Prologue - Salome
The insistent noise from four wailing sirens had silenced the assembled throng. The emergency vehicles crawled their way through the crowd; flashing blue lights illuminating faces momentarily like some early movie picture jerking its way across a silver screen. As they neared the theatre, the outrider motorcyclists edged cautiously past either side of the ambulance to lead the cavalcade. The sirens reached a crescendo. Many covered their ears but this did nothing to alleviate the thumping sensation in their chests.The pulsing syncopated rhythm was almost musical, an irony not lost on those watching from above.
Three men surveyed the scene from an open balcony window off the crush bar above the main foyer. Had anyone in the crowd below lifted their eyes they would have seen only two figures and a curtain. The short, rather round man waved his arms in agitation.The tall slender man stood watching with a sad and puzzled expression. The curtain remained impassive.
‘This is not looking good for us, Vic,’ said the curtain quietly.
‘It’s certainly woken this sleepy London suburb,’ said the tall man.
‘Such excitement! This is the biggest crowd I have seen outside a theatre since that time in Milan,’ replied Victor Gagliano, the general manager of the Lyceum Theatre.
‘Hmmm, rather different circumstances.’ muttered the curtain.
‘Yes. She really had some voice.’
‘True,’ said the curtain, ‘and back then they couldn’t see enough of her. Now this lot want to see less!’
‘You saw more of her than most of us, Richard,’ said Andrew Golding, his frown morphing into a weak grin.
The curtain twitched as Lord Richard MacCracken chuckled. Over the years he had learned to be cautious. There might be newspaper photographers or, even worse, a television camera down there. The tabloid press had begun to portray him as something of a playboy. His height and classical features combined with his dramatic early career had even allowed them to turn him into something of a sex symbol. For a while he had enjoyed the pedestal they had placed him on until he discovered that its sole purpose was to be kicked from under him just when he most needed stability in his life. Unfortunately for Richard, he had obligingly provided dramatic evidence of his human frailties on too many occasions.
It was now three years since he had created his Opera Libera Company with a mission to bring opera to a wider public. As managing director, Andrew had shared the many trials both artistic and financial. The idea of bringing the latest production of the company to Victor’s theatre had seemed the solution to all their problems when they first thought of it several months earlier. No. Correction. At first it looked like complete madness. The schedule they had set themselves was crazy. Gradually Andrew worked out all the logistics and proved it was just possible and then the idea appeared glorious. Tonight it was looking a different matter. The curtain shook irritably.
‘Well, Vic we’ve succeeded in one way. This is certainly raising the profile of your theatre. We’ll make the television news tonight and the morning papers tomorrow.’
Victor Gagliano’s eyes lifted over the crowd filling the street outside and across to the right where the mosque stood in darkness. He let out a sigh more of sadness than the exasperation he felt inwardly.
Andrew Golding gave a gentle tut. ‘I thought we had persuaded them to behave. I never dreamed they would do this to us.’
Lord Richard MacCracken held his head in his hands. He had been through tough times in the past, particularly during his political career but this project mattered more than anything he had done before and he took this attack on it personally. He detested censorship whether enforced by governments or inspired by religion.
‘Who would have thought Salome would still be so controversial in the twenty-first century?’ he sighed. Last night had been bad enough. One group distributed pamphlets listing the names and addresses of senior managers and artists of the Opera Libera Company, exhorting members of the public to demonstrate outside their homes. Thankfully they had got several addresses wrong and he was relieved that it was the family home and not his London house they had got hold of. His wife Fiona had not been so pleased and this had caused some domestic tension, as if he needed more of that! Because of his past position, the police were watching his home so Fiona was perfectly safe.
Victor knew he was lucky to have a patron like MacCracken. As usual, Richard had taken all the risks and given everyone at Opera Libera total artistic freedom.
Initially the three men on the balcony had been amused at the paradox of native racists and mainly immigrant Lebanese Muslims standing together. Their feelings soon turned to anxiety when some among the crowd began chanting anti-Islamic slogans leading to the current situation that could only be described as near riot. The police had lost control briefly but then reinforcements had arrived from a side street and now things were becoming more orderly.
The ambulance was still trying to reach the section of the crowd at the front of the theatre. People, some screaming in agony, had been crushed against the gates to the bottom of the steps. At last the police were cordoning off a route through the crowd.
It was then that some idiot broke free and, standing in the now open space between the police lines, he started shouting and brandishing a pistol. There was a flash and a crack as he fell writhing to the ground. Two policemen standing free of the cordon put away their Tasers and rushed to restrain and move him to one side.
That was when it happened. Little Amir was in tears having been parted from his mother as the police divided the crowd. A stranger tried to comfort him but in his short life he had no experience of being separated from both his parents. He caught sight of his mother behind the opposite cordon, ducked under the joined arms of two policemen and ran towards her across the open space. He ran straight under the tyres of the police motorcycle. He stood no chance.