The sky has only just lifted to the navy-brown of pre-dawn when a bedside lamp comes on in the director’s house. The curtains aren’t closed and soon Larry stands nude at the window, peering out at the thick, stiff fog. You could sit on it – that air. You could screen a movie on it. Birds must be headbutting one another, dropping like lads outside the only nightclub in the village. What’s he looking at? There’s nothing to see. He disappears, then returns – still nude – with an espresso cup.
Today won’t be the day for explaining to the actors that if the universe weren’t expanding the sky would be awash in the light of every sun, star, reflective planet and moon in the galaxy – all photons everywhere bearing down on their Irish hangovers. No. It will be bland-skied. Limp. He’ll have to make do with low-lying revelations. The one about the mist that freezes mid-air in Siberia; how if you see a human-shaped gap tunnelling through the ice-mist, majority of the time it leads to a corpse. What’s called a hostile environment. But – Larry swirls his espresso, knocks it back tequila style and chomps the sugar nugget – any idiot can tell you fog is hard. Fog has no contrast. Fog is the perfect opposite to the parts of the film that have already been shot. He sets his cup on the sill and flips open his cell phone. Larry’d bought the whole crew cell phones as well as, purportedly, a reception tower for the parish. When he’d come to Connemara before, he told them, he’d had to drive half an hour to order pizza. Four hours for sushi.
The text message has no sooner been sent than a lamp comes on in the crew house: the second cottage in the line-up. It’s assumed he and Helga own all three houses. The curtains of the crew house are sloppily shut, splicing light through. Lead cameraman Moses gets his SMS instructions: to dress warmly, to take the 3X wide angle zoom for the stabiliser, to wake Kai to get the LX-1 on rig-wheels, Eric for the boom and reflectors, to wear socks over their shoes, to meet in 10.
Larry emerges from his house with an apple between his teeth. He zips his hoody, brown leather jacket, fly. He cuts across the grass to avoid the crunchy pebble drive, then looks over his shoulder. They’re the only houses along this road for a mile. Larry’s is biggest. The attic was renovated into a studio. It’s thatched and set apart from the others on a hillock. The surroundings are obscured by fog. The only visible feature is a clothes line slinging ghostly silhouettes. Larry backtracks to the clothes line and unpegs a flute-sleeved sweater (hand-knit by Helga, his retired-model wife, asleep in the studio) and her long fawn satin skirt. Feeling that they’re dew-damp, he flings his uneaten apple into the grass, drapes the sweater over his shoulder and flags the skirt through the air to dry it.
A call had gone out in the national paper: LA director seeks Irish actresses aged 21–25 for avant-garde film: A Woman of No Information. Must be available for entirety of May and June no exception. Accommodation and expenses paid. Industry-standard contract. No tattoos or facial piercings. Natural hair. No credentials required except talent. Send five-minute videotape – NO dialogue – to: Nine actors had arrived from different parts of the country at the pick-up point in Clifden and were all cozied into a hi-ace van, smile-pouting at one another, when it dawned on them that – being the same demographic – they might all be cast for the same part. They were all conspicuously pale, though, in the van, they blushed in the knowledge that each had made mortifying silent tapes of themselves. The Passion of Joan of Arc was on the national school curriculum. They all knew that focusing on any unspeaking face is extreme. Five minutes of an untrained aspiring actress’s face without frosted lip-gloss . . . emoting . . . is extremer. The only people able to move to a remote cast house for two months on a fortnight’s notice for no guaranteed pay were school and college drop-outs or folks already on the dole. The experimental part and the part about being confined to the west of Ireland at length would put off rich aspirants. In the van, they’d discovered that although the ad stipulated 21–25-year-olds, those cast were all between 17 and 20. Only the eldest, Maud, was adult and organised enough to be on the dole.
Maud is the actor Larry picks now. He’s in the cast house, moving quietly between the open doorways of the three bedrooms, assessing his options. Each room’s been fitted out with a single bed and a bunk-bed. Asleep on her belly, Maud’s arms are tucked under her pillow and a knee juts from the duvet. Her position is that of a key. French-plaited to buy her one more day without washing, her hair is the colour of a Portobello mushroom: beige pleated with dark brown underside. She has wide sloping brows and wiry lashes that poke downward. Her face against the pillow is like an unbaked croissant. On her bedside table are various bottles and balms, eyelash curlers and dried-out dirty cotton pads, which Larry stares at. His wife Helga doesn’t use cotton pads; she washes her face over the sink and pats it dry with small square towels. She leans on the sink’s rim so that the grouting cracks, and stares into her pistachio eyes – barely open enough to dig a thumbnail into. There is no cotton evidence of his wife ever having been dirty. Larry sets the damp, laundered clothes at the base of the door, then goes to the crew house, where he directs the sound guy to go wake Maud.
When Maud emerges in Helga’s clothes, she is rolling the skirt at the waist. Helga is 6’2” to Maud’s 5’5”. The fluted sweater sleeves hide her hands completely. She smiles at Larry, then winces and covers her hair. I can shower? He hushes her. Says: Lose the braid. The sound guy, Eric – a skinny white guy from Santa Rosa in a trucker hat – approaches with a transmitter and tsks at the rolled waistband. He fits a lavalier mic to her sweater’s neckline. Larry sizes him up as he does this. Forget that. Let’s just do a boom. And give her your jacket, Larry says, glancing at the emblem on his varsity jacket, utterly incongruous to Connemara. Eric’s willingness is obscured by the hat, but he complies. That decision had seemed spontaneous. Maud tries to understand how her role is being rewritten on the spot – who the woman might be, and if the American college of the jacket is responsible for her lack of information. Not on. Just on the shoulders, Larry tells Eric. Thanks now go get a coat. Be quick. I’m catching this fog before it’s thin. It seems to Maud rather gruff treatment of the best guys in the business.
The other two best guys carry their equipment to the road. Second cameraman Kai has long stringy hair and his face looks like he’s just had an allergic reaction. Extra puffy and lilac this morning. Larry and he communicate in nods, shrugs and acronyms. Lead cameraman Moses has the body of a weightlifter who skips legs days. His XL1 is propped on one shoulder and he’s carrying the boom and reflector while Eric catches up. He talks about his kids in Hawaii a lot. A dozen colourful friendship bracelets adorn his wrists. While he’s vague on the film, he’s the friendliest crew member towards the actors. He’s the only one they brave asking questions of . . . but when they ask about the film – about the other parts that have been made already in LA and Hawaii – he’s back on the topic of his daughters before anything tangible has been relayed. It’s still dark enough out that his blunt fizzles orangely. Maud walks in his wake, doing breathing exercises.
They follow the road until the houses are out of sight, which doesn’t take long in these conditions. There’s one other bungalow at the intersection a kilometre away. Cows and ponies graze in the fields further down, but here, the fields are empty, bordered by dry stone walls encrusted in lichen and moss. There are electricity poles. There are sweeping mounds of red montbretia, which are orange. No cars. Moses walks on the grass running down the centre of the road, lifting his feet exaggeratedly over tufts and potholes. They’ll be walking backwards to film Maud. Let’s go wide first then switch to eye-level full, Larry says. Close-up, eye-level head-and-shoulder, extreme close-up. Kai, you’ll start from each side, then overs from each shoulder. Moses: take a wide from behind. Maybe an insert of her feet. Let’s film both ways while the fog’s this thick. Cheat continuity. I want a clean thirty before she emerges.
As if fingers have been clicked, the crew readies its equipment. Moses stamps on his blunt, collects the butt and flicks it into a field. Maud holds the varsity jacket like the straps of a backpack. Larry tells her to walk at a natural pace, forget the cameras. You’ll hear action. Wait half a minute, then walk.
They all turn to go. Eh . . . Larry? Maud swallows dryly. Do I have a part?
Looking around as if for someone following them, Larry says: Evidently.
But . . . who is she? The character?
Larry rubs his fingers in and around his eyes, then opens them widely. Laura, isn’t it?
Mod. My bad. What it is is . . . I want you to feel the film before you understand it. And there’s this fog. So just go with it. It’s just walking. It should be doable. He looks at her cheek, as if there’s a wasp there, then at the side of the road. He goes to pick up a stone, wipes it against some grass to wet it and holds it out. Can you scrub your cheeks? It’s too much grey.
Maud looks at the stone as if it’s an extravagant tip. I should be a bit muddy, is it? She slept rough?
No! Larry says, Jesus! It’s to pink your cheeks. Jesus Christ. I’m not making . . . a starving Irish country girl movie . . . with crows circling to pick her bones. He tucks his head back, as if from the impact of a killer line. Your wardrobe’s worth a grand. He glances sidelong at Kai, then at a pair of crows perched on the power line overhead. But I’m not making Dawn of the Dead either, he says flatly. Let’s go.
Maud takes the stone, feels its cold, coarse texture with her thumb. She’s not so grey, Maud tells herself. The crew walks 50 feet ahead and the red lights come on.
Maud is left with a choice: to walk on one side of the road or down the middle. The satin skirt spills more excessively across her legs if she has to lift her feet over the grass: Is it this sensation her character paid hundreds of dollars to enjoy? Whose dollars? To walk in the middle is more dangerous, but perhaps the character is uncautious; unperturbed by what-might-be. The implications of this first choice will ripple concentrically. Nearly two minutes pass before she emerges.
A young woman breaks through the fog, the frame, symmetrically, at the pace of a bridesmaid atoning for her gown. Her arms hang by her sides – the sleeves covering all but her fingertips. The jacket capes her. The crew begin moving backwards as soon as she comes into shot. The road is pale and gritty. The grass is bald in places, bounteous in others. Dried cow pats dapple the foreground. Scurvygrass and nettle ensconce the stonewalls. Pale hunks of limestone shoulder out of the landscape all around. The fog is, in fact, low cloud, and it begins to shift in the breeze so that yellow gorse and purple heather fleetingly modulate the grey palette.
Closing in on the frame, it’s evident that Maud has roughed her cheeks to the point of blood-burst. This further complicates the costume. It’s a choice she made. Her mood runs a spectrum from mild melancholia to wild, penetrating satisfaction. After 600 metres, Larry calls for a turnaround and an eye-level full. They switch directions without stopping filming. Maud gets no notes. Not for the next three road-lengths. After the fourth take, they rush to their starting point, as the backdrop flashes through the fog. Cows. Maud hurries to keep pace with Larry, clocking his profile. His sunglasses are on. He seems edgy, like he could use a powder pick-me-up. Before calling action, he gives a solitary note: I wanna know where your soul is at all times. Maud replies: Her soul, or mine?
After a take, Larry asks if her character was cold or if she was. Maud’s lips tighten. He’s right. That she crossed her arms was her own body weakening. That the sweater is damp isn’t the character’s reality. Are you even headed some place? Larry says. Your ambition for this scene . . . is making Moses have to limbo. Between takes six and seven, he asks what she’s thinking. When she goes to answer, he cuts her off: I need you (he karate chops in her direction) to put thoughts (he does a double-handed chop) in my head (he karate chops himself).
Maud is developing a progressively persuasive narrative about the woman, why she’s here, walking. Gold reflector foil is shimmied in her direction, though none of the men can find east, what with double-layer cloud-cover, and Maud won’t irk them with knowledge. Kai swats the reflector for a light source. Before the eighth take, Larry sighs so hard, it’s almost a cough. He slaps his thighs with both hands. Alright, Laura –
Maud, Maud says.
Maud. Alright, Maud. What is that, short for maudlin?
It’s after Maud Gonne. The suffragette. She was an actor too, but it was kind of . . . half-theatre, half-uprising. Yeats was in love with her – obsessed, like – but it was unrequited.
Larry gives Maud such a canvas-blank stare it’s all she can do to throw paint at it:
She was a legend. Even with the occult stuff. Screwing her ex in her dead child’s mausoleum and all that. Maud flashes her crooked bottom teeth. (Larry pushes his sunglasses onto his head as invitation to expand.) It was to try and make the dead kid reincarnate on the spot . . . into a new egg. Thought the soul could transmigrate through the coffin, into her, like, if she conceived on top of it. Anyway, that was Yeats messing with her head. Maud Gonne was more of a revolutionary and she rejected him. So he found her weak spot . . . her grief . . . and dug in.
Larry’s jaw is slack. Right, he says finally. In between takes . . . you do you. But this is our last take, and now you got ghost osmosis porno in our heads. That’s not my film. On top of the open sores on your face? Larry sniffs. Then he looks back at Kai and says it’s down to MOS for this take.
Maud, Maud says.
Larry snaps his gaze back to her. MOS. MOS. Motor only shot. Mute on screen.
Yeah. Oh! Larry says. Means we need you cuter and quieter. What I’m gunna do is I’m gunna put thoughts in your head for this take. I’m gunna tell you a story. We’re ditching audio. You’ll react to my story as if it’s your story, as if it’s not external at all – but coming to you from inside of you. Can you do that? Can you listen?
Maud nods, eagerly. She uncrosses her arms and steps forward.
Sure, Larry says, apropos of nothing.
The story Larry tells her is long and unlikely. Whether or not it’s true, it in no way has to do with the film or her character, so Maud’s performance runs the spectrum from disturbed to livid to aloof as she tries to block it out.
It’s 9 a.m. when they return and the sky is yoghurt left out all night. Larry must be pleased with how the last take went because he thanks Maud by the cast house gate. We got some usable material. Mostly fog. Some fog plus a girl. Some fog a plus a girl plus feeling, even if I hadda get in there with my hands and wring it outta her. Maud laughs too liberally in the relief of not being fired. What’s funny? he asks, with a hint of malice. Are you laughing at me? Maud’s smile falters. Not at you, she says, with you. He says: I’m not laughing. The curl has gone out of Maud’s lashes. Girlishness mightn’t redeem her. Larry locks eyes with her and neither speaks. Then he claps her upper arm and says, Relax. You got the part. Maud smiles again, barely, and turns fast into the driveway lest the breeze change direction.
As soon as she’s inside, the actors scurry from the windows to the kitchen table to cling to teapots and Wagon Wheel biscuits and Maud’s every word. Wait’ll you see, one says, she’ll be all high and mighty – This gets shushed as Maud enters the kitchen and they see her scraped face and pale lips shiver. Helga’s gorgeous skirt rippling on her cellulite. I’m frozen, she says. You’re blue, they insist. Undress her! I’ll get you clothes! Here hun, have a fag to warm up your lungs. The girls fuss, towelling her off – they think her hair is wet and are disappointed to learn it’s just dirty. Absolute state of your face, Louise declares. Louise – who’d made a show of the gill-like diagonal scar on her cheek where her mother’d brandished a bread knife; convinced it’s a career-making feature, like Cindy Crawford’s mole or Jim Carey’s chipped tooth. State of my face? Maud replies shakily, and they all cackle at this sign that she will talk. Once she’s clothed in two fleeces and O’Neill’s tracksuit pants and two pairs of socks and her white hands are clutching a mug and she’s dragged on a Silk Cut and eaten ketchupy black puddings, she tells them everything . . . down to how – just now – Larry had said, I’m not laughing, which makes them gasp. Finally, she tells Larry’s story:
You have a mother, right? his monologue had begun. Is she like you? With short legs and bad posture? Do you despise her? Does she regret you? What she give up, to have you? My mom? he’d asked himself. She was a piece of work. In fact, technically I was. One of her pieces of work. My mother, the Conceptual Artist. Her art didn’t make a buck, obviously. She did things to survive. She was a waitress. Car washer. Dog walker. Felon. She liked brokenness. She studied it. Specially systems. Different countries, different systems – how they treat a new person, without papers or info. I was never told what number I was . . . a cheap, fast study for the larger work. She’d have babies and leave them. Wherever she had’m. Fiji. Slovakia. Turkey. Ireland. Vancouver Island. I was born in Joshua Tree. The national park. Know it? The one with the bears and the crack heads and coyotes. She’d make sure nothing was wrong with us, then she’d pay someone off, a local, have’m track what happens to the unclaimed infant. How the system deals with it. It was quantum mechanics, if you got tetanus or a tetanus shot. And yeah. Lot of people think it’s chemically, biologically impossible, to have twelve, thirteen kids and abandon them the month they’re born? But it’s possible to walk into a high school and massacre eighth grade. It’s possible to take a guy by the ankle and drag’m behind a truck for ten miles. If you’re a nutjob cunt, in total denial about duty and decency. So. I’m an installation. No one had high hopes for me. I got unconditional indifference. How does it make you feel?
Though Maud hadn’t bought the story, her eyes had begun to well by the end of its telling, weirdly. It was absolute tripe. He’d already said such daft things. The girls agreed and only wondered why she was upset. Was she a big softie big sister? Her wee brother was blind, wasn’t he? Didn’t she have an infant sister? Was that why? She didn’t like to think of anyone left on jaggedy rocks – even allegorical siblings. She was tired, they said. She should nap. There’d be a game of footie later. Was she any use as a goalie? They said they’d be wrecks if they woke before eight in the morning. But as they cleaned their mugs, they resigned themselves to poor sleep from now on, hoping to be called from their waiting rooms – lifted out of their darknesses. Some might have let Maud stay cold a little longer – if she got sick, he might reconsider his choosing – but the group behaviour was established as generous and good and there was no going back on that. The last person to leave Maud had been rubbing circles into her back. She only notices as the hand slips off. She feels unfamiliarly light. A baby supported by the sheer fortune of time and place. What did the tracking of a creature reveal? Surely, it was a dreadful, worthy truth to spend one’s life exposing . . . Seven, nine, thirteen lives, even? Enough is arbitrary. Why grant the cat so many when probability has its way every time?
The girls close Maud’s bedroom door. When she goes to draw the curtains, she pauses, catching sight of Helga, handling bed sheets on the line. Helga’s thick brown plait brushes her bum. Her fringe parts down the middle like curtains – though sometimes she seems to shut them and move around by feel alone. She never takes anything off the line, only ever hangs items up or tests their readiness. Smile first, she walks right into and through the bed linen, like a canvas.
Having collectively decided upon self-betterment, the actors do jumping jacks in the garden. They lunge in an assortment of swimwear, pyjamas, tights, tattoo chokers and halterneck tops. Afterwards, some shower. Some sunbathe, wrapping towels around their gooseflesh whenever clouds pass, which is 85 per cent of the time. Two are painting their toenails when Larry walks by. His sunglasses disguise where he’s looking. The girls shift into understated sex-appeal poses. No varnish, Larry yells. In slow motion, they direct the gloopy brushes back into their bottles, processing this as proof he still wants them in the film. Larry flips open his cell and makes a call. Pointing at each girl, he says: small, small, large, medium, extra small . . . and then turns back in the direction he’d come from. Simultaneously, Eric exits the cast house, gets into his van and drives off. Larry calls back to the girls: We shoot in twenty. Be ready. They look at each other, then shout, despairingly: ME OR HER? Everyone, he says. The two of them scream and jump around, missing Larry’s grin. What’ll we WEAR? they heckle his retreating figure. He throws up an arm to indicate irrelevance. Beach towels, he says.
They find a stack of them with tags on in the bathroom. They’re hungry for lunch but don’t want bloated bellies on the beach, so they don’t eat. Soon, Eric’s van tears up the gravel to deliver a pile of identical swimsuits: demure navy with banded busts and a nunnish quality. God, the girls say at the sight of them. Having bickered over which size is meant for whom, they wrestle the suits on, pairing them with jumpers and towel-skirts or jeans with towel-shawls. They catch up with the crew on a sandy slip road. Louise says excitedly: Who needs palm trees when there’s cattle? I’m mad on animals!
What? Larry stops walking abruptly, and the rest of them halt too, as if he has them on strings.
Louise looks at him to see if it’s an Irish English–American English translation he needs. Oh, she says, importantly: I was out jogging earlier. I was going barefoot on the beach. It’s good for your pelvic floor muscles . . . anyway . . . but the place was heaving with livestock!
Sensing Larry’s impatience, a tall, curly-haired actor from Monaghan called Cáit adds: There’s cows on the beach she’s saying. I didn’t think they’d eat marram grass though?
This is the fourth or fifth time he’s heard Cáit speak, but every time Larry jerks his head at her accent – the slurry of country consonants and wrought Northern vowels. How’d they get down there? he snaps. Where’s the farmer?
Cáit scratches her neck and chest, which midge flies are decorating. A few stones knocked from the wall, maybe?
Louise says: They look brilliant though! I can totally see how look it’d look . . . really . . . dramatic . . . us down there with them.
Larry tells the crew to go ahead without him. He addresses the actors: I don’t hate the cows being there, so long as no one gets hurt. Do not approach the animals. That reminds me, we’ll do contracts later. Act natural. Forget you’re being filmed. The cameras will be far away. I’ll be far away. You’re on your own. He glances at Moses: I’ll call you. Then he retreats to the houses and they proceed beach-ward, directorless. They’re quiet for a while, figuring how this might work. Moses assures them it’ll be great. It’ll mirror the Hawaiian beach scenes . . . and LA. The girls oooh and ahh at there being tropical beach scenes in the film. Won’t ours look shite like, in comparison? Like a puddle with blobs of chewing gum bobbing around in it? Had the Hawaiian scenes a big female cast like ours? Moses describes the turquoise water, the waves tall as department stores. He’s teaching his daughters to surf. They can stand up now, but he can’t rally their confidence enough to swim out past the breakers. Maud, who’s been half-asleep the whole way, shrouded in a towel, asks: Are the characters connected through water? Are they siblings, separated at birth? Is it three separate narratives . . . to show how their lives stray?
Oh, Moses says, good call. Ladies: can I ask if you’re all comfortable in the ocean? Can everybody swim?
Larry has driven down to a rocky outcrop a kilometre along the coast with his cell phone, binoculars and a view of the beach. He calls Moses to list the shots he wants. The girls hunker down to check that none of the cattle are bulls. Squealing as they undress, they dodge hot cow pats and fly tornados. Larry stays on the line with Eric for the duration of the shoot, directing him to see what he sees and how.
In the water, the actors are on the giddy side, but freer than might be expected. It starts with a hush as the cold knocks the breath out of them. Louise dives in and front crawls out to the dark – farther than any of them will follow. Cáit jumps over waves, Maud ducks under, going out of shot frequently. She’s never had swimming lessons so she goes for a combination of standing and ducking under. One girl hops onto another’s back. One jazzes her hands in the air as if she can shake the cold out through her fingers. Given their costumes, they assume the scene requires something other than sexiness. When a girl gripes that it’s Baltic and says she’s getting out, Maud grabs her by the wrist. No. No one directed them to get out. That can’t be edited round. If she spoils the shot, they’ll have to start over and they’ll be in the water all day. They need to get out as a group. And not yet – it’s not enough footage. What’s the point of the scene . . . if it’s only some eejits having a dip? What kind of a film would such a scene belong to? The girl blows her lips and begins wading out. Maud leaps forward to catch her suit strap and yanks her back. The girl gulps water and comes up sputtering and flailing. Maud pulls her up to the surface, then slaps her across the face. They said swim, Maud says, not drown. She is clutching the girl by the shoulders, ignoring the others’ homeopathic interventions. It’s as if she might push her under, to streamline them. But at last, she lets the girl go and swims jerkily away. The mood has curdled. Maud is the eldest and most experienced, but what she’s done is as ruinous to the shot as one girl getting out early.
Most of them breaststroke peaceably, nodding up and down with the waves. Some swim in earnest, parallel to the shore. Some stand in the shallows, hugging their rumbling tummies at the dark grey water line. After what feels like an age, Louise is the one to tell Maud it’s time. She turns her back and lifts her knees high getting out. Everyone follows. Stiff hairs on their arms catch the light like tiny needles. Maud wrings her hair, moving up the beach, leaving a trail in the sand. The cattle side-eye them, munching blithely, as the girls towel off hoping their every action and expression will be made meaningful by expert editing.
A horn blares from above, at which the cows pause their mastication. It’s Larry in the van. Grub and Guinness in the local joint. Pile in. These words alone are enough to recover their spirits almost fully. It’s now three or four in the afternoon and they’re ravenous. Also, they feel like talking and drinking – the pub means both of those things. Larry’s taken some of Helga’s clothes off the line and says they can borrow them if they’re careful. They all nine actors squeeze in to the nine-seater, plus Moses, Kai, Eric and Larry driving. Good job, he says, then glances at Maud in the rear-view mirror. You saw us? the girls ask, relieved. You were watching? Sure I was, he says. How could I not?
A tab is opened at the bar and they can have anything. Larry expects them to want champagne but they want pints and dry-roasted peanuts and crisps while they wait for fish and chips and shepherd’s pies and club sandwiches. It’s one of those lacquered pubs where locals corkscrew around to stare and scowl in case a blow-in might be pressured into buying them a round. The girls can’t decide if they should be embarrassed of how American the crew look – sunglasses, well-conditioned hair, branded clothing, a trucker hat worn inside, the equipment – but it’s Moses who’s at the receiving end of most of the stares. He’s a large, muscular guy with napkin-white teeth, wearing a dozen luminous bracelets. But it’s his Asian ethnicity coupled with a thick Hawaiian accent that’s being gawked at. Louise glares at the locals and mouths: SAY A PRAYER TO HIM, WHY DON’T YE?
When the food arrives, Larry talks. The girls chew. They’re seated in a cozy booth: the girls squeezed in on benches; the guys on stools at the end. Every now and then, Eric turns his handheld camcorder on them, which they assume is for the making-of DVD. It doesn’t affect how they act besides the quantity of food loaded onto their forks.
First draft scripts, myopic cinematography, thin acting, scrappy direction, Larry says. No subtext, complexity, no spontaneity. That cat fight you just had in the sea? Who wrote that? Plan the shot all you like, rent the crane, get the cameraman on a ladder, the shit-hot lighting rig, get your set down to the detail . . . it’s never as bright as how you pictured. Most stories get told the same way. It’s whatever you can pitch in an elevator. So I’m taking the fire escape. A different story needs a new way of telling it. (He claps his hands to wake up the group.) You know the exact moment a sculptor makes a masterpiece? When the clay is wet in his hands. Fuck the mould. I want a story with fingerprints on it. I want salt water rings on your shirt. No shitty hackneyed script, printed business, locking everyone down to what some dimwit producer’s able to grasp. I’m making it so that all of us (he pats Moses’s shoulder) can follow our instincts off a cliff. Off a motherfucking cliff. Only way to be truly invested. It’s got f-all to do with budget. It’s about finding something . . . in the moment. (He gestures to Eric, filming the girls.) We’re shooting digital ’cause we didn’t take a private jet here. It’s too much film for my process to come off. My last movie I shot 260,000 feet of film. Who can cart that? I’ll sync it, he says defensively. It’s not about labour. I can’t logistically make this any other way. You know what digital means, by the way? Means whatever screen you’re watching, soon you won’t know what’s real. Everything can be altered after the fact. One iris green, one purple. The incriminating confession in the documentary. You won’t know what’s doctored. Could be, it’s useful to mess with you. You give’m your trust on a platter, they’ll eat it.
At this, Larry pauses, looking at the profile of the girl sitting closest to him. She’s looking up at a bodhrán on the wall. Her hair is clipped back, still wet from the sea, and it’s made dark patches on the neckline of Helga’s blouse. Her skin, like all of them, is covered in tiny fibres from the new towels. When she feels his gaze on her, she turns and his interest drops like cigarette ash. You should wear your hair up, he tells her. He sniffs, pushes off his knees to stand and leaves without another word.
While he’s gone, Maud squares her gaze at Kai. Why doesn’t Helga ever join us?
Kai’s eyelids are so puffy they’re nearly shut. With the tone of a closing caption, he says: Not her scene.
Some of the actors shift nervously at Maud’s audacity, but also take impetus from it. Will we get to do any scenes with dialogue? Who’ll have lines? Moses takes out his tobacco pouch, half weed, and starts rolling. I’m not sure. This could count? He cocks his head to remind them Eric’s filming, then licks the paper and smiles, sealing the joint. Who’s got a story to tell? Help our odds of making the cut? My buck’s on Louise.
Outside, Larry walks past the pub, stopping to read a weathered poster for a missing cat (Blackie) duct-taped to a power pole. In the field behind the poster, he sees the cat stripping a bird carcass. The cat’s hair is matted and salt-stiff and a chunk is torn from its chin. When it looks up, its pale yellow eyes are undoubtedly Blackie’s. Larry slowly reaches into his jeans’ pocket for his phone. After the call, he returns to the van and starts up the engine. Eric jogs from the pub to the poster, camcorder in tow. Meanwhile, the girls – considerably boozed – spill from the pub into the van with Kai and Moses and they rowdily singalong to ‘Californication’ on the radio. All in? Larry cranks the volume over their singing. He twists and reverses at speed all the way to the power mast, where Eric’s been working on a zoom-out. Get the door, Larry says. Got it? he asks Eric, who yeps and hops in.
The evening is stormy, so Larry doesn’t deliver the contracts personally. He was struck by lightning as a kid and it makes you attract it for the rest of your life, Moses explains sombrely. I guess it’s negative and positive ions thing. Anyway, he takes precautions, which I for one appreciate. A perm’s not my look. I don’t have the bone structure. The girls laugh limply, as they scan the tiny font of their one-page contracts for a dollar figure. Most say something like ‘$1,125 (or equivalent in local currency) to be paid once/in the event A Woman of No Information breaks even on costs, including festival submission fees and post production outlays, and begins accruing profit, via awards, sale of rights, broadcast and cable licensing, DVD/Blu-ray rentals and sales, and domestic and foreign box office revenues.’ As much as they immediately digest that they won’t see this money – certainly not in the immediate future – their eyes go goggley at the words box office. Both my parents are gynaecologists, Louise tells the room, with an air of resignation. Up to now, they’d all thought she was poor . . . but now she can’t help herself. I’ve a rake of box office jokes, if ye’re interested?
When the actors haven’t surfaced by mid-morning, Larry enters the cast house to find them rolled up in duvets around the T.V., resembling the sandwiches held in their fists: white bread rolled around sausages. They’re too hungover to be on camera. Take the day off, he says. And no more stout. They all mumble gladly at this, though later, after the twentieth game of gin rummy, they’ll begin to feel at a loss – to have been waiting for days and days to get filming and then to work only one afternoon.
Cáit is the only cast member who owns a mobile phone and Maud asks to borrow it to call her brother. He wants me to describe everything. He gets so upset when I forget details. A couple of girls all aw at this. Passing her the phone, Cáit asks: Does he know, like . . . what colours are? Maud looks out the window. He says he does, but . . . He’ll wake up and he’ll be like: It’s day now, I can see pinky light. But it’ll be the middle of the night. The girls who don’t aw privately forgive her for the ocean despotism.
She takes the phone outside and walks across a few fields to stand on a boulder for four bars of reception. No one in her family has a phone, but a neighbour peddles them. He has this model himself. A Nokia 6180. It has the internet. When Maud got the part, she’d borrowed it to search for information about Larry. His name showed up in connection to a film she’d heard of, Nights of November, but he was listed as a cast member. He had a co-producer credit for something called Sorority Spy. Weirdly, she’d found an obituary for a Larry Anderson (1959-1998) of Los Angeles that read: He will be remembered for his contribution to the screen. Now Maud types in the website address www.altavista.com and when it finally loads she types: a woman of no information. After a very long time, so long that she thinks the phone is broken, a listing loads for an Oscar Wilde play: A Woman of No Importance. The play was the weakest he wrote in the nineties, the listing says. It is derivative of his other work. Wilde rendered the play utterly redundant by self-plagiarising its best line in a later work: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.
The wind kicks Maud’s hair into her eyes, so she turns on the rock to face the houses. Mothers? Standing by the clothes line, Larry is looking right at her. He flings an apple core into the adjacent field and goes inside. The phone slips from her fingers while Maud squints at the house. She sees the decorative shutters fixed to the walls. The whole thing is so far removed from its purpose. She jumps off the boulder, retrieves the phone and holds down the power button regretfully. No. No Information. However hard she wants to work for the part, it comes down to his determination. The vision is his. She crouches as to tie her shoe and buries the phone under a rock. If it rains, something should rust.
The fields are rocky and scratchy with willow scrub and thistle. Hoof holes behind tufts of moor grass are the right size to twist an ankle in. Maud manoeuvres across, taking the longer route to the road. These fields are to her what city streets are to her brother. Because she’s been watching her footing, she lets out a small scream at finding Helga with her face buried in flowers, holding a huge set of shears. Holy fuck, Maud says, you scared me! Helga cuts a wildflower from the base of its scaly stem and her brown plait falls from her back like liquorice rope. Look at these yellow flowers! She extracts the coltsfoot from the shrubbery and adds it to some bluebells on the ground. The colours together . . . are . . . Monet! She roots the shears in to get at another coltsfoot, then straightens up, smiling. Her gums are long and her teeth are short and gapped and gorgeous. Maud, isn’t it?
Maud is watching Helga greedily, but Helga doesn’t seem to mind. All the girls have been ogling her. She hasn’t been around enough for them to get it out of their systems. In a daze, Maud says: Grand, thanks. Fine . . .
Helga laughs. You are fine?
Maud adds, Well . . .
Must be nice to be so tall . . . Maud fails to articulate the rest of the thought, to do with states of lost-ness.
Oh, but I cheat! Helga pulls up a leg of her blue linen culottes to show a spectacular rubber boot with a transparent two-inch platform, filled with liquid and silver glitter and a miniature artificial garden.
Maud gasps. Snow globe boots?
My friend in Germany makes them. She made some for a gallery that have living gardens inside! Helga’s smile drops and she looks down at her pile of flowers. It’s possible he hasn’t paid you? Then she looks to Maud. Do you want them? She sets the shears on the ground and pulls off one boot and her sock, so as not to dirty it. Her toenails are painted pearl. They’re monster, she says, extending the boot to Maud. I was not a foot model! But you can wear two or three socks.
Maud admires the boot’s miniature meadow. My whole family’s tall, except me, Maud says, working off a shoe. She flexes her long, socked foot. I just got the clown feet!
When Helga’s face relaxes, she has thumbprint-sized jowls. So you don’t easily fall over, she says. You are not a pushover. I already saw that, even from far away.
They stand there, considering the pair of boots they’re sharing. They are like the two aspects of Cinderella. In several versions of the tale, she was cannibalized. They shimmy the heels, making the glitter rain. Helga sighs and retrieves her flowers. These should sit in water. Maud collects the shears. They walk across the field – Maud holding shears and a shoe; Helga holding flowers and a sock – and Helga says that she’s reminded of her daughter who is Maud’s age and lives in Queens, New York. She is not the daughter of Larry. It’s amazing . . . the control she has of her own life. Like you, she is not a pushover. Everything she does, she chooses. Of course, things happen you do not choose, but what matters is what you do when there is choice. When I was her age in New York City . . . I worked there in the 70s and 80s. We had to be . . . Always to say yes. We had to dumb down ourselves, not only to have friends, but for bookings, for jobs, not to have a bad reputation of being vocal or stubborn or difficult. Even so, I made choices. I know I did. Really, now it’s amazing. New York. It gets better and better. I miss him so much. Helga pauses to look around at the scenery. Don’t you love cities?
Maud hums at the stone wall separating the field from the road. She hands Helga the shears to climb over. Then Helga hands it back to her across the wall and easily swings her leg over without using her hands. I’ve been to Manchester, Maud says. And . . . Belfast, for groceries. We drove through Galway on the way here. I live in Dublin though, so I know what you mean.
Have you been to Los Angeles?
Maud shakes her head.
Ugh, Helga says. It’s . . . kunststoff. She glances at her boot. A big scene . . . of cars and houses and billboards and restaurants and sprinklers and movie sets. Everybody is on the way. No one is arrived.
They stand by the wall for a moment before walking towards the houses. Helga says quietly: My daughter, Salomé, she tells me again and again of her sofa bed. Helga looks at Maud, who raises her brows, smiling. They walk in silence for a moment, nearing Larry’s house. Ha! Helga says. Imagine a mother who moves in with her daughter at age forty-six! Is this allowed . . . to swap roles?
Maud shrugs gently. I live at home, with all the generations. Me and ma are besties.
Helga frowns at Maud’s profile, as if to say she has misunderstood: No, Maud. You live here now.
They are at the gate of Helga’s house and Maud stalls a little before pulling off the boot. Helga tries to insist that she keep the pair, but Maud says that the girls would be jealous. They’re obsessed with you, even though you haven’t spent m–
Oh no! Helga cuts in and shakes her head to make it stop. They must not. Please tell them . . . (Beneath her fringe, her eyes could be doing anything.) No. It’s not okay. You know what? What I should do? I should invite everybody to dinner, in our cottage. Tomorrow! Yes. I will tell Larry. She marches off, dizzying the glitter-weather in her boots. With her back to Maud, she shakes the bouquet in the air like a picket sign, showering herself in petals so that she is confetti’d from head to toe.
Instead of a dinner party in the director’s house, they eat on his lawn, on just-bought garden furniture. Kai – who has had a busy day – arrives with six huge candle flares, which he javelins into the surrounding grass. Citronella smoke billows. Early evening sun mantles the scene, though a strong breeze keeps it chilly. Helga tos and fros from the kitchen, carrying trays of catered food to the table. When they run out of space, she arrives with a wheelbarrow full of salad bowls. Wow, the girls say, this looks amazing! Thank you, Helga says, enjoying her own whimsy. They pass around paper plates and help themselves to chicken wings in a creamy honey-nut sauce with rice; a huge baked wild trout ensconced in cloves and caramelised orange slices and baby potatoes; kaleidoscopic salads. Kai brings out a cooler of beers for the crew, and cava. He hands a Budweiser to Larry, mid-speech:
If you’re gunna wait till you have the right equipment, go wash cars. All you need for that’s a sponge. Someone comes up to me wanting to talk gear? I guarantee you he’s not making movies. You wanna talk about gear, you’re not making jack shit. You’re making excuses.
Kai says: Word. The lighting for El Mariachi was clip-on desk lamps! All shot on sixteen millimetre. He turns to the girls then, as Larry is having a staring contest with his wife. Grossed two million. Won the Sundance.
They are losers, the ones who ask questions? Helga asks her husband. Sycophants?
Hey! Larry holds up his hands. No judgement. Just facts.
. . . those people . . . who want to know how you do what you do, and why? Helga adds to her previous question.
Don’t gimme that, babe. You’ve seen it. You worked with photographers. The ones who make magic: they spend half a day talking wands?
Helga is the only one standing. Her wavy hair is loose and there’s so much of it she resembles a marble sculpture in the middle of a gushing chocolate fountain. Oh, their wands! she says. Of course! A magician can be blasé about his wand . . . and yet, he has it always pointed at you. If it makes no magic, you must. Say nothing of the wand. Ask nothing of the wand. Here, Helga glances at Maud but her fringe keeps the exchange private. She reaches her long fingers into one of the trays and plucks out a chicken wing. She peels off the fatty skin and lays it down on a napkin, then gobbles the flesh.
Yeah, Larry says. He minces his jaw, though he’s not eating. I don’t wanna get into dick analogies? You know? There’s a super volcano in Yellowstone due to go off in the next decade. I got shit to do. What do we have, a thousand moments left to make art? I’m not spending four hundred of them talking CGI.
A thousand moments left? Helga blows air through her nose, as if reacting to an unfunny joke. Turning now to Maud, she says: Sometimes he gets optimistic, and I laugh! Having gnawed the chicken down to its bone, her lips are greasy. It’s a wishbone. Hooking a pinky finger around one end, she extends the other to Larry. A wish . . . for the optimist, she says. He looks at it, blankly, then, less blankly, at his wife. Helga pivots quickly to Louise, offering the bone. You would wish for a speaking part, I think?
Louise pulls a guilty face: Is it bad if I just . . . wish for a glass, to drink the champagne from?
Helga opens her mouth hugely and wheezes the cigarettes-and-Diet-Coke laugh of a retired model. The rest of the actors snicker out nervous energy, noting that the men all have beers.
It wasn’t that funny, Larry says to Eric. Not worth losing control of your sphincter. Helga is doubled over and Larry pushes up off his quads to go inside for glasses. The garden furniture is some distance from the house, so the string of tension won’t hold up. Maud follows him to help carry the champagne flutes, but when she finds him inside opening and closing all the catalogue kitchen cabinets she wonders if it really is their house; if they’ve ever been here before; if Larry has even been down to the beach – as good as private but for the bovines. Larry spins around. He sniffs, roving his eyes angrily over Maud. You can watch me or you can join me.
Maud walks towards him and leans in to try a cabinet above the sink. She lifts out a plastic bag full of picnic stuff. More paper plates, wooden cutlery and plastic wine glasses with detachable stems. These’ll work, she says.
Larry has done so much sizing up of Maud, she wonders what measurement there can be left to take. When are you gunna commit? he asks her. Or is it like eh, insurance? Keeping one foot out, one in?
Pardon? Maud says gently. She cocks her head to expose her carotid artery.
Larry rolls his bottom lip in over his teeth, then lets it out. We’re wasting time.
Maud nods and lets his conclusion land. She thinks of the phone under the rock. Then she says, Send them home?
He makes a sound in his throat, of reflection, then faces the dining table, where Helga’s A2 modelling portfolio is laid out. He points at it. You see that?
Mmm, Maud says. She was showing us earlier.
Oh yeah? Larry lifts his sunglasses onto his head, eyeing the portfolio. What do you make of it?
Maud’s tongue can be heard unsticking from her hard palate before she answers: She’s spectacular.
The din of fun outside focuses their conversation. Maud is worried for what Larry might say – for how averse her performance will have to become, should he disparage Helga. After a long pause, Maud adds: Incredible really, to think she was a young mum.
Larry locks his green eyes on Maud. And not a stretch mark anywhere, he says. No scar on her cunt.
Maud feels her own vagina clench and release at this, with pure, unadulterated ambition. She tries not to blink, taking her cues from Larry as to how each moment should play out. He asks if she’d shown them her knitwear, too? Each sweater takes weeks, he says. She knits them, watching old tapes of her runway shows.
Did it start . . . Maud says courageously, by knitting one for her daughter?
To Maud’s surprise, Larry seems not even to hear this. He is inspecting her as if for continuity problems with a shot. Your hair, he says. It’s not how I want it for the part.
Maud quickly envisions herself as a brunette. Okay. But what about the scenes we already shot?
Forget what’s done, Mod. It’s all ahead of us.
Maud recalls what Helga said of LA: that everyone is on their way, never arriving. Taking the bag of picnic glasses, Larry returns to the party where Louise has been regaling them with a story about her uncle and now she concludes: So it turns out he was a little bit racist after all.
Louise! Larry says. They all lower their plates to their laps as if he’d called: Cut. He sits back in his seat, which is, after all, a canvas scissor chair. You quit school, right?
Eh . . . university. Yeah.
Over the past couple of days, Louise has been meeting Larry’s bravado with the same, as if she too might have a part to figure out through trial and error. She gets up to take the cava bottle from the icebox. Can I’ve a go of this? she asks Helga, who says, Naturally. Louise sits back down and peels off the foil. She uncages and uncorks it while regarding the broiling sky. Why did I quit college? she asks slowly. It just . . . wasn’t for me.
How’d you know? Larry asks.
Ah now! she says, which is a full sentence. How does a sumo wrestler know he doesn’t like salad?
They all laugh, passing around wine glass parts to clip together.
And, Larry says, you think acting’s for you? His tone is that of a doctor asking a teen with chlamydia if they’re sexually active.
Louise looks at Larry enquiringly. She waits a moment, then puts on a thick Connemara accent to say: Should I step directly into this one, or come at it sideways?
The girls laugh again and banter a bit. Helga is sitting up on her tailbone, as if on the balcony chair of a theatre, to better see the pantomime.
You got everyone laughing, Larry says, glancing at Maud, who stops.
You’re not laughing, Louise says, quick as a whip. I’m not laughing, she adds, to make sure he hears the echo – knows that what he says and does will be shared among them. They have chosen not to betray one another; and, in any group effort, there is always someone betrayed.
You can act, he says generously. You got the intensity. The range you can work on. But your look? You won’t get parts till your mid-thirties. You’ll play characters . . . (he glances at Helga) in their mid-forties. Nothing you can do about it, as an actress. I’m not saying it’s right. But I’m saying it. What I’m also saying is you got us all laughing. There’s serious stand-up potential. I know people in the improv world. I could hook you up, Louise. He sniffs. Obviously, you’d have to be in LA.
Some of the girls refill their plates or swallow their cava in one go, regretting not being funnier or younger or possessing of range. But they are glad for Louise and beam at her. They wonder if Maud has lost her part.
Thanks very much, Larry, Louise says. (Though later she’ll tell the girls: I will in my shoe move to LA! He hasn’t a hope in Jerusalem! This is precisely the reason she dropped out of law school: the sudden, sick awareness of her bourgeois instincts – the isolationist drive towards the wealthiest, westward fields; snaking up and around so many workers on the way. Whenever there’s snaking, there’s poison.) For now, she only asks if Larry has ever made a comedy. Could he tell them about the movies he’s made, his best ones, and if they too were experimental? At this, Larry drops his sunglasses onto the bridge of his nose again, though, with the cement-mixer clouds stiffening over the sunset, the only light glinting off them is the candle flares. She fluffed her line. The idiot. Louise. All she’d had to do was sing a praise-be to Californian weather. It doesn’t matter what he did in the past, Larry says. His other movies. His previous life, work. Only the ego fixates on what’s done. It’s worthless. What you’re making now is all that counts. Helga disagrees, saying that what you did before is part of you. You are the accumulation of your experiences and your output.
No, Larry says. That’s why I take my name off my old movies. You’re nothing – he tells his wife – except what you’re doing right now: what you’re right now in the process of making.
Helga stands up suddenly, shadowing him fully. And what is that, baby? A sweater?
In the dark night, Helga leaves in Larry’s car. Maud watches through the kitchen window of the cast house. Helga drives off on the American side of road. In the garden, the wheelbarrow full of salads glints with her passing headlights.
By noon the next day, the girls are like a family reunited at Christmas, when everyone has agreed to play a board game but one sibling insists on reading aloud the instruction booklet. They’re in the kitchen for second breakfast. It’s like . . . (Louise has the floor) . . . carbo-loading before a charity half-marathon that gets cancelled because of . . . whatever, the IRA, and then you just ate your whole body weight in cheesy pasta and scones for nothing –
Don’t be lookin’ at me, when you say the Ra! Cáit pipes up.
– just to sit around, twiddling your twat.
Cáit does an impression of Louise: Because of whatever, you were saying, then you looked at me and said the IRA!
Having just woken up, Maud arrives into the mirth and toast-smoke in a thin white cotton nightie and the varsity jacket from the fog scene. Kai hasn’t asked for it back. The shadow of her pubic hair is visible through the night dress, which makes the other girls feel inexplicably green. Howyee? Louise asks. Then Cáit, leaning against the counter by the kettle for which Maud has made a beeline, asks: Can I’ve my mobile phone back, hi?
I gave it back, Maud says, reaching around Cáit’s waist to lift the kettle from its cradle.
Eh . . . no, Cáit says.
I did, yeah. I know I did. Maud taps her on the hip to move out of the way of the cutlery drawer.
You definitely didn’t. Cáit wide-eyes the others while Maud makes an instant coffee. On her way out, Maud says: I gave the phone back, Cáit. I’ll search for you anyway. Brush up on my miming skills.
Outside is whitewashed with rain. It sweeps from sea to sky and back again so that the distance between them seems wade-able. No better method than to stand out in it. On the grass, she concentrates on dilating her pores so that the minerals might seep in – the set might admit her fully. Water trickles down her scalp and webs her stubby eyelashes. Her nipples have shrunk and stiffened and all the features of her flesh are transmuted by the weather. Hairs, pores, moles, calluses, ducts, private wetnesses – thinned or thickened, depending. Her veins go teal, then disappear. If she crouches down, she could play a white marble stone in the landscape. She can see how it will transpire: The girls won’t stay cooped up for one more day. Soon, they will sprint across to the crew house where the men will be huddled around the camcorder’s display, staged just so for the actresses’ entrance. Emboldened by boredom, the girls will point to the missing car, to Helga’s unlit study. They will no longer thrill at the sight of Larry. No filming today, he’ll say. There’s no equipment weatherproof enough for this country: No wonder the Irish glorify the past. There’s jack shit to do except sit around, drinking, eating, scratching your ass, pining after drier times. He’ll stare at them like the final infracting clue of a cryptic crossword. Knitting? Louise will suggest.
The inevitability of the scene riles Maud. Her coffee now cold and diluted, she sets the mug on the wall, then climbs over to the crew house. By the time she reaches their open-plan living quarters, her nightdress is stuck to her and the men have nowhere to look but through her awning-heavy eyelashes. Moses. Kai. Eric, who takes a tea towel from the countertop and tosses it towards her. It hits her chest and drops to the floor. They don’t dare trace its route. It is her cue.
Larry wants rid of them.
She says this to Moses, because he is the quickest to see what she’s getting at and the likeliest to admit Larry’s unreliable state. The others are shifting about, squinting, as if a greyhound race is about to start and they let their friend put all his money on the wrong bitch. But Moses is already on the job, on the phone to someone called Chad, explaining they’re filming in Ireland and the weather’s fucking with the shoot. We got eight Irish actresses who need a bit of a lu’au, if you get me. You got a gig in Dublin tonight, right? . . . Ah, my man. Yes. Perfect. That’s beautiful. He continues talking for a bit and Maud takes in the room. Light diffusers and reflectors are draped over the sofa suite. Every surface is some kind of workshop, with rolls of electrical tape, spray cans, random tools and discs. Eric, ever dichotomised by his trucker hat, lowers his head so that Maud can’t make eye contact. When the call ends, she peels off his varsity jacket and places it, sopping, on the counter. She says: This wasn’t the right instinct. This costume.
Rather than lift his head to look at her, Eric flicks the rim of his cap up an inch. Oh yeah? Says who?
Maud pauses before answering. Birdsong filters in from outside: sparrows and wrens sheltering in the eaves. Birds can starve in Ireland from relentless rain. The trick is not to wait for it to stop; to take the battering, as a means to an end. Maud replies to Eric’s says who, at last: Says the Woman.
A gentle smile crosses Moses’ lips. Maud walks passed them to the kitchen sink and opens the window above it. Birds fright away like the black specks of a film reel clearing. Dirt in the chemical bath, dispelled. Maud mimes setting up a tripod in the sink and positioning a camera onto it – its lens resting sniper-like on the window frame. This window faces the director’s house. Turning back to the crew, she says: Just watch.
She comes into view from the left. A woman crossing the rained fields towards a house. Her nightdress is see-through so that she looks like the pencil sketch of a woman drawn by a man hesitant to admit the truth of his gaze – his art of exteriors. Ephemeral Woman in waterlogged landscape walks up the hill to the house, then beyond it, to the clothes line where another woman’s wardrobe hangs, mud-splashed and stood in story. She pulls the clothes from the line without unpegging them. She tugs until she has her body weight in clothes in her arms. She holds this reality for a moment, gently swaying so that she seems to be cradling a swaddled babe. A man’s figure darkens a window of the house. Besides a pair of eye-covers on his forehead, he is nude. The Woman strides to a wheelie bin at the end of the drive and heaves the muddied costumes in. The bin had been empty, and yet so much of their lives had gone into it. The gone-wife could only hope it had been compostable material – putrid, yes, but capable of urging something new to grow, somewhere else, in the future. Maud brushes her nightdress against her body, as if it might have been stained. On her way to the house, her house now, she stops at the wheelbarrow. He had said it wouldn’t be a film about a starving Irish colleen, but the Woman is ravenous as a wake. She lifts a big silver salad bowl from the wheelbarrow, and a huge serving fork. Holding the lettuce leaves in place with her palm, she turns the bowl over to tip out the rainwater. Walnuts and brown pear slices and gummy lumps of blue cheese drop out with the rain. She perches on the wheelbarrow’s rim, facing houseward, and tucks in to the salad. Spotting the man in the window, the Woman waves her fork hammily.
It sounds like a banshee convention when the girls are told that they can’t all go to California but they are all going to Californication . . . as VIPs. Put all your shit in the van, Kai tells them. That the experiment is clearly over is disappointing, but there is relief in the air too. That Louise wants to stay angers the group because it exposes their lack of a choice on the matter, which they had been generously willing to overlook. I don’t like rock, I only like rap, she tells Kai. He clicks his tongue and says: I heard you singing along. You love that indie crap. Now let’s go. Who’s missing? (Someone suggests Maud.) Nah, he says. Chick with the whack accent? Cáit! they say in chorus. Cáit is searching the beach for Maud. She wants her phone back.
But Louise knows where Maud is. Louise goes to Larry’s house. The front and back doors are locked. She smears her cheek against every window and shouts: It’s a CULT, Maud. She circles the house a few times before guessing that Maud is in Larry’s room, in Larry’s bed, and that’s why his curtains are shut. It’s CALLED being RADICALIZED, Louise yells. He doesn’t give TWO SHITES about the part. There’s no PART to PLAY except a CUNT, and when you realize that’s what he’s made you into get out the YELLOW PAGES and look us up! Mam and Dad might be able to FIX you but I DOUBT it.
All sorts of Maud’s thoughts infiltrate the Woman’s head and it is highly disruptive. It stalls her. The voiceover is a trite device. Shushing it won’t work. She has to listen for something louder. A sound from the world of the set. She emerges from the study and comes downstairs. When she appears briefly in the living room, Louise’s heckling redoubles. The FUCK are you LIKE? I SAW your stretch marks. Maud, girl? The baby’s YOURS, isn’t it? And you’re POOR! Did you sign your FULL NAME on the CONTRACT? He won’t PAY you a PENNY! It’s not a GET RICH QUICK, Maud. Your da’s a BOOKIE, you said, and even if that’s a lie, you should KNOW a MUGGER when you SEE one.
It is less upsetting to the Woman since she found the perfect prop in the bathroom. With it in hand, she goes to the director’s room and shuts the door behind her. The curtains are drawn and he is belly-down on the bed. His balls look like poached eggs with a side of turkey cutlets. He has imbibed substances. He moans. I told you, Mod. I’m not. That. Fucking . . . type. When she doesn’t answer or get into bed with him, he tries to budge, but he is too pathetic to turn over. I’m not . . . he goes on . . . the Industry. He is saying less and less. This is why she chooses him. A harsh buzzing sound close to his ear brings him to. He gasps and twists his rheumy gaze to see her, in his clothes, holding out his electric razor.
You were right about her hair. Let’s cut it off.
Days pass and Maud is less willing to break character. The crew films almost constantly because some moments cannot be recreated. One night, by the red light of the camera, she emerges from the study and sneaks into the director’s bedroom. The following night, his door is locked. So she begins to eat, to be full. She eats a loaf of Brennan’s sliced pan as crisp and butter sandwiches and duck liver paté on toast. She spoons chewy honeycomb into Greek yoghurt and eats it from the tub. By dawn, she is vomiting. She senses the red-dot sight on her veined, clammy temple. Though nothing is left in her stomach, her belly is bloated. She puts on the navy togs. Her cropped hair is like a swimming cap. Holding her distended tummy, she walks out of the house and down the sandy road to the beach, the crew in tow. Moses thinks she is drowning – her swimming is indeed improvised – and he dives in to save her, spoiling the scene. He suffers mild hypothermia that night. His lips haze purple. Finally, they are each of them brought in. This is how she lets them know they are done with this landscape.
Are you happy with the scenes in LA? she asks Larry while the camera batteries are recharging.
And the Hawaiian scenes?
You’re satisfied with what you’ve shot in the past?
A dressing gown had hung in his cupboard with each arm tucked into the opposite pocket. It feels new as a cloud against her skin as she stands in their doorway, surveying the weather. Larry is in a T-shirt and jeans, shivering on the comedown. His eyes are the nettle green they focus on, flecked black by their stale chemical bath. Hers are bright grey.
Satisfied? A laugh comes out his nose. You know Neil Armstrong jerked off in space coz NASA asked him to, for the experiment . . . He squints at Maud conspiratorially. Her mouth is loose. Her brow is buckled. Larry is quieted again, sensibly.
What are you making, right now? A joke? A white wisp of dandelion clock drifts between them, and Maud swipes it away. This is all or nothing, she says. If you don’t know that, I can’t trust anything you made before. We’ll have to redo it.
Larry looks at her huge bare feet. Various expressions cross his face as he drafts lines of dialogue. All the obvious things occur to him. She waits this out. He has been gifted every opportunity. The paperwork. The network. Capital. Physical wellbeing. So much young white skin. Cáit – Maud thinks – had been particularly promising. She takes a long inhalation and lets it out slowly. There are only so many cue cards in the deck. You can take your things, she says, or leave them. I’m ready. All I’ll need to stop for is a passport.
Maud is irritated that Helga took Larry’s car so they couldn’t drive in convoy and film the journey. Instead, she sleeps on the rear seat bank until they’re nearly there. Moses wakes her. She lives on Dublin’s north side, a few kilometres from the airport. Is this it? Eric asks, turning off the motorway at Ballymun cross. Pull in here, Maud says, but he continues driving, peering for road signs. Lána Bhaile Bhúiséir. I said stop. Maud sits forward, but she is three seat-rows away from him. He turns into Carton Road. Larry? Maud says. Larry is extremely upright in the passenger seat, taking in the run-down tower blocks of flats, the cranes, the bin bags, ponies by the roadside. She said stop, Larry warns Eric, who is turning into a cul-de-sac square, his mouth agape. It’s a trailer park, he says. Larry pulls the handbrake and the van jerks to a halt. The engine whines. Maud lunges for the sliding door handle to let herself out. Moses? She peers at him, her straight eyelashes a clapperboard. Don’t come with me, but be on your toes. He nods and readies his equipment.
Hey, Mod – Larry pushes his sunglasses onto his forehead and strains to catch her eye. Can I . . . meet your folks?
She scowls and zips his hoodie up to the neck.
Just so they know . . . I dunno . . . their daughter’s safe?
Whose daughter? she says, leering through the van’s open door. Whose folks? (Some small dogs come chasing up to them, yapping.) Who gets to be safe?
Is tha MAUD? a teenager calls from down the street.
The fuck’s her HAIR?
Pulling up her hood, she moves swiftly down the road and disappears into a mobile home half-a-block away.
Eh . . . Eric calls out, eyeing a group of young ones in colourful pyjamas and bomber jackets who’d been decorating some plywood – a palimpsest of previous scrawlings and tags. In luminescent pink, someone’s written: I see aliens. That he keeps the engine running expresses the rest of Eric’s thought.
Moses gets out and slides the door shut after him. He hears it lock. He will become a source of entertainment and the footage will be tricky, but he perches the camera on his shoulder and begins to see the neighbourhood. A pick-n-mix of dogs are losing their shit at his ankles, but there are a lot of kids around, so they must be harmless. Some kids are in school uniforms, some are barefoot. The grass in the square is overgrown and weed-tangled – verdantly green, in contrast to the tarmacadam lawns. A toddler tricycles its perimeter, watched on many sides by folks sitting outside, smoking or chatting or peering out windows. On the pavement near him, there’s a tire and a red power cable leading from a point on the wall to a mobile home whose lace curtains are drawn. Clothes and bed sheets are draped across iron railings. At the end of Maud’s driveway (he sees by zooming in), there’s a porcelain swan flowerpot. The flowers are dead in its back. The kids close in on his frame, heckling, Are you from the R.T.E? He says a few lines in Hawaiian, then he looks away from the eyepiece to the eldest one – a girl his daughter’s age with thick pigtails and polka-dot leggings. He presses his finger to his lips and opens his eyes very wide, then traces his finger up across the sky in a rainbow shape, landing at the end of the street, where the hooded Woman is moving past the bristle-backed swan. She is carrying something valued in her pocket. She is carrying something valuable in her arms.
There is no fog, but continuity is an optical illusion. It portrays one thing leading to the next, as if a life comes in scenes that follow one another logically – tolerably. The Woman could never master her times tables because she could never countenance them; their god-given properties. Drawing back her hood, she kisses the cool baby on its wide sloping brows. She thinks about its part, written long ago when its ancestors watched their thatched roofs go up in flame; when the air they breathed tainted more than their lungs. Dear dear thing, she says. It is her first line. It is an experiment with the truth.
She can see it all now from such a vantage point. She had worked so hard on her acting. She had learned so many vowel sounds, respected expressions, so many ways of moving in and out of rooms as if the doors had always been open to her. And now, she has to work harder than ever, to keep the plane in the sky, lifted. It is exactly like being at sea, where every limb and muscle must work with awesome intention and assurance. If she cannot trust she is seaworthy, the director – who sent her into that body of water, who is a whole peninsula away and scared of cows – surely won’t render her so. But she has done it. Good, new work. Moses is completing it. He is the one to take care of its execution because of his daughters . . . to give them every fighting chance. From the plane’s window seat, he zooms down on the glorious emerald field, in the centre of which is one fair life. The cardinal audition.
Photograph © Mark Gunn