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By David Gardiner
This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
"I can only give you ten minutes, darling," she warned the serious-looking young man, pointing to the chair beside her own. She watched with obvious interest as he sat down and produced some items from his scuffed leather holdall. "You're younger than I expected. Are you their arts columnist?"
He smiled sheepishly. "No, Dame Laura. I'm just a reporter. We don't have columnists. We all have to turn our hand to whatever we're asked to do." He switched on his hand-held recorder as he spoke.
"Oh, less of the 'Dame' please. It makes me feel ancient and venerable. 'Laura' will be quite sufficient." She flashed one of her most charming smiles but found it hard to gauge his reaction. His expression retained its slightly unnerving intensity.
"Laura. Thank you. Laura it is then."
"You seem a bit nervous, dear. I hope you aren't scared of me. I don't bite, you know! Have you been a reporter for very long?" As she spoke she produced a wad of cotton wool and dipped it into a clear liquid in a jar. "I hope you don't mind if I take off my make-up while we talk."
"Please do. I've been on the staff of the Clarion for a bit over two years now."
"Really. You have a good face, you know. A strong chin. What did you say your name was?"
"Peter. Peter Morrissey."
"Peter? No, it doesn't suit you. It's a weak name. You need something short and strong and masculine. Nick or Rex. Something like that. Have you done any acting?"
"No... well, only at school..."
"You should think about it. You have the looks. And you're tall. That's very important, casting directors always want tall leading men and there aren't that many around. Did you enjoy acting at school?"
"No Maam. I mean Laura. I hated it. I forgot my lines and felt like a complete idiot."
She smiled and made a few tentative dabs at her face, following her progress in the mirror as she did so. "It's a good thing we don't get the sack every time we forget a line or miss a cue. I fluffed my lines tonight. Right at the beginning of the second act. Did you notice?"
"No, I can't say I did..."
"That's part of being a professional, dear. Part of knowing your trade. You learn how to cover up when things go wrong." She put down her wad of cotton wool. "Would you like a little drink, Peter?" He shook his head. "Very wise. I never drink before a performance. I make that an absolute rule..." she opened a cabinet door and produced a quarter-full bottle of vodka, an orange mixer and a tumbler, "but I like a single glass to unwind afterwards. Are you sure you won't join me?"
"No, thank you Dame... I mean Laura. I'm driving. Is it okay if I start my questions? Since our time is so limited."
"Oh, I told a little fib there. I always tell people I can only give them ten minutes, then if they start to bore me I can get away from them without hurting their feelings. But you aren't boring me. In fact, I rather like you." She reached out and lifted his hand, turned it over unselfconsciously and inspected the palm. "You've got nice hands too. Long fingers. Did you know there are people who make a living out of just modelling their hands? Holding bottles on TV adverts and things like that. And look at your lifeline! It goes on forever, doesn't it?" She looked him straight in the eye and tried to pick up a reaction but couldn't. "You've got to learn to relax, Peter. You're very tense. Did you know that?" He gave her an awkward smile and withdrew his hand. She poured a generous measure of the vodka and added a dash of orange. "To youth, Peter," she declared cheerfully, and downed half of it in one, "the only thing that can be sold but not bought!" He smiled at last and she returned the smile with obvious satisfaction. She dabbed at her face a few more times. "Why did you become a reporter, Peter? Was it something you always wanted to do?"
"Well, English was the only subject I was any good at at school, and there aren't that many things you can do with just 'A' level English..."
"You aren't going to stay a reporter on a local newspaper forever, are you?"
"I hope not."
"So then! What are you going to be? Where are you headed?"
He hesitated. "I suppose I would like to get into TV journalism if I could. Maybe something like a war correspondent some day..."
"You would be perfect for TV, with your looks. And I can help you. I'm not kidding. I've got friends in TV journalism. Important people." She turned and looked him straight in the eye. "You must leave me a phone number. A way to get in touch." He looked uncomfortable again, slightly unnerved. She turned back to the mirror and released him from her gaze. "Or if you prefer I could contact you through the newspaper," she added casually.
"I'm sure that would be... fine..."
"Right. That's settled then. You said you had some questions?" she continued to dab as she spoke, carefully keeping her eyes on the mirror.
"Yes. The first thing I want to ask you is, how does it feel to be performing in the town where you were brought up?"
"A performance is a performance. I try to give my best wherever the venue happens to be. This town of course has a special soft spot in my affections."
"While you've been here, have you taken the opportunity to visit any of the places connected with your childhood? Your old school, for example, or your parents' house?"
"I'm afraid both my parents are dead. My father died shortly after my career started on the West End stage, and my mother passed away seven years ago. At least she lived long enough to see me enjoy a little career success."
"So you haven't been to see your old house?"
"Well, a house is just bricks and mortar, isn't it, dear? It's the people in your life, and your feelings for them that matter." She gave him a glance that contained a hint of guilt.
He looked down at his notes. "Where was your first stage appearance, and what part did you play?"
"Well, the very first time I stood on a stage would have been at school, but leaving that to one side..."
"Why do you want to leave that to one side?"
Her brow became a little furrowed. "Well, everybody gets a part in the school play, don't they? It doesn't mean a great deal."
"No, I suppose not," he agreed, and turned over a page of his notes. "So, your first professional stage appearance. Was that local?"
"Just down the road, at the Sun Port Empire. I played the title role in a summer production of 'Annie'."
"And how old would you have been then?"
"I think I was about thirteen. The part was for someone slightly younger, of course, but I was small for my age. I've always been quite petite."
"So you were still at school when you got that break?"
"Oh yes. There were all kinds of rules that we had to stick to about chaperones and numbers of hours per day and the like. But I loved it. It convinced me that I had to be an actress, nothing else would do." She paused and turned to face him again. "How old were you, Peter, when you forgot your lines in the school play?"
"Oh? About the same, I suppose. Twelve or thirteen. Something like that."
"Have you heard of the seven ages of man?"
"I think so. It's from Shakespeare, isn't it?"
She nodded. "What about the seven ages of woman? Ever heard of those?" He shook his head. "You're right. They don't exist. Women don't have seven ages. They only have three. The maiden, the mother and the crone. This is a very cruel profession for a woman, Peter. They love you when you're the maiden. That lasts until you're about thirty if you're lucky. Are you familiar with the theatre?"
"What about films?"
He nodded. "Film studies was part of my course..."
"The maiden is the young beautiful flawless girl. Nothing to do with virginity, it's an idea, a fantasy. That's what cinema sells, Peter. Theatre as well. I don't mean the little Arts Council things that lose money, I mean mainstream commercial cinema. It sells fantasy. It invites you to buy into the idea of a world of young and beautiful people having big adventures and fantastic sex. Di Caprio and Winslet in 'Titanic' would be a perfect example. The maiden is the dream lover, the one every male punter wants to fuck, if you'll pardon my plain English. That's where the parts are. Where the money is. But the clock keeps ticking. The years fly by. You can't play that role for very long. What comes next? The mother. The dowdy middle-aged wife that the leading man comes back to after screwing his mistress, maybe. Or the stern super-efficient secretary that holds the business together while he's doing it. It's not a centre-stage role any more. You're not the one that they've come to the cinema to see. But at least there's some work there if you can get it." She took another sip of her drink. "Then you reach the third age of woman. The crone. How many parts are there for crones? Can you think of any?" He shook his head. "One or two in a decade. Bette Davis in 'Baby Jane' maybe. Gloria Swanson in 'Sunset Boulevard'. Monsters. Hate figures. She-demons. Do you think women want to play parts like that? They may say they do but it isn't true. Women want to be young and beautiful and seductive. They want to stay that way forever. They want their slice of the fantasy too."
"But, you're not old, Laura, he whispered. "You look... wonderful..."
"Wonderful? No, I haven't any illusions Peter. Still, it's nice of you to say that. Do you think I would have taken this part, here in this town, ten years ago? Even five? Not bloody likely, I would say! It's something every actress has to come to terms with. Nobody escapes. It's all that any woman in my profession has to look forward to, no mater how big she is, no matter how good she is. The rules are universal. They apply to everybody." She added more vodka to her drink and looked at her reflection in the mirror. "God, I look a sight. Stage makeup gone, everyday stuff not on yet. The real me. And you can still say I look wonderful? You're a good liar, Peter." She opened a jar of foundation and started to rub it in with her fingers. For a few moments neither of them spoke. "How old are you, Peter?" she asked at last.
"Have you got a girlfriend?"
He hesitated. "No. It's not that I'm gay or anything. Just nobody special at the moment."
"Nobody special is good. As soon as there's somebody special you start losing control of your own life. Somebody special is somebody you have to please, have to make compromises for. If you want to get somewhere, be somebody, you can only do it on your own. You can take a little... comfort... here and there when you need it. We're all human. But at the end of the day it's one thing or the other. Living for yourself or living for other people. I learned that when I was very young." She started to produce mysterious powders and perform incomprehensible operations on her cheeks and forehead. When she looked around again she seemed to have shed several years. "Better?" she enquired brightly, looking into his eyes. He smiled and nodded. He seemed to waver for a moment, then slip back into reporter mode.
"How did they get to know about you at the Sun Port Empire?"
"That's an odd kind of question. There was an audition for the part, naturally."
"Which you attended on your own initiative?"
She looked puzzled. "I don't really know what you're getting at. My parents had to write a letter giving their permission, and my mother came along with me to the audition. You don't just do things like that on your own initiative when you're thirteen."
"Of course not. Pardon my ignorance. When you left school you were awarded a scholarship to RADA in London. The first and only person from this town to go there, I think I'm right in saying?"
"RADA is a very special place. It was a great honour to be accepted as a student there."
"And of course the rest is history. But do you mind if I ask you a bit more about those very early years, while you were still living in this town with your parents? I understand you had a boyfriend back then, somebody named Morris Quigley. I believe he acted as a kind of informal manager and set up some of those early auditions."
She put down her drink and looked at him with considerable unease. "Your research has been very thorough, Peter."
"Thank you. It wasn't all that difficult, Mr. Quigley was a local man and... well, I'm local too."
"Quite. I suppose you're going to quiz me about him now, aren't you? Could I ask you for a favour? You see, that wasn't a very happy part of my childhood. That's all we were really, children. It's a very long time ago and I don't think it would be fair on... a large number of people, to drag it up again. It's water under the bridge, as they say. You understand?"
He remained silent but kept his gaze on her face. So much composure now, so businesslike again. It was positively unnerving. He probably didn't know anything, she told herself calmly, just a junior reporter who's picked up an ancient rumour, fishing around to see what he can get.
"What did you do in your gap-year, Laura?" She felt her chin begin to tremble and wondered if he had noticed.
"I travelled," she said flatly, "the same as teenagers do now. I went to Europe, and on to the Middle East."
There was an uncomfortable silence. When Peter broke it he spoke very quietly. "Not to a maternity home for unmarried mothers called Aldebaran House in Somerset?"
Laura felt numb. Her mouth had become so dry she found it difficult to speak. "What do you want from me? Money? Do you think anybody's going to care after all these years? Scandal is the life blood of my profession. Love children are two a penny. It wouldn't rate page ten in the tabloids."
"No, I don't suppose it would. And I don't want your money, so you needn't worry about that."
"What do you want then? Why have you been leading me along like this?" She looked him straight in the eye.
His shoulders slumped slightly. "I just want to talk, that's all. Let's switch this thing off, shall we?" He slipped the tape recorder back into the holdall. "I got the background from Mr. Quigley, as you've probably guessed. He died quite recently. Did you know that?"
"He never forgot you. You should be flattered. I don't know how many years it was, almost thirty I should think, and not a day went by that he didn't think about you. Have you ever thought about him?"
She shrugged. "No, not really. Why should I? We were children, like I said."
"Like you said. But children that gave birth to a child."
"Don't be so damned melodramatic. Do you think we invented pregnancy? It's an embarrassing, pathetic little episode. That's why I don't want to drag it up again. One more stupid teenager who left it too late to have an abortion. Big deal. I don't want people feeling sorry for me about something like that. I want my life story to be made up of big things, good things, things I have achieved... every woman on the West End stage has one or two stupid mistakes in her past. Every woman in the world, probably. It's crap. It's not worth talking about."
He was silent for a long time. "Meet your stupid mistake, Mother," he said at last.
Her features drained of blood. She narrowed her eyes and stared at him. "That isn't true. It isn't possible... God, you must think I'm revolting..."
"I wasn't supposed to do it like this. I promised the counsellor I wouldn't. I was supposed to protect your feelings. Sorry."
She gulped down the remainder of her drink. Her hand trembled and the tumbler rattled against the table-top as she put it down. "Why?" she whispered. "Why did you do it like this?"
"I was pretty certain that you wouldn't agree to see me if you had the choice. Was I right?"
"Probably." She paused and let her arms fall to her sides. "I suppose you hate me for giving you away. Children that are put up for adoption always hate their natural mothers, don't they?"
He shrugged. "Who's being melodramatic now? The truth is, I was scared about this meeting. I was afraid I wasn't going to like you, because of what my Dad said about you. Funny to call him that, my Dad."
"What did he say about me?"
"He thought you were the most wonderful person who ever walked the earth. He told me about your first day at Primary School. Do you remember that day?" She shook her head. "He did. He said you were this lovely vivacious super-confident little girl with long blonde hair. You stood in front of the class and talked about yourself for ten minutes non-stop, and then you gave a little bow, as if you'd just finished a dramatic recitation or something. He said every boy in the class fell in love with you that day. He was just one of the crowd. Then he told me about how he tried to befriend you, do things for you. It went on for years, didn't it? All through Primary School and Secondary School. He was always at your side, propping-up your ego, writing letters to get you auditions, phoning the local papers to get you noticed, bullying teachers into supporting your RADA application... he gave over his whole life to getting your career launched. It was his obsession. He admitted it. Even in your later teens, when you strayed a bit, he pretended that he didn't know. But he knew all right. Old dependable Morris. Always there to fall back on in times of crisis. That was the way you saw him. Or so he told me."
"I never asked your father for a thing. Everything he did for me he did willingly... more than willingly. He wanted that role. He enjoyed... well, it may sound cruel but it's true, he liked basking in reflected glory. He got as much of a kick out of my success as I did myself. That was the way we related to one another. It was sweet at the beginning, but... well... it became a bit creepy. I stopped liking it. It was way too easy to... exploit his good nature. I hated myself for doing it. I couldn't... respect your father. When I discovered I was pregnant it gave me a way to break off the relationship. I left to have the baby and I didn't come back. It's nothing unusual. Relationships come to an end. Usually they end for one person before the other. This one ended for me before it ended for your father. That's all there was to it."
"You say you left to have the baby. That wasn't what my Dad understood. He understood that you were leaving to have an abortion. That was what you told him, wasn't it? He said that was what broke his heart."
She shrugged. "He was all gooey-eyed about the two of us having a child. And that was after I'd had my RADA audition and my letter of acceptance. My career would have stopped right there. I could get away with one year's deferral but can you imagine doing a course as intensive as that as a single mother? Not possible. Not real."
"You had a big row about the baby, didn't you?"
"It was the first time he ever tried to break my will. To force me to do something that I didn't want to do. He had more spirit than I thought. The only way I could get him off my back was to tell him... No, I'm not telling you these things. These things are private, between your father and me."
"You don't have to tell me. I know what you told him. You told him I might not be his child. Was that true?"
"No, of course not. Well, very very unlikely..."
"And it worked. It got him off your back. It confused him enough that by the time he had decided it was all right and he would put up with it and forgive you like he always did, the whole thing was over and done with. As far as he knew I was a bundle of blood and cells in a clinical waste bag somewhere in Somerset. Can you imagine what it was like for him when I knocked on his door one morning out of the blue? But he still wouldn't hate you. Not even then. Stubborn, wasn't he?"
Laura said nothing.
"So. I think you've made it pretty clear how much we meant to you. By 'we' I mean my father and me. You're not a hoarder, are you? You don't keep things after they've outlived their usefulness. It's sad, isn't it? Right up to the moment my Dad died he was still under your spell. You were still that little blonde-haired girl standing up at the front of the class making his heart race. He still wanted to be liked by you, still wanted your approval, wanted you to be happy. He gave up on the reality of course but he never let go of the dream. It never came to an end for him. Isn't that strange? He had all your cuttings. Every time you got Oscar nominated for some Hollywood thing, or opened in something on Broadway or the West End, or if you were a guest on Parkinson or some American chat show - he'd have all the press comment pasted into his book. All the pictures and the programmes. He saw you on stage many times, did you know that? Your biggest fan, Laura. You never noticed him, beyond the footlights, did you? They say people on the stage can't see past the footlights. I don't know whether it's an actual fact or a kind of metaphor. Maybe it's both."
Laura remained silent but he noticed that she wasn't meeting his eyes any more and seemed to have distanced herself from everything that was going on.
"I wasn't there for that ten minute speech in front of the class. Maybe you could give me another one. Tell me about yourself, Mother. Has it been a good life? Did you get the things you wanted?"
She looked at him blankly. "It's been okay," she said at last. "I got the career I wanted... It didn't last forever but then what lasts forever? I've done well financially... What is it you want to know?"
"What is it I want to know? It's a fair question I suppose." He paused. "It's a funny kind of career, acting, isn't it? You spend a whole lifetime pretending to be other people. I suppose you get very good at it. Do you ever sit down on your own and wonder who you really are? Who's underneath when you take off all these layers?" He lifted a jar of make-up and replaced it gently. "Is there anybody in this whole world that you care about? You made your decision back then, didn't you, when the baby came along. Live for yourself or live for other people. Black and white, nothing in between. Do you think you got it right? I'd really like to know."
They looked at one another and there was a very long silence. Eventually, he began to put away his notes and pack up in preparation for leaving.
"Are you... going?" she asked uneasily.
"I think so. Is there anything to stay for?"
She didn't answer.
"Goodbye, Mother." As he rose to go she turned back to her reflection in the mirror and became fixated on the image, staring into her own face as though it might speak to her if she gave it enough time.
Peter didn't look back. He closed the door gently and made his way down the back stairs, out of the stage door and into the darkened street behind the theatre where the low dark shape of an expensive car was waiting for him. The courtesy light came on and the door swung open to admit him. Comfortable on the soft leather he lifted the tape recorder out of the holdall, removed the cassette and handed it to the distinguished-looking grey-haired driver.
"Was I right?" the driver asked quietly as he put it in the glove compartment.
"You were right. Completely right. It was a lot harder than I expected though. It's all on the tape. I had to put it in the bag at one point but it picks up perfectly well from in there. Everything was just as you thought. You could have saved your money." He breathed out heavily and put the holdall on the floor. "I think I should warn you though. Some of the stuff on that tape could hurt."
"Not any more. But thanks for the warning."
There was a pause. "I know I've no right to ask, but why did you need to do this? Why now, after all these years? Was it revenge?"
"Of course not. I don't hate Laura." He paused, as though he needed to compose himself. "The fact is I think I love her. I know that makes me a fool, but there's nothing I can do about it. I had to do something to make her face up to things, Peter. I had to try to shock her enough to make her take stock of her life and do something about it. If she won't, or she can't, then she's washed-up. She doesn't seem to understand that and I had to find a way to get the message across. That's all." He handed Peter a large brown envelope. "You've done well. You've earned this. I know it wasn't easy."
"So you're still trying to help her?"
"Of course I am. She's my life's work."
There was a pause.
"It'll be a long time before I earn this much above Equity rates again. I'm not sure that I even want to go into the acting profession any more. It tastes sour right now. It's as if... it's something that eats up your soul until there isn't anything left."
"Only if you let it. I'm sure it doesn't have to be like that." He started the engine. "Can I drop you off anywhere?"
"This is fine, Mr. Quigley. The train station is just down the road. A walk in the fresh air is exactly what I need."