Pevsner never passed this way, so the building, long abandoned, remains unsung. Hidden by elm and yew and larch and sycamore, only ghosts sing here now… sing and dance, conjure and tumble, toot and whistle and crack the corniest of corny gags you ever did hear. For the crumbling palace of which I speak was once Bodger’s Spinney Music Hall & Variety Theatre, and it was here that one of the most singular careers in entertainment began, and ended.
Like a character from a Gothic novel, Bonkers Maisie was locked up in an attic for forty years. Whether her bonkersness was the motive for her confinement, or the inevitable result of it, we cannot say. All others who lived at the stinking farmhouse atop which the attic loomed are dead and gone, and they left no diaries or memoirs or confessions. Indeed, the only book to be recovered from the farm was the novel which was Bonkers Maisie’s companion for all those years. It was a copy of Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre.
On the night of her rescue, Bonkers Maisie came lolloping down the staircase clutching the Sartre in one hand and a moth-eaten stuffed toy bear in the other. It was a one-eyed bear, and looked rather like the cloying mascot of the BBC’s annual Children In Need appeal. It did not have a name. As she passed through the door into the open air for the first time in forty years, Bonkers Maisie took one rapid, unblinking, uncomprehending look at those who had kept her shut away. The soldiers had lined them up against the wall of the pig-sty, blindfolded, their necks already bared for the nooses. An owl hooted, and Bonkers Maisie was given an already-lit cigarette, and driven away in a jeep at reckless speed.
One week later posters appeared in Bodger’s Spinney announcing an exciting new turn at the Music Hall & Variety Theatre. Opening the show for more established acts, Bonkers Maisie would take to the stage for half an hour. The advertisement ran shy of divulging the precise nature of her performance, so when the local hoi polloi peasantry shuffled resentfully into the sawdust-strewn mosh pit, they had no inkling of what to expect. With everybody inside, the soldiers slammed shut all the doors and set the timer-locks.
This was the era of the New Look, and when Bonkers Maisie skipped onstage it was obvious that a benefactor had replaced her tattered attic rags. She tapped the microphone hesitantly with a gloved fingertip, and took from her new expensive Wyck Thayer handbag her spookily pristine copy of Iron In The Soul. And beginning very quietly, but gradually getting louder, until she was shrieking like a banshee, she read:
An octopus? He pulled out his knife and opened his eyes … Rushes of blood to the head settle nothing … The abscess had got to be drained … He’ll pretend to agree, so as not to look like a pricked bubble, but no sooner is your back turned, than he evaporates into thin air … Brunet was grinding scraps of bread into the ground with his heel … The general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth … Truth stood blocking every vista.
To those among the gathered peasants who were existentialists familiar with Sartre, it was apparent that Bonkers Maisie was plucking phrases from the book at random. To the rest, the words took on a haunting grandeur. Some wept. All were transfixed.
And then, after reading for fifteen minutes, Bonkers Maisie stopped, put the book back in her handbag, sashayed to the side of the stage and came back bearing in her Dior-clad arms a large bundle of dishcloths. She spent the next quarter of an hour in complete silence, scrunching up the dishcloths one by one, unscrunching them and then scrunching them up again. It was not quite a magic show, in fact it was as far from a magic show as one could get, yet by the time the emcee tootled his whistle to signal that she cease her scrunching, the crowd of rustics was bathed in an aura of absolute awe.
That season, Bonkers Maisie performed her show every night without a break, gradually moving up the billing until she was the star act for the final weekend. The morning after her final appearance, it is said that the soldiers came for her in their jeep, and drove her away from Bodger’s Spinney before dawn. Some say they took her to the seaside, and that she lived out the rest of her days in tranquility. No one has ever been able to locate her gravestone.
Note : Astute and/or pernickety readers may question a certain befuddlement in the chronology of the tale of Bonkers Maisie, and of course they are free so to do. I offer no defence, except to say that I may have muddled up my source material.