No 150 - 1997
My folks called me Trevor. To get back at them I dropped out of college and became an actor. And changed my name to Ginger. It seemed a good choice, given my dyed black ponytail. Actors never work - common knowledge - so I got a job as a waiter in Pizza Express on Upper Street.
‘They’re the only chain makes half-decent pizzas in this country,’ I heard one studiedly unkempt punter say to his date, trying to impress her.
‘I like Pizza Hut,’ she said.
They didn’t stand a chance.
Or leave a tip.
I continued to look for acting jobs but they were a bit thin on the ground. Or at least they were in 1995. Despite John Major’s best efforts with the ‘heritage industry’. Frankly, I’d rather eat my own foot than ponce around in period costume showing families from the West Midlands round the Museum of the Moving Image. I’m much happier serving Four Seasons with extra pepperoni to pissed-up life assurance salesmen in shitty suits.
‘Do you want any garlic bread or a side salad with that?’
‘If I wanted garlic bread I’d fucking ask for it,’ said a guy in a stripy shirt who placed his mobile on the table next to his bottle of Asti. He was about my age, but loaded, and resented having to engage in conversation with a waiter. Some people’s eyes simply don’t swivel that far up.
To get back at him I crushed up a dead roach with a pestle and mortar and sprinkled it on his pizza along with the extra pepperoni. Watched him wash it down with several bottles of Peroni from behind the cappuccino machine. If I’d wanted him to stop for a moment and frown at a forkful I’d’ve been disappointed. But I guess I didn’t, so I wasn’t.
On table sixteen, a guy with a Florida tan and three packs of Camel Lites on the table before him ordered a Marinara. His companion, a short guy with little round glasses and a number one back-and-sides, wanted an American Hot with extra onions and peas.
‘You know, if you get an American and help yourself to some chilli oil you could save yourself 80p,’ I said, not exactly Salesman of the Year. ‘It has the same effect.’
He thought about it - for a nano-second - but stayed with the order he’d given me. At least he thought about it.
I was on my break when they came in.
‘Ginger, you’ve got three on table twelve,’ Paola told me. She was a nice girl, Spanish, but was going out with a hard northern bastard called Con. I’d seen him once and decided never to step out of line with Paola. There’s a whole section of my imagination dedicated to picturing what guys like Con would do to me if they caught me at it with their significant other. But not everyone looks like Con. Nor does everyone look like Paola, which is more to the point, but never mind.
I was working upstairs that night and anyone sat by the window - which meant tables nine to nineteen - got a good view of the Screen on the Green which was showing Hal Hartley’s ‘Amateur’. I’d already seen it at the Metro and had a right job keeping awake. My friend Ian, who’d insisted I accompany him despite my clear antipathy to crap American ‘art house’ movies, thought it was ‘excellent’. To get back at him I urged him to rent ‘Top Gun’ on video - ‘It’s not shit,’ I told him. ‘It’s really, really not shit. You expect it to be shit and it isn’t.’ He rented it and a couple of days later asked me cautiously in what way did I think it was not shit. I referred him to ‘Amateur’ and indeed to ‘Simple Men’, the previous piece of Hal Harltey’s shit Ian had dragged me to - and told him if I ever went to the pictures with him again it would be after a full investigation had been carried out to make sure Hal Hartley had never been allowed anywhere near the film in question. If he’d so much as been invited to the preview or goosed the best boy it was a no-no.
Hal Hartley could offer me the deal of the year, ten million upfront, and a phalanx of buxom beauties to fellate me between takes and I’d still tell him to take a hike. Yeah, I wanted to be an actor, but there was one thing I was not prepared to do. I’d do most things: nudity, violence, IV drugs. I’d quite happily do the M in SM. I’d let them drive right over me with a threewagon road-train in the Western Australian desert. I’d even eat shit if it furthered the plot. But I would never, ever work for Hal Hartley.
What I really wanted was a part in ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. But it had already been made so I couldn’t have one. I wanted to go mental on psychoactive drugs, rolling around on the deck doing that vibrating thing with my arms and legs.
I stood by table twelve for a full minute while they finished a conversation. Oh, I’ve got all night. Well, yeah, I did have, actually. There were, as Paola had told me, three of them. A girl with cropped dark hair and werewolf-pale eyes, another girl with long blonde hair, blonde except for the roots that is, and an Indian-looking boy with a fashionably floppy fringe and bum fluff.
‘Can I have a Veneziana, please?’ asked the first girl - the one with the cropped hair. I tried to guess what she did - I always try to guess what punters do - but all I got was the fact that she was nervous. Every time she spoke, at least to me, she raised her hand and lightly touched the side of her face, almost as if checking it was still there. The dyed-blonde sparked up a Marlboro and muttered something about extra cheese, and then I noticed that the Indian boy had a light meter dangling round his neck, which was either a total pose or these people might be worth getting to know. Even if it was a total pose, they might repay a minute or two’s chat.
Plus, the dark-haired girl was quite cute, for all her nervousness.
I was over at the dumb waiter, sending the order down to the kitchen, when I noticed her doing that thing that film directors do with their hands - making a letterbox-type viewfinder with her two hands, thumbs splayed at right angles. She was doing it at Paola who suddenly dropped one of the pizzas she was carrying. I say suddenly - actually it seemed to happen in slow motion and I seemed to view it simultaneously from a number of different angles, like the wooden beam that falls on Donald Sutherland’s ceiling-restorer’s cradle in the church in ‘Don’t Look Now’. There was a brief sense of unreality, but then the crash of the plate on the tiled floor and the disintegration of the pizza itself- La Reine with extra olives, I couldn’t help noticing - brought me back to my senses.
When I looked back at the three film student types they were laughing and the director-girl was no longer looking at Paola.
I weighed up the relative advantages of helping Paola or delivering the film students’ drinks order.
‘Peroni,’ I announced while Paola cleaned up somewhere behind me. The director-girl - she was called Elaine, as I would find out later - Elaine nodded, almost imperceptibly and her eyes seemed to flicker as they crossed sightlines with mine. The blonde girl, Sand, and the boy, Jay, were sharing a bottle of the house white. Not a great wine, but they didn’t look that well off. I’d considered slipping them the Frascati but didn’t in case they took offence. No point playing against yourself. The odds were stacked as it was.
Sand was speaking. ‘Yeah, but we’ve only got the camera for a day and we can’t switch it. You know that. If we don’t do it tomorrow we don’t do it at all. You know?’
Elaine was nodding. Jay looked pretty spaced out. I distributed the drinks slowly, hoping to catch more.
‘I’ll fucking kill that tosser if I get my hands on him,’ Jay said.
So: not all that spaced out then.
‘One swallow does not make a summer,’ said Elaine, bizarrely.
‘Where are we going to find a replacement at this stage?’ Jay again, sweeping his long hair out of his doleful eyes.
‘Are you making a film?’ I asked.
Jay turned to gaze out of the window while Sand looked at me appraisingly and Elaine took a nervous sip of her beer.
‘Someone let you down?’ I persevered. ‘I might be able to help.’
‘We’re doing a road movie,’ Elaine said, catching my eye for a split second, but that was okay, she was nervous. ‘Only we’re doing it in London. Strange place for a road movie, right? But it’s gonna be kind of post-ironic, you know?’
‘Post-ironic?’ I scratched my head.
‘Well, you know, the received wisdom is you can’t make a road movie in Britain at all, never mind in London.’
‘“Butterfly Kiss,”’ I said, unhelpfully.
‘Yeah, but it was shit,’ said Sand.
Since I couldn’t argue with that, I asked: ‘Where’s it set?’
‘On the Westway. It’s kind of like...’ This was Elaine, but she was struggling a little.
‘Like “Radio On”?’ I ventured.
Elaine sort of ummed and aahed.
‘Someone just made a short film. I think it might even have been called “Westway”,’ I offered, vaguely wondering how my other tables were doing.
Jay finally acknowledged me. ‘Fuck off,’ he said and rearranged his knife and fork.
I’d get him back for that one day, I decided. Somehow.
‘We know,’ said Sand. ‘But we only found out after we’d written ours. But it’s different. That was very British, you know, very kind of gloomy and miserable.’
‘Yeah,’ Elaine chipped in. ‘It was a miserablist classic.’ And for some reason they fell about, Jay collapsing in an implosion of scoffs and snuffles. Elaine looked at me. I had a feeling they were sharing a joke at my expense, though I couldn’t see how. ‘Ours is er... kind of going to acknowledge the fact that the road movie is an American phenomenon, you know? That’s why we had to have an American lead. It’s kind of Stephen Frears meets Hal Hartley.’
Oh my God. ‘Oh really?’ I said, heading straight for the dumb waiter.
We’d talked for so long, their pizzas were ready. I dished them out, then, kneeling down to impart a degree of intimacy, said: ‘I know just the man for the job.’
Jay immediately said: ‘Oh yeah? Who?’
‘You need an actor capable of doing a convincing American accent. Someone who can drive a car and can handle a meaningful pause.’
‘Yeah,’ Elaine was nodding. ‘That’s right. Ideally he’d be American though.’
‘But you’d take someone who could do the voice.’
‘At this stage we might have to,’ said Sand. ‘He doesn’t have much to say.’
Jay sniggered at this for some reason.
Elaine was nodding as she sawed at her Veneziana; Jay’s expression had reverted to a scowl. I didn’t know what his problem was. Maybe he was after a shag, though with whom I couldn’t tell. He certainly wasn’t getting one off me.
I arranged a meet with them for the following morning. Eight o’clock at some sports centre under the Westway. They must have been quite desperate, having exhausted all possible avenues - friends of friends and so on to go for my offer. I played him up, my actor friend: lots of experience, bumming around doing ads at the moment - lots of dosh, no respect. He wanted to do something real. Something with balls. I suggested they let me have a script and I’d pass it on after my shift - as luck would have it, I explained, I was meeting up with Ginger later.
‘Ginger?’ Jay exploded.
‘That’s the guy’s name,’ I said. I don’t know why. I didn’t think they’d go for me as I was. Maybe it was the red shirt, the dirty plates I was carrying, the serviettes I picked up off the floor as I went.
They didn’t leave a tip.
I got back at them by turning up half an hour late the following morning. Which was stretching it a bit if I was hoping to win them over. But I figured they were desperate enough to go for what I’d got. I reckoned it was a lot.
‘So where’s Ginger?’ Elaine said. She was wearing a neat-looking leather jacket with big pockets and turned-up tartan cuffs. Her hair had been washed that morning. It glinted in the wintry sun.
‘You’re looking right at him.’ I could have been Dennis Hopper. Or Jack Nicholson. The accent. Spot on. ‘I can act. I can drive. What more do you want?’
Elaine looked round at her colleagues.
Jay was just licking the gum on a roll-up. It was probably a spliff he was so fucking cool.
‘You’re a waiter,’ said Sand, not unkindly, just sort of matter of fact.
‘And you didn’t leave a tip. We’re none of us perfect. I’ve read your script. I’ve even learnt my line. I can make your film. What do you say? You’ve only got the gear for one day.’
Jay cupped his hands about a match then cast it vaguely in my direction, plucking his roll-up from between his pouting lips. He was wearing a red baseball cap. Back to front, natch. ‘You’ve got a right fucking nerve,’ he said, and stalked off.
I looked at Sand and Elaine. Sand was non-committal; Elaine, I sensed I’d got. In which case Sand would follow. ‘What does he do anyway?’ I asked, tilting my head in the direction of the disappearing Jay.
‘Sound,’ Elaine said. The fact she answered me at all signified she’d accepted the situation.
‘So we do need him back,’ I said.
Elaine looked at Sand, who sighed and undid the clasp holding her crinkly, damaged hair in place. She shook her head back and grasped her hair in two hands, reaffixing the device. Without a word but with a quick look at both of us, she went in pursuit of Jay.
‘The car’s down there,’ Elaine explained.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a Beemer.’
I raised my eyebrows, impressed.
‘An old model. A 2002ti or something. You’ve read the script.’
I had. A couple of times in the cab on the way home from the restaurant. It sucked, but it was a film. Even if only a short film. With one good line. But at least it was mine.
I craned my neck to see if there was any sign of Jay or Sand.
‘He’ll come round,’ Elaine said. She’d cocked her head on one side. ‘That was pretty confident of you.’
‘I knew I could do it but I didn’t think you’d give me a chance. It was a perfect opportunity.’
‘You haven’t actually got any acting experience at all, have you?’
I smiled at her. She wasn’t stupid.
‘The thing is,’ she said, ‘the part’s changed. A little.’
And somehow I knew what she was going to say.
‘He’s got a shaved head.’ She looked for my reaction. I was too canny - and prepared - to let it slip. ‘At least at first. It’s part of the whole non-causative approach we’re adopting in the narrative.’ She punched her hands deep into the pockets of her leather jacket. ‘Really he should shave it at the end. Sackcloth and ashes. For his crime. But in a way he kind of anticipates it. A stitch in time, after all.’
What the fuck was she on about? What the fuck was she on?
Despite the fact this was nothing but a crummy 15-minute short about a guy who drives his clapped-out old Beemer up and down the Westway and finishes with his girlfriend, I went along with the change. Almost before I knew what was happening, Elaine was leading me from the macadamed football pitch towards the Harrow Road.
‘We’ve got to get you a haircut,’ she was saying and I didn’t know why, but I wasn’t protesting. I didn’t even seem to think it was a bad idea. As we reached the pavement I looked right and saw Sand and Jay bent over a padlocked bicycle discussing something in earnest. I could read the stencilled letters on the bike’s crossbar: GRAVLAX. I didn’t find this strange.
Although it was still early, there was a barber’s that was open in the adjacent parade of shops. My Mini was parked up outside. Elaine seemed to know the guy. ‘Number one all over,’ she told him, the words seeming to wriggle out of the corner of her mouth. I sat in the chair without a fuss and found myself enjoying the buzz of the clippers as they worked at my scalp. I was aware at one point of a line of men waiting against the back wall for their turn. They wore a mixture of flat caps and peaked affairs and some of them puckered moist lips around a series of slender, sizzling roll-ups. The ceiling was Dulux Nicotine. I noticed the barber, who was lame, coming towards me with a cut-throat razor. The hand that held the blade landed on my shoulder for support. Elaine’s hand appeared on my other arm, a comforting gesture I found unnecessary. The mirror was crowded with ghosts but when I next looked in it I saw an empty wall behind me. The old men had disappeared. Just an orange plastic chair, a fan heater and a pile of well-thumbed copies of Club International and Forum.
We were leaving the hairdresser’s before I even realised Elaine had paid the man. I watched him take his razor to a long strap of leather. I caught my reflection in the glass of the door and winced.
I got her back by dragging my feet on the way to the five-a-side pitch. Jay and Sand were back, prepared to go with the situation. I ran my hand over my shorn head, enjoying the sensation. Tiny bits of hair fell on my Gap flannel shirt.
‘Untuck the shirt,’ said Sand.
Jay: ‘Yeah and do something with the pendant.’
‘Are we going to get started or just fuck about all day?’ I said, pulling my crystal pendant from inside my T-shirt. I didn’t know where it had come from but I knew I liked it. I didn’t want to lose it.
‘You play Elaine’s boyfriend,’ Sand explained.
‘I’ve read the script,’ I said. ‘I go out with her, she’s mad, I drive her home and I dump her.’
‘That’s not the way we see it, Ginger,’ Jay said. He was fingering a sound boom that had appeared from somewhere.
‘No, well, I wouldn’t expect you to.’
‘If you can’t handle it, you know,’ he jeered, ‘maybe we could get you a stunt cock.’
‘The way I see it, Jay, you’re the only one’s gonna need a body double.’ I didn’t elaborate and I sensed Elaine had had enough of our bickering. She had a film to shoot. Sand was messing about with a hand-held light, switching it on and off.
‘The car’s just over here,’ Elaine said, linking my arm as we moved in a group back towards the Harrow Road once more. I felt her body warm and firm next to mine. I sensed there were things inside it, but didn’t think about them too hard. She reminded me of an old girlfriend whom I’d loved intensely and eventually scared off: she’d gone off with a mate of mine called John, or Johnny. I felt as if I’d shot forward a long way into the future.
‘You’ll need these,’ Sand said, handing me a set of keys to the BMW. The fob was imprinted with a highly intricate design that I recognised though I didn’t know where from. Elaine held me closer.
I didn’t know if it was method acting or if she just reminded me increasngly of Clio, the girl I’d loved too much, but I found that I was attracted to Elaine. It wouldn’t be difficult to play the part of her boyfriend. As we all piled into the car I wondered if the film had started. Jay and Sand were sitting in the back with their equipment. It seemed very bright to me with the lights on but I kept quiet. I only had one line and that didn’t come until later. As well as playing my girlfriend, Elaine was directing. I glanced round at her as I pulled away from the curb, unnecessarily stripping rubber from the old tyres. She was doing that thing with her hands, zooming in on the side of my face as I drove.
I got straight into the part without waiting for direction. They could edit later, I figured. I worked on a little tic under my left eye, nearest Elaine. She was still doing the business with her hands but reeling off her lines at the same time. It occurred to me that there was no camera, but for some reason this didn’t seem to matter. My perspective shifted about wildly. When I was aware of driving I was also aware of Jay and Sand behind us doing their stuff with the lights and the sound, but now and again I would get a view from outside the car and there’d just be the two of us. Me and Elaine. Or Clio. My hand on her leg, her right leg. She was wearing a skirt, a short leather skirt. I didn’t remember it from before. She stretched her leg out a little, as far as it would go. I worked my hand up under the skirt. The soft yield of her knickers was warm against my fingers. She leaned across and flicked her tongue in my ear just like Clio had done the night I’d got off with her for the first time at some dumb party in Heaton Mersey. Her hand snaked round my leg and she grabbed my cock through my jeans. I gasped, swerved, regained control - didn’t lose it. My hard-on or the car. She was whispering something. I couldn’t tell what it was. Then she took her hand away and her other hand appeared from nowhere and she was zooming in on my crotch. A quick wipe-pan and we were looking out the front of the car. All this at 60, 65, heading towards Shepherd’s Bush on the Westway. Ladbroke Grove tube slid past on the left. One frustrated passenger murdering another on the platform. Your next eastbound service has just departed Goldhawk Road. And when I next looked at my lap I saw that someone had got my cock out. I didn’t know if it was me or Elaine or Clio. Or Sand, on Elaine’s direction, reaching over my shoulder from the back seat. Or - God forbid - Jay. And yeah, I was on, obviously I was on. Elaine was giving it some with her free hand. Her other hand, I noticed, had somehow acquired Jay’s light meter and she was checking out the lowering sky over the West Cross Route. ‘Stay on the Westway,’ she commanded, suddenly unhanding me. I was close, I’ll say that. But suddenly somehow the camera was on Elaine and she was spouting lines from the script, stuff about the cinema, the dimensions of the screen and the windscreen of a car. ‘…late twentieth-century perspective that’s impossible to get away from. Being in a car allows you to star in your own movie. The rear-view mirror represents the impossibility of going back. There’s no rewind button in real life...’ It was pretentious shite. Secondhand Ballard. Self without the wit; without the irony, the distance. Without the ideas. But Christ I fancied her. I downshifted as we rolled off the elevated section, mindful of the speed cameras - the signs were everywhere, the automatic flashes popping at anyone hitting 40 or above. I was still turned on but my cock had somehow been put back inside my jeans. I had no recollection of having done so myself. But someone had. We had it on film. I thought about audiences at the ICA sitting through it - guys with goatees and girls with absurdly tiny silver rucksacks - and thinking it meant something. Stroking those goatees in the bar afterwards, reaching inside those little bags for packets of fags that could barely fit inside. Discussing ‘it’, the film, and what ‘it’ meant. Whatever ‘it’ was. Bunch of cunts. Bag o’ shite. We turned left into Bloemfontein Road and glided past the White City Estate.
We dropped Sand off at the junction with Uxbridge Road and somehow made it back to where my car was parked in five minutes flat. I was driving but I wasn’t really aware of any resistance, whether from traffic lights or language. I was reading all the road signs and shop names but the words all seemed to be on our side. For once. The bike must have been Jay’s. I might have been wrong but I think I saw him dump the sound boom in a dustbin on his way to unlock it from the railings. Elaine and I left the BMW without locking it - she looked at me and raised her eyebrows but I said, quick as a flash, ‘It doesn’t matter, we won’t be needing it again.’ She followed me to my car. An orange Mini with a blue driver’s door where it had once been knocked by a gate on a level crossing. Lucky escape that one. It was unlocked. What was the point? ‘Get in,’ I said, gruffly, aware that she could edit me out later. I peeled away from the side of the road and U-turned at 25, 30, accelerating fast. We’d soon caught up with Jay who was cycling slowly uphill, making heavy weather of it and wearing a helmet. He’d be needing that, I thought and nudged his back wheel with the front nearside wing. He went straight down without a sound and when I looked in the mirror he wasn’t moving. That was for telling me to fuck off in the restaurant.
I took Elaine up to Kensal Green Cemetery and, although I’d thought you couldn’t do so, drove right in through the main gate. I bounced the old Mini along the path and veered left for the canal. In the shadow of the gas-holders I pulled on the handbrake and we moved into the back seat.
I asked her if this was still in the film and she laughed. The branches of horse chestnut trees scraped against the windows of the car as I rolled her sweater up over her tits and enjoyed their feel against my cold hands. She was wrestling with my belt buckle. The next thing I knew she’d taken hold of my left hand and was peering closely at it.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked her.
‘Reading your palm. You’ve got a very interesting lifeline.’
I pulled my hand away sharply, feeling angry and hurt and afraid.
‘What’s the matter?’ she said, grabbing for my hand.
‘Don’t,’ I shouted. ‘I don’t like that stuff.’
‘I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. That’s why I never watch trailers. I have to leave the cinema when a trailer comes on for a film I want to see.’
We found ourselves outside of the car, walking by the canal, even though there wasn’t meant to be a tow-path on the north side.
‘They tell you the whole story. There’s no point going to see the film if you watch the trailer carefully enough. Soon we’ll all only watch trailers. They won’t make films any more. Only trailers.’ We passed a brightly painted barge. ‘We won’t be able to go to the pictures together. You’ll be sitting there whispering to me you know what’s going to happen. My mum used to do that. She’d sit there and say look at him, he did it, you just watch. And she was right every time. Even if she wasn’t, she spoilt it for you because it changed the way you watched. You should watch the film at the speed the director wants you to watch it at, not try and second guess him. Or her.’
Elaine didn’t say anything but tried to grab my hand again instead. I just laughed and chased her up the bank.
The next thing I knew we were back at her place, although still outside in the street by my car.
‘Trailers are the palm-reading of the cinema,’ I was saying. ‘You should know that, you’re a director. And a palm-reader.’
‘I’m in control,’ she said. ‘I have to be in control. That’s why I’m making this film.’
For a moment she looked as if she was about to do that thing with her hands, but she didn’t.
I delivered my line: ‘I’ve had enough of mad people,’ I said, becoming aware only at that moment that I was going to finish with her. I’d always been convinced that palm-reading and being mad went hand in hand.
‘Oh that’s it then. You’re dumping me,’ she said, hands on hips, not taking any shit.
I shrugged and nodded.
She said: ‘Well, at least let me get my coat, then you can run me home,’ which puzzled me because I understood we were at her home, but then I realised this was where she worked. I watched her go up the steps into the building. She started going up the stairs which I could see through the glass doors. How could I have thought it was her home? It looked nothing like where someone would live. I dived into the Mini and made off up the high street, looking back in the rearview mirror to see if I could see her in the first floor windows. I saw her as I approached the point where the road bent. She’d pulled on a shiny red coat and was bending down squinting out of the window after me. She knew exactly what I was doing. Then, as she mimed a sudden progressive, stage-by-stage zoom I saw what she was doing: I understood as I hurtled round the corner and straight into the war memorial.
In the next scene, the last scene, the scene no one’s expecting, she’s back at her place with a new boyfriend - I think it’s Jay. They’re arguing over something. She’s going to come into her bedroom sooner or later. I pull the covers up around me, moving carefully against the skirt of broken windscreen glass. I’m wearing the Mini like a duvet. She’ll come in and see me. That’ll get her back.
Nicholas Royle was born in Sale in 1963 and has lived in London since 1982. Around a hundred of his short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. His first two novels, Counterparts and Saxophone Dreams, were published by Penguin; his new novel, The Matter of the Heart, is published by Abacus. He has edited five anthologies including, most recently, A Book of Two Halves (Indigo) and The Time Out Book of New York Short Stories (Penguin).
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