I’d been to Mrs Lustig before, about nine months ago.
It had been a wild, raw day in November then, bitter squalls of rain, and such violent gusts of wind it was a job to hold on to the car door when I opened it. I’d struggled to find her house, tucked away in one of those streets whose numbers seem to run completely at random, tailing off down alleyways and cut-throughs, jumping back again, in such an idiosyncratic way even the postman I stopped to ask had to think hard for a minute. That wasn’t the end of it, though. When finally I’d walked up the cluttered path to the front door and knocked, and then waited, and then rung the bell, and waited, and got no reply, and rung the landline on my mobile, and heard it ringing deep inside, and still had no answer, I’d decided to go round the back to check she wasn’t on the floor or something. First of all I’d had to get past a large camellia in a large metal container that had been blown over in the wind. It was a struggle to pick it up, and then I had to try all kinds of things to brace it against the wall – a wheelie bin, an old iron patio chair, a crate of recycling. When eventually I’d made it round to the little back garden, pressed my nose up against the window and shaded it with my hand, I’d got quite a shock. There was Mrs Lustig, sitting staring out at me from a high-backed chair, frowning a little, maybe, but otherwise making no move or sign for me to come in or go away. I’d waved and smiled, knocked on the window, held up my badge, pointed to it, but she’d carried on sitting and staring out at me without appearing to have seen me at all. So I’d gone back round to the front (stopping to right the camellia which had blown over again), and tried the handle on the front door. It was open, so calling ahead to identify myself, I’d stepped inside. And everything had been fine, and that was that.
This visit is already so much easier. A warm, still day, for one thing. And because I know where I’m going this time, I drive straight there. And when I pull up there’s a space out front just exactly the right size for my little car. I find that Mrs Lustig’s front path has been tidied, the camellia has been chained up, and then, exactly as described in the referral, I find a keysafe behind it, discreetly fixed to the wall.
I retrieve the key and let myself in.
‘Hello? Mrs Lustig?’
The interior of the house is the same, though. Hundreds of books neatly lined up in ancient bookcases, ceramic dishes and bronze dogs displayed in alcoves, oil paintings in gilded frames, everything suspended in the same dusty, honey coloured light that streams in through the stained glass panels above me.
Mrs Lustig is sitting in the same high-backed chair, just as passively as before, her eyes as lucent and blue as the Delft vase on the table behind her. Someone has filled it with fresh-cut roses. Her daughter, I’d guess.
‘Hello!’ I say.
‘Hello,’ she echoes.
As I settle in to the consultation I mention that this is the second time I’ve been here. That last time the weather was terrible. I’d wrestled with the camellia, tried and failed to set it right again.
‘Camellia?’ she says, uncertainly, as if I’d just described an angel I’d found on the patio.
‘I’m glad it’s fixed to the wall now.’
‘Well – yes!’
Mrs Lustig’s condition has robbed her of so much, but still there’s something so beautifully poised and modulated about her, something so fine about the face, that when I ask her what she used to do for a living before she retired, I’m not surprised when she says quite slowly and firmly: ‘I was an actress.’
‘How lovely!’ I say. And then: ‘Did you have a favourite role?’
‘No!’ she says.
‘Oh! Well – I’m sure they all had their thing.’
I carry on writing for a bit, then I can’t resist trying a different angle.
‘Was it difficult, being an actress?’ I ask her. ‘I mean – I’ve always imagined it must be quite a precarious business, chasing the work, going to auditions. The uncertainty of it all.’
‘No!’ she says again, and smiles so broadly and so warmly, it’s as good as if we’d chatted about it for hours.
Later on, back in the car, my curiosity piqued, I look her up on imdb.com. A black and white picture immediately comes up of a radiantly beautiful woman in her twenties, and then on from the picture, hundreds of links to films and TV shows, glitzy shots in restaurants, paparazzi snaps on yachts and nightclubs, newspaper articles, gossip columns. A cover on Picture Post.
And I hear myself asking her that question, sounding so gauche it makes me wince: Was it difficult, being an actress?
But then her simple answer – stripped of her ability to elaborate, perhaps, but still suffused with the joy of it all: No!