Richard Charles Enwright was a practiced talent in the field of recorded narration, paid voiceovers and unprepared keynotes at corporate black-tie events. He was a veteran of stage and occasional botherer of screen, an old pro who had kept himself in reasonable health and bank balance amid four decades of uncooperative producers and unappreciative audiences.
It was a cold, biting Tuesday morning in early December, as old Enwright trod through the slush and gravel in his smooth-soled brogues towards a factory warehouse, that had once been an industrial laundry of hotel linen, now repurposed as London’s foremost studio for recorded voiceovers, clumsily named ‘Out In The Wash’.
The booking had arrived the previous weekend, a printout of an email folded into a brown paper envelope and dispatched by second-class mail. Richard had refused to embrace digital technology and could be reached solely through his corded landline, traditional post or in the case of an emergency, Her Majesty’s telegram service.
The printed email was from his agent, Penelope Glass, one of London’s finest theatrical agents for many decades, hampered by the unfortunate reality that a similar number of barren decades had now also passed. She kept a modest portfolio of clients composed of actors whose deviancies, misdeeds or genetics rendered them suitable for audio work alone and kept Richard on the books as one would keep a pair of battered boots that had carried you across the battlefield.
The email read: Richard. Booking secured at OITW Studio. 7/12, 11am. Audiobook recording of Dicken’s, Christmas ghosts etc. Can’t beat the classics. And Richard, DON’T antagonise these people. I have a lot of clients on their books. Love to Quince. PG x
He folded the paper into its envelope. Quince was a wide-eyed tabby cat who had been much admired by Penelope at Richard’s 60th Birthday party. Quince had been dead for almost two years to begin with.
Richard entered the glass-fronted foyer of the studio and handed the envelope to the young receptionist, taking a seat with an aching groan. The receptionist lifted a telephone to her ear.
‘Hello? Yes. Mr Enwright is here for his 11am.’ She makes it sound like I’m here for a cut and shave, thought Richard. ‘Yeah I know.’, she continued, with an impertinent smirk Richard did not like the look of one bit. She put the phone down. ‘Tim will be right down’, she assured, and Richard nodded a wordless thanks. The intended effect was a to convey the requirement to save one’s voice for the studio and show the insolent receptionist his displeasure. The received effect was an exhausted pensioner, struck mute with the winter air and confusion.
The receptionist was inspecting her nails closely and did not look up when she spoke again. ‘I suppose you’ve heard about Adrian Pearl? He was one of your generation right?’ Richard confirmed he had not received news of his old stage mate. ‘Oh right, well he died last month. Heart attack in the street, denied the formal cause of death when he hit full on by a theatrical tour bus. Ironic really.’ Richard again queried her, not seeing the irony in Pearl’s gruesome end. ‘Well, he was known for his big dramatic stage deaths right?’, she said. ‘Oh yes, I suppose so’, Richard replied. The phone rang. ‘Come on, they’re ready for you now’, she said, straightening her pencil skirt as she rose from the swivel chair.
Richard was led to his booth, a cramped cupboard with padded walls. Richard could reach the walls on either side with each hand and not quite straighten his elbows. There was a tall black stool, entirely unsuitable and impractical for the long hours of reading that lay ahead, and a poseable arm for the microphone. A circular shield of translucent mesh reflected the breathy pop of hard p’s and t’s, at the same time precluding any hope of a clear view through the glass hatch to the control room.
Richard had no sooner settled his wide rump teetering on the stool when the single light bulb above him began to flicker and like a failing heartbeat, slowed and extinguished entirely. Richard kicked his toes forward to find the carpet and cursed as he felt for the door. Before he could grip the handle, illumination flooded the booth once more chased by a wave of crackles from the headphones balanced on the microphone stand. Richard returned to the stool and placed the headphones over his ears. There was someone in the control room.
The presence spluttered a rich smoker’s cough and wiped the audibly assembled spittle from his chin. A rustling sound in the earpiece, then a voice.
‘Have we got pages for this thing yet? What’s this? Dickens? No, no, not mine. I’m supposed to be getting voiceovers down for the Strictly Special.’
Richard decided he had better speak. ‘Hello? It’s Mister Enwright here. I’m in the booth’, he clarified.
‘Enwright?’, the voice replied, ‘one of us is in the wrong place then.’
Richard offered an explanation. ‘The receptionist showed me here. Can you call and check?’
‘No, no need friend. My sessions get bumped here all the time, no consideration for an old duffer such as myself. Wait a tick, did you say Enwright?’
‘I did’, said Richard.
‘I believe we are in fact acquainted, sir. I was lead engineer for the Christmas comedy specials on the Light Entertainment. Late 60s or thereabouts.’
‘Good Lord’, said Richard, ‘I remember. I played an Irate Customer in half a dozen consecutive sketches. The writers were all drunk in the pub and so we had to keep re-using the pages we had an improvise the differences.’
‘That’s it. Absolute rubbish. We all had a good word for you in the control room though.’
‘Oh really?’, said Richard, having a thespian’s nose for overdue praise.
‘Oh yes indeed sir. We all said you were going places. A voice like that should be on the West End. Broadway. Hollywood even, was mentioned sir.’
Richard’s shoulders slumped, and the beginnings of a grin slid south like a monsoon mudslide. He could not repay this man’s kind words with any assurance of promise fulfilled, or even promise begun. A handful of serious plays badly reviewed, two decades of panto and mediocre voice work completed the chronology of his resumé, and his silence told the story.
‘Well you know’, said the voice, wrestling to smother a patronising tone, ‘it’s all luck in this game. I best leave you to it, find out where my session has been shelved. Happy Christmas.’ Christmas be damned, thought Richard in his habit. The season of theatrical suicide and voice-takes ruined by repeating mince pies.
The lights above him flickered and died a second time. He cursed again, unsaddled from his stool and felt for the elusive handle on the voice booth door. Repeating his previous solution, he straightened his coat and placed the headphones on his head. There was only silence at first, then a door creaked open and the breathing of a new creature could be heard alternating between shallow breaths, thin sucking of teeth and a pneumatic hiss like air being let out of a bicycle tire. Richard concluded whatever had entered the room was mortal, sipping hot coffee and inhaling vaporised nicotine from an electric pipe.
‘Ullo?’, said the new voice. ‘Ullo fella.’
‘Good afternoon. This is Richard Enwright and I’m here to record Dicken’s A Christmas Carol for a new audiobook production. My agent is Penelope Glass.’ Richard was keen to avoid the awkward confusion of the previous misunderstanding.
‘Right you are, fella. Right you are. Shall we get started then? You don’t need a coffee or a line or anything?’
‘No, ready and waiting’, Richard replied, wincing at the cocaine reference.
‘Off you go then fella.’
Richard began to read.
‘Oh dear’, said the voice in the control room, after Richard had finished the opening paragraph.
‘Is something the matter?’, asked Richard.
‘Well’, said the voice between hissed drags on his vape, ‘it’s just not very good is it?’
‘My reading?’, said Richard, filled with self-doubt from the previous encounter.
‘No, no. That was spot on, mate. Spot. On. It’s just a bit dry, a bit dull. What is it, Charles Dickens? This will never sell.’
‘A Christmas Carol? By Charles Dickens?’
‘I know, terrible title and all. Look, let me see if we can get some writers in here, spice this thing up a bit.’
Richard voiced his objections from the vocal booth in the strongest terms, but it was clear from the sound of various items being placed on the desk and the swing of the padded studio door that this latest visitor in the studio had already left. Richard was quite sure he did not want him to return either. The session was going terribly, he would refuse any attempt to doctor the original text of course and his confidence had taken a bad knock too. Yet, he did not exit the booth finally and depart with a raised chin and temper as he was reputed to do. He felt a measure of resolve. He had been a good actor once. Bloody good. If anyone had the tone and range to carry off an unabridged reading of Dickens, it was he. He would wait for the young man to return with his writers and tell them just how it was going to be.
Yet another flicker.
‘Oh what now’, Richard said aloud. This time it seemed that a number of people chatting amiably had come into the control room. Richard fixed the headphones to his ears, ready to breath fire at the young man and his writers but he soon realised this group did not include the vaping literary revisionist at all. Richard listened. A man spoke first, a light Scottish accent with t’s softened to d’s.
‘Ok look, here are the pages. I thought if we can get these trails and obituaries done for Radio 4 before lunch we can probably take the afternoon off and still invoice for the full day. How’s that sound?’
‘Good with me’, a young woman replied.
‘Great. Well let’s start with the obits. Christ, I haven’t heard of most of these people. We’ll do Perkins, Hill, Sadler, Enwright and then uh, finish up with Jackson. Slim, slim pickings.’, said the Scottish voice, met by over-enthusiastic laughter from those assembled in the control room with him. Richard tried to speak but his throat was suddenly dry, his disposition filled with dread and worry. Eventually, he could manage a word. ‘Hello? I say, hello?’
They continued their conversation as though they could not hear him, although the previous two visitors had received his words clearly enough.
‘Who’s this Enwright anyway? Scraping the barrel a bit, wouldn’t you say?’, asked one of the group and was met with a chorus without recognition.
‘Some nobody.’, was roundly met with approval. Richard did not know if it was a prank, or a trick, or a glimpse into the beyond, but he knew the Enwright they spoke of must be him. The walls of the vocal booth suddenly seemed very close on all sides.
‘I’m not a nobody’, Richard said, ‘I tried. I really tried. Most actors just don’t get the breaks. It’s not too late. Oh please say it’s not too late?’ Tears filled his eyes. Richard had not cried since his mother left him at boarding school aged 8, the headmaster whose merciless cane was yet to be raised to him rested a hand on his shoulder as his parent’s car drove away. The memory pushed him into full-throated sobs and he slid from the stool onto his knees, covering his face with his hands so that he did not notice the light bulb spark on again. A new voice in the headphones.
‘Hello? Are you alright in there?’
Richard rose to his feet and donned the headphones once more, fearful as to what new horrors might await him this time.
‘Yes, I’m here.’
‘Ah great, we’re doing A Christmas Carol right? I always loved this one. Better get started, good few hours of work to get through.’
Richard felt relief such as he had never experienced before or would again. A second chance it seemed, and more to boot. He would take a new pride in his work, seek out serious roles and perhaps attract some overdue acclaim in his remaining years. He almost jumped up and down in the booth, near hysterical with enthusiasm, love and care for the craft. He began reading the story, his vocal cords purring with rich and heartfelt intonation. He was quite sure no one had ever read A Christmas Carol so well. As he reached the end of a chapter he almost thought to bow, but instead caught his breath and waited for his cue to continue. The voice from the control room that had previously brought so much shame and fear and regret popped into his headphones.
‘Yeah, that was great man. Can we just go again, and try to sound a bit less cheerful?’