The band I’m in is playing its penultimate gig of 2022, in Stroud. Our trumpet player is not available, because she just had a baby. We’ve rehearsed a set that covers for her absence, but at the last minute the fiddle player tests positive for Covid. Suddenly we’re down from seven to five.
We have swapped parts, changed arrangements and added some songs we haven’t played in years. It feels like a bit of a high-wire act, but it is only when it’s time for me to play a brief guitar solo – one I have played perhaps hundreds of times without incident – that things go catastrophically wrong.
“It was like someone who had never seen a guitar before,” says the accordion player, afterwards.
“I still don’t understand what happened,” I say.
“And then it got worse,” he says.
“That was deliberate,” I say. “Halfway through, I decided I had to pretend I was doing it on purpose.”
I’m not a guitar player – I just do it for the one song – and my confidence is badly shaken.
For the final gig of the year, a week later, the fiddle player is back, and I have checked my guitar over thoroughly – whatever went wrong, it wasn’t its fault.
By 3pm we have loaded our stuff into the venue, the Clapham Grand in south London, and set up. During the sound check I play the guitar solo through a few times and all seems well. After that, we wait.
The Grand’s backstage area is a three-storey warren of narrow corridors and mystery staircases. Every time I leave the dressing room I get lost, finding myself opening doors that lead to the balcony, or an office, or another stairwell. When I return to the dressing room it’s empty, even though the whole band had been sitting in there not five minutes before. Even their coats are gone.
Eventually I realise I’m in a different dressing room, on a different floor.
This landing is probably where I will die, but slowly because there is so much rain to drink
The long wait gives me a chance to calm down, and then get nervous all over again. I tune and retune my guitar and banjo several times. Someone mentions that two of the swanky boxes to the right of the stage are unoccupied, and if we want we can sit up there to watch the support act, an excellent band called the Trials of Cato.
“Let’s go,” I say.
On the way out of the door I pause to plug my phone in to charge. Along the corridor I see three band members disappearing down the stairs. As I reach the stairs I catch a glimpse of the bass player – the last in line – turning to walk down another corridor one floor below. I get there just in time to see a door closing at the far end. I walk down and go through it, where I find myself alone, facing two more doors – one to the left and one straight ahead. I choose ahead. The door is heavy and it’s dark on the other side, but I can just can make out another door beyond it. That, I think, must lead to the boxes. I go through.
The first door snaps shut behind me, and I am left in perfect blackness. I step blindly forward and push through the far door, which opens on to some sort of landing, about a metre square and boxed in by tall plywood screening. I don’t know where I am, but it’s clear I’m outside, because it’s raining.
I return to the blackness between the doors and feel for a handle, but I can’t find one. Where there should be a handle there is only more door. Don’t panic, I tell myself, which is invariably a prelude to panicking. I reach for my phone, and remember I left it in the dressing room. My heart thuds, and I begin to claw at the door like an animal, thinking about how much soundproofing there must be between me and the Trials of Cato.
I go back out to the landing to stand in the rain. I consider climbing over the screening, but I realise I’m at least one floor up from the street. I think: as showtime approaches the others will search for me, but this is not one of the places they will look. This is probably where I will die, but slowly, because there is so much rain to drink.
After perhaps eight minutes of quiet whimpering I get an idea: with my feet spread as wide as they will go I can hold the outer door open wide enough to cast a dim light on the inner door. In the gloom I can just see the latch handle up near the top of the door, where no handle should be. I turn it, and I am free.
The guitar solo was flawless, for what it’s worth.