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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

The Exploding Trousers Part 4


Richard Jurgens - 2011-11-23

Untitled Document

Read Part I here ...

IV

Preparations for shooting the climactic scene of the film had been continuing since dawn. The set had been built in the barn of an abandoned farmhouse not far, Hilton guessed, from the majestic ruins of Great Zimbabwe. A small town of trailers and tents had been set up around the farm compound. The area was crowded with trucks, generators, mobile cranes and catering vans. Thick coils of electrical cables snaked all over the ground and into the old barn, as if deriving some sort of necessary transfusion from the earth. Smoke was rising from catering tents.

Hilton found his caravan filled with bowls of roses and carnations, and cards and flattering messages of admiration and support placed before his mirror.

He flipped through the cards. Dick Woodman wished him a speedy return to “the boards”. Isabella Salazar sent a large heart with an arrow pointing to its centre and, attached to that, Hilton’s name in silver letters. Instead of a card, Slim Doogin and the stuntmen sent a picture of the apparatus Hilton would be manning during his big scene. On the back they had sketched a diagram of a large man with a blunderbuss and an eyepatch, and another man with a shotgun blasting at his crotch, and next to that, the words “Crazy man at work”. Recognition, Hilton thought. Friendly encouragement, stuntman style.

Even Sue-Jane had sent a note wishing him well. Ever business-like, she’d attached it to a revised schedule of his scenes. It included an extract from the clauses in his contract setting out the (stringent, it turned out) conditions and penalties that might be associated with any delays due to him. But it was only a warning of sorts. They liked him, really. To soften the blow they’d added a cash cheque for one thousand US dollars as a contribution to his medical expenses.

A technician sent a Walkman and some James Taylor tapes; the kitchen had sent a special breakfast; the casting director sent a book entitled Living Big and Living Healthy; the publicity department sent a pile of GQs.

The flattery was, he had to admit to himself, pleasing. The vases and bowls of brightly coloured flowers cheered up the place. And the white breakfast chinaware, with the buttery smell of warm croissants and wisps of the aroma of coffee wafting, somehow lent his battered old caravan the dignity of a real artist’s quarters.

Tim Mapfumo had wisely made himself scarce since his confession. The pills he’d used had been left in his room by a Dutch girl in a short skirt and a backpack who’d been passing through. Having them available, he’d started using them occasionally on punters he judged to be “getting fresh” – coolly spiking their drinks. It was surprising who had sometimes indicated interest, he claimed: pillars of their communities, lords of their domains, heads of families, all of them fixtures of the straight white world, had tried to engage his interest. And as a result, occasionally a valued visitor to the hotel had spent his days lolling by the pool in a pleasant if unwittingly doped fog instead of dragging his wife around on the endless rounds of golf or visits to the nearby reserves. So what? Until Hilton, the antidote had worked like a charm.

Hilton still swallowed rank goblets of tar whenever he thought of Tim’s nerve, his gall. The boy’s fancy schooling had produced a sort of English schoolboy who looked out of a handsome black boy’s face. In his white T-shirt and blue jeans he might have been the missing black British character from That Seventies Show. And he’d been a huge reminder of one of those awkward facts of life that must be rediscovered, time and again – something an actor really ought to have known: appearances can be painfully deceiving. The little shit hadn’t thought twice about doping a fresh acquaintance with “muti”; and he hadn’t hesitated to use three caps just to be sure.

Well, there was consolation of a kind in these cards and gifts and flowers. Here was a hint of stardom at last, Hilton reflected, as he lifted a hot buttered croissant to his lips, here was a whiff of the stardust contained in Isabella Salazar’s perfume.

*

“Dude, shooting in half an hour,” said the Rory the gopher at the door.

Sandy the make-up magician had been and gone. When Hilton looked at himself in the mirror, Adolf Dorkman stared belligerently back at him, eyepatched, stubbled, scarred and venal.

“It’s your big day,” Rory continued. “Everyone’s looking forward.”

“Not half as much as me,” said Hilton.

“Hey, nearly forgot,” Rory said. He flicked a yellow envelope on to the dressing table. “This came for you.”

“What is it?”

“Fuck should I know? I only deliver,” the messenger continued. “Anyway, like I said, be on time, or the director will blow.”

“Blow? Fuck him. He can blow me.”

“Really?” said the gopher. Ever on the alert, his expression turned incredulous, delighted.

“No, I was only joking,” Hilton said hurriedly.

But it was too late, of course. The ill-considered wisecrack would be everywhere by sundown. At dinner in the cantina, lighting guys and cameramen would slap him on the back and say, “Good on you, dude! Told the motherfucker” – adding, as they moved out of hearing, and did the spiralling shot-down fighter hand gesture that had symbolised the career of anyone who crossed Bannerman: “Man, is he fucked.”

“Rory, wait a moment,” Hilton said. “I’ve got something I’d like you to take to Isabella.”

“So it’s ‘Isabella’ now?” said Rory, lingering at the door.

“She came to see me when I was laid up in the infirmary. She was like a vision. She was very kind to me. I thought I’d send her a token of my appreciation.”

“Isabella Salazar? Queen of the Hit Parade? You can try.”

Hilton searched among his possessions for something suitable to send the star. He could send her the piece of grey stone that he had chipped from the Glastonbury Tor, which he’d carried everywhere with him for years; or perhaps a fetish necklace of feathers and bones that he’d been awarded at a storytelling festival in Finland. His eye fell on the envelope that Rory had handed to him where it lay among the profusion of things on the dressing table. His full name was written on it in a slanting, unfamiliar hand quite unlike Sue-Jane’s curly capitals and decorative hearts. Tearing it open, he saw that it contained a piece of paper with the hotel’s letterhead on it and a grainy photocopy of a newspaper article.

The note read: “I saw this in this morning’s newspaper. Any relation? Sorry about the trouble. Tim.”

The article was from an inner page of a local paper Hilton didn’t recognise, The Herald. It included a formal portrait of a heavy-set man in a dress suit. He was sitting at an oak desk with a plain cigarette in his hand, reading a newspaper with a photograph of a young man carrying the body of a boy on its front page and the headline of which one word was visible: OUTRAGE.

The article was an obituary of Sheridan Ellis, former colonel with the South African Sixth Army Division, editor of the Johannesburg Mail, and author of several authoritative works on the contemporary history of the sub-continent, who had died the day before of a heart attack while still at the helm of his newspaper in his office in Johannesburg.

*

The set design folks had done their magic. The interior of the farmhouse, which had echoed with wind a few days before, was now a sleazy Mombasa harbour dive of the 1930s. Arched columns, torches on the peeling walls, fishing nets and bottles of firewater on rough tables. This would be where Leo Vincey would finally reckon with Adolf Dorkman after the crazed pirate had tracked them all the way from the Mountains of the Moon. You could almost feel the thick blue tropical heat outside, hear the blast of the ships’ horns in the harbour.

“You okay, man?” Rory said.

“Fine,” Hilton said. “Where’s Roger Bannerman?”

He’d seen a thin young man with masses of hair murmuring with the stunt director, cameraman, sound recordist, continuity girl.

“The director?” said the irrepressible Rory. “You didn’t think that he’d be down to direct you personally? The great Roger Bannerman doesn’t work from the chair. He sits in the control room and calls down instructions.”

“Great, there you are,” the harassed young man said. “We’re ready for you.”

They had weighed and measured him, and carried out complex calculations, and then there had been “equipment tests”. No one had been warned about his bulk, however, and a great deal of anxious recalibration had been necessary to get the enlarged trousers to work. As a result, there’d been no time for try-out. The stunt team were still working on them for today’s scene, Hilton noticed.

“Where are the stars?” he said, stalling. “We can’t do the scene without them.”

“You’d be surprised what we can do without them,” said the assistant director. He was a harassed young man who was beginning to wonder if he should have taken the road more travelled and worked on Wall Street. “But hey, I guess so would they.”

“How’s our hero of the hour?” a loud voice said. It was Slim Doogin, the stunt director. He rested a heavy hand on Hilton’s shoulder. “Ready to rock ’n roll?”

“Sure,” Hilton said. Sometimes, all you had was face.

“Don’t worry, man,” said Slim. “The possibility for error is tiny – less than one per cent. We’ve checked the charges.”

“Fuck him,” said the first assistant director. “Don’t listen to him. The apparatus will be fine. You’ll be fine.”

The technicians stepped away to admire their handiwork: a set of reinforced pouches sewn neatly into the crotch of a pair of sturdy workman’s trousers. Both legs were stiff with wiring. The trousers looked like they could probably stand on their own. They looked horrible and surreal in the shaft of a stage light, and almost alive, as if they might walk away at any moment of their own accord. Seeing them made Hilton want to be sick on the spot.

“I tell you one thing, though,” Slim Doogin said thoughtfully, as he crossed his arms and looked his men’s handiwork.

“What’s that?”

“Better unload all your gas and bombs now, if you catch my drift,” Slim said. “Once we get that thing on you, you won’t be out of it for hours.”

*

Preparations were reaching fever pitch around them. Generators were humming, lights were being turned on and off, cameramen were testing cameras on their runners, electricians were tying off monstrous cables of black plastic with tape. Hilton seized a moment to slip away. Slim’s warning combined with his nerves had given him a double reason to “unload”.

Today Adolf Dorkman was going to attack Leo Vincey with a gigantic Prussian duelling sabre and attempt to rape Ayesha. Leo Vincey would then blow Dorkman’s nuts off with a sawn-off shotgun. Adolf Dorkman would deserve everything he got, of course. But seeing the obscene little pouches had made it all too clear what would be involved. The trouble was that when Leo Vincey unloaded both barrels of his Winchester shotgun into his groin, Hilton would get them too. Dorkman’s nuts would be Hilton’s.

He’d be totally dependent on the expertise of the stuntmen. On people like Franz and Andy, who thought nothing of dangling freehand from bridges and precipices. And for that matter, he’d be dependent on the leather pouches. Who had sewn them? If it was those potheads over at Costume, he was doomed. There’d be stitches loose. The pouches would fail to contain the explosions.

Being rather in a hurry, Hilton ducked into the first caravan he came to. He had time to notice that it was new, three or four times the size of his old plonker, and very luxuriously equipped. Anyway, he’d found a john. Pulling the door closed, he had a frenzied wrestle with his belt and trousers and sat down. At that moment he heard voices in the sitting room that he had just passed through.

“Darling, I have to get ready,” he heard Isabella Salazar’s voice saying.

“There’s still some time,” Rory’s voice replied.

“Dear boy, so young, so enthusiastic,” Isabella said. “But I must get ready for my scene.”

Inside the toilet cubicle, Hilton strained every muscle to contain the explosion that would betray his presence there.

“Oh, I brought something for you,” Rory said, after a long silence.

“Mmm,” Isabella said.

“It’s something someone’s sent to you.”

“Mmm … Who?”

“Ellis.”

“Who?”

“Hilton Ellis. You know, Dorkman.”

“What does he send, then?”

“A piece of stone. He says it’s special.”

“Mmm. What would I do with a piece of stone when I have you?”

Another long period of silence followed during which Hilton sat on the beckoning toilet while a blood vessel in his forehead beat with the effort of restraining the forces of nature.

“Sorry, let’s pick this up another time,” said Rory at last. “The boss wants me to go over to the hotel now. Take over some tickets. Reckons he’s discovered a major talent. They’re going to do screen tests next week.”

“Oh really?”

“Ja, that black guy with the plummy accent who works in the bar there. The one I caught Dorkman in bed with. The boss reckons he’s going to be the next big thing.”

*

The immortal words were spoken: “Lights, camera, action.”

A shaft of light shot down from a light high up by the barn window. A clapperboard clacked.

SCENE 110. Mombasa dive. Day.

Adolf Dorkman lurks in the shadows. He is in bad
shape. He is caked with dried mud from the landslide
and burned on one side of his face following his
misguided attempt to enter the Fire of Long Life.
He holds a blunderbuss in one bloodied hand.

AYESHA
It’s that horrible proletarian!

LEO
God man, will you never die?

DORKMAN (snarls)
Where is the Ruby of Great Wealth?

AYESHA
I am afraid that we will need it. We have
a very long time to live. You, on the other hand,
are a mere mortal. You are bound to die.

DORKMAN     
Bitch!

Dorkman seizes one of Ayesha’s world-famous
breasts in a blackened hand and draws his sweating
face toward hers.

DORKMAN
I find you very attractive.

Ayesha slaps Dorkman hard across his face.

AYESHA
How dare you?

Undeterred, Dorkman reaches down to Leo’s
crotch to give his genitals a firm squeeze.

DORKMAN
I meant you.

A wave of involuntary laughter and applause went up from the assembled crew.

“Cut!” yelled the first assistant director.

“What the fuck was that?” a voice thundered from a loudspeaker.

The first assistant director held up his hands, mystified. Isabella Salazar paced furiously, arms folded. Dick Woodman folded his arms and stared at Hilton with an expression that might have been amusement, as if to say “Ah, a player!”

“I want him off this set!” said Isabella Salazar.

“And I want that clip for my personal collection,” said the abstract voice.

“Who is this horrible man?” said Isabella. “I will not work with him.”

“Get a life, Issa,” the voice replied. “That clip’s going to be a hit at my Sunday nights back home. Now, let’s do another take. And this time we get to where Mr – ” … Communication was broken off for a moment as the speaker apparently conferred with someone. “… where Mr Ellis gets his nuts blown off. He plays it like it’s written, or he’s out of here.”

“Director says play it like it’s written,” said the first assistant director. “Hear?”

“Hear,” said Hilton.