Between The Lines By Frank Duffy

William Major stalked the lobby like a Peter Lorre facsimile, eyes bulging exaggeratedly as he surveyed the other applicants. The nearest actor looked as if the audition had accelerated his sloppiness, while sat beside him were a row of similar looking men who filed away into identical scruffiness.

Major sighed, wondering how the hell he’d let such people overtake him in his career.

“Bill?”

“William,” he corrected.

A young woman with braces smiled at him through clenched metallic teeth, desultory laughter exiting the function room behind her. Just a horror movie, he reminded himself.

Major strode into the room after the young woman like a teenage contestant on talent show. In his left hand he clutched his résumé with a shameful ferocity, as if he doubted its authenticity.

Over the last few months many of the previous casting directors had questioned his hiatus from the acting world. At one such audition, weary of the intrusion, he’d described his acting world as having consisted of a handful of Christmas pantomimes, dozens of unintelligible avant-garde productions and playing a speeding motorist in a road safety film. His résumé was there to distract them, make appear him irreproachable, not announce him as the next King Lear.

“At last a thoroughbred.”

The person who spoke was quivering mountain of a man, a black beard obscuring the lower part of his mouth.

“Bill Major, come on down,” he joked, “let’s see you in all your thespian glory. I’m Alan Ward, the mighty director.”

Major glanced across the room at the woman with the child’s braces, conscious of her stare. She stood in the doorway, probably expecting him to correct the director too, he thought.

“Thank you, Susie,” the director said.

The woman vanished into the foyer.

The director, his chin and neckline disappearing into the jungle of his beard, stood in front of a long table which Major realized was a trestle board used for pasting wallpaper.

He extended a sweating hand.

“William, it is then,” he said.

Major couldn’t help but look at the trestle board. He knew it was a low budget production, hence this wonderful opportunity for an actor of his limited older appeal. Nevertheless, alarms bells were ringing with the incessancy of a sinking ship. His former agent had described this part of the process as the emotional ringer.

“I’m guessing you got our little message ,” the director asked.

Major had learned of the audition when checking his e-mail account two days ago. The e-mail in his inbox had read: CASTING CALL FOR GROTESQUE RESERVATIONS. Chapel Hill Productions are a new venture in film feature entertainment searching for professionals to star in their debut film Grotesque Reservations. Auditions: 2pm, Dudgeon Park Industrial Estate, Lot Fifteen B.

“Did you pick me out of a hat or something?”

The director held the vast wobbling shape of his stomach between his massive hands as if he were considering shifting the weight somewhere else

“We found you the usual way, William.” His hands slid down his bulging sides. “Scoured the agencies, asked about, that kind of thing.”

Major wanted to point out he no longer belonged to any agency since the time his illness had waylaid him.

“People like us, William, shouldn’t we be doing better than we are?”

From what Major could recall of the e-mail they’d sent him the director had been a former cable TV workhorse. He’d made one or two unsuccessful forays into sitcom obscurity before being unceremoniously dropkicked into an even lesser anonymity.

“You wouldn’t believe what the tide managed to drag in today,” the director said, turning to the other people seated at the trestle table.

Two young men in grey suits with indomitable expressions stared at him with the usual kind of wide-eyed bafflement. Mentally, he felt eviscerated by their as yet unvoiced criticisms.

A potbellied woman sat next on a foot stool, happily puffing away on a pipe. She raised her pipe and chuckled.

Despite this, Major felt hopeful. What the tide dragged in today. Surely the director wouldn’t have said anything in front of him if he weren’t considering Major for a role?

The moment for calm was now, for the acting aesthetic to rear its beautiful physiognomy.

“And what’s that? Don’t tell me it’s a screenplay of your own.”

The director’s words failed to impact for several seconds until Major understood he was referring to his resume.

“That’s just my CV,” he said, stuffing it into his back pocket.

“I believe I’m yanking your proverbial leg.”

Major pictured himself racing across the room to rip out the director’s vocal chords, but managed to reign himself in at the thought of a starring role. It was either that or the ubiquitous dole queue.

“William, I want you to read from page 15 to page 17 with Marge.” he said.

At the sound of her name the woman rose and walked over to Major, wads of ink stained paper fluttering in her hands.

“Okay,” a plume of tobacco smoke left her mouth as she spoke. A smile formed from her rouge coated lips like a crimson tear in her skin. She was in her mid-fifties, though it was clear to him she’d resist such an estimation with probable violence.

“Perhaps the screenplay might help,” Major said, startled by his own rudeness.

Marge tucked the pipe back into her mouth and Major tried not looking at her jagged, yellow teeth as she laughed round the mouthpiece, smoke coming out both nostrils.

“Of course,” the director laughed, “the blooming screenplay.” Now he sounded like the kind of quintessential Englishman as only Hollywood could envisage, much like an obese Dick Van Dyke.

“Christopher, please,” the director said to the smaller of the two men behind the trestle table, “sometime this side of the New Year.”

The man thrust his arms into a sports bag at his feet and rummaged round inside of it. For a second Major glimpsed what looked like a wooden mallet splashed with blood, but it was returned to the bag so quickly he couldn’t be sure.

Obviously, a prop.

In an audition?

A screenplay materialized, the title of the film stamped on the cover in bold italics, which Major read as In Character.

“Grotesque Reservations,” he said.

They’d changed the title.

“Sorry, William. Didn’t quite catch that?”

“Grotesque Reservations,” he repeated.

Major noticed the taller of the two men glance down at the surface of the trestle table as if a screenplay were lying there.

The director stretched out his arms, perhaps seeking clemency.

“Don’t we all,” he said.

There was an element of nervousness in the gesture.

“Don’t we all what?” Major asked.

Marge laughed, smoke curling from her upper lip.

“Have such reservations,” the director replied.

The director’s answer remained unconvincing, but Major smiled and took the screenplay from the smaller of the two men. He didn’t pursue the idea they were making fun of him because that kind of paranoia could lead anywhere.

“Which part would you like me to read?” he asked.

“Part?” Sorry, Bill, we’re reading right across the board.”

Right across the board?

What on hell did that mean? Did he want him alternating between roles?

“Whichever takes your fancy,” Marge breathed.

The name he’d noticed at first glance was Charles Anderson, who had the most number of lines.

“Anderson?”

“Excellent,” the director said.

“Into the breach once more,” Marge added, a yellowed thumb pressed against the top of her page.

She turned to Major.

He suppressed a shudder when he saw some of her teeth were the color of the tobacco she was smoking.

She began reading her lines, not acting, or at least he hoped she wasn’t:“They’re real, more real than you’d imagine…” she intoned, giving her voice a quality both lethargic and droning, “…of that which lies….”

One of the younger men pushed his chair back, its wooden legs scraping across the unadorned concrete floor. Major hesitated, the screeching of the chair legs cutting through his concentration.

He paused before reading his first line, wondering why the director hadn’t sketched an outline of his character or the story.

“Sorry, can we do that again?”

The director forced a smile.

“In your own time.”

How many times had he heard that before? Major lowered his stare, but not before seeing the director’s smile abruptly disappear.

“They’re real…”

The director raised a finger in the air as if testing for the direction of the wind, “why don’t you tell us, William?”

“Actually, that’s not such a bad idea,” the smaller of the young men said.

He thought they were joking until Marge and the director retook their seats behind the trestle board.

“You’ve lost me.”

“I think I’m not only speaking for myself, William, but I get the sneaking suspicion you’re not happy about something?”

It was a perceptive if unexpected observation which made him feel stupid. At the same time he had to admire any director who would take the time to stop the audition to seek a long term unemployed actor’s view on how he felt they had messed up.

Marge clapped her hands together, more smoke flowering from her pipe. “I believe a little of the old portfolio wouldn’t go amiss.”

“But you contacted me.”

“And you brought your resume,” said the taller young man.

Marge pushed some paper across the trestle board.

“Yes, this resume of yours,” she said this last part as if she were mocking him, “it doesn’t include your age. Why is that?”

Major felt in his back pocket for the resume, but it wasn’t there anymore. He didn’t remember giving it to Marge. Maybe they saw something in him that very few had ever noticed before? Was it that special something casting directors were always talking about?

“My age is irrelevant. I can play any part you give me.”

“Even that of a child, Bill?”

“I told you, it’s William.”

“Even that of a child, William?” the director repeated.

Has he mistaken their interest for something more than it was? His mother had said he’d always been a bad judge of character.

“Within reason. A child is pushing it. Unless we’re talking something like Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.”

“But you’re a lot older than the part you chose,” Marge said, the pipe held in her hand as she looked up from his resume.

“Part? I haven’t clue who I’m reading. In fact, would you mind telling me something, anything, about the film? Because so far it’s all been a big mystery, hasn’t it.”

Both young men laughed, but said nothing. Marge sat back on her stool, seemingly impressed by his outburst.

“Fair enough points,” the director conceded, adding “so, okay then, William, tell us about yourself,” which did nothing to alleviate the misgivings he’d had about coming here today.

“You mean with my acting? My career?”

The director nodded, staring at Major in such a way as if he were secretly trying to paralyze him with the intensity of his gaze.

It was like being back at school again, standing before the class to utter yet one more banal tenet of learning. “I’m not sure what you’re looking for,” he said, detesting his inarticulateness.

“Oh you know, the agony, the ecstasy, the humdrum with the perverse,” the director laughed, “the cut of your jib, so to speak.”

Perverse, bathing in darkness, undressed by cold hands in a room with bricked up windows, straddled by somebody whose name sounds like a constellation, cold and gleaming like spires of fairy tale ice.

“Did you always want to be an actor?” Marge coughed.

“Always, ever since I saw Ronald Colman…”

“Not that, William, anything but that. We want to hear about you, not the aspiring actor.” The director had one elbow resting on the trestle table, his chin planted firmly in an upturned palm.

Major had to look at him closely before he could be sure that it was the director who’d spoken, not somebody else. He was about to voice his annoyance, when he noticed an arched window set into the left-hand wall twenty feet past the trestle table.

Why hadn’t he seen it before now? Nerves, and possibly engaging in a conversation ostensibly locked into a cycle of mockery or subtle humor he couldn’t hope to grasp. But what was the problem, it was only a window refracting light that fell across the bare concrete floor highlighting the dirt

“I take it you want this opportunity,” the director was saying to him, “William, you still with us?”

Major thought the director was one of those unpredictable mercurial types, for the man was certainly dismissive and encouraging in equal measures.

“It all depends on what this opportunity is, because I’m having a problem thinking this is anything but a prank or something similarly juvenile.”

“Excellent,” Marge said, “now that’s acting.”

“Indeed,” the director said, the word trailing out of his mouth with infinite slowness, “I was right about you, wasn’t I just.”

The two young men nodded, but their unchanged expressions meant they could have been listening to an entirely different conversation.

“He’ll do fine,” Marge said to the director.

Major thought the director was unreadable, as were his colleagues.

“Look, I’m sorry but could you be a little more specific about what you want. I thought I was here to audition.”

“And you are, Bill. This is the audition.”

Major kept his eyes on the director.

“I don’t understand, and if that seems unprofessional, so be it. I pretend for a living, not full-time.

Marge exclaimed with a falseness Major had come to expect from people connected to acting.

“Wonderful, how unexpected.”

“Should have had William here write the film,” the director said. “Tell us what attracted you to the film,” the director said.

“I responded to your email.”

“You’re a droll sort, aren’t you?” Marge commented without any trace of humor.

“Not a horror connoisseur, William?”

Major looked from Marge to the director, who, no longer looking like the most approachable person in the room, wearily clasped his large hands beneath his chin and intertwined his fingers.

“I’d have thought it was right up his street,” Marge said, again talking to the director as if Major couldn’t hear them.

“A film is a film.”

“Meaning you take what scraps they throw you?” Marge asked.

“There’s no point in lying,” he said, knowing full well he should at least try since what they might offer would eclipse six months worth of dole money, “I’m just not one of your genre fans.”

The director raised his hands to his face as if Major had accused him of some unthinkable impropriety. When he removed them his eyes had vanished, sockets pulsating with emptiness.

The director pushed himself to his feet, the entirety of his weight splintering the surface of the trestle table.

Major screamed.

He might as well have been playing a part, for the noise he produced was completely unlike anything he’d imagined himself capable of making. He screamed a second time, as if experimenting with a range of appropriate noises.

Something was happening to the others also, their faces rippling like liquid under heat. As he turned away he saw the room had changed in some way his brain couldn’t yet understand.

The director overturned the trestle table and advanced, a heaving figure whose weight made him shamble.

How could he even see?

Major screamed again, but all self consciousness, disgust and years spent living on the precipice of his nerves evaporated in expectation of not reaching the open doorway.

He collided with a doorpost and fled into the foyer as the director, some ten yards away, shouted his name.

“William, we only want to show you your potential, that’s all we want to do.”

Two rusted steel support beams had pierced the walls of the foyer, and one end of the ceiling had collapsed, spilling electrical wiring across the floor like the entrails of some giant animal.

They had bricked up the entrance. A row of plastic screw down chairs, uprooted and half melted, lay in front of the sealed off doorway for added effect.

Somebody (something)was standing behind him. He could hear the faint, shadowy breath of its exhalations. He looked about the floor for something he could use.

“Look,” the director said, “look, Bill.”

“No,” he said.

“Audition for us, Bill, play your part.”

Major swept round, grabbed the director’s considerable throat between both hands and pressed his thumbs into the windpipe. He pushed as far as he could go, tearing into the soft yielding flesh, telling himself that this was the part of a lifetime.

*

They found the homeless man’s body in a derelict warehouse. They found William Major, an out of work actor, sitting among a pile of mannequins talking about a non-existent film called Grotesque Reservations. He didn’t deny he had killed the man and the last thing he said before they led him to a patrol car was:

“I thought I was quite good.”

*

The woman with the pipe opened the door for their only applicant that day. She could see it clearly in this one, this stooped pathetic man and the accompanying sense of failure he carried with him.

“By God we’ll show you your potential,” she said.

*

Frank Duffy is the author of over forty short stories published in both Britain and America. He is the author of The Signal Block and Other Stories (Sideshow Press), Mountains of Smoke, a novelette (Sideshow Press), Photographs Showing Terrible Things, a limited edition chapbook (Sideshow Press) and the forthcoming collection,  Between These Pages, These Dark Places (Gallows Press).

 

6 thoughts on “Between The Lines By Frank Duffy”

  1. I do like a story about a deadbeat. It’s a well rendered piece that conveys Major’s sense of futility well, and the slow pace compounds the over-all misery of his existence. I’d read more of William Major.

  2. Sometimes it takes a stage and a pushy director to show us who we really are inside and the potential of what we can be. I think what’s frightening about this tale is it shows the shadow side of man, and though we rarely see it or let it be seen, the circumstances in this story allowed the shadow to shine while humanity was shoved under a rock. You have to ask the question: what would happen if my own dark side was offered a stage? Good to read you again, Frank!

  3. Frank,

    I loved the “Twilight Zone” twist that your story has. You’ve vividly set the reader up for and then eloquently delivered the “punch in the gut” ending that I failed to anticipate. I knew you were going somewhere different, but I didn’t anticipate your ending. Smooth, Frank, very smooth.

    Thanks for a good read.

    Charlie

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