I smell smoke. Usually, I wouldn’t worry about it, the crew makes the most of the woodland and barbecues are common. The satisfying scent of burning wood, even low-grade palette wood, is nostalgic for me; setting a bonfire was one of my step-dads few benign interests.
But this smells like melting plastic. Only an idiot puts plastic on a barbecue.
I hear shouting. Normally, I would ignore it. This is a busy set. Terry has more cameras than cash at this point and films as much as he can in a week. I’m used to ignoring gunshots, and anguished pleas for mercy.
The smell has alerted me though, and the shouting is slightly more incoherent than Terry’s script.
Looking for the source of the noise is no harder than looking up. I turn in a circle until I see a coil of black smoke rising. The voices suddenly seem louder, I can make out genuine cries for help, which tug at me in a way that the extras’ acting skills usually do not.
I run towards the smoke; does it count as fight response when you run towards danger because you are scared for others? Or am I fleeing the wrong way?
I can see the fire already. It’s one of the big trailers. It could be full of people.
Why is it on fire?
There must have been an explosion but I’m still running towards the fire instead of pulling out my phone…someone else must have done that already? It seems silly to call them this late.
“What happened?” I ask the first person I reach who looks like they might know. I don’t recognise them under the grime.
“He just chucked a bottle of something, on fire, in, it lit up so fast! We got stuck in the doorway and the carpet-”
“Who did?” I don’t mean to interrupt, or grab and shake the man, but I know how fast fire can burn, and I don’t know how fast the arsonist can run!
“I don’t know, they’re chasing him up the hill!” the extra points. Near the top, where it folds over into the meadow, I can make out a thin line of people running, most gathered near the back but right up front, even at this distance of a few hundred metres, I can make out Selena, my partner and co-star, from her big bunches of black hair, like kawaii-panda ears. The arsonist must already be in the meadow, where there are no trees but the grass is four feet long.
I’m chasing after them and I’ve not doubt that I will reach the front. I know most of them aren’t trying. I’ve been in so many chases in my life, if there is one thing I’ve realised it’s that nine out of ten people chasing are actually jogging. Whether it’s a burglar down the high street or a nerd on the playground, most people want someone else to do the actual catching.
I can’t run any speed other than as fast as I can; I have ostracised myself from every jogger at my local park because I can’t help lapping them, and counting the laps aloud as I pass.
One; two; three; see, I knew it! I’m passing these phonies like speed-walking, spandex-clad, middle-aged mums!
Already I can make out the change in light behind the line of trees, the lower half of the horizon darkening as the upper clears to reveal a starlit night and a full-moon.
He has to run across the meadow faster than I can pick up his trail to escape across the road on the far side, but I might be able to spot the grass moving in the moonlight. Living in the woods so often for filming I think I have learned why the full-moon was revered in olden times, and why lunacy occurs. It is simply because you can see at night! If it were a new-moon I’d be blind. This fool didn’t plan his attack the way an intelligent ancestor would have done so he is a lunatic, someone who commits a crime when it is most easy to catch them, rather than two weeks later when no one could!
I crest the hill and Selena’s muscular little legs beat a tattoo as she slows down when I pass.
“I’ll catch up when you get him!” she assures me, beating her fists together. She looks terrifying in the dark, her eyes screaming, bloodshot from exhaustion, her mouth hanging open to reveal thirty-two perfect teeth, primitive weapons…
I’m nearly past the treeline now. I am enjoying the ‘cave-girl’ sensation, the primal rush I experience when fighting or hunting. I feel in control and instinctively leap up the last tree, briefly, to scout out the fleeing man’s trail.
Like that one good scene from that bad Jurassic Park film I see the grass moving as the man tries to run through it, going slowly, so I know he’s crouching.
He’s already near the road though, screw it!
I sprint as fast as I can, using a road lights as a goal. Like a fox risking being flattened to chase a rabbit onto the road, where it has nowhere to turn around and no holes to disappear into, I hurdle the metal barriers, break apart the bushes growing over them and I burst onto the tarmac, tearing the skin on my face and hands. I can feel a light prickling where the thorns went in; the scratches have yet to start burning.
My quarry comes stumbling out of a pre-existing deer-hole, covered in hay and stinking of butane. The dishevelled man looks both ways, unaware of me. When he does notice me, he tries to start running again but his legs buckle from exhaustion. I am on top of him just as quickly, elbowing him in the skull so I don’t break my fists.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I ask, “Do you realise how low our budget is?”
Between blows I hear him struggle to answer, “Yes.”
“Then why,” I stop hitting for a moment, “Did you set the refreshments trailer on fire?”
“Your director…stole…my boyfriend.”
I stop hitting.
“Really?” that does sound like something Terry would do.
“Yes, he’s hiding on the set, he’s an illegal immigrant, he loves me, and your director stole him, my Charlie!” he starts screaming the name, repeatedly.
I start hitting again, briefly and softly, so the man curls up and whimpers. He’s drunk. He’s not washed in days. He’s wrapped up in so many layers of wool he’s obviously spent ages in some squat somewhere, hobbling around putting on discarded clothes, his body shivering from malnutrition. His skin looks jaundiced but that could be the streetlight.
“Is Charlie a young, Asian boy?” I wonder aloud.
“Yes!” he hisses sharply but quietly, “he stole my little, brown-“
“Stop right there. If you make your relationship into a fetish I won’t help you, keep that shit to yourself.”
“You won’t help me!” he starts to wail but before he closes his eyes I raise a fist and he gets the point, for a third time.
“I could keep beating you up for burning down a trailer full of people! I want to mate. You’re just lucky I know Terry well, I believe you, but you can’t set people on fire for stealing your boyfriend. If you’ve got an obsession because of the guy’s skin colour I have less sympathy…but I used to drink. You’re bloody lucky I used to drink. I’m going to give you an uncanny amount of benefit-of-the-doubt because you drink!”
“Not because he’s got a ‘brown’ partner then?”
Selena has caught up.
“Shut up, this is serious,” I can’t be bothered with her ironic veneration of mixed-race-couple-tropes; I literally put her Scrubs boxed-set in the microwave to prove this point the other day and she is still making jokes, even at a time as serious as this.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t, you’re the one talking to him! Hit him a bit more while I call the police, or swap with me, he singed Jo’s hair you know, she just had it braided! And he could have killed someone!”
“That’s not funny. I really mean it, Selena, we’ve got seconds before someone else gets here and I don’t think we want to get the police involved. We are breaking so many minor laws on set, if we draw attention to ourselves over this we might get closed down. If we hide the guy and tell everyone else he got away then it’ll be easier to lie to the police when they get here. If we turn him over to them there will be a big investigation, probably, I don’t know. I just know Terry is breaking the law, and this guy knows Terry…and we need money.”
“You want to bribe him?”
“No! I want to not get closed down! I just said that. Look, I’m going to drag him into the bushes and talk to him. You tell everyone else he got away then tell them to tell the police it was an accident. Convince them they’re all sacked otherwise, it’s true! They’re nearly here, the police could be ages, they won’t be less than ten minutes, do it!”
“I’m surprised Sabrina isn’t back yet…you don’t think she killed him do you?” Terry looks sincerely concerned, way more than he has before, about other victims of Sabrina’s temper.
“She’s a judoka, Terry, she can box but she doesn’t have a bloodlust! She would be in prison if she did, she’d have killed her stepdad long ago!”
“It’s been too long, it’ll be morning soon. It might seem crazy but we need to keep shooting today, we lost a whole night’s worth of filming!”
“It’s not crazy. It’s why Sabrina didn’t want to involve the police.”
“Huh?” just like that, he’s panicking. “You said she disappeared after him, what do you mean?”
“Let Sabrina explain.”
I make a perfectly timed entrance into the trailer. It was worth waiting for Selena to be alone earlier, to sneak up on her and plan this little reveal together. I feel like Sherlock.
“Sabrina, what the…Del!” Terry exclaims the name of my companion, as he follows me through the doorway.
“So you do know him, that’s not a good start.” I don’t like where I can already tell this is going.
“What are you doing with him, Sabrina? He’s a freak, a junkie…he burned down the trailer!” realisation dawns and he steps towards the arsonist like he is going to hit him. I don’t try to stop him, nor does Selena. Terry baulks under the glare of the much-larger, more physically imposing man, whom I have spent the last few hours with at the bed-and-breakfast. He looks scary, even in a pair of floral winter leggings, which were all I had to stretch over his long, thin legs to replace his piss-stained jeans, and one of Selena’s thick, pink, weeaboo cardigans, despite his arms failing to fill out the sleeves and there being a manga panda blowing a kiss on the chest.
“What are you doing?” repeats Terry, “Why don’t you hold him? Why didn’t you beat him!” he doesn’t mention the police, obviously.
“Because you’re a dirty man too, Terry. I’ve been a worse junkie myself, cleaned up he doesn’t look that bad, I’m guessing he’s only been drinking heavily for a few days. I wonder why?”
“How should I know!” he’s already on the defensive and I haven’t made an accusation.
“Terry, you’ve already made it obvious you know him. Before you embarrass yourself like the naughty little boy you are, and admit to what you did, why don’t you let him tell us?”
“He stole my boyfriend!” the large, scraggly man points a long, dirty finger nail. I didn’t notice before but he has one long index fingernail and the rest are bitten off.
“You can’t own a boy, Del, he dumped you, bitch!” I can tell from the malicious look on his face that he is enjoying his victory.
“You can own a drug-addict, Terry, if you offer them enough Ketamine!”
I knew it. Terry spits on the floor and pointedly doesn’t look at Selena or me. He’s such a stereotype, he loved his mother a bit too much; I bet that’s one reason he doesn’t like most women. I know he wanted to make action-movies starring men, once upon a time, but got in trouble for harassing his stars.
“Terry, you can lie to the low-paid extras but you can’t lie to the talent, we made you write it into our contracts when you tried to embezzle our shares of the last film. And you can’t lie to women anyway, you’re crap at it. What did you do to this homeless man?”
“Is he homeless?” Selena asks, spoiling the dramatic tension I have been trying to cultivate.
“Yes,” I hiss, “but he’s self-sufficient, he’s a squatter.”
“Oh, is a he a friend of anyone we know?”
“He’s a customer. Could you shut up?”
She feigns embarrassment and stands to attention, finger on her lips. She’s such a crap Watson.
“Look,” Terry eases with tension, “I don’t even know where Charlie is now, seriously, we had sex a few times, he got way too ketty a few times, I told him to do less, he left. Same story as every other boy; he’s just shagging his way round the squats, for drugs. He just wanted your drugs, Del!”
“I loved him!”
“Well, I love you!”
Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. I haven’t ever heard Terry say that to a man his age.
“You treated me like shit, Terry,” Del sits down on the floor. There’s just one sofa in here and I think Selena and I should take it. I don’t think we’re needed for muscle any more. This might actually get emotional in a way I didn’t predict. I want to hold Selena’s hand.
Terry, now the only person standing up, looks around pleadingly. We all look up at him, ready for story time. He has no choice, there will be tantrums otherwise.
“Okay, yeah, I did. You never looked at me like you looked at younger, browner men, and don’t pretend for a second that isn’t true!” he points an accusing finger at Del, who didn’t look as though he would disagree, then continues.
“You’re a racist, Del, you like small, dark-skinned men, it’s a fetish, they are like a drug to you! So, yeah, I gave Charlie a shit-ton of Ket, he left you for it, and then I left him. God knows where he is now, probably on his way back home, or dead.”
I was wrong. Del leaps up and punches Terry full in the face faster than I can react! Then he stops, so I don’t need to. One is probably fair, from what I have heard so far.
“You don’t poison and murder someone because someone else has a kink.” Del’s voice is matter-of-fact and, again, I think he’s being fair. I’m getting pissed off by all the racism, it’s awkward with Selena sitting right here, the most awkward thing is feeling awkward; why do I feel awkward?
“Just for the record, for some reason I think it’s important for me to say this, Selena and I are a couple and this discussion sounds really ignorant from our perspective. You can keep having it, obviously, but I feel like it’s really important that I make it clear that it doesn’t reflect my views…”
Selena looks at me funny. She whispers, “You didn’t think that was obvious?”
“Not obvious enough for these days,” I assure her.
“Okay, sorry…,” Terry looks perplexed but carries on. “Del, I understand you being angry because you feel I stole your lover. I felt the same way about Charlie. But you burned down a third of my trailers! I’m already paying the girls to stay in a bed-and-breakfast and now I’m going to have to buy rooms for some of the crew!”
“You might have killed someone!”
“So might you! Del, look, you’re the one who got Charlie hooked in the first place, from what I was told.”
“I’m hooked, Terry! I just shared with him… It’s a bit different from what you did, you don’t even take drugs!”
“I’m not an addict, Del, but I take drugs. Everyone takes drugs. You take it too far, that’s what you do.”
“I don’t know what else to do! When I dream, all I dream about is having enough money to keep taking K all the time! I don’t know how to love, Terry, I used to obsess over skinny boys then it was young boys then it was brown boys…I’m just chasing sensation.”
“I know. I love you though, Del, and I can give you what you want, what you actually want. Maybe, if it comes from someone who cares, who you can trust, you can wean yourself off?”
“Shit, Terry…I love you, man.”
“I love you, Del.”
They fall into each other’s arms. It’s not cute or innocent. It’s a kind of love, I guess, a practical kind of love, I suppose…Some people fall in ‘love at first sight’; that’s as superficial as you can get. Other people stay together too long, romance seems never to be a factor, and then they get married!
It’s not fair to judge why people fall in love because there doesn’t seem to be a good reason in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate what they have, and what you have, without feeling superiority. All love is messed up. I’m glad I got this reminder.
I grip Selena’s hand tighter.