The Little Shadows - By Marina Endicott



Doing It in One


The Empress, Fort Macleod

We usually select a ‘dumb act’ for the first act on the bill—makes a good impression and will not be spoiled by late arrivals. A song-and-dance turn, a sister act, or any other little act that does not depend upon its words being heard.


‘Keep moving,’ Mama told them. ‘You will only be cold if you are slow, and we must get on. He won’t wait.’

So they went quickly over the half-frozen field, in gritty snow that crunched underfoot but stung on their cheeks, and rubbed like sand between their hats and collars. Three girls in a row behind one round-bundled woman, who bent to the wind and made good headway on short, flicking legs. Aurora slid between snowbursts, smooth-sailing as a swan over a white lake. Bella was the smallest, hurrying to warm her hand by tucking it into Mama’s pocket; Clover behind them, slowest and least desirous of their destination.

Everything in the little town was whirling and bright, late-afternoon whiteness unusual here where it did not snow deeply, being too far west into desert. But they could see through the squall the brick building of the Empress Theatre, and the black frame around its door, and the white placard tacked up on the door:


And now they could hear a plink-plink-plink timpani of notes with depth removed by distance, and a soaring, scooping voice doing arpeggios. Aurora felt her own voicebox contracting in time, one octave up, tenor to soprano, reaching and then cascading down.

The door stuck—jammed—and their mama jerked her head so someone would help her pull. Bella did (no glove to soil, her right-hand one gone missing that morning and nothing for it but to keep her hand in her pocket, or in Mama’s) and then Clover too. They yanked off-time—then again, together, and the door burst open. They fell back, then moved forward into a blur of darkness and warmth, with somewhere in the distance red velvet and those arpeggios, very much louder now. Inside, a lobby gradually framed itself for their dazzled eyes, and a lighter square, two doors standing open into the theatre hall. An old scrubwoman, busy on the floor, grabbed her bucket away from their clumsy boots. Bella whispered an apology; after one glare the woman let her by and went back to her scrubbing.

Now that they stood still, the lobby was cold too. A little warmth curled out of the open doors, so the girls pressed their mother forward again, stepping quietly this time, Aurora’s new boots almost skating over the glossy floorboards, to look through into the theatre.

It looked much larger inside. The space opened up and out—high, high ceiling with a silver sheen even in this low light. The walls were pressed tin too, but painted flat gold, so that it took a moment to make sense of the play of light and dark on the ornate lozenge patterns. The chairs had been pushed to the sides for floor-sweeping, topped by a tumbled mass of velvet cushions.

One skinny boy with a broom stood looking up at the stage: an eight-foot butte of bare boards, the frankly false proscenium decked out with advertisements in florid fancy scripts. Silver-shelled footlights dotted around the curve.

Up on the stage people were shifting furniture, moving carpets and hauling ropes. A man in a bright yellow waistcoat shouted down to the boy to make speed, and he dodged to the right of the stage and up, broom flying ahead of him like the flag Excelsior.

The scenery flats had been hiked high into the rafters and the curtains drawn as far open as they would go; the stage was bald. At the rim of the stage an elegant young man stood beside the piano, one arm laid along it while he sang. A small squirrelly fellow played for him, very flourishingly as to the notes but no folderol in his face.

The smell was port wine and dirt, velvet, greasesticks. And ashes, a frightening smell in a theatre. It was cold in here too—everywhere seemed like it would be warm, and then was not. Not till nighttime. Then the heat of bodies would help, when this whole space would be filled with breathing, laughing, sighing people crammed in side-by-each, all waiting and waiting for some beauty, some moment of transport.

Finished, the elegant gent bowed to the squirrel, received back his music, and took himself off smartly to the left, his top hat rolling down his arm and