Missing in Action

Faye Millerton and a few of the other characters in this yarn appear in a few earlier stories, notably, the Rising and Risen Star series. No need to read them but they may give you more context.

Flick (Felicity) Caterham was standing when I entered her inner sanctum.  My agent was, quite frankly, one of the best, and, largely thanks to her, my career had flourished.  I was well off, in demand and happy, despite a long yearning to find a lifetime partner.  My friend, Marilyn Foster, had told me that lifetime relationships were for the dull or the unimaginative or those who left their libido in a left luggage office.   Well, I may have been dull and unimaginative but I hadn’t lost my libido.

Flick was, as ever, beautifully dressed.  She had a very natural elegance and knew exactly how to dress simply but to maximum effect.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“As my agent, aren’t you supposed to know that?”

“Indeed I am, so explain.”

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“Your new secretary called me and told me I was summonsed to your presence for some glad tidings.  She didn’t mention  an inquisition or a bollocking.”

“You were supposed to be here at nine.”  It was ten.

“Ah, I see.  You think I am late.”

“When an appointment is booked for nine and you arrive at ten, I’d say that was an unavoidable conclusion.”

I went out of her office door and approached the desk of the stunning thirty-something-year-old secretary.  I whispered in her ear.  “You did tell me ten, didn’t you?”

She smiled.  “Actually nine.”  She got up and walked into the boss’s office.  “I think I must have got it wrong, Flick, sorry.”  As I walked past her she gave me an enigmatic smile and her hand brushed, barely perceptibly, across mine.  Or did it?

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“Don’t go getting ideas about Rowan,” the secretary’s name apparently. “I can read you like a bloody book.  God alone knows why but I’ve been asked if you’ll do a ‘What’s Your View.’”  What’s Your view was a panel show, with the public asking panellists their views.  “It’s about show business apparently.  Might be good as long as you behave yourself.”

Flick often weighed public appearances on the balance of risk and reward.  If the subject wasn’t too controversial then she encouraged me as a means of profile maintenance.

On the night, aside from me, the panel consisted of  Moly Prabin, a female journalist from one of the better papers, Reggie Howard, an actor known for his right-wing views, Helen Costain, a film and theatre director with whom I’d worked once and with whom I’d fallen out big time.  The host was one of the channel’s big names, Derek Castle, known for being very superior and a bit of a bully.

I knew you’d be dying to know.  Helen Costain was directing a new play, very artsy and, frankly, utterly impenetrable to a simple mind like mine.  At one rehearsal she had shouted at me, in front of the rest of the cast, “What’s your problem?  Too complicated, is it?”

I’d said, “If complicated means meaningless, then yes.  If you know what it means, instead of trying to humiliate me, why don’t you do some directing and explain?”

Costain was a big name and, at that time, I was anything but.  She’d turned a delightful shade of puce, spluttered a bit, called for a ten-minute break and, when she recovered her powers of speech, fired me.  Flick had given me the bollocking of a lifetime but, unbeknown to her, I overheard her talking to Costain that afternoon.

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“Faye Millerton is far from stupid, Helen.  Rather the opposite I’d say.  I will not have one of my best talents browbeaten and if you hadn’t fired her, I’d have told her to quit.  Was it because you fancied her?”  A pause.  “Well, if it was I rather think you’ve fucked that, don’t you?  And if you start doing your malicious, poisonous dyke act behind her back I’ll know and there will only be one loser.”  Phone slams and Flick shouts to her then secretary, Lucinda, “Whisky!  And make it a fucking big one.”  I’d scuttled off feeling more loved than ever before in my life.

Back then it was customary for the panel members to meet in a ‘green room’ and be plied with drink before the show, introduce everyone, run through a few questions, and generally get calm before the show.  Unusually for me, I went easy on the booze.

It was all pretty mundane until a woman in the audience asked about the validity of gender, race and colour blindness in theatre productions.  Was it wrong for white actors to play black roles?   Probin launched a tirade about cultural appropriation.  Reggie Howard talked about how people these days seem to be too readily offended and rambled on about a long list of white actors who had played black parts over the years but that gender was gender and blah blah.  You get the picture.

The host turned to me.  “Faye, Millerton, you are a strong advocate of women and lesbian rights,” the sneer was barely concealed, “what’s your take on this?”

I looked directly at the woman who had posed the question.  “I’m an actress and I think the clue is in the job title.  If a director has a vision, like Helen for example, and thinks a woman playing a man’s part makes sense of an aspect of a play or explores something interesting then I act.  If a director thinks a particular actor, whether the ‘right’ colour or not, does something for a role, that’s fine.  Politicising theatre is such a mistake.  I know of a number of straight actors who have played gay roles and they’ve been brilliant.  It’s acting, as simple as that.”  Nobody was more surprised than I at the audience’s applause.

Well, that put the cat among the pigeons.  Probin might as well have called me a she-devil.    Howard managed to tie himself in knots with a few homophobic remarks thrown in.  But it was Costain’s intervention that was my next surprise.

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“Faye’s absolutely right.  At the risk of this sounding like a mutual appreciation society, if directors have actors with talent to work with and they direct them sensitively, who gives a fuck about ethnicity or anything else.  Let us do our jobs properly then decide if we’ve succeeded.”  Who gives a fuck?  Did she really say that?  She gave me a warm smile as if to say, there, dykes unite.

Back in the green room and Millerton needed a drink.  “A fuck-off great gin and tonic please.”

Castle was all smiles.  He loved a bit of a ruck and Probin and Howard had given it to him.  Costain and I had remained out of the war zone and, for once in my life, I almost seemed like the voice of reason.  I slotted my first drink and handed the glass to the rather dishy production girl who was only too willing to refill my glass rather than get between Probin and Howard who were still at it.

Costain appeared at my side.  “Hello, Faye.  I didn’t get a chance to speak to you before the show.  How are you?”

Now, remember that this is the woman who told me, basically and publicly, that I was an idiot and then fired me.  A younger Millerton would have told her to stick her head up her arse but, I was older and wiser.  “I’m great thanks, working with much nicer people these days.”  Okay, not so much wiser.

“It was a misunderstanding, Faye, let’s consign it to history?”

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“You had power, I had none.  You abused that power and if you feel able to consign it to history, well, good for you.  I have some power nowadays and that means I get to choose who I work with and you’re not on that list.”

I know, I know. It was childish and pugnacious but, frankly, she deserved it.  It’s a bit of a shame because she was rather fanciable, physically.

I felt less childish and more justified when she positively spat at me, “You’re second rate at best, MIllerton.  Go fuck yourself.”  She flounced off, making the pretty production girl step sharply out of her way.  The production girl came over to me bearing another decent sized gin.

“That looked like fun.”

I smiled.  “Hell hath no fury like a dyke scorned, believe me.”

She took my empty glass and put a full one in my hand, her fingers touching mine longer than strictly necessary.  “You don’t have to tell me.”  She had those hooded eyes that are so, so sexy.

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“Are you trying to get me drunk?”

She smiled.  “On the BBC budget?  As if.”

Her name was Natalie and, in different circumstances I might well have suggested a late dinner but, well, it was late and I was tired and had had too much to drink to be guaranteed to make it fun for her.  As I was leaving she helped me on with my jacket.  I looked down as her hand slipped a piece of paper into my pocket.  “If you fancy giving me a call.”  Wow, I thought, first Rowan now Natalie.  Maybe getting older isn’t so bad after all.

I went down to my house in Somerset the next day, a Thursday.  I called my oldest friend, Lilly Caterham, Flick’s sister.

“Hi, Lil, I’m throwing a small bash Saturday, barbecue, poolside etc since the weather’s looking great.  Can you come?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.  Have you invited the new vet?”

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“I didn’t know there was a new vet.”

“Well, there is and she’s right up your alley.”

“Christ, Lill, will you ever stop matchmaking?”

“Never.  Now leave inviting her to me.  I’m rather interested in the senior partner in her practise, so I’ll ask him too if that’s ok?  He was here the other day and did something fascinating to my labrador bitch, lovely hands.  You don’t mind, do you?”

Would, I thought, it matter if I did.  But I said, “What is it with you and your sister and vets?”  I called around a few other local friends, real friends who had been mates when I was unknown and struggling and who’d remained with me.  You’d be amazed how a bit of celebrity can do awful things to friendships.

I called Flick.  Flick had had a bit of a fling with the senior vet before the current one.  It had fizzled out but it was extraordinary in that, in all the years I’d known her, it was the first time I’d known her get a bit loved up openly.  Hence my remark to Lilly.

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“What have you done now?”  Charming.

“I had an orgy with the Director General of the BBC and the Archbishop of Canterbury and it’s being aired on ITV this evening.  Thought you should know.”

“If they were women I”d believe it.  What do you want?

“You.”

“Explain.”  So I told her about the impromptu party and asked if she and Rowan would care to attend.  That, I thought, was a subtle way of getting to know Rowan a bit better.  “Millerton, you are so, so transparent!  Rowan does, it is true, sometimes dip her toes into the ladies’ pool but she is strictly, and I mean strictly off-limits as far as you are concerned.  I’ve told her that, too.  I am neither blind nor stupid.  I am not having you corrupting my secretary although I turned a blind eye to your little conspiracy the other day over the appointment time.”

Nothing gets past Flick.

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I was lucky.  The Saturday was a beautifully warm August day, the BBQ was spectacularly good, and the guest list was a great mix.  Flick and Rowan sadly didn’t come.  Lilly arrived with the new vet in tow.  Now, Lilly has, in the past, successfully hooked me up with women, including one memorable occasion with an Indian doctor (it’s in an earlier memoir somewhere) but the vet was a great choice.  I’ve told you in the past that I like butch women but not always.  This was one of the not always occasions.  She, Elsa, the vet, was far from butch.  She was tall (one box ticked) and German with a wonderful accent.  She looked great in a pale cream jumpsuit with a wide tan belt and sparse but tasteful jewellery.  Lilly abandoned her to my care, and buggered off to seduce Elsa’s boss called Nigel, poor bastard.  “He’s been on my attack list ever since he arrived.  Time to turn on the magnetism I think.”  She’s a machine.

Elsa, it transpired, had come to England to study veterinary surgery and had so loved England, she’d stayed.  I was 45 then, she about ten years younger.  If this were a fantasy, we’d have ended up shagging like rabbits but, sad to relate, whilst we liked each other there was no spark, nothing.  And so it was that the only sex that night in my house was between Lilly and the apparently excellent Nigel.  I normally sleep well, but Lilly was noisy and clearly having a lot of fun so I did what all sleepless women do, I read a good book.

Nigel appeared at breakfast looking as though he’d slept like a baby.  Lilly arrived a few moments later and ran her fingers through his hair, wet from the shower.

“I can assure you, your animals will be safe in this man’s hands, Faye darling.  Utterly indefatigable, aren’t you Nigel?”

I nearly called the pretty BBC girl when I got back to London but decided not to. Celebrity brings a certain paranoia.  Does she want me as a trophy, a route upward in the profession, for money?  She probably just wanted a good fuck but, well, there you go.

‘Missing in Action’ was a play written and directed by Tommy Lancaster.  He was one of the best directors I ever worked with.  He loved the cast to laugh and lark about during rehearsals, he loved directing gently, supportively.  He wasn’t pretentious, describing himself as a storyteller.

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A professional group of actors is like a professional orchestra.  Members of the latter can play their instrument beautifully and arrive at first rehearsal note-perfect.  A cast like ours knew the words, all Tommy had to do was polish and choreograph.

I played the part of a woman who, having married an RAF pilot in 1938, received in 1940 one of the dreadful telegrams, ‘missing in action.’  The husband, Geoffrey, was declared missing, presumed dead and in 1946, the war in Europe over, I married Geoffrey’s friend and best man at our wedding, Lionel.  Geoffrey, however, was not dead but had made his way to the south of France, intending to cross the Pyrenees and return to England but had been taken ill and rescued by a farming family who had kept him safe but were unable to report his status until the war ended.

Clarrie Masters played my new sister-in-law.  She was younger than I, taller, and eccentric in her dress and hairstyle, the latter being a sort of buzz cut but with bangs.

“Like a nice bang, do we, darling?”  She asked me at first rehearsal.  Right, I thought, this one’s a pain in the arse.  Far from it, she proved to be a joyous colleague, hugely funny, a seriously good actress and a very lissome dyke.

We rehearsed for ten days and despite it being good fun it was hard work.  Tommy declared himself satisfied one Friday lunchtime, before we were to open at Windsor before going west and North on tour, leading to a West End theatre for the run-up to Christmas.  He decided we’d earned a bit of a party and as we put away props and scripts and all the usual shit, a group of people arrived bearing booze and a spread.  Good old Tommy.

Flick had said, “Theatre never pays like film but, if ever you want to be Dame Faye (if the powers that be can overlook your chequered history) that’s the way to get there and, Dame equals serious money. Another benefit is that it gets you out of harm’s way for a few months so fewer opportunities for your customary cock-ups.”

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The party was fun.  There is always a sense of relief when a play comes together and this was no exception.  Spirits were both high and consumed.  I came out of the toilet in a little corridor behind the rehearsal room to find Carrie leaning against the wall smoking.

“You’re not supposed to smoke.

“I’m not supposed to fuck the leading lady but I’m going to.”

“Really?”  She nodded.  “Well, give me a drag on that fag then.”  She did and then we kissed, and I discovered for the first time in my life what a tongue stud (hitherto unnoticed and so probably recently re-inserted) feels when it is part of an onslaught on your mouth.  “That’s novel.”

“You wait till you find the others.”

Back at my flat, Carrie proved herself to be equally expert in the sexual arts.  “I can’t stand dildos.  I mean, I can’t feel you like I can like this.”

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Like this was a finger, under my skirt, knickers drawn aside, and deep inside me as her tongue did a reprise of its performance in the corridor.  We’d barely shut the door of the flat.  I had a bit of a tussle with her wide, black leather belt and the buttons of her Levis and forgot that it’s better to get boots off before trying to get her jeans off.  You’d think after all these years I’d have mastered it but, well, the heat of the moment and all that.

Naked and in, or on, my bed, we got serious despite a lot of giggling and her mouth was everywhere, as was mine.  The final act came after a good long build-up and she did something that surprised me.  Most women, in my experience, use the pad of a finger to stroke the g spot.  It works and it feels fabulous.  But Carrie started with her palm facing down, her finger bent at the second knuckle so that the knuckle stroked the g and her finger pressed the cunt wall against the arse.  At the same time, her pierced tongue was giving my clit a good thrashing.

When my orgasm hit, which it did like a bloody train hitting the buffers, I screamed and shouted “Oh, fuck, Maz.”

This does not, I know, sound terribly flattering for Carrie but let me explain.  As my orgasm started, she turned her hand, literally screwing me, and it unleashed the scream and, I guess, the recollection that the last time I”d felt that particular manoeuvre, it had been my delectable and promiscuous friend, Marilyn, Maz, Foster’s hand that had done, literally, a turn inside me.  It had evoked the same result.

Lying entwined, her mouth by my ear, her leg thrown across me, recovering from our exertions, I asked her.  “When?”

“Last year, in the Lake District.  We were doing a bit of Shakespeare up there.  She sends her love.”

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Darling Maz.  I’d have married her if she’d asked but that was never going to happen.  She’d obviously used her signature technique with Carrie and the latter either independently or encouraged by Foster, had decided to give me her love in an inimitable way.  Marvellous.

This tour promised to be good.

Updated: August 3, 2021 — 2:34 pm
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