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4.50 a.m.

There comes a point in every sensible girl’s life when she finds herself thinking, ‘oh my’.  I mean, ‘oh my’ probably really doesn’t do it justice, but that’s kinda the point – ‘oh my’ are the nearest words that I find readily available to capture that strange sense of… well… of ‘oh my’-iness that sometimes settles over the soul like cold shade on a hot day.

For me, my latest ‘oh my’ moment happened at 4.50 a.m. on top of the fly tower of my favourite theatre, standing alone, in the morning cold, watching the sun come up.  It was the sixth hour of a nine hour overnight shift, which had started at 2300 the previous night.  It was, in fact, the second overnight shift I’d done in two days, which, combined with the fact that my downstairs neighbour is a DJ who likes to practice at home, made for a feeling not too far off jet lag on an Australian scale.

The mission we’d recklessly chosen to accept, was to try and turn around the entire lighting rig from the last show – which wasn’t exactly lit with an angle poise – and re-instate the entire basic rig, as well as show-specific stuff, that usually lights this theatre in three reckless days.  Bare in mind that the theatre in question can, theoretically, pack 1000 active units into its space, and you have an idea of just how much pain this job involved.  The first night hadn’t gone that badly.  We’d ripped down the ceiling, hauled lights up to the bridges, pulled out cable and plugged up new units and, thank the lord, escaped a few hours early at 5.30 a.m., staggering out into the cold light of day like zombies in search of the spa cure.  You may think you appreciate showers… I assure you that until you’ve spent the hours of 2300-0530 hanging off a bit of scaff by a harness while trying to maneuver 40kg of swinging electric equipment over a sheer drop, you’ve not appreciated showers.

Getting home at around 6.15 a.m. I staggered into the kitchen, desperately hungry.  It’s not just your brain that gets jet lag, it turns out, but the stomach too, and since the overnight shifts ended my body has been highly confused as to what it wants to eat when, and has just settled for wanting to eat everything, now.  Regrettably, coming into my kitchen I found that the ceiling was leaking and there was a ‘we missed you’ note from the Post Office on the floor which I hadn’t noticed yesterday.  With my temporary flatmate fast asleep next door, it seemed inhumane to have a noisy shower and a microwave meal, so I put a bucket under the leak, and with clothes still on, went to bed for two glorious hours.

The sound of my flatmate getting up, woke me up, which was pretty much how the plan had worked in my head anyway.  I brushed my teeth, sorta combed my hair, pulled on my coat and staggered up to knock on my neighbour’s door.  It was answered by a man holding a baby and a bottle, inducing immediate guilt in me for the conversation that had to happen.  I told him about the leak and he nodded and smiled and asked me to repeat it again in slower English, his own being heavily accented, and I did and asked if it was okay to call the council – since I live in a council-maintained estate – and he kept on nodding and smiling and, feeling a little bit like a mortician at a wedding, I went back to the flat to phone the estate managers.

Talking to the council is never fun, especially on two hours sleep.  I didn’t quite talk to a machine, but I may as well have since I couldn’t shake the feeling the man I was actually addressing was merely reading out pre-programmed responses from his PC, and any deviation from this path would have resulted in instant electrocution through the sole of his council-issue chair.  I coaxed a number out of him, went back upstairs to my neighbour, gave him the number and headed straight back into the my kitchen to check the bucket and have food.

I wanted pasta.  8.40 a.m. and all is not well if all you crave is pasta.  I settled on a half-hearted eating up of yesterday’s dinner, grabbed the post office ‘we missed you’ receipt, went to collect the package, staggered back home just as my flatmate was heading out to join the day shift at the same theatre which I’d left some 4 hours before, and had the afore-mentioned shower of my dreams.

Then bed.

Then, the DJ started.  And the council… well, they didn’t come into my flat, but they were very busy outside.  I suspect they’ve discovered an oil well, and, annoyingly, I only have one ear plug left after the other one vanished down the back of the bed.  (I have been stealing disposable ear plugs from carpentry departments for several years now, but alas, the habit has lapsed these last few months.  Not through moral revelations, I should add… just inertia.)

Sleep failed to happen.

So, back to pottering.  I scrubbed the floor, cleaned the kitchen, did the washing up, laid out clothes to dry, checked my potted plant, looked at my to-do list and failed to achieve any of the points, checked the bank balance, finished up a few emails that I’d been ignoring for a while, and finally, tentatively, had a look at doing some actual writing.  Tentative because I know, through bitter experience… just because you think you’re in a fit mental state to write the greatest prose man has ever seen, doesn’t mean you are.  In fact, what it probably means, is you’re writing incomprehensible gibberish, and generally speaking, the most sensible policy, is to just say no.

I caught some sleep during the oil digger’s lunch break.  Then when they resumed, I pottered again, and when finally they went off home at 5 p.m. I was straight back into bed and unconscious almost instantly, my now dry laundry spread on the end of the bed ready to be ignored.  At 9 p.m. my alarm went off, and I found myself going through the slightly strange ritual of getting up when I should, surely, have been getting into pyjamas.  Out came the steel boots and the spanners, on came the jacket and at 10 p.m., as the city was settling down for the evening news and maybe a cuppa tea, I trudged out in search of the bus.

Six hours fifty minutes later, the five members of the overnight lighting crew took their tea break.

Five people are not enough to fill a theatre that sits over a thousand, by the way.  The silences are too deep, the lights are too bright, the stage is too wide, the drops are too deep.  Not three days beforehand and that theatre was packed with hopefully admiring crowds; the stage was busy with light and activity and now, as we five struggled to haul lights into place and find new and industrious ways of getting power and data from here to there, everything was a little bit too still.  The lights were out in the canteen, and in the passage beneath the stage that leads to the canteen.  The vending machine had an odd glow in a darkened hall, and someone had left 60p in there which, I am slightly ashamed to say, I used for my own nefarious chocolate purposes.  When a draught blew from the grid, it made doors slam in empty corridors and when we had to find our way from unlikely lighting position to unlikely lighting position, it was through corridors in grey-black gloom.

By 4.50 a.m., physical distress was also beginning to kick in for all concerned.  My fingers were frayed, knees bruised, back aching and the safety harness I was wearing had begun to chaff irritatingly at my neck and hip, where the weight of spanners wasn’t doing it any favours.  I needed fresh air, but the downside of working in a big theatre is the sheer number of locked doors for you to get stuck behind, if you go out the wrong exit at a silly hour of the night.  So instead of going down, I went up, right to the top of the fly tower.  There’s a very small staircase at the top of the grid which leads to a heavy metal door that I have never once seen properly closed.  Wedge this open, just to be paranoid, and you’re on a sorta graveled-over roof space with only a small square of visible light above it.  Climb a metal ladder set into the far wall, and you come out onto the rooftop itself, a series of concrete platforms and walkways with no real sign of purpose or architectural geography.  I’ve been up a few times before, but always in daylight hours, and usually to enjoy the sunlight.  I suppose you could say I was here to enjoy the sunlight again, since I felt like I hadn’t seen much of it for the last few days, but what I found was the very beginning of sunrise.

It’s rare to see sunrise in a big city.

In winter, it tends to be that period of time best defined by between getting on the underground in darkness, and getting off it in light twenty minutes later.  In summer, it’s that period best defined by rushing to the airport for the silly a.m. flight, or waking with bad dreams and a restless brain that won’t permit you to go back to sleep.

It is that time of night-day when the lights of the city are still on, proper brilliant lights just like you’d imagine from London, although some of the more environmentally-minded landmarks, like Westminster, have gone dark.  But there’s also a light in the east that’s good enough to see by, and a darkness in the west which, if you didn’t know about the glow at your back, you’d think was still proper solid midnight black.  And it’s quiet.  Not proper quiet, not deadly defeaning quiet, but it’s a strange busy, engine-noise quiet that you can only really get in the big city.  Things that you suppose must always be there but which you never perceive – the continual rush of fans or slosh of the river – are suddenly hugely loud.  Birds make a half-hearted attempt at a dawn chorus, even in the very centre of the city, and if you look up, you can see them against the cyan clouds above the river.  The lights are still on in some of the offices, but they’re entirely empty and the lights are out entirely in the houses on the streets.  From this fly tower, at this hour, you can see Hampstead Heath as a bit of grey peeking between the buildings, as well as the red lights south of Crystal Palace.  The traffic on the bridges are buses and lorries, although I was also thrilled to see a proper electric milk truck like you used to have in the good ol’ days, as well as one mad cyclist peddling away like there was no tomorrow.  Turn in place and you can probably see… six, seven miles in each direction?

And there it was.

The ‘oh my’ moment.  It’s a stillness after a storm, a coldness after heat, a satisfaction after hunger.  It’s going from something very small to something very, very big, and while it perhaps helps to be running on three hours sleep and an entirely twisted body clock, it remains a very rare, difficult to express feeling of utter contentment.