It was just another job I wouldn’t land. I’d become quite settled at the pizza place through six months of auditions that went nowhere so I had expectations close to zero.
“Yeah but you look the part, right?” said Mitch. “No point me going for it.”
Mitch is grizzled for twenty-eight. He reckons he could take the lead in Fiddler on the Roof and make it edgy. In the meantime, he’s a mortgage adviser so the first, second and third rounds at The Crown and Anchor over the road are all on him.
“I do?” I asked, looking at myself on my phone screen.
Mitch flicked up some of the curls I pulled back in a ponytail for waiting tables. “Pre-Raphaelite or what?”
Mitch knows his art; I don’t, beyond the water lilies and the sunflowers.
“If you say so.” I tapped in a search and up they came, in stained glass. “Like a girl, you mean.”
“Yeah, Guy, you got it.”
I’ve been to a few theatres where forty of us have been on stage together, dancing some routine the other picked up faster than me. This time the audition postcode meant nothing. I arrived in a mist that wasn’t cold or creepy but wouldn’t lift. Could this be right? Had I got some digit wrong?
I was standing outside a food bank. Not the kind they have in church halls and not much of a warehouse – more the size of a prefab classroom. A black guy emerged, holding a couple of bags in one hand and his small daughter’s hand in the other. He wasn’t so much older than me but I read the despair that lowered his shoulders and kept his eyes ahead. I wondered how much the child understood, and how hard it must be for her father to make sure she knew nothing about hunger, debt, crap housing, fear…
I would have walked away but I’d spent two hours’ wages on conditioner. As I checked my phone it rang.
“Come on in.” The voice was female. Not sexy like a proposition, but not bossy P.M. either. It was clear blue, no clouds.
There was a side door with the word CASTING taped to it. I pushed it open and found a row of plastic chairs, three of them occupied. I didn’t recognise the hopefuls waiting their turns but they were all good-looking lads. I told myself I didn’t have the tallest one’s muscles but between them they couldn’t match my hair. Then I remembered the mist and checked for damage. It had shrunk and clung a bit. Would they see the potential?
“All right?” I said, but they were focused, probably doing preparation I hadn’t thought about.
I turned off my phone just as a door opened and a solid, heavy-breasted girl with punky hair and piercings looked directly at me. “Guy,” she said. “Follow me.”
The corridor seemed long and we turned a few corners so as we walked I asked her name. “Sky,” she told me, with a freckled grin that was very young. “You’d be my choice but I’m not picking.”
I was about to ask who was in charge of that when she opened a door on a dark, Middle-Eastern woman behind a desk. Her skin glowed and her eyes were beautiful but she was mature and substantial.
“Guy,” she said. “Welcome. It’s good of you to volunteer.”
“Uh… I came for a job, right?”
“A rewarding one,” she said, “in its own way. What makes you think you’d be convincing in this role?” She smiled brightly. “That’s aside from what the mirror tells you.”
“Would you say there’s a crying need for more of them, out in the real world?”
“For sure. But are we talking stage or film?”
She smiled again and I wished she was my mother. “Your hands, Guy. May I touch?”
I must have known by this point that the weirdness dial had spun to max but I laid my hands on the desk in front of her. The nicotine stains had cleared since I quit but I couldn’t guarantee there was no trace of garlic in my fingernails. Her own fingers rested briefly on mine as she turned my palms up, and lifted one onto her shoulder. I felt the firmness of her bones and the warmth of her.
“Believe,” she said, and waited. “Is your conviction absolute?”
I knew I could do it. “Yes,” I told her. Something in me had shifted and I didn’t care about anything but playing the part. I felt as if I’d already begun.
She placed my hand back on the table. Now it felt light and clean and hardly mine. “You haven’t lived an easy life.”
I tried to remember what I’d put on the application form. Only previous roles, surely? Education, such as it was. But I could tell she knew exactly what she meant.
“That gives me insight,” I said, clouding. I didn’t bother to wipe the trickle as it ran down my left cheek. She nodded, leaned forward and reached to stroke it away.
“My turn to believe,” she said. Standing, she closed her hands and said. “Congratulations, and welcome.”
I’m not sure which of us began the hug. She smelt like a festival: sweet, floral and spiced. If she’d told me she was my mother, back to hold me, I would have bought it. Then she handed me an envelope, fat with cash.
“Expenses,” she said.
“I walked most of the way…”
“You’ll need it.”
“Thank you,” I said as I left.
“Namaste,” I heard behind me.
Outside, sun had transformed the industrial estate. Leaves dampened by fog now glistened. Stepping out, I felt disorientated, as if I’d just woken from a nap I shouldn’t have taken. I had to think hard about my route home.
Glancing at the food bank exit I saw a girl younger than me: hair thin and straggly, body mass index too low, heels too high for purpose. She had a baby in an old buggy with a wheel that stuck like supermarket trolleys try to do. A bag hanging from a handle made it tip a bit as she struggled to kick the wheel into line with one boot.
“Hey,” I said. “Need a hand?”
The way she looked at me, I thought she might tell me to fuck off but she was just weighing me up. I didn’t blame her. I unlocked the stuck wheel with my foot and thought of offering to carry the bag of food but she’d think I planned to run off with it. So I just smiled at the baby, and asked how old ‘it’ was.
“He’s seven months,” she said. “Starting to roll when my back’s turned.”
He was sleeping with a bubble of dribble between his lips. We started walking and I held back the questions that weren’t my business.
“Thanks then,” she said, which meant I didn’t need to stick around and I was bothering her now.
I looked at the time on my phone. “You hungry? Can I get you lunch? I’m not a pimp or anything and I’m not trying to get in your knickers.”
She turned to me, her eyes narrowing with doubt. “Why then?”
“I’m an actor,” I said. “Mostly a wannabe actor but now I’ve got work so I’m celebrating. It’s a kind of rehearsal for a new role.”
“Well, I know a place that does ham, or cheese, or even chicken salad.”
“Be secretive then.”
“You won’t see me on EastEnders,” I told her.
“Go on then,” she said. “Thanks.”
In the end she fancied fish and chips and that was fine by me. We sat down in a place that tried to be a cool American-style diner but didn’t pull it off. It turned out Shelley had missed her tea for a few days since she’d run right out of most things, so now she made up for it with three milky mugs. Sometimes, she said, when she couldn’t afford to heat food, she ate baked beans or meatballs cold from the tin; she’d got used to that.
“You’re a good listener,” she said. There was salt on her top lip. “I guess actors have to be.”
She asked about me but I don’t talk about the darkness. There are things it’s not fair to share. Zac woke and took centre stage then anyway. He had her eyes but a lot more flesh on him. He reached up but I told her to clear her plate and managed to unclip him. He seemed curious to be held by a stranger and started playing with my hair. I remembered about jiggling and big bright eyes and mouths. I turned it on, playing the perfect dad – and got a bit carried away nose to nose. But Zac loved the performance. My best ever critic.
Shelley had popped her last chip by this point so I handed him over and I could see he wanted food too.
“I’m going to flash my tits now but don’t get any ideas,” she said, unbuttoning.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll pay and leave you to it.”
“No need to go. You seen nips before, right?”
“I’d best be going,” I said.
Remembering the director’s brief I laid a hand on her shoulder just a moment. Any longer and she would have spun away and thrown Zac off too. I paid for the meals and then, on my way out, I gave her some of the money I’d been paid. I didn’t count it, just took all of it bar a few twenties and gave her the envelope, writing my number on it.
“Only because I’d like to think you could call me if you needed to. I’m not much of a plumber or electrician but I know people. Wannabe actors don’t all wait tables.”
I was expecting a “What the fuck?” but she didn’t say a word. She didn’t open the envelope either. She just sat there with Zac on her breast and her eyes shining.
“Take care, you two,” I said, and walked away. In my head I heard Mitch: “You did what?” but I felt warm, salty and full and strangely calm.
I was an angel now.
For a while I just walked, rerunning everything: the audition like no other, the girl and her baby. The role, and how I was already easing into it. I couldn’t imagine how to tell Mitch, who’s a practical guy, shrewd, careful. “And you don’t even know how much you gave her?” We’re opposites in some ways and that’s how it works; this time it’s really love – even though Mitch might joke, “Who says for me it’s not pure lust?” He’s gentle in his way, and not just with the cat, but I knew he wouldn’t understand.
I’d probably missed a load of opportunities by the time I shook myself out of my own incredulous inner narrative and used my senses. I needed to be alert. Desolation Row, Dad used to sing when he was pissed. It was everywhere but I had to detect isolation beyond basic loneliness. Approaching a crossing I saw an old man in a Parka and grubby trainers, bending and squinting towards the traffic. I stood beside him, closer than I needed to, and he shuffled aside as if he thought I might mug him.
“All right?” I asked.
He didn’t answer and I wasn’t sure whether deafness stopped him, or language, or fear. He gave me a suspicious glance or two before the lights changed. He was slow but mobile and wouldn’t want an arm to hold. So all I did was take my time alongside him and, at the other side, give him a smile.
“Have you got shopping to do? Need some help carrying it?”
He stared and his frown was almost fierce. So many lines in one face. Then a woman with a Yorkshire Terrier passed by. The little dog was perky and pert and glad to be alive. He grinned after it, then looked back at me.
“Not a lot of shopping when you’re on your own, lad,” he said. “Got bills to pay.”
“Sure,” I said. “Well, if you ever need company or help, totally free of charge…” I’d have to get some cards printed at this rate, with wings in the logo. I wrote my phone number on the back of a bus ticket. “I’m Guy.”
He was all grooved skin and dark eyes again now. “What’s the catch then? Scams they call them. What’s your game, Guy?”
A pigeon landed at his feet and I expected him to shoo or even kick it but he felt in his pocket and found a few thin crumbs to scatter. Then he reached out and took the ticket I was holding out, looking dumbly at the last few notes from my expenses before he took those too.
“Help with that bill?” I suggested.
“You know my name,” he said.
I was slow to process that. He held out a hand for me to shake and when I pulled mine away I rested it a moment on his arm.
“Good to meet you, Bill,” I said.
He nodded and I could see that whatever he was thinking about was bigger than the weather or the traffic. He headed towards the station with a lift of one hand and I wondered whether I’d see him again, because I’d be sad not to. Shelley and Zac too.
Still, I needed to get my bearings. This job was messing with gravity; I was lighter now. But I was weary too, and when I saw my reflection in a shop front I stopped to scrutinise what I saw, to check off the features and reassure myself who I was. A pretty gay dude with not much going for me but a role I could make my own, as they say – because it’s all pretending anyway: all red velvet, costume and clever lighting. But not grubby streets alive with litter caught by wind, graffiti and dog shit that nobody cared enough to scoop up.
I didn’t tell Mitch I got the job because I didn’t know how. Instead I was vague, as if I was waiting to hear. I cooked him a supper I knew he’d like, from a cookery book we hadn’t opened since Christmas, and told him I love him because as a species we don’t do that enough.
“Are you all right, Guy?” he asked me, looking inside the way he does when he stops joking about and gets sensitive.
We were on the sofa after supper, clothed but connected.
“I’m happy,” I said, even though I’d only just realised.
In spite of the crap day he’d had at work, trying to talk to someone at Head Office about links with the arms trade, that made him happy too.
“You think I’m the provider,” he said, “the solid one. But you save me.”
I told him he must be drunk again.
That night I must have dreamed. Not the usual incoherent fantasy adventures, not Dad shouting and shoving, and not Mum on the motorway bridge – or at the foot of it either. No roadkill but there was blood all right. It was bright in the ash-grey dust. Above our heads planes no bigger than black gulls swept by. Then they were lost in swelling fire, bitter and black. Screams, groans, shouts, sobbing bombarded us. Like ants on a hot tile, people ran with no direction. There was a cart, bare metal and slow, loaded with children and pushed by fathers. A mother carried a baby to her chest, arms crossed like a stone figure on a tomb.
I knew this was East Aleppo. I have a Facebook account. There was blood on my hands and when I wiped it on my jeans it only smeared red as ever. I didn’t know whether or where I hurt but my heart was an animal inside me, clawing to be free.
As the wind caught the dust, and the stone that used to be whole and now whirled fragmented in smoke, it was hard to see. Among the cries I heard a noise that might have broken from inside me, because my lungs were torn and burning and my breath was gritty and dark, but I knew it was a child.
It was a shoe I saw first, open-toed and purple ‘jelly’. Not much leg with it. I’m no Paramedic but I crouched down and reached in. To start with, I only touched the skin above the ankle, resting, meant to reassure.
“OK,” I said, because that’s universal, right?
From inside the torn concrete I heard the crying mute. Carefully I cleared the rubble, talking all the time, until the words I spoke had no meaning, or just one. The child’s arms opened, mine too, and the clinging was on both sides. Boy or girl, I couldn’t tell. Age? Maybe six. The flesh felt hot, damp, light over bone. Looking all around me I turned, three hundred and sixty degrees, more, not knowing what I hoped to see. A bright shiny hospital in one piece? A team wearing white helmets?
I knew the word hurled towards me was a name because the body in my arms tensed and stretched towards it. Now a man was running towards me, his eyes livid through the grey, shouting the syllables again and again. His jagged voice snapped and rebuilt again. The child cried out too. I passed him or her into the father’s care, and I guessed the word that tumbled out next meant thank you. Standing free, I remembered. I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. Then they were gone.
Turning back to the wreckage I wondered who else might be lying beneath its weight. “Hello?” I yelled, climbing. I heard a cat, and eased it free but limping. Then an old woman, one elbow twisted, one leg gashed. As I laid a hand on her shoulder I felt whole and strong. Time was different now, fluid, cloudy.
I don’t suppose anyone ever knows what happened. One moment I was tall and scrambling. Then I was on the ground and the taste was bitter but I couldn’t spit. Not now. Heat melted me. Light shrouded me.
Now I’m in demand, more than ever. Rehearsals are over; the role became full-time. I’m around for Shelley, watching out for Zac. I hope Mitch knows I’ll never leave him. And I’ve never felt more alive.