Rose, my glamorous septuagenarian neighbour is mixing us vodka martinis.
“I’ve been invited to play Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit but I’m in two minds. What do you think?”
“Well I’ve heard of the play” I offer hesitantly. Or at least I think I have. “But I’ve never seen it”
“With a twist?” she asks adding ice to the shaker.
“Oh there’s a plot change is there?” I say “Talk me through the story and…”
“I mean” says Rose, frowning reprovingly “For your martini. Or else it’s an olive”
“The lemon’s great” I said, colouring. “Go on and tell me about this Madame Whatsit”
“Margaret Rutherford played her in the film and we, of course, couldn’t be more different… especially about the hips”
I take a slug of my martini. It’s eye wateringly strong.
“Rose, you are going to have to give me more here”
She considers my glass “If you will insist on hoovering it down, Sally”
I can’t do sarcasm anywhere near as adroitly as Rose but occasionally I do like to take a stab at it.
“I meant about the play”
Rose shakes her head at this and explains
“Madame Arcati is an eccentric clairvoyant usually played by a dumpy actress in an atrocious hat and with long jangly beads”
She shudders “Besides, I’m too young for the part. That’s why I’m not sure I should take it”
“Why?” I ask, “How old is she supposed to be?”
“Oh” She is uncharacteristically vague “In her seventies I suppose”
“But aren’t you…”
I trail off as she gazes fixedly at me.
“Aren’t I what?”
“Aren’t you an actress?” I recover myself quickly “You can play any age”
I don’t think she’s fooled for a moment but she chooses to disregard it.
“I played Elvira at The Theatre Royal for a season”
“Who’s Elvira?” I ask.
I’m no wiser.
“The dead one. Not Ruth the dull one who’s still alive… well at least until the interval”
Now I really am confused.
“For a dead person, Elvira really is the most tremendous fun. Witty. Acerbic”
This conversation is going rogue. Or is it the martinis? I wonder.
“And now I’m asked to play the comedic…”
Rose falters and for the first time in the few months that I’ve known her, I detect uncertainty and a hint of regret in her manner.
“The comedic what?” I ask gently
“Ah. I see”
“No you don’t see” she snaps “How could you?”
I look down at my glass. Its empty.
“Explain it to me”
“Certainly not. It’s too depressing and I’m boring myself by even thinking about it. And besides, self-pity is so very unattractive. Particularly in the… mature”
She brightens “I met him once, you know. At The Adelphi”
“Noel Coward. I was a young nobody and he was still a huge presence. Ah, I’ve just remembered something….”
She takes a sip of her drink and smiles at me over the rim of her glass.
“Something he always told himself when things got him down: Rise above, it dear boy. Rise above it. And he’s quite right of course”
She stands up abruptly and then, before my eyes her lean figure seems to expand and she becomes somehow wider and more substantial
“My mother was a medium before me and so I had every opportunity of starting on the ground floor, as you might say. I had my first ectoplasmic manifestation when I was five and a half”
She says in quivery but oddly gruff discordant tone.
“I may go in to a slight trance, Mr. Condomine. But if I do… pay no attention”
I give her a round of applause.
“That was wonderful, Rose. That’s Madame Whatsit I take it?”
She nods and sketches a mock bow.
“Perhaps I will do it after all. But I positively refuse to wear the beads. Or the hat”
She refills the cocktail shaker with vermouth and vodka.
“Who’s Mr. Condomine?” I ask
“Charles, of course. I do wish you’d keep up”
Me too, I think.
“That ability you have to totally transform yourself”
I pass her my glass for a top-up “It must be a relief sometimes to escape your everyday self. It’s the ultimate reinvention”
“We all do that” She says, “Reinvent ourselves I mean”
I must have looked sceptical for she continues
“Isn’t that what you yourself are attempting to do, Sally? With your move here? With this new life in the country. You’re trying on a new character for size and seeing how she fits”
I was? Actually, she’s right, I think. That’s exactly what I’m doing. How well it was turning out was still to be discovered. And sometimes I did have my doubts but …
“Rise above it” I say “I’ll just rise above it. I like that, Rose. It could be my new mantra. Now tell me about this Elvira. How can a dead woman be fun? I’d have thought just the mere fact of being dead would have made her rather depressed. It would me. I’m not sure how I’d be able to rise above that”
TO BE CONTINUED