Sugar Plum

Set during the Second World War, the story combines historical details about the challenges of putting on ballet performances in London during the war, with a fictional tale where magic and reality intermingle during a production of Casse Noisette.
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When rehearsals began for Casse Noisette, Theodore Frost couldn’t help thinking that Marie le Sansonnet would be a much better Mouse King than Sugar Plum Fairy. All that rushing around, thinking herself royalty, demanding hot drinks sweetened with sugar that certainly wasn’t coming out of her own ration book. Well, he should be used to prima donnas by now, he said to himself as he opened up the workshop at the back of the theatre. He was glad to get inside, the air sharp with ice that made his eyebrows glisten.

Christmas Day morning and he was the only one in the theatre, his hands slowly thawing around a cup of hot tea. The scenery workshop looked asleep, so different to yesterday in those manic hours before the performance. All the paints were now packed neatly on the shelves, the roles of fabric tucked into the corners, hammers and chisels hanging from hooks on the walls. Theodore closed his eyes, thinking back to when the curtain had risen on the festive blue and scarlet flats of Act One. It had seemed as though Uncle Drosselmeyer was hidden in the lighting bars above the stage, sprinkling magic dust across all of his creations. Theodore chuckled wryly to himself, shaking his head as his eyes searched the gloom of the workshop. Still, he could not explain what had happened last night, could find no clue that would bring him closer to understanding.

Yesterday was one of the busiest Christmas Eve’s he could remember. His workshop at the back of the New Theatre on St Martin’s Lane was alive with activity, the finishing items of the set rushed from the discarded wood shavings scattered across his workbench to the colourful paint palettes, and then, finally, up to the stage. A giant Christmas tree for Act One, followed by the Kingdom of the Sweets for Act Two. Theodore was delighted to be working on the designs of Mstislav Doboujinsky. Especially now, with the darkness of the blackouts, the hunger of rationing, the evacuations, the fear of the air-raid siren.

He loved escaping into a fantasy world of crafting the sweets and candy canes, chipping away at the wood and painting them in bright reds and golds and pinks. The Kingdom of Sweets was a magical, indulgent set design that reminded him of his childhood, those distant, happy memories when his sister was alive, before two wars brought food shortages and ration coupons, when jars of hard boiled sweets and fudge and chocolate limes would be the highlight of every Saturday morning. The sweet shop was right next to the theatre, he remembered. His mother would take him and his sister there on her way into work; she was a seamstress at the Alhambra and he would sit in the corner of the Wardrobe, watching as dancers rushed in and out for fittings. He had fallen in love with the magic of theatre, the joy of creating illusions from wood, felt, sandpaper, a paint brush. As soon as he was old enough, he started training as an apprentice carpenter, worked as a scenery maker in theatres across London, survived the Great War, and then took up a permanent position at the New Theatre in 1918.

He had been there ever since, building and painting scenery for a changing roll call of directors and producers. It was a ballet company that occupied the New Theatre now, removed from their Clerkenwell home to make space for a war shelter. Everyone had to make sacrifices in war, but he was happy the dancers were here in his theatre where candy canes and gingerbread men made him forget, for just a few hours, the darkness outside.

He picked up a discarded sugar plum that had fallen beneath the workbench. It was easy to make: a wooden ball painted a rich scarlet and coated in tiny silver sequins and cotton. His stomach rumbled: how he wished he could wave a magic wand and turn these inedible rocks into sugary confits of almonds or walnuts, ginger, aniseed, cinnamon, citrus peel. He would love to dip them into sugar, watch them crackle as they set. There was nothing appetising about a glue brush and a sprinkling of cotton. He had made so many of these decorations, some of them vast and glittering, mountains of cardboard icing sugar, canvas flats of gift-wrapped chocolate boxes and biscuits. Two giant sweet cones spilled out painted toffees and macaroons; a cup cake balanced centre stage, crowned with golden butter cream. White doilies were painted across the backcloth and melting ice-cream cones rose in giant columns towards the sky.

Marie le Sansonnet did look the part, he had to admit. She had arrived on stage for the dress rehearsal in a glistening white and pink tutu, the delicate silver candy canes of her crown fixed firmly as she danced.

Even so, Theodore didn’t like her. She sneered at him when he got in her way, snapped at the stagehands who swept the stage, bullied her six fairy attendants, flapping angrily if their arms cast shadows across her face. She demanded a hot water bottle before rehearsals and was always late. Worst of all, she never handed her milk and sugar coupons to the house manager. Everyone knew she was given little gifts by admirers, packets of chocolate, butter, sugar, devoted ballet fans giving up their meagre rations to keep Miss Marie le Sansonnet protected from the hardship of war. But she never shared these with anyone. They disappeared into her dressing room, bundles of sweetness just for her.

Theodore rolled the sugar plum between his fingers and tried to remember everything that had happened.

The little girl, of course. He had found her lingering outside after lunch. She was shivering, her skin grey with the cold, her shabby brown coat damp from the chill. Tufts of white hair sprung out from beneath her woollen hat and her nose was pink. Her eyes watered when she came inside, glistening like frost. Harriet, she managed to whisper, when he asked her name. That was his sister’s name too, dead a long time ago. She had liked to call herself Harriet Snow when they played together. Theodore Frost and Harriet Snow, playing their wintery games in the frozen puddles around Leicester Square.

Her eyes widened when he showed her the paints and the fabrics, her fingers reaching out timidly towards the gold foil that decorated chocolate boxes and sugar canes. She followed him up to the stage when he took a reel of red ribbon to tie around the over-sized biscuit tins, her feet light as she walked through the wings. She was like a tiny ice fairy, Theodore had thought, her winter magic hidden beneath the drab poverty of her clothes. Her lips were pale, glowing like silver, and the chill of snow followed her like a twilight aura. She looked about her, taking one tentative step on to the stage. Turning, she spread her arms and smiled for the first time. There were stagehands and dancers busily preparing for the performance, but they didn’t mind her, this cold little girl dancing in a Kingdom of Sweets.

Until Marie le Sansonnet noticed.

‘What is she doing?’ The shrill snap of the ballerina broke through the rumble of activity. ‘A little street rat bringing in the cold. Get out.’ The ballerina shook her head crossly.

Harriet froze. Her blue eyes seemed to harden into ice. She turned and ran, disappearing through the wings, down the stairs to the workshop, and outside into the bitter chill of Christmas Eve.

Theodore found her on St Martin’s Lane. She was staring up at the theatre, squinting as she tried to read the poster above the doors. Casse Noisette. The ballet had been described by the director as ‘a balletic Peter Pan’, perfect for children. It was a shame, Theodore thought as he watched the little girl, that so few children would be likely to see the performance. With the evacuations and the blackouts and the air-raid sirens, a theatre trip in London was not a priority for many parents. It was already getting dark and lights were going out around the city. London streets were terrifying in the blackouts, cars and buses appearing too late out of the gloom. Everyone dreaded an air raid warning during a performance, but very few people actually left. Signs around the theatre discouraged it: ‘All we ask,’ the signs said, ‘is that – if you feel you must go – you will depart quietly and without excitement.’

Before the girl had a chance to disappear again, Theodore made a decision. He usually watched the first night of a performance, unlike the other scenery makers who preferred to head home as soon as their work was done.

But tonight he could watch from the gallery doors, standing with the ushers.

Harriet took the ticket from him. She turned it over in her hand, this little white and red booklet with the theatre name etched across the front and the programme details in tiny print inside. War time programmes were very different to the usual pages and pages of advertisements and cast lists; even paper was rationed. Running her finger across the seal, she whispered the price: sixpence. Theodore shook his head and pressed the ticket further into his hand. He smiled, reaching into his pocket and taking out a little wooden sugar plum decoration. It sparkled, finding light even in the thickening dark. She took it from him, stuffing it quickly into her pinafore, before running off down Cecil Court.

He didn’t know whether she would come. But there she was, sitting up in the gallery, surrounded by men and women wearing their festive best. Some were in uniform, Local Defence Volunteers always ready for duty. Harriet seemed to be entirely still, her bright white hair glowing as the house lights dimmed and the curtain rose. When the music began, an orchestra at last rather than the two pianos they had to make do with for so many war-time performances, she started to sway a little, finding the beat of the overture’s chocolate box rhythms. When the children started their Christmas party dance, he could see her lips curling up into a smile. She laughed when the Mouse King flicked his tail, an army of little mice scrabbling about the stage with fast fierce feet. When the snowflakes fluttered across the stage, their pointe shoes tapping lighting, her shoulders danced like wings.

As Clara and the Nutcracker arrived at the Kingdom of Sweets, she inched forward, her eyes moving quickly over the ballerinas in their tutus, the mountains of sweets, the icing sugar décor that rolled over the backcloth. Tea, coffee, and chocolate came to life in three divertissements of the Chinese, Arabian, and Spanish dancers. Soon, everyone forgot little Clara, watching from a bonbon throne, and the Sugar Plum Fairy began her variation.

Theodore glanced over at Harriet. She was holding the wooden sugar plum in her hand. But perhaps not, he realised, looking more closely. She brought the ball towards her and bit down, her mouth closing easily around a real sugary shell. He watched, transfixed, as she chewed, her lips shimmering with sugar.

On stage, Marie le Sansonnet moved through the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, her pas de bourrée, her grand pas de basque, her gargouillade matching the twinkling notes of the celesta.

But there was an edge to her movements that disturbed him, as though she was on the precipice of a great cliff, her balance unsteady. As she turned about the stage, her hand brushed against the painted white fabric of the scenery. To Theodore’s surprise, a large dollop of what looked remarkably like meringue frosting seemed to detach itself and stick to her finger. While her feet sparkled en pointe in the little déboîtés, her eyes moved sharply to her hand.

She couldn’t help herself. Lifting her finger to her lips, she sucked the sugar from her skin.

And all at once, Marie le Sansonnet began to change. She started to twirl wildly across the stage, grabbing at the set with greedy, clawing hands. Chunks of cake crumbled as she swiped at the scenery, icing sugar rising in billowing puffs of powder. Ice cream melted down the columns and she ran at them, her tongue lolling, her neck straining from side to side.

Theodore couldn’t believe it. A set of wood, canvas, paint, cotton: it was coming to life, transformed into a delicious sticky mess.

The ballerina started to twitch and shake; Theodore was certain he could see whiskers springing from her cheeks.

The audience was roaring, laughter and horror combined; this was not what they expected from the pretty ballet of the Casse Noisette.

Theodore stumbled out of the auditorium, his legs shaking as he ran.

By the time he got to the wings, a shocked silence had replaced the laughter. There, in the centre of the stage, lay the tutu of the Sugar Plum Fairy: there was no Marie le Sansonnet to be seen. Theodore walked on to the stage, raising his hand towards the sweets, the ice cream, the macaroons that decorated the set.

They had returned to a painted Kingdom, made from wood and paint and canvas.

Theodore stood from his workbench and sighed. He would find no answers here this morning. And besides, it was Christmas Day. He should go home, cook, listen to the wireless. If only he could purchase a real gingerbread man, a harlequin square, a packet of chocolate caramels. He was longing for something other than the replacement recipes printed in the newspapers by the Ministry of Food, their disappointingly small measures of mock cream and marzipan offering a war-time alternative.

A cold breeze flew down St Martin’s Lane. Snow was in the air, but it wouldn’t settle. Theodore shivered as snowflakes swirled playfully about him. They seemed to be leading him along the road, sending him home to a Christmas of quiet memories.

The snow whistled and changed direction, a flurry throwing itself down Cecil Court. Theodore stopped and looked down the lane. There, outside one of the book shops, was the little girl. Harriet, who reminded him so much of his sister; Harriet Snow playing in icy puddles, immune to the cold.

There was a sugar plum in her hand. And on her lap was a mouse, its nose twitching as it pressed closer to the food. Harriet was feeding it little flakes of sugar, humming the tune of the Sugar Plum Fairy variation as the mouse scrambled against her coat. It made him think of his sister, playing at tea parties with her toys.

He smiled, blinking while the snow danced in silver arabesques around him. But as he took one last look, he saw the strangest thing.

The mouse was wearing a tiny candy cane crown.

Lucy Ashe is a writer and the author of Clara & Olivia. Sugar Plum was longlisted for the 2022 Historical Writers Association Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Award.