Friday, April 16, 2021

The Death of an Actor by Steve Goodlad

As the scene begins, he’s looking out of a window at a backdrop of Paris. It’s the Eiffel Tower in case we are too dim to place the accent and the scant props. There is tinny music apparently from a faux gramophone; a thirties Jazz band in case we don’t locate the era. As the lights come up, he moves to centre stage, checks his tie, his monocle, lights a cigarette and awaits his mistress who will be; “utterly divine”. He is the perfect kid-gloved cad.

At the curtain call, his eyes seek me out, flickering to the gallery and he bows. He bows again to the leading lady bearing flowers (the same bunch as yesterday he tells me later), then steps back again, re-joining hands with the rest of the cast. 

In the dressing room afterwards, he pours us both a finger of whisky. I am not his son anymore it seems, so am allowed the illicit drink but not the second larger one he pours for himself a little later. His make-up is only half erased and he looks like a sad clown with white eye-rims emphasising the pink sclera. I think it is me that makes him sad, he sees the life he should have had, had he remained faithful to the woman he loved, the family holidays we never had. The football matches we could have gone to together, sharing an interest. He misses all that now that he can’t sustain the alternative, the life he did have. The life I can only guess at.

I take the towel from around his neck and wipe away the greasepaint. He used to have a dresser to do these things he says, to make him presentable and that he didn’t leave in his costume suit. He invites me to “his club” for drinks, but I tell him I have to catch the last train. Just as well he says, that he can’t afford to pay off his slate.

He does insist however on seeing me to the station and I enjoy the short walk, the bonhomie of his company, of what it could have been like. It is autumn and the mist swirls in as I walk to the platform, and when I look back, he is waving as though suspended in dry ice, the brim of his fedora shadowing his nose. I am left wondering why he seemed so uncharacteristically sentimental.

When the police knock at the door, it feels like no surprise. In my dressing gown, I think I am being appraised, to see what I amounted to. I ask them where he is and am told the hospital but sadly there is no rush. “Wasn’t he in Casualty in the early days?” he asks and for a moment I am confused. He looks like he’s taken a punt in a pub quiz to lighten the mood a little and I gratify him with a nod. I don’t mention his Hamlet at the RSC or John Proctor when he toured the Crucible and finished on Broadway. His “triumphs” as he called them after years of bit parts in soaps and an advertisement for margarine.

The undertaker applied make-up and made him into a younger self, his head thrown back, almost in laughter. He looks like he has a healthy tan, that I’d never seen before. I tell them to seal the lid before anyone else sees him.

The recording starts too late, the choreography of his later work with amateur lighting and vintage sound system that can’t drown out the squeak of the wheels of the trolley on which his coffin sits. Then he wobbles away from us on rollers, through the foul flaps and the curtain descends for the last time. I remember how calm he seemed in that final scene, just for me on the station platform, like the old days when it was him leaving and me waving with less dignity.

A few mourners linger after the service. He is remembered unfavourably by some. His phrases too well cut, his rejection of their “hand-outs” still ringing in their ears. There is polite indifference and an apology about not having time to make the wake.

I cleared his apartment and took two dozen suits to the charity shop. Who would want a white barathea dinner jacket that had never been worn and no turn back cuffs on his shirts and trousers with no turn ups? He used to sniff at my turn-out. To him, clothes were a kind of wit. You either carried them off or you looked ridiculous. In his eyes, I was the latter. I keep one suit as his only legacy apart from settling his many accounts.

I dignified his death with an obituary in The Times. No reporter picked up on it despite the coroner's conclusion of possible accidental death from a mix of alcohol and sleeping pills. There was no note, no final goodbye except that cameo on the station platform; one of his own plays. The last time I saw him. I must have been looking too far away or I must have been looking too near, a wealth of detail if only I had looked, but nothing conclusive it was decided.

Now that I am the same age as he was at the height of his career and I hold him up like a mirror to look over my shoulder, I am given to wondering about the man who walked in on us that day, the actor with two families and no fixed abode. He told me that I burst into tears as I didn’t know who on earth he was. I once found his name in the library Who’s Who and copied the page out, his forgotten plays and television appearances, his brief biography followed by a personal note: sports; none, charities supported; none, hobbies; none, address c/o Spotlight.

Now that he has walked out on us again, I feel no wiser, as I sit here like an actor waiting to go on, I wish I could see again that stubborn unforgiving man that goaded me for not striking out and using the creativity and flair of my youth. Now that I am grown, with children of my own, to offer me their own disappointed obedience, I feel for him. Our children left us both because we were so wrapped up in our own ambitions, too wise for them to laugh and admire their made-up plays. 

I recall he bought me a present to assuage his frequent absences. Him running behind me on the path, a smell of whisky in his sweat, holding the saddle steady and launching me off on my own. That is where I found myself and learned to be.

I never wanted to step into his shoes. I told him once that I wanted to be an actor and he slapped his knee and shouted; “no you don’t, you don’t give a damn about the theatre or me”. He reminded me about my pronunciation, my local accent wouldn’t “cut it”. If I made the mistake of pronouncing: “bath” as if it rhymed with “hearth” he would calmly demolish my qualification for the stage. He went on to tell me how at my age he had seen every show in London and emphasised how passionately he wanted to act. “Can you say that?” His widows peak was like a judges black cap as he laid down the law. I had thought that all acting was just showing off, playing make-belief and pretending. “I could learn” I said. “You can’t teach acting” he responded, “it’s a gift not taught”. I never considered it again.

Now that I look unlike the boy on the brand-new bike, who wobbled down the path. I still hear him calling; “keep pedalling, keep pedalling”. When I look over my shoulder, he is nowhere to be seen. Now that he’s no longer “stopping by”, today or any other day, I realise how far death takes men from where they were and yet how soon it brings them back again.

Now that I am old, that I have some resemblance to him, I put on that warm grey wool suit. I feel a nice indifference with life. I sweep my hair straight back the way he wore it during his life and death. His fierce forehead, still doubting the intelligence of people he encountered, too serious for filial piety, with his air of sealed regret. I commute to my life in a family law court; of conformity, legislation and policies.  I never did land the job he was looking for; “dabbling in other people’s lives, rescuing abandoned children”. I wonder if he heard himself sometimes?

I walk to the station and I see him walking towards me, the stiff-backed theatrical man again. He pauses for a moment in close up, lights a cigarette and I find myself playing the perfect kid-gloved cad.

© Steve Goodlad

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