Never got to Hollywood
[ fiction - july 12 ]
I can always catch how someone is by the nature of the problems he has with the campaign or a client, but whenever I think about this thing I just sort of shrink into some awful hole and can’t sit in my skin. I spend patches of the day in a trance. Sometimes I lock the office door and lie on the sofa and let it pass, sometimes it catches me in a meeting and I miss everything that’s said and people look at me and ask if I’m okay. Only my status prevents anyone from really finding out what’s wrong with me. But then everyone in the advertising business avoids personal problems – theirs or anyone else’s. We’re always on top of things, cynical, witty, kind of schoolboy derisive. Our job is to play around with perception; so personal problems usually translate into problems with the clients and the campaign. So I’m on my own with this one. But Dan isn’t on his own; he dumped it on one other – me.
While they were shooting the extras, Dan escaped to a cocoon of silence way to the south of the house. The isolation of these retreats from the common man harmonised a love of remoteness in him. At this distance the house looked splendid: classic outriders of cedar and fir mantled the symmetric Georgian house at the sedate heart of a Capability Brown landscape. Geometric lawns presided over green seas of parkland dipping and flowing round copses, and eddying by shores of beech and rhododendron. But now the woods were wild, the lawns carpeted in rabbit shit, and the Portland stone scarred by an impetigo of fungus, cracks and Polyfilla.
Between takes he hovers in the empty rooms like a dreamcatcher waiting for a trace of the past to snare itself in some filament of his senses and hint how lives were lived in these huge, still spaces. The jabber of extras, and the rasp of two-way radios ram him back into the present. “Dan? Can we have you please?” would come at him irritatingly as if it were a question which he could answer with something other than “of course”, and he would obediently trot after the Welsh AD with the huge Bristols for another repetition of four-second scenes.
Unemployment depressed and worried him, but when a job brought in the relief, he very quickly floated into a fug of sullenness and resentment because the job was always a disappointment. Expectations were always pricked. These senior years were times of reflection for Dan in which he was locked into a bleak reflection on all things that had gone wrong and all the opportunities he had missed, and he couldn’t find a way to break out of this vortex of negativity that flushed him down into daily depressions. The strength of this bleakness defeated him; it had no chinks in its armour. So the menial nature of the jobs he got these days – indeed had always got if he were honest – simply reminded him of his lifelong inability to rise out of the menial place. But the great house at a distance stilled him, brought a few seconds peace and in the interior and exterior noise that seemed to hound him these days, a few seconds were as good as it got.
A heavy metal group had lived their offstage moments in this house in the early seventies. Daniel was envious of all that money and he was also frightened by, but envious of the courage to defy the sanctity of old traditions and deface the elegance with deafening rehearsals, eye make up, basses, sub woofers, bent accountants, Chinese takeaways and easy humping in between inspiration or disagreements. Class war. Then three chord aggression gave way to gender bending, sales dropped, and it was sold to a solicitor family in the eighties who claimed to have “saved it from destruction” and had been restoring it ever since. The term restoration bore a semantic optimism, since it consisted of tearing bits down, leaving them and filling every conceivable corner up with junk until it resembled the set of an upper-class Steptoe and Son.
The filmmakers with their radios, i-Pads, i-Phones, headphones, Blackberries constantly tuned to some invisible other, receiving instructions, confirmations, making requests, seemed half human, half technology, half cyber creatures, here but not wholly here, half somewhere else in an unknown universe. They, too, were busy adding their techno fade to the heavy metal fade and the long line of the house’s other English fades fading back to a time of oil paintings and early spaniels. The latest custodians of the lineage of fades, the lawyer’s family, followed them around everywhere in quiet rapture as if Dan and the crew were their favourite boy band, and it was incumbent upon Dan to nod to them like a grateful royal guest passing to his mark, Father, Mother, Son, Son’s Wife, Three Kids and Granny, shambling after them in braying accents and shell suit bottoms. This was the fabric of English shabby genteelism in all its superior squalor; Debrett's trailer trash embracing the axiom that they didn't need to look classy, they were lords of the manor, therefore, they were class. But they weren't. They were lawyers. On tiptoe. All Daniel saw was a reflection of his own grandiosity. But where their grandiosity had brought a classic, if dilapidated house and landscaped lawns of rabbit shit, his had brought landscaped nothing: no lawn, no window box, not even rabbit shit. Grandiosity seemed to work for some, but Dan suspected he just had the grandiosity without the knack.
At least he was finally playing an aristocrat. He had dreamed of being the man in the big house when he was a threadbare teenager on the council estate in South Shields. Sadly, his aristocratic experience was only to be in a commercial, a thirty-second fantasy playing second fiddle to car insurance, hardly enough to dine out on. Sneeze twice and you’ll miss me. The filmmakers were inclusive and polite; quick to praise and encourage, gentle in suggesting another tack, another attempt; but really they were another species. He would slide off their consciousness at the end of the day like omelette from a Teflon skillet, but he behaved like the retrievers they gave him for the exteriors, wet-nosed and waggy-tailed whenever they patted him. Adams and Capability Brown, rabbit shit, Rococo and residuals. Honest enough pursuit he supposed, but as an old idealist bumbling along an interminable rock bottom, there were periods in the day when Daniel fell into brief bouts of despair.
He had never been proud of his working class roots. He didn't want to be a Finney or a Courtney. He wanted to play glam parts in the classics, but only made it to the National as a small part player and understudy to an untalented celebrity from a BAFTA award winning television series. Before the flood, he had a wife who worked in the film industry, and once asked her how such a crude, obvious actor could be so successful. Her response - delivered with the languor of a bored mother talking to an irksome child who will always ask the same question - was that the business was run by people who only understood the crude and the obvious; they were after all working for the public, the mass for whom a frontal lobotomy would be a cultural upgrade.
“If I'd a better grasp of the crude and the obvious I wouldn't be in the mess I'm in today.” mused Desperate Dan on the carpet of rabbit shit, wondering if he would have been a failure with the crude and obvious anyway. Perhaps the crude and obvious required a certain gift.
The wife had long gone to Holland Park with an Oscar nominee director. God, Daniel hated directors. Thank God he didn’t win the Oscar. That brought a moment of pure, nuclear joy for him when some other forgotten nine-day wonder got the call. That former wife would be grey haired now and spending more time in Tuscany...
The thirty-second Tarantinos called. They were ready for the next take...
Dan used to scratch a living writing training videos, but that hadn’t lasted and he’d landed back in the unemployed actor trap. He’d got a try-out once writing some radio ads for a rival agency near Baker Street, but they didn’t hire him. I couldn’t see Dan writing ads; otherwise I’d have offered him something. He told a Scottish businessman we both know from the pub about it. The Jock had said he was glad Dan hadn’t got the job because he couldn't see him sitting in an office “writing all that shite."
Dan had to tell me the Jock’s comment. Just had to. Once I got over the urge to punch his lights out, I realized I shouldn’t mind. We were at the same South Shields school and he’d started out with stars in his eyes and me wondering what the hell lay in store for me. I ended up running an ad agency while Dan aimed for the stars and ended up with nothing. Like thousands in his crappy profession. So he was digging out some of the hurt I suppose. Normally the wankers who come the ‘advertising is shite’ crap get both barrels back from me big time, but I was aware the sofa I was lying on was worth more than all Dan's assets.
At school Dan came last in a class English test one term. He was so shocked that in the year exam he came second. He and a girl with a crow’s profile and a phone number IQ were several percent ahead of any one else. In the whole year. After that he just sank into the middle as if to say, ‘See? I can do it if I want to’ and that was all he needed. But he made a pig’s ear of his A-levels, and when the fruits of his laziness were handed back, he was traumatised. He couldn’t laugh that one off. While the rest of us swanned off to unis or the old polys, he was left behind in that shit hole of a town as a trainee manager in a shoe shop. Somehow, he became an actor. I reckon his whole life has been an attempt to make up for that moment of humiliation, all that feeling a right fool when he got the official stamp of failure from the examination board.
Anyway a couple of years later he got out of the shoe shop and into a big London drama school and it really did change him. They sort of took him apart and reconstructed him closer to someone he probably wanted to be – relaxed, interesting, quietly confident – that sort of thing. He lost his north-eastern accent, but he found something else. Some sort of stillness. Dan had always been a bit hysterical, but now he seemed calm, and could talk about Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen, and way back at the end of the Sixties, that seemed a really cool thing. Guys like Shakespeare and Ibsen were cool then. Difficult to imagine now. If Ibsen isn’t on Twitter he doesn’t exist. But then how many in my day actually knew? Not many in South Shields. Maybe nothing changes.
Anyway, Dan had a lot of intellectual energy then, as if he really was making up for lost time. And he was much more successful with women than we were. We all had girl friends, some of whom went on to become first wives, but he turned up one Easter with a right stunner. Not an actress either. An anthropologist heading for a good degree at a better uni than any of us were at. She lit up those dingy Northern streets as if she was proof he was destined for great things. I’ve no doubt he loved her, but I sensed he had to have the best woman around. Like winning the first prize, or making up for the A-levels again.
But when he left drama school it all changed back. It’s difficult for any actor to get work – except the really gifted or lucky ones, and Dan wasn’t either of those. Reality kicked in and started killing the myth. All that rejection; letters to the reps not being answered, no messages from his third-division agent, all the shit I’ve seen in the eyes of a thousand actors when I cast commercials. I’ve always seen acting as a kind of abuse. Some actors survive it; others don’t. Dan couldn’t. Once out of drama school, the confidence evaporated. So did the girl friend. And then the dress sense. As a student he was quite conservative in dress, turning out in Burtons suits or Daks jacket and Hush Puppies, while we were geared out in jumble. In those days, actors wore suits and smart sports jackets. You never saw Alec Guinness in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. When we all graduated we went the opposite way: while we got into the suits and glam-rock shirts, Danny became more and more like a student, turning up in civil defence coats and police jackets with the buttons removed. And he was always broke, the one who couldn’t come to the Chinky after a night in the boozer, too proud to accept a meal from any of us.
After he left drama school all that inner stillness changed back into a kind of uptight hysteria.
Daniel leaned up against the make-up girl's brand new 320d beamer, a £25-30k car, flat in Kensington and hardly childbearing age. All for painting faces. But what you did didn't matter; it was the trick of making it matter that mattered. The long fever of idealism had beached him in a world that had left him behind. Idealism slows you down, he thought, till you miss the point, and the thought cowed him and he had to walk off a few yards, as if the thought were anchored to a particular spot in the cobbled courtyard and could be left behind. But it followed. “Fuck off!” shot out of him and the extra at the coffee machine looked at him. Dan turned away again.
Across the courtyard they were filming a scene from the second commercial in this trilogy. Daniel was in the first and it gave him a sense of being slightly superior to those who followed in commercials two and three. The main actor in commercial two had played decent parts at the National when Daniel did his stint there as a small part player and understudy. He seemed a nice enough fellow, funny in the canteen if a little loveyish, but an actor without soul, without a quality of that ‘other’ that was the essence of the actor’s art, the atmosphere that an actor brings onstage that is a resonance of something within but also beyond the text. This fellow just seemed to hit the part with a straight bat. But those were the types who got the work; predictable, safe, the ‘what you see is what you get’ types: darlings of the TV executive producers with their focus group attachments and formula fixations. A type: that was what the actor was, a clear, unequivocal type.
Was Daniel a type? He thought he had range, but he always seemed to play subservient individuals, unimportant sorts. Never roles that required a little... Daniel searched for the word that described the quality needed for the roles he never played. But it eluded him.
A breeze lifted the trees above the trash-filled stables to his left and transported him back to a breeze lifting the trees on a wooded bank of the River Tyne during a teenage period as an angler, a Saturday when the sun, sky, river, and wind suddenly unfolded a strange feeling of hope in him. Like an unexpected meaning coalescing with a kind of brief natural poetry, a touch of some ‘other’, half seen in the corner of the eye; some connection as yet undiscovered, gently coming, stretching, waking - maybe too much, he thought, too clichéd that ‘connection as yet undiscovered gently coming, stretching etc’. A gratitude certainly; the sound of the water and the breeze, the peace, the fish he would never catch turning their lazy backs under the deep green shadows on the other bank. In the moment they say. Time, the landscape, Daniel all coming together in one complete, rounded, safe fusion held as a stasis in... something or other. Another word he cannot quite get is.. is... is it fucking Alzheimer’s already? A meaning sensed!! Yes. A meaning sensed. Still lingering on the bus home.
He remembered the bus trip back. He was quietly smoking his way through the last of a packet of ten Rothmans, and everything seemed heightened: the smell of the seat fabrics, the cigarette, the steel and oil smell of the conductor’s ticket machine, the late sun highlighting the scratches and impurities on the window glass, the strained cadences of gears whining up the hills, vibrating the shining metal handgrips on the seats. He suddenly loved them that Saturday. Ordinary things. Youth. Hope. All that crap. Before it started. Trying to get back the sensations of that Saturday? Was that what his whole disastrous life amounted to? An attempt to recapture the feelings of a Saturday fishing on the fucking Tyne? He should never have gone fishing. Or stuck with fishing and an ambition less grand. A Ford Mondeo and an angling record. That wouldn’t be so bad. His thoughts exhausted him.
A quality of ‘background’ was the word he was looking for. But he couldn’t remember what he was looking for it for.
The ballistic Welsh tits in the T-shirt floated towards him. He noticed how all the girls working in commercials were good-looking. Not so in telly or in the odd film he had been in. Advertising is all about surface, he thought, and in a Welsh sex on bread style, she certainly has surface. But she was charming and sweet, almost innocent behind the mantraps, and announced that they were nearly ready and could she get him a cup of coffee? Gone were the days when the prospect of a walking arousal like this well-set girl would provide Daniel with some distraction from the way his life was shunting. He looked at her without a flicker of sexual interest, just envy of her youth, of the fact that she still had a future, of her contentment and of her easy pleasantness, of the reams of Kleenex that would be soiled in her honour, wondering if it would all slowly shake down to disaster with her too. Maybe she’s painlessly shallow; maybe she doesn’t have that aspirational sensitivity that leads to lives of smaller and greater disasters. But maybe she’s gifted. Maybe when I’m on the pension I’ll read about her startling low budget debut film and have it confirmed that she is one of those kissed by the graces and think fuck me another one, another Not-Me.
Ambition. That’s what killed me. This young girl is probably content with being an AD in commercials. He half remembered a line from an Auden poem about the sleeping head laying human on the faithless arm; a prayer really for any loved one, not just some golden curled youth who plays the B side, but from a loving one to the object of their love – father to daughter, husband to wife, gay poet to young beloved, the prayer of the concerned for the innocent. “Find the breathing world enough...” was the line. No one said that to him, no one gave him the chance to consider what that meant and what pain ignoring it might mean. A life of smaller and larger disasters. Yes, that was it. Or was it “living” world? Whatever. He never could. ‘Enough’. Never quite. Too bloody much or nothing, never ‘enough’.
“Coffee would be nice.”
The two-way that was clipped on the T-shirt stretching over the slopes of her great powers buzzed. She lay her unsleeping head my love, human on her faithless shoulder, dragged the radio and the T-shirt to her pink-sheened lips to answer, and the great breasts surged up from the deep like dolphins.
“They’d like you for a line-up right away. Okay if I get you one later?”
Why rope me in on his filthy little secret? I figured it out. It gave him something over me at last. I’m finally in his power. I’m the last of the bunch he sees of the old crew from South Shields who made our way off to university and left Dan rotting in his parents’ council house. The balance shifted when he told me. My money, cars, homes, success, relative content all went for nothing. Suddenly confronting these facts I was weak. My days were infected with the secret of what he had done, and my own moral torpidity around it. In some bizarre and crazy way, I wondered if somewhere down the line I had some responsibility for it. And I think he knew that; I think that was part of the pitch. I don’t think there was any innocent I–have-to-tell-somebody shit. He knew what he was doing and he really got me.
Dan had to be tops. I used to play him Subbuteo when we were kids. I only had the players – you know the little plastic men in the hemispherical bases. They were two-dimensional then, just stamped out of sheets of cellulose in various team colours. Dan had the baize pitch; so he was kind of boss, and we all went round his place to play our league matches. My little players were kitted out in Middlesbrough colours, but Dan had players in the strip of Internazionale Milan who were European champions then, and he kept doing a commentary as we played: “Facchetti a beautiful ball up to the elegant Luis Suarez.” All that. Well, Facchetti and his boys weren’t doing too well, I was 5–0 up in no time and Dan was getting angrier. Then the elegant Suarez missed another sitter and suddenly Dan loses it and systematically presses his thumb down on the heads of each of his plastic players until they snap and he storms out. I’m left alone, 5–0 winner on his kitchen table, with all these tiny, dismembered Inter Milan figures. He never played again.
He started before any of us and took us all to the cleaners, but the first set I won against him was the last we ever played.
“Thanks Dan. Absolutely brilliant.”
He still found compliments unmanageable moments best left to slide past un-delayed. They were pleased they said, but they always said that, the way they always say “the rushes are wonderful”. When are the rushes anything other than wonderful? Who dare emerge on set and say, “The rushes are shit”? How so much rubbish emerges from all those wonderful rushes is one of the mysteries of Providence.
The Welsh fantasy breezed him to the unit car and within seconds the world of Georgian elegance and his moment as Lord of the Manor vanished. The driver raced back to London through an uninterrupted litany of complaints about the French, the Greeks, fuel prices and paedophiles all the way to Golders Green. By the time they got there, it was awash with rain and the last glimmers of sun squatting under a late display of wet gold and silver slosh on a bellying of blue, thin clouds. He liked un-pushy, unaggressive Golders Green; a great place to grow up if you were a nerd, because everybody else was, but his fondness rested partly in the tolerance and lack of inclusion he felt because he wasn’t one of the tribes. The knitted fabrics of this one nation suburb suited his preference for distance and difference. The sense of touching a community from the edge and having no need of the intrinsic obligations of the full member, gave him just the right sense of place and ease without any of the problems. There had always been a few Japanese and West Indians, sheltering under a Jewish sky, and others landed when the property marker inflated - the usual hopefuls, victims and junkies of bad capitalism - but all in all, the old place withstood any real invasion. It remained steady and constant. He got the driver to drop him at the local Sainsbury’s and as he said thank you and goodnight he remembered he was unemployed again, and the world grew a little colder.
Acting was his thing though. That was something none of us did. The stage gave him uniqueness, and of course, it’s make-believe. And you get a round of applause at the end.
We all went to see him at the local amateur theatre and there’s no doubt he had something. You stopped thinking it was Dan when he was acting. The others were awkward and unnatural, but he was in the groove; you kind of believed he was who he was meant to be. It wasn’t much of a play, some modern version of life at Elizabeth’s court. Really old-fashioned, where the women never got pregnant but were with child.
In the pub later he didn’t know how to take the compliments and we didn’t know how to give them. A “well done mate” was about as gushing as it got. Apart from Tom who went on about how amazing he was and how acting was an amazing thing because it bared the human soul etc, etc. Even Dan was embarrassed. But Tom was half-cut already and the booze had got him even then, poor sod. He had creative ambitions himself, so I suppose he was partly talking about himself. He became a journalist. Probably with big dreams about Fleet Street and ‘that novel’ but the closest he ever got to Fleet Street was Chester and he died of liver failure at thirty eight not having managed a page of ‘that novel’. He did an interview with Dan when he was in some kids’ TV thing years ago. Not quite the Hello magazine ‘At home with Daniel Craig level. Nearly, because Dan’s real name was Crate. Not Craig. Similar, but worlds apart. He changed it to Mare, his mother’s maiden name. Maybe he should have stuck to Crate.
The café in Golder’s Hill Park had been a haunt for his worst thoughts and occasional content. In front of the chemically-enhanced cream catering products, arranged on cheap china plates in compartments of glass cabinets, Dan usually had a swift dip in his mood. For some reason the display of sweet things in these celled cabinets made him think of laboratory animals waiting for the angle grinder in the skull, or the insertion of the electrodes, or the latest haut parfum to be sprayed into their pegged-open eyes in their involuntary dedication to mankind’s therapeutic and lifestyle enhancement. Or perhaps they suggested that everyone ends up in a compartment on his own, isolated from his neighbour. Maybe it looked like a crematorium cemetery. Nevertheless, he always enjoyed the cherry cake, which, weather permitting, he would take onto the large patio from where he could scan the park and slowly let the suburban peace calm him.
Down the slope, animals slouched in pens in the little zoo. Mums wheeled their kids up to the sad birds with their plumage a point or two duller than it should be, and pointed out the emus and little pot-bellied Vietnamese pigs snuffling around the English grass. At times he had wanted to release those animals; their and his days had the same insistent, caged mediocrity to them, but this morning was an interlude in that repetition, and he could briefly enjoy it. Make the most of it while you’ve got it, because it will be gone soon.
“Just a commercial.”
“Ah well, pays the bills!”
Under the trees on the edge of the Heath, a park ranger with orange ear protectors scurried small tornadoes of leaves along the perimeter. What is the point of a machine that blows leaves from point A to point B wondered Dan? Except as a metaphor for his own windy journey - starting out at point A with the whole alphabet running in front, and after decades of being blown hither and thither to find he has been dropped just short of B. The park was laden with predatory metaphors for Dan. But the recent job eased the morning into contentment, the little moments of ‘now’ that relieve the anxiety of the future and the despair of the past becalmed him. The pressure lowered, and as the sun warmed the synthetic cream on his cherry cake into a delicate crust, the deep shadows of the pine trees on the hill to the Heath drew him into a draught of peace. Nothing like this in South Shields, he thought; if nothing else the long farce had got him away from all that.
Voices shattered his peace. Young voices. Dan felt his throat tense. A dog bolted into view, an emblematic kind that is illegal, a pit bull unleashing the fanged jaw of the council estate into the gentle parklands of suburbia. Dan looked round for help but he was the only person on the patio, the unsupported frontline due to engage the enemy first. Behind him the middle-class faces, Jewish and Gentile, stared with horror and the impotence of age through the café’s plate glass windows at the invasion from the underclass, hoping the sacrificial goat tethered on the patio would be enough and the enemy would pass on.
Half a dozen of them swarmed in a haze of ‘fuckin’s’ and ‘cunts’ daring anyone to challenge their jabbering invasion or their language. In rational moments, Dan felt there must be some humanity, some trace of love in these louts somewhere, but they worked so hard at generating hatred that it became important to preserve the vision of them as loud, graceless, ugly trespassers, genetically bred for destruction. To see damage, pain and the possibility of a hurt humanity beneath the vandalism and gobbing changed the social discourse and gave them an advantage that questioned the onlooker’s hatred. Something had to be hated and these idiots walked into the job nicely. They triggered primitive reactions wherever they went, and the fight or flight chemical was blocked at victim state in Dan. He was mesmerised by these fifteen-year-old burger-eating lizards, and particularly the leader, a pint-sized Mike Tyson, machine-gunning words that Dan couldn’t quite distinguish but whose meaning was crystal clear. The roar of the male bullies who know that fear is the only power they have over others and the Vicky Pollard staccato of the female of the species sprayed the imported trees and Japanese climbing flowers, and Dan was staked out with nowhere to run and nothing to do except fill his vision with the warming crust on his chemical cherry cake as the primeval calls shot overhead like shells.
In the old days, even nasty kids had a pack recognition of the seniority of the adult, and men could expect to handle things like this, step up and calm things with reasonable words and a bit of old-fashioned firmness. Even the delinquents in the old days were aware of the social obligations they despised but would one day embrace. But the modern beast was genetically anti-social, deranged, and psychopathic. They carried knives the way others carry biros and used them with the same dispassionate ease. That was the category style, the subcultural imperative; stab the fuckers, stab, stab, stab. It was like a national Tourette’s syndrome among the young underclass. Stab, stab, stab. They would have stabbed Christ himself and he would have forgiven them, the mug.
Behind them the dog raced over the slope. The leaf-blower on the other side continued blowing; he could hear nothing through his ear protectors and machine – or was pretending he couldn’t hear. How typical! Dan was furious with him and every custodian of the people whose lack of decisiveness and spine had let this state of affairs develop. This was a modern plague terrorising the streets, and the authorities had signally failed to isolate and wipe it out.
The hideous herd passed on and Dan was left with arteries beating in places where he didn’t realise he had arteries. Then came the rush of anger and the engulfing sense of shame at the vividness of his cowardice. In his head he could murder these thugs, but in the open he could never translate his anger into action. So his cravenness burned on in him leaving more little blisters.
Discreetly he watched them wander down to the pond, careful to ensure they didn’t catch his eye. The dog rode at the metal fence, bouncing off it as it threw itself at the geese and ducks beyond. The gang casually picked up gravel and had a great game flinging it as hard as they could at the birds. This was disgraceful; flung gravel was like grapeshot; the birds were unprotected; even the animals existed only to be victimised. Dan felt more waves of shame at his own timidity. To be able to go down there and stop them would be a marvellous thing, but he would simply become another knife statistic. These young Neanderthals had Dan by the tail, corrupting the purity of his hatred with self-loathing and reminders of his paralysing cowardice.
The dog crouched and deposited on the grass. No one picked it up. The final insult was delivered. My dog shits on your territory. His shit is our flag and we claim this land because you cannot defend it. Then, thankfully they were gone beyond the line of trees spreading down to the lower reaches of the park.
He could hear the bustle behind the windows as the shock passed. That they might come back was his only thought. So, he left his untouched cherry cake and trudged through a force field of white noise back to his car in one of the side streets on the Heath extension. In the front seat he let the shame eddy and slap round him. The day was ruined. It wasn’t the kids; they were sad products of ongoing sadness, it was what they had shaken up in him that killed it. That knowledge of his cowardice and all the other stuff he couldn’t bear snapped and lunged at him in the old Saab, like the dog lurching at the geese in the park: the South Shields garbage and crap, the detritus and gracelessness, long grey days by a long grey sea, the shame of being left in that town with boxes of shoes and a dead end future because I fucked up and my friends went off, and the mad chase to make up for it, rabbiting down the wrong holes, sprinting up the wrong streets, trying to be unique, different, special, lurching for attention at the edge of the herd, and ending up another broken down cliché with bugger all to show for it but fear. Fear in the night where nothing but the dark ceiling stares back, fear at the postman, fear when the phone rings, fear of kids in a park working hard to ignore the fear in themselves.
He realised he had applied himself with admirable energy to his own downfall but had been completely unaware of it. The kids had stripped away layers of ingrained deceptions. All the stories he told himself were gone with a feral dog and a bunch whose best prospect was one of the better jails or an early death from obesity or drug related problems. He was left with the dispiriting sense that he had nothing to offer anyone, not his estranged son and daughter, his friends, agent, any passing audience: above all himself. There was a line in Peer Gynt, “Forgive me Lord. I have trod your earth and left no print.” That was he. No fucking print. Not even a tooth mark on his cream and cherry cake in the park.
He imagined the café in the park the day after he died.
“Oh I hear that old fellow’s gone. Yes. I think he was an actor. No, I think he was. Bit shirty...”
A familiar emptiness filled him. He balanced in it, held in some prehistoric gravity of defeat.
Go home. One-bedroom flat. High above the roofs of Golders Green. Telly. ITV3. ITV4. Old re-runs of series he was never in. Lie on the bed; enjoy the self-pity, the rage, feel the shame, love it, then it will pass. It always does; the day aches on. The weed survives; the exhausted flowers come back in spring.
He started up and swung onto West Heath Road, nose down for Golders Green.
He saw the dog first. It sprinted across the road, muscles on its haunches rippling, in a fast powerful lope that was graceful. Something happened. It was automatic. He found himself slamming his foot down on the old Saab’s accelerator. It was a very old Saab with the kind of heavy turbo that only kicks in after a few milliseconds then puts everything through the rear window when it does. The car kicked forward, the ‘g’ force shoved him back in the seat, but the dog was gone. In a millisecond he computed that he didn’t really want to hit the dog anyway, just scare it. The gesture was enough. In his Saab he had power. Now he was armed. He could be merciful. That calmed him a little.
But then something else seemed to happen without his consent or consideration. The boy-leader leapt out from between parked cars shouting obscenities at him and took a position directly in the car’s path daring Dan to run him down. There was no debate, no questioning, no thought, no feeling, except a slight hotness in his ear lobes. It just seemed to happen to Dan; he steered a straight course, accelerated, the turbo kicked in, and he hit hard enough to feel the car vibrate with the collision of the boy catapulting onto the bonnet. He kept accelerating through an impression of female screams and male cries from the gang somewhere offstage left, and the old Saab’s turbo pinned the boy against the windscreen as Dan continued accelerating. The boy’s button eyes were staring straight at him, all the aggression and swagger draining away fast. Dan found himself looking deep into the eyes, to see if he could glimpse a fleck of mutuality. The boy had a strange mark in one eye. How many kids in the playground took the Mickey out of that, thought Dan? How many times did it come to boots and fists over an imperfection in the cornea? Then he saw a kind of desperate pleading ghost across the hard face. The boy was hurt. Dan jammed on the brakes and propelled the boy off the bonnet. He reversed, pulled out and drove past the crumpled heap down the hill at a reasonable pace, turned first left, then slowly navigated his way round all the streets till he found himself heading up towards the Heath proper at the top of Hampstead, following any road that presented itself to him.
He observed himself acting the part of a driver on a normal day in a normal series of traffic jams, affecting a little unfelt road rage at one point, fulfilling the deception, and he couldn’t shake himself from this act. It possessed and manipulated him like a glove puppet. No one around knew what he had done. It had happened automatically – fight or flight. Some automatic system froze him in the park and inspired him in the Saab. You never knew what it would do. But the boy’s eyes remained with him, the apparition of a remote, oblique request for help fading in them, and Dan was left with the idea that those expressions of fear and pain were the real McCoy hiding behind the swagger and offensiveness of that young lad.
It was like vertigo: a strange buzz-less buzz. He drove and functioned with no thought, guiding the car through Gospel Oak, the top end of Kentish Town and eventually found himself sitting on a wide avenue of trees in the green open spaces of Finsbury Park. He had never been to Finsbury Park. He stopped, switched off and listened to the wind lifting the leaves.
A lad not unlike the one he had dispensed with walked his Staffy dog. Dan watched. He had no fear now, only a scientific observation. The dog loved her master, her stumpy tail switching like a windscreen wiper as he threw an old tennis ball and she spun and raced after it. They disappeared over the slope, throwing, spinning, racing.
An ice cream van limped up the avenue and stopped a hundred yards in front of him. The camber canted it over at an angle under the trees, as if it were leaning exhausted. It let out a couple of belled phrases and waited for custom, although there was no one in sight. Dan saw the silhouette of the ice cream man rise with some effort from the driving seat and move into the cabin. He was overweight, and his bulky silhouette spread over his worktops like liquid as he settled into looking out motionlessly over the sunlit park. He stayed lost in thought for a while, and Dan didn’t move as he watched him, each mirroring the other’s physical stillness, but stillness conferred by different feelings: one the stillness of boredom, of a man perhaps just killing time or feeling lonely, the other a stillness from something deep within that felt peculiarly adult and safe and rewarding. The silhouette inside the ice cream van stared out for what seemed like an age and Dan wondered what was going on in that distant mind. Then the tableau was broken with sudden, effortful movement, but Dan remained absolutely still and watched on. Nothing in his body seemed to move; no arteries seemed to beat; he was held in a stillness that is very rare in life and had been absolutely absent in his, a blink, gentle and slow, like a blink after tears, was his only animation. He continued watching as a paper was brought out, a cigarette lit, and leaning on his elbows and firing the smoke in long vigorous jets well out of the van, reading and smoking was gently used to pass through the next few minutes. Then the shadow show was over; the silhouette struggled back into the driving seat, gave the park another arpeggio of chimes and vibrated off. When he passed, Dan saw a large and unexpectedly young face with curly black hair; a mixed race young man, sad and overweight, a young face full of nightmares. Dan felt for him. Then the van was gone and there was nothing but the peace of the park.
After a while Dan became aware of the song of a blackbird and scoured the trees for it. The medley seemed to come from different angles, but try as he might he couldn’t see any trace of the bird in the trees. It fed beautifully into the calm that he felt. Nothing threatened him; everything was fresh and reaching him through a sensation of peace. Then the song stopped and left him to the susurration of the leaf canopies layering up into the Finsbury Park sky. Two working class girls walked up the grassy slope, both on their mobile phones. North London cadences buzzed and danced by his Saab. Then they faded. In the wing mirror he watched the girls phone their way together down the avenue out of sight.
The boy died of internal injuries two days later. Dan got rid of the Saab and bought a second hand Smart Car. He loves it.
I was tempted to check up on the boy, but I was scared of what it might do to me. So I didn’t. On London Tonight they said he was fifteen and lived with his Gran, and police were asking the hit and run driver to come forward. Some hope.
Maybe Dan did him a favour. Maybe there was nothing in store for him but more pain and bollocks. Or doing to others what was done to him. Battered babies often grow up to be people who batter babies. But some people manage to lift away from bad beginnings as the poet said. That’s all Dan was at, trying to lift away from bad beginnings. Both of them maybe. The boy was entitled to a day in the park. But it didn’t work. One never got to cross the road, the other never got to Hollywood.
What Dan’s confession did was to hold up my own weakness in front of me. When he told me what he had done, I think I asked is this for real, although I knew it was, and he said yes, and I said you killed someone and he said yes, and I said deliberately and he said it seemed to happen automatically. I didn’t know what to feel or do or say. A couple of minutes later I found myself asking, “Got any work?”
How hard we ignore the un-ignorable. How easy it was to turn my face to the wall. I never had proof I was like that. I always suspected I was. Dan proved it for me.
It doesn’t go away.
That’s me. I just go in every day. As if this never happened. I still see Dan, but we don’t talk about it.