Learning lines is my least favourite part of acting, but fortunately Rosencrantz isn’t the talkative type. Or rather, Rosa Krantz; these days nobody does Shakespeare without a twist.
My back cool against the gym wall, I watch the star of our show as she yells at a plastic skull. The director circles her with instructions: “Lift your hand. Lower your voice. Come on, Pandita, this time with feeling.”
Pandita Williams. You’d recognise our lead actress if you saw her. She played a drug-addicted nurse on a weekly soap, the one that always starts with a terrible accident and always ends with two medics snogging in a supply closet. But she didn’t get really famous until that internet video started doing the rounds. It went viral. Well, that’s one word for it.
We needed one black actor to qualify for an Arts Council subsidy. Vix, sliding along the bench towards me, is the girl who ticks all the right boxes. She pulls back a curtain of black curls, and trouble glints at me through green-coloured contacts.
I turn the page of the script in my lap and study the words.
“Don’t know why you’re even bothering,” says Vix. “It’s not like you’re ever going to need it.”
Rosa Krantz might not have much to say, but I’ve also been chosen to understudy the lead because I’m the exact same height as our leading lady. Costumes don’t come cheap. Mind you, I might need a couple of rolls of toilet paper to fill them out the way she does.
“You know what two things guarantee success in this business?” Vix crosses her legs and an espadrille falls onto the dusty parquet floor with a smack. Her toenails are painted bright green.
“Famous parents,” says the girl who lives with her gran in Hackney. “It’s all about having the right connections.”
My answer would have been hard work and a little bit of luck. If I put in the effort there’s always the chance, no matter how slim, that our leading lady might get hit by a bus.
“I didn’t even know you could drive a bus,” says Vix.
Accidentally hit by a bus, I clarify.
“Ah,” she says, “leaving the way clear for you and Carter.”
The look on my face says I have no idea what she’s talking about. I know this because I was trained by the best acting teachers East Anglia has to offer.
“Come on, Janet, you practically slide off your seat every time you see him. You seriously suggesting you never think about it?”
Sometimes in a newspaper you see a wobbly photo of a handsome man punching a photographer, and you think to yourself: Who is this person and why the fuck is he considered news? Sometimes this person is Carter Stanton.
Carter wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Right now, he’s pacing in front of the changing rooms, script in hand, turning pages forward, then backwards. He stops and closes his eyes, lips still moving. He’s so cute when he tries to concentrate.
I tell Vix yes, maybe, once in a while, I think about Carter putting his tongue in places that turn my thoughts into popcorn, but does that really mean I fancy him?
“I don’t know,” she says, looking over my shoulder. “What do you think, Carter?”
I turn to find Carter standing next to me, his back against the wall, his arms wrapped around the climbing frame that runs from the ceiling to the floor.
“Huh?” says the gorgeous clod. “Sorry, wasn’t listening.”
“Tell him what you were just saying,” says Vix, sticking her big green toe into my ribs, making me spaz out and slide off my seat.
“Rosa Krantz! Gilda Stern!”
Shit. We’ve missed our cue. We only have one scene and we missed it. I get up and run.
Our director, Betty, is the only one here who truly doesn’t give a fuck about her appearance. Her grey hair grows straight up from her big square head; her face is all wrinkles and moles. Mary Shelley’s Betty Jenkins.
“Just because you two don’t have any lines doesn’t mean you aren’t in the scene. You have to focus. You have to listen with your ears and with your eyes. With your eyes.” Betty points two fingers inwards like she’s about to poke herself blind. “Stay focused—in the moment—or I’m going to have to spank the both of you. Understand?”
“Yes, Betty,” we say together but she stopped paying attention when the woman with her arms full of petticoats and frilly knickers came barrelling in through the double doors. Betty rushes off to rummage through the wardrobe mistress’s undergarments.
Did she really say she was going to spank us?
“I don’t know,” says the girl you raise your hand to at your peril. “I was listening with my eyes. Didn’t hear a damn thing.”
Carter is hanging from the climbing bars, the adorable ape. He waves to me and I wave back. Hamlette, Princess of Denmark, steps in between us and blocks my view.
“Let me paint you a picture. I’m Pandita Williams. I’m the star of the show. I’ve been acting since I was nine, and you know what? In all that time Carter Stanton is the first proper good-looking actor I’ve worked with who ain’t been gay. Out of all of them. Even the married ones; especially the married ones. Which is why I don’t want either of you skanks anywhere near him. No talking, no smiling, and no waving. He’s off-limits, you get me?”
But what if he waves at me?
“I don’t care if he slaps you on the nose with his cock, walk away. Do. You. Get. Me?”
Yes, I say, and then when she turns I add under my breath, you colossal twat.
She turns, her hair flying around like in a shampoo commercial. Like in her shampoo commercial. “What did you say?”
I said, you call the shots.
She looks me over. “And don’t you forget it.”
Those acting lessons finally paying off.
Pandita slinks over to flirt with Carter. Who can blame her? Who can stop her?
“She’s right, you know,” says Vix. “A straight guy in the theatre’s like a bull in a vagina shop.”
I don’t expect life to be fair. I don’t expect things to fall into my lap, but why do girls like Pandita have it so easy?
Vix leans closer. “You know what she’s got that you haven’t?”
I shake my head.
“Made-to-order tits and a two-hundred-quid hairdo.”
I turn to the girl with all the answers and ask her the question the great sages have pondered through the ages: Will fake boobs get me any man I want?
Vix got me the job with Panache Catering. She told them I had a lot of experience with food presentation, with serving drinks, with silver service. I don’t have a lot of experience with anything. She sold me on the idea by claiming there’d be a lot of industry types at these swanky functions.
“It’s a great way to make contacts,” she said. “You could be spotted by a casting director or a movie producer. Maybe you’ll be just what they’re looking for.”
Two hours in, and the only industry types I’ve seen are a woman off Channel 5 News relieving herself in the garden, and two tipsy comedians sniggering over a tray of drinks they intend on keeping for themselves. But the real reason I took the gig is because of whose party this is.
The host is running fashionably late. She’s so fashionable she may not turn up at all, even though the party is being held in her house. I’m a big fan of Raine Cox. Big, big fan. I would give anything to have a life like hers. She is so well respected, when she takes her clothes off in a movie the reviewers call it art and keep their hands out of their pockets.
I weave through the crowd with a tray of canapés. If anyone is casting for the part of tired girl in uncomfortable shoes, I think I may have a shot. I stand in front of a fresco that covers an entire wall of the main reception room—a perfect reproduction of that painting of Venus in a clamshell, the one where she looks like she only just realised she’s naked. Hunger pangs burble inside me. I duck my head down real fast and suck up a devilled egg, but when the paprika hits the back of my throat, I spit it straight out again, tears in my eyes, and don’t see where it lands.
I’m trying to figure out which of the eggs on the tray looks a little slimier than the others when two glamorous women, orange-faced and platinum-haired, walk over and take an age to choose the right vol-au-vent.
“I swear to you, never again, not with a rapper, I swear on my life.”
They don’t even know I’m here, the automated nibbles dispenser.
“Oh, darling, but he was so sweet. And so many muscles. Whatever did he do?”
Her hand hovers over the devilled eggs. Place your bets, place your bets.
“He slapped me. Can you believe it? The bastard.”
“Are you sure it was a slap? They have some very complicated handshakes.”
I move away before I slap the both of them.
When I return to the kitchen to get loaded up with amuse-bouche, I learn the hostess has requested drinks be sent up to her room but somebody screwed up. We’ve run out of champagne and the emergency order won’t arrive for another twenty minutes. Everyone is scouring the party for an untouched glass of the good stuff. This is my chance to save the day.
I sneak up behind the two comedians I saw earlier. There’s a fat one and a thin one, as required by law. They still have their tray of drinks and amazingly the bubbly is still bubbly.
They’re too busy pointing and plotting in the direction of a tall, exquisitely appointed model-slash-actress to notice me slide their precious hoard off the small side table and whisk it away.
At the top of the stairs red-carpeted corridors stretch out left and right. If this was a horror movie, a little boy on a tricycle might go whizzing past. A man is pacing with a phone to his ear. He sees me and points to an open door.
Behind that door is the reason I became an actress. Raine Cox wasn’t born into a rich family. Her parents weren't in the business. She found success by drawing on something inside herself. Maybe she’ll confide in me and reveal the secrets of her success; that’s the fantasy. Come in, Janet, sit down, let me show you how to find all the answers you’ve been looking for. It could happen, if I wasn’t me and she wasn’t her and nothing in the universe was how it is.
I walk through and there she is, Raine Cox, standing in front of a wall of mirrors, attaching pearl earrings. The gathered bodice is studded with sparkling gems and embroidered with silver thread.
Her shoulders are creamy and unblemished.
Her nose is so perfect it looks like it’s been drawn on by Walt Disney himself.
Her hair is simply tied back with a strip of fabric leaving a dark brown cascade running down her back.
It’s difficult, when faced with something you’ve been told doesn’t really exist, that’s just an amalgam of airbrushed photographs and computer enhanced imaging, not to feel a little shitty about yourself. A minute ago I thought of myself as okay looking, maybe even slightly above average. Now I’m thinking my shoulders are so covered in spots and freckles they could be a missing clue from The Da Vinci Code. Now I’m thinking my nose looks like a handful of modelling clay someone threw at my face.
Not that I blame the lovely Ms Cox for my shortcomings. I’m thrilled to finally get a close look at everything I’m never going to be.
She spins away from the mirror and lifts a glass off the tray. It almost floats away from her. She sinks half the contents before pointing at the antique dressing table.
“Just put it down there.” The voice is so familiar it sounds like she’s quoting a line from a movie. I put the tray down and then stand there a little too long before turning to leave.
“One more thing,” she says.
I turn back, checking my hands in case I inadvertently picked up a memento.
“Open a window for me, will you?”
I go to the window and try to figure out the latch. I did a Beckett play at college—opening windows was my forte. I force one open with a clatter and the warm evening breeze slips past me. There’s going to be precious few opportunities in my life like this one, so I take a deep breath and turn around.
I’ve always loved you, I say, on the screen. Everything I’ve ever seen you in. Whatever else is going on, if you’re in it, I’m hypnotised.
There ensues what feels like a ten-minute silence as our eyes lock. Finally, to break the silence, I add: I know you must hear this sort of thing all the time, so please forgive me for embarrassing you.
Raine continues to look straight into my eyes and speaks with great passion in a quiet voice: “Not only do I not hear all the time what you just said, I rarely hear anything like it at all. And far from being embarrassed, I’m immensely pleased and gratified to hear it. And if you want to say it to me every time we meet, I’ll be extremely happy to listen.”
Not wanting to spoil the moment, I dip my head (don’t ask me why—at least I didn’t curtsy), and float towards the door in something of a daze.
“Wait,” says Raine. “You’re an actress, aren’t you?”
How does she know that?
“I suppose you’d like some advice? Some trade secrets?”
“Of course you do.” She drains her glass and swaps it for another. “Sacrifice. It’s the only way. You understand?”
It’s not a cloud-parting, spotlight-from-the-heavens moment, but fair enough. Work harder, goof around less. Got it.
“You don’t understand anything. How could you? Sacrifice. To get what you really want, you have to be willing to give up everything else. Everything. I have all this,” she waves her free hand at the room, “but I have no friends, no lovers, I don’t even talk to my family anymore. Gone—that’s the price you pay.” She totters a little before straightening up and taking another generous sip. “There’s nobody left.”
One and a half glasses and she’s pretty ripped. It must be strong stuff; it’s still frothing up to the brim.
“There’s only so much success to go around.” She takes another swig. “If you have it, then someone else doesn’t. You have to put yourself first. We’re actors. That’s what we do. The hell with the rest. You understand now?”
I nod again. I have no idea what she’s talking about.
She raises her glass to her lips and staggers. This way a little; that way a lot. The glass falls from her hand and bounces without breaking.
Foosh. The champagne fizzes into the carpet.
Her entire body convulses and jerks.
If this was a Bollywood movie, this would be the start of a huge song and dance number. This isn’t a Bollywood movie, and Raine Cox crumbles into a heap on the floor. Her eyes are open and staring, but she can’t see me. I don’t know what to do.
Miss Cox? Miss Cox? Are you all right?
She isn’t. I get on my hands and knees and shake her by the shoulders. Her skin feels warm and smooth. White foam seeps out of the corner of her mouth and I jerk my hand away. All I can think is that I’m going to be in an awful lot of trouble. I know it’s self-centred, it’s self-obsessed, but I’m an actor—that’s what we do.
I remember the man on the landing and I call out for help, but a gust of wind steals away my words and slams the door shut.
I get up and run, but I trip and fall; my chin sinks into the shag pile like it was butter, I hardly feel it at all. I try to scramble for the door but something has hold of me, like my foot is caught in a tangle of thorns, tightening and scratching and yanking me to the floor, dragging me backwards across the carpet.
I look down and there’s a hand clasping my ankle. A thin, scrawny hand, pallid and grey with elongated fingers and black nails encrusted with mould, wrapped around my ankle like an ugly tattoo.
This hand, this claw that has me in its grip, that’s pulling me back, that won’t let go, is reaching out from the dark interior of Raine Cox’s lifeless, open mouth.
When I wake up in the hospital room, Vix is sitting in the chair next to me. I ask her what happened.
“You tell me,” she says.
The police have a lot of questions. Apparently there was something in Raine’s drink that should not have been there. A drug that’s supposed to make some women rip off their knickers and shout “All aboard!” and put others in a coma.
I think back to how the two comics were huddled over the tray, sniggering and laughing. That’s who the police should be talking to. I never did find those guys funny.
After the police leave, a doctor comes in and check me over. “Everything appears to be normal,” he says. “You should take it easy for the next couple of days.”
I swing my legs out of the bed and jump down, and wince. I get back on the bed and lift my foot up. The gown they put me in reaches down to just over my knee so it’s easy to spot the problem: a ring of bruises around my left ankle.
The doctor slides his hand under my heel. “Hmm,” he mutters. “Looks like you’ve twisted your ankle. Odd bruising, though.”
When I turn up for the full dress rehearsal on Monday, everybody is standing around looking tearful. They all stare at me.
Vix appears and bundles me out into the corridor, just me and her and a vending machine that only accepts exact change. She tells me there’s been a terrible accident. Pandita was hit by a bus and killed instantly.
“When I first heard, I thought she must have choked to death on a bag of cocks. But a bus?” Vix looks at me with eyebrows fully raised. “Don’t you remember what you said on Friday? About how you were learning your lines in case Pandita got hit by a bus? And then she’s hit by a bus. Don’t you think that’s an odd coincidence?”
I don’t know what Vix is getting at. I don’t even have a driver’s licence.
Everybody is going crazy because the loss of such a young life is a tragedy that diminishes us all; and because nobody’s been paid yet. The insurance company is insisting the show must go on with the understudy. That would be me.
Betty says I only have to do tonight’s performance, that should satisfy our contractual obligations. She says she’s seen me learning my lines. She says everyone’s counting on me.
All I can think about is going on stage with all those people watching me. I think I’m going to throw up.
Vix says, “Everything’s going to be fine. This is an opportunity you can’t afford to pass up. Remember what tiny acorns turn into.”
“Mighty oaks. You are a mighty oak waiting to happen. You’ve got it in you. You can do it.”
I stand in the middle of the gym, between the white lines marked out on the floor to represent the stage we’ll be performing on tonight. Carter gives me a wink for good luck and I want to puke. But when I open my mouth out come these words. I don’t know where from. I’ve never heard most of them before, but they keep coming, faster and faster. It’s like singing along to a song on the radio and hitting every note. And the strange thing is, for the first time in my short acting career I don’t feel like I’m reciting someone else’s words. These are my words. I don’t have to force myself to mean what I say, I just say what I mean.
So this is what it’s supposed to feel like.
I reach the end of my speech and everyone looks around: at the walls, at the floor, at each other. Everywhere except at me. Maybe I imagined it.
Then they start to applaud.
And then they cheer.
It wasn’t until years later that I finally understood what Raine had meant. Sacrifices have to be made, and you don’t always get to choose who.
I miss Carter; we had such fun together. You probably saw those terrible pictures in the paper, hunched over, naked, with a needle in his arm. That’s not how I’ll remember him.
The times with Vix in New York were some of the happiest of my life, while they lasted. There was nothing I could have done to save her. The girl who never saw it coming.
I don’t feel alone. I don’t feel unloved. Isn’t love the thing that makes you give up your dreams for others? I made my choices, I made my sacrifices. I don’t wake up crying anymore. I have my memories and my work. I am an actor; I never tire of it.
Was it worth it? For all the things I lost, that I sacrificed, I gained so much. Everything I could have wished for. Well, almost everything.