Monday 1 January 2024

The Man in the Raincoat by S. Nadja Zajdman, Winter Pimm's

I must be one of the few North Americans lucky enough to have seen Alan Bates perform on stage twice in a lifetime.  The last time was in February of 1996, in Toronto, during a visit to celebrate my nephew’s first birthday.  (I would later discover that my nephew and Sir Alan shared the same birthday.)  Bates was playing the master builder in Ibsen’s play of the same name.  In a Montreal newspaper I’d read a review of the production at The Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.  Excitedly I called my brother, who resided there.

 “Please get me a ticket.”

Over the phone line, I could envisage my brother’s crooked grin as he responded dryly, “I’ve already got two.”

 The first time I saw Alan Bates was in New York, on Broadway, in the Simon Gray play Butley.  It was Christmas Time of 1972.  My birthday is in early December.  In my native Montreal, the date generally heralds winter’s first blizzard.  My dad would quip that I took the world by storm.  It was cold comfort.  I could never hold a party because no one would come.

 Once they could afford to, my parents transformed disappointment into joy.  A new tradition began.  As a teenager, my birthday present became an excursion to New York during the Christmas holidays to catch the British imports on Broadway. I grew up pining over the posters in BOAC display windows, and going to New York to see the British productions was as close as I could get to the London theatre, at the time.  For my seventeenth birthday, I chose to see Alan Bates in Butley. 

During the Christmas season of 1972, my mother and I went together to New York.  We saw the play.  A few days later--it must’ve been a Wednesday, because the matinee performances were letting out—we were returning to our room at the Piccadilly Hotel on 45th St., lugging sacks of hard-cover volumes we’d bought at the book shop Brentano.  We passed a cluster of fans crowded around Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, who were backed against the stage door of the theatre they were performing in, cheerfully signing autographs.  Under the light of the stage door at the Morosco, next to the hotel we were staying in, HE was standing, draped in the same raincoat his character wore onstage.  The atmosphere was damp.  There was a drizzle.  Bates was in conversation with two men.  They weren’t fans.  They spoke with English accents, and were either friends or colleagues.  The matinee crowds continued to pour out of adjacent theatres.  Everyone ignored the man in the raincoat.  If someone did stop to ask for an autograph, it would be for the Benjamins.

Nervously I nudged my mother.  “Oh Ma!  Ma!!  Look!”  She looked.  “No!  Don’t look!  Oh Mummy!”  

Mummy grinned.  “Wanna meet him?”

  “Well yeah!  But I can’t!  I couldn’t!  I don’t know how!  Maaa!”  How do you ask a god for his autograph?

 My mother knew how.  She strode up to the man in the raincoat and demanded, “Mr. Bates, I want your autograph!”  The man in the raincoat seemed annoyed.  Cowering at the edge of the wide sidewalk, loaded down with books, I wanted nothing more than for a manhole to open and swallow me up.

The man in the raincoat asked my mother for a pen.  My mother didn’t have a pen. 

“Don’t YOU have a pen?”  she challenged. 

The man in the raincoat seemed to be growing more annoyed.  The nerve of this woman interrupting my conversation to demand an autograph and not even supplying her own pen.  One of the men fished in his pockets, and found a pen.  I recall rain rolling down my cheeks, in lieu of tears.  There was thunder in my head, and lightning in my heart.

Slit-eyed, the man in the raincoat peered at my mother.

 “Now what would you like me to write on?”

 It was at this moment that my mother deliberately turned downstage towards the street and declared, ‘SHARON!”  Be still, my heart.  “Give me something to write on!”

 Alan Bates blinked and looked past my mother, at me.  This was the Alan Bates of Georgy Girl and The Fixer and Far From the Madding Crowd.  This was the impeccable English actor who’d gone to the top London drama school I dreamt of getting into; this was the emerald-eyed British film star with the shaggy mane of raven hair, and at this instant, he was looking at me.  Suddenly calm, I bent down and selected Volume II of Shaw’s Collected Letters (1898-1910) from one of the two Brentano bags filled with books.  My mother moved towards me, I moved towards her, and we met in the middle of the wide sidewalk.  I handed the book to her and retreated to my post beside the bag.  Alan Bates was gazing pensively.  At me.  I was a very young, shy, and wholesome seventeen.  Hmmm…Bates’ gaze shifted back to my mother, and his irritated expression melted away.  At the corner of one side of his mouth, a camera lens might’ve picked up a hint of the beginning of a smile.

My mother handed him the book.  His gorgeous green eyes dilated and he protested, loud enough for me to hear.  “Shaaaw?!  I cawn’t write on Shaaaw!”   

My mother insisted.  “Well it’s all I’ve got!”

 Reverently the actor turned the front and back pages of the volume, searching for a blank space where his signature wouldn’t interfere with the prose of a writer he seemed to consider a god.  He found it; he signed and handed the book back to my mother.  Then Alan Bates again shifted his gaze and smiled fully, affectionately, kindly and warmly—at me.


Twenty years ago, two days after Christmas in 2003, I heard the news of his death.  Sadly I pulled the Shaw volume off a bookshelf and studied a back, almost blank page which says nothing more than Best Wishes, Alan Bates.  I put the book away.  Then I went downtown, to visit a museum.  Perusing the exhibits, I fell into conversation with a teacher from the United States who was visiting with her young son.  They were spending the holidays museum-hopping in Montreal.

When I left the building, it was drizzling.  I opened an umbrella, turned down to a main street and meandered past the festive display windows.  The mother and son I’d met at the museum, the light rain and the holiday shoppers frantically spending and frenziedly lugging along the wide sidewalks sacks filled with purchases evoked a ghost of Christmas past.  Wistfully I recalled the Christmas season of 1972, once more encountering a god-like actor who was now dead, and not yet seventy.   


In 2001, excitedly my mother called me.  At her neighbourhood cinema she had just seen the recently released film Gosford Park. 

“Oh Sharon!  I saw a movie!  It’s for you!  It’s just for you!  All that British stuff that you love!  Oh sweetheart!  How can I tell you?!”  Meaning, how can I describe what I just saw.  “What can I tell you?!”  Succinctly, Mum summed up.  “I can tell you only two words—Alan Bates and Maggie Smith!”

These two words I understood completely.  These were two magic words.  “Alan Bates and Maggie Smith?  I’m on my way!  I’m in!”

Mum took me to see the movie she had seen only days before.  As I watched the film, Mum watched me.  A moment came when Alan Bates, as a stiff, prim and proper butler, allows himself to crack a smile.  With pleasure, in recognition, Mum and I smiled at each other.  In that moment, seeing that smile, twenty-nine years later, we remembered.   

About the author

 S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author. In 2022 she published a story collection, The Memory Keeper (Bridgehouse Publishing, Manchester) as well as the memoir I Want You To Be Free (Hobart Books, Oxford). In 2023 Zajdman published a second memoir, Daddy's Remains. (MacKenzie Publishing, Nova Scotia, Canada) 

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