There I was: cloaked in Victorian coat and tails, in thirty-five degree heat and waiting for my sausage dog to finish squeezing one out under a tree.
All around me, thrashing like a school of tuna in a whirlpool, were makeup artists and their assistants, camera crews and their assistants, boys chasing tangled cables, girls driving racks of plastic-wrapped suits between trucks, small men in yellow caps who seemed to do nothing but run up and down the set with coffee cups; and us – the extras – standing helplessly in the broiling sun, waiting for instructions from the loudspeaker.
It was a period piece, set in eighteen seventy-who-gives-a-shit. We were supposed to be recreating a typical London street, only the pencil necks who’d decided that it was cheaper to recreate the scene in the southern hemisphere in December were too dense to realise that endless sunshine and blow flies were not prominent features of the Belle Époque or its Victorian equivalent.
The story was the same as all television dramas based in that god awful period without mobile phones or paracetamol: poor orphan inherits money from estranged uncle, poor orphan moves to London, meets a suitably chaste prostitute with chalky teeth, falls in love, and then casts his nemesis into the Thames as fish food. Or something along those lines – it was an outline that might have been better drawn around a corpse than from bones of a screenplay plot. A man in a green turtleneck had explained it to me in a bar on Sussex Street at the end of an all-night bender on the brown mongoose. I told him I was desperate for a job in the arts, one that paid more than meal vouchers, and that if I couldn’t move out of the hostel I’d been in for six months soon I would join the army. “I’m an actor,” he said. “I’m not,” I replied. This must have impressed him as he produced a business card on the back of which was the phone number of a certain set manager down in Woolhara. Minutes later he ran into the women’s toilets and painted the walls a new shade of rusty nail. That was the last I saw of him. I think his name was Nathanial or something. Or Konstantin.
But my instructions were simple enough: turn up at the Eastern Suburbs studio, ask for Jonathan, sign whatever piece of paper I was given, and then stroll down the street wrapped in a black, wool-polyester blend coat and hat, and try to keep control of an inordinately restless hound. Perky the sausage dog and I merely had to pass by a polystyrene lamp, I was to check my pocket watch and then turn around as if I’d remembered something. That was the job. Apart from the dog walking bit, it was the perfect role. I have developed a very convincing look of perplexity, like the face of an old man who’s forgotten to button up his trousers and leave a plate of milk out for the plumber. And that morning alone, I’d been given ample opportunity to practise.
For reasons not made clear to the nobodies, we’d been rehearsing the same two-minute scene for three hours. It had become a running joke after the twenty-first cut that the writers had made a last minute decision to include an insane director character who screamed ‘CUT!’ at exactly the time I produced my watch from my top pocket. As if I were the star and not Tommy-bloody-Jindles. It provided great laughs among us extras – the down and outs, the hopefuls, recent acting graduates and law students. “Haw, haw!” we all cried with delight.
The day stretched longer than a usual day does, like a pair of hand-me-down jeans. Something about the sun and law of thermodynamics I believe. There were a few meetings around the monitors during which the core crew huddled together, pointing and arguing and politicking the crap out of the production budget, while we leaned against the faux-iron gates smoking and swapping email addresses and discussing upcoming hospitality opportunities in beach-side cafes. It was during one of these pauses that I met Polly Freemantle. I’d just tied old Perky to a pole when a girl with a broad face tapped me on the shoulder and put two fingers up to her lips in a ‘V’ sign.
“Cigarette?” she said like she was trying to teach a wombat sign language. Her features floated aimlessly in the centre of her face like candles in a saucer of water.
She might have been half Japanese, or Korean; I could never really tell the two apart from a distance or up close, and nothing from her expression was going to tell me if she was interested in having sex with me. So I let my eyes drop to the part of her bodice where I thought her breasts should have been, then studied what I could discern of her upper thighs under the waterfall of fabric sitting around her hips. Like her face, the rest of her didn’t take up much room – her hands and wrists had the same diameter as a pool cue, and her neck would have made a hoola hoop out of Perky’s collar. I asked her if she knew the name of the production we were shooting. She stood there, chewing on her rice-grain nails and nattering to herself in between petite puffs. After a few minutes I tried again.
“What are we running at now?” I asked, pulling at my collar. “I’ve lost track.”
“Twenty-three,” she said.
“Good work if you can get it,” I said and laughed. I hate my laugh. It’s like listening to a deflating helium balloon stuck in the throat of a nine-year-old girl. I switched to my serious voice. “It’s not my real job,” I said.
“No shit,” Polly snapped as a turtle would the spine of a carrot. “If you call this ‘work’ then you might as well call scraping the toilet bowl out with a toothpick ‘entertainment’ – at least there’s a tangible benefit to cleaning the toilet.”
I liked this woman. Breasts or no. She had a casual aggressiveness about her, as if her whole body was caught between a shrug and an uppercut. A shruggercut.
“Wanna drink?” Without looking around, Polly pulled a half bottle of brown mongoose out of her handbag. After draining more than a third of it, she handed it to me.
“I don’t even know how much I’m getting paid,” I said after a chugging down a mouthful, “or at all for that matter. I wonder if they’re going to edit out the kookaburras in the final cut. Not very pre-industrial England, wouldn’t you say?”
After another swig on the goose I swirled the bottle and gave it back. Polly finished it expertly and slipped it back in her hand bag. Emboldened by the hearth roaring in my oesophagus, I shifted a few centimetres closer to her. “I’m here because I met a casting agent who forgot to eat dinner. You?”
“I had sex with the lead,” she said grimly. “Twice.”
“That guy over there?” I pointed to the tall, good-looking man in a silk vest, who was arguing with one of the make-up artists. Tommy Jindles. “S’pose you got a speaking part then,” I said and I cast my eyes downwards at poor Perky, who was on the stone ground wheezing and looking like he was about to turn into a lamb kofta. “It’s a better gig than ‘ol Perky here.”
“The bastard got me pregnant.”
“Shame, I was going to ask you out on a date. I know a good place in Lakemba.”
“Is abortion on the menu?”
“Well, that explains the…” I brought the invisible glass to my lips.
“And now he wants nothing to do with me. I’m sure he’s sleeping with someone in catering.”
“The salmon bagels were nice!”
Polly didn’t twitch, but stared at me with enough steam to burst a pork bun. “I can’t go on! It’s me who’s been forcing the takes. I’m supposed to alight from the carriage… and, then he’s supposed to run over and take me in his arms and… then we have to kiss! But I can’t do it! You see? Not after what he’s done.”
My affection for this woman suddenly waned. Her features, once interesting and unique, seemed bland and unexciting. A hundred people earning five dollars an hour had been been steaming in synthetic materials for half a day all because of the broken heart and clogged pipes of an over-ambitious actor.
“Is it really that bad? I mean, you’ve obviously kissed the guy before. Can’t you just fake it so the rest of us can go home? Or to the hospital.”
“I’d sooner kiss your dog.”
“Would you?” I replied. “Would it speed this whole thing up a bit if you did? I need to go home and wash my smalls.”
Polly wrung her hands while I tried to suppress a bout of hiccups. The rabble over at the monitors hadn’t died down and many of the others were loosening their clothes and drifting off over the fake cobblestones to shadier areas. All this talk of pregnancy had made me weary and I made a move to join them, but Polly grabbed my elbow and stared at me with quaking pupils.
“It’s life, you know?” she said. “The whole thing’s like a roll of film, a mess of moments lying on the cutting room floor – we think we can edit it, remove the mistakes, stitch together the bits that are meaningful, but we can’t. There’s no starting again, or rehearsal or regathering your lines to try everything again. We can plot and act and plot some more, but the credits never roll, the camera never pans, it just keeps going and going and somehow we have to make our own goddam story out of it! Do you understand?”
“Perfectly,” I lied. Dealing with the weirdness of strangers while dangerously sober had never been one of my strong points.
“I have to go,” I said and collected Perky by the collar and strode off.
No sooner had I reached the precipice of sunshine where the light grass fell into the dark than the set manager raged on his whistle and squawked something about ‘taking positions’. Just perfect. The pernicious brew of heat and polyester was strangling my neck and there was without doubt the beginnings of a healthy slime farm in my man crevices. It was some comfort to see I wasn’t the only one suffering. The peasants, who were wrapping up a spitting contest over by the carpark, were sweating and cursing like a row of spanked bottoms as they lined up to deliver themselves back on set. “Fooking ‘hell,” one of them said in character. “This heat’s enough to murder a pig.” “Or a sausage dog,” another jested and winked in my direction. He was a lard basket if I ever saw one. Sweat was hosing from under his armpits.
“Let’s go, Perky,” I said and pointed at the fat extra. “I don’t want you fraternising with the underclass, do you hear?”
Action was announced, and this time I was surprised when I felt my pocket watch slide back into my coat. From the corner of my eye I could see that we were still rolling. Unbelievable. I clenched my teeth and tried to waken my latent acting skills. Behold my mind-bending befuddlement! There was no way that there was going to be a twenty-fifth take, not if this extra could help it. Thankfully, Perky must have felt the same way as his ears pricked up and he gaily led the way back down the footpath and onto my mysterious forgotten appointment. When I reached the faux-iron gate and out of camera range, I let out a low whistle and loosened my collar. I almost thought I could feel the blood in my eyes turn crimson as it met the glorious rush of cool oxygen, then liquefy and flow back down into my jelly regions. I tell you now, I’d never lusted so much after the brown mongoose as I did in that moment. I’m sure of it because I’ve not touched a drop since that day. But the thirst clawed at me, so I scanned the set for Polly. I’d not made it this far into the story before, and the lass was a small one, so it took a while of gawking before I located her stepping out of a black carriage not far from where two men were arguing under a canopy of boom mics and spot lights. Her face was as expressionless as when I’d met her, but even from a distance, there was now a satanic topography around her eyes and mouth, as if three meteorites, the size of boiled eggs had rammed into her flat face and disintegrated, leaving dark craters. Whoever cried out the final ‘CUT!’, it wasn’t the director. It all happened too fast, like the moment you watch garlic sauce fall from your four-in-the-morning kebab onto your disco slacks. Polly reached into the folds of her dress and pulled out something long and thin and pointy-looking, which looked like a long and thin and pointy serrated kitchen knife. I saw the steel glimmer, and I knew, and I’m sure Perky knew too, that it would do no great favours to a human spleen should the two meet. To the horror of the closet coffee guy, who dropped a tray of pumpkin-lattes onto a plastic cobblestone mould, they did. But not before Polly delivered her kiss. What a two-face.