ART AND LIFE
Estelle had stopped asking people if they remembered her. It saved both her and them embarrassment. Yes, she lived in hope that someone, entirely of their own volition, would exclaim, “Weren’t you in Donington Drive?” Surely, given all the TV channels there were, there was one still showing reruns of it! It had quite a following in its time, even if it wasn’t gritty enough to be gritty and wasn’t glossy enough to be glossy, and nobody was either very rich or very poor. Estelle had played Mrs Carraway the schoolteacher who was strict with a heart of gold and lived at Number 6, which everyone knew, although it was shot exclusively in a studio, had a magnificent honeysuckle in the garden. She had never used a stage name, and there couldn’t be that many people called Estelle Edwards. Of course, she had been Estelle Myers for decades now, but had no compunction at all, especially in the circumstances, about reverting to her maiden name for this purpose. Nor did she delude herself that she hadn’t changed at all – she had, and her colorant was beginning to emphasise her receding parting. But she was still definitely recognisable. She still did not know whether to be flattered or annoyed that she hadn’t got that job for advertising the anti-wrinkle cream.
She had been thrilled to get into RADA and had enjoyed acting, but it had never been the be all and end all of her life, and when she married Tim, though he would never have tried to make her give up her TV career (with the occasional sortie into stage) she settled into domestic bliss. Well, not entirely bliss of course. She thought he could be hopelessly impractical at times and he thought she was a bit of a fusspot. But contradictorily, he was a planner, and she was more spontaneous. Or so she thought. Both of them could be pig-headed. Yet they genuinely never did “sleep on their anger” and neither of them was capable of bearing a grudge. Or so she thought.
Fiona Carraway had been widowed young (right up until the series starting they had toyed with her being “Miss Carraway” but finally decided poignant memories added a certain depth and humanity to the character. She still mused on what Frank would have done.
Fortune was kinder to Estelle and Tim. They were married for thirty years, had two children, a boy called Shaun and a girl called Anita. They were adults now – Anita, in one of those ironic twists, was a teacher in real life, as she had dreamed of being since she first lined up her dolls on the couch, and Shaun, after a few tricky years when he didn’t seem to know what to do, was making his way as an illustrator. He had a lovely partner called Molly – they’d been together now for two years, and though in her heart Estelle hoped they might get married, she had no intention of nagging them.
Estelle would never be quite sure if she was glad that she and Tim got to celebrate their Pearl Wedding Anniversary, the 30th. She supposed she was, but it was also an even more intense reason for sorrow as she looked at the pictures and remembered the clasp of his hands round her waist as they danced one of the old-fashioned waltzes they loved.
He died just over a week after. He had only recently had a medical, and been declared fit for his age, but had a massive coronary and never came round.
“I feel so cheated,” she confided, to her best friend Amy. “Though I know a lot of people don’t have anything like 30 years together and he didn’t have a long and painful illness.”
“Stop trying to convince yourself,” Amy said, in her blunt, kind way. “You have every right in the world to feel cheated.”
In Donington Drive, Mrs Martins at Number 20 had a saying that “Misery always finds company”. She meant that troubles rarely come alone, and had a general philosophy, though in fact she was quite a cheery bod, of the glass being about a quarter full and even that was likely to get knocked over or a fly to land in it.
Without anyone saying it in so many words it was presumed that Tim had left Estelle well-provided for. She shared that assumption. After all, he was the one who had seen to their funeral plans, so they could sit there and feel smug when they saw the ads for them.
His funeral was, indeed, paid for, and everyone agreed it was a lovely send-off. The children, as she still thought of them, offered to stay with her for a while, but she insisted, “No, you have your own lives to lead, and I’ll be fine.” She paused, because she was an honest woman. “Okay, obviously not fine, but I’ll manage. Amy has been a saint, and Rob can help me out with the official stuff.”
Robert Kincaid was the family solicitor, and a good friend. He had looked troubled at the funeral, but if Estelle noticed at all, she thought it was grief for Tim, as the two of them had been pretty close – though they didn’t seem to have been seeing as much of each other lately.
She assumed the will-reading would be a formality. The will itself was, indeed, a fairly simple one. But the trouble was, Tim’s worldly goods did not amount to a great deal. She had known he had been expanding his furniture business, but had always thought he was a good businessman. She did not know that he had been throwing good money after bad, and was in considerable debt. “How bad is it, Rob?” she asked.
“Pretty bad,” he admitted. “I tried to tell him but he was sure it would come right and – who knows, given enough time, it might. I had the most horrible divided loyalties, Estelle,” he sighed. “Maybe I let myself be caught up in his optimism.”
“Let me know the worst.” He did. He had no option. Not only was Tim in debt to his business creditors, but things like council tax and utility bills were unpaid. Estelle was wearing the pearl necklace he had given her for their anniversary. Suddenly the pearls felt very hard and very cold. Could she countenance selling it?
She realised soon enough that it was neither here nor there. Pretty as it was, it was only cultured pearls (had he finally come to his senses or just not been able to afford the other kind?) it would not even be a drop in the ocean. Rob promised to do his best to “appeal to better nature” for a while, and told Estelle they’d only talk about fees if and when (though she was not stupid and noticed the tone in his voice on the when) if they got it sorted. But the position was serious. There was a possibility she might have to sell the house. She told herself that many people do sell a house when the children have flown the nest, or after a bereavement, she could accept it. But she didn’t want to. Not Like This, she thought.
“I’ll have to get some work,” Estelle said, “It might be the best thing for me, anyway.”
Rob could not disagree with her about that, but though he wished her good luck he was not hopeful. Estelle was an intelligent woman, and a capable one, but the fact remained that apart from playing a part in a TV show that very few people had now ever heard of, she had no work experience or training as anything – not that he knew of.
Estelle temporarily entertained a comforting scenario where she went past one of her favourite shops – the bookshop, or the place that sold the lovely Fair Isle sweaters – and would see a sign in the window saying they needed an assistant and hinting (not that you were allowed to say such things directly now) that a mature lady was preferred. She would be like a godsend and it was meant to be. Well, she may have been a godsend, but it was not meant to be. Such signs were conspicuous by their absence.
Though she had got out of touch with most of her colleagues from the Donington Drive days, she was still in Christmas and Birthday Card contact with one of the producers, a woman called Freda. She fitted the cliché of being more busy than ever now she had retired. She immediately sent her sincerest condolences over Estelle’s loss. Estelle phoned her to thank her for the message, and mentioned that she was “looking for something to do, to stop me brooding.” If Freda suspected that money worries were more likely to be the cause than averting brooding, she didn’t say so. But she did say, in her practical way that was a bit like Amy, “I may be able to do something to help. I still have a few contacts. We must meet up. We don’t live that far apart, after all!”
The reunion in the coffee shop wasn’t exactly awkward, and wasn’t exactly joyful. Freda HAD changed, at least in appearance, and had done so unashamedly. Her natural hair colour was ash-blonde, and she had dyed it black. It was cut in a layered bob that just avoided being too young for her, and she had abandoned her beloved pink lipsticks and floaty clothes for a clear, opaque red, and a well-cut grey trouser suit, though she made a nod to her old self with a flowery blouse. I can’t say she hasn’t changed, thought Estelle, as they kissed on the cheek, because she has, but it’s for the better. I’m just a faded version of myself. I’m trying to pick up where I left off, and she’s not pretended time has stood still. Though she’d never been obese, Estelle had always been what Tim affectionately called “rounded” and recalled that Freda had, too. Now she was trim, and Estelle complimented her on her figure. “Gripper knickers,” Freda grinned, “Or shapewear, as the shopping channels call it. Works wonders!”
Estelle was embarrassed to feel herself blushing. You can’t work in the theatre in any form and be prissy about “underpinnings” but it had been a long while since she’d indulged in such “girl talk”. She and Amy didn’t have that kind of friendship, and close as she was to Anita, it just wouldn’t have been right.
She realised soon enough that in one sense, Freda hadn’t changed at all. She had never been boastful, and had never been a liar. She was not even especially self-important, but she did have a distinct tendency to inflate matters, and her own importance in them. She had told the truth about having contacts, but they were generally with people who worked in very small repertory companies or short-lived local TV franchises. Oh, and the odd “person in advertising”. Estelle made it to the short list for being the voice-over in a commercial for travel insurance for people with chronic medical conditions, but in the end she was beaten to it by someone whose main TV series had been in the 90s, not the 80s, and had fairly recently enjoyed a cameo role on CBeebies.
I should start looking in shop windows again, she thought, as she waited for the auditions for the new lunchtime drama that was going to start on TV East in the Autumn, with the possibility of a second series. I should set my sights lower. I should do the rounds of the convenience stores and those hardware shops that say they welcome maturer staff. But she also realised that unless you counted the time she had been a volunteer in the hospice shop, she had absolutely no retail experience. She was being arrogant. Folk said you could always get employment as a carer. Estelle had the utmost regard and respect for carers, but she was also aware of her own shortcomings. She was squeamish (she had – literally – breathed a sigh of relief when the children grew out of nappies!) and not that patient. Though she was certainly learning now that patience was a virtue.
Of course, as she knew perfectly well, waiting for the audition for A Village Vet, there was an alternative – an obvious alternative. Selling the house. She would have enough to pay off the debts and then live off her savings, at least for a while. After all, she thought, she had never been the planner, had she? Tim had – supposedly! She had sworn that she would never let her mourning be corroded by bitterness at his irresponsibility – for her sake, as much as his – but she was clear-sighted, too, and wasn’t going to pretend he had done the right thing. She had weighed up the female parts in A Village Vet. Immediately she had ruled out the vet herself – that was already as good as cast, and she didn’t delude herself she was “young and dynamic”. The vet’s mother had possibilities, though she seemed a bit too good to be true, and Estelle had decided she much preferred Mrs Martins’ cheerful pessimism to Andrea’s earnest optimism. Still, if you were an actor (and she still thought of herself as an actress) you acted! Rhoda, who owned the wayward poodle, Woofie, was quite endearing (and people who had previously worked with Poncho, who played the poodle, said he was a darling in real life!).
It couldn’t have started better. “You were in Donington Drive!” the keen young(ish) man conducting the auditions exclaimed, looking over her CV, that was still worryingly sparse, despite Freda and Amy’s best efforts to plump it out without telling any actual lies.
“I was,” she said, trying to sound proud and modest at the same time. After all, an actor acted!
True, he spoilt it a bit by adding, “I remember my Gran loved that. She used to say it was nearly as good as Crossroads.”
I’ll give her “Nearly as good as Crossroads” thought Estelle. We may only have worked in a studio, but at least our sets didn’t creak! But she maintained her smile. And she gave it her best when she did the read-through of some scenes with Andrea and Rhoda, though it was hard to work out just how long a pause to leave when the direction read Woofie barks loudly for a while.
“You’ll be hearing from us, Estelle,” the keen young(ish) man said. Well, she’d heard that before. She suspected they probably would at least let her know (not everyone did) but knew it might well not be what she wanted to hear.
She had to double-check when the letter, yes, a good old-fashioned letter began, “We are pleased to tell you.”
It went on to say that she had been chosen for the part of Vicky the vet’s grandmother, who would appear in at least half the episodes. Half the episodes she could live with. She was a great believer in feet in doors. But Grandmother?
Still, she knew she couldn’t refuse it, and feeling twenty years older, she phoned the number enclosed to gratefully accept the offer. But she had imagined herself joyfully phoning friends and family when she got her first part, and she decided she might put off those phone-calls for a while. That evening, Shaun called HER. Well, perhaps it was for the best. She couldn’t not tell him, and then she couldn’t not tell everyone else. Might as well get it over with. “I have some news, Shaun,” she said, “Don’t worry, it’s good.”
“Oh, I’m glad – but please – me first, Mum, I can’t hold it in, we’re so happy! Molly is expecting a baby!”
It was the oddest thing in the world, and she couldn’t really explain it herself, but somehow that made her feel twenty years younger. “That’s fantastic!” she exclaimed. “Let me have a word with Molly!”
“Of course – but tell me your news now, Mum!”
“Shaun, you’re not going to believe this ….!”