After crossing a conflict zone and several time zones I looked forward to the ordinariness of home. On impulse, I asked the airline driver to drop me off at Waterloo. A British train journey would bring me down to earth, even if it meant risking recognition – which happened frequently, but never to the extent of naming. I was just that reporter person who did dangerous stuff. And my illegible autograph rarely gave anyone a clue. However, at mid-week and nearing midnight, the concourse would be fairly quiet. ‘Safe’. My little joke. But I pulled the peak of my cap down and raised my collar as I checked departures, just in case.
It was his black coat that caught my eye, the way it hung from his shoulders, as old and frayed as him. He stood by the news stand, early editions of tomorrow’s papers lying in bundles at his feet. As he leaned to lift a copy I saw his profile, the sweep of hair, the prominent brow – and though they had blurred with years, I knew them, knew them well. Where, where, where had I seen him before? He straightened slowly and disappeared behind the stand. My train was due, but I had to see him again. A long pause…
He re-entered, from the left and at once I saw another scene, clear as the name on his paper. An old black coat thrown over a chair, a room of people intent on a central point – my own disobedient fingers worrying a grubby sheet of cartridge paper. And there, in the middle of us, reclining on an aged chaise, our subject. In summer, brushed by the breeze from an open window, in winter, textured with goose pimples despite the one bar fire. Striking a hundred poses while we experimented with charcoal, paint and clay. He of the leonine mane and ill-fitting jockstrap, butt of student mockery and star of our life classes, Mr Watson. Starkers.
Having defied my family to attend Art School, it was hard to admit disenchantment. But it wasn’t – enough. It was Life Class or, rather, Mr Watson who made me face my demon. The other students regarded him, at best, as a composition of muscle and bone, form and tone, at worst, a pathetic old loser. While they gauged his proportions or sniggered at his wayward genitals, I observed a situation. What I saw was a vulnerable, elderly man being subjected to indignity to earn a living. He was, perhaps, sixty then. And I was, luckily, naïve.
One morning, as the others swaggered off for coffee, I loitered behind an easel. Mr Watson sat draped in his overcoat reading his paper. Hunched there, NHS specs halfway down his nose, he looked harmless, exploited. How should I start? I rejected ‘Do you do this for a living?’ – you’d hardly do it as a hobby. Unless you were a masochist. Or a pervert. So I just spoke.
“Excuse me? I wondered – have you been doing this long?”
He looked up, startled.
“You’re very good at – being still…”
It was my first real question, even if I was talking garbage. He’d think I was winding him up. But he smiled, folding his paper.
“Oh – I’m used to people looking at me,” he paused, “in my other life.”
The stress on ‘other’ was calculated. This man did not need to be drawn. He motivated questions.
“Your other life?”
“The theatre, of course,” he waved his paper.
It was a copy of The Stage.
“Comes out Thursday, but I get it Wednesday nights at Waterloo. To catch the auditions!”
Mr Watson was an actor, I ventured –
“– an out of work –?”
“Resting,” he grimaced comically.
He gestured the chaise and turned to me as I sat, The Stage resting prudently across his lap. I took his cue.
“Have you been on –?
“Television? No! Theatre! Theatre is the actor’s true home!”
My Good Fairy guarded me from asking if he knew anyone famous.
“Yes. Of course. What plays have you been in?”
“Hundreds, my dear – Murder at Quay Cottage, The Vital Clue… but I specialise in pantomime, now. Aladdin, last year – my favourite role, Abanazar!”
He dropped the name as though it were ‘King Lear’.
“I used to alternate it with Ratty and The Sheriff of Nottingham. But recently…” he shrugged then leaned towards me.
“Villains enter from sinister, you know – left of the stage to you. Stage right – opposite prompt, if you’re a pro.”
Delivered with dramatic articulation. He sat back, fixing my gaze.
“I’ve played Sidmouth, Hartlepool, Tunbridge Wells – “
He made them sound exotic.
From the draughty studio, Mr Watson drew me into his ‘other’ life of green and magenta follow spots, glittered velvet costumes, painted scenery and – applause. His sheer love of it was a pantomime transformation scene itself, making him glamorous, enviable.
This was the first stage of my transition. I wanted what he had. Not theatre, perhaps, but a life I loved that much, a passion to sustain me through the low times as it did him. So, at nineteen I left Art School to find that life. Or just life.
It was in a strange location with a dramatic backdrop that life reached out to me, demanded that I tell its story. And I did, with passion and truth. The theatre of war gave me the fame that had so eluded Mr Watson…
Back in the present I felt compelled to act. Where was he? Had I had lost him? I needed so much to speak to him. Thank him. With relief I saw the stooped figure shambling towards the barrier. I ran, gripped by déjà vu – and something like stage fright. What to say? How to frame that first question? Me!
And then it was so obvious. The notepad in my flight bag. I could return the favour he’d done me. In a very small way.
He stopped, uncertain, assuming I meant someone else. Then that vague recognition dawned. He’d seen me somewhere… But this was his moment, not mine.
I held the notebook out.
“Indeed I am. Do I – ?”
“I saw you in Aladdin – playing Abanazar… at Tunbridge Wells.”
That same pantomime light transformed his face, the shabby has-been became a leading actor.
“Could I – have your autograph?”
He tucked his copy of The Stage under his arm, took my pad and pen with a flourish and beamed at me.
“Delighted! Now then, what’s your name?”