‘It might be the medication, but I am about to swoon. A bejewelled and elegant creature, a beautiful vision made of purest light, is looking directly into my face. Her lips part, her eyes flash, her tutu rustles and with a gasp of tragic passion she throws back her head.
Overcome by the moment my ears whoosh, my palms sweat and I tumble towards her embrace at the very point she is lifted out of reach to bound free on the tips of her toes. ‘No!’ I cry, distraught, falling from my seat. But my words are lost in the shouts of the crowd: ‘Marvellous!’ ‘Oh, how super!’ ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ And, from the very big man in the pinstripe suit sitting directly behind me, ‘Pwwwoooff!’
From his size and demeanour and the fact he says ‘Pwwwoooff!’ I’m presuming the very big man in the pinstripe suit is a Tory MP. He’s not the only notable person here. From where I am sitting, I can see the much-feared editor of a national newspaper, a nominee for a major literary prize, a world-famous television interviewer and an extremely important woman whose name and occupation, other than being extremely important, I have forgotten. I’m having trouble with my memory. That could be the medication as well. The bottle did say there might be side effects, but, raging temperature or not, I was so excited by this unexpected, and possibly misdirected, invitation to attend a private studio preview of the Royal Ballet’s upcoming production of ‘Swan Lake’, I drank it all anyway.
I’ve never been this close to a ballerina before and I’m still shaken by the experience when, afterwards, we are taken into another and even grander room with mirrored walls lined with tables covered with glasses of champagne. A pleasant man in a tie gives a speech about making ballet more democratic and letting ordinary people taste the experience. On behalf of ordinary people everywhere, I taste the champagne side of the experience. It is very good, and soon the hum of conversation in the room has become a steady roar. I notice the reflections of the group in the wall mirrors have become a little odd. A little, in fact, like a fairytale. The editor could make a fine elf, the nominee for a major literary prize is pretty much an ogre already, the world famous television interviewer is a remarkably convincing troll and the extremely important woman, wearing a black dress and coming closer to me all the time without appearing to move her feet is, I realise with unease, a ringer for a large black swan. I also have the sensation that I am about to cry.
The black swan woman glides closer. I am fixed to the floor and now – unmistakably, as I can see myself doing it in the mirror – sobbing. The woman draws herself up to her full height and hisses: ‘So, you are?’ It’s too frightening. I rush through a set of double doors. On the other side I find a man sitting on a table in a darkened hallway. ‘How do I get out?’ I ask, noting that he has a fox-like manner, as though he were in Russian folk tale, playing a fox, perhaps. The man adds to this impression by speaking in English that is both fox-like and heavy with a Russian accent. ‘You go down the corridor.’ There are two corridors leading away from the table he is sitting on. ‘Which one?’ I enquire. He laughs. ‘Well, you could go down that one.’
I walk down the corridor he indicates. As I go, it gets darker and smaller. An optical illusion surely? Maybe not. Panicking again, I hurry through another door and slam it quickly behind me. I find a silent room of watching ogres, trolls and swans. ‘Pwwwoooff!’ shouts the very big man in the pinstripe suit.’
Also not recommended: Four unsettling London animal experiences
Southwark’s Angry Bears
In the seventeenth century Southwark resounded to anguished ursine roars from its Bear Garden, where beasts were baited by dogs. Diarist John Evelyn declared himself ‘weary of the dirty pastime’ and denounced it as ‘butchery sport’. Of course, Evelyn had never been to a Millwall game.
The Tower’s Angry Serpent
The Tower of London was home to the royal menagerie until 1832. On its closure, warden Alfred Cops decided to keep a snake; in 1835 the snake decided to have a go at eating Alfred Cops. He was only saved when his colleagues literally smashed the snake’s teeth in.
Camden’s Mad Zebra
The Blitz, 1940, and in Regent’s Park, zoo cages are blown open and a terrified zebra breaks out of its enclosure. Pre-empting the career of Shane McGowan by 45 years, it goes on a crazed canter around Camden Town, and, foaming at the mouth, is finally cornered outside a pub.
In 2009, 13-year-old Oscar Bridge pulled an extremely rare lamprey out of the Thames near Putney. Employing circular rows of fearsome teeth, lampreys attach themselves to victims and suck bodily fluids out. Luckily young Oscar claimed to be keen on ‘creepy animals like that’.