This job literally has me going places. I’m at Elstree Studios, home of Strictly, all the way up in Borehamwood, and I’m walking slowly down a fake deserted street. I should be in step with the lanky bloke next to me, but my short-legged clomping can’t match his athletic pace. We’re only being shot from the waist down so I try wider strides, and arm-pumping and head-swinging for momentum. The only results are breathlessness and perspiration in places I’d rather not think about. I smell like old socks. He smells like Old Spice.
Tansy, the nasal-toned director, yells “cut” again, and I flop down on the kerb while she grimaces at the camera-man, the only other person here. Old-Spice-Man is doing bends and neck stretches, so I pretend I’m touching my toes while trying to interpret Tansy’s face. Should have taken lip-reading as well as Drama at St Martins. I’ll be paid for the day whatever. If I’d carried on with my History degree, I’d be in a dusty archive or marking homework. Nothing as glamorous as this.
Tansy saunters off to the catering/costume van, and returns with a pair of thick ribbed black tights.
“Hisha, we’re getting a weird shine off your legs. Put these on.”
Her averted gaze is shouting, “I’m going to get a new casting agency.” I decide to remind her I’m a person, not a Barbie doll.
“So, can you just go over again what we’re doing here? For my motivation?”
She frowns and sighs windily, recites in a toneless voice.
“It’s a multicultural re-imagining of the old-fashioned police procedural, and we’re shooting the title sequence.”
I glance from my fellow actor, dark-brown-skinned and wearing black trousers and shiny shoes, to my clove-you-accidentally-chewed-in-the-pilau-and-spat-out legs, soon to be obliterated in layers of polyamide.
“And you need us specifically because?”
She’s followed my gaze and upgrades her disdain to a watery sniff.
“The viewers will sense the authenticity.”
Three takes later, I’m in Borehamwood Café, reading Kundalini Awakening, eating eggs on toast and submerged in a giant latte. I’ve kept the tights.
The other customers are a mix of taxi drivers, wolfing down sandwiches and large cups of tea, men in army uniform, who’ve fled the World War II sitcom on stage 3 for a not-in-period coffee and croissant, and a frosted sprinkling of hair-sprayed women, picking at pancakes. Watching how people eat is a way to get into their character, whether it’s rushed and half-chewed or delicately cut and savoured. Someone could probably learn a lot from the way I’m making this latte last.
There’s a promising argument brewing outside on the busy street, with plenty of leaning in and lip curling, when the willowy waitress sees my studio pass. She says, big-eyed and breathless, “You with the film crews? I’m applying to drama school.”
I think about the sweaty, tedious piece of pretension that has been my day, and decide not to crack her spirited smile. Hema Malini is flirting with me from the back of my book, with her arched eyebrows and satisfied grin. A powerhouse of actor/director/producer/politician in male-dominated worlds. She controls her own narrative. I lean forward and flick my hair, as if it’s perfectly straight and not wirily plastered to my head.
“Oh, yaaah, I’m Hema. Just been hanging out with the lighting guys. I’m going to be a director.”
This talent for improvisation is honed in weekly Skype calls with my parents. My father’s shyly proud smile, half-buried in his greying beard, my mother’s sharp eyes behind her tortoiseshell glasses. I can smell the lightly-medicinal Thumbs Up on the table, taste the salty-sweet banana chips, hear the murmuring of the back-waters.
Their tiny daal-yellow house in Alleppey is crowded with highly-polished knick-knacks and shelves of well-thumbed books. My old bedroom, my refuge, peeks out behind them, plastered with Amitabh Bachchan and Sri Devi. I always liked the strong personalities, the ones you could dive into, with the big gestures and bigger lives.
I chuckle through reminiscences of how well I did in school, tautly grin through questions about my studies, half-smile through compliments on my perseverance. My mother is touching the screen in farewell as I end the call, and try and massage some life back into my aching face.
I now share a poky flat in East Ham with other periphery people. A mostly half-asleep ex-ballet dancer turned DJ, a children’s entertainer who went to RADA, a care assistant who was a doctor in Somalia. People who thought they might change the world but only changed their outlook. They have different expectations from an actress and I do my best to oblige. Moira, the clown, enjoys hearing the embarrassing details of failed auditions. Jinhai, the DJ, appreciates the stories of famous people I’ve experienced in passing, like the time I saw the back of Patterson Joseph, or when I reached for the same fork as Ian McKellen and we brushed hands. Nafiso is the easiest. She makes us black tea with ginger, and talks about her teenage daughter, still with her family on their farm in Bardero. She’s waiting for her visa. It’s been three years. I practice in the mirror the way Nafiso blinks rapidly when she mentions this, the perfect suggestion of held-back tears.
The next job, “terrrorist’s wife” in a short film shot in Dagenham, is a breeze. I’m in my favourite coffee place, the Corner Coffee House. I’ve got lemon drizzle cake, a perfectly creamy cappuccino and a two-hour lunch break as I only have one line. There is gentle jazz on the jukebox, moody shots of tree bark on the clean white walls, and I’m catching up with my reading on my iPhone with the free Wi-Fi.
I’m immersed in the history of the first University, when the chair next to me scrapes. The third wheel in the scintillating terrorist bank guard/wife/bank manager love triangle we’re filming sits down next to me. His pock-marked pale skin is shiny and his blue eyes are red. Probably on the way back from a sneaky smoke. His pot-belly nudges the table and my coffee jiggles alarmingly. I narrow my eyes. Unfortunately, he’s not looking at my face.
“Studying the script?” he says to the skate-boarding dinosaur on my tank-top. The fluorescent light is unerringly bouncing off the bald patches he’s tried to hide with extra hairspray.
“Just a bit of light reading.” We’re about to shoot a scene where he’s finds out I’ve been sleeping with him for security codes, this has obviously given him ideas.
“I didn’t catch your name, my dear. I’m sure it’s something pretty and exotic.”
Throwing up on him would be a waste of good cake and caffeine. I roll my shoulders and watch him lick thick rubbery lips.
“I like to think so, I’m Fatima, it’s Moroccan. So kind of you to ask about my thesis, I just find the history of education so fascinating, don’t you?”
He’s persistent so I’m describing the curriculum at Al Quaraouiyine before he remembers he has to phone his agent.
I’m back at Elmstree next job. A promised “walk-on role with probable dialogue” in Holby City has downgraded to “dead body in scene two with maybe a speaking role in a later episode.” Apparently, they had a Pakistani family on the week before, and this episode’s director feels viewers might think we’re related. He’s swapped me with Niken, a tall, thin Indonesian woman I nod to in cafés. She’s beaming at her big break and he’s calling her “Nikki” as I head off in search of edible compensation.
I find a good corner-seat in the Borehamwood Café, with views of people swaggering or trudging to or from auditions. Gait is another entrance point into a role, the sway of hips or the splay of feet, and how the body works together. No Wi-Fi, but I have my dog-eared copy of Khotolon by Purev Sanj, the first present my academic mother gave me that made a dent in my day-dreaming brain. Who wouldn’t be interested in a princess who made her suitors wrestle for her hand and then kept their horses when she defeated them?
I smell the intruder before I see them, strange and familiar. Cardamom biscuits? Masala tea? Warm and spicy and a little sweet. A tall black man is raising eyebrows at me, I’ve missed something. Am I in his seat?
“Sorry Hisha, should know to get a bookworm’s attention first. Alright to sit here? It’s packed.”
The bookworm thing is mildly flattering, so I nod while I try and work out who he is.
“You here to meet Tansy? I’m finishing some walk-ons for her this week. Think she liked the backs of my legs.”
Tansy, the sniffer, who probably deleted my number the second I walked off set. I’m a level above walk-ons now, up to lines of dialogue. Which is why the Holby City thing is so bruising. Anyway, this must be Old-Spice-Man, who probably has another name.
“I’m just talking a break from a drama I’ve got a little part in. I’m glad the sense of authenticity worked for you,” I say.
His eyes crinkle when he smiles, not easy to do realistically on cue. In the mirror, I always look slightly constipated.
“Great you’re getting something regular, I thought you were too good to be getting odd jobs. But, I always say to myself—Tyrese, there are no little parts.”
Awesome, he’s identified himself and he likes clichés. It’s too hard to resist. I can feel Khutulun urging me on.
“Well, Tyrese, this is just a side-line for me. I’m busy most of the time interviewing suitors.”
His eyes have narrowed, an instinctive reaction to probable bullshit but he has a confused wrinkle across his forehead so he’s convincible.
“It’s not easy, but I have to keep my father happy. He owns most of Kerala, you know. But I’ve got a strategy now.”
He’s leaning forward, all pouty mouth and concerned eyebrows. Those stories about Asian fathers can really short-cut your back-story. I reel him in a little further.
“I challenge them all to finish the Times crossword before me, and I keep their pens if they can’t. Got about a hundred of them now.”
He’s shaking his head with the injustice of it, another smugly satisfied customer of the Indian-families-are-hard-on-daughters trope.
We finish our coffees with small talk about train journeys and weather, and I’m glowing inside from the satisfaction of a well-realised character. I’m experienced in controlling my expression and don’t smirk. Much. Tyrese checks his sporty watch and says he has to head off. He’s two steps away from the table before he turns back. I wait for the advice about standing up for myself, or the expression of pity.
“Hisha, we’re around characters so much, right? It’s easy to wanna be someone larger like a warrior princess,” he taps my book gently, “but if you’re never yourself, how will you know what’s real?”
My mouth is still open as he walks out the door, that tell-tale giveaway of paralysing shock. But I’m entitled to a minor loss of control. As well as having a day of being forced backwards career-wise, I’ve now joined the ranks of the people I despise in this business. The ones who think they know everything about you from your face.
I spent a few minutes, till the dregs of that cold coffee, thinking about Old-Spice-Man’s parting gift. Self-rescuing princesses are trendy now, so it’s not that surprising he knew about a woman who’s always felt like a personal hero to me. Somebody I might have invented myself because she has the qualities any little girl would respond to: a love of horses and a fuck-you attitude. Someone who bent the world around herself instead of being forced into unnatural positions. But the stuff about losing yourself is way off. I know what makes me a good actress: my observation skills, my ability to improvise, to create well-rounded people from small details. My problem is other people don’t see that.
So that’s definitely not why I cut into a bunged-up Moira’s moaning about how “she has to do a party on Saturday because the mother is influential” with an offer to step in. And a kitchen full of open-mouthed room-mates is not feedback on how often I’ve done something like that before.
Moira helps me choose my make-up and gives me a crash course in balloon twisting. My giraffe isn’t going to win awards but my sausage-dog is passable. In between coughing fits, she chatters about breakfast television (the mother is a TV producer), how Lorraine is obviously better than Holly and how the main thing is I make the birthday girl happy and don’t talk to stray parents. I bite back ways to tell her where to get off. Close up her skin is pale and smooth, like lassi, and her eyes are hopeful. This’ll be like a holiday for me, a house in the county (alright, Wanstead) and party food.
The house is in a swanky cul-de-sac near Epping Forest, with a fancy red-brick driveway and three cars. It has this weird half-and-half look going on, brick and wood-timbered, as if it couldn’t be bothered to get properly dressed. The mother is perfectly costumed, wide-leg-trousered and kitten-heeled. The rooms I’m led through are large and airy, with pastel walls and spotless wooden floors. Even the kitchen. The garden has raised flowerbeds, a patio and six girls dressed like Disney princesses. Birthday girl is Elsa from Frozen, and is pretending to turn a Cinderella into a snowman. While Cinderella has tucked her blue dress into her knickers and is running around shouting “Expelliarmus.” This is my kind of supporting cast. I sing some songs, do some high-kicks, tell a few jelly-themed jokes. Create a small vet surgery of lopsided dogs. There is sufficient laughter and oohing for me to feel I have complied with order number one.
I lean against a cherry tree, catching my breath and re-evaluating why Moira might do this. The mother picks her way over to offer me a glass of lemonade and an envelope.
“The girls loved it, I’ve put a little extra in here for you. I didn’t catch your name?”
And here is my cue. I haven’t been able to settle on a book this week, haven’t been able to choose a heroine that fits my mood. I fall back on an old standby, the Indian woman all English people know. But no-one cooks in that kitchen.
“Oh I’m Madhur, but this just my day job. I really love to cook!”
Television-mother blinks rapidly, and scrunches her tip-tilted nose.
“Well, that’s a coincidence. Named after the actress? You can help yourself to some sandwiches before you go.”
I’ve fluffed it, pushed too soon, didn’t build up my character from the small details. Putting three tiny cucumber sandwiches in my mouth at once makes me a little nauseous. Or I might have swallowed some of this stuff I’ve plastered all over my face. But if I’m not going to slip into another person’s skin, what am I going to offer?
I wear my favourite heels to the next Skype call. Maroon wedges with orchids embroidered on the toe. They’re for auditions, when I’m up for a role with possibilities. The irony is not lost on me. I’ve munched through two packets of banana chips and three samosas in the last hour.
Father smiles gently as mother describes her day at a conference, presenting her paper on Sarojini Naidu.
“It went very well, it might become a book!”
I’m supposed to see my future in these anecdotes. Respected, articulate, proud to stand for something. It’s been so long since I remembered what I had to say.
“Mama, Papa, I have something to tell you.”
Mother’s eyes widen, Father’s smile stays the same. He nods, a twitch of the forehead.
“I didn’t…I haven’t…”
A shred of dried banana rises up unexpectedly and dries out my words.
“Is this about your studies, baccha?” Father says, looking into my eyes. His wide brow, so like my own, is damp with the glow of the vanishing sun. The chip resettles.
“I dropped out of the history course, went to drama school instead.” Somehow a hush has spread across our divided continents. Crickets chirrup their locations. My stomach warbles back. My mother’s face stretches like a flattened roti, lowering jaw, levering eyebrows.
“The good news is, I’ve been working pretty steadily for the last couple of years.”
The scrape of her chair cuts across the bones of my spine.
“You’ve lied to us for five years, I can’t talk to you.”
It seems the patter of her footsteps and the click of the veranda door take a long time to fade. The screen blurs with the effort to sit still. She’s not coming back. I reach to turn off the call, and there’s a slight cough.
“You haven’t cried bacha, since you were six years old and sat on a butterfly.”
“An early sign of a talent for destruction.” He’s chuckling, a warm spicy sound. “You’re not mad?”
“Ah, Hisha. I knew from when you were seven years old and your butterfly story made my father cry, you should tell your own stories, not write down other people’s.”
I’m in make-up at 3 Mills Studios. I’m about to be a woman in a niqab that Bill Nighy asks to pass the sugar in a cafe. The freckled make-up artist is etching wrinkles around my eyes with brown eye-shadow. She won’t let me touch the mascara.
“Can’t I look my own age? A lot of Muslim women are really glamourous.”
“You won’t be on screen for long, we need a look that speaks quickly about your backstory.”
They need a shorthand for tired and oppressed. Mother emailed last night, one line: “are you happy?” I replied: “I don’t know.” That seemed to be enough.
I stride onto stage four, my hidden maroon heels giving my legs a confident clomp, and take my place at a white-linen-covered table. I hear a growling and the pop of air-kissing, and a drawling voice. The star has arrived. Seated behind me, with my tired, oppressed, wrinkly-eyed back to him.
I fume silently through two takes of Bill saying “Sorry, I can’t seem to keep my eyes open. Can you pass the sugar?”, and my half-turn (not towards the camera), condiment juggle, and killer-line “Have you tried the Turkish coffee?” We stop for a lighting adjustment, and I can’t keep it in. I rip off the face-veil.
“Look, Phil,” the grey-haired assistant director makes an I-didn’t-expect-an-actual-cardamom-in-my-chai-latte face, “me sitting around like a potted plant is not representation. This would fail the sexy lamp test, I can do more than this.” His thin lips reach a snapping point, like an elastic band.
“Hmmm, like what?”
“What have you got? Politician, university lecturer, warrior princess? Brown women can do it all.”
He stares down at my weirdly made-up face, with the creases and the cheekbones and the dimples.
“Well, the guy playing the café-owner didn’t turn up. Can you learn two pages of dialogue in the break?”
You might be left now with some uncertainty. Isn’t that ending a little too good to be true? But the important thing is, if it is make believe, it’s my story now.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Bending Genres, Flash Frontier and Third Point Press. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer. Her debut flash collection is forthcoming from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com.