Read by Eileen Pollock
The teeth, dear. The Sunday teeth. That’s what’s wrong. That’s what gives me the trouble with my worgth, and makes me tet-thglk ... Tetchy. Better.
You won’t have noted, Ellie dear, that today being today I’ve forgone the everyday teeth, which, as the name might suggest to the non-simpletons among us, I wear every day, except for Sunday, when I wear the Sunday teeth, or go without. I don’t expect comprehension here, not from someone hiding behind the bureau, waiting to be enticed out with jelly babies. Jelly baby?
Still. Now I can see you, at least.
Where was I? The teeth.
The Sunday teeth are whiter and fill out my face more, but they’re too narrow at the bottom, so I have to stick to a sucked-in smile and a diet of jelly babies and rice pudding to retain my dignity. And dignity is not something in oversupply here.
Forgive me. Dear child, you don’t visit often enough, so when you do I feel I must tell you all I can, no matter how little makes sense to you. We don’t have much time left. I’ve calculated, and it adds up to very little indeed. So listen to your great-grandma.
I wear the Sunday teeth for appearance’s sake. For visitors. They’ve the added advantage that I can whip them out, and rattle and gum some dinosaur noises as you cover your eyes and tremble with what I’m guessing is sheer excitement. An easy laugh, between rest-home truths.
Ellie, darling, you’re bright as the off button on an iron lung, but I don’t think you’ve got the idea yet that I’m a real person. I suppose it’s understandable. Great-Gran is wheeled on as a kind of motorised Miss Havisham every few months, and parked in the corner to make faces at the TV and keep her thoughts to herself, which she largely does, unless the mood takes her to shake this little snowstorm scene up some by throwing her now-almost-weightless scorn around.
At least I’m a source of amusement for you – some context-free colour to toy with, like an amputee parrot in a cage. For everyone else, I’m grey as a long-locked filing cabinet. A repository of yesterday’s concerns. Listen to your great-grandma! A repository of yesterday’s concerns. Hah! I’m not even sure I know what a repository is any more. Latin, I’m guessing. Reposit-something-or-other, meaning to rest or place somethingorother in somethingorother. I’d look it up if I could only remember where the dictionary was. I had my glasses a second ago. A second or two.
Give me a moment here to catch my breath.
I have some wisdom to share, my girl; useless though it will be to you for the next 80 years or so. It’s this: once you hit 85, no matter what you are, no matter what you’ve been, everyone assumes you’re harmless.
It gets to you if you think of yourself as something more than a ventilated bag of bones and extra-strong-mint vapour. Which I do. Who wouldn’t? It works like this: we’re all essentially hateful, ugly and pitiable when we’re old, so when there’s no one left to remember, there’s no one around who can tell the bad ones from the good ones who tried to do things right. It’s a great leveller, senility. Old sins are wiped away and nothing new sticks. I’m struck when I look back by how the good times and bad times seemed to count when I had my independence. Now, when there’s no one around who can be bothered to keep track, and I’m enfeebled to the point of machine-assisted urination, I find I’m also morally impotent. My decisions, those I’m allowed to take, just slip off the surface, leaving drool to wipe away and a few last stains to scrub at with tooth powder. It’s like there’s a cut-off point at infirmity when the world decides we can call it a wrap, ethically speaking, and that the rest can be tagged on as out-takes and goofs. Cutting-room leftovers.
You have no idea what I’m saying, do you? Idiot child. Keep staring if you will; just mind the medical equipment.
Listen, girl. Listen up, as they say.
Your mother probably hasn’t told you this, but I was in films, back when they were still films. The Movies!
Your great-grandfather discovered me, or so he always said. It’s true enough that I hadn’t had much time to discover myself when he first dressed me up and put me in front of a camera. I was young and foolish, but it didn’t take me long to realise I couldn’t act, and that to carry on on that side of the camera I’d need more than big eyes, a Louise Brooks bob and skin that looked clear enough under the greasepaint.
I was so beautiful, Ellie! I looked like … Well, when you stop your mewling and give me that black-and-white stare of yours, I looked a little like you. Freeze frame on that. Hold it for me. I’m shaking.
I worked with your great-grandfather on five films before we were married, spending every hour on set, learning what I could. He indulged me. What did he care? He’d moved on to other discoveries, even then. Starlets falling out of the sky. He knew the late Diana Dors before she was blonde. Sweet girl, Diana. And she wasn’t the only one absolutely overflowing with sweetness. I suppose I thought I could keep an eye on him on set. I was a novelty – The Girl Cameraman! I filled in on a handful of fillers, and then, on the credits for the first time, worked on the Hitchcock rip-off with the dogs for birds – Tooth and Claw. Not my best work. More regrettably, not my worst.
“Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!” Weepies, an early Doctor Who or two, and a handful of features whose most memorable scene was the oiled-up hunk hitting the gong. Gaumont, J Arthur Rank. Scraps from Rediffusion, later the BBC. It was all a long time ago.
Your great-grandfather was young and handsome, and then old and tiresome, and will always remain that way in my heart. The photos, which you’d find in the second drawer under the cardigans that no longer fit, if you could tear yourself away from picking your nose long enough, don’t do him justice in any respect.
He was a great one for justice, Johnny. First name on the petition, whatever the cause. Truth and justice for all; except, of course, in his personal affairs. I don’t think he knew his own daughter – your grandmother, girl, imagine! – when he came home after working three, four days straight. Work seemed to take up a surprising number of nights. Little enough money it brought in too, such that I was back out the moment Peg was at school. I won’t pretend I wasn’t jealous. His associations tightened up resentment so taut I’d feel the ropes in my arms making fists if he so much as mentioned a new actress – another Celia or Susannah with youth, better diction and an easier manner. He kept them hidden from me, mostly. I’ll give him that. I often didn’t know until he’d dangle a name in an argument for me to snap at. And I snapped. My affairs, he said, are my affair.
It was only really later, when he’d lost his hair and most of his charm, and the scripts had dried up, that he came back to pick over the marriage for the white meat, to break the wishbone and close his eyes, banking on another decade ducking the consequences. Fool that I was, I took him back. By then, with your grandma off to big school, I was teaching, wrapped up in tutorials in which I’d keep my oeuvre vague enough that my students would get only a whiff of silver nitrate and a brief shot of me with Dirk Bogarde, off centre, soft focus. DIRK BOGARDE, Ellie.
Carry on dear. If you’re eating, you’re not chuntering. If you’re not chuntering, you can listen.
Look at me! Even the old women think I’m an old woman. Now, my protégés are in their 70s, their protégés in their 50s, and all out of the business since the world was swallowed by a computer. All that work is still out there in that great mass of wires and switches or what have you. I’m told it’s all there, somewhere, somehow, the bad stuff along with the good: story and spectacle, big eyes and pillow talk. And never to be added to. That’s what’s taken most adjusting to. Knowing that I’ll never make anything again; that I’ve finally, definitively, joined the idle classes.
I never expected to live so long. None of us did. If I’d known, I’d’ve worked till I was all out of strength. Or played at working. I miss the tightrope walk: swallowing a breath on a long take, holding it in, nodding at the focus puller.
Now my hands have curled up and the trigger-finger’s got so bad I’m left with a papier-mâché claw moulded to the shape of the next unwanted cup of tea. And I hate tea. Always have. When I’m tipped into the bath, I run the claw up and down the skin on my withered legs to generate some feeling. That moment, when the pain breaks through the chill, is as close as I get to the bliss I’d feel when Johnny would run his adulterous hands across my scalp as he read his next script. That would be 50 years ago, when I had a head of hair worth running hands through. Now? Well. Life is short, but the body makes it long. Remember that, girl.
Ellie? Ellie? Are you asleep?
I’ll live. For a while at least.
Your great-grandfather’s last indiscretion hurt the most. He was sick by then, but he'd still outlasted your poor grandmother. And even after I’d nursed him by proxy, chased down doctors, organised his care and rationed his medication, he was still looking outside, shuffling along with that same glint in his eye, soon as he was up. The last was another younger woman, but not by much. When she came calling, I knew. Though nothing was said, I knew. I’d had it then. Sixty years of it! Hah!
He was easy to finish – no-one was there to see. He barely struggled. Hardly kicked as I put what weight I had left on the pillow, and spat out all the names I could remember, every starlet and Diana-frigging-Dors, until the coughing got me and left me rattling each breath. I took two pills and slept, and in the morning the home help helped: did what was necessary, as I played my last role, the one I’d been preparing for all those years. He looked like nothing when they took him away, like all that bluster had just leaked away.
I suppose this is a confession of sorts. Me, the silent old lady with the perfect white smile; it was me who killed him.
Harmless! Hah! One last storyboard scribble with the moral grease pencil. One last scene that turned out my way.
Ellie, I’m tired. Come here. Come to your great-grandma.
We’re almost out of time, girl. A few minutes here and there for how much longer? A year? Maybe eighteen months. Then it’s Sunday teeth in and curtains drawn, for whatever’s next. We’ll just have to see, won’t we?
© Tom Ryan, 2012
Tom Ryan was born in London, and now lives and works in London. He did some other things elsewhere in between.
Eileen Pollock: 'in the business' since 1972, her stage career has spanned everything from Brecht to panto, many major Irish companies and two ongoing one-woman shows. Hollywood has also called, if infrequently, and she was a BBC sitcom stalwart in Bread for many years. Currently involved in an exciting international theatre initiative, Truth in Translation.