The Letter (c) Jack Vettriano 1998.
Ash from the cigarette burning in her cold hand fell like dirty snow onto white damask. Dark hair softly falling over her naked shoulders and the letter in her right hand still held gingerly between her fingers. The pale blue satin flowing over her body seemed to shimmer in the candlelight. In a glass vase, vibrant white orchids stood stark against the deep claret of the walls. Only the smoke from the cigarette broke the stillness.
A tall gentleman, collar turned up and Borsalino tilted down, crosses a lamp-lit street. The rain-drenched wind beats against his back. His shoulder catches against a red umbrella. The woman beneath it tuts, she smells of Chanel No 5 and damp clothes. He almost turns and follows her. He does not. He shoves his hands in his pockets and continues on.
The actress had not been there long when they found her. The Inspector had stood in the doorway for more than just a moment looking at her. Only when forensics arrived behind him had he realise he was crying. Quietly they worked around her until finally, the coroner said they should leave.
A bellman pushes open the doors. The Inspector emerges from the hotel into a blazing barrage. The air smells cold. Behind him, she makes her final entrance. The press falls silent. Men remove their hats and bow their heads. A reporter, standing close enough to touch her, fights the urge to reach out. He twists his camera lens, but when the view sharpens he finds his hands are shaking. Through the black box, he sees the grey blanket that covers the bag encasing her. He forces his finger to press the shutter. Rain runs over his hands. The Inspector speaks, his voice is quiet and unsteady, “please allow us through,” he says, and obediently the crowd parts.
For ten years her face has lit up billboards and movie screens. Her body has been longed for. Men wanted to touch her. Women aspired to be her. A decade ago she entered the studios from nowhere. Calmly she had walked over to the producer and simply whispered ‘when do I start?’ No one had questioned her. Now she was a legend. The public was her reason to live. The cheers, the waves, the cameras, were all masks to hide behind. But the Hollywood-thin layer of feigned emotion was like cellophane to her eyes. In the daylight, she became another person, painted her on with pills and makeup. In the darkness, she lay awake, always alone. Only many years after her death, when she could look back with a good distance between them, would she see those who truly cared. And in another life, through her remorseful tears, she would remember them and smile.
The phone rings in an elegant house in Hollywood Hills. The Inspector is surprised that this is the only number in her address book. He tries to hold his voice steady but his heart breaks when he hears the sobs on the other end of the line. As the Inspector puts down the receiver and closes his eyes, the man in the elegant house looks at a photograph on the mantle, a younger version of himself beaming at the devastating girl on his arm. With her bridal bouquet clutched in her slender hands and the ring around her finger catching the light, she had looked happy. Though they spoke often since their divorce, he has not seen her in months. He sinks heavily into the wingchair by the fireplace. The faint aroma of leather and furniture polish mingles with decanted brandy. He recalls the hours she had spent crying, locked in her bathroom and the childlike fear in her sad grey eyes as he had tried to soothe her.
Across town, the tall gentleman enters his apartment. Everything surrounding him looks clinical and sparse. He has paced the streets for hours. Taking off his hat and coat fear clamps his chest. On a small plain table stands a crystal samovar of melting ice, he walks over and releases the tap. Water drips into a shot of peridot liquid beneath. Without thinking he turns on the television. Her face looks out at his. Paralysed, he watches her statuesque frame walk towards him on the screen as she arrived at last years Oscars. The voice of the newsreader slowly sinking into his ears tells him what she has done. His throat is too dry to swallow, the voice blurs in his head. He reaches for the clouding glass, but the absinth does not kill the anguish. Behind his ribcage, he feels an echo of what has long since ceased to be a heartbeat. Leaving the television on and the door open, he retrieves his hat and coat from the rack and walks back out into the night.
The Inspector’s wife takes his coat as he walks to the sofa. The room smells of talcum powder and hot chocolate. Heavily he sits down and places his head in his hands. Glancing up moments later at the news report on the television, his black and white image flickers, stone-faced, outside the hotel. He had held up his hands, shielding the actress from the predators. He rubs his face with those hands as his daughter places her small fingers over his and lays her head against his chest.
The actress had spent her life fighting what she knew to be the truth with hope. She saw things before they happened, things she didn’t want to see. She drank to drown the secrets she knew.
Three months ago she had crossed paths with the tall gentleman. He had stepped out from the shadows behind the hotel she had recently taken residence in. He had removed a packet of cigarettes from his inside coat pocket and offered her one. The dim light from the street lamp on the corner had caught on the brim of his hat. He had struck a match as she bent forward to light her cigarette and cupped her hands with his. He was cold as the dead. She had looked up but in the blackness of the shadows, his eyes had seemed nothing more than dark holes. She had not even flinched.
With her last movie in the can and yet another painful divorce finalized, she had taken some time off. She could have gone to Europe, spent the summer in the Tuscan hills or throwing her money at the casinos in Monte Carlo. Instead, she had checked into the hotel, only going out to pretend to shop or to meet with some hungry producer. In the night she would call a cab, have the driver take her around the block then drop her on the corner where they met. The tall gentleman was always courteous. At first, they would just walk, but after a time she had asked him to up to her room instead. She didn’t need to ask what he was. She did nothing to encourage him or to stop him. They had become lovers. He had not meant it to happen. Feelings that had left him centuries ago had charged through his veins with a voracity he could not control. For the first time since his own death, he had feared himself.
At the city morgue, under the bright lights and the dazzling whiteness of the tiles, the coroner unzips the body bag. His assistant swallows hard enough to hear as they carefully lift the actress onto the tray. Her light blue sandals glitter under the lights. Lowering her head with such care as though she were only sleeping, the younger man cannot resist brushing her hair away from her eyes. With nervous hands they undress her, placing her clothes into bags. Finally, they close the drawer. Shut up for the night in the cold they leave her. As they walk up the corridor and away, the tall gentleman steps out unseen from behind a pillar.
At noon she had gone out. She had bought an armful of beautifully packed hats, shoes, matching bags and dresses she would never wear. As the porter had placed the parcels on the floor next to the untouched packages from yesterday, she noticed an envelope on her writing desk. Giving the porter his tip she had hurried him out. There was nothing the tall gentleman could have told her that she had not already known. She longed for him to take her, to allow the demon in him to take control. He had not. Trembling she took a silver letter opener from the second drawer down and slid it into the envelope. Before looking inside, she raised her eyes to the one photograph on the mantle, to the elegant man on her arm, perpetually smiling at her younger self. She walked over, picked up the frame and looked him in the eyes, of all the things she had screwed up in her life this man was the one she regretted. ‘It’s time’ she whispered. She set it back down. Carefully she removed the solitary sheet of paper from the envelope. It was not as she had expected. Dropping the letter she had flung herself onto her bed and sobbed until she had no breath left to cry with.
At last, with the image in her mind of his clear blue eyes and all her remaining strength, she had got up. She went to the wardrobe, flung open the doors and pulled out the pale blue evening dress she had worn at the Oscars. Throwing shoeboxes out of the closet until she came to the matching sandals, she had made up her mind. Sitting in front of her dressing table mirror she had reapplied her makeup. Eventually, blotting her lips on tissue paper, she rose and walked out of the room.
In the cab, she had found she was shivering. Having not taken her bag she hadn’t any cigarettes to calm her nerves. When she had reached his apartment she could see a light in the living room. The door had not been closed properly. Not bothering to knock she had pushed it open. The tall gentleman looked up with a start from his seat by the window. He had not been looking out, just glaring at the plain emptiness of his room. ‘Why don’t you want me?’ The truth was he did, but not in the way he was used to. When he didn’t reply she had slapped him. Then, lacking the strength she thought she had found, she just turned on her heels and left. Frozen for a second he had watched as she glanced back at him over her shoulder. Finally, he ran after her.
She wouldn’t turn around again no matter how much he begged. He had walked behind her not knowing what to say or do until they reached her hotel. Able to control himself no longer, he had fallen on his knees. She had stopped. She had watched his teeth sharpen and his eyes pale. Still, he did not get up. 'Do it!' she demanded, ‘kill me, that’s what you wanted me for.’ But his body crumpled and his eyes filled with blue. He had remained on the lobby floor like that for some time after she had gone. Only when the Police sirens wailed had he picked himself up and slipped out into the dark streets.
Upstairs she had gone straight to her bathroom cabinet. With a bottle of sleeping pills in one hand, she grabbed the half-empty bottle of vodka from the bedside table with the other. Swallowing the contents of both, she reached for the discarded letter. Lying on the couch she had lit a cigarette and stared at his simple words. ‘I love you.’ Unable to overcome his feelings for her he had spared the life he had intended to take. But she was not meant to grow old.
Around the world, stunned men, women and children watch the news.
At a morgue in downtown LA, a tall gentleman pulls open a steel cold drawer and wishes it could be him on the tray in her place. His eyes burning, he reaches out to the actress lying there. Running his fingers over her sultry lips the small hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Behind him, he feels the warmth of a hand touch his shoulder. Against the stark white of the morgue, a brighter light glows. Suddenly, cleansed with relief, he realises what she has done. And for a short time any way she is, unlike him, free.
(C) 2002 Liah S Thorley, all rights reserved