FICTION: Michael Winner’s Soup by Michael Carey

‘But I died already. Didn’t I?’

‘Yes, you did.’

‘Can I die again? So soon?’

‘Yes, because it’s not that recent.’

‘Are you quite sure Dear boy?’

The Agent and the Actor sat in their club, in the heart of Soho, idling in that middle part of the afternoon that owes a debt to both the night and the day.

The drinks were on their way. They tapped their toes, shifted in their seats, getting comfy like cats. They always sat in the same place.

‘Yes, apparently, when it comes to dying on Casualty, they do impose a kind of statutory limitation. You can’t die more than once in a 12-month period. So, you are just ok, on that front.’

‘So, they want me back.’ A suppressed smile went sliding into his hand. They wanted him back.

‘Yes, but you know to die and not much else.’

‘I do not merely die dear boy. I perish.’

‘Indeed.’ The Agent looked to the chap who was floating across the thick carpet, the way they did there, with their fat whiskies. He took them both and handed one to the Actor as the waiter reversed in the same gear he’d arrived in. ‘Yes,’ the Agent swirled his drink, ‘he said you died well.’

‘Did he? Oh, I could have done it better. I just moaned quietly and…’

‘Faded away.’

‘Yes.’

‘How unlike an actor to want to build up his part. Even dying.’

‘There is nothing that cannot be improved upon.’

He believed that. He was, if nothing else these days, concerned with his craft. He was an actor. One of the last of a dying breed.

The 80’s had been his heyday. He was vaguely aware of that. More accurately his time had been the end of the 70s and up to some point in the 80s. Back then he had run with a crowd, got work and did well. It all seemed warm to him. The 80s were like yesterday. He still imagined that work might just come knocking at his door, as it had then. He believed that and knew it to be pipe dream at the same time.

And now here they sat, adrift and almost exactly half way into the next decade.

‘There’s something else.’

‘Go on.’ The Actor’s face a slab, all Easter Island.

‘A, play, in Harrow.’

‘You know how I feel about plays. The stage. Never mind the North.’

‘You should consider it. It’s actually a, a sort of panto.’

‘Oh actually a panto is it? I’m an actor, not a hoofing panto… prick! Bloody hell…’ Withering. He then fell into a somewhat guilty silence before looking around the room – still in the doldrums – and then back at his agent and friend in vice and iniquity for many worn years now. He lifted a copy of The Stage and took refuge behind it.

His agent watched him noticing he was leafing through it in the same affected way he did with a newspaper as an extra on the Bill not so long ago. He scanned the room, with its tidy books and unexamined flowers. Peace flowed out of the quiet corners.

They liked it at this time. But later, when it was noisier and full of the great clamour of all the arrivistes, these Britpop people and the Young Artists, who they would look upon with a mixture of pity and envy, they’d like it then even more.

‘You could handle the stage. You have a broad range and a wide gamut.’

‘Oh, you’ve heard about my big gamut then have you?’ From behind the pages.‘Keep it out of the resume… or perhaps just hint at it.’ He set the magazine down, fussed with his little scarf a moment, ‘I know O’Toole and I worked with Michael Winner.’

‘You got pissed with Michael Winner, years ago.’

‘I did both Dear Boy and often at the same time.’ He took a sip of whiskey.

‘Indeed. And you won’t be working with him again. Not after the Incident with the Soup.’

‘Yes. The Incident. The Soup.’

They were each wary then. And receding. Quiet again.

The actor examined an imaginary spot on the thick carpet in front of him. Suddenly he was back in the eighties. Not any one day. Just them all. His long yesterday. He blinked and looked up past his friend and out to Dean street beyond. He could just discern the honeyed light of the setting sun pooling in the narrow streets. The way it did this time of year. For some unfathomable reason, he thought of his first publicity shots. Black and white and dazzling. The photographer, a craftsman and a gentleman, encouraging him when he was nervous, somehow bringing out the very best of him. He still had them. Cherished somewhere amongst the clutter of his flat.

‘Deathwish. I was in Deathwish.’

Deathwish 3, was it not?’

‘Yes, alright dear boy. Deathwish 3.’

They smiled and spoke together.

‘Death Wish 3: I wish I was dead!’

‘You don’t see much of him any more do you.’

‘Winner?’

‘Yes.’ The Agent was slyly conning him around the corner of his glass which he held up close to his ruddy cheek.

‘Of course, I bloody don’t.’

The Actor felt his friend’s silent close inquisition. The ache of familiarity insisting he go on.

‘I don’t want to talk about the Incident.’

‘The Soup Incident.’ The Agent swilled his drink, but didn’t look at him.

The Actor surveyed him over the top of his glass with a cool, steely glare. ‘Is he still writing about food and restaurants and so on?’

‘Winner?’

‘Yes, fucking Winner.’

‘I think so. Somebody has to. I suppose. I gather he’s getting quite the reputation amongst London’s restaurateurs….’The agent set his drink down on the little table between them and fixed his friend in the eye. ‘Listen, you have an old dying man on a stretcher on Casualty, or you have a fun, lead role in a panto. The villain. It’s a lovely theatre. Money’s ok, in that it is actual money.’

The Actor interrupted him.

‘I am a screen actor.’

‘But that’s what I’m saying, you aren’t anymore old chap.’If there had been a clock it would have stopped ticking. This was not how they spoke. There were rules and one had just been broken. But he, the agent, had done it knowingly and for good reason. Because the good old days were long passed and the truth needed an airing. ‘You need to take this part. You need a job.’

‘No, you need to find another set of contacts. Ever since the Incident the work has dried up. They cut me out after that. That’s what happened.’

‘Balls. It was only two years ago. Winner was a spent force by then. It’s not the soup -it’s that you aren’t a young man anymore. There are categories in the industry you know. And you are knocking on the door that reads….’

‘It reads bloody wise owl or éminence grise!’

The Actor peered into his near empty tumbler and wondered if there was enough in there for a decent gulp before storming straight out onto the streets of Soho. But if he should leave, where would he go?

His Agent held his hands up.

‘Look I know you get in here because of some old friend. Someone from the past. But dammit man, you need the money.’

Hush.’ He expelled the word. It came rushing out of him propelled on one breath. ‘Hush your mouth.’ For once this was him. Unvarnished. The truth meeting the truth.

But the Agent persisted leaning forward, voice low.

‘This seat may not always be yours old boy. These ties, are fraying. It’s the same for me.’ The Actor pretended to read his magazine again. ‘It’s a progressive part. I say it’s a panto, but it’s aimed at kids and adults.’

The Actor looked away, felt his bones grow cold as his friend continued.

‘You know how it works. You do this. You do it well. The papers review it. And you get some decent T.V. Again.’

‘Like the old days?’

‘Like the old days.’

The Actor leaned forward, looked at him through his eyebrows which really did need a trim. ‘It’s, a, bloody, panto, in, Harrow. That’s passport territory.’

‘You do not need your passport to go to Harrow.’

‘Yes, you do.’

‘Oh no you don’t.’

‘Oh…. yes…. you…. do!’

‘See, I knew you’d bloody say it.’

‘But a pantomime.’ The Actor now all forlorn betrayal. All Julius C to this Brutus before him. ‘I have only ever been on the stage once and it was, a, disaster. I choked. It is, something… I cannot…’

‘Oh, shut up you tart. You choked once thirty years ago, when you had no experience for god’s sake.’

‘Get the chap’s eye?’

What?’

‘I said, get the chap’s eye.’ He motioned towards the waiter who was doing an impression of one of the pillars by the door.

‘Oh right.’

‘It’s wine time.’

The agent ordered their wine, something red and lusty, and they waited under a temporary truce. When it arrived and they were sipping.

‘I still think of that night, 30 years ago. The Empire in Hackney. And the lines just wouldn’t come. I knew them. I knew them all, I only had three. But they stayed where they were.’

‘I know. I know.’

‘Sorry, but you don’t. You aren’t an actor Dear Boy and you weren’t there.’

‘But I was.’

‘You see the thing about Acting is…. What?’

‘I was there.’

The Actor looked at him and through him and waited for an explanation without needing to ask for it, his face simultaneously a question mark and an exclamation mark.

‘Yes, you messed up.’ The Agent took a deep slow pull on his wine, his eyes to the ceiling. ‘It was the first time I saw you. I went around the back after and spoke to old Roger Mately-Bowers, the actor-manager.’

‘Yes, yes the Actor-Manager yes yes. Wonderful chap.’

‘Yes, wonderful chap, and he told me you had a future, stage or screen, whichever or both.’

‘Old Roger ‘Fingers’ Mately-Bowers said that about me? Oh, I always had a lot of time for him.’

‘Well he had a lot of time for you old boy, when he wasn’t with the ladies that is.’

They both looked at each other and did the twiddley diddley finger movement – to show they were on the same page vis-à-vis old Roger Mately-Bowers.

And then they sat under the flag of a proper truce, and waited for the sun to go down.

When it had and the place was slowly filling the agent pulled his chair in closer, the better to be heard over the pleasant hub-bub.

‘You hold them in your cupped palm.’

‘Don’t be disgusting!’

‘Hush. When you tell your stories you have the room. They all sit upon your hand and wait for the next morsel. I have heard your stories word for word, note for note, for donkey’s years. That’s your script. Remembered and faithful every time. These places,’ he motioned about the grand space, ‘they are your stage and you command them and own them and take them away from anyone else who has the misfortune to share them with you. Because you are old school and you’re a classact.’

They looked at one another and wondered what the other was thinking.

‘Do the show John.’

The Actor closed his eyes and thought about the things hehad said. He knew for a fact that his agent had been in the Middle East on National service when he had trod the boards that night. But he knew also that there was truth abroad that evening.

He thought about his studio flat near Hampstead. Panto and rehearsals and how Christmas would roll in, and then the flight of them all – his dwindling retinue – to sons and daughters in godforsaken zone 6 or even paling beyond. It was not yet cold but it was getting there. And yes, he could make a room turn around him. But more than that, he thought about how wonderful it was to have someone place some simple faith and hope in you.

Finally, he remembered Michael Winner’s face – puce, even more than usual – apoplectic with rage. And then moments, or perhaps minutes later, a slightly different shade of red as he had somehow charmed him round to see the funny side of what was, even for his standards, a pretty rum turn.

‘What was it you said to him?’

‘Hmm, who Dear Boy?’

‘Winner.’

‘Ah, I was just thinking about that.’

‘What did you say when he caught you in the act at his dinner party?’

He paused, pretending to remember, before looking up, the way he did. ‘I said I wanted to occupy a very small niche. I said I wanted to be the only man, who wasn’t a chef, to have pissed in Michael Winner’s soup.’

‘And there it is.’

‘And I did get him laughing, but he wasn’t, happy.’

‘Well of course he wasn’t bloody happy, you pissed in his soup. But there it ended.’

‘Perhaps. A brief storm in a tea cup?’

‘A quick piss in his pottery.’

They laughed and looked at one another for the first time properly since they sat down. The Actor waited a beat, looked away and then raised his arm. His trained voice rang out, somehow respectfully but brooking no hesitation. Another bottle. He looked to his friend.

‘Bollocks to them all. And buggering bollocks to the begrudgers as dear Dicky Harris would say. I shall do it Dear Boy. Sign me up. Yes, I’ll frighten the almighty crap out of the little bastards.’

‘Good for you. I will.’

They settled back into their deep chairs and the Actor surveyed bar beyond.

‘Oh, there’s that chap I was speaking to last night. Him with the shoes and the hair.’

‘You were speaking to him last night? Really?’

‘Yes. He’s from the North, a good chap. Funny. Neil, I think he’s called. Musician. Likes the Beatles.’

‘I think it’s Noel, old chap.’

‘Right yes, yes. Nice fellow. I mean I didn’t get every word. Talked almost exclusively through his nose. He said he had a record out but he wasn’t sure, kept saying definitely, maybe.’

‘Ok. Through the nose.’

‘Quite. Funny chap. Loved that I knew the Beatles.’

‘You didn’t know the Beatles.’

‘I knew them afterwards.’

‘Hmm.’

‘Alright, I got pissed with Ringo. Anyway, I think he said he needed someone for a music video. You might have a word. Could be something in it. Ah, here’s the chap with the bottle. Goodman….’

‘Good man indeed.’

The Agent smiled to himself and watched the gilded people arrive. He watched too how they rose with the night. And how they all shared their predicament. Everyone there teetered on the brink of change. Of failure. Of the tide changing. But to hang on, to stay or to return, that could be the work of a moment. If you could find the right words, the right look, the prefect movement. Merely that. Perhaps helped along with the occasional assistance of a friend.

That night the Actor twinkled, and upon every word and every note each and every one of them…. hung.

The Actor did the bloody Panto. And it was a bullseye. He got the other job too and when Christmas came, it was a good one.

Today, the Actor’s name is on the wall behind his chair in the club.

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Michael Carey is originally from Northern Ireland but is now clinging to the edge of London with a firm grip. There he stirs his novel, writes short stories and tries to get a bit of sleep. He can be found on Twitter where he is sometimes funny, often angry and occasionally thoughtful (@menaman1) and he’s been published here and there, including Number Eleven magazine, Smoke – A London Peculiar and the Liars’ League. There’s a website too….  https://apparentlyaspark.wordpress.com/

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