The Matinee Idol

by Alfred Sargeant

For Elizabeth and Adele it was not 'a holiday of a lifetime', but simply a very pleasant vacation for two sisters enjoying the eventide of their lives. Both widowed, it was Adele's idea for them to rent an apartment and spend a month together in the sun before winter set in. It was not their first visit to the Algarve; each had been before, independently, with their husbands. In those days however, Vilamoura was not much more than a traditional fishing village. The recent development of the marina and, much to their delight, shopping arcades, was a new and very attractive improvement to the area.

   A succession of cafes fronted the marina, most of which had veranda-like structures that extended over the water and complemented the boats that lined the water's edge. Each morning they enjoyed a leisurely stroll around an ever-changing maritime scene and stopped off at one or other of the many cafes for their morning coffee.   Usually they had the place to themselves but on this particular occasion, they were slightly surprised to see one of the tables overlooking the water occupied by a silver-haired gentleman sitting all by himself, quietly sipping his coffee from a tall glass.

   As they sat enjoying their coffee, it was inevitable they viewed their distant companion with more than a passing interest. He was probably several years older than them, but still a very handsome man, with a striking profile and silver-grey hair that contrasted delicately with his slightly dark Latino-like features. The women were sure they knew who he was and could not believe he was here, sitting drinking coffee not fifteen feet away from them.

   "It is him, isn't it?" said Elizabeth softly, not doubting for a moment but deferring to her older sister for confirmation. "Do you think he would give us his autograph?" she added somewhat tentatively.

   "It's him all right," her sister responded, "But I didn't know he was Portuguese, I always thought he was Spanish or South American perhaps. But then, they are all more or less the same, aren't they."

   Raymond da Silva was a celebrity from yesteryear; he appeared on the London stage as a juvenile in the late '30s and within a few years had matured into a regular 'matinee idol', playing romantic leads with consummate ease. Inevitably, Hollywood beckoned and with his dark good looks and effortless deportment, he soon established himself among the leading men of the period, not to mention the ladies! Even as he grew older, his appeal scarcely diminished and he continued to perform in films and in the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic to popular and critical acclaim.

   The two women were surprised and delighted therefore, that this show-biz personality should be sharing their morning break. Adele, the more audacious of the sisters, being the elder perhaps, got up from her chair and approached him.

   "Please forgive me," she said, "but my sister and I couldn't help noticing you you are Raymond da Silva, the actor, aren't you?" She pronounced his first name carefully, placing emphasis on the second syllable.

   He gave her a disarming smile. "Yes, my dear. And it is very nice of you to enquire, but that was a long time ago in a former life, as they say."   He affected a wave toward Elizabeth who found herself blushing, but she responded with a half-wave of her own.

   "We were wondering, that is my sister and I, if you might be kind enough to give us your autograph," continued Adele, gaining in confidence, "we remember seeing you in a play in London, just after the war, at the Adelphi Theatre I think it was; you were playing Pierre, in Bless the Bride with Lisbeth Webb playing the heroine."

   He gave a laugh. "You have a wonderful memory: I had all but forgotten all about it. That was my first big break. I understudied Georges Gutery for more than a month when he was taken ill and I took over for the rest of the season."

   "Yes, that's when we first saw you," said Adele, "and we've followed your career ever since, havent we Elizabeth." Her sister nodded in agreement.

   "I think I only did two or three more plays in London after that," he said, "because I got an offer from Hollywood to appear in a film..."

  "Yes, your first Hollywood film, Strangers on a Train. We saw that too!"

   "Well, it is very pleasing to meet such ardent fans, but it was all a long time ago, I'm afraid...but look, why don't you join me? I'd be very happy to share with you some memories of my years in the theatre and films, if you are interested." They both nodded excitedly, indicating that they were! "It's too early for lunch," he continued, "but I suggest we have more coffee." He broke off at this point to beckon the waiter. "Let's have two more cappuccinos for the ladies and I'll have my usual caff e latte please Paulo, and could we have a plate of pastel de nata...?" he turned to the sisters "these are little custard tarts, very tasty and ideal to accompany your mid-morning coffee."

   Once settled with their coffees and cakes, Adele began by explaining that they were sisters, now both widowed, simply spending some time together in a warmer country than their own before winter came upon them. Then of course, they recognised him, an actor whom they had admired for many years and whose career they had followed with interest. Raymond listened to them graciously albeit with some mild amusement. It had been a long time since he had met such dedicated fans and he told them so.

   "The things you've mentioned happened a long time ago, of course. Although I was born in Portugal, when I was about nine or ten my mother left my father and returned to England with me she was English, my father Portuguese. I never saw my father again. Naturally, my mother and I were very close and she determined to raise me as an English gentleman despite the colour of my skin! So I was sent to that very English establishment a theatre school. Actually I took to it 'like a duck to water', to coin a phrase. My classmates were mostly young women and girls who made a terrific fuss of me. As is the case with these schools, we attended various auditions from time to time, and soon I found myself 'treading the boards' for real and loving every minute of it. Much to my mother's delight, I became an actor. Sadly, just as my career blossomed with Bless the Bride she was knocked down and killed in a road accident and never saw me on the professional stage."

   "Oh, how awful for you," said Elizabeth, biting her lip, "how dreadful."

   "Quite so, my dear," he responded, "but the theatre is a hard taskmaster 'the show must go on', and all that. It's a tough business, I'm afraid."

   "But one that you embraced fully," put in Adele, "you soldiered on."

   "I had little choice. I was alone in the world. But show business is a very supportive family, I assure you. And Bless the Bride in particular was a very cathartic experience for a young man. I seem to remember it ran for nearly two years and they were the most exciting two years of my life enabling me to stride out along the path of my chosen profession. I established myself as a 'romantic lead' in a couple more plays on the London Stage to critical acclaim I'm happy to say, when out of the blue came a call from Alfred Hitchcock, no less. My part in Strangers on a Train was not a leading role by any means remember it starred Farley Granger and Robert Walker, two of the most attractive, not to say handsomest actors of the time but it put me on the map, so to speak. And Hitchcock was kind enough to use me twice more in really big movies North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much good roles in great films."

Suddenly his mood seemed to change. "Hollywood in the 50s," he said, pensively, "was not a nice place. The studio system was the problem. They owned you body and soul. It was stifling. The studio bosses said jump and you jumped! They hired you out to other studios did you know that?" It was a rhetorical question and since he wasn't expecting an answer he continued, "It was like a cattle market. They dictated every aspect of your life; what function you would attend, what you would wear, who you would go with! Your life wasn't your own. They could build up a reputation and destroy it just as it suited them."

   Then just as quickly, the mood lifted. "But there were the good times, too," he declared. "Light romantic comedy was my forte and I had the pick of the leading ladies of the period in all my films. Ava Gardener, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Deborah Kerr, even Grace Kelly. They were among the loveliest women on the planet. And I had affairs with most of them! Then there were the up and coming starlets, beautiful young women who just wanted to be seen with an established star. For someone like me, life was a dream; wine, women and song, you might say."

   "You were certainly a hit with the ladies, but you married someone, I seem to remember," interjected Adele, "I'm sure I read it somewhere."

   The comment brought him back to the present and reality. "Yes. I did," he said, smiling broadly, and then wryly, "I was married briefly, to an air-hostess, a lovely girl but it didn't last I'm afraid. It didn't work. There were too many external pressures."

   Elizabeth, who had been sitting quietly nursing a small camera, entered the conversation.

   "Would you be kind enough to let us have your autograph, Mr da Silva, and perhaps a photograph?" She gestured with the camera. She was much more deferential than her sister who in any case appeared to have forgotten all about the reason they wanted to meet the actor in the first place.

   "Why of course, my dear. Forgive me; here I am going on about myself as usual." He smiled disarmingly. "We actors!" He picked up two menus from the empty tables nearby and taking a gold pen from his jacket he signed both his signature was a drama in itself and gave the sisters one each.

   "Paulo," he called out to the waiter, "be a good chap and take some pictures will you?"

The waiter responded immediately, rehearsing a scene that he had performed many times for his customers. After a brief instruction from Elizabeth, he assembled the sisters and the actor with a general view of the marina behind them, and took a number of shots.

   On retrieving the camera, Elizabeth ran through the pictures and showed them to Adele and their idol to their obvious delight.

   Just then, a bright red open-topped sports car pulled up alongside the cafe and sounded a sharp 'toot' on its horn. All three of them turned to look at the vehicle. A good-looking middle-aged man wearing a pink sweater around his shoulders sat in the driver's seat waving cheerily.

   "Ah, my friend Tony," de Silva explained to his guests, "we arranged to meet here. I hope you will excuse me but we have a further appointment and I must bid you farewell." He stood up, offered his hand to each in turn, and bowing slightly, said, "It really has been most delightful to meet you both. I hope you will continue to enjoy your holiday in my country, and perhaps we may meet again. This is my regular 'watering-hole' as you say in England."

   He stepped back a pace or two and bowed again, briefly. Then turning round he greeted his friend, gesturing with both his hands above his head. His friend responded by leaning across the passenger seat and opening the door. As de Silva slid into the seat, he turned his head toward the driver and kissed him fully on the lips!

   He had hardly closed the door when his friend let in the clutch, gunned the engine, and they raced off at speed, the pair of them waving wildly as they went.

   The sisters stared at each other in disbelief. "He's gay!" they said with one voice.

   Elizabeth sighed. "All that business about his affairs with his leading ladies, and marrying an air-hostess, that was all a front organised by the studio's publicity machine no doubt, to save face."

   At that moment, the waiter came out to their table. He placed a small silver tray between them, with an upturned tumbler on it, holding down a piece of paper against the wind. Adele picked up the paper and examined it carefully.

   "And would you believe it?" she exclaimed, looking at her sister incredulously, "he's even left us to pay the bill!"


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