a matter of life and death

I know I know Mr E; I just don’t know where from.

‘Shall I come through to the sitting room?’ he says, struggling to rise from the dinner table. ‘Or would you like me to stay here? Actually – d’you know what? – I’d like to come through to the living room if you don’t mind. The light’s better there and we’ll all be more comfortable. How does that sound? Alright? Marvelous! Let’s go!’
If I didn’t know any better I’d go through that whole finger-wagging, face-pulling, Wait a minute… I know you….! charade. But I was with a colleague once when he did exactly that, and it was so excruciating I didn’t know where to look.

I was working for patient transport then. We’d been sent to pick up a patient from a busy London hospital, and we’d met a famous actor coming out of a ward.
Hang on a minute! I know you…. Paul said, wagging his finger. Don’t tell me, don’t tell me….
The actor was incredibly tolerant, given the provocation. He glanced at me, as if to say: And what about you? Are you going to join in with this, too? All I could manage was a sympathetic smile and a blush as fierce as a blast furnace. Who knew what family difficulties the poor man was going through? It was a high dependency ward, after all. His jacket was rumpled, his eyes were red and his hair was flattened on one side, as if he’d been sleeping in one of those high-backed chairs with wings. God knows what was going on.
Paul said a name.
The actor shook his head.
Paul tried another.
The actor shook his head again, absent-mindedly straightening his hair, as if that might help.
‘You’re kidding!’ said Paul.
‘No,’ said the actor. ‘I don’t think so, anyway.’
‘Give me a clue.’
‘I’m afraid you’re on your own with this one.’
‘A cop show? Something about ships? That sitcom…?’
‘I’m sorry’ said the actor, and moved on.
‘Typical,’ said Paul. And then shouted after him: ‘I’ll get it when you’re gone!’
A janitor appeared, and quietly mopped my puddled remains into a bucket.

It’s unsettling, recognising a famous actor. You think you know them – and in a way, of course, you do – but then, fundamentally, you really don’t. It doesn’t matter that you’ve seen their faces in close-up a hundred times, internalised their physical quirks, the idiosyncratic texture of their voice, so that if a mimic reproduced any of these things you’d immediately snap your fingers and say Hey! That’s Mr E! But you don’t know them, and they don’t know you. It has all the intimacy and immediacy of a lucid dream, and like a lucid dream, it vanishes the moment you open your eyes in the real world, leaving you feeling wrong-footed, and strangely older.

We chat as I dress his leg.
‘What line of work were you in before you retired?’ I say.
‘I was an actor,’ he says.
‘I thought so!’
I tell him the films and shows I liked him in.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘That’s nice to hear! Actors! We’re a funny old bunch! It doesn’t matter how old we get or how sick, we still need to be told we’re liked!’
‘It must be odd, being on show all the time.’
‘It can make one a little self-conscious. You know, I remember working with David Niven once. You’ve heard of David Niven, haven’t you?’
‘I saw him in A Matter of Life and Death. He was really good in that.’
‘He was, wasn’t he? Well – there he was, David Niven, the world famous actor, and I was right alongside him. At that time poor David was pretty sick, coming to the end of his life, actually. And something he said struck me at the time. We were working on a little scene, and afterwards he said to me he was worried because he thought the director didn’t like him. “Of course he likes you, David,” I said. “He loves you. We all do.” “Well, why does he keep glancing down to the side when we’re doing the scene, then? It’s like he can’t bear to look at me.” And I’m sorry to say but I laughed. “David” I said, “You’ve got it all wrong! He’s just checking the monitor, to see how the shot’s being framed.” So, you see – here was one of the world’s most famous actors, who’d won all kinds of honours, who’d won an Oscar, for goodness sake, written marvelous books, a man who’d had the most glorious career, coming to the end of his life, and yet he was STILL worried what some penny-halfpenny director thought of him.’
‘That’s amazing!’ I said. ‘It must be a funny profession. You’ve got to be sensitive enough to portray a character, but thick-skinned enough to take all the rest of it.’
‘Oh – it’s not so bad!’ says Mr E. ‘I can’t complain. Now tell me – how’s the old leg looking?’
‘All done! How does it feel?’
‘Like a million dollars!’ he says. ‘I’d give you a standing ovation, only…’
And he makes a gesture I’ve seen him make many times before, only – actually – this is the first time I’ve ever seen him do it.
‘Great!’ I say, tidying up. ‘I’d sign it, only…’