Educating Rita

It was supper time. I was looking out of the back room window at the aluminium bath hanging on the high fence that separated us from Mrs.Barrett’s. My mother was sitting on my left opposite my father, bending his knife to harvest the steak and kidney pie gravy and which he would slide in and out of his mouth with a sucking ‘pop.’

Must you do that, Len?’

He took no notice. He never did. She went to the kitchen and returned with the salt. Wiping her hands down the front of her apron she seated herself again, fussily patted her black, greying hair and resumed her meal. I forced my food down as quickly as I could without offending her and left the house. It was all so familiar, like watching an endless loop of the same episode of a kitchen sink drama.

I walked north towards Wanstead Flats, my childhood sanctuary where I’d lay in the tall grass, jump the stream between the houses, return and play ‘odds and ends’ on the pavement or ‘tin can Tommy’ in the street till mum called me in for tea. It was nineteen fifty five, I was twenty one, had finished a decorating apprenticeship and wanted to get out, get my own place, not wanting to rent as my father did, with his forelock-touching every week to Mister Surrey when he came round for his money, and who owned half the street.

After several hours of wondering around I found I was walking uphill towards Plaistow Station, homing this way on automatic pilot. I used the station every weekday, sometimes on a Saturday, to get to work, having returned to my old firm and working in the City.

That’s when I saw her; a tall, auburn-haired woman, older than me, in a long green coat and bright scarf around her throat, a few yards down from the station entrance. It was dark and had begun to rain. People were scurrying along behind her down the hill. She didn’t have an umbrella, she looked bemused. I stood and watched her. She seemed very lost. I walked across to her in front of a bus slowing down for the bus stop, its front wheels turning at an angle, pushing the water away from the headscarved women standing there.

I stood a yard from her, feeling the rain splattering my face.

‘Er, excuse me,’ I mumbled, not having the energy to adopt a confident, urbane persona, ‘D’you need some help? I think you should get out of the rain, stand in the entrance here.’

‘Oh, thanks,’ she said with a smile that sent startled neurons crashing around insanely inside me. It was Rita Hayworth.

I just looked at her. I didn’t and couldn’t move. The cynical, intellectualizing little man, perennially on my shoulder, kicked in defensively and told me she was merely another human amongst the six billion on earth, no different from any other stimulus-response mechanism, and yet another media construct. I saw her green eyes. The little man fell to the ground and died.

She frowned, looked even more puzzled. I then, somehow, actually touched her elbow, guided her the few yards to the entrance. We were out of the wet. I managed to say something.

‘What, what are you doing here? er, are you okay?’

It was hard to believe that I could say something so rational, so… articulate. I didn’t know whether or not she knew that I’d recognised her

‘Well, I was supposed to go to Pinewood Studios and - oh, it doesn’t matter, I shouldn’t have said I’d come. Do you know the subway well? I left my hotel, got on a train, but I think I’ve come the wrong way. I was looking at all the station names. I recognised a few at first and then… got off. I don’t know where I am.’ She raised her eyebrows and laughed at herself. ‘I’ve never been to London before. I’ve been to Britain once.’

‘Didn’t you ask anyone on the train? I mean, there must have been people in your carriage.’ ‘

I was tired. I just kept looking at the names, and they sort of ran into each other.’ She looked down. ‘I’m not sure, really.’

She had a voice I hardly recognised; not the modulated, lilting accent I remembered from her films; this was an obvious American one.

I told her, trying to keep my voice steady, that she was in East London and she’d gone the opposite way to where she should have been heading. She frowned again, then, ‘Thank you. I guess I’d better be going back to my hotel if I can find…’

She stopped and leant against the wall inside the double wooden entrance doors. She looked pale; that lovely skin. Her hair was wet and a little flattened on top. I felt I needed to breathe again, I’d been holding my breath for minutes. ‘

You’re not okay, are you’ I said. ‘

'No. No I’m not.’

'Look, keep here, I’ll get a taxi. You’ll be okay if I leave you a minute. Yes?’

She nodded weakly.

I went quickly across to the phone booth near the deserted ticket office and looked for a taxi firm in the phone book. I’d only been in a taxi once, when my father’s dog was running in an early race at Hackney Wick and we’d got there just in time to watch it lose. I knew I could pay for this one, my weekly wage packet was in an inside pocket, unopened. I’d wanted the crisp thrill of opening it later, to go out somewhere - the mirage of afterwork - to a café with a friend, arguing about method acting, art, to see a film, perhaps one that she was in. I went back to her, her head was bowed. I was shaking.

‘It won’t be long.’ I said comfortingly. She remained looking down.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked quietly in a voice that belied any real interest in an answer. She was looking increasingly unwell.

A thud of reason nudged me. A hospital. There was one just behind the station, another a mile away in Stratford. Then a hidden part of childhood treacled over me: not being well meant mum’s healing fussiness, the background of which I subliminally saw as my own room where I’d recently painted a night sky and stars on the ceiling, an ancient Egyptian mural on the frieze and pasted a large photo of the Chrysler Building across a wall. I’d managed to buy a black and chrome Art Deco headboard for the bed and found an old Valmier rug and a Diomode light that triple-reflected from a mirror on the figured walnut dressing table I’d got cheap. In an insane way she would complete an adolescent fantasy. The room was behind the parlour. I could sleep upstairs in one of the rooms which had, until recently, been occupied by my father’s sister and her husband. We’d taken over the whole unprepossessing, stone-dashed Victorian terrace house when they left.

I deflected her question, ’You’re not really ill, are you?’

A pale smile, ‘No, well, I hope not, but I need to rest.’

I leant on the matchboard wall next to her. People were coming up the stairs from a train. It was probably the last one of the day. Nobody looked across at us. She had shoulder pads in her coat; I kept looking at her green and pink scarf. She looked vulnerable. The taxi came. Pushing the guilt away I gave my address. The driver didn’t say a word. Didn’t look, didn’t recognise her.

 

She spent the journey gazing out of a window. She seemed to trust me. I wondered if she was looking through an imaginary lens, having seen countless cameramen squinting at her through their thumbs and fingers rectangles. This time it wasn’t a lush setting: the natural frame of the window was filled with a wasteland of rubble and bricks where tower blocks were going to be built, empty beer bottles, a remnant of a bonfire, a frame of a bicycle sticking up like an isosceles triangle, then shabby Victorian terraces, rows of them, shut pubs, cafes, a row of grey shops, all lit, still, by turn-of-the century pavement lamps - a couple of youths, at this late hour, playing floodlit footie under one of them with a bald tennis ball.

I just looked at her, trying not to split open, to explode inside this taxi, to seem relaxed, attempting not to think of hidden cameras filming us for a documentary or something, and not to wonder whether she was just a remarkable look-alike.

I got out, paid quickly, opened the nearside door for her and, again supporting her elbow but more firmly, walked her across the pavement. I pushed the black scrolled gate, unlocked the front door - which I’d recently grained - and ushered her in. I closed it gently.

‘Do you live alone here?’ she asked.

‘No, no, it’s my parents place, I thought I’d said, they’ll be upstairs, asleep, it’s late.’

I looked at my watch, surprised at how late it was. ‘It’s almost one.’ I whispered, ‘You can have my room.’

We walked softly towards it. ‘The bathroom’s upstairs through the first door if -‘

‘It’s okay, I’ll go straight to bed.’

She turned, looking weak. She looked smaller.

‘Thank you.’

I opened the door, she slid in, closing it quickly. I went upstairs. I’d spent the last two months after work decorating the whole house. The room I entered was the last one to be finished. It was a sort of workshop: dust sheets, tools, brushes, tins of paint on the floor. I made some space, unfolded the sheets, laid them down, fell on top of them without undressing and tried to sleep. I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.

 

I slept little, thinking of coal mines, tractors, washing whitewash off a ceiling with a double knot distemper brush, anything but thinking of her lying in my bed directly beneath me, perhaps sleeping naked.

Waiting till it was firmly daylight I went to the bathroom, shaved, made myself look respectable. It was still raining. I went downstairs quietly, knocked on the door of my room. She opened it immediately as if she’d been standing there, waiting.

‘Good morning.’ she said with a bright smile. She had no make up, her hair was pinned back. Her dress was dark blue, loose-fitting, her high heeled shoes were indigo.

‘How’d you sleep,’ I asked, ‘you look better.’

‘I am. I slept okay. Your room! it’s wonderful. And that mirror. I love the thirties period too, I’ve got a lot of Lalique glass back home. I guess I’m a collector. I assume it was you who painted the ceiling. How did you do it? You could get a job as a scene painter. What do you do, anyway?’

‘I’m a painter and decorator.’ I said quickly, ‘Feeling hungry?’

‘Yes. Your parents are here, I assume?’

‘Oh, yeh, they’re having breakfast, let’s go in.’

‘I don’t know your name,’ she said.

 

‘It’s Chris, Chris Bowes. And yours,’ I heard myself saying, ‘was Margarita Carmen Cansino before Hollywood changed it.’

She seemed surprised. ‘How d’you know that?’

‘A friend told me, Tony, he’s film mad. I’ll cook you something if you want.’

We went past the cellar door to the back room at the end of the narrow hall, but before I could touch it, it was opened by my mother who had obviously heard our voices. She looked alarmed.

‘Mum,’ I forced myself to say, ‘this is a friend of mine. She slept in my room last night, I was upstairs in the spare room, she wasn’t feeling well.’ I had, obviously, rehearsed this over and over during the night. I could see my father’s head turning from his newspaper, looking up.

‘Hello,’ said mum, eyes looking unusually bright, ‘pleased to meet you I’m sure.’ She held her hand out. It was taken lightly, with a slight squeeze. My father was standing now.

‘Dad, this is -‘

‘Yeh, I ‘eard. ‘ello ducks,’ he said in his best cockney, halfway to his seat again, wanting to get back to his paper. He didn’t know who she was.

‘Come in and sit down,’ said mum, ‘have my chair, I’ll get you something. What would you like?’

‘It’s alright, I’ll do it,’ I said. I wanted to do something for her, something she wanted, needed; anything. I was ignored.

‘Well, thank you.’

She looked at the half finished food on their plates.

‘Oh, I love bacon, eggs and tomatoes,’ she said, the latter pronounced with a slight Brooklyn ‘tamaytas.’ Again, the strong accent, not that husky, almost English one she’d used in ‘Gilda.’ And when I thought of this, thought of that first shot of her, tossing her head back, the hair, the smile, the mischief, I still couldn’t believe that the eponymous star of that film was here, now, with me, in Leddington Road.

We sat, she on the nearest chair, me squeezing around the table to my usual place with my back to the small bay window.

‘Well, you look all right this mornin’, I must say.’ said dad gruffly

‘Can you help me a minute, Chris?’ asked mum from the kitchen eight feet away.

I got up, wriggled by. ‘It’s alright, don’t move,’ I said, looking down at the top of her head, her hair, the parting. I wanted to stand there and keep looking. In the kitchen mum slowly closed the door behind me.

‘Is that who I think it is?’ she whispered. ‘It can’t really be, can it? She looks so like her.’

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to say it actually was her, as if by not confirming it to anyone I could, somehow, keep her to myself.

‘Yes, she does, mum. I won’t have a lot, I’m not hungry.’

‘But… suit yourself,’ she said, moving the bleached broom handle out of her way that she still used for ‘stirring the copper,’ in which she washed bed sheets and clothes and which I used to help her with as a child, hardly being strong enough to push the stick round.

I stepped back into the room. Dad was saying, ‘Where you from, then? You sound a bit like a Yank.’ I winced.

‘Yes, I am American,’ she smiled, ‘I live in California.’

‘Sunny there, I s’ppose.’

‘Yes, it is.’

Mum came through with two plates of fried food and put them down in front of us. She tucked into it healthily. I fidgeted with mine, surreptitiously watching her.

 

Mum was silent, looking sideways at me and occasionally at her as she ate.

‘Wot d’yer do then, luv?' asked my father.

She looked across, stopped chewing, ‘I’m in movies.’

‘Yeh? I don’t go to the pictures much meself. I was a crowd extra once in ‘Beau Geste’ when I was in the army. Took Edie to see it, but they’d cut it out and I wasn’t in it.’ He guffawed, looking briefly at my mother.

‘I know that feeling,’ she grinned.

I didn’t believe her. He bent his head, scraping his knife around his plate, capturing the grease, but this time not putting it into his mouth. We sat in silence. I felt that I’d brought home a wax facsimile from Madame Tussaud’s, she wasn’t real, couldn’t be. Reminding myself again that she was, I watched her eating food five feet away from me, drinking tea, wiping her soft, beautiful lips with one of the napkins hastily brought out for special occasions. She looked over the top of her teacup, commenting that she really liked the way my mother made tea.

She glanced at her watch, began standing up. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I really have to get back.’ She turned to my mother. ‘May I use the bathroom?’

‘Certainly dear, you know where it is, don’t you.’

She left the room. I could hear her footsteps on the stairs.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ mum asked in a hissing whisper,

‘I only met her last night, she wasn’t well, I thought - ‘

‘Is she going back to America or what?’

‘I don’t know, I just don’t know.’

‘Seems a nice gel, very friendly.’ said dad, handing his plate to his wife. ‘You’re a big boy now son, you know wot yer doin.’’

She stood at the door pulling her coat on.

‘It’s raining,’ I said, ‘I’ll get an umbrella.’

I ran upstairs, put my jacket on, came down again. My mother was listening to her saying how much she loved London; the little alleyways in the city, the Dickensian feel of them, the parks. I don’t think my mother quite understood all of what was being said to her.

‘Guess I’d better go.’ Rita said, smiling quickly at everyone.

‘I’ll come with you to the station.’

We walked to the front door, to the gate. She turned, raised her handbag - I hadn’t noticed it before, it was the same colour as her shoes.

‘Goodbye then, and thanks for your hospitality Mrs. Bowes, and you too, Mr. Bowes.’

‘Call me Len, luv. It’s a pity you can’t be here a bit longer, I’m goin’ to the British Legion tonight, go every Saturday, there’s some good singers there, you’d like it.’

If only she could, would, stay. The four of us at the British Legion, Canning Town Branch - though I’d been only twice - walking up the front steps under the Victorian arch, through the scuffed double doors, along the corridor, past the Ladies and into the hall, the bar on the right, Charlie and Tom propping it up, Gwen with her pill-box tilt hat, Flo with pinned up hair and high heels, all the regulars, the chairs against the lincrusta’d dado, the ribbons of gold tinsel either end of the stage, the inevitable half drunk pint of beer placed on the edge of the apron, everyone staring at her through the sudden silence, except those shouting and laughing inside the door who, after a few seconds, would also quieten. The first person recognising her would be the girl pulling pints, her fist rigid on the pump then slowly sliding down as she whispered her name.

I’d step in front of my parents, dad with double breasted suit, collar and tie, mum, shoulder-padded jacket and too tight shoes just behind him, lead her to the centre of the floor just as George introduces the octogenarian band and the first quickstep, the ‘Twelfth Street Rag,’ knowing that the English teacher who taught us ballroom at the Tech. would smile proudly as, with a gentle pressure on the small of her back, I would smooth us along, reverse twist here, a spin there, and she would throw her head back, laughing, glitter ball glints sparkling in her eyes…

‘Still, ne’er mind, another time, eh?’ dad was saying.

‘Okay, Len.’ she said sweetly, ‘And I wish you luck, Edie.’

My mother’s eyes were shining. I’d never seen her quite like this.

‘Cheerio Miss Hayward, don’t get wet, mind.’

I nodded to them, and off we went, my umbrella covering us both.

‘I thought you’d ring for a taxi.’ she said with a mock frown.

‘We don’t have a phone, but there’s a phone box around the corner.’

We ran, reached it, neither saying anything. I found the number, I was trembling a little. She was outside holding the umbrella, looking around her. I came out.

‘Anything interesting?’

‘The brick houses. There’s so many. You rarely see them in America, they’re wood and plastic. Sure, there’s the brownstones in New York, redbricks in Chicago, but the sides of the streets around here look like two long houses with lots of doors, it seems so cramped and there are so many chimneys.’

She looked suddenly contrite. ‘I’m sorry, I’m being rude.’

'No, it’s okay. The bricks are called London bricks, yellow stocks. They have names. See the kinda burnt ones? They’re grey gaults, and the whiteish ones are white suffolks and, Oh, Christ, I’m boring you to death.’ I lightly touched the back of her waist while I was saying this. My fingers burned.

‘No, no, it’s interesting, it’s all so different.’

The taxi came. We hurried in and went back to the station where I’d met her eight hours previously. Again, she looked silently out of the window. We scrambled into the station entrance. I shook the umbrella, tried to sound casual.

‘What’s the next film, then?’

‘’Fire Down Below.’ I think we’re starting next week, on location. I forget where. I can be very vague sometimes.’

‘Are you going back to your hotel.’ She nodded.

‘Where is it?’

‘Just off Sloane Square. Where’s the westbound platform?’

‘I’ll come down with you.’

We descended the stairs, ‘Don’t you mind travelling by train? People looking at you, pointing, whispering.’

‘No, I don’t mind. I love subways, the Paris Metro, Rome’s Metropolitana, New York, they’re great.’

I loved the way her lips moved when she said ‘Metropolitana,’ her husky voice.

‘I don’t want you to come with me. Really, it’s okay, honestly.’

I felt limp with disappointment. It was visible.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

I wanted to say something that would suggest to her - and myself - that seeing her, talking to her, wasn’t anything special, just an ordinary, friendly social encounter. I couldn’t, of course, think of anything.

‘I hope you… I dunno, learnt something, other than the names of bricks of course.’

‘Yes, I did. I learnt that there are some good people about, accommodating. Oh, it sounds corny, I’m not expressing myself very well. I’m better with a script.’

 

‘Do people, the public, know you’re over here? I haven’t read anything.’

‘No. I use dark glasses and a Cansino passport. I’ve learnt.’ She was bending forward, looking back up the rails. A train was coming in. It was a District line. Its clattering seemed so loud.

‘This’ll take you straight there.’ I forced a grin.

‘Thanks for your help, you’ve been kind.’

She took a few steps away from me. I felt suddenly empty.

‘Have a doctor look at you.’ I said earnestly, ‘Does the hotel have one? You can keep the umbrella.’ I didn’t remember her taking it from me. She looked at it with mild surprise then came back to me, gave me a quick kiss on my cheek, an inch from the corner of my mouth.

‘Thanks again.’ She smiled right into me. ’I’ll be alright. Brown eyes.’ and got into a carriage as the doors closed.

I stood there watching the back of the train vanish in the rain and went up the stairs, out of the station. I missed her. I wanted that feeling again when we’d run to the phone box together. I’d never felt anything like that before. I wanted to be lying awake again, thinking of her asleep just ten feet below me, looking at my stars on the ceiling, wanted to… just look at her. I incongruously wondered what my mother would be saying to my father at this moment.

‘D’you know ‘oo she is Len, she’s - ‘

‘Alright, keep yer ‘air on, you’ve told me, but it don’t matter who - ‘

‘I dunno what this is about, but I’m gonna get to the bottom of this when he gets home.’

And also who I could tell about it. Tony, of course, but not the blokes at work.

‘You takin’ the piss?’ ‘’avin’ a larf ain’t yuh?’ ‘You’ll be tellin’ us next yer dad’s dog won.’ ‘Pull the uvver one, it’s got bells on.’

I walked down the hill; the toy factory at the bottom where my mother still worked, wearing her wedge shoes and turban, the Railway Arms opposite, Desmond’s the chemists, Dollond’s the grocers, still using his wire to cut cheese, and Doctor Murphy with his huge red hands and his, ‘’tis only indigestion, mother.’ for the amoebic dysentery I had when I was twelve.

But, I was going. I would put in for a charge hand’s job and if turned down, go to another firm. I’d saved a fair bit for a deposit and there were plenty of building societies around.

I walked quicker, took longer strides, looked up, punched the air and silently mouthed,

‘I met Rita fuckin’ Hayworth!’ It had stopped raining.