Don Bentley was so engrossed in his book on journalism and that he didn’t notice the young woman looking at him. Not at first. She sat facing him on the Basingstoke semi-fast and her eyes shifted from the cover of Bentley’s book, and its title, How to be a Journalist, to Bentley and back to the cover again. After a while, looking up as the carriage rocked and swayed as it crossed the points at Clapham Junction, Bentley sensed that he had attracted someone’s attention. He looked up briefly from the book, saw the girl, and looked at the book again. Only this time he had difficulty concentrating, on a chapter extolling the virtues of learning Pitmans shorthand. Bentley looked up again and caught the young woman’s gaze. She gave Bentley a smile before turning her head to gaze out of the carriage window, at the rows of dreary red-brick houses in Battersea on the approach to Waterloo.
It was only a brief encounter, the name of a black-and-white film Bentley had seen that very week on television, but the image of the lovely girl with the beautiful smile stayed with the young messenger all day. He carried the picture of her face as he carried his briefcase on his rounds through the backstreets and alleyways leading off Fleet Street, and a portrait stayed with him as he ventured further afield, past Ludgate Circus into the City of London business district, and during one sortie late in the afternoon to the office of a glossy magazine based in London’s fashionable West End.
Bentley was not just thinking of the friendly face, but thinking of how and when he might get to see the girl again. And perhaps get to meet her.
Bentley had taken much in during that brief encounter. He thought as much on his rounds. It was as though he had taken a picture with his Brownie Box camera, only this picture was in colour not black-and-white. The girl had not uttered a word, but she oozed sophistication. She was certainly not from the council estate where Bentley had grown up, any council estate, but she made no pretence about being posh. She wasn’t “up herself” as Bentley’s Cockney school friends would say.
She spoke of the Sixties, was a tune with a magical age that the Beatles and the Stones had brought to Britain’s youth. Bentley and the other teenagers who held the rock stars and fashionistas in awe knew of no other age, but knew this one to be magical all the same. Their parents decried the Swingin’ Sixties, and so did vicars and bishops on television, and that was enough for Bentley and his Cockney mates to believe they lived in “fab” times.
That girl stayed in Bentley’s thoughts for every minute of his waking day. She wore a sleeveless frock with a pattern of tiny, brightly coloured daisies on this summer’s morning. Under the frock was a white T-shirt, a style that set the girl apart from the other young women riding the semi-fast from Basingstoke each morning. They dressed in regulation starched white blouses during the summer months, blouses covered in jumpers in blues and black when the autumn arrived and then the winter chill set in.
The girl sitting across from Bentley had a faint tan on her bare arms, and a face kissed by the sun. It glowed. Bentley could not describe it in any other way. The face was long and narrow, framed in fair hair that fell down the face on each side of a parting in the centre of the head. The hair tried to fall straight but hugged the contours of the girl’s head until it curved inward at the point of her chin.
The eyes were a sparkling blue – Bentley only had a glimpse, but he registered bright blue – and on that smile he saw a faint smudge of lipstick, a delicate shade of red, the red of the breast of the male chaffinch that Bentley had seen that very morning he had seen the girl.
Bentley just had to see that girl again. Just to look. He might not pluck up the courage to go and talk to her, or open up a conversation if she was seated again across from him on the train, but he felt compelled to seek her out, just to look, to convince himself his eyes were not paying tricks on him, beauty could be found amid the routine and the mundane and the dreary on the Basingstoke semi-fast.
Bentley was not to know it at the time, but that fleeting image of a girl in a floral frock would stay with him forever.
For a week Bentley searched the platforms at Woking at the start of his journey seeking out the girl’s face among the passengers of his usual train, the one the girl had travelled on, the 8.15am originating in Basingstoke. And he searched the train itself, walking from one end to the other, pushing past standing-room only passengers.
Each day he asked himself, why had she been looking at him? Was she just bored because she didn’t appear to have something to read herself? Bentley tried to picture her again, sitting there in the seat across from him on the Basingstoke semi-fast. He had only a series of fleeting glances to go on but Bentley had a firm image of the young woman in his mind. She had certainly made an impression on the young messenger boy with designs on being a reporter.
The girl was young, about Bentley’s age, 17 perhaps. Perhaps older. Fair hair, maybe blonde. Blue eyes, definitely blue eyes, and a warm smile.
Each morning for months Bentley looked for the young woman, peering up and down the platform at Woking while he waited for the Basingstoke semi-fast. He had assumed she had got on the train at Woking, but then thought perhaps she had joined it down the line. That possibly explained why he had never seen her before.
He reeled off the names of all the stations down the line. He had heard them a thousand times, reeled off by the station announcer. There was a rhythm to the words, like the rhythm of wheels on track, the beat, the meter of poetry. Basingstoke, Hook, Winchfield, Fleet, Farnborough, Brookwood, Woking, Waterloo.
The stations where she might have joined the train, and the towns where she might live, flashed through Bentley’s mind like the Basingstoke semi-fast picking up speed on the last leg of his journey, non-stop to London.
Bentley stuck to the same routine when he arrived at the station. He quickly scanned the platforms looking for the girl and then looked down the shiny, silver tracks, for the train; smoke above the distant treetops at first, then the first sight of the locomotive, side on at first before it swung around the bend into a straight stretch of track leading to Woking station. With each puff of steam and smoke, with each wobble and sway of the mighty locomotive as it cross the tangle of tracks at the station’s throat, Bentley felt the excitement welling deep inside him. Would this be the day he saw the girl again.
Finally, after a month or so, Bentley had his lucky day. As the train came into the station Bentley saw the girl, standing in the corridor of one of the carriages. He hurried along the platform to join her carriage, moving along the corridor to where he thought he had seen her.
Bentley squeezed past a portly woman, folding her Times to let him pass, and then he saw the young woman. He stopped for a moment, and then thought it wise to push on. Several passengers were moving thorough the corridor, hoping to find seats at the head of the train, and Bentley joined them, trying to hide the fact the girl was his target.
Bentley was now just a few feet away and as the girl pressed against the corridor window to let the passengers past she caught sight of him, and turned towards him, blocking his progress.
“Hello again,” she said. “And how’s the journalism? That’s want you want to be, right? Sorry but I couldn’t help notice, the book on how to be a journalist. That’s just fab.”
Bentley was speechless for a moment, but then found the courage to speak up. He had not been mistaken in recalling her appearance. She was indeed fair haired, straight hair parted at the middle and falling down the sides of her face, gently curving around her chin. A face encased in two crescent shaped moons. Bentley could now see she was slim and tall. She wore a white blouse with a floral pattern on its collar, and washed blue denim jeans.
He said finally: “Oh, yes, that’s what I want to be. I’m thinking about it, but I dunno, I’m a bit low on the qualifications.”
“But that’s what you want to be, right? That’s your desire in life?” she continued, as the steam train picked up pace, the pounding, puffing, pulling locomotive drumming in the background. She seemed to tie her words to the rhythm of the steam engine exhaust beat.
“Yep, I think so. Well, I know so but I gotta long way to go. Who’s going to take me on for a start?”
Bentley suddenly thought he was talking too much, revealing too much, and, anyway, would the young woman want to hear what he had to say? Perhaps she was just being polite, felt it appropriate to indicate that she remembered him. She had obviously done so, and remembered his book on journalism. Bentley noticed that the girl also had a book this time, which she had been reading as the train pulled into the station. He decided to leave it at that, and he now looked out of the window, at suburban Surrey flashing by, to give the girl a chance to get back to her reading.
“But why journalism?” the girl persisted, “And what do you do now?”
Bentley felt embarrassed about being a mere messenger boy. He thought of lying, and saying he was a commercial artist who wanted to switch professions, but she would no doubt ask him what firm, and what he drew. He decided to be honest.
“Oh, don’t laugh. I’m a messenger boy of sorts. I wanted to be an artist and I was going to learn all that stuff in a studio, instead of art school, but I’ve now had second thoughts. I dunno but this journalism has sort of gripped me, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be.”
Bentley looked at the book the girl had in her hands as he spoke. At first he thought it was a book of poems, but he then saw that it was a book of plays.
“Well, you’ve got to follow your dreams,” the girl said, lowering her head and looking at Bentley. “You know, I know it sounds strange, but we are all born to do something. It’s like what we were born to do, what we are here to do, but so few of us discover it, or know of it but never do it.”
The young woman held her book up and showed it to Bentley. It was a Harold Pinter play, The Dumb Waiter.
“You want to be a journalist, I want to be an actress. Please, don’t you laugh at me now. There’s a million young people out there, with dreams, who want to be actors, want to be on stage or in the films. I’m going to do it. I’m going to succeed because that is what I was born to do. That’s what I was put on the planet to do. I feel it in inside me.”
The girl’s enthusiasm as she spoke, her words now a rhythm of the rails, revealed that she was perhaps younger than Bentley. Her enthusiasm betrayed a shyness that suddenly emerged with a nervous giggle.
She giggled again after she told Bentley she felt she had acting inside her, and now looked down at her book. She held in low in her hands with her head bowed to read it so Bentley could not see her face. Bentley thought she might have been blushing and looked away, not wanting to embarrass her further.
An silence descended on them amid the clank and roar of the train, the pitching and rolling and passengers streaming along the corridor, forcing both Bentley and the girl to press themselves against the rail.
Bentley couldn’t resist continuing the conversation. He plucked up courage to speak again
“Know what ya saying, know it exactly. I got that same feeling. I think I was born to do this, as you say. Yeah people born to do things.”
Waterloo approached and the young woman put away her book of plays.
“Well, great talking to you,” she said as she made her way to the nearest open door.
“We’ll talk again, exchange notes. See how we are both getting on.”
As she hurried down the platform, she looked back at Bentley and paused.
“Sorry, never introduced myself. Lilly Thomas,” she shouted.
“And I’m Don …” Before Bentley could finish Lilly Thomas had vanished around the end of the platform, behind a ticket booth and onto the main concourse of the station.
Bentley was to see Lilly one more time on the Basingstoke semi-fast. He had wondered why she came to London on the days he saw her, and she offered a clue when she said she had been trying to enrol at drama school, which was proving difficult.
“ ‘Come back next year’, they keep saying but I don’t want to come back next year. I want now,” she said with a weak smile, a look of disappointment. She stayed silent between stations, Surbiton and then Wimbledon whipping past, before she looked at Bentley, a stern, intense expression replacing the smile.
“Have you ever seen a film, The Red Shoes?” she asked. Bentley hadn’t been prepared for the earnest tone. The Red Shoes? He thought for a moment, hoping that he might recall it, recall seeing it, might even have heard of it, to impress her, but he hadn’t. He thought about lying, trying to wing it, but he came clean.
“Sorry. That’s new on me?” he said.
“Well it was a long time ago, before our time I suppose. There is this scene in the film. This young girl wants to be a dancer and a dance teacher turns her down. The girl, instead of just leaving the stage, like with her head bowed, she turns and confronts the teacher. And she says, ‘I was born to do this. It is what I was put on the earth to do.”
“And how about you and getting into journalism?” Lilly Thomas asked Bentley, as if suddenly realising the conversation had been all about her. Bentley had been pleased to let it go that way.
“Oh, I’ve written to a few papers, telling them all about me. No outright rejections. Funny, but that ‘come back next year’ line also keeps coming up in my world.”
Bentley and Lilly walked to the ticket barrier and Bentley hoped that perhaps Lilly would suggest they meet again, by design and not just by accident on the Basingstoke semi-fast. Bentley was too shy to suggest it himself, leaving the ball in Lilly’s court and she did not run with it.
“Well, gotta dash. Nice to chat, hope we’ll meet again,” she said making not for the tube station, where Bentley was headed, but turning to cross the concourse in the direction of the Old Vic Theatre.
The budding theatre reviewer
Riding his cycle along the lanes of Surrey, well on the route now to becoming a journalist, Bentley had much to occupy his mind but his thoughts, at least in the first few months of his new career, never strayed too far from Lilly Thomas.
He wished now he had asked for her telephone number, just to keep in touch, but was aware that it would have sent the wrong message. The ball had been in her court and she had not responded.
At the time he was confident he would see Lilly Thomas again, somehow they were destined to meet. Doing the rounds in suburban and semi-rural Woking with no reason to venture further afield to London that now seemed improbable.
Would Lilly Thomas ever come to Woking, her lithe and beautiful body swaying as she walked the High Street? Bentley doubted it and would he have reason to catch the 8.15am semi-fast to Waterloo in the faint hope of perhaps bumping into her again? Although it had crossed his mind to do just.
Bentley had been accepted as a trainee reporter – for a sixth-month trial period – by the Woking News and Mail and if he was eventually taken on to the staff the town of Woking would be the only world he would know for the next three years.
He hoped Lilly had found her world, was at the centre of it now, and Bentley vowed over the next three years to scour the entertainment pages of the London evening newspapers for any mention of Lily Thomas in fringe theatre productions, the ones that occupy fledgling actors starting out in the theatre business.
The editor had noticed Bentley’s eagerness to be the first to read not only the London evening papers when they arrived late afternoon, but also be first to grab the more serious national newspapers each morning.
“This boy will go far,” the editor would mutter to himself, returning to his office, especially noting Bentley’s interest in The Times, Telegraph and Guardian, beyond his orders to scour them for obituary notices that might involve Woking residents, to be clipped and followed up for a local story.
For some years there was nothing, then Bentley came across the name of Lilly Thomas in a production of an obscure play written by an equally obscure London playwright.
Bentley bought himself a train ticket to London one night, and went to see the play. He was tempted to linger afterwards, to try and see Lilly and congratulate her. He stood by the stage door which led from the reception area where the box office was situated and hoped that she would come out. After 10 or so minutes an usherette asked what he was doing, and Bentley’s nerve ran out. He was waiting to see Lilley but how could he say that when Lilley was not expecting him.
“Oh, just waiting for a friend to come out of the loo,” said Bentley to the usherette. “She seems to be taking quite a time.”
As soon as the usherette had entered the stalls again, to check for stragglers among the audience, Bentley made a quick retreat through the main doors, and headed back to Waterloo.
Bentley saw Lilly again, a year later. This time at the Yvonne Arnold Theatre in Guildford. She had a minor part in a play there which, coincidentally, Bentley had been sent to the theatre to review. The review formed an assignment as part of his part-time journalism studies at Guildford Technical College. Bentley had given Lilly a glowing review. He was marked down, however, by his lecturer in journalism for concentrating on a minor part and not directing the thrust of the review to the main characters and the actors playing them, and the direction of the play overall.
Bentley had hoped that Lilly might recognise him in the audience, might come running into the theatre foyer directly after the curtain fell to seek him out, but it was not to be.
The play had run for a couple of weeks at the theatre, a fill-in between major productions and Bentley thought about sending the review he had written to the theatre, marked for Lilly’s attention. This would be silly, he decided. It had not appeared in a real publication, just as an assignment for journalism studies and what would it prove?
Bentley’s professional reviewing, and the chance to perhaps advance Lilly’s career with his work, would have to wait.
Wheels of fate
After four years on the Woking News and Mail Bentley stepped several rungs up the career ladder when he landed a position as a holiday relief sub-editor on a national newspaper, the Sun.
Within a week Bentley had doubled his salary, to a princely $30 a week, with a promise of a full-time job if he made the grade during his four-month contract that covered the period when most staff journalists took leave during the months from June to September.
On the Basingstoke semi-fast back to Woking wanted to announce his arrival in the Street of Adventure, Fleet Street, not first to the parents eagerly waiting to hear how the interview had gone but to tell the girl he had met on the train four years in the past. Lily Thomas would be impressed, he told himself as the train sped towards Woking. He looked about him, at the scattering of other passengers in the carriage, searching for the face of Lilly Thomas. Bentley had a romantic notion that she might be riding the train that day, romantic in the literacy sense of two people with a passion for life coming together, meeting by chance, the wheels of fate and fortune carrying them on the next stage of their journey. A young man finding his feet in Fleet Street, the street of adventure, a budding journalist looking to a world written in headlines and bylines and datelines was entitled to think that way, however clichéd these thoughts might be.
Bentley so desperately wanted to meet Lilly Thomas that day, by chance, and share his news and hear of hers.
Bentley continued to scour the Stage theatre newspaper, and study the entertainment pages of the London Evening Standard and London Evening News for references to Lilly Thomas, and one day found a brief item which mentioned her name.
What was described as an experimental play, a “kitchen sink” drama about the impact of lost jobs in the London docklands on families of dockers, had opened at a theatre club in North London and an actress named Lilly Thomas was among the cast.
Bentley’s job on the Sun required him to work nights and he pencilled in his first available day off later in the week to travel on the Northern tube line to see a performance.
Bentley had intended to book in advance but was told that this would not be necessary because there were plenty of seats available for each performance of the play’s four-week run.
Bentley felt a growing sense of excitement as the days passed before the performance, even though a brief review in the Evening News described it as “kitchen sink filled with dish water”.
The reviewer spoke of a confused plot, murky plot that drifted from the lives of dockers to those of playwrights trying to prove their working class credentials. The message of the review was lost on Bentley, but a reference to Lilly Thomas was not.
“A docker’s wife who is a delicate yacht when the script demands a tug,” said the review.
Bentley never got to see the play for himself. The Evening Standard reported on the night Bentley was about to travel to see it that it had closed.
The review appeared not to harm Lilly or the playwright, Adam Wright’s careers. The London newspapers reported over the next year that he had written two new plays, each with starring roles for a young, up-and-coming actress, Lilly Thomas. The Stage also reported that Lilly and Wright had become “an item”.
Lilly Thomas appeared more frequently now. Beyond her new partner’s productions there were small parts here and there, once a part in a Harold Pinter play at the Hampstead Theatre Club. Generally, though, the plays were by obscure playwrights, most in the provinces.
But one day, walking down Drury Lane on his way to the Sun, Bentley was halted in his tracks by the sight of the name, Lilly Thomas, on a billboard. She had a small part in a musical about miners, Close the Coalhouse Door, playing at the Fortune Theatre. Bentley went alone one night. Lilley had a singing part and Bentley thought she was impressive. He did not linger afterwards, however. Lilly was an emerging star now, with a West End part, and what would she want of him? Bentley may have been a journalist, in Fleet Street, but could be describe himself as a writer. The job of sub-editor would certainly not fit Lilly’s job description of what a journalist should be. When he had chatted to her on the train a few years previously writing had been central to the dream. How could he explain he was now merely a sub- editor, it would take too much explaining that editing was merely a means to an end.
Bentley looked out over the railyards from his desk in the sports department of The Star, Johannesburg. The puffing and chugging of steam locomotives provided a backbeat to the rhythm of a newspaper office, the clatter of telex machines and the chatter of typewriters, the squeak of the tea trolley wheels echoing down the passageways and corridors.
The beat of the steam locomotives, wheels spinning when they took hold of a full loads of trucks, reverberated against the windows of the sports department situated in an office at right angles to the main newsroom. It overlooked the city abattoir and meat and vegetable market, and the railway lines serving them, and Bentley was constantly drawn to the window to watch the locomotives at work.
It was not only the rugged but magical beauty of the shining black locomotives, harnessing steam and fire for power, that fascinated Bentley. The locomotives carried memories of his start in journalism, dreams forged behind the power of steam as the young messenger travelled to London each day with his book, How to be a Journalist. It was a dream she shared with Lilly Thomas and each reverberating beat of steam exhaust brought memories of Lilly with it.
Bentley worried at times about what appeared to be an obsession about a girl he had hardly met, hardly knew; someone he had merely had a brief conversation with on a train all those years ago.
It was not about sex, as obsession and infatuation so often were, but these stirrings also played a part. Bentley would be foolish not to admit it. Along with Lilly’s face and personality, Bentley remembered her form. He glimpsed the shape of her pert breasts just once, moulded in a green woollen jumper under an unbuttoned coast and they caused a sensation deep within him that he had never felt before. Like the memory Lilly Thomas stirred often in his mind, something stirred in his body that he had no words to describe.
A tingling, a trembling, a floating? The thought of Lilly Thomas left Bentley speechless, and he would merely sit in silence, trying to find words for a sensation that washed through his body.
Steam trains were not the only throwback to the past. Bentley’s interest in film and theatre brought with it a connection, a link, with an actress whose image straddled the present and past. Because there was no television in South Africa in the early 1970s, the movie theatres were a vital part of South African lives, at least for the white population. They were a vital part of Don Bentley’s life, too. The movie house was at the heart of both suburban and rural communities, much like the dream palaces had been in American villages and cities in the 1930s and 1940s, before the arrival of the television set to people’s sitting rooms.
A visit to the cinema was not just an occasional night out, it formed a routine as regular as two or three times a week. Cinemas dotted both the Johannesburg city centre and the suburbs and because of the demand for films they could cater for different audiences. Bentley generally eschewed the cinemas and drive-ins showing the latest mass-appeal releases and went to a movie house in one of the older suburbs that showed art-house films, mainly those produced in Britain.
Living in Africa as part of his first overseas adventure after leaving Britain, Bentley enjoyed films that took him out of the continent, and back to his homeland. Bentley always lived in hope he would see Lilly on the screen in one of these generally low-budget movies, because he had long given up looking for Lilly’s name among the cast of a film on general release.
Lilly’s name might not have featured in the world of popular entertainment, but it suddenly emerged in a news story that came across Bentley’s desk, now that he had moved from the sports department and was general news reporter.
The South African Government was financing a television series, Nguni, and this had become big news in Britain. British actors signing up for parts in the series were accused of sanctions busting, of supporting the apartheid regime and were being urged to reconsider.
There were several big-name theatre and movie starts reported to be travelling to South Africa. Among the names listed in the newspapers were some minor actors, among them Lilly Thomas.
Over the weeks the controversy swirled. South Africans were all for it, of course, along with segments of the British population who believed cultural ties with South Africa should be maintained. The actors heading to South Africa also argued for cultural ties and pointed out film and theatre was above politics. Black and white actors working alongside each other would do more for integration than any ban.
Bentley made moves to be assigned the story, to fly to Cape Town where the film was being filmed to interview Lilly Thomas himself, to show her that he had made it as a reporter pursuing his dream.
And he already had an explanation for his decision to work in South Africa. It was merely a stepping stone, he was certainly not a supporter of apartheid; he worked for an anti-government newspaper. It was an adventure, as no doubt Lilly Thomas would describe her own odyssey.
Bentley lobbied hard for the assignment in Cape Town. His reporting beat was now the black African countries to the north, exploiting his British passport which allowed him to get to country’s his South African colleagues could not travel to, but his pleas to be sent to Cape Town were rejected. It was a story for both the entertainment writers on a sister newspaper in Cape Town, and the national political staff based in the city because it had a political dimension.
Bentley’s friend Peter Simpson had more luck with the assignment. Simpson worked for a British television news channel and his head office in London determined the film story was firmly on his diary of events to be covered in the coming weeks.
Bentley even thought about asking Simpson to sign him up as his sound man for the assignment. He then reasoned this would be silly, if he actually got to meet Lilly Thomas and Lilly Thomas recognised him. How would be explain that away, him standing there with microphone covered in fluffy jacket to cushion the wind. It would be a ridiculous, surreal moment, worthy of some of the avant guard films be had been watching at the Park Town Cinema in Johannesburg.
No, the Lilly Thomas encounter would have to wait until another time, and Bentley would have to content himself with viewing the latest instalment of Lilly Thomas’ struggling acting life from a thousand miles away in Johannesburg.
It was clear Peter Simpson planned a hard-hitting, confrontational approach to his story, The notion of sanctions busting would be prominent in his questioning, not one of harmony and advancing the black cause through art, in this case film.
“They’re taking the South African Government’s money, it’s as simple as that,” he would say when Bentley tried to argue the actors’ part.
“Don’t be fooled Bentley. This is about money and furthering their own careers in a big production which will get an airing in America and Britain, just as all the anti-apartheid campaigners say.”
Simpson pointed out that there were only one or two recognised, big-time actors and the rest were acting journeymen and women, “hacks,” trying to keep their careers afloat, to stay in the public eye. The publicity over the film might even be doing them some good.
Bentley mentioned a young actress in the film, someone who had great dreams of making stardom who had not seemed to have made it until now.
“There are people who just need a leg up, to steal their chance,” he told Simpson. “They may not support apartheid, they might really believe in multi-racialism and this is the way. And at the same time advance their careers.”
“We’ll if they’re so great why haven’t they made it before now. Why come down here and take the South African’s Government’s money?”
Bentley decided not to pursue the matter any further. Simpson had a story in mind, exposing what he called hypocrisy and that was the news line he would pursue.
“Look here Bentley, the story is about actors breaking sanctions. There’s sanctions in place, South Africa is a pariah. People avoid coming here. And these people are taking the money. That’s all there is to it. And I will ask them why. They can defend themselves, say it’s not about apartheid or whatever. Don’t worry, Bentley, I’ll give them their say.”
Bentley remained silent about knowing, or at least being an acquaintance of a little known actress called, Lilly Thomas.
Bentley had already made up his own mind about Lilly’s motives for coming to South Africa. It was not just about money, getting her name in credits but also about principle, looking at the bigger picture, proving that blacks and whites could work together, could break down the rigid rules of apartheid that divided races.
Yes, that’s Lilly’s motive, Bentley decided.
A few years previously he had interviewed Arthur Ashe, the black American tennis star who had defied the sporting ban on South Africa by playing in the South African Open. Ashe had told Bentley he could achieve more by coming to South Africa, by showing black people that a black man would rise to be a star, than by staying away.
Bentley watched television over the coming days, South African Government television, which gave a favourable treatment to the stars arriving in the country. How they were just pleased to be part of a great production, which was about art and not politics
The newspapers followed the same line. It appeared the actors had been schooled to say certain things, to avoid politics and just to speak of contact and dialogue, and art.
Peter Simpson’s news report told a different story. He had nailed the lead actor with the questions, “How do you feel about breaking sanctions and appearing on apartheid’s stage?” The lead actor handled himself superbly, was as quick on his feet as he would be if he had forgotten his lines in a West End play momentarily and had to ad-lib.
A young actress interviewed was not so sure-footed. She jerked back her head in surprise to be asked such a leading question, when she thought it would just be about her part.
“Well that’s an unfair question,” she said immediately. “How dare you bring politics to art.”
Peter Simpson rolled back in his chair, looking at Bentley smugly, when he showed Bentley the tape.
“Got that actress,” she said. “Unfair question indeed.”
Bentley studied Lilly closely in the interview. She was indeed beautiful. The hair that had fallen around her face in two inverted crescent moon shapes was straight now. It was still parted down the centre of her head, but it was longer and fell in yellow cascades on to her shoulders. Before the direct, penetrating questions about apartheid, she had engaged in banter with Simpson. She giggled at one point, and as she did so the laughter sent ripples through her hair.
Don Bentley sat in a darkened theatre off-Broadway in New York waiting for the curtain to rise.
The term “waiting for the curtain to rise” was not entirely correct in the context of Bentley’s meticulous attention to detail, and accuracy, when performing his profession of reporter.
There was in fact no curtain in the small, cramped theatre that in a previous life had been a clothing factory south of Houston Street, in SoHo.
Bentley was not paying too much attention to detail, however. He was not working, did not have his mind firmly focused on the play to come as a theatre reviewer would do. They might say a journalist’s mind never sleeps, but Bentley’s was sleep mode. He did not have to put a journalistic cliché to what he faced in the theatre as the non-existent curtain was to rise – and that was a dilemma.
Bentley was in the theatre not so much to see a performance but to see a specific actress performing, and then possibly to go for drinks with her afterwards.
Bentley’s dilemma stemmed from the fact that he could not remember what the actress looked like.
He had met her at a party, had subsequently spoken to her on the telephone but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what she looked like.
He arrived at the theatre, after racking his brains for a picture of her all the way downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway line, confident that the programme for the play would contain a picture of her to prompt his memory. Unlike his usual stamping ground of Broadway this theatre did not issue a glossy programme with pictures, any programme, and Bentley was no nearer registering the image that had made such an impression on him at the party.
Perhaps the set would hold a clue, because the actress as far as Bentley could recall had gone into great deal of detail about the play, and her role within it. Although none of this, like her face, could be retrieved from recent memory.
Bentley scanned the stage, merely a raised platform a few feet in front of the first row of seats, trying to make out features of the set. This remained as big a mystery as the circumstances of Bentley’s being in the theatre far to the south of the neon lights of Broadway, Bentley’s usual environment in the world of theatre.
The set appeared to be a jumble of wooden packing cases and cardboard boxes and Bentley could just make out the shape of what looked like a sofa draped in blankets at one end of the stage.
The jumbled, chaotic state of the stage could have been a metaphor for the state of Bentley’s mind at that moment. His predicament was put down to too much drink on the evening of the party – the source of most of Bentley’s predicaments – and this predicament was compounded by the dilemma that Bentley was now mulling over in the near-darkness of the off-Broadway theatre which went by the name of the “Sweat Shop”.
Bentley had vague memories of the evening in question. He had met the actress and in order to impress her had gone on at some length about theatre and plays, and how he loved them. The frequency of his visits to the theatre was somewhat exaggerated as was his stated preference for experimental plays, something he detected might be in the oeuvre of the actress he had spent so much time talking to.
“Off-Broadway, that’s where it’s happening. Forget the musicals in Times Square, all that glitz and sing-along tunes,” he said joyously after yet another glass of red wine during the party.
Whose party it was, and for what, was also something of a mystery as Bentley thought back to the evening. He was trying now to picture the actress. He had a vague idea of what she looked like; small and petit, blonde with grey-blue eyes, bubbly, enthusiastic. She spoke with a trace of a southern accent, which Bentley put somewhere between Virginia and Georgia. Her outgoing personality, in fact, had distinguished her from her sister, an identical twin, who seemed to Bentley to be more reserved.
Perhaps it was the sister’s party. She was a journalist after all and perhaps they had mutual friends, that’s how Bentley got to be there.
The evening was still a blur when unexpectedly Bentley received a phone call from the actress twin. She was confirming that he still wanted to see a play she had opened in, at a little theatre on the fringe of Greenwich Village.
“Seeing and all how you said you just loved experimental theatre I thought this might be just up your street,” she said to Bentley on the phone, adding, “That’s what you say in England, isn’t it? Just up your street.”
Bentley said indeed it was.
After putting down the phone Bentley racked his brains to picture the caller and to determine why she said he was so interested in experimental theatre. As it happened Bentley quiet enjoyed the musicals playing just over the road from his office in Times Square. Bentley also loved the buzz of Times Square, and the exposure it gave him to the world the theatre. It was a world that had opened to him the morning he met Lilly Thomas on the semi-fast from Basingstoke all those years ago and without that meeting he wondered if he would have paid actors and acting, and plays and the theatre, and film, so much attention.
Plays in village halls in Surrey, in provincial theatres in Britain and Africa, small cinemas screening “art house” films in the sultry heat of Johannesburg on summer nights, slow fans swirling steam and cigarette smoke… Bentley had a wonderful string of memories and experience and it was all down to a chance encounter with an aspiring actress named Lilly Thomas. And now New York. This was the beating heart of theatre, as he knew Fleet Street in London to be the beating heart of journalism.
At lunch times Bentley wandered from his newspaper’s bureau on Times Square to mix with the people of the theatre in bars and delis. He stepped aside to let hurrying gypsies pass, dancers rushing to rehearsal, or audition, in summer wearing floppy T-shirts and shorts, in winter denim jackets with fur collars, and track pants. It was not just slim athletic bodies that identified the gypsies rushing along side-streets and alleyways, before vanishing into stage doors; the young women carried giant canvas bags slung low over the shoulders, bags that always appeared too heavy for them, bags that dragged them down.
Stage hands, producers, directors, front of house staff, actors the public could recognise, and many they couldn’t; they strutted the stage what was Times Square and its environs.
All the while the stately headquarters of the New York Times towered over the comings and goings, and bore witness to hopes dashed and dreams realised. There was a tradition that actors and directions gathered in Sadi’s over the road from the Times to read the first reviews of a new production after the lights had dimmed, and the newspaper’s first edition hit the streets just after mid-night. When Bentley could afford it, when his pay cheque had been cleared by the bank once a month, Bentley would visit Sadi’s himself, eschewing his usual “shrimp with mayo to go’’ sandwich for a lunch of fillet of beef, washed down with a good Californian red.
Gazing down at him from the surrounding walls would be the cartoon depictions of famous actors Bentley had seen so many times in films and television – actors gathered in Sadi’s, plotting and discussing and urging, had become as strong a cliché for the acting professions as a journalist agonising over a story in a smoky bar was for journalism.
What Bentley loved about Times Squares was that the worlds of journalism and acting collided. It was almost a metaphor for the lives of Bentley and the budding actress he had met on the Basingstoke semi-fast all those years ago. The thought brought a smile to Bentley’s face.
This collision of two seemingly romantic careers had never occurred in Fleet Street. The area of newspapers offices just a little too far – a hard walk – for there to be an intermingling between the two in pubs, bars and cafes. Like journalists, actors would not endure a walk beyond the nearest pub for a drink, time was too precious.
Bentley, however, had been lucky that his first Fleet Street newspaper, the Sun, gave him exposure to actors and the acting profession. He didn’t know it at the time when he wrote for a job but the Sun was not based in Fleet Street at all, but the theatre district of Drury Lane and Covent Garden and the journalists’ haunts – the appropriately named Sun pub and the Cross Keys a little towards another theatre district, Shaftesbury Avenue – had a sprinkle of theatre people on any given night, both before curtain up and after curtain down.
Bentley rode the Lexington Avenue Line, express to Grand Central, where for once he would not change for the connection to Times Square. He was headed downtown to 4th Street and a theatre called the Sweat Shop. The name of the actress he was supposed to see just would not come, though, even when he collected the tickets at the box office, which were contained in an envelope with his name neatly written on it.
No clues in any program, no pictures on the wall of the current cast, but as the lights slowly began to illuminate the stage, Bentley felt more confident now that he would recognise the actress immediately. He couldn’t have been that drunk otherwise she would not have contacted him and invited him to the performance.
As the lights came up, and members of the cast drifted onto the stage, dilemma turned to predicament for Bentley. The play was clearly about street people, hobos on the Bowery, and all the cast were dressed as such, most in caps or floppy hats, with their faces blackened to resemble dirt and soot. There was no hope for Bentley that he would recognise a face among them.
As the actors made their entrance Bentley studied each face to see if one stirred recognition. It was not to be for the entire performance. What was more, Bentley could not understand what the play was supposed to be about, there was no clue to plot in the rambling speech of the actors. This presented another problem, one looming for Bentley with every word as the play progressed. If he did finally identify the actress, and went for a drink with her afterwards, what would they possibly talk about. The point of the play was entirely lost on him.
After what seemed Bentley’s own lifetime on the mean streets of New York the play drew to a climax, ending in some sort of fight between two of the protagonists.
Bentley could only sense that it had actually ended because the handful of people in the audience leap to their feet and applauded rapturously. The actors line up across the stage to make numerous bows and Bentley hoped that one would look in his direction and wave or smile or do something. It was not to be.
Bentley pondered his next move. Was the invite designed just to let him see the play and there would be no meeting afterwards? He decided to linger in the foyer anyway, near the box office just in case a drinks were intended, and after a whole a petit woman emerged with a heavy shoulder bag, a gypsy dancer bag, and gave Bentley a greeting. Now Bentley recognised her at last.
“Well…” she said, with what appeared to be a deliberate pause. She was starting conversation with an expansive gesture of the arms, making an entrance as she would start her lines when she took the stage.
“Well… what you think?”
“Well… I thought it was good, thought-provoking. Brave, yes brave.”
Bentley struggled with words to describe the play, words the actress would want to hear. He only hoped he would not have to explain what it was about.
“Brave, yes brave. Don, that’s a wonderful way to put it. Summed up in a nutshell.”
The actress said the rest of the cast, along with the playwright, were going for drinks in a Greenwich Village bar and she wanted Bentley to join them.
It was a difficult evening for Bentley and he avoided having too much to drink. He had to be in commanded of his senses; be quick on his feet mentally in case someone should ask him to discuss the play in depth, and explain its meaning.
He could see now that he was not so much attracted to the actress but her sister, the journalist. He had found it difficult to connect with the sister, however, and so turned his attention to the actress instead.
It was going to be a long evening but there was a sub-plot that would give Bentley an early exit. Although it wasn’t said, Bentley soon gathered that he had been invited not because the actress was attracted to him in anyway, but to make up numbers, and to provide at least one male in the audience.
The playwright was male and had been concerned the play – whatever it was about – would only appeal to women because of its female cast, although he indicated that its “message” applied equally to men. As the playwright expanded on his message, Bentley merely nodded his head in agreement.
It also turned out the actress had designs on the playwright and Bentley was only too happy to praise the writer and give him a boost in the eyes of the assembled cast.
“Brave, that’s how I’d describe this play. Brave when uptown they play safe, they’re cowards in the face of pandering to public demand,” he said.
Bentley received a round of applause for his “brave” pronouncement, repeated just one more time before he made a dash for the Lexington Avenue Line train heading uptown.
The art of obsession
Bentley had returned to London from his travels and found it easy to keep tabs on the career of Lilly Thomas. Parts in British-made films here and there, parts in West End plays; never main roles but consistent, regular ones, work all the same. Lilly might not be a star but she was working and for that she must be grateful. It was now 30 years since the time they had met on the Basingstoke semi-fast and Bentley scratched around for details of her family life: had she ever married and had children? What did her husband do?
One day, reading an edition of the Woking News and Mail someone who lived in the town had brought into the BBC World Service newsroom, Bentley was delighted to find an interview with her. After all those years Bentley discovered that Lilly Thomas lived in the Woking area after all and was not from somewhere along the line towards Basingtoke, Farnborough, Fleet or Hook.
Bentley now felt he should have looked harder for her. Made inquires about her after he joined the News and Mail. He might have discovered she lived locally and perhaps got to meet her again. He could have interviewed her about her budding career. There was regret, of opportunities lost. He had yearned for all those years to be part of her life, in any way, and had missed the opportunity for that to happen.
The News and Mail story was on the lines of local girl makes good although by now Lilly was a woman in her late forties. The actress had been starring in an English television soap for the summer, in a character part as a cockney barmaid, and this had given her some exposure in the British popular press. She was a star, of sorts, at last and had perfected a cockney accent. Bentley remembered the newspaper review of years past when, trying to play a working-class docker’s wife, Lilly Thomas was described as a delicate yacht when she should have been a tug.
There was no hint of marriage in the article. The interviewer noted that she had been linked with various actors and directors over the years, but Lilly would not give much away about her private life. She remained single, however, laughing off one description of her as a spinster. And she lived in Brookwood, one station down the line, in the house where she had grown up. Her parents were long dead and, according to the article, she shared the house with two cats.
“Yes, travelled, lived in many places for short times, but always came back to Brookwood,” she said in the interview.
Bentley tried to determine if she was just saying that for the local press. Bentley had spent his whole life trying to escape the town but perhaps for someone in the theatre it was different. They wanted a quieter life, one where news didn’t happen.
Many film and theatre people, and music stars, had chosen to live in Woking and its environs, including writers of old who included George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, the latter setting his War of the Worlds on Horsell Common at Woking’s fringe. The newspaper took great delight in naming the famous people who had come to live in Woking and its more leafy outer areas dubbed the stock-broker belt, in more modern times the biggest names in pop music taking up residence in Victorian mansions.
Woking and its drab suburbia had held no such attraction for Bentley when he had returned to Britain from his adventures overseas. The leafy reaches of Woking’s rural, western side might be a sanctuary and refuge of sorts for stars of music, stage and screen but for Bentley and his journalist’s salary it could only offer a slice of drab, garden-fence suburbia.
Bentley chose a small apartment in north London from which to build a career with a British news organisation. Bentley had arrived back in Britain at a time when jobs were hard to find in newspapers because of an industry restructure and decided instead to accept a position as a news script-writer with the BBC World Service. Bentley preferred newspaper journalism but the BBC all the same offered an adventure of its own, a chance to work in broadcasting.
What’s more the daily newspapers were moving from their traditional home based on Fleet Street, to offices and printing plants away from the city. Fleet Street as an entity of print and ink, and craic in smoky, noisy bars was no more and much of the romance attached to it had died. A romance of a different kind lingered in the cramped, wood-panelled corridors of the grandiose BBC building on the Strand, a building with echoes of broadcasting’s past.
The BBC World Service headquarters was also at the heart of the theatre district, with two major theatres literally a stone’s throw from its front door.
Walking to work one afternoon, Bentley noticed Lilly Thomas’ name had appeared on the billboard of one of these theatres in the Strand. She had a small part in a Anton Chekov play and Bentley bought tickets that very afternoon to see her on his night off. He had looked forward to the evening for days, a feeling of excitement and anticipation building from deep in his stomach. Would she look the same? Would he recognise her immediately she came on stage? Would she have the same warm, shy smile?
When Bentley got to the theatre there was disappointment. A note pinned in the program announced Lilly Thomas was unwell, and an understudy would take her place.
For thirty years not a week had gone buy in which Bentley did not think of Lilly Thomas. Now he worked in theatreland, she entered his thoughts daily. Sometimes it was just an impression of her, sitting in the train, the smoke and steam drifting by the carriage window. The backbeat of the chugging steam locomotive, the rhythm of steel wheel on rails. Sometimes it felt to Bentley like a heart beat, his heart pulsating in his chest when he thought of Lilly.
He confessed to a girlfriend once about this girl he had met long ago, who had never left his memory.
“How silly is that,” he would say. “We never went out, we never had sex …. Just this lovely girl I met once, on a train, and she is still with me, like on my own journey through life. Does that sound strange? Am I talking clichés and nonsense? We’re still riding the train of hope and dreams, rolling and swaying through life. Signals stopping us here and there, straight stretches, uphill climbs, tunnels of turmoil…..”
Bentley tailed off. He worried at times about what appeared to be an obsession about a girl he had hardly met, hardly knew; someone he had had a brief conversation with on a train all those years ago.
Not that Bentley actually used the term “obsession”. It was more profound than that. Lilly Thomas had entered Bentley’s life at an impressionable stage, when he was moving from being a boy into manhood. Infatuation might be more precise. Even that did not tell the tale. Bentley – with all his writing skills – could not put a word to it, it was an emotion beyond etymology, syntax and grammar. It was part of growing up, the moulding of his personally, his aspirations. His place in the world, and the place of other people in it.
Bentley had never mentioned Lilly Thomas to anybody, not even his friend Peter Simpson when Simpson went to interview her in Cape Town. That was until he met Charlene Peters, a colleague on the Star in Johannesburg who shared his interest in films and introduced him to the Park Avenue Cinema that showed art house movies.
It was Peters who persuaded Bentley to see what she described as the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane. They had gone not to a cinema but the United States consulate in Johannesburg which had arranged a special screening for South Africans are part of its cultural program.
All Bentley knew was the film was about newspapers, or the life and death of an ambitious man who owned newspapers, and he didn’t think beyond that story line until near the very end.
Bentley had followed the progress of the narrator of the story, a young reporter trying to determine what “Rosebud” , the dying words of the central character, meant. The reporter was interviewing a friend of “Citizen Kane” and in the process expressing doubt on one theory that Rosebud could be the pet name of a lover, that someone from the past could have such a hold on the present. The old man had a story of his own.
“When I was young I got the ferry once from New Jersey and there was this young girl in a white dress, carrying a parasol. Over all the years that girl has never left my memory. Not a week goes by without me thinking of her,” he said.
Moving on from the BBC World Service Bentley had worked exclusively on the foreign pages of the Independent but with the move to Canary Wharf, and cut-backs, editors on the foreign pages were also required to edit domestic copy. Bentley dreaded the late evening when, the foreign pages out of the way, he would be assigned domestic stories on crime, punishment and politics. Having spent a third of his working life overseas, domestic Britain did not hold much interest for him.
One night he dipped into the sub-editors’ basket on his computer screen and there was the name of Lilly Thomas. He clicked on the story and it burst onto his computer screen.
The actress was accused of assaulting businessman and the news agency wire story merely carried a brief mention of the charge, and the date that Lilly Thomas was to appear in court.
Next day the popular press, the tabloid “red tops”, had a more lurid account, fanned by Lilly’s past fame as a star of a soap.
The victim of the alleged assault, the successful businessman, had been her lover and the incident had occurred after he had told Lilly Thomas that the affair was over. According to the red-tops, the businessman’s wife had learned of the affair and she, backed by her grown-up children, had given her husband an ultimatum – he had to choose between Lilly Thomas and his family.
Later when she appeared in court Lilly Thomas had told the magistrate she was suffering from depression. The magistrate bound her over to keep the peace.
The story of the court case had carried a picture of Lilly Thomas arriving at court. Bentley was surprised how she had aged, basing this assessment on billboard pictures he had seen of her in recent years in which she has still appeared to retain her looks. He could still see a trace, though, of the smile that he remembered from all those years ago. The court case, and picture, would be the last mention of Lilly Thomas’ name Bentley would see for 10 years or more.
A fading memory
Bentley now thought of Lilly Thomas less and less – certainly not daily. He was married himself now, to an Australian, and they had started a new life together in Australia, with their son. Perhaps distance played its part in the dimming of her memory but one day while booking seats for a play at the Theatre Royal in Hobart a metaphor of fading ink on newsprint occurred to Bentley when Lilly fleetingly crossed his mind, and it troubled him. It was as though Lilly and her memory were slowly dying in Bentley, like fading ink on newsprint, ink that had once been sharp and clear and now resembled a blur. Words and images were lost to a faint impression within the loose, tatty structure of the newspaper itself, yellow and parched and creased with age. Bentley wanted his first memory of meeting Lilly Thomas to endure, it was a part of him as much as all the experience acquired and accumulated through a lifetime, of discovering senses and emotions and the power to articulate and express them.
That tingle, that trembling, that thing that welled in the pit of his stomach and coursed through his body. It flowed to his extremities so his fingers twitched as though pricked by a blunt needle. Bentley had felt this sensation for forty-odd years and now it was dying. Not only his memory dying, but his whole ability to feel? He had entered his sixties and other sensations, and memories, seemed blunted like the needle that once pricked his finger tips, when the smiling face of Lilly Thomas entered his thoughts.
Bentley had taken a holiday to Sydney with his family. As part of the tourist routine a trip on a Sydney ferry had been booked and Bentley and his family had chosen the longest one, to Manly where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sydney bay. And there sitting on a seat, alone and with a book, was a young woman of 18 or so, in a sleeveless, flowered frock. Bentley tried not to look, to stare but his eyes were drawn to her innocent beauty, her wind-kissed skin and sun-bleached fair hair falling down both sides of her face. And Bentley thought of the old man in Citizen Kane recalling the beautiful girl on the New Jersey ferry whom he would never forget, and Bentley thought of the young, aspiring journalist sitting on the Basingstoke semi-fast, and he thought of that first day he saw Lilly Thomas.
When he got home to Hobart after his holiday Bentley started to search again for all references to Lilly Thomas. Bentley had now embraced the age of the internet, of Google, and Bentley did not have to visit the Hobart State Library to read the British newspapers on file there, to glean information about the theatre and film world in Britain, always in the faint hope that there might be a mention of Lilly Thomas reviving her career.
Bentley searched the internet, but in vain, apart from previous references to the actress, which were scant and few and far between.
At the Chronicle in Hobart one of Bentley’s duties in the twilight of his career was concerned with compiling and editing the foreign pages, a task that gave him a bigger perspective than that offered by the close, tight world of Hobart and Tasmania.
It was obvious when Bentley was editing the foreign pages, and his colleagues often commented on it. Instead of the tittle-tattle, the showbiz gossip of the red tops, Bentley chose stories about the more serious actors of the British and American stage, or films.
Some of these actors might not be known to the people of Hobart, but Bentley was always careful to attribute his stories to a source, like The Times, to reassure the readers that these were important people they should know of.
Bentley secretly looked for the name of Lilly Thomas and lived in hope that he would one day find it among the thousands of words coming over the wires, and hoped there would be good news about a major part reviving her career.
Bentley knew that if he found such an item, it would be given more than its news worth on the foreign pages of the Chronicle, and all the staff, and readers, would know that Bentley was editing the foreign pages that night.
The name of Lilly Thomas did one night appear amid the flotsam and jetsam of foreign news, washed up on a tide of a bigger event, a tsunami of news about the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York City.
The Chronicle needed some other news to go with its blanket coverage of the New York disaster, what were termed fillers to spread the news coverage from what was shaping up as a one-story edition of the newspaper.
The night editor had been trawling the wires for some light, possibly showbiz coverage and found a brief reference to a former British film and stage star, an item missed by Bentley who was scanning the hundreds of thousands of words on the Twin Towers being transmitted from the United States.
“Seen that story on the British actress?” the night editor shouted to Bentley.
Bentley shook his head.
“Yeah, Lilly Thomas. Remember her? In some film in the ’70s. Give us two pars, quick as you like.”
Bentley hurriedly keyed in the letters L-I-L-L-Y T-H-O-M-A-S and the story flashed on his screen, her name in bold where the search engine had picked it out.
Bentley scrolled down and began to read. He turned away after reading the first few lines, and then went back to the pulsating electronic waves on his screen.
“Tragic actress dies” said the headline, and then “Former film star Lilly Thomas found dead at her home”.
Bentley read on. Lilly Thomas had been found dead in bed, with an empty bottle of sleeping pills and a bottle of bourbon on her bedside table. An inquest would be held but the report said the police were not treating the death as suspicious, police speak for a suicide in such circumstances.
The report was brief. Just the plain details of the death and a list of films and plays that Lilly Thomas had appeared in. The list was a short one.
Bentley then added a line himself to the story he was compiling: her fans were in mourning.
The popular, red tops in Britain made much more of the story than the brief report carried by the news wires. This was the tortured tale of a once beautiful actress always on the fringe of fame, but somehow never making it.
Bentley thought of Woking now and how a young reporter on the Woking News and Mail might write the obituary. Things had changed from his days, when obituaries ran to great length, but there would be more than enough to give the obit a bit of depth. They’d be no relatives, though, to call on for anecdotes and colour. No door to knock on, no husband, or grown-up children gathered for the funeral, no pictures on the mantelpiece to be given, or to steal.
Bentley looked for details of a funeral. Lilly Thomas was to be cremated in a private ceremony. Newspaper reports did not say who had attended, and he presumed that her partner from the 1970s, the playwright, would have been one of the few mourners.
Then three months later Bentley found another story on Lilly Thomas for the foreign pages.
A group actors she had worked with at Shepperton Film Studios in the Thames Valley in the 1970s had remembered her and had decided to pay their own tribute.
A week later they hired a motorboat and sailed abroad it to scatter the ashes of Lilly Thomas on the Thames.