As Taggerston’s morning televised administrative work is winding down, the cast and crew of Lives of the Innocents accumulate at the studio and commence setting up for the afternoon shoot. There’s only one television studio on the island, so they have to share. A scene of film set banality ensues – crew setting up, large metallic objects and green screens on stilts moved to and fro, thick cables tripped over, groggy men cursing loudly into walkie-talkies and mobile phones, the bearded fox in the director’s seat making regal gestures next to the iPad-bearing female assistant, the scent of coffee and electricity, the whir of electric fans beneath the thin murmur of voices. Lucia always arrives early to pick up the script, a sense of demonstrative duty. The actors only have an hour to learn their lines before shooting starts. Time to find out where Hornby is going today. Krstal Mrdok brushes past her towards the coffeemaker.
—Why Lucia, I have to say, that is the loveliest dress I ever saw you wear. Did you get that around here? Or did you have someone make it for you?
It’s been around three years now since Krstal Mrdok was written into the show. Actually she’s the first non-Sagosian, quasi-elite actress ever to appear on Lives of the Innocents since the show started some twenty-three years ago. Her character arrived rather mysteriously, as Lives of the Innocents typically evades referring to real life events on the island, opting instead for a sort of idealized or fantasy version of Sagosian life. It’s not even really Sagosia, more a fictionalized version of what used to be called Sagosia, named Port Matthews on the show – though the quasi-native audience can clearly recognize all the local referents, from the typical Sagosian accent to locales (on those occasions when they venture outside the studio to do outdoor shoots – something the producers generally frown upon since it requires extra expenditures, particularly given the unpredictability of the weather in the wet season.)
One of those awkward moments – innumerable since Krstal first came on the set. Can’t skate away from this one – Lucia takes her blades off outside the studio door, to avoid being bitched at by the crew. What it is is that Krstal is fishing for friends. She’s zeroed-in on Lucia for whatever reason and Lucia is largely indifferent to these efforts. Not indifferent in a cruel sense – more just busy with the patter of her pre-established life and seeing no real need to alter it.
—Better go learn my lines, says Lucia and she starts to walk away.
—Honey, I already checked. You only got three lines in this episode! Let’s go have us a little chat, what do you say? I’m dying for a cigarette!
Shit. Not that she dreaded having to talk to Krstal so much as she felt a premonition bad things were in store for her character on the show. In terms of screentime, she was on a noticeably downward slope the past few weeks. A sure sign that the writers are running out of ideas for what to do with her. Or, worse, that they are just responding to a command coming from above.
It has finally stopped raining and so they step outside to taste some of that pseudotropical post-rain breeze still so exotic to Krstal and, well, unnoticeable to Lucia.
—Twenty-three years on the show. Why, you must be one of the longest-running characters in all of soap opera history, girl!
She must mean it as a compliment, but to Lucia’s ears, it sound like she’s just being called old. Lucia studies the mangy white van pulled on to the curb in front of them. Out of the back, all sorts of wire and cable spillage. Three of the D.P.’s assistants are there disentangling, joking with each other in Sagosian.
How many more manifestations could Hornby weather? That’s the question of the hour, the minute. Krstal plays Lynette Merriwether, astute businesswoman, what kind of business so-called she’s engaged in never really mentioned, at least not so far, having re-located to Port Matthews for equally murky reasons. What is unknown, at first, but has now surfaced (to the viewers) is that this rich white lady is actually the re-incarnation of Hornby’s long dead sister Anesthia, who has risen from the dead not only to wreak havoc in the islanders’ otherwise (not really) drama-free (somewhat) idyllic lives, but to send a resounding message to Hornby that her powers are, in fact, limited. The ostensible fact being that white magic can turn gradations of gray or even a mulchy black when the practitioner is not in full control of her powers. Yet another indication to Lucia that she is on her way out.
Life expectorates you, slaps you across the face. No one completely sure where Lynette came from. This deliberate openness, masking indecision in the writers’ room, also a foil for future invention. It gets wild, sure. Anesthia was on the show so long ago, those episodes haven’t even been digitized yet. The actress who played her, Tupai, now long dead. Lucia remembers her. Tupai always wore her hair wrapped in a shawl the colors of Christmas. Like she was celebrating it on her head year-round. Always lit the cigars she smoked with wooden matches – never with a lighter. As dementia got her – some said it was brought on by indulging in one too many nocturnal markmaking sessions – she kept flubbing her lines. This was back when they shot on tape, so the mistakes started to add up, cost-wise. Lucia did what she could to try and save her. Would go over her lines together with Tupai in the make-up trailer each day, arriving two full hours before shooting began – they never got their scripts much earlier than that – but it turned out to be one of those situations that just couldn’t be salvaged. Tupai died not long after her character Anesthia bit it on the show. The writers at least gave her a bang, big spectacle to go out by. It hadn’t been their decision, of course, but the producers’, to write her off the show. The writers had actually enjoyed writing her every week – she was one of those madcap characters they could keep inventing, pretty much do whatever they wanted with. An easy write, in other words. When the dementia started to show itself, they even managed to write that in in a way; they’d had her start to go mad, some spell Hornby had put on her sister to help her gain the trust of a corrupt tax collector who had set out to bankrupt Rae, Hornby’s daughter on the show and the recurring protagonist (by wont of looks alone, some of the more cynical cast members would privately aver, as she never seemed to age – and, in fact, was one of the cast members frequently replaced whenever the producers decided new eye-candy was needed, and all the other cast members would have to pretend as though the new Rae were the same Rae as the one before [and the one before that, ad infinitum.] Another disconcerting coincidence being that the actresses that played her were somehow always named Maria, spurning certain difficult-to-explain supernatural fears among some of the older Sagosian cast members.) Anesthia was supposed to enter the tax man’s office with a glaze of unmistakable charisma and, well, not exactly seduce the tax collector, but, using her newfound prowess (as Anesthia’s personality was otherwise considered by those outside her immediate family, who knew intimately her tendencies toward craziness, to be anodyne to a fault) to stir him into a sort of daze of intrigue, whereupon she would unfurl a certain Yangist scroll brought to the island by the sacred ancestors and, while written in an ancient Chinese very few could still read, Anesthia still rather secretly had the capability and, upon reading such a scroll, Hornby assured her, Rae and the rest of the family would eternally be protected by Yang Zhu from any further interference by corrupt financial authorities and be free to pursue their own modest wealth-seeking initiatives that virtually everyone watching the show could relate to (with the corrupt tax man clearly being a foil for the quasi-colonials then ruling Sagosia.) However, only hours after ingesting, the spell turned sour as a result of Hornby mistakenly using salt water instead of tonic when concocting the potion, a mistake owing to a grease smear on the page of the recipe in the ancient witch doctor handbook that had been handed down to her from her great-great grandmother so many decades prior… So, long story spayed and neutered, that is how Anesthia ended up high in a banyan tree by the shore just as a pseudotropical storm was in the midst of whipping up its fury, frothing at the mouth and barking at the gods, who responded in kind by issuing a bolt of lightning that split her in two.
Now Krstal wants to get some acting advice from Lucia. Apparently.
—You remember that scene we shot yesterday? The one with the jade dog?
Krstal lights another one of her extra long skinny ass cigarettes and puffs out a thin plume. In the scene in question, Hornby, now employed as Lynette’s herb gardener-slash-masseuse, arrives at the mansion to find Lynette’s beloved living room set piece, a Ming Dynasty antique acquired in Macao, shattered in pieces on the Turkish carpeting before the olive green late Austro-Hungarian Empire settee. (The hodgepodge of interior design elements here not a direct inheritance of nouveau riche [anti-]aesthetics from the Far West, but more a reflection of Sagosia’s unique neo-colonial islandological inheritance.) Hornby climbs down to the floor and commences dutifully assembling the broken pieces when Lynette enters the room and stands behind her menacingly. She then slowly begins to lift a Greek statuette of Apollo off the table, but just as she’s about to make it come crashing down on Hornby’s skull, she suddenly snaps out of it – Anesthia’s spirit vacates her, Lynette regains possession of herself. A second later, Hornby turns around and is startled to find Lynette hovering over her zombie-like, just as Lynette herself is started to find herself hovering over Hornby, having no recollection of how she arrived there.
—When we played that scene yesterday, I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but I was just so impressed by that look of shock that washed over your face when you saw me standing there. What are the words I’m looking for to describe it?
Lucia just stares at her. She’s not consciously trying to unnerve Krstal, but she also doesn’t want to come across as insulting her by stating the obvious, which is, well, all that can really be stated in this situation.
—Anyway, I had this idea I wanted to run past you, goes Krstal, oblivious to all nuance. I’m thinking of organizing a scene study group – just for us girls. Cos I think we can really learn from each other! I was thinking me, you, Maria of course, Bora, Phi Phi, and Vis. Because, you know, even though we’re all professionals here, I don’t know about you but I’m the kinda bitch that likes to sharpen my craft, mmmkay? Ha ha ha!
Lucia’s not laughing. Krstal doesn’t seem to be bothered by this.
—I’m thinking we can just work on the classics. Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and, um, who was that Norwegian guy who wrote all those classic roles for women? Because I’m all about empowerment. I want you to know that. Even though I am the President’s wife, I just want you to know that I really stand for the empowerment of all women on our island, whether you identify as a Sagosian or a quasi-native or quasi-elite or whatever. One thing I am really not into is division of any kind – and especially among women. And, I mean, among us actresses, come on. You know about my film production company I’m starting, right? I mean, even though you’re of a certain age – well, we all are, some just more so than others – but that doesn’t mean, like, you always have to play the help, I’m always the savvy businesswoman or else the rich powerful wife – I mean, who writes these ridiculous roles, anyway? Am I right? We’ve got some really great projects in the works that I think you’d be excellent for, Lucia. I really want to bring you on board. I mean, your voice needs to be heard.
How is Lucia meant to reply to this, what, what she doesn’t even really recognize as an offer, if that is actually what it is meant to be. Yes, she’s the President’s wife. But that doesn’t hold much sway for Lucia, who identifies more as Sagosian and less as opportunist, though she’s of that generation, being well into her fifties now, that can’t be said to attribute their inclinations in these matters to one articulable political persuasion or another. Her essential quotidianism is about the furthest thing from a southern Californian social climber that might be conjured by a rational mind; now Lucia wonders whether Krstal is even in possession of one.
Lucia looks down at the script in her hands, opens it and starts rustling through the pages, until she finally arrives at one with Hornby’s name on it. She looks up at Krstal.
—It says here, on page seven, I confront you. I mean, Hornby is going to confront Lynette… I’m supposed to slap you.
—Ha! I know! Isn’t that going to be fun. Why, I haven’t done a slap scene since, I think it was in the late ‘80s, I was doing one of those bikini teen movies, you know, back when that was a thing, I forget the name now, it might have been Perky’s Resort Part III: The Morning After the Morning After, me and Rosa Fernandez, if you remember her from the Wild Cherries in the Snow franchise, she had to whop me one after the wienie fell off the barbeque skewer I was holding and I sort of waved it around screaming drunkenly and accidentally unhooked her bikini top with it, exposing those big titties of hers to all the horny spring break boys on the beach. God, now that I think of it, I really miss my Florida years sometimes. I did some of my best work then. But, you know, the industry has changed so much since then, don’t you think? I mean, I know the industry is different here in the pseudotropics, but still –
—I think we can start the scene study right now. But we should just focus on this afternoon’s scene. I can show you some of the techniques I have learned. To make the slap look real. Very real.
Krstal now stares at Lucia, as though something new has just occurred to her. Something she hadn’t clearly seen before.
—I been acting a long time too, continues Lucia. Maybe not as long as you. Maybe I aint been in any Hollywood titty films. But I had to learn to do a lot on this show. Maybe it don’t seem so. But you know. It’s a hard job, having to work here in Sagosia with no fancy stuntmen to do the hard work for you. So an actor learns to do some tricks on her own. I could show, if you want.
—But… Ought we not to rehearse it with the director?
—Oh no. You know how Jersey work. He don’t like to rehearse so much. He just want us to do it.
It is true. Jersey, the show’s ninth and current director, tends to treasure a certain amount of spontaneity on the set with regard to the actors’ interpretation of the script. Which doesn’t mean he won’t suffer them all kinds of vile eruptions when their interpretation clashes in an offensive manner with the one in his mind. But he more often unleashes his bad temper on to the crew members, as he likes to pretend he has a special understanding of and hence relationship with actors – not just the actors on the show, but all actors in general.
—Well. I suppose we could give it a try…
—I think so. You want to do it here? Too crowded, I think. Let’s go back behind the make-up trailer.
—Over there? Well. Why not here?
—Too many people watching. I get nervous in front of crowds. I like to hone in my focus. My focus on the action. That’s the most important part of being an actor. Wouldn’t you say?
—Hmm. I… Well, yes! Yes it is, Lucia. You are right about that.
—So go get your script. I’ll meet you back there.
—You’re not… going to actually hit me are you? Because, the thing is, you know… I’ve had some rather expensive procedures done on my face. I just wouldn’t want to –
—We’ve got to make it look real.
—Well, of course. We want it to look real. But that’s different from –
—Don’t worry, says Lucia. I won’t hit you any harder than it takes to get the shot. I won’t cause you no pain, Missus First Lady. You can trust my instincts. I an actress too, you know.