Scotland or Spain or Jail
Photograph by Phil Fisk, Story by Nicci Cloke
In the mornings, he reads the mail. Three or four or even ten letters, sometimes. He reads them all in his worn-out dressing gown, his favourite part of the day.
I feel like we’re family, many of them say.
I’m going through what you’re going through.
I’ve been watching you for as long as I can remember, one or two write. He likes those best.
His name is Paul, his name is Kevin. He has been Paul for fifty-seven years; Kevin for thirty-three. He has been Kevin for longer than his eldest son has been alive. On the lot, runners who have watched him all their lives forget and call him ‘Kevin’. He doesn’t correct them. It gives him a spring in his step as he heads over to start the day.
It starts to rain during his only exterior scene, the production team huddled under umbrellas, plastic pulled hastily over the monitors. He looks his on-screen daughter in the face and tells her that he loves her, that he is sorry. He pulls her into a hug and silently critiques her crying. She is not the actress who has always played his daughter. She has only been his daughter for eighteen months. She smells of lemons and smoke. Her hair is wet with rain.
She comes to his dressing room that afternoon and sits on the edge of the windowsill, her feet swinging underneath her.
‘That was a good one,’ she says, drinking from a can of Dr Pepper.
The previous actress was written out five years ago after posting a selfie one night with cocaine visible on the table beside her. A tabloid published the story and so the show’s writers sent her character in pursuit of a new life in Scotland. Characters in the show always go to Scotland or Spain or sometimes to jail. Those are the only ways out.
But now they have written the daughter back in. They have hired a new actress and they have given her good storylines, big storylines. They have made her smarter, funnier, they have given her a business to run. They have given her an affair with the landlord of the pub, his on-screen best friend. There are rumours circulating that the big Christmas storyline will be hers.
‘I really think I’m nailing the crying thing,’ she says, pulling a packet of Skittles out of the pocket of her hoody and tipping some into her mouth. ‘It’s easy, really. I just think of sad things. Like someone kicking a puppy. Was it you who told me to do that?’
His new daughter was in a girl band once, years ago. The runners on the set are too young to remember but she likes to smile at them kindly anyway, often waves at people as she moves unhurriedly to the places she is required on set.
‘No,’ he says. ‘That wasn’t me.’
He glances up at the lifetime achievement award standing proud on the shelf. He has always preferred to dab menthol ointment under his eyes when tears are required, enjoys the sting which lasts all day. The feeling of a job well done.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Someone new coming along, thinking they know it all. It’s never taken much to solve the problem. A little murmur in the right ear, an expression of concern. Scotland or Spain or sometimes jail.
In the corridor on the way back to his dressing room, he sees one of the writers. One of his favourites; a woman who has been there almost as long as he has. Who knows how things are supposed to be done. She pushes her glasses up on top of her head when she sees him, her jumper sleeves unravelling around the cuffs.
‘I’ve been hoping I’d run in to you,’ she says, and he smiles. ‘Christmas storyboards are almost ready,’ she adds. ‘We’ll be having meetings with the key cast members soon.’ She casts a glance at the corridor behind him, as if she’s worried she might be overheard.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Right.’ He smiles again. ‘Looking forward to hearing all about it,’ he adds.
The writer shifts her weight from one foot to the other. ‘We’re thinking of some quite, ahem, radical changes.’ She gives him a small, tight smile which doesn’t reach her eyes. ‘It’d be good to get your thoughts on it,’ she says.
He feels a bright spark of hope inside him. ‘Of course,’ he says, nodding to show her that he has understood. She looks at him with an expression that he can’t quite read and then hurries on her way.
The following day they are shooting inside the café. A cold English breakfast and mug of still-tepid tea have been arranged on the table ready. Wardrobe have dressed him in a suit; today Kevin is preparing to appear in court to support his on-screen ex-wife. His daughter is not supposed to be very happy about it. But she is standing across the set, laughing with the actor who plays his best friend, her lover. She doesn’t seem to care that everyone in the café and on the street are already on their marks, waiting for her.
Paul never keeps anyone waiting when he is Kevin. Someone said that – the actress who played his mother years ago, he thinks – in the montage they played when he got his award. Never lets anyone down. Her wrinkled face spreading into a smile. Set your watch by him, you could.
His new daughter laughs again and they all wait. He thinks about Christmas, anticipation blooming. Perhaps Kevin will discover the affair; be the one to tell his friend’s wife. Perhaps his ex-wife won’t go to jail after all, or perhaps his son will return from Spain to steal money from his sister.
Perhaps his new daughter will die. There will be a lot of crying to do then.
He picks up the cold sausage from his plate and takes a bite.
Phoebe Locke is the pseudonym of author Nicci Cloke, whose first novel, Someday Find Me, was published in 2012, followed by her second, Lay Me Down, in 2015. She has also written three novels for young adults: Follow Me Back (2016), Close Your Eyes (2017) and Toxic (2018). She lives and writes in Cambridgeshire, and her debut psychological thriller, The Tall Man, was published last year. @niccicloke