If Dolly notices my slightly shaking hand, she is good enough not to mention it. She is as confident as her characters, carrying us both above this atmosphere of uneasiness that I have generated by my being overawed. Pre-empting my questions, she begins to speak. She talks first of her father.
“He was always larger than life. Do you mind if I smoke?” (She lights a cigarette.) “For every one of your words, he’d have 10 to match it. He loved to fight. It was what kept him alive. Everyone has something to keep body and soul together. For some people it’s love, for others it’s their family. I suppose for me, it’s acting. What was important for my father was to keep fighting; it was his life-blood. Words were arms to him. He made of his ribcage a kind of quiver, and the words were plucked and released like arrows. He used to say to me, ‘Rachel (I was still called Rachel in those days), Rachel, I’ll let you in on a little secret, the theatre is dying; it’ll be lucky to outlive me. The theatre is dying and there’s nothing you can do to save it. That was his favorite story.”
Her voice is exactly and eerily the same as the one I have listened to on hundreds of occasions over the years, and that bee-stung mouth is unwithered by age and still forms each oh-sound, each ah, in precisely the way I have seen it do on a screen that magnifies it to a hundred times its natural size. I cannot help myself. I grin like a silly child at my pleasure in this familiar voice of hers.
“Do you think he was proud of what you achieved?” I ask.
“Was he proud of me? That’s a good question. A father must feel some pride, mustn’t he?”
“Yes,” I answer, starting to regain my feet, “But do you think he shaped you?”
“Yes, of course. He defined me. But perhaps not quite as he intended. Do you know what preys on my mind? I wonder what shaped him, what happened to him. I never got the chance to ask him those questions. Not that I suppose for a minute that he would have told me the truth. My father was not what you might call an open book. People go to the grave with their secrets still locked inside, still shaping them until their dying day. I think that’s so sad, don’t you?”
I nod my head. She seems to want to bounce each question back at me, to involve me somehow, yet I am still not sufficiently calm to speak coherently on such matters. For now I have little choice but to return to safer ground and the usual questions that she must have been asked at least a thousand times.