Memoir

Herself

I AM NOT a star but I am famous in Biloela, where I grew up, and all fame is local and subject to the indifferent stroke of time's air brush. I had a brush with celebrity when I was nominated for an Olivier Award. I had to arrive at The Dorchester in London in a huge old Rolls-Royce. After the initial and frightening swarm of photographers indiscriminately flashing and clicking, I was given an existential reminder as my foot hit the red carpet when the reporter who was closest to the door said to her photographer: "Don't bother, it isn't anybody."

It was not my only moment. I was somebody for a moment quite recently in Hollywood. I was ushered into a very exclusive star hangout by bouncers who handed me through the crowd ahead of some recognisably famous friends. I was baffled by the special attention until I realised that the doorman thought I was somebody else. Joe Cocker's people had rung ahead and warned them he was coming. Maybe he came in through the bathroom window.

 

SOME YEARS AGO, I was asked to escot a once very famous but now very elderly star to Covent Garden. In the '20s and '30s, this woman had been a name. She had created roles that became legendary. Novello and Coward had written parts for her and her name alone could carry a show for years. She was justly renowned for her beauty and glamorous style. She had a bright lovely singing voice and was admired by generations of actresses for her consummate stagecraft and skills, especially in the light romantic comic roles. She also had exceptional longevity. For more than 40 years she played leads in the West End and her very presence would bring a gasp and an enthusiastic entrance round. She had been effortlessly the centre of attention, the light source itself.

When I went to collect her for this special anniversary performance, she was in her late 80s and living alone in the top-floor flat of an art deco building she had bought when deco was the thing. On a viciously cold winter night, with freezing rain, I went to take her out on the town that was once at her feet.

I stepped out of the lift and she greeted me, leaning against the door in a summer sky-blue cocktail dress that must have been very expensive and chic at another time. "Worth, or maybe Schiaparelli! Those old dames went to Paris for their frocks. They went to a lot of trouble with their off-stage look," a designer friend advised when I dined out on the encounter with "Herself".

There she was, in dim flattering light, having positioned herself with one foot in front of the other, holding a glass of champagne.

"Shom-pain," she mewed. "I'm not quite there yet. There's a little smoked salmon and the last of the caviar to keep you going while I finish off. Unless you want a whisky. I know some men prefer a whisky."

She beckoned me in and as she turned I could see that her dress was not done up at the back. Bra straps and bloomers and bits were revealed below the tangled wig. I followed her down the darkened hall hoping to find a moment to do her up.

The corridor was filled with paintings and posters of Herself in her former glory. But there were no lights on and all the curtains were drawn. I just glimpsed other rooms leading off.

In the big drawing room, I helped myself to the browning smoked salmon and the tiny glass pot of roe that looked like a jar of ointment. There was a small collection of other pots, make-up jars and eyelash implements under a huge vase of fresh flowers. Rhododendrons. The walls were lilac, a colour that doesn't fade because it looks faded to start with. The grey-blue carpet was scorched with scrubbed spots. It looked like a dog had made doggy mistakes.

My hostess indicated I should sit, then went straight to the piano, clattered off a few showy arpeggios and then sang the opening line of her most famous hit.

"Bit husky but the voice is still there. I do my vocal exercises every day. Very important to keep the instrument going or you will lose it."

I said we should be going as the traffic was dreadful and it was raining. I had also asked the driver to wait and thought of the meter ticking over – or worse, he may have left with another fare.

"Is there a car? Oh, they'll wait."

I was still trying to decide how to close up the back of her dress, which had fallen even further open as she sat on the piano stool singing her way steadily through the song, stopping and going back to correct notes. She caught me looking at the potholes and scrubbed craters in the carpet.

"My cleaner was foreign. Communist. I caught her doing her business on the carpet and gave her notice. My own fault. Wrong casting. Let's make a move."

I was approaching her at the piano in the hope of doing up some of the hooks and eyes but she spun round on the stool and rather coquettishly almost danced off.

"Final touches and then on. So looking forward to making an appearance."

She made an exit. No lights were turned on in the dark interior of the flat but she had picked up a well-placed torch to find her way. She banged it a couple of times. "Temperamental. There's a knack." The torch flickered on and there was light. A moment later, there was a crash off.

"Bother." (Yes! that old-fashioned off-stage cry.)

"Everything all right?" I sang out.

"I put them somewhere handy. They keep moving things on me."

I could see down the corridor that she had turned on all the lights in the bedroom but as I made a move to help, the door was closed. I finished my champagne and hers and had another go at the smoke-coloured salmon. I noticed the musty faecal smell of the airless room, the bowl of rose petals and the peculiar mix of things, silver and crystal among theatrical props – mementos of old productions. I helped myself to a cigarette – on the tray of nibbles – and lit it with my own cheap lighter as the big onyx one did not work.

Herself returned, having put on more make-up. She was carrying a large fur coat.

"Would you!" It was a command, not a request.

I took the coat and realised I had solved the problem of the open back of the cocktail dress. But before I could put it on her, she bent down and picked up the mascara and lipstick.

"There they are."

As she made a few final strokes at lashes and lips, I made a feint to have a go at doing up the dress. I managed a couple of clasps but only made things worse by getting the wrong hook into the wrong eye.

"I like a man who smokes. I occasionally have a cigarette. Such fun with good shom-pain." I hid a small smile at the way she said Cig-arit.

"I have a little chore for you."

She was opening several small drawers in the top of the lowboy. There was a trove of jewellery. "Most of it is tat," she winked. "But there is some real stuff and as this is such an occasion I think we should put on the dog."

I thought she meant the fur. And picked it up.

"Silly. This!"

She held out a large necklace of emeralds.

"Besides, it covers over the cracks."

I took it and she turned to allow me to close it round her throat. She started humming another of her songs. I was so moved I got the giggles.

I lifted the matted back of the wig. Of course, I got it caught in the necklace and made the whole thing even more awkward.

"Blue and green should never be seen. Except on me. Will I get away with it? I think we'll risk it."

There was an awkward silence. A stillness. I managed to do up a few more hooks and eyes at the back of the dress.

"Did I miss one?"

"All done."

"How do I look?"

"Pretty good."

"No ... you are meant to say, 'Wonderful, darling'."

"Wonderful, darling."

"Young actors! You lie badly. Don't they teach you to lie with conviction (pronounced convection). They certainly don't teach diction or projection anymore. The trouble with young people today is lack of pronunciation."

She checked the necklace with a few professional tosses of the head.

"You are very dear to waste your only night off on me."

"I'm having a wonderful time."

"So am I. Coat. And purse."

"You won't need the purse."

"Gallant."

"We'll need an umbrella, it's pissing down."

"Pissing down!"

"Raining quite hard."

"I must use that. Pissing cats and pouring dogs. I love it. There is a good umbrella. And I will need my purse."

 

THE DRIVE TO the opera house was arduous, with traffic heavy in the pissing cats and pouring dogs. Jolts and stops and brakes and starts were punctuated by gasps and bleats from Herself. "Dear God, are we going via fucking Timbuktu?" A long wait and a blocked intersection and Herself dropped off to sleep.

The cab driver asked if we could walk from here as it was going to be difficult with the one-way system to get right up close. I rasped over the sleeping treasure that this very old lady would have trouble in the wet and asked him if he could get us as close as possible.

Every ounce of energy had drained from her and she had shrivelled inside the bulky fur coat and was now snoring. She had sailed into the cab but I feared I would have to lift her out and into the seat at the theatre. I wickedly thought of letting her sleep on and taking her home, just leaving her to imagine what a wonderful night it had been, and how "marvellous, darling" the show was ... so many old friends remarked how well she looked ... and how they don't make them like her anymore ...

We arrived at the opera house and the cab stopped suddenly and nearly threw us both into a heap. I got out and handed her to the pavement. She was bent now into a small furry hoop. I had to almost lift her through the torrent of icy water over to the giant columns at the front of Covent Garden. Then I shepherded her through the wet push of struggling indifferent theatregoers, all shaking umbrellas and removing drab, soaking outer garments. I finally sat her in her damp fur and explained that I had to pick up the tickets. She looked very old and very frightened and clawed my hand and would not let me go. She was chattering and her eyes were blinking rapidly at the confusion.

Then this.

A woman in a plain old raincoat with a headscarf like a cheap tea towel

and rubber waterproof overshoes was now standing beside us.

"It can't be," said the plain lady in a south London accent.

"It is, isn't it? You are Evie Ashton. It's Dame Eve Ashton. Good Lord. Miss Ashton. How wonderful. You've made my night. My mother and I saw everything you did. Several times. Father had died in the war and you were our joy. I even started singing in the local musical society inspired by you. Even pretended to be you. I used to make my entrance like you, like I was you."

This visitation seemed to still the room into a backdrop and some powerful light began to shine upon this little convocation. This spell, these prayers of gratitude had summoned Herself. Was it the repetition of the name? Before our very eyes, there was a transformation of the old woman from her dank furry slumber into renewed glowing life – like blowing upon embers and ash, flickers of flame darted out. Or, like watching a bud open and flower in time-lapse photography, Herself unfurled her fur and the summer sky-blue frock floated out and the green emeralds glinted and her eyes shone and her mouth broke into her sunniest leading-lady smile.

But the stars were in the unknown, unnamed, plain south London lady's eyes.

"You are wonderful, Miss Ashton. You meant so much to me and my mother."

"How is your mother?"

"Gone to God."

"I'm sorry to hear that, dear. Your mother must have been such a good mother and had such a hard life with your father gone and she brought you to the theatre to see me. I am so grateful you took time to say hello. But this young man and I have to go and take our seats. It's not my night. We are here just to see the show."

"Yes, I must go. I got some standing room in the gods. So lucky."

"We're in the stalls. You must excuse me now. There are the bells. We must take our places. Goodbye, my dear."

"I'll never forget tonight. You have made my night. I wish Mum were

here."

"She is in spirit. Let's get in," she rasped in a harsh aside.

The merciful angel scuttled out into the rain and round to the side of the opera house for the long climb to the back of the gallery and her standing room with a reduced view. Herself made her entrance into the stalls, accepting greetings and quite pleased that the dinner-suited crowd were trying to work out who she was, or at least who she used to be. I got her sat down as the lights dimmed to half and then into secure darkness. The orchestra of the Royal Opera struck up. She fell back into a deep sleep.

Her only comment during the performance was a muttered question: "Who is in tonight?"

The trip home was uneventful and mostly silent.

"She was rather good. The lead. A few sharp high notes. Nerves most like."

"Are you coming up?"

"No, Miss Ashton, I have to catch the last train back to Stratford."

"Early call? How I envy you. Another time then."

 

EVE ASHTON IS not her real name. The great old star I have described lived alone for only another month. The Actors' Benevolent Fund arranged that she live out her life in a home for retired artists. You can catch glimpses of her in her films but mostly she lives in the memory of an adoring audience who saw her live. Most, like Herself, are now no more, or anonymous and becoming forgetful.

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