gentleman approached the theatre master one day. “I say, good man,” he said, putting a friendly hand on his shoulder. “All these shows must have tired you out. How about using something new in these shows of yours?” The gentleman was popular for playing the piano at local gatherings and was known to have a beautiful voice. The theatre master let the gentleman play a tune at the stage, and soon, the shows regained their former popularity.
It rained a lot that night, and the man in the pinstriped suit stood in front of the empty building without his hat or suit. Without the grandeur of the stage behind him, no one recognised the man in his plain white shirt, hair plastered to his face The shows were not on his mind for once. Somewhere in his mind, something had broken and he didn’t know how to fix it.
A faint sound of sobbing came to his ear, but the theatre master paid no heed. The sound didn’t die down, and he finally looked up to see a pair of bare feet, covered in bruises and mud, hiding in the shadows.
“Is that you, little girl?” he called out. Somewhere in the wails of the wind, a shaken “yes” came to him. “What are you doing there in the dark? Step into the light.”
The little girl stepped into the light and the man took a step back. She was covered in bruises and the side of her mouth was bleeding. But her eyes looked just the same.
“Are you never going to have your shows again?”
“Shows?” It took some time for the theatre master to realise that she may have seen the theatre closed for the past few days.
“No, no, the theatre is not closed, little girl. The shows begin at different times now.”
The little girl said nothing. The streetlight flickered. No cars passed by and it seemed that everyone had gone home. The world seemed to stand still on its tiptoes.
“What happens when we run out of words?” The little girl whispered into the wind.
“You walk away. And come back when you hear the call.”
“What about love?”
“Everyone is always in love,” he sighed. “Until they are not.”
The next morning, he cursed himself for not asking the girl what had happened to her. He could not. A part of him didn’t want to know. What could he do if he knew anyway? “Nothing I could have done,” he muttered to himself and went about his day. It was a nice morning. Sunlight poured through the little window on to the empty theatre stage. The man prepared his props and planned on making the next show his best. He hummed to the tune of his favourite song and laid out his cards on the stage table. Suddenly, a scream echoed into the hall from outside.
There was a giant ruckus outside his gates. People crowded around and the streets buzzed with the voices of a hundred people. “It’s dead!” someone exclaimed and the buzz grew louder. The theatre master opened his gates.
“What happened here?” He called out to the crowd.
Many gave him a sidelong glance but most people ignored him. Annoyed, the man pushed through the crowd to see the source of all the commotion. Later in life, he wished dearly that he had stayed by his doors instead.
It was the little girl. She lay on the grey stone sidewalk, turned at strange angles. The grey stones around her had turned into various shades of red, and chunks of her hair was missing. Her little fingers had turned blue from the cold, and her plain dress seemed to have gone through much abuse.
He never wanted to see her like that. Kneeling on the ground, he took her pulse. “She’s still alive, you fools!” He cried to the crowd. He wanted to scream and strangle each and every one of the stupid souls. They just watched the little girl lying on the ground, screaming amongst themselves, pretending as if they really cared. What was wrong with this world?
The little girl was never seen again. Some medics had come to take her away and that was the last anyone had ever heard of her. The shows continued but now there was a new addition to the stage. At the corner, propped by a chair, stood a stuffed toy. It was a little girl with bare feet and long, dark hair. She never had a turn at the shows and she never sat down. No one questioned her presence or hardly even noticed she was there.
It was a chilly evening when the man in the pinstriped suit decided to close the theatre early. All the props were put in their place and all the cards in their boxes. Everything, that is, except the stuffed toy. All the props stared at her with curious eyes.
“How come she is never taken off from the centre of the stage?” The old, female puppet called out into the darkness.
“When you believe something is the best thing that happened to you, you can’t it let go,” a voice answered.
It began to snow that night and the streets were soon covered in white. The moon was not visible and all the lights were out. All except for the lonely candle by the theatre master’s bed, who slept fitfully, muttering, “There is no backstage. There is no backstage.”