for Castiron, in the Yuletide
Challenge 2004. Thanks
are due to Castiron, for whom this story was written (Very best wishes
this Yuletide) and to my work colleagues who, knowingly, allowed me to
borrow videos of the Gale Edwards and the Norman Jewison films of Jesus
Christ Superstar, and in addition a copy of William Klassen's Judas (0334026369).
I've paid my dues, bought my ticket to the promised land. It's not all milk and honey.
(Sand gritty between his toes, it's coming up midday, shadows short and sharp as knives and the sun beaten bright, too bright. Two miles south of Galilee, far from his home, no-one knows who he is, hasn't eaten for two days, stomach's an aching hole in his belly, strap on his sandal broken and knotted and blistered, world's out to get him, take what you can 'cos nothing comes for free.)
It was in the Ivy that DG offered me the script, passed it across the table with the brandy. He likes to think of himself as a gentlemen, but I know we're both punks on a roll. He looks me in the eyes and tells me it's a chance to get back to my roots, stretch my wings, and then he unwraps his cigar. He says it's an ensemble cast, that the producer asked for me by name, that they need my experience. He says there's a slot at Sundance with my name on it and a Cannes opening which, if he's not lying, is pretty damn good for an independent film with a budget that might pay Ang Lee's catering bill on a half-hour short. That could have been kind: he knows there's been nothing on the table since that cop series for ABC, but DG's never been kind in his life. DG and me go back a long way. I remember when he was still cutting his films on the night shift. He knew me when I was young and hungry, a speedfreak with the devil on my back.
I say I'll think about it but I know I'll say yes. So does he.
Two months later I get the plane tickets. The bastard didn't tell me it's all on location: he knows I hate the heat and in that light there's no hiding the shadows under my eyes. I'm sliding over the edge from lead to character and I know it. I ring him to scratch and he asks if I've read the cast list. I'm the only star on it, he says, the name that'll bring in the punters. Do it for me, DG says, I need you. I say I've more to do with my time than babysit idiots. He says it's a part to die for and he's right, I've felt it itching under my skin for the past three weeks. I say I'll do it for options and he laughs and says yes. I should have known then.
So I've got a bad feeling about this one before I get on the plane and I spend the trip brooding. When I get off the plane I'm tired and I'm cranky. I wish I'd never signed on the dotted line, despite the packet of charlie DG passed along with the script that promises he'll see me right. And it doesn't get any better off the plane, a tinfoil airport with too much marble and the kind of security thinks it's God, too many Van Dammes with ammo. I haven't seen so much armament since the cold war thriller I shot between parts, the one that went straight to video. These guns are real. I get searched before I hit the concourse and it's then I begin to wish I'd paid more attention to the news, for what really surprises me is that the guys with the guns are good ol'boys from the mighty US of A. And believe me, these boys ain't playing. There's a look in their eyes like they'd get the hell out of there if they could. I begin to think bombs and my feet start to itch: I recall I've a message to give to a guy from the BBC and maybe I need to get on a London-bound plane to do it.
It's just about then, when I'm stood stock still in the foyer with my jacket stuck to my back and DG's advance burning a hole in my pocket, it's then that I see him. He's hard to miss, and I work out later he was on the same flight, but miss him I had, right up to the moment he walked past in a crowd and I had to follow.
Sheep after the flock.
Do I need to explain? You've seen the pictures.
In the flesh, though, he's tall, and he's got the sort of hair that went out of fashion twenty years ago, the kind that narks the fashion police big time, blond and shoulder length which is not good for a bloke, but he's got the charisma to take it. His skin is clear and fine, the kind that looks like silk under the lights of a studio, his body is all that a man's should be and he's that actors' trick of taking the space up around him, drawing the eye. I heard him coming from twenty feet, or, to be clear, I hear them coming from twenty feet. He's got half the film crew with him and from the sound of it there's been one hell of a party in coach. I watch them go past, all plumage and noise, and he looks back at me, once, and his eyes are baby blue. I've always been a sucker for blue eyes. I forget about the BBC and the itch in my feet, and I follow him like there's just me and him in the goddam universe.
There's a guy called Terry with a big sign and assistant producer's badge who gets us sorted and on the bus, which is handy `cos by that stage I don't know if I'm coming or going. I'm tired, I'm hot, and I haven't been this hard hit since I met my first wife. It takes me ten minutes to pull myself straight, staring out the window, tower blocks and Mercs and khaki jeeps. Terry's droning away at the front about all kinds of bullshit I can pick up later if I have to, and right behind him the radio's on and it's playing American Pie. But this ain't Kansas and I'm no teenager: I get myself together, turn round, and look up. And right there, he's looking right back at me across the aisle, two seats up and one across. He looks at me like he knows who I am, which maybe he does, and what I feel then is that dangerous edge, the one that took me right up the water tower when I was eight and behind the bike sheds with Geordie Watson when I was fifteen. Fuck you, I think, and I lean back in the seat and drop my eyelids, and I pull at my jeans like there's something I want to show him. Then I look up. And what he does is look back at me, and I swear he's laughing behind that straight face, and all the blood in my skin runs hot to my cock and breathing's a tortuous effort.
It eases, of course, half an hour later when we're well into the desert and I've seen my first camel, gone through two checkpoints like the Brandenburg Gate slapped down in the middle of nowhere. I spend the rest of the trip watching sand and soldiers. My mouth tastes dry, and the air conditioning rattles like there's a bullet in the casing, and I wonder what I've signed up to, 'cos the way he looked at me says he knows there's something between us and I can't afford the headlines, not now. Doesn't stop me thinking what his hair would feel like with my hands wrapped in it and him on his knees.
Two hours before the bus stops, two hours, six checkpoints, one thirst. It's then I realise I should read the small print, 'cos where the bus stops is the middle of nowhere, sand and tents and the kind of trailer my parents took us to Scarborough in. Way before the first time I got on a stage and realised I didn't have to be me all the time. I get off the bus shell shocked. Hotels and restaurants, fast cars and bright lights, that's what I like. This feels like boot camp, and it's not helped by the fence, which is nine foot high and built to last, or the fact that there's a boy with a gun at the gate. Terry says something about trouble in town, and I look round, but there's nothing that looks civilised to me. I pick up my case and Terry gives me a key and a pass, and I find my van and slam the door on the world, which is not the world I signed up for.
(Said my name like he knew who I was, said it deep enough to fill all the cracks inside, the long sweet slide of water in the desert, said it like I'd never be thirsty again. Looked up from the crowd and saw me. Said my name.)
Two weeks down and I know I'm drowning. I know it the moment I turn round to him between takes and tell him to duck his head - like so - so the light falls on the curve of his cheek just right. I know it by the way I don't touch him, by the way my voice smooths to the sound of his. For twenty years I've learnt to move just so, speak just so, keep the camera's eye on me. Now it's him. I make it his scene. And he shines. Even DG doesn't understand it. He pulled me aside after the third day, the day at the pool, with the lepers, and asked me if I knew what I was doing. I say yes, but I'm not sure. This was my comeback film, my last chance at the top. Instead I'm making it his.
If he was anything other than perfect, this would be farce. It's not like that. He's good. He's very good. He's got that quality of stillness I'd kill for, as if he knows something the rest of us don't, and on the dailies it looks like power. His voice is true as a tuning fork, warm, with a depth to it I thought only came with experience. It's not all an act, either. Off screen, some actors come across a bit lost, all paint and no substance. Not him. He's always in a crowd, but that's usual: it's a closed set, and even if it wasn't, the guys on the gate and the night guards wouldn't exactly encourage guests, which leaves the cast with each other for company. Yet it's him they cluster to, his voice they listen to. It's not even like he's the set joker, or the shoot mum. He talks about things I've never heard on any film set before. He asks questions I've never thought about and tells stories that make you think, and he listens to what they say in reply. He's got charisma: you can see it on screen, but in the flesh it shines out of him. I want. Oh, I want it all.
On the sixteenth day he comes to see me in make-up, and sits down with the script in his hands. I'm watching him in the mirror, but he's not looking at me. He looks down at the papers, and he smiles at Aggie who, bless her, is fluffing the hair on my scalp, and I swear his knuckles tighten on the sheaf like here is the last place he wants to be. Then he looks me in the eye and asks me if I think the scene would be better if we played it like lovers, and I choke on my coffee and ask him where the fuck he thinks he's coming from, and he says, look, this bit here, with the three of us together...What do I think, he asks, and I think it over but I know he's right. We play it that way and on film, it burns.
I catch DG by the catering van and tell him he's got a star on his hands. DG just looks at me, but he knows.
On the seventeenth day he asks me about pitch and sound. I show him how I was taught, more years ago than I care to recall, to throw my voice, to add depth without loosing tone. He practices right there, in make up, with Aggie laughing and me starting to think that there's more to it than I know, that maybe, maybe...
I dream of things I have never dreamt before. I dream both of us together, walking up the red carpet in a hailstorm of flashlights. I dream of fame, of walking into a room with him by my side, of his name in lights. I dream of how it would feel, later, to strip him down to the flesh, clothes flung over the bed.
On the eighteenth day he asks about how to deal with the press, and how much he's hated the stuff he's done so far, which is not much, to be honest: a couple of promos, a feature or two. I run through a couple of tricks I know but it's like he's not listening: I let it slide, watching the shape of his lips, and then he turns round and asks me if I'm happy on set, how I think about the fence and the guards. I'm thrown. He says something else about who's really in charge and I ask him if he's ok, 'cos this is not something I want to discuss. He gets up to go and I say I'm sorry, but I'm not really sure why I say it. I watch him go. When he gets to the door he pushes it open and looks out: I can see the horizon behind him, rock to the skyline. It's not your fault, he says, but he doesn't speak, to me, for the rest of the day.
I don't usually eat with the crew, but that evening I'm tucked away in the mess tent when he comes in. It's a crowd of the usual sort: the girls from make up and the boys from the cast, rowdy as children, and he's right there in the centre, but that evening he cuts himself off and sits in a corner with Charmaine, the girl that plays Martha. Their heads almost touch over the table. It's quite clear they're close, and I can't stop watching: I curse myself for a fool, and I wonder if I'd said something sooner that might have been me. I can see her now, airbrushed in pink, smiling for the cameras on his arm. They look sweet together. I push the food round my plate, but it tastes of nothing, and when I look up I see DG watching me. He's smiling. I have to leave, but my anger's too big for the van: I try, but you can't pace on ten foot of carpet. I think of the guards, but I get up and get out anyway.
(Did you mean it this way? Tell me, I don't understand.)
It's the eighteenth day, about half past ten.
There's a hill on the far side of the caravans, high and round. I walk up to the top, and he's there waiting for me.
In the desert there is no evening. Night falls like the clap of a curtain, and the sky is black and riven with stars. Cold cuts to the bone.
I stand beside him. I have nothing to say.
In the end, in the beginning, he shivers. I say, we could do with some tea, or something stronger. He looks round and smiles at me: his smile is very gentle, and it's the first time I've seen him look like that. He nods once, and pads away to the vans. He's gone long enough for me to think he's really left and consider leaving, but then I hear his footsteps behind me, rustling on sand. He sits down beside me and hands me a glass: he has a wine bottle in his hands. I- can't believe it. I say, where did you get that? But he doesn't answer, just pours the wine. It flows over my tongue like nothing on this earth I have tasted before or since, a great, glorious flavour, distillation of wine, wine like it should be but never is. I am silenced. He is silent.
Then he turns to me. He puts his hand over mine on the glass and says, don't you want me...? He is far too young and far too naive, but his mouth is stained with wine and his skin is as sweet as salvation. It's a heady thing, the taste of his mouth: he's hesitant, but not uncertain, his hands grasp at my arms and he shivers like a man starved for touch.
I think I say, let me love you, which might be a line from a film I shot twenty years ago. I think he says yes, but I can't be sure: I do know that we make love on that hill with his shirt beneath us and the stars too far above. He shares the taste of our bodies with such wonder, yet at the same time he knows the steps of this dance so well that I curse the names of the men who have been here before me. I am flushed with lust for him, the sound he makes when he comes, as if he shouldn't, the shape of his shoulders against the sky. It's all mine. I am clothed in his skin. I hadn't realised how hungry I was til he fed me.
After the rain the drought.
When we are done, as soon as we are done, he stands up, picks up his shirt, the glasses, scuffs out the hollow our bodies have made, as if the print of his fingers on my body could be erased. Whatever it was we shared has melted and gone: there is a space between us now as wide as the ocean. Wider. I want him to reach out a hand. He turns away.
-goodnight, he says.
For a while, I watch the guards walk backwards and forwards in front of the fence, walking metronones. Then, it's too cold, and I go to bed, alone, but I don't sleep.
(I thought he would be king. I thought he'd wear purple: I thought I'd wear gold: I thought he would make us a nation. I thought he was a dream come true.)
In the morning, Aggie puts out a spare chair, but he doesn't come.
On the twenty-third day, DG shoots the crucifixation. I'm not on the call sheet, but I hitch a lift with one of the guards, rattling in the back of a jeep. He dies beautifully, arched and shivering, over and over again, his voice getting hoarse and sweat marking the dirt on his chest. I breathe in time with his breath: I can't take my eyes from his body. Betrayal becomes him.
When DG calls a wrap it takes twenty minutes to get him down off the cross, and he looks exhausted. I watch every second. It's only when he's gone that I turn round to look for my lift, and I find Charmaine beside me. She looks at me like she knows, but she says, quick and sharp, that there's a meeting tonight about the film. I should come, she says, he wants me to come, I'm invited. She says the words like she knows I don't care, so I smile and say yes.
I do go. I'm half an hour late, so when I arrive the caravan's full and there's five of the crew on the steps. They move over, so I get a space in the doorway and a grandstand view, and what I see is just about half the staffers and most of the cast, and a fair few locals as well which comes as a bit of a shock given what DG said about fraternisation. He's the only one standing, head bent, and just as I think I should go he looks up and smiles, just for me, and it's one of those Scarlet O'Hara smiles. Then he opens his mouth.
I don't know what I thought he was going to say, but what he does say - what he says gently, surely, like it's nothing, like he's right - is explosive.
He starts with the fence, and the guards, and the guy with the t-shirt who spoke the first morning, the morning they told us to watch what we said, the morning the guy at the front, the man in the USA T-shirt, said, we are a peace loving nation, and smiled like a wolf. Turns out this bloke's from MI and the guys with the guns aren't hired, they really are grunts from the USA. He talks about politics, and invasion, and halfway through that one of the locals stands up and explains, in very good English, just what exactly's been going down in the town that I learn does exist. He talks about the illusion of normalcy, and he talks about the press. Then he looks up and he says something about all of us knowing this, and the question was what could we do, and the crowd sigh along with him like this is some gospel show on cable. Then he sets out what he wants to do, and I can't believe what I'm hearing. He wants them to talk. He wants them to go home - each and every one of them - and start talking. Talk about the soldiers, the checkpoints, the beatings, the army, the censors, the fences. Talk about it to all the people we know, in every interview. This film, he says is going to be huge: we have the chance, he says, to change the world.
The worst thing is that they're with him. He's leading that crew by the nose: they'll do what he says, I know it. They'll ruin this film. They'll ruin their lives. They'll go home, and they'll talk, and that'll be them, washed up and dry: no director'll touch them again. Not after that. This film, this film will taint the whole lot of us, just for some stupid ideal straight out of college. Just for him - and I look up, and just for a moment it feels like it's worth it, like I could that for him, like it was the moment before his hand touched mine, as if there were only the two of us under the sky. Then I remember what happened afterwards, when he left me alone, and what he'll do to this film, my film, the film that would have made both of us stars. I could weep.
I have to talk to him. I can't let him do this to us. He could stop this: they'd do it for him. All he has to do is change his mind. I wait through the talking, the shouting, the laughter. I let them all leave until it's just me and him and Charmaine, stood right up close and glaring like she knows what I'm here for. I say, I need to talk to you. He's tired: the lines by his eyes are deeper, and there's part of me wants to smooth them away with my thumb, taste the sweat on his lips, follow him down into sleep...I say, ask her to leave, and she shakes her head. He frowns and says, can't you be friends..?
I say this is madness, and he looks at me like he doesn't know what I mean. I say, you'll ruin us all, and he says, don't you understand, this is bigger than all of us? He says it so certain, nothing else matters. He's not even trying. I can't change his mind. I reach out to touch him, as if it would count, as if I'm not just one amongst thousands, and he takes my hand. Just do what you have to do, he says. Then he lets go, and Charmaine touches his shoulder, like he's the one whose dreams have just bitten the dust.
I walk right out of there and I go to DG. I hammer on his door and he lets me in, blinking, but dressed, and I sit down at his table and I tell him the lot, right from the start. When I'm done he sits back, and he looks at his desk, which is covered in papers - I hadn't noticed that when I walked in the door, but there's scripts, of course, and a plan or two, and the call sheets, and right on top there's a khaki T-shirt with a stars-and-stripes on the sleeve. Then he looks round. I can see the hall, and the door to his room, and in the door, just like some GI Joe, is the guy from MI, bare chested, in combats, and he's cleaning his gun. I stand up, of course, and I say, what's he doing, and the man from MI walks forward and he puts the gun on the desk and he says, I want names.
They give me a new caravan with a woman to cook, and I dub the songs on my own.
If I'm needed for shooting I get my own driver. He stays close, and there's times when I'm glad of it, 'cos if Charmaine could kill with a look I'd be dead.
I don't see him again.
Actually, that's not true. There's one night, when I can't sleep, that I'm sat on the steps of the van and Dave, the driver, he's having his last cigarette, and a jeep drives past, slowly, and in it there's the guy from MI, the one I last saw with DG, and two soldiers, and somebody shrouded in white, one of those robes, head covered and bent. I think it's him. I don't ask. He looks...so small.
It's only ten days 'til we're done. Dave drives me to the airport, gets me through the checkpoints and customs: he stays right by my side all the way up to the steps of the plane. I half thought there'd be one of the crew on the flight, and I could ask, but there was no-one I knew bar a man on the row behind who looked like he might be one of the guards. As it turns out, the moment I get off the plane, I find out.
The first thing I see is his face. I stop walking. Hits like a punch to the gut. It takes a minute or two to be me: then I read the by-line. It's a billboard poster. His face, and the titles, and note, in memorium.
I don't believe it. I stare at the words, which don't make sense, I think, it can't be true. I stare some more, stood in front of his face, and I just don't believe it. This isn't what happened. He can't be dead. There's a buzzing in my ears and I feel faint: I look round, and there's a bank of seats by the wall with a couple of businessmen at one end: I sit down, and I put my head in my hands. I can hear planes, greetings, announcements: it all passes me by til I hear the sound of his name.
...died, poor sod...someone says, and, spectacular film, work of a lifetime, used CGI for the last of it...
And I think, but we just finished shooting.
...Opens next month. Should see it, what about after the game?...
And I think, wasn't meant to be like this.
...how about them Lakers..?
And I think, is that all?
I get up, and I walk to the shops, and I buy Empire and Filmhouse and everything else I can think of, and I get in the taxi and I read them all. Shouldn't be a surprise. Think of Oliver Reed, River Phoenix, Brandon Lee? Same story. Exclusive interviews with DG, smiling in glasses, looking like everyone's favourite uncle. Tragedy. Accident. Always remembered. Spectacular performance. Not a word about what he was doing, what we were doing.
Then I get to the trash, the gossip, bad print and innuendo, and that's when it really gets bad. Arguments on set, I read. Conflict with other members of the cast. Then I see my name.
It gets worse. I get home, and amongst the pile of mail on my mat there's a letter from Andy, who's been my agent for years. Andy says, in black print, that under the circumstances, he thought it best to sever our professional arrangement - which is as near to fuck off as LA will get. I call him, and he's in a meeting. I turn on my PC and hit the in-box, and what comes up is the sort of hate-mail you don't believe, reams of it, word after word after word, all of it blaming me for his death. I didn't even know. I'm saying it right to screen, I didn't know, and what I can see, behind the words, is the way the guy in DG's van put his gun down on the papers, so casual, like it meant nothing.
I need someone to tell me the truth. I call Andy, who's out, this time, and George the press guy, who laughs when he puts the phone down, and at last I call the studio, and they put me onto DG, who says my name like he knew I was calling. What did you expect, he says, you knew what you were doing, he says, he laughs, he says, thanks for the press, I've paid you your fees, and then he says don't call me and puts the phone down. I ring him back and say what do you mean, and he says, did you think those guys were playing? Son, he says, you did your patriotic duty and, lookee-me, it's not done bad for the film, and if I hear your voice again this side of the next millenium it'll be far too soon.
I hang up before he does, but when the phone goes again I think it's him. It's not. It's a woman I don't know and don't want to know, and I leave the phone off the hook and walk away like it says in the caller care booklet. I check the rest of my post, and bin half of it unread: I open the one with the studio logo and find a 50K cheque signed DG, and that's almost the strangest of all.
After a while, I put it down on my desk, and I make myself coffee, which tastes of nothing at all, and I log onto the net. If I thought the papers were bad the net's worse. I watch the news sites unfurl. There's a critic in Dallas thinks I should be hung, and another in NY can't understand why I shot the movie at all. And someone's got hold of my first wife, the bitch. There's nothing at all about the film. I log off, and go to bed, but I don't sleep.
In the morning I ring Andy again, but he's still in a meeting. The girl doesn't offer to take a message, and I won't get a call back. I get the papers delivered, and the first one I opened says Hounded To Death in black type, with a portfolio photo from a production two years gone. I pick out DG's name on page three, and my own, and I don't read on. I remember to think I've not eaten, and then I forget. I call George. I call DG. No one answers my voice. All this time I'm watching the newsgroups, the TV, the screens.
I'm starting to think, God help me, I'm starting to think they might be right. And I'm starting to think, it's not my fault, don't blame me, he said, do what you must, but it was my hand on the door and my voice in the dark. I know what his breath felt like on my skin.
I think, I'm starting to get this.
He'll live forever.
I, I am dammed for all time.