[ fiction - july 05 ]
The flowers come round on a small black tray. Table to table. Ladies to choose. Red carnations, red roses, on a bed of dark leaves. The young woman likes the look of the offerings, black hair back-combed in a bee-hive, eyelids painted with an upturning line. She opens her smile but the man with his arm along the back of her chair, without consultation, is shaking his head. He wants to take her home. Let him read her palm! No! Don't pull your hand away! Let him trace the life-line! Let him teach her a trick to defend herself from hooligans! Let him slam and slam the door. Let him slam the door! As long as he keeps talking, and keeps her hand in his, as long as he shoots words between the doorframe and her. She can't get away. This is an act he's perfected. Not, acting.
"Now you say something and something like this, and he says something and something like that, and you say something and something like this." In a hurry, so that they'll forget all but a fraction. She takes the part of the mother/father: he is to recreate himself as a boy. In the middle of the tent. Your skills, the facilitator says, directing. She wants to be the star. "So that you won't have to go without, like we have! So that you won't have to work all hours!" Afterwards, he asks her how she knows so exactly what they used to say? Small shops, shopkeepers; out from Snow Hill, the Cockney diaspora.
It was on a bus that he met the older woman. She re-enacted this meeting for a film which was not the film that he claimed he would put her in. Instead, a reconstruction. Such trust to deliver themselves over again to a man with a camera (or men) after the first had caused so much doubt! They'd gone to the police. That was understandable. Unlike her Czech contemporary, who'd burst out laughing at what she'd overheard (and secured her place on celluloid), this woman was self-contained, respectful, discreet. "I'm afraid we haven't got much food in the house but I could make you an omelette," standing between sitting room and kitchen, hands folded, head covered in a scarf. The men sit in socks, for the value and beauty of the carpet, of course. Even if not valuable, the men sit in socks.
He told them to meet him in another part of town to watch 'The Cyclist'. This aroused their concern. Why the little arthouse and not the five-screen - it was showing the same film? He insisted he had no intention to deceive. We are forced to ask ourselves, "Is this rehearsed?" Sitting above them, the bearded cleric (well-known on TV within his field of petty crime, divorce, domestics) represents the benign, comprehensive, disinterested. Chin uptilted, he discriminates; "Forget about the burglary: there was no burglary, that's not what we're here for." The accused, however, is giving explanation. Shaking his head with eyes cast down. Examining a darkness that no-one else can see.
"Forgive me, I promise I won't do it again." But nursing the broken arm and two small children she's heard this before. One too many times. We are torn apart. They were told to stay in role even when they weren't on camera, because there was a second lens prowling around. Everyone, in fact, a potential protagonist. The army reservist who'd drunk too much beer; passing a hand across his rumpled face. The plump factory worker sitting on her own, looking incredulous then smiling with delight and glancing up to heaven (all in twenty seconds) as she's asked for a dance. When the waiter takes away the bottle that she's just about to pour, her sense of humiliation is real. (And the triumph on the faces of the table he takes it to). The tall girl being swung in circles by one of the 'grandfathers' in the Excuse me with no "Excuse me!" her hectic smile.
A wedding ring jumped off and bounced across the floor. Turned on its side like a coin and came to rest. Their feet were being shifted this way and that way by a man who was searching for it under the table. Easy peasy! Crawling out backwards he got beer on his uniform; his spectacles were colourless, he seemed a little slow. The three went together to the Ladies' to confer; should they follow to the woods, or return to the hostel? The musicians were flagging and the pianist had absconded. It was hard to decide. (In the basin there was nothing to safeguard the plughole; if she scrubbed her hands too hard, her ring would disappear.)