“I don’t know if we’re allowed back in here,” said Bettie. She was shuffling along behind Aggie, her flat-shoes making a susurration against the grimy pavement and her skirts clinging damply to her legs. She was holding a canary-yellow umbrella as protection from the rain, but the autumn wind was blowing the wind sideways and the umbrella was doing little more than threatening to pull her over.
“Don’t be silly,” said Aggie. “Of course we will be, we’re patrons of the arts.” She had a slightly more energetic shuffle than Bettie, despite being nearly four years older than her, and had left her umbrella at home in favour of a transparent plastic rain-hood that she’d tied under her chin in an untidy bow. Her grey hair, with the occasional bald-patch from alopecia, looked like a brillo pad trapped beneath it.
“You did spit on the assistant manager last time,” said Bettie. “Not that I should think you need reminding.”
“He was on fire! A little bit, anyway.”
“You’d set him on fire with that cigarette thingy you were waving around. I don’t think he was very pleased about that either.”
“Well I didn’t know what it was, did I?”
“…yes. We both had them when we were younger, Aggie.”
“Back when we smoked, you mean?”
They fell silent for a moment, both women remembering a world that seemed almost centuries ago. Then Aggie reached the main doors of the Winklepicker Theatre and reached for the handle to open them.
“Not today ladies thankyou,” said a tall man with a pronounced belly. He spoke so quickly that the words seemed almost run-together and he positioned himself between Aggie’s hand and the doorhandle, which led to her grabbing hold of the waistband of his trousers. “Madam!”
“Well don’t put it out there if you’re not offering it,” said Aggie. “That’s what my mother and her aunt Judith used to say.”
“In unison,” said Bettie. “I can still remember them standing on the landing in that house you had at Rudwell. Like a Greek choir they were.”
“I bet you don’t know what a Greek choir is, do you?” said Aggie looking at the man who’d blocked her way. He was wearing a black suit and a white shirt; the shirt cuffs were too long and covered half his palms, while the suit jacket was definitely a size too small and looked badly stretched across the shoulder.
“Of course I do,” he said looking down the length of his nose at them. “There’s one, for example, in Brecht’s Kaukasische Kreiderkreis.”
“Did you just spit on me?” said Aggie, brushing her sleeve. Her coat smelled of damp dog even in the rain and looked at though it was used as an animal blanket when she wasn’t wearing it. There were hairs of all lengths, colours and thicknesses clinging to it, and the belt was the uneven colour of something that’s dealt with lots of bodily fluids. “How dare you! How dare you spit on me!”
The door opened behind the tall man and the assistant manager of the Winklepicker stepped out. The wind blew the rain into his face, and he stepped back into the doorway again, holding the door open with a pale hand. “Like you spat on me?” he said, revealing that he’d been stood just inside the doors listening.
“You were on fire!” said Aggie. “I said that already, I said that. Didn’t I, Bettie? Didn’t I say that?”
“Then thank-you for spitting on me,” said the assistant manager, “and I am glad to have been able to return the favour through Louis here. Now ladies, as you are banned from the theatre for life, why are you stood out here?”
“You can’t ban me!” Aggie straightened up with shock, and a look of pain crossed her face. “Oh, ooh.” she said. “That’s my back, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m going to be half-crippled for the rest of the week now.”
“You always were a martyr to those vertebrae, girl,” said Bettie. “You shouldn’t be stood out here in the cold and the wet at your age. Nor me at mine, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Yes ladies, you should run along home,” said the assistant manager. “Before the weather grows more inclement.”
“Or you could just let us in,” said Bettie. “We’d like two tickets to see Der Battenburg, please.”
“You’re banned, ladies,” said the assistant manager. “Didn’t I just say that?”
“I say, is there a queue,” said another voice. Bettie turned round and found a couple of young men with rugby-player builds standing just behind her. “Frightful weather for a queue, don’t you think?”
“Oh there’s no queue,” said Bettie quickly. The assistant manager raised a hand to try and stop her, but she hurried on. “This man here in the bad suit is just spitting on my friend.”
“That’s not what’s hap–“ said the assistant manager, and Louis looked uncomfortable and tried to step backwards. He stepped on the assistant manager’s foot, cutting him off in mid-word and causing him to cry out.
“She’s eighty next year,” said Bettie. “She worked at Bletchley Park, you know. And he’s… spitting on her.”
“Right!” said the young man. “Let’s all go inside and get some apologies sorted out then.”
“Aren’t you going to hit him?” said Aggie. “He spat on me!”
“That’s one side of the story,” said the young man. “Now we need to hear the other side and then we can find a common middle ground that’ll keep everyone happy.”
“Oh,” said Aggie. “In my day men defended women.”
“We’re all equal now, hey?” said the young man. His companion nodded. “Let’s just get inside.”
“They’re banned!” said the assistant manager, still hopping. His pale face was reddened with either pain or anger. “But everyone else can come in.”
“You can’t deny them recourse to justice,” said the young man. “And it’s too wet out here for a conversation. Let’s just get inside.”
“They’re banned,” said the assistant manager. “She tried to set me on fire!” He pointed at Aggie.
“See, that’s why you need to hear both sides of the story,” said the young man to Bettie. “Imagine if we’d hit him and only then found out that she tried to murder him. Can you imagine how I’d feel then?”
“Dry, on account of only finding out when you’d got inside?” said Aggie. Bettie shrugged.
“It wasn’t him that was spitting on her, it was him,” she said, pointing at Louis. “Who she’s never seen before in her life.”
“Well why’s he spitting on her then?” said the young man. He turned the collar of his shirt up.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” said Bettie. “I liked the idea of talking about inside though.”
“You’re banned!” said the assistant manager. “Move out of the way and let these gentlemen in though. You’re holding up the queue!”
“There’s a queue now?” said the young man’s companion. “Only you said there wasn’t a minute ago.”
“There isn’t,” said Bettie, while the assistant manager shouted “There’s only a queue of these dreadful old women.”
“Names!” said Aggie. “Now he’s calling me names!”
“You set fire to me!” said the assistant manager. He stared at Aggie, the spark of hope slowly dying in his eyes. “Please, just leave.”
“I want two ticket to see Der Battenburg,” said Aggie. “And I ain’t leaving until I’ve got them.”
“Der Battenburg doesn’t start until next week,” said the young man. “They’re still showing Death of the Defector; that’s the matinee we’re here for.”
“Oh I’ve seen that,” said Aggie. “That was awful. The actor they’ve got playing the Defector is half-deaf and keeps missing his cues. I wouldn’t go and see that if I were you.”
“What?” said the assistant manager. Bettie nudged the young man’s companion. “There’s a bar over there,” she said, pointing across the street. “Be a love and buy us a drink and we’ll tell you all about the play and where you can go to see it done properly.”
“What?” said the assistant manager again. The young men looked at each other, and then back at Bettie. “It’ll be cheaper,” said the young man. “Why not?”
“What?” said the assistant manager. As the four departed, he stared at Louis. “That’s coming out of your wages!” he said.