The first time they got a flyer into his hand he was passing the Pleasance Dome.
It was early afternoon. Fringegoers and flyerers were bouncing off each other like red and white blood cells inside a pandemonious vein. It was normally impossible for anyone to get a flyer into the hand of Freddy Youssoupoff and make it stick. Yet even after this flyer had been successfully fastened to him, he remained doubtful that the man had been really a flyerer or that the rectangle of shiny cardboard was a real flyer.
The man had been in his late fifties, with a gloomy face and shaggy black eyebrows. He had been wrapped in one of those vintage raincoats or overcoats that appear to be made of parchment. Three greyhounds on leads had surrounded him, each of them tucked carefully into a coat with a number on it. The dogs had drooped like aspidistras and he had held a black umbrella over them that had also drooped. He had scowled coldly at Freddy even as his body had beckoned him confidingly into accepting the flyer.
The flyer showed a clay Punic mask. Freddy turned the card over and there was an address printed on the bottom and a string of times. The show – whatever it was – seemingly had no title.
You cannot linger over anything for long at the Fringe, any more than you can spend minutes savouring a single prawn at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Freddy went on his way.
The next time they got a flyer into his hand, he was driving. There were roadworks on the Causewayside and a system that had entailed cars being held in queues until a green light let them slip down a long slender corridor made from traffic cones. Freddy had been given the signal to proceed but midway down the corridor he was being unexpectedly held up by a red light. Then an elephantine man in a luminous yellow jacket lumbered swiftly up to tap on his window. Tremendously surprised and apprehensive, Freddy opened up and a single flyer was dropped inside the car. Before he could respond, the light had changed to green and so he had to drive. They were already peeling away the corridor and stacking its cones as he reached the end.
Again, the flyer showed a Punic mask. The red face was grinning waggishly and, given that it had been crafted well over two thousand years ago, conceivably nothing else in history had ever grinned for so long. It was virtually an emoji, Freddy reflected, albeit one that was ready for smartphones a couple of millennia too early.
Freddy realised that the show was unlisted. The venue – a suburban address in the south of the city – was considerably off the Fringe’s beaten track. It was not included in the index of his official guide.
Freddy took plays to pieces and he carefully assessed the efficiency of each cog and lever. Whereas he had heard of musicians or dancers spontaneously teaming up at the Fringe to perform one-off shows in the street, he had never encountered a complete unlisted play before. Had it been written and rehearsed after the Fringe was compiled? Was it merely a gimmick that was intended to publicise a far more well-known production? In any event, he was not tempted. What was the use of reviewing a play that hardly anybody would find?
Still, he retained a lingering alertness about this play. Occasionally at the Fringe, Freddy would discover a performance that seemed to have been launched exclusively for him. One that had been destined to land in his psyche alone – a performance that nobody else would stumble upon and properly understand. Freddy had the feeling in a draughty space somewhere underneath his liver that this Punic mask betokened just such a production.
As every so often occurs during the Fringe, Freddy’s attention had been caught by a really worthwhile looking play that was inexplicably running at ten in the morning. It was a complicatedly interactive adaptation of Euripides’ “Orestes,” by a young student ensemble from Market Harborough, in which you had to live-tweet stage directions from the audience. It was playing in the conference rooms of a midmarket corporate hotel off the Royal Mile.
The lobby was empty of human life at this hour but the box office had that familiarly stagnant atmosphere that these places have all the time. There was a glass-fronted office, with interesting posters lining its back wall for your eye to rove over whilst you waited for your ticket to be printed. A boy and a girl sat busy, and a little too apart, behind ancient desktops. They looked as mindless as deer in a forest glade. Freddy gambled on the girl as the quicker choice.
“One for “Orestes” please. I’m a complimentary. The name is Frederic Youssoupoff.”
Normally, this would be enough, but to his immediate dismay the girl began to consult a list on her screen.
“For the Observer,” Freddy said quickly, throwing in a ghastly amiable smile as an afterthought.
The girl looked up and she was now older. A woman who was stern through-and-through, with a face as unyielding as brickwork. “I’m sorry, sir, but you’re not listed here.”
“My apologies, I forgot,” Freddy laughed with an uneasy heartiness. “I used to ornament the Observer, of course. I’m more recently under Exeunt Magazine. Youssoupoff – with two us and two esses.” He had already fallen into that hurriedly bargaining voice, as though he was being walked out of a casino, and he was repulsed by its husky gabble. He had parted company with Exeunt at the last Fringe. He was now loosely writing for some amateurish free newspaper that lay around in unwrapped bales in the foyers of venues, and mostly for his own blog.
The woman came to an official decision. “There is no record, I’m afraid. You will need to pay.” She smiled primly and, with a helpless flutter of her eyelashes, she was a girl again.
Perhaps they were growing wise to him, he despaired. But it was worrying that it was happening here and at this time of the morning.
A mini circuit of tall black curtains led him around into the theatre. There had been nobody manning the door, so he need not have bought a ticket after all. A technician was sitting behind the production desk loudly eating from a packet of crisps, but the room was otherwise empty. There were several long rows of seats. Freddy picked a seat right in the middle, as though he could somehow spread himself out like an octopus and generously fill the entire house.
Since he was the only person here, he wondered whether he could dispense with Twitter and simply shout out his contributions. After a while, he checked his watch and saw that the play was five minutes late in starting. He could hear bumps and urgent whispering from the side of the stage.
Finally, four young actresses, in a comical array of different sizes, emerged and they all smiled weakly at him. Then, to his surprise, they evacuated the stage, reconvening uncertainly in a gaggle beside the front row. Now a stout woman in dungarees and with violet hair was striding out energetically. The lights came up in response.
This woman had never until this moment looked Freddy Youssoupoff squarely in the face. As she had anticipated, she saw a haggard, crumpled old man. She felt that he would have formerly appeared corpulent and self-satisfied, but something bad had evidently eaten into him as of late. His face was too thin for the sagging body that lay in heaps around it; there were grey bands under his eyes; his white beard still curled thickly but it was somehow strangely colourless or lacking in the snowy gleam that should have been there. An unkempt man who would greedily devour tiny meals at the end of the day and end up covered, uncaring, in crumbs. A man who owned this one faded brown suit, which was held intact at a particle level by wine stains and grime.
She greeted him cautiously. “Sir, I am a detective who is in the employ of your wife.”
Freddy exploded into fury. “I’m not listening to this! Start the play! Start the play!” A bright crimson had accelerated sharply into his face; his eyes were like murderous daggers and his mouth had stretched to show all of his yellow teeth, horribly.
The cast, clearly under instruction, trembled slightly but they remained fixed to the spot.
“Sir, my client wishes you to respond to the numerous requests that have been made about your daughter…”
“I’m not listening to this!” Freddy insisted. “Start the play or I’m leaving!”
“As you know sir, your daughter is being held hostage by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Libya…”
“Not listening!” Freddy bellowed coarsely, with a kind of ferocious chewed-up laughter. “I’m not listening to this!” he called around him, as if to invisible allies.
“Sir, you will know that my client has resolved to pay the ransom. And she wishes to establish the true extent of your current income and assets in order to see…”
Incredibly, in a single bound Freddy had flung himself out of the row, scattering flimsy chairs everywhere. He ran in a fat scramble towards the door. The four actresses all stood back against the wall to watch him and he could see that the tallest was weeping.
So his wife could pay for a detective, he thought keenly, but the stupid pair of them could not buy their way out of this ridiculous, infinitely foreseeable mess that they had got themselves into. He tore past the box office, so that the boy and girl inside sat bolt upright in alarm.
The editor of the free newspaper was nineteen years old. He had shaved off his own eyebrows and had the word “eyebrows” tattooed in roughly the same place in bottle-green ink. The word was squashed slightly at the far end, a detail that always caught Freddy’s eye and irked him. There was nothing about these eyebrows that could be bothered. The editor’s brain could not be bothered thinking about whether the tattoo was a good idea in the long term; the tattooist could not be bothered organising the letters to fit the space.
The editor was visibly disconcerted around Freddy, staring and blinking at him and striving for a different, more successful tone each time that they met. He had so far tumbled between matey equality, humourless impatience, and a condescending admiration that implied that Freddy was somehow a national treasure. His silly newspaper was scheduled to exist in the universe for only the second week of the Fringe and it was based in Edinburgh University’s Chaplaincy Centre.
“Terry had this great idea for a listicle,” he sniggered, “about the top ten places to take a dump at the Edinburgh Fringe.”
Freddy pretended he hadn’t heard him. “My review of the Henry V Paintballing Experience was emailed three days ago.”
The editor froze and guilt flashed plainly in his face like a torchlight. “We’re working on it man,” he then promised earnestly. “Meanwhile, nobody else wants to write this poop article. Maybe you’d like it? It’s really just profiling different venues – you don’t have to literally, you know, go there and [he gesticulated wryly] do anything…”
Freddy realised that the editor’s hair was dyed exactly the same purple as the detective’s had been. The editor had done this two days ago in the Chaplaincy Centre’s own bathroom, in the process thickly splashing the toilet seat, sink, walls and most of the floor with a purple colouring that Freddy doubted could be ever scrubbed out again. Freddy worried that the Centre would judge him as standing in loco parentis to the editor and hold him liable for the repair work.
That morning Freddy had had an angry altercation that had upset and frightened him. He had been staying at the same guest house for the last thirty or so Fringes. This year, they had put up the prices midway through his booking, partly, he suspected, to price him out of the large loft room with the king-sized bed that was traditionally his. He had been duly reallocated a room a third of the size. After exploding with anger in the reception, he had become a persona non grata at the guest house. The staff had refused to seat him at breakfast. He had stormed into the reception demanding a refund and they had threatened to turn him out into the street for the rest of the Fringe.
On his drive into Edinburgh, he grew scared by how he could not prevent himself from mechanically replaying the argument in his mind. As his denunciation of the hapless guest house became ever more satisfying and perfect, he felt ever more uncontrollably histrionic. He tried to swallow his anger and hold it down.
After inspecting several plays, he went off to write his reviews in the bar of the Traverse theatre, an old haunt.
He was soon troubled by a need to visit the gents. This ruefully reminded him of the free newspaper that he had quit earlier in the day. Shortly afterwards, the editor had phoned him, speaking about essentially nothing and in an almost unrecognisably small, straggling voice that had kept trailing off. The editor had eventually implored Freddy to “daddy” for him.
Freddy learned that in the specific case of the editor this involved being spanked with the back of a tortoiseshell hairbrush. He knew this because he had been sent several explicatory photographs in which the editor was obscenely naked, with bright pink bruises blotching his buttocks. In truth, it was still less than a day or so since Freddy had been wildly conspiring to relaunch his career using this newspaper. Although his role there was unpaid, he had been hoping to gain enough of a readership for his old universal Fringe access to be restored.
This gents had a kind of pointless, porcelain-walled antechamber and on opening the inner door, Fred was astonished to find a spruce little elderly gentleman plummeting straight into his arms. The little gnome clung to him in a momentary spasm before disentangling himself and shaking himself down. He was wearing an orchid in his buttonhole and he might have been the father of a bride. “Goodness me!” he exclaimed to Freddy, wiggling his eyebrows.
Looking into the gents, Freddy saw that somebody had dumped a hefty carton of leaflets on the floor and that the men walking around inside, between the urinals and the sinks, were continuing to slip on them and jump back, startled. Treading carefully around the spilling flyers, towards the nearest urinal, Freddy could not help seeing the Punic mask, replicated unceasingly.
He left the gents holding one of these leaflets and puzzling over it.
The play was definitely theatre – after all, it was being advertised with an ancient theatrical mask. Maybe the genre was horror, Freddy thought hopefully. He had already made a little knot in the bottom of his mind that would be only undone once he had called in on this play. Horror is the friendliest and most hospitable of all Fringe genres, no doubt because it is the most nostalgic, in harking back to a time when you were innocent enough to be frightened by spiders and the dark. Some horror would certainly top up his depleted spirits.
After a third, largely superfluous pint, Freddy left the Traverse. He caught a bus on Princes Street that would take him over the Royal Mile and towards the main C venue.
He could not tell you what he saw that night at C on Chambers Street, but when he emerged he thought marvellously to himself that, bless thee Edinburgh, thou art translated! Heavy rain had flooded the streets from pavement to pavement with dank water. A group of theatregoers was stranded under the awning of C’s entrance, complaining to each other heatedly and unable to cross. Freddy manoeuvred his way to the front to observe how deep the water really was. As he reached its edge, a gondola shot out from the corner of the street and it glided straight up to him.
As he was lifted inside, as if by many arms, he heard a greyhound croaking. Some of the onlookers were very indignant: even though they had not been aware that there were any gondolas, they had been at the front of the queue! They were now trying to haul Freddy back out of the boat, or occupy it, when the lone, hooded gondolier, who had been positioned ready at the prow, stamped and whipped a knife out on them all. He swiped theatrically at the crowd. The gondola then detached itself from the scandalised scene and veered away, racing over the black water…
Freddy woke up with a start. Looking around, he realised that he had missed several stops. Nicholson Street was passing.
He felt refreshed but faintly cross. The dream was like a small pretty wound that had opened up in his skin, something set apart and beautifully perfect in itself. But reality was busy enough already and the dream had filled his congested brain with even more, entirely unnecessary information.
There was a flyer lying in the aisle of the bus beside his feet. The same Punic mask, grinning as it had done so for centuries. Freddy picked it up and saw that the venue was now only a block away. Moreover, tonight’s performance was beginning in under ten minutes.
His mind had been made up for him.
He entered what looked like an everyday Edinburgh tenement, a dingy stairwell with dents and scratches in the walls. The box office was a metal garden chair and table that had been set up at the foot of the stairs. A sullen-looking girl with a puffy face was sitting behind a cash box and a book of tickets.
“You have to pay,” she said flatly, as if she had been minded to immediately pre-empt all of his fussing about trying to claw back a complimentary ticket. “Two million dollars.”
“I don’t have two million. I don’t have anything like it,” he answered in an awed, empty voice.
“You can pay in petrol or foodstuffs.” He continued to shake his head and the girl looked away petulantly. “Well, it’s up to you if you want to go in, but you still have to pay.”
She flung a ticket across the table. It was so light that it was caught rolling in the air and he had to snatch at it.
The ticket was emblazoned with the letters 2F2.
Freddy trotted up the stairs to the flat in question. The door was already hanging open. He ducked inside and clumped around embarrassedly in the corridors. He stumbled into a box kitchen, where saucepans and frying pans hung from a wall on nails, like guns in an armoury. He quickly retreated. Finally, he wound up in a bedroom. This must have been the theatre since a row of five chairs faced the double bed.
The bed was apparently the stage.
He knew that he was wholly alone in the room and indeed the flat. Nevertheless, he heard the door shut swiftly behind him and then lock in a crisp little sound like water trickling.
He stood in the centre of the room. He did not take a seat. He looked around, at the blank walls, at the coverlet on the bed, and at the plumped pillows.
Next a little animal flew into the room. It fluttered high around the walls and then lunged over the bed, before rearing back, helter-skelter.
Freddy followed its progress. It rose to patter and trail around the room’s plaster cornice, which was inset with roses or cabbages, before dipping back to skirt irate circles in the ceiling.
It swooped to circle over the bed and then rose to trail around the ceiling again.
Dipping and diving, swooping and rising.
Rearing back, helter-skelter.
Tumbling and pattering around the cornice, dipping and swooping.
Rising to flutter around the ceiling again, in untidy, frantic circles.
Rearing back, helter-skelter.
Fred watched it, his body jammed still but his eyes locked feverishly on it. He felt very uncomfortable.
It rose and lunged and fluttered.
Dipping and diving, swooping and rising.
Rearing back, helter-skelter.
It sought its way amongst the cornice and then paused, as if intricately trying to burrow itself into a corner that was not there.
Freddy was being made to kneel on the hard wet sand. The sea behind him was astonishingly blue, with hundreds of tight little whitecaps curling together.
It browsed the cornice, dipping and darting, nosing and fluttering.
The man gripped Freddy by the hair. There was a sharp pain as the knife began to knead into the flesh on the back of his neck.
Freddy moaned “no!,” but he concentrated on the sensation and remained utterly still.
Dipping and diving, swooping and rising.
The pain was dazzling, a gigantic intense beam.
Rearing back, helter-skelter.