Annie liked theatre but Tom didn’t, and that was the trouble.
They were in the London Pantheon, and the curtains had just parted to reveal a beautifully furnished stage.
“Isn’t it splendid?” Annie whispered.
The play was an adaptation of Annie’s favourite detective story. If Tom hadn’t been so grouchy, he would have been impressed by the acting – and by the stage settings, each more lavish than the last. The stage revolved, and the intricate Victoriana of Holmes’s drawing room gave way to gas-lit London streets. Then it revolved again to reveal Moriarty’s sinister Cheapside lair.
Annie would have loved it as the faithful Watson drew off the villain while Holmes hid in a secret room. But with Tom sulking she felt only miserable.
And with the two of them so disconnected from the play and from each other, it is hardly surprising what happened next.
“Where’s Holmes?” Annie whispered.
The stage had revolved, but somehow Holmes did not appear, and the lighting did not come on. What was happening? The moments turned to minutes and the theatre remained dark and silent.
“I don’t like this,” said Tom. “Where is everybody?”
Annie looked aroun, and gasped. In the dimness she could make out only empty seats.
Swallowing his own fears, Tom stood up. He seized Annie’s hand, and led the way along the aisle to the stairs. There it was even darker, but when they reached the theatre door a glimmer of light shone through the glass. “Let’s get out!” Annie cried.
Tom pushed open the door, letting in a strangely musty draught of air, and they rushed through. But their relief turned to dismay. Where was this? The familiar brightly-lit street filled with cars and theatre-goers was gone. Instead, gas lamps glimmered on cobblestones, a horse-drawn cab clattered past a huddled group on the corner, and fog crept out from an alleyway.
Annie desperately looked around. But they were hemmed in by blank walls. With a whimper, she realised they were lost.
“The theatre – back inside!”
Tom grabbed Annie, and reached for the door. But this time it would not open. He tugged at it, then gave up.
“What is happening?” he groaned.
Now Annie was becoming calmer; she took the lead. “Look!” she said, pointing at the figures on the corner.
Tom looked. They were a shadowy group, very still. A horse and cab clattered past, but the figures remained unmoving. “Are they real?” he said at last.
Annie shook her head. The horse and cab rattled past again. “Neither is that,” she added.
“You mean…?” Tom asked, incredulously.
“Yes,” said Annie, her eyes bright in the dimness. “Somehow, we’re in the set of the play!”
“But why? And why us?” Tom wailed.
Annie squeezed his hand. “It’s no good asking, why?”
Then she walked boldly over to the opposite side of the street.
“I thought so,” she said, “it’s a street sign. Look!”
Tom came over. “‘St Martin’s Lane,’” he read. “So? That’s where the Pantheon is.”
“But in the play we’re supposed to be in Cheapside!” said Annie excitedly. “This is real.”
Tom stared at her, then back at the sign. “So…So what?”
“I don’t know, but perhaps there are other streets here.”
Tom looked nonplussed. “What if there are?”
“Tom,” Annie said firmly, “I want to go to Baker Street.”
It made no sense to Tom. “Shouldn’t we just wait to be rescued?”
“Suppose there’s no rescue?” Annie said. “Suppose the set is just frozen like this – in a time-warp?”
Tom fell silent. And it was he who led the way over the dimly-lit cobbles.
The street emerged by degrees through the fog. Now and then they passed shadowy representations of people. Familiar place names appeared – Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Regent’s Street.
“We’re going to make it,” Annie said.
“Suppose he isn’t there?”
“He’ll be there,” Annie said confidently.
“And what can he do if he is?” Tom persisted.
They marched on until, with a cry of delight, Annie read the words, ‘Baker Street’, under the light of a gas lamp.
“He’d better be in,” Tom said grimly.
He was. The first floor window of number 221B Baker Street was lit, and when they knocked, the great man himself opened the door, his face pink with make-up.
“Good God, thought you’d never come!” he exclaimed. “Is it too late?”
“Too late for what?” Tom asked.
“The play, young fellow, the play! I’ve been waiting heaven knows how long for my cue.”
“But this isn’t a play–” Tom began.
Annie tugged his arm. “Perhaps it is – for him,” she whispered.
“Can’t understand it,” Holmes continued. “Have they gone to sleep?”
“What was the cue?” Annie asked.
“Watson says, ‘Are you there, Holmes?’ and I emerge from that door.” He pointed to a door in the opposite wall.
There was a short silence.
“Well, we’d better be going,” Annie said.
“What–?” Tom said, but she nudged him.
“Give them a kick up the backside from me,” were Holmes’s parting words.
When Annie and Tom were outside the front door, Annie stopped. “Now!”
This time, for perhaps the first time that evening, Tom understood. He drew breath and in a firm voice called out the cue.
Their world rotated. The dimly-lit buildings of Baker Street angled away from them, light flooded in from above, revealing struts and supports, and – quite naturally, it seemed – the two young people were again in their seats in the theatre.
Holmes strode onto the stage, to a burst of applause. Annie and Tom took care to join in.
And it was not until they were outside amid the bright lights and the talking laughing crowds that Tom dared speak.
“You know–,” he began.
“Hush,” said Annie, “not till we’re safe.”
They got home safely. But even there they took care to be more considerate to each other, and it was quite some time before they quarrelled again.