The Rewards of Being Flexible

“Yes! Robert the unbeaten champion. Better luck next time Tom!”

It’s 1993 and I’m working backstage on Miss Saigon in London’s Drury Lane. It’s a night time job that comes with a ‘days free’ lifestyle. Perfect for writing songs, visiting record companies and hanging out with my godson, Robert. He’s seven. 

I meet him from school once a week and we invent games together at his Mum’s fourth floor flat above the Fire Station in West Hampstead.

At ten past five, whatever game we’re playing, I have to leave for The West End. On the dot. 

Consequently I need to be losing the game by 5 o’clock so Robert can win and we can wind it up ‘naturally’. Robert is forever trying to keep me winning though, so I have to stay and play some more. This is the real game. Haha, and we both know it.

Somehow I have to swing it so he can claim victory by nine minutes past five, leaving me one minute to put my shoes on, grab my bag and rush down the apartment block stairs. Then, for three echoing flights I hear my young friend celebrating noisily on the landing above. It’s a ritual. 

“Yes! Robert the unbeaten champion. Better luck next time Tom!”

I’m in my late-thirties and it’s the first time in my life I’ve had a ‘proper’ job. Characteristically, I’ve glamorised my new routine life, thinking it’s equivalent to the noble, disciplined life of a Martial Arts monk. Consequently I don’t like to break my discipline, but this afternoon I do. Like any martial artist I’m about to learn that flexibility has its rewards too.

Imagine two opposing toy armies. The figures are three centimetres high and they are arranged on a rough terrain of folded bedspreads. It’s five past five and there are still a lot of plastic soldiers standing, too many. I offer Robert a double-score option to wipe my men out quicker, he accepts but gives me double-strength in return. It’s seven minutes past five, my left flank should have been captured in one swoop but, according to Robert, I’ve got a force-field around it. Eight minutes past, I’m not putting my shoes on but I’m getting them ready. Robert is starting to look upset, he’s had a hard time with his teacher today. 

“Robert, you know the deal, I have to leave now or I’ll miss the pre-set and lose five pounds which I just can’t afford to do”. The pre-set is getting the Miss Saigon stage ready an hour before the show goes up. The O.P crew are so slick we do it in 20 minutes. Six times five pounds means an extra thirty pounds a week. Most of us ‘Opposite Prompt Side’ go out for something to eat and spend it immediately. It’s a backstage Covent Garden ritual. Discipline.

As my little friend’s eyes brim with tears my resolve softens and I reach beyond my shoes to the telephone. I normally arrive at the stage door bang on at 5.59, but today I tell my boss there’s been a family crisis. He’s sympathetic, says he’ll arrange a dep, and I assure him I’ll definitely be there for curtain-up at seven. Hearing this, Robert immediately brightens up and thrashes my army in two minutes flat. We spend the next fifty seven minutes talking about school, inventing booby-traps for his teacher and then acting them out, with me being Mister James, the hapless victim.

Somehow I still end up rushing when it’s time to go. His Mum, Mary, is at the door with my bag and I’m thinking it’s a rather unfair delaying tactic of Robert’s when he says, 

“Wait Tom, you forgot something!”. 

I really can’t wait, this could mean trouble.

He runs off to his bedroom and returns earnestly holding out his gift.

I accept it, then gently give it back to him. 

We’re all older now, Robert is a teacher abroad and I dare say he has forgotten this day. Thankfully I’m reminded of it often. In my daily transactions with the commercial world the currency of love doesn’t change. My heart opens and I see Robert’s innocent face, every time someone offers me that most precious of gifts, a five pound note.

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