The Nutcracker ballet at Christmas is something of a tradition for the women of our household. Last night, we took a train along the coast to see it performed by a ballet school.
A visionary benefactor saw the imaginative power of performance for children learning to dance, and left the school a legacy for enabling them every year to stage a ballet in a proper theatre with a professional orchestra, at a price allowing their families — including their brothers and sisters — to come and see the show.
The performance potential of children never fails to delight and amaze me. We watched, moved and enthralled, as little children and teenagers danced the Nutcracker, resplendent in the sparkliest dresses and tunics, never putting a foot wrong, the ability of those in the leading roles of a quality comparable with dancers on the West End stage. The expressions on their faces — eager, determined, focused, happy — were a joy to see. The roar of applause was deafening and deserved, in a theatre crammed with friends and relatives, conspicuous among them the little sisters dressed for a night out in up-dos and twinkling party dresses.
And, down in the orchestra pit were the best of our local musicians, people I have known since I was barely adult, and our Rosie playing the trombone and her father playing the celeste for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Oh, it was such a happy evening.
There was also an interval.
Not being ones for ice cream or glasses of wine, we stayed in our places and Rosie came to find us for a chat. I checked that the text message I'd sent her, saying "We see you!" had found its way to her down in the orchestra pit (it had), because it's not the kind of message you'd want someone to pick up later, at the dead of night when they were all alone.
And then an incident occurred. You know how theatre seats flip up to allow people to pass through to their places? Well, a little boy, looking for something to do in between the two acts, discovered he could crawl up from underneath the chair, through the space between the seat and the back. But not all the way through. He got his head and shoulders through the gap, after which the weight of his body on the seat tipped it forward, so his body from the waist down couldn't follow. We were alerted to this catastrophe by the bellowing of real fear coming from two rows behind us.
Of course his parents rushed to help him, but were perplexed by the problem. If they pulled, the effect was to close the seat further. He was yelling his head off and incapable of getting back the way he came.
I think I took this more seriously than I otherwise might have done because of hearing of a man who actually died by being getting his head trapped in a similar seat that had an electronic closure. The child in our theatre was in no such danger, but I realised that the predicament should not be taken lightly.
Ignoring my inner hesitancy that I might be interfering and only adding to the consternation, I went to help.
Our family has what you might call a niche expertise. We are good with small spaces. My children were raised in a house essentially too small for the number of people we managed to cram into it — all our kids, many visitors, ex-cons, people in trouble, general waifs and strays — and we learned to make use of every nook and cranny. We discovered the accommodative value of cupboards and attics and sheds and corridors and alcoves and cupboards under the stairs.
In particular, we developed the knack of getting items of furniture through unpromising passages. We have coaxed double mattresses and chest of drawers round the bend of our very narrow attic staircase that folds back on itself. By a series of patient manoeuvres you have to birth it round. We can tell at a glance when an item of furniture will fit under the eaves or in the dead space next to the banisters, or on the back seat of the car; and when it won't.
We also have cats who catch mice. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe the size of gap a mouse can slip through.
Not only that, but I am the mother of five children, and I do know from personal experience that it is possible to withdraw an entire child from a tight space through a ridiculously small aperture. It can be done, and is every day all over the world.
Another characteristic of our tribe is anxiety both chronic and acute. I am familiar with the tension and rigidity it causes; I recognise the signs of fear.
So it turned out that I was able to help that little boy. I despatched his mother to find a member of staff in case we needed to take the seat apart, then squatted down by the seat where, stuck fast, the trapped child was roaring in fear, and said to him very soothingly, "It's okay. It's all right. Daddy will pull you out. You'll be okay. What you need to do is let your body go all floppy, like a fish. Can you do that? Go all floppy like a fish, and Daddy will pull you out. It's okay. You'll be okay." He stopped crying and did what I said.
And I said to his father, "You pull him, and I'll hold the seat steady at the widest gap."
And Daddy, with some determined tugging, pulled him out, and lifted him up, and held him close to comfort him.
There was a moment, when I squatted down and began to speak to the child, when he rested his little hand on mine on the up-flipped seat. And the soul in his hand found my soul, and I felt his trust; I hope mine also found his, and let him know he'd be okay — because I was quite certain we'd get him out.
Minimalism, the art of familiarisation with what is improbably small, does have some unexpected benefits. In general in life, when you are stuck, especially if someone helps you, it is possible to find an interval, an aperture, that allows you to slip through unscathed.
After that it was time for Act 2.