Since waking two hours earlier than his alarm, Gregor remains in a state of tension. Four knocks on the front door cause his anxiety to rapidly climb. In the time taken to respond, he’s flattened his hair neatly, pulled at the sleeves and hem of his plaid shirt, wiped both hands on the back of his navy-coloured chinos and taken three deep breaths. The door opens to reveal a woman of senior years, dressed in a tight fitting knitted black top, a purplish paisley print shawl, dark blue jeans and tan leather ankle boots.
“Gregor Samson,” she says, holding aloft a piece of paper, “this is your advert?”
“Dame Judi Dench, ma’am,” Gregor bows his head respectfully, “indeed that is my advert. I am so pleased you decided to come.” Staring at the actor with widening eyes, he absorbs the vision before him.
“After our brief telephone call yesterday, there was never any doubt Mr Samson. Once I make up my mind, I rarely change it. Now if it suits you,” her voice pinched, “perhaps I may be permitted to enter?” The impatient tone shakes Gregor out of his stasis.
“Yes, yes please come in,” they pass through a small entrance hall, “mind you don’t trip over anything on the floor. As you can see, my apartment doubles-up as a studio.” Gregor shoves scattered boxes out of the way with the side of his foot, creating a pathway leading to a yellow-coloured, wingback armchair. Picking up two circular cushions, he smashes them together with an orchestral bravado. Returning them to the chair and gesturing with his out-stretched hand, Gregor invites his guest to be seated.
“Thank you. Now before we continue any further,” she says, perched undecidedly, “I understand that you are Mr Gregor Samson, a would-be artist and – obviously you understand – I am Dame Judi Dench.”
“Eminent actor, star of stage and screen – from Shakespearean tragedy to international espionage – and much more in between!” Gregor interjects, “Yes ma’am, I confirm, we are reading from the very same page.”
“R-right … well, Mr Samson, I propose we set to one side the titles and address each other by the names our loved ones know us by.” While Gregor processes this information, Judi takes the opportunity to scan the immediate environment. Books stacked on window sills compete for space with an array of mismatched ornaments. Pictures hang unevenly from the wall and the floor is scattered with different sized boxes containing coloured paper, magazines, postcards and photos. Her host sits opposite on a cheap sofa-bed, covered with a Liberty print throw.
Struggling with nerves, Gregor begins arranging pens and pencils in neat, colour-schemed rows on the coffee table situated between them. Judi observes, clasping her knee with both hands.
“Judi, can I offer you coffee,” Gregor blurts out, “tea, or something stronger already? I have vodka – although if I remember correctly,” he says, adopting a Scottish accent, “The Macallan is ye favourite tipple!” A black cat enters, freezing into a state of alert. She stares at Judi, before scampering away silently into another room.
“No Gregor, a character I am well known for playing displayed a liking for whisky. Not I, for in real life I lead a teetotal existence.”
“Oh!” Gregor is stunned, “If this is the case, then how can you take part in the project?”
“I assure you, this is the case and I can take part in this project.”
“You realise,” Gregor questions, “you have to get blind drunk?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Not acting drunk – and not a just bit tipsy.” Gregor’s hands animate to illustrate; an index and middle finger sway and stumble across the upturned palm of his other hand. “No, a falling-over, paralytic kind of drunk.” Signalling the hour, a clockwork cuckoo on the wall behind Judi, extends outwards from a small wooden cabin and calls several times in a row. A look of surprise ripples across the actor’s stoic expression. The two sit in stillness, waiting for the bird to be done.
“I have your advert.” Judi unfolds the piece of paper she’s had gripped in her hand since entering the apartment. “The one I answered, prompting our telephone conversation yesterday and bringing me here today.” A pair of reading glasses open and slide onto the bridge of her nose; she clears her throat. “Volunteer famous actors wanted for ‘Blind Drunk’ photographic portrait series.” Her voice is strong and clear. “A short interview taken while inebriated, to be published alongside photo. Gallery exhibition and book to follow.” Judi re-folds the paper and reading glasses, slipping them back into her handbag. “Most succinct, may I say Gregor. Nothing at all ambiguous contained within those words.”
“You are prepared to give up your teetotal pledge, especially for this project?” Gregor is transfixed on Judi, elbows resting on knees, his fingers grooming the short goatee beard clinging to his chin.
“It is not a pledge Gregor, it has been a lifestyle choice – choice being the operative word.” Sinking back into the chair, her forearms effortlessly balanced on the supports, the actor adopts a dignified air.
“Look,” Gregor says, “I have a bunch of questions, but I want you drunk before I begin.”
“Then without further ado Gregor, let the proceedings begin.”
Gregor gets busy. In front of the doorway to the living room, he pulls down a white screen fed from a roller attached to the ceiling. Pulled taught, he secures it to a hook screwed into the floor.
“May I?” he says, indicating the need to move the armchair next to the screen. Judi watches on, as Gregor completes the scene with a side table, onto which he places a lace doily and a plain bedside lamp.
“Cushions!” Gregor retrieves the two fluffy objects from where they lay on the floor. Bashing them together once more, he tosses them onto the armchair. As Judi moves to take her seat, the black cat reappears and runs between her legs.
“Margot Fonteyn!” Gregor calls out sharply. “Away!”
“Margot, Fonteyn?” Judi asks, as she lowers herself down into the yellow armchair.
“Well, she was pretty nimble on her feet as a kitten, at the time the name seemed appropriate. Two years on and she takes actual pleasure in up-ending ornaments, visitors and so forth.”
“Not quite a ballerina then. However, I imagine she is an excellent companion to you.”
Two double-sized shot glasses are produced from a cupboard, along with a bottle of whisky.
“I wasn’t teasing about The MacCallan.” Gregor turns the bottle around in his hands, casually scanning the label.
“You will be partaking with me Gregor?”
“Yes Judi. I’ll probably be imbibing more slowly and less – I guess. Getting drunk with someone is much more pleasurable than drinking when the other person remains stone cold sober.” Gregor hands a lead crystal glass to Judi.
“I agree, thank you for your consideration. Better fill this up, we had might as well get stuck in straight away.”
30 minutes later …
“… and so I said to Daniel … ‘Daniel, Daniel, we’d better just watch ourselves, yes we’d better … watch ourselves!’ Y-you know what people are like, Gregor, people talk. I mean, once the press get a hold of something …” Judi empties her glass, upending it, her head thrown backwards as Gregor’s camera triggers the flash. “More please!” the glass is hit hard onto the side table. “People will start saying it’s all a bit oedipally, oedippypally, no … oedipal, between him m-and me.”
“I know, but it’s true, there’s a real chemistry on screen between you and Craig.” Gregor empties the bottle, filling the glass to the top. “Don’t worry, I’ve got another one. It’s weird, because it is like an icy kind of chemistry, you know? Both of your characters are actually rather cold … like, they show very little outward emotion.”
“Y-es, I suppose that’s true. Of course he’s not got many close friends.” The actor sinks the contents of her glass in one gulp. “You’d better open that other bottley-bottle, young man.”
“But it works, it works Judi.” Gregor clicks the shutter of his camera several more times, before quickly opening the second bottle and refilling Judi’s glass.
“Well, thank you Gregor, thank you … thank you.” The actor empties her glass another time. “You know, I am way to old for you. Way too old even to be considered a cougar, nowadays, actually …”
“Well, I think you’re beautiful Judi. I think you are a very beautiful person in every aspect – you know that, don’t you Judi, you know that I think that … don’t you?” Gregor squints through the view-finder, feeling a little worse-for-wear. Drawing the image in and out of focus … he notices Judi has her eyes closed. “Judi? He waits a moment. Her eyes remain closed. “J-J-J-Judi?”.
Two and a half hours later …
Judi came around. “Oh … my, head.”
“I have some orange squash” Gregor says.
“It is fifty percent actual juice.”
“I don’t suppose you have some good old-fashioned tap water, do you Gregor Samson?”
Gregor fetches Judi a large glass of water, with ice cubes added for good measure. “I’m so pleased you’re not dead.” He said, placing the glass carefully in the actor’s hands.
“Muh …” She sips her water.
“I mean, you are knocking on Judi. I am so relieved you didn’t die here.”
“Thank you Gregor, me too. Have you got what you needed? I hope so, because I am not doing this again. At least not for a good long while.”
“Oh yes, all brilliant, fantastic, Judi you were wonderful. Look … I’ve got a taxi waiting for you outside.”
“Muh … thank you … thank you Gregor. Now, if I can just get out of here without tripping over that fucking cat … and breaking my neck, it will all have been worth it.”