By Kathy Sharp
a glass of porter
She didn’t often go to bed at night any more. People died in bed, did they not? It felt safer to sit up in the armchair, her walking stick beside her, ready for whatever might happen next. Less of a deathbed and more of a waiting room. Besides, she didn’t need to sleep very much these days. A little doze here and there between the arrivals of the trains. Miss Finlayson liked the trains. They were a regular and timely reminder of life going on in the outside world. Miss Finlayson was sometimes unsure whether her own life was still going on or not. But the sound of a train door slamming indicated that people were travelling about, had things to do. It was comforting, especially in the dark.
She had moved to this flat near the station when she retired, acquired a little dog for company and decorated her walls with dozens of framed photographs. She wasn’t sure how many there were – all the actors she had worked with in a long theatrical career. Household names, every one of them. Or they had been. They were still household names to Dorothy Finlayson – how could they not be? Her flat was full of them. She had known these people so well. You do get to know them, as a dresser. They confide all sorts of things that she’d never repeat. She was not the sort of person to betray confidences in a theatrical memoir, though it had been suggested she do so. The very idea!
Many of them were far from the confident, glamorous people they appeared to be, set forever on her wall in urbane and lovely poses. Not real, of course. That one had terrible skin. Another chain-smoked himself to death from nerves. And not just tobacco, either. Dorothy knew it all. But that was the theatre, wasn’t it – that colourful, exaggerated, pretend world that she had so loved being a part of.
She had spent her working life helping others to conceal their identities, to create new identities for themselves. Actors! What stories she could tell, if there were anyone at all to listen. The framed photographs stared down at her, day after day, with knowing looks. We know the price of a life lived pretending to be someone else. Had she, Miss Finlayson, ever really been that able, competent person she half remembered? Her memories were confused, these days, and she wondered if some of them were actually the storylines of plays she had worked on. Work. It had been wonderful to be working, always working, being an integral part of the theatrical world. Actors come and go, but you, Dorothy, go on forever! Dear Larry – he could always be trusted to say just the right thing. Or had it been dear John? Or was it a line from a play?
There he was on the wall, dear Larry, in glamorous black and white. Under the glass was the spot where his hand had touched the photo as he signed it for her. They used to squabble, you know, the actors, fight to get their pictures on Dorothy’s wall. You were a proper star of stage and screen when your framed image was good enough for Dorothy. And not before. In the early days she carried them with her as she moved from lodging to lodging, and then little flat to little flat. In the end, there were so many that she could no longer manage them all, and the majority were put into storage. She hadn’t realised quite how many there were until her retirement when she had seen them all together at last. The sitting room had been the perfect setting for them. It stood in a sort of turret on the end of the building, and a nearly-circular wall. Very theatrical. Even so, there was scarcely enough room to display the whole collection, as she liked to think of it.
She heard another train rattle into the station, and stand still with an electrical hum. A pause. A door was slammed shut, and the train slithered off into the night again. People don’t travel so much by train these days, Dorothy thought. It was a comfort to have practical, conversational thoughts like that. The sort of thing you might remark to a friend. Or a colleague. Sometimes she said it aloud to the signed photographs. It was a long time since she had sustained a conversation.
One winter, oh, quite a few years ago now, you know, it had snowed and the pavements were frozen. Treacherous underfoot. Miss Finlayson had stood at the street door, fearful of the consequences of a fall, with the dog on a long lead. Three little girls had passed by. They stopped to fuss over the dog and asked if she would like them to take him for a walk. It was something of a chancy thing to do, but they were very polite and Miss Finlayson had entrusted Jamie to their care. Half an hour later, to her relief, they returned, the dog happy and exercised. She invited them in for tea and gave them cherry cake and a thorough introduction to the actors in the framed photographs. The girls were goggle-eyed. Said, yes, they had heard of some of these people, heard their parents speak of them.
The three little girls came back every day until the weather improved and she could exercise Jamie for herself, and thereafter every year whenever it was icy underfoot. Miss Finlayson had seen them grow into teenagers. But then… the little dog had died and the girls did not come back, and after that Miss Finlayson didn’t get out much at all.
But no matter, there was plenty to think about. All that great stretch of days and nights of her theatrical career. All strung out across the past, with artfully-lit pockets of memory to switch on and off at will. Lighting was so important, wasn’t it? Poor lighting could ruin a perfectly good production. Dorothy sat all night with the lights out these days, as often as not. There was nothing she needed to look at, really, and all her things were so shabby now; everything that mattered was in her head.
She remembered the war, oh dear me, yes. Such a time. They had needed to be extra inventive with costumes – you couldn’t get hold of the materials, could you? And the theatre was so important for keeping up people’s morale, don’t you know. Conversational thoughts, again, and very pleasant. She remembered the near miss. The bomb had shaken the theatre, and Miss Finlayson with it, to the foundations. She remembered the way everyone had rallied round to help. Wonderful wartime spirit. She chose to forget that her near miss had been someone else’s direct hit. She chose to forget the dust, the screaming, the smell. Her memories did not smell of death and destruction. They smelt of lavender, the lavender they hung among the costumes to keep away the moth. The show must go on. Of course it must.
Sometimes she mused on what it might have been like to have a husband and family, but not often.
‘You are a plain girl, Dorothy,’ her mother had said firmly, ‘and you should equip yourself with a means of earning a living. It’s unlikely anyone will want to marry you.’
A devastating thing to say to a young girl, you might think, but Dorothy accepted it without fuss and set about finding a place in a dressmaker’s, and that was where she learned her trade. And then the circus came to town – or rather a theatrical troupe – and when they left, Dorothy went with them. From this lowly beginning she worked her way up to the theatres of the West End. It had been a wonderful life and not at all lonely. Miss Finlayson, dresser to the stars. Our dear Dorothy.
But who was Dorothy? Someone she used to know. Someone bright and quick and ready with a smart reply. Someone intelligent and apt and capable. Someone dedicated to her work. An interesting person with many friends and a colourful history. Yes, she thought, I used to know her rather well.
It had been a long time between trains. The depths of the night; the time when memories clustered together in little bunches and wafted away in ones and twos. When this time was over and the early train came through, then she would know she had survived another night. Little edges of dawn catching the photograph frames, drawing streaks of dust and light on the glass. And, at last, dear Larry’s smiling, flawless face, composed and knowing, elegant to the nth degree, would look down on her again.
About the author
Kathy's Whales and Strange Stars is set in the marshlands of 18th century Kent.
‘The sense of place is perfectly captured, and the writing just dances off the page. Highly recommended.’ myBook.to/WhalesAndStrangeStars