Fiction: “The Final Curtain”
IT WAS clear that he was on his way out, this man they called the Doctor. Sylvia had been watching him. After the curtain had fallen to triumphant applause he’d made his way for the theatre bar instead of the exit, as was his ritual, but she could see that he wasn’t going to hang about. The admiring audience dispersed not long after the show, pouring out into the rain-sodden streets. There were plenty of seats and empty tables available. The Doctor had insisted on standing alone at the bar, however, a glass of red wine in his hand. And though he was known to savour his after-show tipples, his fingers never left the stem and the plonk was disappearing fast.
It was only a few short minutes before he’d tossed one of his eccentric tips out for Finchie—this time a sort of small crystal seashell that sparkled blue and periwinkle in the lights of the bar—and was making his way out, past the velvet rope, the cigarette machine, and a curious Sylvia. She caught a glimpse of that inhuman complexion and the shock of grey in his thick mane of hair as he passed by.
At the cloakroom he stopped to retrieve a sort of long, dark green cloak from Eileen, casting it across his shoulders in one well-practiced motion. He stepped through the doors and, once on the pavement, cocked his head to the sky. There was a cold November rain falling slowly but steadily on Cambridge Circus. The Doctor faced it with an expression that mixed curiosity with disappointment. It was a haunting look upon that man’s wan face, though it was soon hidden away as he raised the hood of his cloak and pivoted on his boot heels, striding off along Charing Cross Road looking like some character who had escaped from one of the theatre’s historical productions.
There was something hopelessly old-fashioned about the Doctor. He insisted on the title, and no one knew his real name. Rain or shine, he wore only his stodgy greatcoat and a tangled ribbon tie of the kind you’d expect to see on a pensioner dressed up for a night out. He had his moods, but when he was chipper he would sing old Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to himself—and, if caught out, expect that everyone around him should know the lyrics too. Finchie had told her that once or twice he’d tried to order a rum punch or sherry cobbler at the bar, as if he’d forgotten what century it was.
Yes, the Doctor was hopelessly old-fashioned—except, of course, when he wasn’t. One night he’d attended the evening’s performance with young David Bowie and the two of them had left together, laughing and singing and carrying on like a pair of old bandmates, rowdy and Bohemian and brimming with life. As Finchie liked to say, on any given night you were never quite sure which Doctor you were going to get.
Watching him go, Sylvia hurried to retrieve her coat from the staff closet. Pulling back her oversized hoop bracelet, she shrugged the coat on over her uniform and followed him out into the rain. The red brick face of the Palace Theatre was inspiring when it was lit up on a night like this. For almost a year the marquee had shone with the title “CABARET,” though in just a few hours the lights would darken on that particular sign front forever. Once those bulbs went out, Sylvia and Finchie and all the others knew that there was a good chance no one at the Palace Theatre would see the Doctor ever again. She had to see him, she had to speak with him, before he disappeared.
Looking right she could just make him out, a lanky, hooded figure passing through the lively crowds without hesitation or interruption or deviation. Sylvia clutched at her skirt and dashed after him, her heels clacking at the wet pavement as she went. Within moments she was lost among the couples and the drunkards, dodging between lampposts and signs.
Sylvia stopped at Leicester Square Underground to survey the passersby. Though you’d think the rain and the cold would be discouraging, everyone seemed to be in high spirits. To her right was Cranbourn Street and the way to Leicester Square Garden. She was some distance from the bright spotlights of the Palace Theatre now, beyond the reach of that dazzling marquee. Beneath the curtain of rain, the street that stretched before her looked darker, more sombre. There were far fewer pedestrians on Cranbourn. The rain seemed louder here. Instinctively, she knew that she was heading in the right direction. With the sound of her heels echoing sharply off of the hippodrome, she walked on.
She saw it out of the corner of her eye, a bright but indistinct shape down a narrow alleyway that had opened up beside a hemmed in shop flogging discount theatre tickets. It was big and blue, all but glowing in the autumn mist. More significantly, it somehow seemed that it had no business being there. The Doctor would be nearby.
Tentatively, Sylvia took a step into the mouth of the alley. There were overflowing rubbish bins by a barrier. The damp air was thick with the pong of castoff chips and wet, mouldy sandwiches. The high brick walls did nothing to protect her from the rain, which was beginning to soak through her wool coat. As she crept forward and the gloom closed in around her, she was able to make out a sign. That strange, squared-off shape at the dark end of the alley bore its own glowing marquee: “POLICE PUBLIC CALL BOX.”
“Who are you?”
The man’s voice was raw, like a sudden rumble of thunder. With a start Sylvia whirled and he was there beside her, as if the dusk and the smell and the pitter-patter of the autumn rain had taken shape in an instant of electric transmutation. His jet-black hair was slick with rainwater and his wet, pale, sickly face gleamed white in the light cast by the windows on the hippodrome. His lips were thin and tight, framed by a pair of absurdly sharp sideburns and a well-trained curl of his sable mane. The cloak he had donned against the rain was pulled tight against his lanky frame, though he’d dropped the hood to get a better look at her. The Doctor cut an imposing figure on a night like this, like some living storm cloud that had descended onto London’s streets—and the gleaming sapphire irises of his eyes were the lightning. From out of the darkness, they burned with accusation.
Sylvia felt pinned to the spot. When she failed to answer him, he lifted a hand to grip her by the shoulder of her coat. “Who are you?” he repeated, somewhat louder this time.
It was a performance. He was acting as if he were angry. Staring into those bright and unblinking blue eyes, however, Sylvia could tell that his reaction spoke more of panic than ire. Though he was a man who was known to exude confidence, now that she was close enough she could see something far more pitiful on display. “S-Sylvia,” she stammered, squirming under his grip. “Sylvia, from the Palace Theatre.”
His arm went slack and he let her go. He took a few steps toward the mouth of the alley, boots splashing through a puddle of the runoff that was pouring from the trash bags in the rain. He looked left, toward Leicester Square Garden, then right, toward the Tube station. “You’ve been following me,” he said as he surveyed the street. “Why?”
“I wanted to meet you,” she said softly. “I wanted to meet the man they call the Doctor.”
Sylvia had heard things, of course—mad, wonderful, incredible things. Here was a man who looked as though he had stepped from the pages of a history book or a West End theatre production, spoke in riddles and snippets of song lyrics, and acted as if the world had to answer to him rather than it being the other way round. Time had taken its toll on him, however, and left him cold and distant. The excitement and verve that all those at the theatre had once associated with the man had turned inside of him. He watched her now with a ghastly expression upon his lean face, his eyes constantly darting about, from the stormy sky above to the rubbish bins to the shadows cast on the alley’s brick wall.
“The Doctor, eh?” he echoed, momentarily transfixed by the shadow cast by a rusty old metal sign, as if he expected the black shape of it to come to life on the brick wall before him. “And who told you that?”
“Finchie,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant, “the barman at the Palace.”
The Doctor turned to her. His eyes softened and his grey lips threatened to curl into a smile. “Well, the man mixes a dreadful Brandy Alexander, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in what Finchie the Barman has to say about anything.”
Fiddling nervously with the bracelet at her wrist, Sylvia laughed and she hoped it sounded disarming. It was a start. Now she had to keep him talking. She thought about all those after-show drinks, all those nights he had passed time in the theatre bar. “What was it you were drinking tonight?”
“The house red. Mouton Cadet,” the Doctor said, sounding disappointed. He snorted a laugh. “I should have ordered a peppermint prairie oyster, given the occasion.”
Sylvia had no idea what this supposed to mean. “Finchie told me all about you. He said you were as much a part of the production as the Emcee.”
“And you just had to find out for yourself.”
She nodded. He looked at her with what seemed like admiration but then slowly shook his head, vexed. Sylvia pressed on. “Is it true? They say that you’ve been to every performance. Of Cabaret, I mean. In the West End.”
“Oh, yes,” he said with certainty. “It’s been marvellous. Perfectly marvellous.”
“But that’s impossible! It premiered in the spring. There must’ve been three hundred performances this year.”
“Three hundred and thirty-six,” the Doctor corrected.
“And you’ve been to every show?”
“From February to November. And I’ve taken them all in chronological order, too!”
This one had a flat sense of humour. “But… How?”
“I have a lot of time on my hands,” he remarked as if this were some kind of joke. Then he startled her by turning away to face the hippodrome and bellowing loudly into the rain: “That is, when I’m not being made to run ridiculous errands like some grocery clerk!”
He was barking, this one, there was no question about it. She stared at him, blinking, before remarking, “You must really love that show.”
Listening for a moment to make certain that the rain hadn’t answered him back, the Doctor returned his attention to her. “Haven’t you seen it?”
Sylvia scrunched up her nose and shook her head. “Here and there, bits and bobs. One night, Mr Millichope was out sick, so Eileen and I snuck in from the back for a look at the nightclub scenes.”
The Doctor could not hide his disappointment. “Think about what you’ve missed! It’s all so exciting up on the stage. Slip into a theatre and you are reborn, once for each time that the curtain rises. Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! Ah, but Cabaret captures the truth of things. The truth, and the terrifying beauty, and the weltschmerz. Nothing compares to the theatre, and no musical compares to this. There will never be another like this. Keep an eye on that beauty Judi. She’s going to be in pictures, I’m telling you. Oh, there will be films and revivals and remakes and reboots, but this is it. It’s a vintage, finer than anything Finchie has on offer. London, the Palace Theatre, 1968. I have savoured it like a fine wine.”
It was then that Sylvia truly understood the indescribable sadness that had undercut the Doctor’s mood and she had a sense of the melancholy and defeat that had brought him to this place. “And now it’s over.”
The Doctor’s eyes were wide and glassy as he nodded, staring off into the rain. “And now it’s over. Three hundred and thirty-six performances. I will never again be able to attend the original London production of Cabaret. You can thank Mr Blinovitch for that.”
He sighed and, after a pause, began to scrutinize her once more. “Do you even like working at the theatre? There’s so much on offer. Snippets of shows, a house full of actors. The Entertainer. Anything Goes. Cabaret! Still, I imagine a girl like you must find herself wondering what life is like beyond the stage.” He lifted his chin to survey the stormy sky above. “There’s so much to see. So much to be done. So much waiting for you, out there.”
Sylvia smiled. “Are you offering me a job?”
At last his cold lips broke and he flashed her a wide, toothy, reckless grin. He paused as if pondering it. “You know, I think Selene asked me the very same question at the start. Sweet, brainy Selene. She was a mechanic, not an usher, of course.” His eyes took on a faraway look and that hard-earned smile faltered, eventually falling into a frown. “I should never have taken her away from her home, or separated her from her father. I should have seen it coming. They’re all so eager—like you, dashing out into the rain to follow some mysterious stranger down a dark alley. They’re all so bright. But it’s all the same in the end. How could Alison forgive me? Or Mohana?” He looked to the pavement as he whispered one last name: “Mia.”
Sylvia didn’t know what to say. They stood there silently. In time, the sound of the falling rain roused the Doctor and when he next opened those thin, grey lips his voice rose into the slow, lilting warble of a show tune: “Everybody… loves a winner… so nobody loved me…”
It was from Cabaret, of course, but he never reached the triumphant refrain that followed.
“No,” he declared with renewed determination. “Not this time. It’s become too dangerous, with these insane assignments and the Master breathing down my neck. It’s time for me to the face the music, and this time I’ll have to do it alone. I suppose I ask the question only because that’s how I felt, once—how I’ve always felt. I was trapped. I was unhappy. I had to get away. I had to escape. I had to run! And I did run. Sister, did I run! I ran so far and so long. But not anymore. It’s just as James Joyce told me. ‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘the end of pleasure is pain, and all things must end.’ And he was right. All things must end.”
Sylvia stared at him. “James Joyce is dead,” she said after a moment.
“Well, there you have it!” he crowed.
A loud crack echoed down Cranbourn Street, the sound of some loose pub door caught in the wind. The Doctor started at this like a frightened cat, his eyes wide as he stared into the open mouth of the alley, his muscles coiled and ready to spring. “It’s alright,” Sylvia said. “There’s no one there.”
The Doctor laughed at the suggestion. “There’s always someone there,” he countered. “There’s always something in the dark. Take it from me. The end of pleasure is pain, and the end of freedom is death. Once they’ve taken your freedom, Sylvia…”
The alley rang with the sound of a shrill, jangling bell and it was Sylvia’s turn to jump. She turned to the old police box, its door panels battered and its window panes cracked. Behind the faded white sign that promised “OFFICERS & CARS RESPOND TO ALL CALLS,” its telephone was ringing, and the sound of it was echoing insistently from the high brick walls. Rain dripping from his hair and the bulbous tip of his nose, the Doctor turned to face it. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” he called out, melodramatic and mournful at the same time, then he smiled at her. “If you’ll excuse me, Miss Sylvia. Auf wiedersehen! A bientot!”
He could not resist a brief and theatrical bow. Then the Doctor tugged at his emerald cloak and, holding fast to the collar of it, strode off into the darkness toward the police box. The telephone rang and rang until the Doctor at last opened the cabinet. Sylvia could not hear him talking but, as soon as the ringing had ceased and she knew that he was engaged, she reached down to touch the time ring that encircled her wrist like a bracelet. “Is that you on the telephone for him, I wonder?” she asked into the rain.
A sudden slither of movement in the corner of her eye prompted her to turn and face the wall of the discount ticket shop. As she watched, the black slick of her shadow stretched and grew upon the brickwork beside her, like some living shade. The round silhouette of its head shifted as a harsh, demanding voice intruded upon her thoughts: “Gallifrey Actual to Earth Reconnaissance. Your status?”
She glanced back to the TARDIS at the end of the alley and the lanky outline of the Doctor as he withdrew into its dimensionally transcendent interior and the police box’s door clacked shut behind him. “The situation is optimal,” she declared with cool satisfaction. “He knows the score. In fact, I’d say those rebellious impulses are dying a death. He’s resigned to his fate. There will be no further native interference. Continued resistance is unlikely. Recommend we proceed. You may consider Gallifrey’s most renowned renegade to be broken.”
“Acknowledged.” Her shadow stirred one last time and withdrew.
The Time Lady posing as Sylvia had never heard a Type 40 TARDIS before. Such relics were relegated to museums, temporal ports, and assorted nether dimensions. She was completely unprepared for the intensity of the roar given off by its raging, antiquated time engines. There was a restless, untamed quality in the wheezes and groans that reverberated throughout that London alley. The sound of it left her rattled and, once she was left shivering alone, she regretted her testimony; when the noise had faded with the exterior dimensions and all that was left was the pouring rain, she was left with the nagging feeling that the man they called the Doctor wasn’t quite finished.