The Boy under the Table, a short story by Joachim Matschoss
The boy was fascinated by the theatre.
He was full of boys’ noise inside his head, full of mischievous ideas, never sat still. Only the theatre could calm him, make him listen and give shape to his story. He loved everything about the theatre and now some sixty years later he still does.
The boy grew up cushioned by the voice of his father wrapping itself around vowels and consonants and arrange them in fascinating configurations as he read stories and words quickly left the page and became people with faces and bodies and their own special voices, happy people mostly with the odd blue day but his father’s voice and his hand gently stroking the boy’s head made sure that soothing colours would be just around the corner. The boy loved those moments, loved those stories, those little plays performed just for him.
The boy usually listened with his head on his favourite pillow in his bed but occasionally underneath a table in his father’s dressing room that stood in front of a mirror with lightbulbs around it. There his father worked, speaking the words others had written, being the person others had imagined, going on a holiday every night for a couple of hours. The boy loved it there. Loved it very much, often falling asleep aided by the smell of greasepaint and the sound of the beautiful language that trickled from an old loudspeaker mounted high up in the corner of the dressing room. It had not been painted for years and the family of spiders that lived behind it had not been disturbed since those speakers were installed, forty years ago. The boy was jealous because these spiders could enjoy a permanent holiday, having dinner with Shakespeare, Chekov and Ibsen every day.
The boy and his father usually arrived around ninety minutes or so before the play would begin. His father slipped into his costume that had been lovingly washed, fixed if necessary and treated with great love by a woman from Bulgaria who could tell a story about every button, every shoelace and every hat.
‘The costumes are my other skin’, his father had told him and once he wore them he became someone else. The boy watched him silently putting the make up on and sometimes he put on something himself and soon after that it was almost time to listen to another story, told up above him on the stage, crackling through the speakers. The boy occupied his special spot under a table near his father’s feet who was still sitting on a chair gazing into a mirror ready to soon begin speaking the words others had imagined. His father rose, kissed the boy’s head and left the room. Shortly after that another person somehow crawled under his father’s skin and two floors up on a big stage began to tell a story that dripped into the room like beautiful music, enveloping the boy like a blanket. The spider family was very still, even though the must have known the stories they listened attentively. The boy did too, curled up on an oversized pillow with a lion’s head printed on it and covered by an old costume, a coat that once a king would have worn. Above him on the table a still-life of the process of transformation. Nothing was in order, everything was in the equilibrium of beautiful chaos: eyeliner pencils, unused eyelashes, blush and face paint, there was a coffee cup, chipped as if two big teeth had taken a bite, a half full ashtray, a photograph of children playing on a beach pinned to the frame of a mirror that was a little dusty and cracked in the bottom left corner, there was a piece of apple that had turned brown and lonely banana peel. Next to the ashtray lay a nearly empty bag of throat lozenges and right in the middle of the table a marked script brimful with the most beautiful language, Kleist, Lessing, Schiller, Chekov, and Shakespeare. The boy loved this little haven. He felt safe there, close to his father, listening to stories, entering those stories, somehow becoming a part of them.
How things had changed because when he was a really young boy he dreamed of becoming a pilot, a soccer player and for quite some time he wanted to sell mushrooms by the roadside, wild brown ones, uniform buttons, delicate skinny ones plucked before dawn in a birch forest near his house, a basket full of mushrooms, selling the flesh of the earth by the handful in little brown paper bags – but these thoughts didn’t last long. It was difficult for him to show himself wanting something because that did mean to put himself into a position of a frightening vulnerability. He didn’t like to be so open and so he clowned, pretended, created quite complicated scenarios avoiding at all costs to show something of himself but there was always the theatre, creeping unnoticed into his dreams, taking him hostage when he stared aimlessly out of the window during his schooldays, so bored by mindless repetition of things he didn’t want to know let alone remember, forced to remember and spit out again on command the white-haired man with oversized spectacles who was his teacher in the forming years, at the beginning of institutionalised knowledge. If the boy failed to remember the white-haired man would hit him with a large ruler that was always within his reach. The boy ignored the danger and often took the anger of the ruler in his stride. He wanted to dream, fly through the window, go on a holiday, and be a part of fantastic stories that took him beyond time into a thousand places all at once.
The boy grew up and over time the theatre taught him to come terms with his inhibitions and insecurity, find ways to deal with them. He created an atmosphere of intense concentration and was able to find heavy tears, frightening panic, and joyous laughter. He was able to enter completely into the past, able to leave the present behind. Later in life he could remember the colour of the wallpaper of that room with the table under which he spent many nights of his childhood, he was able to describe the furniture, the rickety chairs, the bent hatstand and the pillows that moths had declared to be their kingdom. He knew what he was wearing underneath that table and eventually what he was feeling back then and how and why those feelings changed, often without warning. For a while, a long while growing up was a lonely time, because the boy had left his fixed universe, a place in which he had a distinct purpose: to be the boy, the only one under that table.
His father often had to wake him up after the stories on stage had reached their temporary end. He was carried to the car when he was still small and gangly and they drove home through the night. The car was tiny and very unreliable and so they had to take the bus on many occasions. There were times when his father did not need to wake him because there was no time to fall asleep. The boy listened attentively to the story coming through the loudspeaker and he heard a gunshot. He wasn’t frightened because he knew that they used fake guns in the theatre but still they sounded so real, not that he would have known what a real gunshot sounded like. Suddenly his father was standing in front of him, his shirt stained with blood.
‘I’m dead! We can go home.’
Joachim Matschoss was born in Germany and now lives in Melbourne/Australia. He is a playwright, poet and Theatre-maker. His Theatre Company, ‘Backyard Theatre Ensemble (BYTE)’ presents diverse pieces of theatre all across Melbourne/ Australia and internationally, both Youth Arts and for adults. Joachim has created theatre in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, India, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Hungary, Taiwan, Switzerland and China. Joachim’s poetry is published in Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the USA.