I am dying, but there are compensations.
Firstly, I have already read my obituary, and I think it’s rather fine. It pays tribute to my distinguished career in glowing terms, and concludes that I am ‘arguably one of the finest actors ever to walk upon the British stage.’ I like that use of ‘arguably’, it sounds so modest, and yet doesn’t brook argument at all. I also like the use of words like ‘neglected’ and ‘undervalued’, and the phrase ‘criminally undervalued’. I did not write my own obituary, but I did suggest a few areas that the journalist might like to pay particular attention. I have spoken to the editor of ‘The Stage and Television Today’, and he has given me no reason to believe the obituary will be trimmed.
Secondly, I have left in my will a grant to my old boarding school, the money to be put towards the creation of an award given out every prize day. It is to be presented to the boy judged that year to have made the most notable contribution towards the excellence of theatre, and there will be words to that effect inscribed on a silver cup, and my name will be upon the cup too. I am hoping it will encourage some resurgence of interest in drama at my alma mater; when I last visited, a few years ago now, their Christmas production of‘Twelfth Night’ was desultory at best. I think it’s important to give back. I have had a long and successful career – even if not quite as successful as my talents promised, but hey ho – and if I can make some children benefit from that, and have good reason to thank my name, all to the good.
And thirdly, and finally, and most frivolously – I am looking forward to those final moments when your whole life flashes before your eyes. For all these years I have given pleasure to untold thousands of audiences, sitting in rapt and respectful silence as I dazzle them with my arts. The one person, alas, who has never had the opportunity to see me on stage is I myself. But now, at last, as my entire existence passes in front of me, I can afford to settle back and experience my greatest successes, one after the other, watching from a front row seat.
I am especially looking forward to my celebrated performance of King Lear, as given at Hornhaven Playhouse in the summer of 1979. We had a full house every night, and people travelled far and wide to see me, some travelled from as far away as Shaddock. It wasn’t a perfect production by any means, and Anna Walker-Smith made a rather adenoidal Cordelia, but the critical notices regarding me were especially warm. The Hornhaven Gazette said I was ‘definitive’. Bless.
It’s my heart that’s killing me. But I never take much notice of it. It’s not giving me any pain.
It starts to happen. I can feel it. I am not afraid. I am prepared.
I prop myself up high on my pillows, and watch as the house lights go down and the curtains pull apart.
My childhood is unremarkable. As I play with my school chums at hide and seek, cowboys and Indians, cricket, you can see my talent is there, all that imagination, that innate sensitivity. But it is as yet without discipline. I resist the urge to shout out and tell my younger self to project, but I doubt he’ll be able to hear me. It doesn’t matter; this is what my three years of voice training at RADA will be for.
It’s nice to see my parents again, though they are not quite as I remember them. My father, I thought, was taller than that – but I suppose all performers look shorter close up than you expect; oh, that season I worked with Larry Olivier in the sixties, and my shock on finding out he was a borderline dwarf! I hadn’t realised my mother had such a lantern jaw.
First kisses, first sex. Some of the girls I vaguely recall. Most I don’t.
It’s not until I get my first job, as Merriman in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, with ASM and light understudy duties, that I recognise something is wrong. Merriman doesn’t appear much in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, he’s just a butler who turns up once in a while to announce the arrival of gentry and dispense cucumber sandwiches; it takes until act three before I get enough of a glimpse of Merriman to assess him properly.
The actor playing Merriman isn’t me. Or, rather – the actor playing me isn’t me.
My heart may be weak, but my brain is a sharp as ever, thank you very much. I recognise him, vaguely. I know I’ve seen him before. I think maybe I’ve even worked with him. But it’s been a long time, and it takes me past the curtain call and into that first night party where I felt up Angela Dunstall before I’m able to put a name to the face.
And then it hits me, hard – and there is a coldness on my heart, and I think that’s it, I’m bowing out early, I’m going to die right here and now of shock, or disappointment, or simply rage. I breathe deeply, and slowly. I steady myself.
I get out of bed. I pace a bit. I’m not going to die, not like this. No death until I’ve sorted this matter out.
To discover that I’m not seeing my life pass before my eyes accurately is galling enough; it’s just a reconstruction, this is someone’s interpretation of it. But to realise that I’ve been so woefully miscast, that the actor who is representing me in my dying moments is so grossly unsuited to the job – it feels like a calculated insult.
Because it is Nicholas Milton, the very same Nicholas Milton I worked with for an entire season of weekly rep back in 1978, the same Nicholas Milton who was my enemy. He looks a bit older, yes, a bit greyer, certainly – but it’s him, it’s him, it’s him.
I think I’m going to be sick. I’m not sick. I need all the strength I can muster.
Nicholas Milton was a very bad actor.
I think I shall be remembered for a certain generosity I display towards fellow performers. I do not call someone a bad actor lightly. I accept that good actors can have bad performances in them; they can be miscast, they can find themselves out of their depth, they can lose their way in rehearsal because of insensitive direction or unflattering costume choices. Anna Walker-Smith may have given the world a Cordelia stymied by adenoids, but the following week her Lady Sneerwell in ‘The School for Scandal’ was perfectly adequate. Even I myself – I accept that I may have got the wrong end of the stick with ‘Waiting for Godot’, though I do maintain that at least my portrayal of Estragon kept the audiences amused.
But Nicholas Milton was a very bad actor; more than that, he was the worst actor I ever worked with; more than that, he was the only bad actor I ever worked with, all the others excelled in comparison.
Alan St John cast him in the 1978 summer season, but I do not blame Alan. I always told Alan I’d leave all the casting up to him – if he wanted any help he could always ask, but I had every faith in his abilities. Alan took me at my word and never asked. Every year, around May time, he’d give me a ring – he’d say, “Dear heart, are you free for another spell treading the boards under the thumb of yours truly?” He was joking, of course – I was never under his thumb; Alan may have nominally been my director, but in rehearsal he always looked to me for guidance. We’d do a season of eight plays in weekly rep, the whole commitment lasting two and a half calendar months; two weeks of preliminary rehearsals, followed by a block of performances, acting the latest show in the evening, breaking in the next one during the day.
I’d say to Alan, “I shan’t commit yet, something better may turn up,” and that was my little joke too really, I always kept myself free for a St John season, he and I went back such a long way. I’d ask him whether he wanted me to give my King Lear to the masses, and some years he’d say it was too soon after the last one, we didn’t want the audience to take it for granted – and some years he’d say yes.
And each season Alan would cast new actors into the troupe, some straight out of drama school. He knew the value of fresh blood, that these baby-faced hopes might be stars of the future. He knew too that when I wasn’t on stage giving it my all the audience would need something young and pretty to look at.
I thought nothing of Nicholas Milton at first. He was just another juve, a bit wet behind the ears, a bit gauche – bless their hearts, I liked meeting the juves, how I’d tease them the first days of rehearsal, I’d instruct them on all their supernumerary duties which involved making me tea and calling me sir, until, laughingly, Alan would tell them I was joking.
They’d come to the rehearsals with lots of things they’d learned in class, of course, but practical experience would soon drum that out of them. You can’t learn how to act from a book, or from a ‘workshop environment’ – you stand up on stage before a crowd of strangers, with nothing more than a doublet and hose and spotlighting for protection, and you soon find out the hard way when they’re enjoying themselves and when they’re not. There is no sound more deathly, I tell you, than the sound of an audience that’s bored. You stare into the darkness, you can’t see anyone out there because the lights blind you a little, but you can hear them – you can hear how still they become, how numbed they are, how in each cough and rustle of sweet paper that they long only for the interval and a chance to escape. It’s the sort of silence that any good actor dreads. It’s the sort of silence that gives you nightmares.
Nicholas Milton was all fancy theories. He told me, I think it was on the first day even, he told me that in order to act our parts successfully we had to discover some inner truth to the characters. I told him, quite amiably I thought, that the most important thing we had to do was to face out front, talk loudly, and not bump into the furniture. And if we could get the odd laugh now and again, that was a bonus. He smiled at me then, and I remember his smile well, it was wide and friendly. I think, looking back, that smile was the best bit of acting he ever did.
Those first few days of rehearsal went well. It was a season Alan wanted my Lear, and of course that suited me like an old glove – and it was nice for the other actors too, there was a ready-made production they could fit around. And in breaks, in the green room, if the cast had done well, I’d sit in my armchair and treat them with a few anecdotes about my life on the stage. They were funny stories, I could always make them laugh, and I’d tell them of times I’d worked with Ralph Richardson, or John Gielgud, back in the days when none of us were knights. And if they listened closely, the clever actor would realise there were useful lessons to be gleaned from these anecdotes too, handy little instructions that would give a juve something to feed off when he had to be on the stage.
I’ll admit, I enjoyed telling stories in the green room more sometimes than I did the actual acting. Those young faces, so full of spirit and idealism, with years of performances ahead of them, of Restoration comedies and Feydeau farces and Lears of their very own – they’d look up at me, they’d hang on my every word. And I liked that old armchair too. It had been officially mine since the season of ’74 or ‘75 – it was the only comfortable chair there, really, all the others were the plastic sort you’d get in schools or village halls – and we’d been doing a rehearsal of ‘King Richard II’, and I’d be especially good in the first half run through, and as we traipsed into the green room to put on the kettle and have some char Martin Dempster (who was playing Bolingbroke) pulled out the armchair and waved his hands over it most amusingly, and said, “Your throne, my liege!” And we all laughed, and I played up to it, of course, and I sat down in it with all due pomp and ceremony, and from that point on it became my chair, at the very top of the room, and there I would tell my stories and make jokes with the cast and dispense some useful advice.
I remember that first day of rehearsal, and it may have been before Nicholas Milton came out with that arse about inner truth, but it may have been after – and there I was, I was telling them all some anecdote about my time in the London West End and how I once met Sir Terence Rattigan. And then, even before I’d properly reached the end of it, Milton started speaking. And I thought for a moment he was building upon my anecdote, trying to explain it to his fellows, and that was bad enough – I don’t need any help, thank you very much – but then I realised that no, worse, he was telling an anecdote of his own! This scrap of a kid who hadn’t even done anything yet! I gave him enough rope to hang himself. I let him finish his story, trivial as it was. His fellow actors laughed politely. And then I continued with another story, a better one, one of my all time classics. Milton didn’t seem put out by this. He smiled that smile he had, and I recall a faint feeling of triumph – he’d realised he’d been bested, and I felt a little sorry for him, it was rather like using an elephant gun to swat a fly. And I finished my story, and brought it to the punchline, but before I’d even taken breath to start another there he was again, telling some new yarn of his own, something about his days doing a school play of all things! I got up and left. I didn’t want to punish the whole cast. It wasn’t their fault one of their number was speaking out of turn. But I had no choice.
I spoke to Alan at the end of the day. I told him what the problem was. He said he’d see what he could do. I have no idea what he did, but Nicholas Milton never interrupted an anecdote of mine again. Indeed, he usually wasn’t in the room during the break at all.
He was a bad actor, as I say, and this wasn’t merely because of his behaviour in the rehearsal room. He had a sort of earnestness about him on stage that doesn’t reach an audience – any seasoned actor knows that it’s what you can push out to the dress circle that counts, not all the sotto voce mumbling you do in the name of verite. The audience loved him, and the poor fool hadn’t the wit to understand they loved him because he looked nice, it was nothing to do with the impassioned sincerity of his emoting. In ‘King Lear’ he was playing Oswald. It’s a nice part, Oswald. Not many lines, but a bit of sneering, a joke or two, and a lovely death scene, it’s a fine part for the right juve. Whenever Oswald made an entrance the audience straightaway would start to laugh at him, and he wasn’t even supposed to be that funny; at the curtain call when he stepped on stage for his bow the clapping would get louder, and there’d even be cheers. There wasn’t much applause left for the rest of us, the crowds got all clapped out. It was embarrassing. Milton’s popularity was overwhelming the production.
He had to be taught a lesson, and only I could do it. One evening, in act one scene four, I cut a page or two of the script altogether. I cut out Oswald’s first major entrance, and his subsequent exit. One moment I was chatting to the Earl of Kent, the next I was calling for my Fool. Donald McDermott was playing Kent, and he looked a bit horrified, but I squeezed his arm so he’d know it was all right, and Nicholas Milton was left stranded in the wings without any chance of coming on and stealing the limelight. He would turn up later in the play for his death scene, but now it would be without any context, he’d just be another oik getting stabbed in the carnage. I apologised to Milton later, and pretended it had been a mistake. But I said to him, “Lear can do without its Oswald, but it can’t do without its Lear.” And I tapped my nose for emphasis, yes. I think he got the message. I think it was a point well made.
That must have been the Thursday, or the Friday, I think. It would have been on the Monday before that we’d had the technical rehearsal, and during the break Alan asked if I could go to see wardrobe about a wig fitting. I suppose the rest of the cast thought I’d be gone for longer, but the Lear wig was a simple matter – we’d had one made a couple of seasons before, five minutes with the hair tongs and we were done. When I went into the green room, all the cast were laughing – not just the juves, all of them, even the Goneril I’d served with for five seasons, even the Duke of Gloucester. And there was Milton, and he was sitting in my chair, sitting in my throne – and he was telling a story to them all, some stuff about how he’d met Henry Irving which couldn’t possibly be true since Irving had died a hundred years ago, and his voice was different, and I wondered why he sounded so old and so queasy, and then I realised he was impersonating me.
Some of them had the decency to stop laughing when they saw me there. (Some of them later apologised, although I told them there was no need for that – young Milton had been very funny, it certainly got the measure of me!) Milton stopped talking. He stopped, at least. But he didn’t get out of my chair. He didn’t get out of my chair and let me sit down.
Nicholas Milton was a very bad actor, and a charlatan, and a man of mendacity, and a shit.
I haven’t seen Nicholas Milton in over thirty years. Not in the flesh – once in a while, back in the eighties, he’d turn up on television, and as soon as I recognised him, I’d change channel. Never anything very fancy – bit parts in sitcoms mostly, or turning up as some victim in ‘The Bill’. I had to change channel quite frequently for a while – and then, as the years went by, less and less.
I haven’t thought of Nicholas Milton in several years either, I’m sure, not actively. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. Once in a while your memory will just toss random stuff at you, something will just flit unexpectedly back into your mind, it has nothing to do with you. How am I meant to stop that happening? It’s not my fault.
I don’t know, after so very long, why Nicholas Milton has managed to pop back into my life, right at its very centre, to take all I have ever done and make a mockery of it. I have to find out. I’m not standing for it. It’s too late at night to call anyone, I should go back to bed, but I don’t want to do that if it means I’ll die accidentally in the process. I’ll keep myself awake, and keep myself alive. I go down to the kitchen, drink lots of coffee, take some vitamin pills, one or other should do the trick.
I would call Alan St John, I know he would have helped me find him. But I remember reading that Alan himself died only a year or two ago. He didn’t get a very big obituary in ‘The Stage and Television Today’, and on balance I think that’s right – he was a nice man, but not a very good director, his only real skill was in steering actors around the set, he had no verve, no imagination, you could hardly say theatre is poorer for his loss.
For the first time, though, I miss him, and wish he was still around.
As soon as day breaks, I phone Equity, the actor’s union. I tell them I’m trying to contact an actor called Nicholas Milton. They tell me he hasn’t been a member of Equity since 1994. They tell me which agency he was with. I phone the agency. I tell them I’m looking for Nicholas Milton. They tell me they stopped representing him in 1994. I say I know that. I say I’d like to contact him anyway. They tell me they can’t give out his home address to just anyone, and I tell them I’m a famous actor who used to work with him. I give them my name, but they don’t recognise it until they look me up on the internet, idiots. They tell me the last address they have on file; it’s in Hull.
I’ve never been to Hull. I wasn’t looking for any new experiences in this lifetime, and if I had been, visiting Hull would not have been on the top of my list. I go to the train station. I buy a ticket for Hull. It’s a five hour journey. I hope I don’t die on the way.
I didn’t hate Nicholas Milton, I don’t want to overstate the matter. Really, he was beneath my contempt. But I think I have demonstrated ample reason for my hatred had I bothered to harbour any, even before the incident with Maureen. It was Maureen that was the final straw.
Maureen and I had an arrangement. She didn’t run the nicest theatre digs, nor, it must be said, the most convenient. Her bed and breakfast was a good twenty minute walk from the theatre – fine if the summer weather was living up to the name, frustrating if, as common, it wasn’t. But since 1972 Maureen had only charged me half price. And in return I got her front row tickets to all the shows, and had a port and lemon waiting for her at the interval, and I shared her bed.
And on Sundays, I remember, they were the nicest – no performance in the evening, and no rehearsals either, and we could just stay in bed til noon. She’d have to get up early to make the breakfasts for all her other lodgers, but she’d soon return, bringing me my own breakfast on a tray, and she’d have cooked me extra sausage. And then we’d doze, or read the Sunday papers, or we’d have sex, or I’d tell her some of my theatrical anecdotes. She liked my anecdotes. But you had to be careful with Maureen, she didn’t know much about theatre, she didn’t care a rat’s arse about Ralph Richardson or Gielgud, the stories I told her had to be rather fruitier than the ones I’d tell the actors in the green room. She used to laugh with me. She was a pretty little thing.
That was the arrangement – ten weeks each year, and nothing more. Not even a card at Christmas. We’d have celebrated birthdays had they coincided with the summer season, but my birthday was in March, and hers was heaven knows when, so it was never an issue. On the final night of the eighth play I’d say, “Well that’s it for another year, ducks,” because she liked being called ‘ducks’; she’d ask me if I would be back the following year, and I said I’d see if something better turned up, but I expected I would. Then sometime around May, after Alan St John called me, I’d give her a ring – I’d say, “Do you have a room for the forthcoming season?”, and she’d say, “Yes,” and I’d say, “Our usual arrangement?”, and she’d say, “The usual.” She always sounded happy to hear from me.
She told me we had to keep it secret. This was just a bit of fun. I agreed. I didn’t want the cast to think less of me. I’d told them tales of dalliances with Peggy Ashcroft and the young Judi Dench, I didn’t want to disillusion them.
And the best nights of the show were always the one when Maureen was in. I’d get her a seat right on the front row, so that if I stood downstage centre for my big speeches I knew I was just in front of her. And then that night in bed she’d tell me how good I’d been.
Maureen was predisposed to dislike Nicholas Milton, of course. I tried not to gossip about rehearsals with her, I’m not really a bitchy sort of actor. But I’m sure that Nicholas Milton cropped up in conversation every once in a while. To the point, I remember, that when we went to bed after she’d seen ‘King Lear’, and told me how regal and tragic I had been, I was almost as keen to find out what she had made of Milton’s Oswald. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t like him too much,” and that pleased me.
Milton’s big break was as the titular inspector in the Priestley potboiler, ‘An Inspector Calls’. He played the part too young, and with too much charisma. Maureen saw it three times, once on the ticket I gave her, and on two subsequent visits she paid for herself. I assumed she was taken with my comic turn as Arthur Birling. Even then, I wanted to believe the best of her.
She stopped wanting to have sex with me during ‘A Murder is Announced’, and right in the middle of ‘Easy Virtue’ told me she didn’t want me even sharing her bed. She said she was having a relationship with Nicholas Milton, she wasn’t sure how serious it was, but she wanted to find out. She said she didn’t want to hurt me. I said, “You little idiot, you think he cares one fig for you? He only wants to spite me!” That made her cry, and I’d never seen her cry, we’d never had that sort of relationship. She said that I was talking nonsense, we’d kept our arrangement secret all this long, Milton wouldn’t even have known about it. But of course Milton knew about it – I talked about Maureen in the green room – I dropped hints – couldn’t she see, I was so proud of her?
She said I could take another room in the house, but I said no. I found a room in the inn just out of town, it was a half hour walk, and uphill, but what of that?
There were only two shows left to the season. It was a wonder I got through them, but I’m a professional. We did ‘Gaslight’, and ‘Gaslight’ was no trouble, I’d ridden the back of that old warhorse so many times I could have acted it in my sleep, there could have been earthquakes going on all about and I’d still have given a solid performance.
The final show was another matter. It was a new play, or a newish play at any rate, I’d never heard of it. It was billed as a comedy, but it was one of those modern comedies but doesn’t have many jokes in, and everyone stands around looking miserable. You know the sort. Once in a while Alan would choose a play he thought could ‘push the boundaries a bit’, and I never knew why, audiences pay good money so we’ll keep our hands off their boundaries altogether.
I didn’t have a big part, but it was, of course, significant. And I don’t know, maybe it was the noise at the inn I was staying in, maybe it was my own little irritation with the Maureen incident, but whenever I tried to learn the lines they just wouldn’t stick.
During one rehearsal, Milton stopped me mid-speech, and said, “I say, I’m afraid you’re paraphrasing.”
I said that I never paraphrased.
He said that I was paraphrasing, and that it made it rather hard to him to find his cue.
I said that if I were paraphrasing, it was only because the play was no good, and I was making the lines better.
He said that that was fair enough, but could I just decide what paraphrase I was going to stick to. Unless I would rather he just take pot luck every night. Unless I’d rather he just jump into my improvisation whenever he thought best.
He said it all quite affably, as if he were giving me considered options, as if he had only my best interests at heart. He gave that friendly smile. I told him he could do whatever he dammed well choose.
For weeks I had contrived never to be on my own with him. I would avoid the pub when he was there, I would change my entrances so I came on from opposite sides of the wings. I didn’t worry about that any longer. Indeed, after performance that night, and I’d said good night to everyone, I doubled back to find him alone in the dressing room.
He looked up in the mirror at me when I came in. He was sponging off his eyeliner. “Hello, old man,” he said, “what can I do you for?”
My first punch took him off his chair. I couldn’t reach down to punch him again, so I just kicked him a couple of times.
He didn’t cry out. And he didn’t retaliate. I thought that maybe this was because I was beating him so hard, but I knew I wasn’t, really; I’d never hit anyone for real before, and even now I was resorting to stage fighting techniques, I was making my own sound effects. Then I thought that maybe he felt guilty, that he was getting only what he deserved.
And I looked him in the face, and I saw that actually he just pitied me.
I kicked him once more and left. I kicked him in the stomach – I remembered the stage directions of the new play had said the hero had a clear and handsome face, and I didn’t want to do anything to compromise the show.
I thought he might tell the company what I’d done, but he didn’t. He didn’t say a word to anyone. Except, perhaps, to Maureen. I wouldn’t put it past him.
The following May I had the annual phone call from Alan St John. “Me again, dear heart,” he said. “Fancy getting back into harness for another eight weeks of fun and merriment beneath the aegis of yours truly?”
I said I would like that, on condition that Nicholas Milton wasn’t part of the company.
Alan went quiet at that. Then he said to me, “But I’ve already offered him the season. He’s doing Orsino.”
I said that he had better unoffer him the season then. That it was Milton or me.
There was silence, and I went cold, and I thought – he’s going to take him, he’s going to take him after all. The bastard – and then Alan said, “All right.” He was quiet and rather flat, and I’d never heard Alan sound like that before, so lifeless.
I asked him whether he’d wanted me to give my King Lear again that year, and remembered as I was doing so that of course he wouldn’t, we’d had it just the season before – but Alan just sighed, and said in that same flat voice, “Sure, why not?”
That would become the proudest King Lear of my life, in fact, and even Anna Walker-Smith couldn’t spoil it.
I stayed at the inn again, and found that once you got used to it, it had its own particular charms.
Maureen had taken her name off the digs list, and didn’t come to any of the performances. I supposed that was just as well, though she missed a terrific season.
I don’t die on the train to Hull, and that’s a good thing, although looking out of the window as we pass through Grimsby I’m sorely tempted.
I get a taxi to take me to Nicholas Milton’s last known address. It doesn’t take long.
And only now I am wondering – what am I going to say to him? Am I going to have to hit him again? Do I suppose that this time he’ll just lie there on the ground, and take it, and pity me – because he’ll have to, if he hits me back it’ll kill me, I think the exertion of my swinging a fist may finish me off. I don’t feel angry any more. Confused, yes, and a little sad. And lost.
I ring the doorbell, and only then do I realise who’s going to answer it. She opens the door, and there she is, small, and still pretty, in her own way. “Hello, Maureen,” I say.
She is surprised to see me, of course she is, but not as surprised as I might have expected.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” I say. “Is your husband there?”
She hesitates. She says, “You’d better come in.”
She shows me into her sitting room. It isn’t as nice as the one she had in Hornhaven. Naturally enough, I don’t tell her this. “Nice,” I say.
“Nick is dead,” she says, and there’s no emotion to it.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “What did he die of?” And she doesn’t answer that, and why should she, it’s none of my business. “But he was so young,” I say, “wasn’t he?” And to this at least she reacts, she twitches one of her shoulders into a half shrug, and I look at her, and she’s old – and I think, quite right – really, is anyone I ever knew young any more?
“What do you want?” she asks me, and it’s not unkind.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
“A cup of char!” I say. “Yes. Yes. Thank you. Yes.”
I sit down at her kitchen table. She tells me that Nick has been dead a long time. She tells me he died eight long years ago.
I am going to ask when it was that he recorded my life story, and who approached him, and how much he got paid for it, but I’m distracted when Maureen puts my tea in front of me, and that’s just as well.
“He gave up acting years ago,” Maureen tells me. “He helped me run my b and b. We had two kids. We did all right.”
“He was a good actor,” I say. “This business can be very cruel.”
“I don’t think he was a good actor,” she says. “He wasn’t an actor like you.” And I look for something cutting in that, and I don’t find anything, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and I thank her cautiously.
“What do you want?” she asks me again.
“I was thinking of Nick,” I say. “I’m sorry. I came to say sorry.” And it doesn’t feel like a lie, it’s what Nick would have called an inner truth. “I miss you, ducks,” I say. And I reach out and take her hand, and she doesn’t resist, and that’s not quite the same thing as accepting it, I know, but it’s better than I am hoping for.
She says, “Come to bed with me.”
“I miss you,” I say again.
“I miss him,” she says. “So much. And you knew him. At least you knew him. Come to bed with me.”
I don’t want to tell her that I’m on the point of death, I really don’t want to put her off. But she’s very gentle with me, and sweet, and when my heart starts to speed it’s as if with new life.
We lie there in her bed, holding each other. Maureen begins to doze.
I close my eyes too.
When I do, my life starts to flash before my eyes. Back from the beginning.
And now I’m on the lookout for it, and of course I recognise my father! That’s Alfred Potter. He began his career in the days of music hall, and he was in my first professional season, already an old man, and a kind one – I remember him saying to me that he thought I would go far. And that lantern jawed mother of mine, that’s Mildred Hewitt, I worked with her on ‘Hobson’s Choice’, she was delightful, and used to cheat at cribbage. Both long dead, I can’t even guess how long. It’s so nice to see them again.
I’m not scared of death. I know that whatever happens next there still will be a job for me.
I shake myself awake, I force my eyes open. It would be so easy to sleep, and sleep forever, but not here. Not beside Maureen. She deserves better than that.
I kiss her on the forehead. She doesn’t stir.
I leave her a little note, put it on the dressing table. It says ‘Thank You’.
I get the taxi to the station.
The evening train from Hull has been delayed by engineering works, and by the time it finally arrives and I clamber on board with all the angry commuters I am so tired. I had wanted to finish the story of my life in my own bed, but I don’t think I’m going to get there. It doesn’t matter. I hope I don’t alarm anyone. I squeeze myself in opposite couple who look hale and hearty and unworried by fears of death, and I put as peaceful an expression on my face as possible.
Nicholas Milton is dancing before my eyes before the train has even left the platform. His King Lear is quite good. Subtler than I’d have played it, and the boy could work harder on his projection – but he’s good, he’s got something, he’s got talent.
I settle back, and I smile, and start to enjoy the show.
Marvellous – I love how you get inside the heads of your characters, and find such interesting things in there!
Nick Milton said:
My word…how did you know that I used to be an actor? 😉
A true privilege to have such a wonderful story written about my name-sake. Thank you so very much.
Another brilliant story, Rob. I’ve loved them all, especially Snoopy’s friend, but this is definitely one of my favourites. How perceptive and clever you are. Ha ha ha, I think I’ve worked with that guy.