Shall I Have Stars?byJohnFranks©
For a long time she sits at the mirror. Tonight is the final performance. The end of the show. It's had a long run, it's travelled the world, won the applause of thousands, but tonight it must close. Tonight is the end of the road, the swan song, the last bow.
Carefully, so carefully, she puts on the make up for the last time, adjusts the wig, touches the cheeks with just a little more colour, the lips with a hint more gloss. The lights around the mirror shine with a stark unforgiving glare, showing every small defect, every crow's foot and wrinkle, every mile travelled, every tear shed, every bouquet and encore.
At last she is satisfied, ready for her audience, ready to make her last entrance. She stands, a little shakily, for she is no longer a young woman and she has been drinking heavily. Good whisky, pure malt, none of this supermarket rubbish. Only the best for the last night. Only the best.
She pours herself another glass from the half empty bottle, and now she turns. She gazes round the apartment, seeing it as if for the first time. The expensive furniture, the Limoges china, silk embroidered cushions and velvet curtains. Elegance and taste, the rewards of success and talent, the accumulation of years of hard won acclaim, and yet not enough. Not all of this can buy another minute on stage. Tonight is the last show.
Slowly, a little unsteadily, she moves around the room, stroking a chair here, an ornament there, drinking steadily from the glass, the gold liquid warming her old body, flushing her cheeks under the make up, making her sweat and itch under the heavy wig. She is glad of the thin dress she is wearing, after all these years it still fits, after all these years.
It is time. It is time. "Tick tock goes the clock." she thinks. Her mind swirls with a million memories, a thousand opening nights, a thousand entrances, but never like this. Not like this.
She turns to face her audience. This is such a special night. This is a gala night. A command performance. No tickets. No posters. No critic will write this up in tomorrow's paper. This is her night, hers.
Her audience. Four chairs face her. Four empty chairs. These are her audience, here by invitation. Here in spirit. Here in mind. Her mind.
She spreads her arms wide. Faces them, pulling herself up, her face uptilted to the lights.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show. Tonight for your entertainment, we have.......YOU!.....yourselves...yes really!" she laughs and drinks again. The glass is empty now and she turns impatiently and refills it from the bottle on the dressing table.
"Tonight, you are not part of the show my dear audience you ARE the show!You are the stars!"
She stands silently for a long moment, then she turns to the first chair.
"Father." she begins, and stops again, eyes filling with moisture.
Dammnit, she dabs at her eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid, one does not let one's emotions overcome one on stage!
"Father." she begins again.
"Father, see me. Hear me. This is what I am. What I became. Look around father. See the success, the riches, the fame. You gave me all this. You went without so that I could have. You sent me to a drama school you couldn't afford, worked harder than ever to pay for me, lost your health and broke your marriage, lost my mother to another man, but you never gave up on me, always put me first. And you know what father. I made it. I made it."
"You see this dress father? It was the one I wore as Ophelia, all those long years ago, all those sad long years. And you never saw me in it father, never saw it, because life is unfair father, so unfair!" the old voice cracked now, whispered, she knelt before the chair, weeping "you died father, your heart just gave out, one month before I got this first big part. You never saw me on that stage."
She climbs unsteadily to her feet, holding onto the chair back.
"I never told you how much it meant to me did I? To be what I am, to stand on a stage, to act.To hear the applause. I never told you. You just knew. You believed. Thank you."
She drinks again, swaying, gathering scattered thoughts like lost sheep. Rivers rush through her head, torrents of time, years of memories blur like fog. She pulls her fragmented thoughts together, struggles to concentrate against the pull of the whisky. She turns to the second chair.
" Good evening Miss Hedges." she says, curtseying a little unsteadily.
She pauses, unsure how to go on, staring into the glass.
"When I came to you......" she starts, and hesitates again
"When I came to you, I was an obnox...obnoxus....spoilt brat..." the words slur into each other.
"I was a brat, know all jumped up stupid little BRAT!"
She sighs, and begins again.
"When I came to your drama school I thought I already knew it all. Thought I was already the best actress who ever trod the boards. Two school plays and I thought I was a star. And I was shit.." she savours the word, making it a hiss.." I was total SHIT! Miss Hedges. And you knew it. And you told me."
She gulps again at the liquor, feeling the warmth of it burn it's way into her stomach.
" But you didn't give up. No. You took a piece of rough clay and you made a work of art out of it. You shouted, bullied, pleaded, moulded me until I did what you wanted. You looked under the dross and saw gold and you kept digging and digging until you found it."
She took another mouthful of the spirit.
"What was that poem you made me learn? I had to say it just right, the way you wanted it said, over and over, over and over, God how I hated that bloody poem, but I could never forget it!"
She stood upright and raised one arm above her head. A little whisky splashed out onto the expensive carpet.
A moment to remember, to recall the words, the rhythm
"And Death shall have no dominion,
Dead men naked they shall be one, with the
Man in the wind and the west moon;
And when the bones are picked clean,
And the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot"
Slowly, slowly, she lowers her arm, her eyes far away, long ago.
"Shall I have stars, Miss Hedges?" she asks, "shall I have stars for footlights? Shall I play to the Gods?"
She laughs, "Play to the Gods, a theatrical joke there Miss Hedges. Play to the gods."
But there is sadness in the laughter, not joy, for tonight is a tragedy, not a comedy. And as the laughter dies she stands silently for a long moment.
"Thank you, Miss hedges, thank you." She says finally.
The third chair. This time there is no affection in the gaze, no love in the voice. This time there is bitterness, like the bad aftertaste of a longed for treat that turns sour in the mouth. As old scars show white on skin burned by the sun, so bad memories burn bright under her gaze.
"My husband, my dear EX husband. How nice of you to attend my little performance. How unusual of you to actually be anywhere that I wanted you, to pay me any attention, to linger on my words"
She drinks again, refills the glass. There is not much left in the bottle now, but it will suffice. There is only a short time left.
"It may surprise you to know, dear ex husband, that I know exactly where you are and what you have been doing all these years. Indeed, when I knew that tonight's performance was inevitable, I had a very good detective find out a great deal about you. It seems you haven't done to well since we parted company all those years ago. That squalid little house you live in, is that really the best you can do? And all alone too, you, the great ladies man. Where are they now? Perhaps it wasn't your wonderful personality and sparkling wit that attracted them, maybe it was just all that money you begged from me for all those none existent business ventures. When the money went, so did they. Such is life my dear, such is life. Never mind, I've left you a little something in my will. No. don't look so surprised, you deserve it! Really you do!" She smiles down on the chair, but beneath the smile is contempt, and a long smouldering anger.
The last chair. No anger here. Sadness maybe, mingled with ....what? Respect? Admiration? Gratitude? Maybe a little of all three.
"Doctor, my dear doctor, how I've failed you!" She says, softly, almost pathetically.
"You tried my dear doctor, nobody could have tried harder. You put all your skill, all your knowledge, at my disposal. But I failed you."
She drinks some more. Not much left now, but enough, enough.
"You gave me hope, doctor, you gave me life, for a while, and when the hope was gone, you gave me my exit." She picks up a small bottle from a table. Painkillers, strong ones. Almost lovingly, she strokes the bottle, holds it to her cheek.
Putting the tablets down, she turns again to her audience.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have a surprise for you all. Gifts. Yes, gifts. They are all documented, all in my will, they won't be taken from you in the morning. They are yours to keep, and mine to give."
She turns to the small table, picks up a battered scrap book, faded clippings oozing between its pages. Tenderly, she lays it on the first chair.
"This is for you father. It's all my reviews, every play, every theatre in every town I went to. I've made arrangements father. I've kept you safe for over fifty years, your ashes. I will be cremated , and this, " she indicated the scrapbook "this will be cremated with me, and out ashes will be scattered together in the garden of remembrance, and we can be together forever. We'll read all the reviews together, you and I, and I'll tell you about every city I visited, every theatre I played in, and I will tell you what I never told you in life. That I love you. That all I achieved, all I won, would have meant so much more if you had been there to see even one small part of it. Because one minute with you meant more to me than any of those glittering years."
A sip of golden whisky, anaesthetic for the pain of remembrance, courage for the minutes ahead.
The second chair. She gathers thought, shakes her head to clear it, begins to speak.
"Miss Hedges. My dear Miss Hedges. When they told me of your death, I was in Berlin. I couldn't even go to the funeral. I was in the middle of a run, and the show must go on. I sent flowers of course. Inadequate pathetic flowers. Not all the flowers in the world would have been enough. But today, Miss Hedges, I give you a seed that maybe will produce many blooms in it's time."
She lays a sheaf of papers on the chair, embossed and printed, heavy legal documents.
"This is a scholarship, Miss Hedges. I have set up a trust fund with the Academy of Dramatic Arts. A scholarship in your name. The Margaret Hedges Scholarship. Each year they will choose a gifted young actor or actress to receive this scholarship, to have the finest stage training they can offer, and all in your name Miss Hedges. All in your name."
In the old voice there is tenderness. A debt paid in full. A closure. For a moment she is content.
The third chair.
"I have no long speeches for you, dear ex husband. I have only two small gifts. The two things which always meant more to you than I ever did. I have left instructions that they be delivered to you. May they bring you as much happiness in the future as they did in the past!"
On the chair she lays a pack of playing cards, and a bottle of cheap whisky.
The fourth chair. In some ways the most difficult. The only living person to whom she feels a debt.
"Dear Doctor. I am giving back to you something which you gave to me. Time. Everything I am saying now is in a letter to you, so that you will understand that this is not just some thank you present from an addled old woman. It has meaning Doctor."
She lays a box on the chair, a long slim box of the type that jewellers put bracelets and suchlike in.
"It is a watch, Doctor, a Rolex, a very expensive watch, even for someone like yourself who is a very successful man. I want you to wear it, Doctor, and every time that you look at it, I want this precious watch to remind you that time itself is precious. The time you gave me was very precious. It enabled me to plan, to do the things that I wanted to do, to see the places that I wanted to see. Wear it and remember me Doctor, and never forget that time is precious, give your patients all the time that you can."
She steps back.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think we have almost reached the end of out little show. I would just like to say what a wonderful audience you have been. Take care and goodnight, and may your God be with you."
She opens the bottle of tablets, and pours them onto the small table. Sitting in the armchair, facing her audience, she swallows, one at a time, washing them down with small sips of whisky, until both pills and whisky are gone.
She sits. She waits. The theatre is still and quiet now. The lights begin to dim.
Softly, slowly, gentle as night, the curtain falls for the last time.
And bye and bye, perhaps she did have stars.