I work at the theatre; I clean up after every show. When the play ends, I and a couple of others throw away the empty cups and crisp bags, wipe away the stains and the undrunken beers. It’s even worse when there’s a play for kids on: wrappers from sweets and chocolates galore, wrapping paper and cone hats from birthday parties, toys left behind.
Every time we show a family show, at least one kid brings along their teddies. They’re even encouraged to bring them to the Christmas pantomimes, where a character will either talk about what he wants for Christmas or what he got for Christmas and asks the audience if they have a favourite toy. The crowd shrieks as teddies and dollies are raised into the air with a mix of excitement and reverence. After these shows, at least one teddy ends up left behind.
Seeing a cuddly toy under a theatre seat is a heart-breaking sight. Either a poor kid didn’t realise he left his fuzzy friend behind and will cry his eyes out when he remembers, or the kid intentionally abandoned the little fellow, forcing him to sleep among the rubbish instead of a comfortable bed.
After one panto, I found a little doll with curly hair sitting on a seat. As soon as I picked it – her – up, her owner walked into the almost-empty room and I gave it back to her. When she said, ‘Thanks for finding Maisie’, I felt the same way I probably would if I saved an orphaned kitten from a fire.
Another panto came. Hansel and Gretel. Several families came with several kids, about 80% of them with a teddy bear or a doll or an Elmo or a race car. This version of Hansel and Gretel introduced a new character: Gus the Ghost, the Witch’s reluctant bedsheet-wearing helper. He lured Hansel and Gretel to the Witch’s house even though he didn’t want to, and then helped them escape.
Before he met the two stars of the show, however, he engaged the audience in conversation. ‘Hello, boys and girls!’ said he, with the kids screaming, ‘Hello, Gus!’ in response. In the shows before Christmas, he said ‘I’m writing my list to Santa! Are you writing your list to Santa?’, and in the shows after Christmas, he says, ‘I’ve got lots of presents from Santa this year. Did you?’ In both cases, his question was answered with the children screaming ‘Yes!’ in deafening unison. ‘And do you have a favourite toy?’ Up went the bears and dolls and Elmos and cars, every time, as if the children were presenting them to Gus to be judged. Gus then said ‘Great!’ and told a story about a pet spider he received for one Christmas before the story resumed.
When one post-Christmas Hansel and Gretel show ended and the audience had left, I suddenly found myself alone in the theatre. Two other people helped me clean up after the shows, but they were nowhere to be found, as if they had went off with the audience.
I was certain they just had both gone to the toilet or something of that nature, and they would eventually return, so my main concern at that moment was toys. Find any cuddly toys left behind after the show and return them.
In seconds, I found one. A cuddly bunny, lying down on a seat like it was a hammock. His head resting on one armrest, his feet on the other.
Just as I neared him, he opened his mouth. ‘I’m tired,’ he said, as his mouth and eyelids moved to a symphony of whirs, ‘Let’s play later’.
Bloody kid didn’t even turn him off, I thought, waste of batteries there. I picked him up, waiting for the boy or girl who owned him to come forward and claim him.
‘I’ve had a busy day,’ said the bunny.
‘I know the feeling,’ I said to the bunny before turning my attention to the rubbish that still needed to be picked up. I walked towards the doors, and briefly thought about the bunny’s sayings. Maybe when the kid first turned him on, he said ‘Let’s play’ and things like that, but said he was tired if he was left on too long, in order to teach kids a lesson about wasting batteries. Or he just always said stuff like that; Larry the Lazy Bunny, now available at all good toy stores.
I fiddled around his back and found the off switch, silencing him.
Then a ghost appeared before me.
Not a funny bedsheet ghost like Gus, a young girl with absolutely no colour on her except her pale blue eyes. Her skin was as white as bleach, as was her hair, her dress was a light grey, and her fingernails were black. Her long, sharp fingernails.
She was not the same type of ghost as Gus, but she still quoted him. ‘Do you have a favourite toy?’ she growled.
Her mere presence sent a fierce chill that dominated the theatre, and my lips felt like they were sealed shut. The only response I could give to her was shaking my head.
‘Then that’s not your favourite toy,’ she snarled, revealing her thin grey teeth. I handed the bunny back to her, but she didn’t take it. ‘Put him back,’ she said. I dangled the bunny in front of her like I was jingling car keys in front of a baby. She lifted her right hand, bringing one of her fingernails close to my neck. ‘Put him back in his seat.’
As if she had made me her puppet, I walked over to the seat where I had found the bunny, and plopped him back on.
‘Put him back as you found him!’ Her mouth and her teeth grew, and it looked as if any minute her mouth would engulf my head and her teeth would bite through my neck.
‘What?’ was the only word that I managed to say.
She raised both her arms, and her fingernails grew as long as her teeth. ‘Have him lie down!’
Head on one armrest. Feet on the other. I held my hands over my face, as if I was a child in bed afraid of the monsters in the dark, as if I were in need of a cuddly toy myself.
It did nothing to deter her. I felt her fingernails run over the back of my hands, and somehow, she forced me to lower my arms. Somehow she forced me to look at her face with the wide blue eyes and her thin grey teeth.
‘And did you turn him off?’
‘Good.’ Her mouth stretched again, only into a smile. ‘He said he was tired!’