Principal Photography

Standing in the doorway, the actor squints as the oppressive light evaporates his features. The gaffer instructs the technician to adjust one of the floor lamps, and the softer light presents to the camera the handsome features of the young man: thick head of combed black hair, soft-but-not-weak jaw, curious green eyes, compliant nose. He likes to be called Sasha—in Russia it’s short for his real name, Alexander. His great-grandfather was from Saint Petersburg, and had been involved in the October Revolution. Apparently, he’d shaken Trotsky’s hand. Sasha can speak a few words of Russian, although he’s never visited the country. He told the gaffer, James, all of this as they were setting up the scene.

   Tess has been standing by idly, listening to the small talk between Sasha and James. They’re waiting for the director and director of photography to get on with things so they can commence filming the first scene in the hallway of the 18th-century Georgian house.

   The mansion is surrounded by rolling hills and meandering country roads that remind Tess of old British sitcoms she used to watch with her father. She spent approximately seven minutes applying make-up to Sasha’s face, during which he sniffed more than an old age pensioner on a cold morning during winter. Had she been naive and new to the industry she might have thought that this indicated a creeping flu.

   She’s used to standing around, doing very little. It’s a big part of the job. When in conversation at parties and asked what she does for a living, she often jokes: I stand. Standing or not, this isn’t where Tess imagined she would be at this point in her life. But when she’s alone (a frequent occurrence) and considering where she thought she would be, she can’t honestly say that she has a definitive answer; there have always been multiple possible scenarios.

   A cool breeze enters the hallway as James—a grizzly bear of a man—shuffles through the open door of the drawing room, approaching the DP and the director who are both standing in front of an imposing Victorian bookshelf, richly populated and freshly varnished. The three of them talk quietly.

   Back in the hallway, Tess notices that the wind doesn’t appear to bother Sasha, who stares intensely at the floor. Tess has stood waiting in many different locations, applying make-up to many beautiful faces, faces that would mostly be forgotten like trains passing by the London Underground she braves daily. But not Sasha’s—he does have something about him. Alarmingly beautiful, is how the director, Linda, referred to the twenty-two year-old while Tess drank with her the previous evening at the plush hotel bar in Soho. They’d talked fluidly on a number of subjects, from literature to love, music to medication, horticulture to home (they both hail from New York). Tess’s tongue had been loosened by bourbon and beer and upon reflection she was happy to have swam with the current of intoxication; it was a good conversation. She’d worked with Linda once before on a TV commercial in L.A., a few years back. The last time they’d shared drinks they’d wound up sharing a bed. This, Tess had promised herself, wasn’t going to happen again. Although were she to be put in front of a judge and forced to place her hand on The Book, she would say with absolute honesty that seeing Linda’s broad smile, her bubbly cheeks, her chocolate-brown skin, her shoulder-length, curly-black hair, hearing her idiosyncratic hiccup laugh, holding her warm, soft hand—all of this she would admit she was grateful for.

   A soundless breath escapes her mouth; she was about to break the silence by asking Sasha a question, but the actor appears distant as he stands in the doorway, like he’s envisioning the upcoming scene in his head. Tess doesn’t want to be that person who winds up on the internet having been on the receiving end of a vitriolic tirade issued by a young, egotistical thespian. She knows that by imaging this scenario she’s exaggerating, that Sasha has come across as nothing other than amiable, if a little impatient. But still, she stops herself.

   She thinks about that time in L.A. with Linda. It hadn’t been her first experience with a woman, but it was the one that made her question her sexuality the most. Straight, gay, bi . . . she couldn’t fall into a single category with a great deal of confidence. This threw—had for years thrown—her definition of herself into disarray. If only she could land on one, then things would be much easier, she’d regularly think.

   Linda approaches Sasha and takes him by the arm. She quietly speaks into his ear, her hand gripping his slender wrist. Sasha produces a sarcastic smile at the corner of his mouth. He looks over at Tess. Then, Tess hears him say: “I’m desirous of her, and . . . and that’s driving the scene, of course . . . but . . . there’s vengeance within me . . . that’s got to be coupled with the desire . . . it’s . . . it’s almost the same, the vengeance and the desire . . . would you say that’s so, Linda?”

   He’s going to be world famous, Tess thinks as she looks at the two of them. She also knows and thinks about what’s under Linda’s blouse and jeans, and she considers that for a moment. She imagines the three of them together in bed back at the hotel later that night. She thinks about the private demeaning and exploitation of individuals in people’s minds. She wonders if she should feel guilt overindulging in such fantasies. She ponders the current absence of religion in her life—would that have prevented such reveries? Should such reveries be prevented? Religious thinking tends to lead her to thoughts about her mother; the final time they spoke, the tubes, the gaunt expression, the laboured breaths, the rosary beads, the prayers, the priest, that last awful noise. She considers how her standing around so much has left her too much time alone with her thoughts; The Devil makes work, yada, yada . . .

   Linda lets go of Sasha’s wrist and returns to her conversation with the DP.

   This shoot is unusual because the writer, Emile Barnes, is also on set. He’s barely spoken a word to any of the crew members all morning, sitting by himself in the drawing room with a copy of his screenplay resting on his lap, authoritative pencil flicking against the page. Tess had looked over at the writer a number of times the previous night as he sat hunched in the chesterfield chair dressed in professorial jacket and pants, cupping a tumbler filled with whiskey, reading a collection of W.S. Maugham short stories: A sitting cliché—not unlike his screenplay, Tess had thought. She’d passed him earlier this morning while she explored the property, noting his harsh eyes, his angular nose, his stiff chin, his fixed grimace: His face was a caustic literary review, she’d thought. As she’d continued exploring, lazily wandering from extravagant room to extravagant room, opening drawers and picking up ornaments, she’d wondered if royalty had once lived here. She’d admired the elaborate, baroque architecture, the religious themes permeating each room; the mournful iconography; the last breath of Christ. She‘d gestured the sign of the cross as a private joke.

   Linda has now disappeared. This has happened on a number of occasions this morning, perhaps to find the producer, a young, energetic man named David, who’s been coming and going all morning. Or probably to speak to Barnes and mull over certain details pertaining to the script.

   James—fuzzy-haired, round-cheeked, brawny—shuffles back into the hallway and towards the director’s chair behind the camera. He smiles at Tess, placing his mighty hands in the pockets of his hoodie as he flumps onto the deceptively sturdy chair.

   “You look bored,” he says.

   “I do?”

   James nods, smiles.

   “How can anyone be bored when there’s over a hundred billion neurons in our brains? There’s far too much activity going on up there to be bored,” Tess says in—she thinks—a lame attempt at an original reply.

   “My dad used to say only idiots can get bored.”

   “Maybe I’m an idiot,” says Tess.

   “So . . . you are bored . . .”

   Tess shrugs her shoulders and produces a goofy, affected smile as Sasha now begins to mumble lines to himself. His 19th-century attire—military uniform—only enhances his attractiveness. Behind him the sprawling, lush acreage and overcast weather makes Tess suddenly feel lonely, or perhaps to become aware of her present feeling. She learnt early in her teenage years that nature tended to have that effect on her. You can take the girl out of the city, yada, yada . . .

   “You write short stories, right?” says James incongruously.

   This perturbs Tess more than she would like to admit. Sensing this, James attempts to put her at ease.

   “I google the shit out of the cast and crew I’m scheduled to work with . . . Linda . . . I know that she trained under Scorsese at the New York Film Academy. I know that she’s an ardent intersectional feminist judging by a recent interview she gave to Variety. Sasha . . . he’s from Quebec, where he’s pretty well known for the movies he’s made with a prodigious young filmmaker. There’s rumours that they’re a couple, but apparently Sasha doesn’t want to talk about his sexuality in case it limits his opportunities outside of Québécois cinema. Also: nascent drug problem . . .”

   Tess raises her eyebrows as James raises a meaty arm, pointing a finger at the scrawny, freckled technician he’d been giving orders to a few minutes ago, who’s sitting against the wall thumbing the screen of his phone.

   “Danny there . . . Danny was on America’s Got Talent a few years ago. He even made it to the live shows. He’s a big supporter of the Steelers. Oh, and he’s vegan and a champion of animal rights.”

   James leans closer to Tess and lowers his voice.

   “And Emile Barnes . . . fuckin’ darling of New York theatre. Not that I know much about the theatre scene . . . But they love him, apparently. He socked an audience member who laughed during one of his plays . . . So how could you not like the guy, right?”

   “Wow . . . You’ve done your homework.”

   “Research is important,” says James. “Gotta know what I’m getting myself into.”

   “You’re a regular Perez Hilton.”

   “Hey, I’m not spreading the gossip; it’s just for me.”

   His eyes are warm, and kind. Tess experiences a sudden urge to cuddle him. She wants to feel small in his arms. She’s added a few pounds over the past few months since moving to the UK, thanks mostly to the fish and chips she finds difficult to resist.

   He senses the nature of her stare.

   “And you . . . You’re thirty-two, from New York, and you have your own website . . . where you post short stories, along with biographical information, like your age.”

   Tess’s response is a delayed train; she opens her mouth but the words never arrive. Then: “Why aren’t we shooting the scene yet?”

   James turns his head and looks over at Linda, who’s returned and is talking with the scraggly, grey-haired DP. They’re standing by the impressive bookcase again. “Roger isn’t happy.”

   “Doesn’t his reputation precede him?” says Tess.

   “He has a history of conflict. But he’s super talented—otherwise the studio wouldn’t hire him, right?”

   Tess nods her head. She’s seen some of Roger’s work. He’s an Oscar-nominee, she reminds herself. She studies James—hirsute and husky—sitting in the director’s chair. Behind him is the curved wooden staircase, with its red-tongue carpet forming an alluring path. Her earlier exploration had taken Tess up the winding stairs, climbing each step slowly, passing by baroque paintings housed in gilded frames with twisted corners, following the carpet which led to an open landing offering a selection of rooms. As she stood at the top of the stairs she found herself looking at the doors on either side, from left to right. She imagined people entering and exiting each room, anachronistically dressed, without technological appendages distracting them. She saw a simpler time, but then wondered if she could be certain that those times were really any simpler. After a couple of minutes she’d taken a deep breath, turned, and returned downstairs.

   James yawns, scratches the back of his fuzzy-haired head, which reminds Tess of an untended hanging basket. As he scratches she notices for the first time the ring on his finger. She decides immediately that she doesn’t care for it.

   James frowns, looks beyond Tess, says, “Yikes.”

   Sasha is crying, silently, still standing in position in front of the camera. Linda, Roger, and certainly Barnes are oblivious to this turn of events. Tess looks at Danny who’s now wearing headphones and is immersed in a video playing on his phone. Tess hasn’t seen the first A.D., Arnold, since he drunkenly argued with Roger the previous night. She concludes that she must be the one to handle this situation.

   It’s something to do, after all.

   James nods his head in encouragement, before Tess turns and approaches the actor.


   He stands still, wide- and teary-eyed.

   “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says quietly, shaking his head.

   Tess places a hand on his shoulder.

   “Why don’t you come out to the trailer with me?”

   He nods his head silently.

   Tess looks back at James before leaving; the latter smiles and offers her a supportive thumbs up.


The trailer is small, cold, and cramped. It’s an indicator of the recent budget constraints. A rumour has spread throughout the significantly reduced crew that a battle scene shot a few months earlier in France had cost $6m alone.

   Sasha sits with his arms wrapped around his legs, chin resting on one knee. His face is red, his expression sour.

   Enfant terrible, Tess thinks.

   “How long have you been shooting?” asks Tess.

   “I don’t know . . . Too long. France, Poland, Germany. Now London. I hate London. Rain, rain, rain. I wish we were wrapping today.”

   Tess stands against a tall wardrobe. She rarely feels awkward, and now is not an exception.

   “Why are you upset?”

   Sasha wipes the corner of his eye with his boyish wrist. He shakes his head softly.

   “I don’t know . . . I don’t know why I’m crying. I’m just upset . . . Maybe it’s fatigue.” He laughs nasally. “Maybe it’s just the comedown.”

   Tess takes this opportunity to light a cigarette while keeping her eyes on the young actor. She thinks that if she were Sasha she would be happier, but then she’s thought that about many people.

   “I used to cry pretty regularly, actually,” she says monotonously as she exhales smoke and begins to wander around the trailer, picking up things here and there, opening drawers, running taps.

   After a long interlude Sasha looks up, prompting Tess to notice his long eyelashes. He says, “You used to . . . Not anymore?”

   Tess stands still, before saying, ‘No.”

   Sasha sniffs again. This time Tess is certain that it isn’t a result of drug use.

   “That’s sad,” he says, as Tess opens another drawer revealing a small, transparent bag filled with white powder.

   “It’s sad that I don’t cry?” she says as she closes the drawer.

   “No . . . The way you said it.” He sniffles, looking at her with red eyes. “That’s what’s sad.”

   Tess pulls on the cigarette, staring at Sasha with squinted eyes.

   “Let’s get your make-up back in good shape,” she says.


9th grade, English class, Tammy Byron. Tess used to nickname her “Lord”, but no one in the class apart from Tammy and their teacher, Mr. Hughes, got the joke. On Tuesdays, English was the last class of the day, and the two girls would stay back and read poetry and short stories together. Sometimes they’d take turns reading a poem aloud. Winter had set in and the dipping sunlight through the window would often capture wild strands of Tammy’s blonde hair as she read. Sometimes Tess wouldn’t hear Tammy’s voice; all identifiable sound would drift out of the open window, to be replaced not by silence, but a calm stillness, as Tess watched the upper lip, crowned with scattered freckles; the olive skin that always smelled of something sweet; the grey-green eyes which suggested they were searching for something. Tess would regularly find her stomach aching on those afternoons—a not unpleasant ache which eighteen years later was as elusive as a rare gemstone.

   She remembers well the conversation she’d had with her mother at the kitchen table that winter. The smell of homemade bread drifted through the house, teasing nostrils and rumbling bellies. The snow-piercing sun peering through the wooden slats on the window exposed dust that her mother would usually expunge, and cast a glaring light on the crucifix on the wall. Her mother with her rigid posture, her cardigan buttoned to her neck as always, her expression calm, like nothing was ever the matter, sat next to Tess. She’d said, quietly, placing her hand on Tess’s, “These are years that confuse all of us when we’re your age, sweetie. It’s not what you think. You’ll be okay.” Her words would convince a jury, Tess had thought at the time. “We’ll be okay,” her mother had said, and so Tess nodded her head in agreement, even though she knew that it was a lie.


The hotel bar is dimly lit. A low mumble of conversations hovers in the air like reassuring susurrations. Tess, freshly showered and dressed in a burgundy batwing top and tight black pants, sits next to James at the bar, which is an island in the middle of the room. They’re both enjoying a beer after the long day of shooting. Two smartly dressed young men man the station. Two other hotel residents—a match-stick, moustached elderly man and a glamorous old woman whom Tess is certain is a faded Hollywood star—also sit at the bar. Across from them in the lounge sit Linda, Roger and Barnes. No sign of producer David. The three of them wear thoughtful expressions. Tess gathers that they’re discussing the script.

   “Isn’t it funny?” she says.

   “It being?” says James, broad shouldered, elbows resting on the unusual blush red, concrete countertop, holding the stein glass which Tess thinks doesn’t seem so big in his hands (she tells herself she’ll write a story about those hands). He’s watching a soccer game on the screen above the bar.

   “It being how seriously people take their work. Specifically people in the arts,” Tess says.

   James gulps the last of his beer and places the glass on the coaster in front of him. One of the young barmen, starved of chores, immediately reaches for it. James nods his head, ordering another.

   “We have to, right? It’s called being professional.” He quells a burp before raising a hefty arm and pointing a finger at the screen. “Who watches this shit?”

   “Not us. Not you and me,” says Tess.

   “I know, because it isn’t real football, right?”

   “I mean not us . . . taking our work so seriously. We’re the small, negligible parts that supports the functioning whole. We’re auxiliary.” She gestures at the three filmmakers as James raises his eyebrows, producing a speak-for-yourself expression. “They’re the creators. And how seriously they take their roles. How earnest they are. How much they believe in what they’re doing.”

   James frowns. A fresh stein is placed in front of him.

   “Maybe if you took your job more seriously you wouldn’t be so bored,” he says, wrapping his fingers around the glass handle.

   Tess sips from her glass; not a stein. She thinks about the gassy, fizzy liquid travelling down her oesophagus and arriving to nest for the night in her stomach. Already she feels bloated and she’s only two drinks in.

   She places an arm subconsciously across her tumid tummy and swivels her chair towards James.

   “I never said I was bored.”

   James turns to her, smiles broadly.

   “You are bored. It’s obvious.”

   Tess doesn’t respond. Instead, she places a hand on James’s lap.

   He looks down at the gesture, then into Tess’s eyes.

   Tess had looked at herself in the mirror an hour earlier in her hotel room and was satisfied that she was still attractive, embracing the extra few pounds she’d added recently. Her button nose still cute, her brown eyes still mischievous, her prettiness still intact, now accompanied by an additional line or two mapping out life’s obligatory traumas. She could even be sexy with the right combination of charm and eye movement, two things she hadn’t enacted in this moment.

   “You’ve seen the ring, right?” says James, his expression suddenly stern. “What are you doing?”

   Her hand remains on his thigh. She continues to stare at him; now a hint of mischief makes itself known.

   It’s enough.


Tess wonders if she should have kept her shirt on during the act. She’d been on top. As they’d gripped hands and sheets she had imagined how he saw her from below. He had made her feel small—that, at least, was good.

   She wants to light a cigarette, but it’s a non-smoking room. It’s been a few minutes since she’d climbed off him; a sluggish movement which she’d thought at the time was nothing if not undignified. Head on silk white pillow, she turns towards James, who hasn’t moved since it ended; his log of an arm resting over his face. She guesses that his thoughts are meandering—thoughts about his wife, this hasty betrayal, visions of himself in the gamut of a conjugal breakdown. Don’t worry, Tess thinks, she’ll never find out if you don’t want her to.

   A chorus of giddy voices emerges and fades as a few people pass by out in the hallway. The partially open window sends the curtains into a flurried dance. A car honks its horn, accompanying the amalgamation of sounds emanating from the Soho streets outside. Tess hadn’t noticed any of these noises while she had enacted her own flurried dance with James.

   “I’m sorry,” she says.

   Despite the supporting sounds, these words are like a reading in an empty air hanger; projected, they then proceed to hang uncomfortably, alone. After a moment James turns to her and, as if suddenly the charming lover, rests his head on his hand, elbow to pillow.


   Tess watches the animated curtains.

   “You’re married . . . I planned to seduce you the moment I met you.”

   “We’re . . . I’m going through a strange period.”

   Tess hisses a laugh, “Story of my life.”

   “Look, it takes two to tango . . . You don’t have to apologize.”

   “I have zero qualms about pre-meditatively fucking a married man and potentially ruining his life.”

   This, James understands immediately, is a comment that’s extraneous to his and Tess’s tête-à-tête.

   “I’m a horrible person.”

   James sits up, places a hand on Tess’s head.

   “You’re human.”

   His hand almost reaches from one of Tess’s ears to the other.

   “Let’s go downstairs,” she says.

   He keeps his hand on her forehead, before saying, “Sure.”


Match-stick Man and Glamorous Woman are still seated at the bar when Tess and James return. Glamorous Woman gives Tess a knowing look. James orders a beer from one of the young barmen, and as Tess takes her seat she looks over at Linda, Roger, and Barnes who are still in the depths of a discussion.

   “Do you want a beer?” says James.

   Then, Danny, the young technician, approaches the table, pointing towards the lobby. Linda and Roger immediately stand up. Barnes remains seated, shakes his head disapprovingly before picking up his tumbler glass and sipping.

   Tess places a hand on James’s arm as Danny, Linda, and Roger move hurriedly towards the lobby.

   “Something’s wrong,” she says.

   “Maybe they’ve finally agreed to shut down the production.”

   “No,” she says, slapping his arm gently. “Come on.”

   Tess stands, James sighs as he rises and follows. Glamorous Woman watches them as they leave.


They have to hurry to keep up with Danny, Linda, and Roger. The spacious, luxurious lobby is sparsely populated: a few people checking in, a few checking out. From the lobby they all enter the elevator and Danny presses the button for the third floor.

   “What’s going on?” asks Tess.

   “Where were you two?” asks Linda.

   “It’s Sasha,” says Danny.

   “Is he weeping again?” says James as the elevator beeps and the doors open. Tess nudges him reproachfully.

   They exit into the hallway of the third floor. Danny leads the way at a steady pace. As they approach a door they’re all greeted by the sight of a good-looking, vest-wearing, scrawny Hispanic kid, who’s visibly upset.

   The young man says to Danny, in a quivering voice, “Can I call an ambulance now?”

   Danny doesn’t respond. He motions with his hands for everyone to enter the room.

   Tess hears Linda murmur something and sounds of distress before she sees Sasha spread out on the modern four-poster bed, still in his 19th-century military uniform, sans boots, a trail of vomit beginning at his mouth and paving the silk sheets, his cherubic face somewhat turgid, fresh tears populating his cheeks.

   “Why haven’t you called an ambulance?” says Linda to Danny. “Call a god-damn ambulance, for chrissakes!”

   “I-I-I thought. . .” stammers Danny. “Publicity, bad press . . . don’t you consult someone first? Like Ledger?”

   “Jesus Christ, Danny,” bellows Linda. “Call the fucking ambulance.”

   “I’m calling,” says the skinny Hispanic kid who still stands in the hallway, distressed, pacing back and forth.

   Roger approaches the bed.

   “Don’t touch him, Roger,” says Linda.

   Roger raises his hands.

   “The pillock might be choking on his bloody vomit,” he says as sits on the bed and lifts Sasha’s head onto his lap, encouraging more vomit to exit the mouth and gather on the sheets. Roger checks his pulse. He looks at Linda worriedly.

   “Oh for Chrissakes,” says Linda as she raises her hand to her mouth.

   Tess stands still. She feels something within. She sees the bag of white powder on the bedside locker. The spoon. The needle. She looks at Sasha’s face: Despite the mess—the puke, the partial swelling, the pallid expression, the tears—he’s still beautiful, she thinks.

   But all she wants to do now is fix his make-up.


Tess had volunteered to ride with Sasha in the ambulance. Before she left she grabbed her handbag. On the way to the hospital she felt as if she were now an actor in the film—she and Sasha were now fellow thespians in the middle of an intense, high-octane scene; now transported from the idyllic countryside of the 19th century to the grimy 21st-century streets in an unexpected and highly questionable plot twist.

   Sasha’s performance, she thought, would land him multiple awards. The EMTs kept talking to him, although Tess couldn’t see much activity. A glimmer of hope would arrive every now and then with the fluttering of eyelids, but to Tess this seemed to communicate distress—a calamitous episode—rather than potential recovery.

   She’d placed her hand on his smooth bare foot and kept it there until they’d reached the hospital, thumbing his sole maternally. As the ambulance zipped through London traffic, Tess pictured the religious iconography from the Georgian house in which they’d been shooting earlier that day. She saw Christ, and she saw Sasha, and after a while she couldn’t tell one from the other.


The first thing Tess notices upon taking her seat in the surprisingly quiet and dreary waiting area is the cross on the wall. She remembers the one that had rested above her bed when she was a child, “watching over her”, as her mother would say. In this waiting room, as the nurses work on Sasha, for reasons she both does and doesn’t understand, she’s comforted by the presence of this sorrowful looking man nailed to two planks of wood. How, she wonders, can someone’s suffering in that very moment be such a comfort to so many?

   A dream follows—she hadn’t felt herself dosing, but there she was, slipping away unawares. In the dream is her mother. A conversation. They’re sitting opposite one another in the kitchen. Tess is no longer a child, but this is the same moment in which she’d had the conversation with her mother after a Tuesday afternoon spent in school with Tammy Byron; the smell of the homemade bread, her mother’s attire, the penetrating sun—it’s all the same. Only this time her mother tells Tess that she should never apologise for who she is, she tells her to be brave. Then a nudge, and Tess is awake, a young Asian nurse standing over her.

   “He’s awake,” she says, then leans close and speaks quietly: “This is unprofessional . . . but I’m a big fan of his. I’m kind of a cinephile . . ‘ she laughs giddily. “Especially French and Québécois cinema . . .”

   Tess stands up.

   “Are you his girlfriend?” the nurse asks quietly.

   Tess shakes her head ‘no’, picks up her handbag. They both begin to walk.

   “I didn’t think so,” the nurse says. “You’re much older . . . no offence . . . that’s just an observation . . . He’s my age . . .”

   “Thank you for the confidence boost,’ says Tess.

   As they approach the room the young nurse stops Tess.

   “Do you think,” she asks. “I could get a photo with him after you guys talk? You’ve no idea what that would do for my Instagram account.”


Sasha sits up in the bed. He’s in a private room. Privilege permeates the air. He immediately smirks as he sees Tess. It’s an embarrassed gesture, she can tell that much. She notices how pale he is, his eyes dark, his lips lacking verdure. His body is being fed liquids through a drip. His 19th-century military uniform is in a bundle on a chair under the large blind-covered window.

   Tess pulls one of the ugly, orange-cushioned chairs next to the bed.

   “Why are you here?” Sasha asks, almost laughing.

   “Well,” Tess begins as she falls back into the chair and rests her feet on the edge of the bed. “Linda thought it would be best if we bring as little attention to this little drama as possible. David . . .”

   Tess notices the lack of registration on Sasha’s face.

   “The producer . . . He’s been away most of the day; Linda had asked to keep the crew to a bare minimum for this scene. And he wasn’t at the hotel when you decided to go all River Phoenix on us . . . If word gets out that the lead actor in this already over-budget mess almost killed himself there’s genuine concern—not unjustified, might I add—that the production will be shut down. So, the lowly make-up artist is the point of contact. And for now you’re Alexander, not Sasha.”

   “I could get used to being Alexander again.”

   “Don’t be so dramatic . . . What are you, an actor?”

   Tess looks up and sees another cross above the bed.

   “Even in private rooms,” she says aloud.


   “The crucifix . . . even in private rooms.”

   “A gentle reminder,” smiles Sasha.



   Tess continues to stare at the cross.

   “No . . . I think it’s a reminder to not be afraid, even if you don’t believe. No matter who you are.”

   She lowers her feet, rummages in her handbag.

   “You look like death,” she says.

   “That’s to be expected, no?”

   “Heroin? Really?”

   “All the greats . . .” says Sasha, but he doesn’t finish the sentence, as if he knows the words he’ll speak will sound contrived.

   Tess reveals from her handbag a small make-up case and a brush.

   “Come on,” she says as she leans forward. “Let’s give some life back to those cheeks.”

   Sasha closes his eyes, once again teary-eyed.

   “I’m such a fool.”

   “Yes, you are.”

   “I saw him,” he says after a long pause.

   “Who?” asks Tess as she holds the brush in her hand, sitting back and resting her feet against the bed once again.

   “Mon amour,” Sasha smirks, shakes his head. “La folie d’Amour . . .”

   Tess rests her chin on her hand, looking at Sasha. She sits forward again and summons him with the brush. He leans towards her, and she lightly powders his cheeks.

   “When you said earlier . . . That it was sad, how I’d said I used to cry . . . The way I’d said it . . .”

   “It was,” says Sasha.

   “Yes. Well, when I saw you like that, on the bed, looking deathly . . . so . . . tragic . . . I felt something I haven’t felt—that I haven’t been able to feel for a long time.”

   Sasha stares at Tess. He places his palms against his eyes, stretching the skin in a slow movement, wiping away residual tears.

   “Um. . . You’re welcome?” he smirks.

   Sitting forward, Tess wags the brush again.

   “Anyway, let’s get you looking at least partially alive before I call Linda.”

   “I don’t wear make-up off set, you know . . .”

   “I know, but like I said, you look like absolute shit.”

   Gradually, Tess returns some colour to Sasha’s face.

   “Oh,” she says after she’s finished. “You’ve got a fan . . .  The nurse. She asked if I was your girlfriend.”

   At this, Sasha laughs heartily.


Shooting for the following day was cancelled. Linda asked David for time to restructure the scene, to discuss with Barnes the intricacies of the exchange between the two characters—the doomed lovers. The actress who’d been acting opposite Sasha was due to fly in that evening. She was a well-known model who was making the often ill-fated transition to acting, and whose busy schedule had meant she was unavailable for the first two days of shooting in London. Sasha had said he was happy that she was arriving, as it would be better than him acting opposite a stand-in, or a sweeping brush.

   At least he’d hoped it would be.


Tess sits at the island bar once again. This time she’s alone. She hasn’t seen James since the night before, and thinks that this is for the best. Sasha had stopped by her room earlier and presented to her a bouquet of flowers, then proposed that the two of them watch Titanic together. Tess had agreed and they both enjoyed the movie along with plenty of room service.

   Sitting at the bar again is Match-stick Man and Glamorous Woman. Tess is tempted to speak to the woman, to ask if indeed she is a former Hollywood star, but she doesn’t want to be that person.

   She orders a beer and one of the two young barmen serves her a glass of fizzy golden liquid. Looking around, she sees Barnes at the same table at which he was seated the previous evening. He’s reading his screenplay, legs crossed, his foot shaking communicating anxiety or frustration, Tess thinks.

   “Wanna ask him why he’s such an obstinate sonuvabitch?”

   Linda sits in the chair next to Tess. She orders a drink.

   “I get the feeling that he wouldn’t tell me,” Tess says.

   “He’s the most difficult man . . . and I’ve dealt with some of the most difficult men . . . and women.”

   The other young barman places a G&T in front of Linda.

   “Tab,” she says. “The ongoing tab.”

   The barman smiles, nods, retreats.

   “You see that gorgeous woman?” Tess says quietly.

   “Who? Grandma?”

   “The older woman, yes,” Tess says.

   “Yes, I do. Why? Are you planning on asking her out?”

   “Isn’t she famous? I mean, wasn’t she? She looks so familiar.”

   “That, my dear Tessa, is Angie Leonard,” says Linda before taking a sip of her drink. She flicks her curly black hair in a habitual manner. “Angie Leonard played some major roles back in the 50s opposite the likes of Gable, Hudson, and John Wayne . . . She even starred opposite James Dean in a lost film about a drifter who disrupts a quote, unquote perfect marriage. Her career took a bit of a dive when it was made public that she had . . . sapphic tendencies.”

   “No. . .”

   “Come on, even Dean couldn’t say it straight up. He knew the risks. Hudson, too. And so did Angie, but it was tougher for women to keep that kind of thing under wraps in those days. They weren’t worth as much to the studios, so the studios would sell the secrets of their lesser stars to protect their major players, like Hudson.”

   “The poor woman. All because . . .”

   “All because she was born at the wrong time. Hell, I’ve slept with more women than my man Hefner did and still I’m one of the biggest directors in Hollywood. And you think I’m not aware of the push for more female directors right now? I’m a beneficiary of the time we live in, believe that.”


   “Yes, Tessy, baby?”

   “Did you give me this job in the hope that we’d get together again?”

   That hiccup laugh, followed by a shake of the head.

   “As much as I would be open to such an occurrence, no, that’s not why I got you the job, baby.”

   “Was it because my mother died?”

   Linda places a hand on Tess’s.

   “It was because I care about you, and because I don’t know what the hell you’re doing in London. Although I think I have an idea.”

   Match-stick Man erupts abruptly, producing a cacophony of coughs and throat-clearing. Angie Leonard pats him on the back.

   “I can’t stop being angry at her,” Tess says, turning to Linda. “I don’t know how to purge myself of it . . . She could’ve made things so much easier . . . I could’ve been so much happier . . . ”

   Linda, in a similar manner to Leonard, places her hand on Tess’s back. Tess sniffles, tries to compose herself, to avoid attention and scene-causing.

   “I even prayed . . .” She laughs a bewildered laugh. “I prayed.”

   Linda squeezes Tess’s shoulder, and attention is drawn to the table. A short time later, after Tess gathers herself, they order more drinks, and again the conversation flows, and again they laugh regularly.

   At Tess’s insistence they share a bed that night.


The next morning, Tess stands by as James barks orders at Danny, who fiddles with one of the floor lamps. The light illuminates Sasha’s features. He smirks as Tess approaches him.

   “Just a touch-up,” she says.

   “My hero,” he says sardonically, or perhaps not.

 David, the producer—balding, bearded, bad-tempered—has been present on set since 7am. Linda and David have had a number of discussions, but now, as they prepare to shoot the scene, the producer has disappeared into the other room where he’s sat silently next to Barnes.

   Linda and Roger exchange a few words, before Linda approaches the camera.

   Tess steps away from Sasha, squeezing his hand before she exits the shot. He smiles warmly at her. Tess takes her place in the darkened corner, looking on as the cast and crew get ready for the next take. The model/actress stands in place. Beyond her and Sasha is the sprawling countryside, the wave-like hills.

   James and Tess catch each other’s eye, before Tess takes a deep breath and looks at Linda who’s standing next to the camera. The sound of the word “Action!” causes Tess to become aware of a sensation she’s currently experiencing. She feels in her stomach something not entirely unpleasant; something, she realises, that is no longer elusive.



Header Image by Kyle Head on Unsplash

The Tank and the Lady in the Painting


It was Raymond’s suggestion. I’ve never really understood art, so I was rarely inclined to visit art galleries. I can appreciate the colours, the skill; the talent involved. I understand that there’s talent. Well, most of the time—as Bob Dylan said. Other times . . . Well, I just don’t know.

   But it sounded like it would be a nice thing to do; I don’t see my brother often enough and if I’m to be completely honest I don’t get out often enough. Not since John became ill. And when I do get out it’s usually to visit him at the nursing home. Once a month at the home there’s a support group for the spouses of the residents of the home. One of the women there—Julie—she calls it the “Sad Bastard Get-Together” (SBGT). I laugh at that, even though I shouldn’t. I like Julie; she sees the humour in the sad side of life. She said there’s always a sad side (and don’t I know it), so why not try paint over it with humour? Like an artist painting over a lifeless canvas, you could say.

   At the support group they encourage you to be more active; become involved in different activities; join clubs; be more sociable. Now that’s all well and good, but I don’t drive, and with the miserable weather we get here most of the year I don’t want to go out half the time. And as for being more sociable; well, that’s all well and good, but any time I go out it’s always with couples, because almost all of my friends are married and have been for over thirty years. And I know that’s the way it is, because that’s the way it is. But it can be a little hard. It’s hard being around couples all the time when you remember what you had; when you instinctively reach for that hand.

   Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. That’s not important. At the SBGT they encourage us to avoid indulging in negative thoughts; not to spend too much time swimming around in the past. So, I shouldn’t do that, I guess. And in any case, I’m not a very strong swimmer—never have been. But sometimes I forget that I shouldn’t linger on those thoughts; maybe it’s just because I’m getting older.

   But the trip to the gallery . . .

   It was a Saturday and as usual it was raining. I had taken the bus from the shopping centre to town, which left me only a few minutes’ walk from the gallery. Once I’d rambled up the cobblestone street, I found Raymond standing at the entrance in his rain jacket. He’d always wear the same rain jacket, even if it was a sunny day. He has a gloomy disposition; always has and always will. John used to call him “Smile Awhile”. John always liked to joke and tease, but not in a mean way.

   Raymond and I have similar faces. We both share a petit, stubby nose and a big mouth, as if one was compensating for the other. But while Raymond has always had cheeks decorated with freckles, my skin has always been clear and soft, thank you very much. That’s one thing I’ll hold on to, please. Raymond’s black hair—like mine—is greying in places. He has these narrow eyes which have become narrower with time. You see, his eyelids droop, like curtains, and so there’s not much of an opening for his vision, but he never looks like he’s squinting—just gloomy, like I said. Me, I’ve got my mother’s eyes: big and blue and full of surprise, although there isn’t much that surprises me anymore.

   We kissed each other on the cheek and Raymond smiled in his usual way: as if it took a tremendous amount of effort. He paid the admission, and I thanked him, and we began to wander around the gallery. See, Raymond’s the cultured one in our family; he’s the smart one, the educated one. The one who went to college. Of course, I couldn’t go to college because I was running the family home from the age of fifteen; my mother needed all the help she could get because she was ill, and my father was out working most days. We were a poor family; me, Raymond, and our sisters Debbie and Cassandra, all shared the same room growing up just outside the city centre. The three of us sisters would pile ourselves into the same bed—which was good for keeping warm during the night, and for those moments when we’d hear a noise and become scared—and Raymond had his bed to himself. Considering our financial constraints, the fact that Raymond got to go to college is a miracle in my book. But he did, and he’s reaped the benefits of an education. And I don’t begrudge him that one bit. He teaches now, at a college outside the city.

   The gallery was quiet for a Saturday, or so I guessed; I don’t know what’s busy for that gallery. Raymond would comment on paintings every now and then; saying things like “isn’t the use of vibrant colours here marvellous,” and “the despair’s in the work; isn’t it obvious? This captures a moment in the artist’s life—a moment of despair. It all over it, isn’t it?”. He would look at the works in different ways; every now and then he’d place an elbow on a wrist and a hand under his chin, and would tap his lips with his index finger as he studied a painting. He’d seem displeased in many instances. I just looked at them and liked the ones I liked and didn’t think much about the ones I disliked. When we came to a painting, “A convent garden, Brittany”, by a man named William John Leech, I asked Raymond what he thought of it. In it a very pretty woman holding a book is looking up at something, maybe the tree, maybe the heavens—I don’t know. Behind her there are a number of women looking away so you can’t see their faces. There are branches and leaves and flowers in the foreground.

   “You like it?” he asked.

   “Do you?” I asked.

   “I do. I’m a great admirer of Leech; I share his love of sunlight.”

   “Then why do you live in this kip?”

   Raymond smiled and placed a finger over his lips as he looked at the painting.

   “Do you like it?” he asked again.

   “I do,” I said as my eyes lingered on it. “It’s like life, in a way, isn’t it?” I said tentatively.

   Raymond turned his head to me; I didn’t normally talk about art.

   “How do you mean?”

   “Well,” I began, and hesitated before continuing. “We can see her face. She’s very beautiful. You want to look at her. It’s like we’re the ones looking at her through the leaves and flowers there at the front, isn’t it? But the other women; they’re just there. We can’t see their faces.”

   “Go on.”

   “I don’t know. I think it’s like life; only a few will be seen and the rest will live in their shadow.”

   Raymond nodded. I don’t know if that’s what the painting meant. I don’t think it did: I don’t know very much about art.

   “It’s his wife, actually.”


“It’s oil on canvas. Beautiful execution.”

   I nodded as once again Raymond tapped his finger against his lips.

   It wasn’t long afterwards that we came across the tank. It wasn’t a very pleasant sight—not to my eyes. There were a number of people around it. It was hanging from the ceiling and was a few feet above the floor. There was a big fish in it, surrounded by blue liquid. The big fish’s mouth was open and its razor-like teeth were on display. It must have been around 6 ft long. It was a horrible-looking thing. We got closer and a few of the patrons moved along. There was a sign in front of it that told us the name of the piece:

                        In the Eyes of the Beholder—Death or Life

   Raymond nodded.

   “This is the piece everyone’s talking about,” he said excitedly.

   “It’s a fish,” I said.

   Raymond nodded again.

   “It’s a lancetfish,” he said. “That liquid is a formaldehyde solution. It slows the decomposition process.”

   I took a step back, walked around the tank. The fish was skinny, and its fin was tall. It’s dead, I kept saying to myself.

   “It’s like it’s alive, but it’s not,” I said to Raymond.

   “So it seems.”

   “Why put a dead fish in a tank?”

   “Why not?” he said.

   “Is it art?” I asked Raymond.

   “It’s in the gallery,” he replied, with a wry smile.

   We stood in silence for a few minutes, staring into the eyes, the mouth, the soul of this dead lancetfish. I felt sorry for the thing; it shouldn’t be there on display like this, I thought.

   While we were standing, looking at the fish and the tank, my phone rang.

   Raymond looked at me with disapproval in his eyes. I hunched my shoulders apologetically. It was the nursing home calling; I couldn’t let it ring out. I’d missed the last SBGT, maybe there was something they wanted to update me on. I walked away into a corner, where there was no one else, and I quietly answered the call.

   “Hello?” I whispered.

   “Mrs. Callaghan?” came the voice of a young woman.

   “Yes—Mary. Mrs. Callaghan makes me feel ancient—call me Mary. Is everything all right?”

   “It’s fine, yes, nothing to worry about, Mary. John’s just been worried and has been asking us to contact you.”

   “What’s wrong? There’s nothing wrong, is there?”

   “No, no. Not at all. John just wanted to tell you to remember to bring his cigarettes when you’re coming up next.”

   In the background I could hear John.

   “I’ve only five left,” he was saying.

   “Yes, I have some there for him. I’ll be up in the morning.”

   “Okay,” said the young woman. “John just wanted us to call to make sure.”

   “Okay,” I said. “That’s okay.”

   The rain had stopped when we left the gallery. Raymond waited with me until my bus arrived. I hugged him and we said we’d do it again soon. He trundled off in his raincoat as I waited in line to get on the bus.

   On the way to visit John, as the bus travelled along the river, as the traffic crawled tediously, I thought about that poor fish. Then I thought about the beautiful woman in the oil painting. I imagined her there on that day, in the heat of the sunshine, surrounded by the leaves and flowers, and all that beauty. Then, after all the hours her husband had spent on the work, he would reveal it to her.

   When I got to John’s room, I opened the door a little before stopping. I imagined the artist’s wife as she approached the door to the room where she would see the painting for the first time. She’d see herself on that canvas. I imagined the excitement, or the apprehension, as she prepared to enter and see the work her husband had made for her; how she’d be seen for years to come. Still I stood outside the door.

   And I waited.