The Ghost Theatre

Mat Osman

June 28, 2023 
The following is from Mat Osman's The Ghost Theatre. Osman is a musician, songwriter, bassist, and founding member of the British band Suede, as well as a composer for film and television. His writing about art and travel has appeared in the Guardian, Independent, and Observer and more. He is the author of the novel The Ruins and he lives in the UK.

LONDON, 1601

If the men had brought dogs rather than their fancy trained wolves then Shay would be dead by now. Dogs could have been let off the leash and they’d have made short work of her up here on the roofs. Wolves though were worth a sovereign and that was too rich a prize to be risked on a flapper like her. Gilmour had begun chasing her back in Eastcheap, where it was easy enough to leap from rooftop to rooftop. The roads there were barely wide enough for a cart to pass through and the houses leant towards one another like plants seeking the sun. There Shay had stepped between the roofs as easily as stepping across a stream. But the men drove her westwards. At first she’d relished this; west London roofs were tile rather than daub and she worried less about crashing through into the rooms below. But as they forced her towards grander streets wide enough for carriages, the jumps were becoming hard work. Her legs throbbed with the effort. She threw herself across St Peter’s Hill and barely made it. Her leading foot caught the edge of the thatch and it was only momentum that carried her body on to flatten against the slope of the roof. Grit bit her hands and knees. She scrambled around the building’s edge, leaning into its slope, and cursed the loss of rhythm. Below her, three storeys down, the rest of Gilmour’s men careered along the street. She flung herself across a short gap between domed roofs and scampered across a rare glass skylight. A glimpse of faces turning up to watch her feet and then she slid down a bank of mossy tiles onto the house’s flat border. A ten-foot gap gaped in front of her. She scanned the roof for a ladder to bridge the space: nothing. Gilmour was close now. His whistles came more frequently and when she turned she could see the wolves straining against their leashes, snouts tasting the air in front of them.

She turned back along the gutter, looking for another path. The houses down by the Thames were bunched closer together again so she edged along the peak of the roof and then threw herself across a thin alley. Her landing place was a row of older houses with boards on top, and the wood bowed under her weight; if it collapsed then she’d break a leg, or worse. The jumps were manageable here but now she was running at an angle to Gilmour and he was closing in. For the first time she could hear the panting of the wolves and the sound of his feet clattering over the boards. At this rate he could afford to wait until the dead end of the river.

Legs complaining, Shay leapt from the board-houses onto a sturdier roof. She came down with a crash, sending a flock of pigeons skywards in a soft explosion of feathers.They spread like a fountain and she repeated the catechism under her breath: The gods are birds and the birds are gods. She let its cadence guide her feet. The gods – step – are birds – step – and the birds – step – are gods – leap.

Gilmour to the right, the river to the left and the end of the city ahead. She spun around: a church spire, a flash of grass, the turrets of a gate. She turned east towards a plain of thatched roofs and ran harder. Gilmour was near enough that she heard his commands to the wolves: ‘Come by, come by. There’s my girl.’ He let out a long whistle and it was instantly echoed from the streets below.

Each step tore strips of breath from her body. The thatch was ragged, and twice she caught her foot under a loose section. Straw-ends burned her hands. She looked for landmarks. St Paul’s Church rose from the carpet of the city and behind it, obscured by smoke, sat the old bell tower. No good to her now, either of them. She looked right and saw a still figure sitting on a flat roof with a hand shielding its eyes. For a second the figure watched, then it raised a hand, stood, and began to run parallel to her.

The birds are – leap – GODS. Nearly eight feet that one, arms thrown out to catch the central ridge of thatch and pull her up and over. She slid down the other side and narrowly avoided going over the edge. Gravel fell to the street below. The figure now ran on a course that would intercept her. Friend or foe? No way of knowing. Then a boy’s voice sounded across the rooftops. ‘Go right for three houses, then head for the spire.’ She hauled herself upright and stepped over the thinnest of alleyways. Thirty feet below, a river of noise pulsed. She took off, not daring to look back, and made for a longhouse with a peaked top that would surely be too steep for the dogs. That gained some precious moments. She scuttled across the slope, keeping one eye on her footing and one on the boy. He was twenty feet away but closing in. Just a lad, with hair to his shoulders, dressed in scarlet and black. Once he was level with her he kept a street’s width between them. ‘Three jumps ahead there’s a roof with a smoking chimney. Stop there, and then do as I do.’ Shay tried to nod but the pain in her lungs wiped her strength away.

Three leaps – gods, birds, gods – and they converged on a square of roof barely large enough to hold the pair of them. A rickety chimney puffed fragrant white smoke: a sweet smell, almost sickly. The boy lay on his front and reached over the side. Shay heard a click and a creak of wood.

‘Watch me.’ There was no urgency to his voice. Shay lay down and looked over the edge. They were higher up than she expected and the street below was too far for any noise. A drop of sweat fell from her brow and spun lazily downwards.

‘Look.’ The boy squatted, held onto the edge of the roof, and then rolled over while still grasping the rim. His body somersaulted and then disappeared. Shay held her breath, waiting for the crash.

‘Now you.’ His voice was close. She edged out further. A window stood open underneath the lip of the roof. He’d flipped over and inside the tower in one movement. His face peered up. ‘Quick, don’t think about it.’

Frantic whistles behind her and the wolves howling with anticipation.

She grabbed the edge and threw herself forward. The world spun as the weight strained against her aching shoulders and she began to fall back into the window, but then her left leg slammed into the frame and her hand slipped. For a second she dangled there by one arm, legs flailing for some kind of purchase, before he grabbed her around the waist and pulled. Her back and arm scraped hard against the window frame and she fell backwards into the building.

Shay wanted to lie there for a moment, but the boy set off down a spiral staircase so tiny that the steps were no larger than roof tiles. He jammed his hands against the walls and half slid, half fell down the spiral. She followed as fast as she dared, breathless and dizzy with her vision blurring. The stairs seemed to go on forever but just as the nausea was making her stumble, his footsteps stopped ahead of her. She collapsed to her knees in a larger room with two doorways and an open serving hatch in the wall. An enormous woman was wedged into a chair by the door, stroking something in her lap. The boy knelt at her side and talked quickly into her ear. Then the two of them looked over at her and Shay was about to thank them when she heard the sound of splintering wood from above. The boy said something more to the giant woman, kissed her gently on the ear, and then pulled the serving hatch open. It was a small lift, no bigger than a chest of drawers. ‘Inside,’ he said.

Shay placed her hands on the frame. ‘I can’t. It’s too small.’

The fat woman laughed at that. ‘Little scrap of rag like you? It’s your choice. You could take your chances with whoever’s up there instead.’ The splintering stopped, and the ensuing silence was more frightening than the noise had been. Shay lifted a knee into the hatch and then pulled one shoulder and her head inside. She smelt cooked meat and that same sickly smoke from the chimney. The box creaked under her weight and again hands grasped her waist. The boy lifted up the rest of her body and shoved, jamming her head against the wall. She looked out, sideways, at his hands and the murk of the room, and, she now realised, the long silver machete that lay in the woman’s lap.

‘Don’t move, and don’t touch anything when you get down there.’

The box lurched and scraped against the wall as it descended. She was wedged in tight; when the box stammered to a stop she had to push with her legs to get out and she fell awkwardly onto the floor. A moment to catch her breath. She was in another room, more shadowy than upstairs and oily with smoke. The serving lift disappeared back up with a jerk and the room echoed to a low hubbub of voices that hadn’t stopped upon her arrival. She pulled herself up and found a man standing over her, older, and dressed in clothes that had been expensive once. He leant down and took her by the chin, turning her face towards the candles. Their eyes met for a moment and then he let go and smiled. ‘Well, I definitely didn’t order that.’ Laughter came from over his shoulder as he walked back into the room.The serving lift juddered back into place once more and the boy slid gracefully out, landing on his feet. He tutted and brushed himself down and then took Shay’s hand and guided her into the shadows.

The room was divided up into small cabins, each lit by a single candle. Men smoked and slept, one to a booth, and the air was muddied with thick haze. The boy found them an empty booth. He pulled over some cushions and regarded her with interest. Shay was unused to such close scrutiny. She worked hard on being unmemorable: her clothes, her manner, her voice. She’d learnt to bounce off the surface of people, to slide between the rough edges of life, but he didn’t look away.

She knew what he’d be thinking: ‘What is this?’ She’d lost her cap somewhere, so her two wings of hair stuck up in tufts around her tattoo lines, and there were cuts on her neck and shoulders. Her breasts were taped down, and she wore sailor’s culottes and buckle shoes. She’d heard all the questions – ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ ‘What happened to your hair?’ ‘Why are you dressed for the poorhouse?’ – so she set her face as hard as she could manage, her heart still racing, and tried to stop her legs trembling.

The boy kept examining her, and then shook his head as if to dislodge something.

‘So rude of me.’ He reached out a hand, like an adult.

‘Shay.’ She kept her voice as flat as possible, deepened it a little. The act was almost unconscious now.

He clasped his other hand over hers. ‘Well, hello, Shay. I’m Lucifer, the very Devil come to earth.’


Excerpted from THE GHOST THEATRE by Mat Osman. Copyright © 2023 by Mat Osman. Published and reprinted by permission of Abrams. All rights reserved.

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