Dennis promised he would come and see me. He just has to put the motorbike in for a service at the garage down the road, he said, and he’ll be right round. It’s what they call a while-you-wait service, and I told him he might as well wait here. I like to think this flat is just a bit more comfortable than the garage’s waiting area, or that café over the road that sells the burnt bangers and soggy mash. And I’d also like to think that I offer slightly better company than the greasy mechanics or that young woman at the café who never smiles.
I’ll put the kettle on when he gets here. I’d kill for a cup of tea right now, but these days it goes straight through me, so I’m trying to cut back. I should have got something special in for lunch, but I just have not had time to get to the supermarket and I don’t want to go now in case Dennis turns up and finds me not in.
Comestibles. That was the word I was trying to think of just now. It reminds me of that dreadful play I was in all those years ago when I only had one line and it was about going to buy some comestibles for supper. I told the director it sounded like nothing a human would ever say. It let down the whole script – to be honest, all the other lines did too, but I wasn’t responsible for those. And he said, ‘Look, dear, we’re only here for a week. Could we try and get through it with the minimum of fuss?’ Well, I was certainly not dear to him, nor him to me, and I decided right there and then that I would have to take the responsibility on my own shoulders. So I changed the line, just went ahead and did it during the next performance. Of course, the other actors took it in their stride, but the director! Goodness me, the blue language coming out of the red face!
Time for my exercises. It took a while, when I was younger, to get over the embarrassment of talking to myself in the mirror, but now I think nothing of it. Limber up the lips, inhale, exhale, enunciate the words. How now brown cow. How … now … brown … cow … Then move on to something more complicated. I like to soliloquise. You can’t let a day go by, you can’t let it slip, because the mouth is a muscle that needs to be kept in shape, and you never know when you are going to need it. It’s been a while since that audition for Gertrude, but you take rejection on the chin and move on. You never know when the next role is going to come. It could be today, it could be next week. But nobody could say that I’m not ready for it.
People still recognise me in the street. People are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Aren’t you Jessica Barnes?’ And they’re right, in a sense. I smile and tell them they’re thinking of my character from Carsley Avenue, and that my real name is Janice Stevens. I always make time to talk to them, sign an autograph, if that’s what they want. It’s understandable, of course, that they get confused. After all, I was on the television in their living rooms every weekday evening, seven-thirty till eight, for over ten years. I was part of their lives.
Dennis won’t call if he’s late. He hates using the phone. He’ll ring if it’s an emergency, I’m sure. Of course, if he’s at death’s door I couldn’t expect him to pick up the phone, could I. But I’m running away with myself. Nothing’s happened to him, he’s just got held up at the garage, probably, talking to the mechanics, sharing a joke, chewing the cud in the way men do when they’re discussing the things men discuss. I could ring him, of course, find out what he’s up to. But I won’t do that. I’ve never been the one to do the chasing and I’m not going to start now.
Carsley Avenue. I was the queen of that street for a decade. I packed more into that character in that time than most do in an entire life: I was married, had two children and three affairs, got divorced, married again, killed that husband (accidentally), lost one of the children in a car crash, was struck down with cancer and then recovered, nearly died trying to save a neighbour from drowning, went into business running a dress shop with a man who turned out to be a criminal and who stole all the takings, leaving me on my uppers and forcing me into the arms of the local heartthrob, Andy Stevenson, who used and abused me, beating me more than once to within an inch of my life, until I killed him (deliberately) and had to go through a traumatic court case before being acquitted, and they kept me going, how could they not when I was drawing in the audiences, they could not afford to write me out, people were thrilled and disgusted by me all at the same time, the men wanted me and the women wanted to be me, and then I got married again to a man who promised to help me put the past behind me, until he ran off with another woman and I said good riddance, it’s time for me to stand on my own two feet and come through all these tribulations smiling and ready to face the future, be a role model for women everywhere, women of a certain age (so they said), and they had this new idea for me, I was no longer to be at the mercy of all the men in the Avenue, I would take a vow of chastity, and this was their big idea to shake things up, although I thought it wouldn’t really work, and said so, but they wouldn’t listen, would they, these people just carry on regardless, and lo and behold men no longer wanted me and women no longer wanted to be me, it’s sex that sells, I said, as things got a little heated behind the scenes, nobody wants an ice queen, and they said they would think about it, and they did, and that was when they decided my time was up.
I still exist, of course, in that otherworld of departed characters – those that aren’t killed off, that is. They spared me. They didn’t run me over, or shoot me, or strangle me, or make me fall off a cliff. No, they did the next best thing: packed me off to Scotland, where all the characters they don’t manage to murder seem to end up. I mentioned to my agent a while back that they should do a spin-off set in the Highlands, seeing as so many of the characters are supposed to be living there. He said he’d take it up with the producers, but I should have known. I should have learnt by now that they don’t like innovation.
I’m mentioned now and then, on the programme. I have a daughter, Sam, who is still on the show, and of course from time to time she mentions me. She refers to me as ‘Mum’, and when she does that, a little shiver goes down my spine and I can’t help smiling.
A couple of weeks ago it got really exciting. Sam’s boyfriend proposed to her, and she said yes! Naturally I was thrilled. She rang to tell me the news, although of course it wasn’t really me on the other end of the line, she was just talking into the ether (a difficult piece of acting, but she pulled it off wonderfully). She expressed the hope that I would be able to come down for the wedding. Well of course I would! I could be there like a shot! You know what mothers are like with weddings.
So of course I was straight on the phone to my agent. I thought it best for us to contact the producers rather than wait for them to get in touch with us. We could negotiate a special deal, I told him. I’m not asking for much. I’m not looking to come back full time, although if they did offer that, I’d consider it, of course. No, all I’m asking for is a couple of episodes, just to cover the wedding, just to keep the show a bit more realistic. Wouldn’t it look silly if the bride’s mother didn’t attend the wedding?
I’ll make tea anyway. I’ll have mine now. One cup won’t kill me. I can always make a fresh pot when Dennis arrives, and I don’t have to drink any of that. I’ll grab something to eat now too, just a little snack. I’ll have to make do with what I’ve got: there’s some cheese and bread, and those little tomatoes. When Dennis comes maybe we can even go out.
The bank statement sits on the kitchen table and I try not to look at it. I’m not a rich woman. People think I am because they have this vision of television stars, but really they’d only have to come and look at this place to know the reality of it. How can I ask Dennis to move in here when there’s barely enough room for me? I did expect more from Carsley Avenue, I must admit, and I did say to my agent many times that we should renegotiate the contract. But he was always reluctant, saying it did not do to antagonise the bosses. Nobody’s bigger than the show, he said. Not even me.
And it didn’t help, of course, that what little money I did manage to save got swallowed up by the stock market crash. Stick with it, the advisor said. Things can only get better. It can’t go much lower – it’ll plateau and rise back up. The losses are fictional, he said. They exist only on paper until you cash everything in. But the losses seemed pretty real to me, and I said to him, how could this happen? You were all for me investing my hard-earned cash, telling me that it would grow by ten per cent and keep on growing, that the stock market was on an eternal upward swing. And he just said, read the small print. You should always read the small print: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
Certain times of the day hold what I call a special resonance. I used to laugh at my mother because her day was so regimented – breakfast at eight, lunch at one, dinner at six – and how upset she was if those times could not be met. But I can see now, all these years later, the value of knowing where you are in the day, of honouring the daily rituals. Sometimes it seems as if they are the only fixed points, the only way to stop life slipping through your hands.
So, the time for tea has passed. The day is getting on, and I can allow myself the first sip. It’s been hard, all this hanging about. A G&T to begin with, I think – the old Sin and Chronic. I’ll let that bottle of wine breathe too. We all need to breathe, after all. When it comes to evening time we all need to undo a few buttons and relax.
Almost seven-thirty, almost time for Carsley Avenue. If Dennis comes now, we can watch it together. It’s always good to have company when it’s on.
That trip we took to Stonehenge, Dennis and I, weaving out of London on his motorbike, me gripping on to him, afraid that if I let go I would fall. But how exhilarating it felt!
In those days there were no barriers, no restrictions. You could go right up to the stones and touch them. I had been reading Tess, and wanted to recreate the scene from the end of the book where she lies down on an altar stone. I told Dennis he could be my Angel Clare. He gave me that pursed-lips look he always did when he had no idea what I was talking about.
Afterwards, at the pub, we sat at one of the outside tables and I tried not to make a big fuss about the wasps that seemed to want to get into my ears. And we talked about our plans – how we would set up our own troupe and tour the world. We’d be the Romeo and Juliet for our generation. We’d be known as the glamour couple, he said: bigger than Burton and Taylor, better than Bogart and Bacall. We’d play to packed houses and the applause would be deafening. He raised his pint to my glass and said, To us! To success!
The ringing sound makes me jump. For a moment, I think it’s the phone, but it’s not – it’s the alarm on the clock. Seven-thirty.
I felt a pain just then, in the ribs, right under my heart. A touch of indigestion, probably. I’ll take a couple of those pills that always seem to do some good.
There’s no doubt that what’s happened to Sam is a worry. To fall out with your fiancé like that is really a cause for concern. But it was a silly argument, over nothing really, and I’m sure it will all blow over, given time. Everybody loves this kind of twist. They want people to go through hell before emerging the other side. It’s what’s called catharsis. You learn so much about yourself. They’ll kiss and make up. It’s nothing to worry about. After all, everybody loves a wedding. It’s a ratings winner.
I’ll sit for a moment, get my breath. Then I’ll run a bath. I’ll scour off all this make-up, start the wind-down. I’ve still got those oils Dennis gave me for my birthday. He told me I should pamper myself more often, perhaps because he knows he’s not around all that much to pamper me himself.
I can bring my phone in here, the wine too, put them on the side there.
Oh, but I felt for Sam, I really did. All those tears. It’s times like these she needs her mother most.
I like my baths to be hot. I’ve always been one for the heat – holidays in Morocco and Egypt and Mexico, the hotter the better. It’s never warm enough in the flat, not since I had to turn the thermostat down, and a nice hot bath helps to keep the cold away at night.
My body is not what it was, of course. I can see that. It’s looser, saggier. The wrinkles are multiplying, and not only because of the bath. Soon I’ll be nothing but wrinkles. A big, jumbly, creased old bag. Once upon a time I auditioned for Ophelia. Now I audition for Gertrude. That’s just the way it is. I will embrace old age, though. I will embrace it. It will not defeat me.
After the bath, wrapped up in my dressing gown, I wander back into the living room and look at the framed photos on the sideboard. There’s Dennis, pride of place in the middle. It’s my favourite one of him. He looks so young in it, his hair down to his collar, which was very much the fashion in those days.
I pick it up and as I do so the frame comes apart and out slips a piece of folded newspaper.
I hear a clattering and see that the photo and the frame are on the floor. I’m holding the piece of newspaper. I stare at it. It’s fragile: yellowed and torn slightly along the sharp folds.
I do not know if I have seen it before.
I do not want to open it, but know that I must.
I smooth out the creases and force myself to read, and as I do so my eyes start to blur. I wipe the tears away and try to carry on. The article outlines his roles, his successes – the prime of him. They always seek to whitewash things. It’s rare that they would speak ill of anyone in such a piece. But I know there was so much more to him, so much more to tell. For one thing, it does not mention me, the times we shared. Only I know those things now.
I refold the newspaper and put it back where I found it, hidden away behind the photograph.
He promised he would come and see me. He was on his way to see me when it happened. He will always be on his way to see me.
It’s not yet nine o’clock, but I might as well turn in. I’ve never been a deep sleeper. The slightest noise wakes me, the merest chink of light through the curtains or under the door leaves me wide-eyed. And that’s when all the thoughts crowd in.
I’ll set my alarm for early. Plenty to do tomorrow. It would be a crime to laze around in bed. I am not slothful. I will not grow fat and lazy. Tomorrow I will practise my soliloquies. I will not drink. Tomorrow I will look after myself, just in case.
I’ll switch off now.
Goodnight, sweet ladies.
Ian Critchley is a freelance editor and journalist. His fiction has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Staple and Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing, Volume 2, and his journalism has appeared in the Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and Daily Telegraph.
Image: Ron Porter