Authors: Peter Turner
FILM STARS DON’T DIE
A True Story
I didn’t know she was sick until she went to Lancaster. There had been the usual fanfare of publicity with the same slogan written on the billboards, only with the place
‘The girl who can’t say “No” says “Yes” to Illinois’; or ‘The girl who can’t say “No” says “Yes” to East
Hampton.’ This time it was Lancaster, England.
It was Tuesday the 29th of September. I’d heard she’d been in England for over three weeks but as yet she hadn’t telephoned. I was hoping that she might. She couldn’t
have forgotten the number because she’d used it so many times before. Whenever I went to Liverpool to stay with my family she’d usually phone.
‘Peter, hello,’ – her voice was unmistakable – ‘it’s Gloria.’ Then she’d add, ‘Guess where I am?’ It was always Lime Street
For me, this stay in Liverpool was special. It was the first time that I’d been asked to work at the theatre in my hometown. The play was interesting and the offer of it came at a
convenient time for my family, because my parents were preparing to set off on a trip to Australia to visit my brother, Billy. The four months they would be away coincided with the job at the
Liverpool Playhouse, so I would be living at home and looking after their house while they were gone.
My parents were then in their early seventies and had just celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They had never been out of England before and had never travelled on an aeroplane.
They’d never been anywhere before. They were overjoyed and apprehensive at the same time – feeling nervous about flying, delighted about seeing Billy and worried about leaving the house
with only me to look after it.
My mother was particularly excited; she’d been planning and dreaming about this holiday for sixteen years. There was now just over a week to go before they were due to depart. She was
getting quietly hysterical.
‘It’s got Manila on the tickets,’ she said when I walked into the kitchen.
‘Really. When did they arrive?’ I said, sitting down at the table and opening up the paper wallet stuffed with airline tickets and counterfoils.
My mother didn’t reply. She looked troubled and uncertain as she filled the kettle and took it over to the gas stove. Then she lit the grill and I knew she was about to cook me
She spends most of her time in the kitchen; it’s her domain and completely under her control. Anyone who enters is automatically given something to eat and drink – a habit left over
from the days of bringing up her nine children, my elder brothers and sisters who, like me, had long since left home.
‘Would you like bacon?’
‘No thanks, Mum. I don’t like to eat in the morning.’ She’d been asking me the same question every day for the past six weeks.
‘You could have fooled me.’ She looked at me and smiled, obviously having heard me get home after two in the morning. ‘Anyway, the morning’s nearly the afternoon. Will
you have toast?’
‘Okay. All right then, Mum. I’ll have toast.’
She came and sat down at the table and rested her head in her hands. I knew that she wanted to talk.
‘I was never told anything about spending a night in Manila,’ she frowned.
‘It’s probably just a stop-over,’ I tried to reassure her. ‘You might not leave the plane.’
‘Oh, no. We’re spending the night there. That’s what it says. The travel agents have sent me a letter.’
I looked again through the tickets and found the letter which explained that they would be spending a night and a day in Manila on the way back from Australia.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘That’s wonderful. They’ve arranged a hotel. You’ll be staying the night.’
‘I don’t think it’s wonderful.’ My mother shook her head from side to side. ‘I wish that woman in the travel agents would have let me know before now. I’ll
have to go and have a word with her about this.’
‘Do you want me to phone and find out more?’
‘Oh, no. I’ll go in and see her,’ she replied. ‘Joe and Jessie are coming down in the car. We’re all going into town shopping. I’ll go in and see her.’
She stood up from the table and started to make the toast.
It had been a very good summer, but over the last few days I felt it was coming to an end. The days were still bright but less sunny and it was beginning to get cold. The leaves were changing
colour and some had already fallen off the plane tree in the back garden which leant dangerously towards the house.
‘That tree looks as if it’s getting worse,’ I said.
‘I know that it is, I keep on telling your father,’ she said as she brought the well-done toast over to the table. ‘I just hope that nothing happens to it while we’re
away. It could fall down. Anything might happen! I don’t want to get back from Australia and find the house in ruins. It’s things like that which put me off going.’
I buttered the toast and started to eat while my mother fell back into her thoughts. She sat as before, with her head resting on the palm of her left hand.
‘Where exactly is Manila?’ she sighed after a while.
‘It’s in the Philippines,’ I answered.
‘Oh my God. What am I going to tell your father?’ she said in a sudden explosion of panic. ‘He hates anything like that.’
‘You’re getting yourself too worked up about this journey,’ I told her. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘It’s your father that I’m worried about. You know what he’s like.’
She stood up to clear the table and just then the doorbell rang.
‘It’ll be Joe. Will you open the door?’
‘All right. Mum. I’ll go.’
It wasn’t Joe. It was Jessie, his wife.
‘Hi, Pete. I didn’t expect to see you, I thought you’d still be in bed.’ She leant towards me and lowered her voice. ‘We’re taking your mother for a meal and
Joe wants to buy her a suitcase. It’s the last chance we’ll get before she goes to Australia. Why don’t you come with us?’
Although it was only an ordinary weekday morning, Jessie was dressed as if for a special occasion. I supposed the reason she had on her crimplene two-piece was to show us all just how nice it
looked, for she’d also made my mother one to take away on her trip. Not normally one who wears a lot of make-up, Jessie had MaxFactor’d her face, and was wearing her gold-plated
watch-chain around her neck.
‘You look nice,’ I said. ‘Where’s Joe?’
‘Oh, he’s in the road doing something to the car.’
I looked towards the street and could see my oldest brother, dressed in his best suit, examining the engine. As I passed Jessie to walk down the path towards Joe, she called after me.
‘There’s the phone. Shall I get it?’
‘No, it’s all right. I will,’ I said, and went back into the house.
When I returned to the kitchen Joe was sitting by the table reading the
, studying the racing form. Jessie was standing by the sink holding the wallet of
‘You’ll be staying in a luxury hotel.’
‘I wouldn’t like to stay in a hotel.’
‘You’ll be waited on hand and foot.’
‘I don’t want to be waited on hand and foot.’
‘Well, it will be lovely to have a day in Manila,’ she was trying to reason with my mother.
‘No, Jessie, it won’t,’ my mother decreed. ‘I don’t want to be spending a day walking around the Philippines. I’ll just want to get back home, especially
after saying goodbye to Billy, I might never see him again. Who was that on the phone?’ she turned to me and asked, trying to change the subject.
They all looked towards me for a reply but at first I said nothing.
‘Who was on the phone?’ my mother asked again.
‘It . . . it was a call from Lancaster,’ I replied.
‘Oh, it’s Gloria! It must be Gloria!’ Jessie sounded delighted. ‘Is she coming to stay?’
‘No, Jessie. There’s something wrong, I’ve got to go and see her right away.’
Instead of taking my mother into town, Joe and Jessie took me to Lancaster in their car.
It was a silent journey, Joe was concentrating on his driving and Jessie looked as if she was too frightened to speak because he was driving very fast; at one point I leant
over from the back seat to look at the speed clock and realized that we were travelling way over the limit. I sat quietly, admiring my brother’s motorway driving, but also anxious that the
journey wasn’t going to be a waste of his day. It had happened before that I’d been telephoned from a theatre where Gloria was appearing, asking if I could get there quickly. She
sometimes got nervous before an opening night and I would be asked to do a bit of coaxing. I wondered if this was the case now.
And I remembered the time that Gloria telephoned from New York, asking me to get to her as soon as possible.
‘I’ve had a terrible accident, Peter. I’m all alone, I can’t walk. It’s my legs.’
When I got to her two days later I could see that there was nothing wrong with her legs but her foot was swollen and looked a bit sore. The terrible accident turned out to be a splinter.
But as I looked out of the window of Joe’s car, almost hypnotized by the colours the rain was making on the surface of the road, I went over in my mind the telephone conversation that
I’d had with the person from Lancaster.
‘Gloria is ill. It really is important that you get here,’ he said.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ I’d asked.
‘I can’t say. I think you ought to come.’
‘That’s going to be difficult. I have to be back in Liverpool by six-thirty to do my own show. I’m appearing in a play here.’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘Just come to Gloria’s hotel. We’ll make sure that you get back to Liverpool in time. We’ll have a fast car waiting
to take you.’
When we arrived in Lancaster we went straight to the hotel, where I was told that Gloria had been having pains in her stomach ever since she had arrived but she dismissed them and carried on
‘She even travelled to Manchester on Friday night to see a play’, I was told. ‘Then the next day she collapsed in rehearsals and was taken to the hospital. She stayed there
until Sunday. Then she left. Against the advice of the doctor she just signed herself out and came back here.’
It was a small hotel. The lounge was in the hallway and beyond it the reception area served as a dining room. Leaving Joe and Jessie standing at the desk, I followed the proprietor up a back
stairway to Gloria’s room.
‘She’s been here like this for two days now,’ he told me as we arrived at the door to her room. ‘It’s difficult to know what to do.’
‘Gloria, it’s me,’ I called. There was no reply, so I opened the door.
I couldn’t see her, just an empty bed with an open suitcase on it. Then I heard the familiar American drawl.
‘Peter,’ she said. ‘You’re here.’
I opened the door wider, expecting to find her standing behind it, but realized she was lying in another bed that was up against the wall. I went in and shut the door behind me. The room was
small. The curtains were half closed. It was almost dark. Except for a tangle of blonde hair, I couldn’t actually see Gloria. She was completely covered by a blanket.
‘Gloria,’ I said. ‘They’ve told me that you’re sick.’
‘Oh no, Peter. It’s nothing. I fainted so they took me to the hospital. Huh,’ she murmured, ‘have you ever heard of such a thing?’
I walked towards her but she stopped me.
‘No! Don’t come close, honey. Sit on the other bed.’
I sat down next to the suitcase.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were here? Why didn’t you call me? I would have come sooner.’
‘I’ve been so busy, Peter. I’ve been working on a play.’
‘Gloria, what’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘Let me see your face.’
‘Don’t look at me,’ she said, but slowly pulled away the blanket.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was wearing old make-up and her face was thin and grey. Her hair was knotted and the brown roots showed. I had to look away.
There beside me in the suitcase were publicity photographs of her looking as one would expect; just like a glamorous Hollywood star. The photographs were from a film she’d made the
previous year in Georgia. I remembered how we spent a long time together one night in the New York apartment carefully choosing the ones that were to be printed up from the contact sheet. They were
some of the best recent photographs that she had had taken. Lying a few feet away in the other bed, Gloria was almost unrecognisable.
‘I had gas in my stomach,’ she continued. ‘The doctor gave me a shot. I can’t stand up. He’s made me sick, Peter.’
She started to cough so I went to her and held her till she stopped.
‘Don’t touch my stomach, Peter, but help me sit up. Let me have some juice.’
On the table next to the bed, amongst a collection of paper towels and vitamin pills, was a jug of grape juice. I fed her through a straw. In between sips she spoke.