Authors: Sarah Rayne
HE TARLETON MUSIC
Hall was the ugliest building Robert Fallon had ever seen, and he fell instantly and overwhelmingly in love with it.
âSince you're the enthusiast when it comes to the old stuff, you'd better deal with this one,' the senior partner of his firm had said, three days earlier. âIt's a disused theatre in Bankside and it's just come under this new government directive about stricter monitoring of old buildings, so a full survey's wanted. Nobody seems to know when it was built, but apparently it closed down in 1914 and never reopened. It's regarded as a bit of a mystery locally, I think.'
âHowever mysterious it is, if it's been empty since 1914 it'll probably be in a disgusting condition,' said Robert. But he was pleased at the prospect of carrying out a survey in that part of London; he liked Bankside and Southwark with their echoes of Elizabethan theatre, and he liked seeing the newly renovated Globe and the Rose.
He collected the keys from the managing agents who were called the Harlequin Society and who provided him with helpful directions, managed to park his car near Burbage Street where the Tarleton was and, with the sounds of the river on his left, walked along the street. Halfway along there it was: the exuberantly ugly Tarleton Music Hall.
It was surrounded by buildings whose original purposes had long since become blurred or lost altogether, but Robert hardly saw them and he barely heard the roar of the traffic which thrummed along streets built by people who had never envisaged the internal combustion engine. He stared up at the peeling facade and the chipped stonework and was vividly aware of two emotions, both wildly different. The first was dismay at the enormity of the task ahead of him. The interior of this building would probably be divided and sub-divided, and rooms would be partitioned haphazardly with no regard to proportion or logic, let alone building regulations. There would be several kinds of dry and wet rot, rampant timber infestation and miles of ancient lead pipework. The walls would be festooned with rusting gas mantles, which meant Robert would have to track down defunct gas inlets and outlets, and if there did happen to be any electrical wiring it would date back to the coronation of George V, if not Edward VII. Once he got inside, he would have to test each step he took because the floor joists would be powdery with wood-worm and likely to collapse under him.
But none of this mattered because the second emotion was an instant and unreasoning passion for this tattered old music hall.
He resolutely quelled both sentiments and went along the little alleyway at the side, which was called Platt's Alley. It had begun to rain and the cobblestones were shiny and slippery. The old stage door was at the very end. Robert reached for the keys in his jacket pocket, then paused to read the inscription carved into the stone lintel over the door. It was worn, but still legible: âPlease one and please all, be they great, be they small'. He did not recognize the quote, but it was so completely appropriate for a theatre that he smiled and stopped minding about the complexity of the work ahead of him. Unlocking the stage door, he stepped inside, and the scents of dust, old timber and sheer age closed about him.
The electricity had not been switched on, but he had brought strong torches and battery-powered lamps on stands which he set up at strategic points. This took quite a while, and several times he found himself looking over his shoulder because he had a definite feeling of being watched. He didn't think it was a living person who watched; just the lingering memories of the people who had stood on this stage and told jokes, sung songs, juggled, danced or recited monologues. After the first few moments he did not mind; it was not a threatening feeling, in fact it was rather friendly.
He set the last of his lights in place, then began to work systematically through the building, making careful notes as he went. It was a remarkable old building. There was some surface dilapidationâseveral patches of damp suggested gutters needed attention, there was wet rot in the supper-room floor, and the electrical wiring was certainly dangerousâbut other than this, the building was amazingly sound. It was almost as if the whole place had been trapped in its own little pocket of time, or as if a glaze of amber had been spread over it. Robert had checked several old maps of the area: the Tarleton was shown on one dated 1850, and he was inclined to think it had been built around 1830. His partner regarded this kind of research as unnecessaryâtoo much attention to detail, he always saidâbut Robert liked detail and he thought a property's history could provide valuable clues.
Whatever the theatre's true age, by the end of that first day he had identified several building styles and materials from different eras. In most cases these could be explained: a buttress shoring up a dubious section of the ceiling of the upper circleâprobably put there towards the end of the nineteenth centuryâand a false floor in what he thought was the old green room, most likely meant to strengthen sagging joists. But when he began his examination of the subterranean levels he came across something for which he could find no logical explanation.
Near the old doorkeeper's room on the Platt's Alley side was a small passage leading off at right angles, and at the end of this passage was a thick oak door, black with age. Robert opened it warily, wincing as the hinges shrieked in rusty protest, and pushed it back against the wall. Immediately inside was a flight of stone steps. He shone his torch cautiously, then went down them. The walls were of old London brick, crusted with grime, and Robert, who did not normally mind cellars which were an inevitable part of his work, was uncomfortably aware of the tons of brick and timber above him. The smell of dirt was almost overpowering.
At the foot of the steps was a very large room. The tape showed it to be thirty feet long and Robert thought it was directly beneath the front of the auditorium and part of the stage. He moved the torch round, picking out shadowy outlines of old canvas flats and odds and ends of furniture: broken-backed chairs and tables. Against one wall were three wicker skips containing lengths of brocade and velvet, probably once stage costumes or curtains. They were faded to an indeterminate grey and smelt dreadful. Robert thought them rather sad, because it was as if the real costumes and curtains had gone and left these ghosts in their place.
Mingling with the stench of dirt was an ominous dank aura. Sewage spillage? Robert frowned, trying to fix the Tarleton's position in relation to the Thames and the old sluice gates. He would check the maps when he got back to his office, but he thought there was a disused pumping station in Candle Square.
But whether or not there had been seepage coming in from London's old drainage system, at some time in the Tarleton's historyâsometime long after its original constructionâsomeone had built an extra brick wall, spanning the entire width of the cellars. Robert brushed the cobwebs away and shone the torch over the wall's surface, frowning because it was so obviously of a later construction than the rest of the building: the bricks were machine-made, and the wall was so crazily out of true it had the effect of distorting the whole room. Whoever had built it had either been very unskilled orâ
Or had built it in a very great hurry.
Robert considered the wall. Surely this was not going to be the classic scenario of a crumbling body behind a hastily built wall? Some ancient murder discovered a century after it had been committed? It was unlikely. But why would such a wall be built down here? Clearly it was not intended to shore up what was overhead. If the foundations had needed strengthening, steel struts would have been put in or, in an extreme case, cement pumped in to fill up these rooms. No one in his right mind would have built this amateurish wall.
But perhaps it was someone who was not in his right mind, said a voice inside Robert's head. Have you thought of that?
He pushed this unpleasant idea away and shone the torch onto the upper sections. The wall bisected several ceiling joists which confirmed it had originally been one long room and this wall had partitioned it. So what was in the other part? What was on the other side? Robert spread out the ground plan he had made. As far as he could tell, there was quite a large space on the other side of this odd wall, including the under-stage void. That definitely ruled out any strengthening of the foundations. And if the under-stage area really was on the other side, there would have to be another means of access somewhere in the theatre.
He went back up the stairs, closing the oak door, and crossed the foyer into the auditorium, his footsteps echoing in the emptiness. The stage had shallow steps on one side. Robert went up these, and began to search for access to the under-stage area. But although he checked and re-checked every nook and cranny, he could not find one: there were no doors, no flaps or hatches, no extra passageways or tucked-away stairs. But there must be a way down there, because the stage had the outlines of what looked like an old trap. He had researched this as well. Most theatres had apparently had at least one of these contrivances, mostly used for melodrama and pantomime. Victims of Sweeney Todd's chair would have plunged down into the pie-making factory by this route. Demon kings and genii of the lamp would have used it as well. Robert smiled at his own childhood memories of wildly fantastical figures projected abruptly upwards, bathed in fiendish crimson or poisonous green light. Mechanical magic by the light of the limes. Taken to theatres as a child, he had exasperated his parents, who had not bargained for a son who came home from a pantomime and requested drawing paper and sharp pencils to work out how Captain Hook sailed across Never-Never Land.
The Tarleton's stage trap was rectangular: roughly six feet in length and three feet across, and Robert thought it was what was called a grave trap. According to the sources he had consulted, it owed its name to the graveyard scene in
. Had they been foolproof, these devices, or had it been a case of âHamlet, I am thy father's ghost doomed to walk the earthâ Hell's teeth, the stage manager's forgotten to oil the hinges and I'm stuckâ¦'
The traps had worked on the principle of a frame of four uprights, with a floor inside which could be moved up and down, rather like a lift shaft. When in place, the floor of the trap was flush with the stage; when it was winched down, with the actor standing or lying on it, it would leave a deep openingâpresumably the actors had to avoid the hole until the floor was brought back up.
A section of wood had been hammered down over the trap and Robert knelt down to examine it. The wood was an irregular shape and the whole thing was clumsily done. The nails were ill-matched, several of the heads were broken off and Robert had the impression that whoever had done it either had not been used to this kind of job or had had to do it in a hurry. He remembered again the amateurish brickwork in the underground room.
In an empty theatre it was probably a sound safety measure to seal up the trap, but Robert found himself thinking that at some time, someone in this theatre had wanted to be very sure that the under-stage was completely sealed off. Why? Would the Harlequin Society be able to tell him? How comprehensive was their brief in regard to this place? He wondered who the owner was, and why heâor sheâhad let the theatre stand empty for so long. Bit of a mystery, Robert's partner had said about the Tarleton: closed down in 1914 and never reopened. Robert had supposed the outbreak of the first world war was the reason for the original closure, but it was still odd that it had stayed closed for so long.