Anthony arrives at the café. I watch him search the crowd, each swing of that sleek, otter-like head a delivery of looking, and fight the urge to roll my eyes. Instead, I wave until he notices and picks his way between tables to the seat opposite mine, where he sets his phone on the table and meets my gaze with his lovely dark-lashed eyes.
‘Hello, darling,’ I say eventually, tapping the screen to make the point. ‘You’re late.’
His face sours. ‘Don’t start. I warned you I’d struggle to leave by six.’
‘I’m not starting.’ I stir my coffee with the wooden stick, folding sweetener into foam until it vanishes. ‘Maybe you’re working too hard.’
He shrugs. ‘Not everyone can work a few hours a week. Perhaps if you had a proper job, you’d be more understanding.’
That was fast. No time for snarls or hackles, not today. Not for the first time, I think about excusing myself to use the loo and then simply walking away, to dissolve into the crowd and never return. But there’s the bill, which would make a clean exit impossible. ‘Not everyone wants to work in finance.’
‘Not everyone could.’ His teeth are even and very white. ‘You want to act, don’t you? Properly? It’s all you talk about. But when did you last take a class, hmm? An audition?’
‘It’s not that easy.’ My face is burning, throat tight. To distract him, I offer to fetch him a coffee, which he accepts, and I scurry away to waste some time in the queue.
His words only hurt because they are true. I have doubts about my life’s direction, the work I do now, when everything before had been about the stage. Although I’d never played the lead, I had some successes, working hard to bring forth a solid act-one victim, a cheerful sister or gangster’s moll. I’d stood under those lights and accepted the applause.
But everyone knows that city living is expensive, and that flexible positions are the lowest paid. I was holding on, barely—walking for over an hour to save the fare, stealing peanuts and chopped fruit from the bars I cleaned—though I could see it all vanishing as I scanned the temping sites and Bitcoin scams, and thought about going home.
Then I was offered this work. At first, I’d treated it like any other job between parts, allowing me to rest, but soon realised that it drained me of my creative energy. I caught myself reflecting on my clients in my free time—testing out lines or gestures, some neat little quip—and would stop myself with a groan. The agency pays by the hour, with no bonus for daydreaming in personal time, so I’ve started imagining a windscreen wiper slowly clearing the front of my mind, pushing my ideas or concerns to a holding area below my right eye. It’s a kind of reverse-mindfulness, driven by the limits of my resources, by how easy it is to lose myself in my characters. When I’m back on the clock, I’ll delve in and see what’s survived.
Take last night. Three hours in the company of Oscar, including supper—never dinner—half a bottle of merlot, a mild argument about washing up liquid, which he lost, and it was just so easy, despite my lack of preparation. Oscar’s tastes are simple. He likes me in jeans, bare-footed, hair caught up in a loose bun, secured with a pencil. I wear little black glasses and just enough make-up to look naturally blessed with even skin and full, dark lashes.
When he’d arrived at the address, brushing the raindrops from the shoulders of his mac, I was already in-role, curled up reading a horsey magazine which I threw to one side as I leaped up, grinning, to fetch the timer. In light, expectant silence, we pressed the button together and waggled our eyebrows as the numbers did their thing: 0059, 0058, 0057…
Although the timer is necessary, the type they provide annoys me: it’s digital, which jars horribly in historical scenes. I can spend an hour teasing my hair up, wrapping my hips in voluminous skirts, with Buddy Holly on the turntable and the foil-tray ready meals already in the oven, and yet those red neon numbers break the spell. It seems thoughtless. And when the minute has passed, the row of zeroes just sit there, like someone saying oooo, what on earth are you doing?
It sounds silly, but I’ve taken to tossing a tea towel over the timer’s face.
Once we begin, I like things to be perfect. Or as perfect as I can make them. Admittedly, my fifties-self is based on American movies, all Tupperware and milkshakes, with visual cues taken from Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married. This is deliberate: I don’t think the decade was as much fun here, all tuberculosis, back-street abortions and ration-book meals.
But it was Oscar’s night, and he doesn’t want Doris Day serving him tinned meats and cheesecake. He likes me young, privileged, with an energetic spirit that might bubble over into giggles or tears, depending on the subject, and yet always ready to listen to his wisdom. If it were allowed, he’d probably have me sit on his knee as he wiped away my tears with his clean silk handkerchief, but I find other ways for him to express himself, to get the things he needs.
I took his coat, offered my cheek.
‘Hello, darling,’ he said, bending slightly to deliver his kiss, hands at his sides. ‘How was your day? Made any decisions?’
I like Oscar. He gets straight to the point. There aren’t many who give the trigger phrase so soon, preferring to pussyfoot around while keeping me in an emotional waiting room. It’s not malicious—they just don’t understand how exhausting it is to be neutral, to keep all the balls in the air.
Often, I feel these clients don’t know what they want until they look me right in the eye. Shoulders sag, the fight melts away, and I must lean forward to catch their murmured phrases, coded for softness and care. When it’s the opposite—when suppressed antagonism comes bounding out, free to puff up the chest or clench the jaw as they growl their words—I ignite my internal fires, ready to give as good as I get.
And it might sound odd, but I hugely enjoy these sessions. There is no real anger, of course—just the need to scrap a little, burn off the negative energy from a crappy day, a crappier week. Good for them, yes, but also for me, as it’s an opportunity for to explore the very top of my range as I crash pans, yell, or stamp my feet, and if they dare to criticise my cooking—well, throwing the contents of my pan at the kitchen wall is great stage business. As the mess slides down and puddles in the sink—I’ve practised my aim, as I don’t wish to make work harder for the agency’s cleaners—we reconcile over sandwiches or a piece of homemade cake.
As long as they respect the agency’s rules, anything they want is okay by me. It’s not personal, and most of the time it’s fun. My clients are wealthy—that goes without saying—but that’s all they have in common, so I must acrobat my way through each conversation, with not a moment’s hesitation as we leap and roll. And it’s not only men, although they’re in the majority: I’ve entertained quite a few women, tight-faced types with low voices, who like us to curl up under a crocheted blanket and watch The X-Files.
Now and again, I find myself in the room with a face I recognise; some tech genius or movie star, intent upon own-brand fish fingers, oven chips, the sweet pop of marrowfat peas. We’ll eat in front of the tv, talking over it with mouths full, using the commercial breaks to re-click the kettle, taking it in turns to make milky teabag-tea. Sometimes they’ll make promises—education, holidays, trinkets to placate my character or serve as an apology—but I know they don’t mean it. They are not actors, after all; they feel no need to serve the truth.
Oscar doesn’t behave like that. He keeps our evenings inside the agency’s walls, and it’s always easy to bounce his good feelings back to him, give him what he needs. We ate the coq au vin prepared from the ingredients left in the fridge, washed and wiped as we listened to Mahler so he could teach me how to attend. I thanked him for explaining so clearly. He patted me on my head. And then came the dangerous part of the evening, when I’ve been warmed with wine and benevolent attention, for I could be his girl for so much longer, grateful, affectionate, pure; and he would protect me forever, and love me for who I was.
The buzzer sounded, and I was still Oscar’s girl as I retrieved the timer from beneath its yellow tea towel, but less so by the second; a leaving without sorrow. We waited through the clearing space, our sixty beats of calm—where the line of zeroes replaces, for me, at least, the sting of make-up remover, the hum of empty seats— and Oscar doesn’t speak as he leaves, for what could he say? The woman he’d been with had gone.
I locked the door behind him, rang the agency and confirmed the session as I changed back into my own clothes and ordered my taxi. On the journey back to my flat, I mulled over the evening, locating areas to improve, ways to make his next scene easier, more- different-but-the-same.
I got home, took a shower. Activated my wipers. Slept.
* * *
Opposite me, Anthony is still talking, conducting the orchestra of disapproval with his own coffee-stained stick. And I nod. And nod. And nod. Because he’s right about everything. He’s got my number, and that hurts and is wonderful at the same time.
‘Wouldn’t you be happier if you stopped this nonsense and followed your dreams?’
‘I don’t know.’ The woman at the table next to us has ordered the soup; it smells rich and sweet. ‘Are you hungry? Maybe we…’
‘Don’t change the subject. You know you’re talented.’ He points the stick at my face. ‘Believe in yourself, because no one will do it for you.’
This trite comment tickles me all over. I hiccup away a laugh. As he looks at me with what feels like disgust, I can see the way out, as clear as exit signs when the house lights go down. ‘You think I suffer from low self esteem?’
Bright teeth in neat rows. ‘Ask yourself that question, not me.’
‘Okay. My work is challenging, and not to everyone’s taste. But it sustains and stretches me.’ We lock eyes once more, and there is movement inside me, like the opposite of a heart attack, sending my blood whizzing around, full and weighty with life. ‘I don’t need anything else.’
Anthony leans back, and for a second there’s an odd, satisfied look on his face. A minor slip, but annoying. I would never make such a mistake. He notes my frown, but before he can respond—twist it round, make it true—his phone buzzes from the table. Time is up.
Annabel’s work can be found in such places as Granta, The Manchester Review, Litro, The Stockholm Review and 3:AM, and has been broadcast by the BBC. Her recent collection of short fiction, Exercises in Control, is available from Influx Press. She lives in London.