Yesterday would have been the English actor Peter Cushing’s 100th birthday. When I was a film student in Whitstable in the 1980s Peter Cushing could often be glimpsed cycling around the town in his deerstalker and bicycle clips waving at passers-by who recognised him. He would always take tea in The Tudor Tea Rooms and was very smiley and happy to sign autographs. I wrote a short story about him a couple of yeras ago so I am sharing it with you today. In many ways Peter Cushing reminded me of my own late father who would also have celebrated his birthday yesterday. The story was included in the 3 Million Stories Anthology by the One Million Stories Project if you would like to own a copy, and was read at the second Rattle Tales performance, illustrated with a photograph by my husband Rob.
The postcard in the window says Waitress Wanted – Apply Within. It’s raining like the flood, and as Anna stops to read the card, Daniel strides on ahead completely unaware she isn’t beside him. She’s been past the place a million times before but never once gone inside. She can’t afford tea out anyway, unless it’s gnat’s pee in a paper cup from the university vending machine.
The leaded windows are steamed up on the inside. She makes a tunnel with her hands against the glass. She can see shapes but it’s all a bit indistinct, wisps of chequered tablecloths and gleaming teacups, abstracts of coats and bags hung over chairs, the swish of a white apron. A rain drop breaks free from the general wetness of her hair and works its way down her spine like an icy finger. She looks up the road to see if he’s coming back for her but in the bustle of backs and faces there’s no sign of him. She wonders if she should run after him and tell him what she’s doing, but she doesn’t want him to talk her out of it, and he would, she’s sure of that. As she goes to the door the wrought iron sign above swings in the wind, creaking on its frame. She looks up.
The Tudor Tea Rooms
The little bell tings as the door shuts, people look up momentarily from the industry of eating cakes and stirring drinks. Dry warmth blasts from an electric heater by the door, evaporating moisture from the wet coats on the hat stand. Bessie Smith sings softly from an ancient speaker up high in the corner. There are parlour palms and horse brasses and dark wooden beams. Every table is taken, cutlery chinks against china and the low hum of conversation fills the room. The customers are elderly; their brown clothes merge together around the bright red and white tablecloths. The room smells of lavender and buttered toast and Anna feels an instant warmth in her soul.
A woman in a black dress and white frilled pinnie stops, hands full with a piled-high tray of used plates and cups.
‘Be at least ten minutes for a table,’ she says breathlessly.
‘I’ve come about the job,’ says Anna.
The woman looks her up and down.
She is suddenly aware of how she looks, the combination of cropped blond hair, fishnet tights, heavy boots and dark lips.
‘Going clubbing?’ Daniel had said when she came downstairs that morning.
Daniel hates red lipstick, though she was wearing it the night they met, and he didn’t seem to mind it then. That night he’d rescued her from the attentions of a drunken sporty just by holding out his hand and saying ‘There you are.’ That night when his lips were smeared scarlet from her kisses, he sat on his bed and touched them with his fingertips as if they’d been painted by angels.
‘Can we order?’ a man at a nearby table asks crossly.
The woman sighs and smiles at Anna.
‘In that case dearie, take a seat and I’ll be with you in a minute.’
She nods to the table in the window, tucked behind a wooden pillar. An old man in a tweed suit is sitting at it and opposite him is the only empty seat in the house.
‘You don’t mind, do you Peter?’
‘Not at all,’ says the man with a voice of clipped perfection.
Anna smiles at him and pulls the heavy wooden chair from the table, sitting down and quickly wriggling out of her sodden jacket. The man gazes at her with a kind expression. She feels a jolt of recognition, his face familiar but not easy to place.
‘Devil of a day isn’t it?’ he says with a smile.
His voice is beautiful, the clear deep ring of a 1950s radio announcer, the sort of voice you never tire of listening to.
‘Isn’t it,’ she says, adopting a slightly posher accent than usual.
She rubs her hand over her hair sending stray water droplets onto the tablecloth. The old man hands her a damask napkin, she thanks him, pats at her head and takes the opportunity to study his face. It’s thin, almost equinely angular; the bones beneath autumn-leaf skin as sharp as daggers. His hair, dove grey and still lush, recedes from a point in the middle of his liver-spotted forehead. He watches her watching. A smile lifts the corners of pencil-line lips and is repeated in his bird-like eyes. The eyes themselves have yellow-stained whites spread over with tiny red veins, but the irises are as blue as a June day and sparkle like sunlight on water.
The tea-urn blasts a cloud of steam from the counter and Anna jumps. Her companion laughs, showing tiny white teeth and multiplying the deep creases around his eyes. There’s a laboratory gurgle of bubbling water. The image of a wet stone wall flickers through Anna’s mind, torches flaming on a downward-leading staircase, an underground chamber, bubbling flasks, test tubes, scalpels, giant electricity conductors zigzagging a crackle of neon light, a body under a sheet, a grey gnarled hand falling, its fingers twitching.
He raises his eyebrows.
‘Yes, I suppose I am.’
‘I was staring wasn’t I?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid you were.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she gushes. ‘It’s not often you get to meet a … a legend.’
‘Oh Lord,’ he says, extracting a cigarette from the packet of Rothman’s on the table, ‘not that. Legend makes me sound about nine hundred years old.’
She’s flustered and rattles off words with machine-gun speed.
‘Oh I didn’t mean that. It’s just – well I’m a bit of a fan. I’ve been studying horror films at college and I’ve just written an essay on Hammer.’
‘Really? Being studied in colleges now are we? Well that is something.’
He taps his cigarette and lights it with a squeaky brass lighter and the greasy tang of gasoline tickles her nostrils followed by acrid nicotine. She breathes in deeply through her nose and glances at the three stubs already buried in the ashtray.
‘Would you like one?’ He asks, offering her the pack.She would – but Daniel doesn’t like women who smoke, even though he smokes himself. He says it’s either common or aristocratic, and that she’s neither. She gave up to please him, but occasionally she lapses. She took a cigarette she was offered at a party a few weeks ago. Daniel came into the room while she was smoking it, took it from her hand and put it out. They didn’t talk about it at the time but he sulked for days afterwards.
‘No thank you,’ she says.
‘Trying to give up, eh?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Well good for you. Too late for me now. I must have been smoking for fifty years – but I’m not dead yet.’
He makes the sign of the cross and raises his eyes to heaven. Anna laughs.
‘Would you like tea? There’s plenty left in the pot.’
She nods and he pours some into the empty cup set at her place.
‘There’s a scone too. Mary always gives me two, but really I can only ever manage one.’
She looks at the plate he’s proffering. The scone is big and fat, oozing with cream and blood-red jam. She can’t remember the last time she ate a cake. Daniel only likes skinny girls so she’s on a perpetual diet. If he was here he would say, are you sure you want that? Her stomach grumbles loudly.
‘Sounds like you need it.’
‘Go on then,’ she says, taking the plate from him. She bites into the soft buttery flesh of the scone. It crumbles on her tongue, the perfect combination of sugar and fat.
‘Mmm,’ she says, sucking icing sugar from her lips.
‘It really is a pleasure to meet you. Our tutor told us you lived here. In fact I was hoping I might bump into you. We had this little pact in class that the first one of us to see you should ask if you’d mind talking to us, about the Hammer films; a sort of interview.’
He beams at her, his face young with pride.
‘Of course I don’t mind. It’s always a pleasure to meet fans – especially young ones. I’m amazed people still watch the things.’
‘Oh but they’re wonderful. So colourful and menacing, and quite risqué for the times weren’t they? Censor busters – that’s what I did my essay on – “Unchecked Urges – Buried Sexuality in Classic Hammer Horror.”’
‘Goodness, did you really? Well, I’d be delighted to talk to you and your friends. You can find me in here most lunchtimes – but look out, here comes Mary. I think you’re about to have your interview.’
She looks around the room and realises that while they’ve been talking the café has all but emptied, the lunchtime rush is over and the woman with the white apron is making her way to their table.
He puts out his cigarette, stands and takes his coat from the hat stand. He secures bicycle clips on his trousers and puts on his hat. He actually wears a deerstalker, just like Sherlock Holmes. He kisses the woman in the apron on the cheek.
‘Bye Mary, I won’t be in tomorrow. I’m going to see Chris for a few days.’
‘Alright Peter,’ she smiles, ‘see you next week. Mind how you go.’
He squeezes Anna’s shoulder and she looks up into his whirlpool eyes.
‘I hope you get the job,’ he says, ‘we all have to start somewhere. I worked in a Lyon’s Cornerhouse myself about a century ago.’
He nods farewell and walks quickly through the door, the little bell signalling his absence.
Anna looks up at Mary, a middle-aged woman in a white maid’s hat, her face red from the exertion of the lunch shift, smiling fondly through the window.
‘He means Christopher Lee doesn’t he?’
Mary sits down in his seat.
‘I expect so dear – they’re very close. Now,’ she says, taking a pen and notepad from her apron pocket, ‘you do know it’s part time don’t you? All day Saturday and Sunday and Friday afternoons, twelve to five.’
‘What the hell are you doing?’
Daniel is standing by the table looking down at her, bedraggled and rain-soaked, his eyes flaring with anger.
‘I’ve been walking around talking to myself. Then I looked in every shop on the high street for you. Fancy a cup of tea without me did you?’
Anna can feel her face burning, ashamed that he can talk to her like this in front of a stranger but sorry for her thoughtlessness. His reaction is understandable, she should have told him where she was going – but then he wouldn’t have let her come in. He glowers at her magnificently, his dark eyes full of unswerving confidence. She’s shaking; torn between the need to please him and the growing realisation that she never will.
She looks hesitantly at Mary sitting opposite her, pen poised, her face the picture of distaste. She looks at Daniel again, her heartbeat rushing to a crescendo, and this time she sees him as Mary does.
‘Not now,’ she says, ‘I’m having an interview.’
‘A what?’ he scoffs.
‘You’re joking, right? Why would you want to work in here?’
Mary straightens her back and folds her arms.
Anna thinks about Peter, about the napkin and the cigarettes, the tea and the scone, his hand on her shoulder, his encouraging words and benevolent eyes. He showed her such respect and he didn’t even know her. Daniel doesn’t have respect for anybody but himself. Since she met him she has lost herself piece by piece. If she stays with him she’ll loose herself altogether. She’ll be nothing more than his creation – her body under a white sheet, her fingers twitching.
She looks him in the eyes.
‘I’ll see you later, at your house.’
He blinks; his expression a deflating balloon.
Anna turns back to Mary with an unshackled smile. ‘So, Saturday, Sunday, and Friday afternoons – it sounds perfect.’
The tea-urn blasts a cloud of steam from the counter and the water bubbles.