red herring

Judy would be a perfectly glamorous granny if it wasn’t for her teeth. She has a chic silver-blonde haircut, a white silk dressing gown, pink nails and a flowery walking stick, and holds herself nicely upright in the red-velour, scallop-backed armchair. It only needs a spot of fixative to keep those teeth in place, but they’re not the only thing on the slide. Her flat is clean but cluttered, pills and magazines, plates and old coffee cups jumbled together on the kitchen trolley and any other horizontal surface.
‘I’m in a damned state,’ she says, smiling sadly, her teeth wandering south until she closes her mouth again to put them back in place. She has to talk in short bursts to keep the teeth in her mouth.
‘Don’t get old,’ she snaps, and jabs her walking stick into the carpet.
I sort out her meds, especially the morphine patches she’s supposed to be wearing. She has chronic pain; without analgesia, it’s no surprise she’s feeling so low and distracted.
‘Have you heard of Peggy Ashcroft?’ she says as I tidy up a little.
‘Funnily enough I was thinking about her the other day.’
‘Were you?’
‘I was reading Catcher in the Rye. And there’s a bit where Holden’s talking about how much his sister likes that Hitchcock film “The 39 Steps”, and how she knows the script off by heart. Especially that scene where Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are hiding out in a Scottish crofter’s cottage, and Peggy Ashcroft is playing the crofter’s wife. She has a line, something about eating the herring. Anyway, it made me think about her.’
Judy smiles at me again (those teeth…)
‘And what about Flora Robson?’ she says. ‘Heard of her.’
‘Yep. Not seen her in anything, but she’s pretty famous.’
‘Dora Bryan?’
‘I used to be in the theatre.’
Did you?’
‘I did. And my good friend Pamela knew them all.’
She holds her smile longer than is strictly safe. Just before I hold out my hands to catch the teeth, she clamps her mouth shut again, and winces as she puts her legs up on a stool.
‘Ye-es. I had a life in the theatre. So at least I have my memories.’
‘Just as well,’ she says. ‘Because do you know what my life is like these days?’
‘One hundred per cent of nothing.’

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