That afternoon’s lunch date had not gone well. It was DOA, no point in a post mortem, well and truly doomed before she’d even sat down at the table. The hand dryers in the loos. Dyson Airblades. Howling, screaming, cavernous machines, humming expectantly before you even ventured to put your wet hand into their maw. Lighting up your pallid skin with cold, scrutinising blue light. Sloughing the moisture from your flesh with force so extreme (430 mph! it boasted) that it made it appear as though your hand was melting, skin flaying from bone, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, yet it somehow felt like nothing at all.
Other hand dryers can blow viruses and bacteria onto your hands, some of it from faeces. Find out how.
Perhaps she needed a nice Lithium-based mood elevator or another hefty dose of CBT.
What she didn’t need, Clare had realised as she returned to the table, was yet another interminable date with a man pushing forty-five wearing what he hoped were Normcore clothes, while he fiddled with his iPhone and talked about his photography and film work, composed almost exclusively of his carefully collated and post-ironically hashtagged Instagram and Vine feeds. And what was the point in going out with them in the first place, she felt like screaming at herself. It wasn’t like she wanted kids so there was no biological clock insistently ticking. She wasn’t entirely sold on marriage herself. She was twenty-nine years old and it would be great if someone would stick around for breakfast the morning after. At this stage she’d settle for a coffee date that didn’t begin with swiping right and end with them telling her about the visa application they’d just submitted for a six month solo trip to China to work on their photography / documentary / electronic soundscape project.
She steered clear of the hand dryer in the staff bathroom and opted for a blue paper hand towel (97% more expensive annually for business owners than the Airblade!), patting them dry and then fixing her black apron in place. She fished in the pocket and pulled out the final touch – the generic catering employer issue masked ball mask. Once in place she avoided eye contact with herself in the mirror; it was enough to know she looked like a low budget Mask of Zorro extra without having visual confirmation.
Do You Dare attend the Death Masque on Midsummer night in Crooked Road Gaol?
Dine at our Pop-up Poison Palace, eating the world’s most dangerous and delicious dishes –
everything from fugu sashimi, elderberry and apricot seed torte, wild funghi canapes
and ackee syrup martinis. Take a paranormal tour of the Gaol, séance selfies, memento mori
henna tattoos, spectral flash mobs, cell block sessions and an underground DJ set from a top
secret guest. Tickets £75 – dress to impress. Mask required.
If this banquet actually poisoned anyone there’d be ructions but Clare was less worried about the insurance ramifications for the organisers and more about the physical realities of trying to clear plates in an ocean of sushi-scented vomit. Glancing at her watch, she saw there was still a few minutes til they were needed in the kitchen, so she ducked out to the inglorious backyard where the bottle skips were stored for a quick smoke. There were two others, also dressed in masks and black aprons, already there. They barely looked up when she joined them; agency catering work wasn’t known for forging lifelong friendships.
It was surprisingly quiet and still and dark in the yard; midsummer night meant the sky was still light, but the dim courtyard, surrounded by towering walls, was permanently in shadow and in stark contrast to the whirlwind of coloured lights, reverberating bass, clattering of plates and screeching of chefs inside. The three of them stayed self-consciously silent in response, the only sound being the staccato pop of inhalation and hiss of smoke being released. She caught the red haired girl glancing uneasily at the door behind them and Clare realised she too was wary, her posture tensed. Waiting. Nobody could get a signal on their phone. The duty manager shouted down the hall for the catering staff to assemble and they wordlessly returned inside, the strange apprehension of a minute ago soon forgotten, her misgivings shoved down to a dull nauseous pang at the bottom of her stomach.
Outside kids converged on peace lines and interfaces in Ardoyne, the Flush Bend, Short Strand, launching bottles and fireworks and bricks at each other, warming up for July. In doorways across the city, people without a bed for the night tried to ward off the oncoming darkness, the unseasonal rain. Inside the old Gaol, the event organisers entertained a thousand well-heeled friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.
It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held.
Clare’s first order of business was to proceed up the narrow, closed corridor with trays of wild funghi canapes and ackee syrup martinis and distribute these to arriving guests in The Purple Room, hung in purple, fuschia, maroon - and vividly violet were its windows and the lanterns suspended above. This room had once served for processing newly arrived prisoners and tonight’s arrivals were being informed that the social media presence of the evening’s proceedings were being curated, therefore phone signals would be blocked and Wi-Fi switched off to add an element of mystery to the event. A payphone would be available in the reception area, in case of emergency. Smartphone slaves were being liberated! No one rejoiced.
The same frisson of uneasiness that had made Clare feel wary in the quiet yard an hour ago returned.
The second room was the panopticon circle at the centre of the Gaol, lighted and hung green throughout, as were the casements. This, complete with an array of macabre props, served as the séance selfie booth – to be judiciously edited and uploaded later – and as a starting point for Paranormal Tours of the cell blocks, leaving on the half hour. Clare replenished glasses, picked up empties, and directed guests to cloakroom and toilets before they set off.
The third room was the main corridor of C Wing, furnished and lighted in solemn, bloody, scarlet red and laid out with banqueting tables the length and breadth of the concourse. Here the marathon work began as, at the appointed hour, Clare and a team of ghostly, silent, interchangeable others in the flat shoes, black aprons and bandit masks ferried vast platters, trays and tureens filled, stacked and laid with fugu sashimi, Trinidad Scorpion hot sauce and elderberry and apricot seed torte.
Room four was down a hidden staircase in C Wing and was lit in luminous, haunting white, somehow both inappropriate and apt for the Condemned Man’s Cell, tonight home to the as-advertised “cell block session”. Three bearded, serious young men from the Sonic Arts Research Centre at the university performed spectral ballads using 1970s analogue synthesisers, oscillators, theremins and samplers. Monochrome visuals of galaxies far away slowly ebbing and fading were projected onto a blank wall, just very slightly out of sync with the music.
Room five was were things really started to get interesting, as revellers, half drunk on sickly sweet martinis and crammed full of expensive, somewhat poisonous foods stumbled from the packed, intensely over heated, condemned man’s cell out through a chilly courtyard to where a black velvet tent had been erected. Some might have said the tent’s proximity to the Gaol’s grave site was perhaps a little insensitive. However, those who might have said this did not possess a £75 ticket and nor could they “join the conversation” with the social media lockdown in progress. In any event, some of the funghi’s less expected hallucinatory qualities were, by this time, making themselves known and this henna tattoo tent seemed to take on the proportions of a dimly lit cavern deep in space or far below the sea, outside which aliens or Kraken stalked silently by.
As the witching hour approached, the sixth room, or Room 666 as it was branded for the night, was opened to the restless hoards. The underground tunnel which once connected the Gaol to the courthouse across the road has been transformed into a 90s-inspired TechnoTunnel, complete with a local indie band who surely had been born no earlier than 1994, thought Clare sourly, on the decks for the night. The tunnel was swathed in blue. As trance and techno classics and extreme strobe lighting, also in blue, combined, Clare served up Deadly Venom cocktails and Absinthe shots and wished and wished for 2am to arrive so she could exit what increasingly felt to her like a giant Dyson Airblade.
As in the Condemned Man’s Cell, projected graphics dominated the close walls and low ceilings of the blue lit tunnel. In here, it was all clocks, some digital, some antique, all projected in live motion, all chiming on the quarter hour. Outside red-beaked terns wheeled overhead in the rain, swooping across the city to the docks. The clocks, Clare realised, much later, as the masque drew to a close and midsummer night’s brief dark was already being dispersed by the dawn, were not counting down to anything in particular; instead, impassively counting and measuring units of time. Acting, she supposed, as an inscrutable and omnipresent memento mori, time’s inexorable pace holding illimitable dominion over all. She took off her mask, clocked out from her shift and, skirting the smashed bus shelter at Carlisle Circus, left to walk home.