In retrospect we did everything backwards. It was Joachim’s idea. He thought it was revolutionary but he was just kicking against the pricks. In the same way that he never washed his handkerchief, just transferred it from trouser pocket to jeans pocket to trouser pocket; a deliberate idiosyncrasy to hide his inadequacies. Any excuse to be other than normal.
He knew it was wrong. This is what gets me. Start with the trailer. Use it as a marketing tool to gain funding. But the trailer can only be a montage of perfect moments that have to come from the film. So the film has to exist. You can’t quote from a story that has yet to be written.
Three years later I’m sitting with Jasmine in a hotel room listening to Polly Scattergood on my mp3 player whilst she writes poetry.
The windows are open and the sky is blue. Yesterday we stood together before the view. From the street we were framed. No one looked up. It isn’t some generic brand hotel in an increasingly generic city; no. We’re in a semi-rural location in Greece. Whites and blues, so bright they hurt the eye. Flagstones smoothed with age. But we’re not really here.
I’m propped up against the hard pillow. Jasmine has her back to me. Her curves match mine, spooned against each other yet not quite touching. I can just see over her body, witness words forming on the page. When she places the full stop at the end of the poem I wonder whether it needs to be there – whether it prevents the narrative continuing in the reader’s head.
Yesterday she turned twenty-four. For one week we’ll be the same age. In synchronicity. But it’s all just numbers; the distance between us hasn’t changed. The punctuation remains the same.
The hotel room interior reminds me of one in Barcelona, four, maybe five years previous. On that occasion I was sharing with Joachim. Twin beds. Green interior. Dark, not light like this room, but four-sided and unfamiliar all the same. It’s not the décor which draws the comparison, but watching Joachim put lines on the page. His great love movie. His post-modernist existential film which will turn the world on its head, make him a stack of money, and be the most original, heart-breaking, outré set of images ever committed to celluloid.
Except, of course, that it wasn’t.
Just like our beds in that cheap hotel, it never got made.
You have to be original without trying. I understand that now; in the same way that you never find love when you’re looking for it.
Jasmine turns, regards me. The angle slopes her away, as though she is leaving. But she is smiling, and the curve of that smile skis towards the bedclothes and I lift myself up and bend over her, pushing my lips against the corner of her mouth until the displacement of my weight unsettles me and I return to a more comfortable position.
“Don’t read it yet,” she says, mistakenly believing my eyes were wandering over the poem as we kissed. “It needs an edit.”
“So do our lives.”
“No more faux movie-speak please.”
So we remain like that, barely touching. Honest words falling out of her head like tears onto the page, yet nothing actually being said.
Once Joachim realised he wouldn’t get funding by lying back and waiting for it to fall out of the sky he started to get philosophical about the trailer.
“It’s true anyway,” he said, after a night of red wine and nonsense, “that the trailer has to be better than the film. Audiences take it for granted that they are, or they wouldn’t let themselves be persuaded by trailers time and time again, despite the many tales of disappointment they’ll subsequently recount.”
“And?” I was getting impatient. It was late and I wanted to be home. Or, at least, walk through the quiet streets of Norwich which at this hour gave themselves up to their surroundings, denuded of people.
He dragged on his joint. “Society doesn’t dictate that it’s the fault of the trailer if the film fails, rather they see it as the film’s fault if it doesn’t live up the promise of the trailer.”
I didn’t say anything this time. I had no idea where he was going.
“Jesus, Barnaby! It’s a metaphor isn’t it? It’s a fucking metaphor for life.”
“I dunno why I metaphor,” I said, feeling antagonistic.
He stood up. Something whizzed by my head unexpectedly. At least it was the joint and not the bottle.
He shouted: “Do you have to bring Jasmine into everything?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t been thinking of Jasmine specifically. But then I did.
She had been a student at the School of Art & Design before it was renamed the Norwich University College of the Arts. Same meat, but potatoes not chips. Joachim, who was at least six years older than us, had placed an advert on the student message boards: All you need to make a movie is a girl with a gun. We want a girl. We have the gun.
Jasmine was the only one who replied. I held the business mobile that day and her voice was light, ethereal, yet matter of fact.
“I get the Godard reference, but what is the movie about?”
Stumbling, I tried to explain, but Joachim had held so much back it wasn’t even clear to myself what his intentions were.
“So it’s malleable, yes?”
Something in the word choice held back my answer. Two auteurs weren’t better than one.
“If you mean we can make it up as we go along,” I eventually said, “then that’s a possibility.” I paused, for dramatic effect. “Just like life, of course.”
I was young then. And it was the closest I came to a chat up line.
So, Jasmine became part of the film. She was what would be described as unconventionally pretty. Her telephone voice had intimated a slight form, thin arms, and elfin hair. Maybe wearing dungarees which were back in fashion, over a Warhol t-shirt. Yet whilst she wasn’t the opposite she was different. Two doughnuts too many. Her armpits unshaved. She wore short skirts with black leggings and flowery Doc Martens. If I hadn’t already fallen in love with her over the phone, then I fell in love with her when she first walked on set.
To that I beat Joachim, who only fell in love with her through the camera lens.
“We could go out,” I said.
“We are going out.”
She had rolled over on the hotel bed. Her t-shirt had ridden up, exposing her midriff. “We’ve been going out for the past four years.”
Fireworks go out, I thought. Once they’ve been fired into the sky.
“C’mon,” I repeated. “Let’s go out.”
“I’m gonna shower first.”
She got off the bed. Pulled her t-shirt over her head and slipped out of her shorts. “Coming?”
“In there?” I laughed, for the first time in what seemed like days. The shower wasn’t big enough for both of us, even when alone the glass doors pressed on you like cling film.
“I’ll be five minutes.”
As the glass steamed, I read her poem.
Later we held hands as we walked, towards the ocean sprawling ahead undulating in the sunlight as though topped with silverfish. The white sails of boats flagged pockets of civilisation. I imagined being on those boats, cutting through the waves, the spray wetting my face, my hair. The movement making me feel alive. Making me feel as though my life was going somewhere.
I wasn’t even sure how we connected anymore.
The first time I saw Joachim touch her hand I wanted to punch him. And all he did was step forward, place a cigarette between her fingers, then step backwards. Shielded by the camera.
“She doesn’t even smoke,” I said.
“She can fight her own battles.” He fiddled with the camera. “It’s not even lit.”
“I am here you know.” Jasmine posed.
There were more than the three of us. We were flanked by technicians and lighting men and sound men. I say men, but they were recruited from college. We were just playing roles. Playing at grown ups. Playing at knowing what we were doing. But then we’d all watched movies, we’d all swooned over our personal Scorsese’s, or Truffaut’s, or Hitchcock’s or Polanski’s and each and every one of us knew how to film a movie inside our own heads.
But it was Joachim’s vision we were following. If only he had any.
The set designer was an art student that I was seeing until I’d realised seeing Jasmine was all I wanted to see. Becky was retro. Watching her collect 70s objects from thrift stalls and house clearances I realised it wouldn’t be long before my own object d’art and outmoded appliances would be accumulated by kids believing they were kitsch. In the future I might time travel within an art gallery, seeing the world from the comfort of my living room, once removed.
But Joachim wasted those sets. He didn’t realise the quality of the material he was working with. Or maybe he did, yet because it was superior he snubbed it. Like the kid in the park, the film was his ball. We could kick it about, but it remained his ball.
So yes, it came down to metaphor. We all play roles, don’t we? We all look back, review the salient points, and underscore our lives with the music which meant the most to us. We want to be fiction, maybe because we are fiction. Reality is nothing more than a consensus.
I’d met Joachim because he was temporarily part of the writers group which met Wednesday evenings at the Hog in Armour. I wanted to be something. I needed to be. I’d tried poetry, short stories, couldn’t make it with the novel. I thought I might be able to paint, to act, to sculpt, to play an instrument. But Joachim noticed my talent straightaway. I could edit.
“Your role,” he said, pressing his manuscript into my hands, “is to take this and return it as though nothing has changed. Yet it will be better for it. You’re the surgeon with the scalpel, dissecting me as I’m unconscious on the operating table. When I awake, my insides will have changed though the exterior will forever be me. Do you understand?”
“You want me to read through this?” I said. “And make changes?”
“Listen,” he gesticulated with his cigarette – it always seemed like he had six fingers on his right hand – “the changes will make themselves, but you’ll be the conduit through which they happen. I’ve seen you give feedback in the group and you’re what I need.” He slapped me on the shoulder, as though pinning me to the earth. “I don’t give up my work easily.”
He didn’t. That was the only time we ever mentioned our intellectual transaction. I was the prostitute who took the money before the act. The money that was invisibly passed between us, counted, and carefully put away.
I picked up a stone. Smooth and warm to the touch. Then I threw it into the sea. Jasmine shielded her eyes against the water.
“It’s broken, isn’t it?”
“Everything. It’s like a piece of cinema film that’s got torn in the projector. The same images are playing over and over again, getting more ragged and torn as they repeat. Until eventually the light burns through and that’s all we’re left with. The clarity of the light that blinds.”
For a moment I thought she was finally talking about our relationship, to the extent that I had allowed myself the hope of being released. But then I saw that she meant life itself. And I nodded. And suggested the image was perfect for a poem.
“Maybe I should return to acting,” she said, answering a different question.
But she had never really acted. Not really. At all.
“Just be yourself,” Joachim said.
We were standing in the 70s room. Three-sided, part of the art exhibition which Becky had assembled from her dead grandmother’s bric-a-brac. A fortuitous demise. Jasmine was lounging on the sofa. An unlit cigarette in her left hand. A gun in her right. The gun was plastic and looked it. There wasn’t much we could do about that. She alternated putting the cigarette and then the gun into her mouth. Because I loved her, I was glad the cigarette was unlit as the gun was unloaded.
She turned to the camera. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Cut!” Joachim beamed. “That was perfect. We can use that.”
We had begun to film the trailer. Shards of reality slipping together amidst the fabric of fantasy. Joachim had become convinced that if we shot the best bits we could pop the rest in later, once we had the funding. I had a feeling that the arts board viewed things differently. They were after authenticity of expression, not fraudulence. Still, I hankered after continuity. I would play CDs in track order, would read collections of short stories as they came rather than dipping in and out. I wanted to live my life as one experience, and subsequently not view my memories in situ but part of the greater package.
Joachim wanted to capture life differently. In his estimation, the perfect trailer showed the film you have yet to see as the one you would remember if you had already seen it.
It was this difference which ripped at an already decaying, transient, friendship.
I woke one morning with the sun in my eyes. A thin sheet covered us. Cool outside, snug inside. My naked body pressed against Jasmine’s. The previous night’s lovemaking had been as close to perfect as it ever might be. Jasmine had gasped and I had cried. Deep, resonant tears shook my body that I couldn’t explain. My arm was outside the covers, holding her through the sheet, wrapping her as I held her close. Then a stifled cough. I whirled around and saw the glare wasn’t the sun’s, but an arc light in the corner of the room. Standing nearby were five formless figures, darkened as though in shadow but masked by the arc and my inability to see beyond. Maybe that was my problem, I could never see beyond much at all.
“What the fuck?”
Jasmine sat bolt upright. Squinted but didn’t scream. Then she muttered You bastard, and lifted the pillow before burying her head underneath it.
Beyond the glow of the arc I heard a scrape; there was a flash of fire, and then the circular burn of a cigarette end. “Just be yourselves,” Joachim said.
As we headed back up the beach we stopped before a store window. The display was in transition. Mannequins without shame stood half-dressed, some leaning against each other, others alone, with hats, bare-breasted. We stood separate, reflected in the glass, viewed just as we were viewing. In that reflection my hand reached for Jasmine’s extended fingers.
We were separated by two workmen carrying a square of clouded Perspex. I regarded Jasmine through it, blurred. She turned to face me, her eyes were sunken holes, her mouth opened in a laugh and became a milky void, and her arms reached out and punctuated the plastic, pushed through it as though she wore cling-film gloves. By the time the workmen passed I was gasping, out of breath, coughing up sputum at the bottom of the hill.
When I looked back at Jasmine the sun was behind her. The light swallowed her form, made her stick-like as my eyes differentiated her edges. I gulped, placed my hands on my knees, took several deep breaths, and then returned to her. Stones sliding under my shoes as I walked back up the hill.
“What was that you were doing?” she asked later, back on the bed, the blinds closed against the heat of the day, beads of sweat breaking from our bodies like bubbles under water.
I shrugged. “I got spooked.”
“Don’t ask me to describe it.”
She fanned herself with the notepad containing her poetry.
“It’s never left you, has it?”
She wasn’t looking at me, but at a point on the wall. It moved. I watched as a cream-coloured lizard ran behind the unopened wardrobe.
“And don’t say, what hasn’t,” she continued. “I hate it when you do that.”
I thought it easier to say nothing.
Later, as she slept mid-afternoon, I read her poem again. I wanted a way inside her but it was deliberately obscure. She hid herself behind the words, hid her true self from me. Her poems were supposed to reveal but they obfuscated. I wondered if she knew it.
My back was sticky against my t-shirt against the bed sheet. I got up, stripped, and showered. As Jasmine did before me, I left open the bathroom door, watched her disappear on the bed amid the steam as the hot water ran. Squeezy-soap oozed through my fingers. I waited, held my breath, then wiped a clear circle against the glass and wasn’t sure if I were relived or disappointed that I could see her.
Following the bedroom incident we encountered Joachim at various inappropriate unscheduled intervals. Never quite as audacious as to appear with the entire crew, nevertheless the whirring of the cine camera accompanied our perfect moments, a subliminal backdrop to our courtship like the chirping of cicadas or traffic noise. I tried to remember the script, to pinpoint where his trailer was skipping past conversations and observations. My continuity interrupted, I found myself in situations without knowing how I had arrived. Even now, three years later, standing bolt upright in this Greek shower, I have no recollection of the plane journey, of our breakfast, of returning to the hotel from the beach.
It’s more than feeling part of a movie that was never actually made. Something that Jasmine and I continuously agree upon, in those moments when we cling to each other as though tomorrow has yet to be written. It’s more that my life has been edited.
Joachim had been right. When I returned the script to him he couldn’t see the changes, but it was better for it.
Even so, it was still his script.
-Andrew Hook has had over 70 short stories published over the past ten years or so, together with three short story collections, a novel, and a novella. He lives and works in Norwich and can be found at http://www.andrew-hook.com.
-Photograph by Christopher Barrio