top of page

LGMW MAGAZINE

Home of multilingual writing

Extra

Updated: Jan 29




At first, when he received the call from his friend Misha, Alex didn’t take it seriously. He thought it was a prank. Misha was absolutely capable of it. “There’s a filming tomorrow,” Misha was talking fast, as was his manner, “a couple of scenes, sci-fi, Eastern European gang…” Misha was busy with the baby and couldn’t do it but – here his voice became higher – maybe he, Alex, could replace him? Alex knew that Misha, who once studied to be a lawyer and somehow, after ten years in Britain, ended up a carpenter, from time to time worked as an extra on movie sets, playing passerby on the streets of 1940s London or medieval knights in armor on a battlefield. “We look alike, so they won’t know it,” Misha seemed to be prepared to divert Alex’s objections. “Besides, you’ll make some cash!”

When Misha’s call arrived, Alex was running, as he does almost daily now, running away rather than running towards, kilometers easily added to his Fitbit, his trainers crashing the muddy surfaces of the roads around Slough, past the charity shops and McDonalds, past the car repair services and the motorway underpass, past the river and then it’s the lush greenery of Eton’s playing fields and here and there a raspberry bush that had just started ripening. He brushed Misha off, saying something like, “No way, they will know the difference right away.” But then, later in the evening, back in his faceless Travelodge, the room so narrow that his knees scraped the opposite wall, listening to the drips of water in the bathroom sink, he texted Misha saying that, alright, he could try after all.

Now that Alex sees his reflection in the glass door of the filming pavilion – dressed in black and white, as if he’s just arrived for a job interview – his doubts are back. He is not an actor after all. Never wanted to be. He is a graphic designer, or at least was so before the war, his post-divorce dating profile reading quite generically: a 30-year-old, working for a commercial design studio in Moscow, financially stable, likes: the Ironman triathlons, snorkeling on the beaches of the Red Sea, collecting Tarantino movie posters. Yes, maybe it is all because of Tarantino that he agreed to follow on Misha’s hoax.

His name – Misha! - is checked against a list and he’s asked to fill the forms and wait. Alex gives Misha’s bank information – as an asylum seeker he cannot hold paid jobs in the UK. Well, they have done this before. Misha would give him his share in cash later.

The others in the waiting area – around twenty of them – dark haired, muscular – must be also for the same gig. He notices one guy’s tattoo: a long wavy spiky tale of a dragon wrapping the guy’s meaty neck.

“Next time you come here, you don’t need to wear a suit and tie,” he hears somebody say, and realizes that it is addressed to him. The guy says it with a smile. Before he can react, the guy hands him the flat of his palm, “Mateusz.” Alex sees blue eyes, short-cropped hair, a red weathered t-shirt that says, “All cleared.” Mateusz looks so familiar that they could have been classmates.

They sit silently for a while, waiting on everybody to finish filling out their forms. There are loud and methodical knocks from behind the closed door, as if some repair is being done, perhaps scaffolding set, metallic screws tightened, loud voices above the whizzing of the drill, someone on the speaker calling Olivia, “may you please present yourself to the makeup.”

“You know what we must do there?” Alex turns to Mateusz. 

“Probably the usual, a heist, guns popped, bodyguards, bam bam, everyone dies,” says Mateusz. “We, Eastern Europeans, never play the good guys.” They both chuckle, although Alex doesn’t feel like laughing. Suddenly, an image comes to his mind of him sitting in a car last March, with two others, his former college buddies, on the way to Kazakhstan, hours and hours of endless, brown, still snow-patched slabs of land around them. They spent nights sleeping in the wild, on the side of the road. It was so cold in the car; they had to run the engine but keep the windows open not to suffocate from carbon monoxide. And then he remembers how they saw the first mountain ridge after kilometers of steppe. The sun above it rising. Hitting him in his eyes as he looked up from behind the wheel. The joy of it. The realization that he had, after all, escaped.

“You’re ready?” A woman, short and stocky, with a headset on her spiraling curls, enters the hallway and approaches them. Alex sees a tag on her jacket, “Sara.” “You all look great, guys! Now let’s spruce you up a little bit.”

Behind the closed doors, they find a large pavilion with metal walls. It looks like the inside of a giant garage ransacked by a storm: stacks of light brown plywood, people everywhere, somebody carrying an oversized fuzzy microphone on a long pole, a woman turns with two eggplant-colored 1960s wigs on each of her raised hands. Sara points them to a tent where they are shown to a rack of what looks like an assembly of black rubbery vacuum tubes. “You’re going to be guards at a space station, these are your suits!” explains Sara. “They are all one-size and stretchy, so don’t worry, it’ll fit you all!”

To put the costumes on, they have to sit down, struggling with the rubbery texture as they roll it up their arms and legs. “I am a Michelin man!” exclaims one of the guys and they laugh. As he pulls the zipper up and the costume wraps his body, Alex feels that he shuts something inside himself, and then nothing of him exists anymore, just this moment where he, already using somebody’s name, becomes anonymous, robot-like creature, with a number on a tag that’s left dangling off the hanger.

Their transformation is complete after the make-up and hair people apply gel into their hair and powder on their faces. He thinks that the makeup artist looks like his eighth-grade chemistry teacher, although in a fedora hat. She pulls him out for a brush up. “Next time come camera ready: apply some translucent cream, we only have two minutes per person, hon,” she says to him. Alex feels strange when the soft brush wipes his face with crumbling powder. He remembers a clown he had seen in his childhood on the morning TV. The white clown face with red mouth and nose. He never thought the clown was funny. He thought the clown was sad.

*

Smelling of apple hair gel that the hair artist applied, their faces pale green, rubber collars straining their necks, their group is loaded onto a small bus that takes them to a sound stage that hosts the actual filming set. As they drive, he sees white trailers, parking lots filled with cars, and beyond that, vast stretches of green fields. There is a tiny spider web swaying on the side of the bus window. It has been seventeen months since he ran away.

“So where are you actually from?” Mateusz, who sits next to him, asks. Alex swallows and registers the moment one more time: their bus full of creatures in costumes that look like they are made of hoses, almost identical to each other, leaning left or right, synchronously, every time a bus makes a turn.

“Russia,” Alex says, and then, after a pause, adds, “But I am against the war.”

“Well, I’m Polish but what does it matter,” says Mateusz, with a chuckle. Then he adds, “At least you are not there out on one of those dusty fields killing Ukrainians…”

“At least I am not,” Alex nods and looks away. This question of nationality puzzles him now. It is asked all the time, on his visa application, Home Office interviews, when he goes for a drink with a friend of a friend. He thinks it’d be best answered though if described as a feeling. The feeling began not long after February the 24th – as if he has a hole inside. A feeling like he grasps for air but as he breathes in, he cannot contain it, with that hole letting the air out. But he finds it impossible to express this feeling to anyone, so he keeps it to himself. Yes, he is from Russia. Hear the sound of air wheezing? It’s where I am from.

*

“Listen close!” Sara, who they know now is the 3rd Assistant Director, gathers them in a circle and explains the point of the episode they will be in: it’s the year 2300, and they are all working on a spaceship producing a dangerous drug that is then dispatched by gangsters around the universe. “Don’t be afraid to improvise. Imagine you are in this facility and any moment there could be a heist. You know about that. There is real fear in the air. And urgency. So you need to move fast. Remember you are part of a cosmic mafia,” she chuckles. “And you all know it!”

Alex thinks to himself that she doesn’t need to explain. This is exactly how he has felt for the last year.

Around them is a set that looks like an inside of a giant octopus. White oval elongated surfaces. Warped soft padded arching walls. Neon lights. The whole structure is vertical, three-floored, with staircases running on both sides of what looks like a giant swirl of moving conveyer belts. Alex pauses to see two stuntmen falling off the stairs, one falling onto a giant stunt mat in the middle of the set, while the other one is dangling on safety wires. The sight reminds him of an Escher drawing, men walking simultaneously in different dimensions.

“Things will be happening fast. But no matter what, don’t look at the camera,” Sara stands in the middle of their crowd of elastic monsters. “I cannot stress this enough. Never. Ever. Look at the camera.” Then she gives them numbers and shows on the map of this strange factory floor where each of them should be standing. “You – number 21 - there!” she points Alex at his location at the bottom of the structure.

Number 21 is the room in the hotel he’s staying now, placed there after he’d submitted his asylum petition, having spent the first several weeks on Misha’s couch in his small flat in Orpington. The locals call it “that hotel” because it hosts only asylum seekers, refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Syria. He suddenly remembers how this morning, as he was leaving to catch the 6:00 am train to Watford, he saw in the hallway Anas, an eight-year-old boy from Syria who stays with his family next door to his. The boy was sitting on the stained carpeted floor, his back against the wall, his tiny figure hunched over the phone screen, face lit by a fast-moving cartoon. Muhammad, the boy’s father, once told Alex how they had crossed the sea on a dinghy from Turkey to Greece and the boat almost sunk. When the boy saw Alex this morning, he made a gesture... Alex now remembers that gesture. A light wave, and a smile. Despite this being so early in the morning. The children of the hotel, and there are lots of them, all ages, call him uncle Alex ever since he bought them a football. But that gesture. The ease with which the boy, seeing him, turned and waved... At times Alex wonders what is most painful – to be hated by the people whose harm your own country has caused. Or to be liked by them. To be treated as a friend. As you are not worthy of it. Not a bit.

*

They rehearse, off camera. The octopus set starts shifting, as if its tentacles have come into motion. Boxes glide along the conveyer belts. Once the box reaches Alex, he picks it up and loads onto a dolly. The dolly is the same he had used occasionally for loading gigs this year to earn some cash. How strange it is that in the year 2300, they still use the same dollies, he thinks. Then he takes the dolly to the side covered in a green screen and unloads it. There is a yellow camera tape on the floor, so they know, when crossing it, that this part won’t be on camera. But presumably, further on, the box will be put into a cosmic truck and dispatched throughout space. He asks Sara if she knows what drug they are making. Sara, who’s running by him with two walkie-talkies in both hands, lets out a quick laugh and says, “I wish I knew it myself!”

*

When Alex finally hears ‘Action,’ he hesitates because nothing has changed around him and yet he feels a heightened sense of urgency in the air. So, he picks up the first box off the conveyor belt and places it on the dolly. For a second, he hesitates, hoping someone will tell him what to do next but then realizes that nobody will. He rolls the dolly and senses a camera not too far from him. He doesn’t know how fast he should be moving; the rubbery texture of his costume restrains his movements, but then there is something about the situation and the movement of this entire space that makes him find the right pace. It is kind of what his office felt like after last February. They didn’t talk to each other, but then they all felt things moving. Then, one by one, people around him, his coworkers, started dropping off, leaving. Nobody said anything, but almost every day, he would come to an empty chair.

He returns for the second load, reaches for the box. Then he hears, Cut. He stops.

There are a couple of crew members who run in and put additional boxes on the belt. A guy comes over to check on the large light projector that hangs just above him. “You need to be absolutely expressionless, no wiggly movements,” he hears Sara on the speaker. “Like robots. First positions. We’ll go again.”

Suddenly, Alex thinks about his ex-wife, Tamara – what if she saw him now?! He called her from the airport while waiting for his flight from Astana to London, the luckiest of their bunch, with just enough cash and Misha’s couch to crash on. Tamara’s voice was sleepy – of course, as always, he’d made a blunder, forgot about the time difference. “I’m in Kazakhstan. On my way to the UK,” he told her. This was after Bucha. This was after Mariupol. This was after multiple ruthless bombings, torn buildings, and countless Ukrainians killed, wounded, fleeing their homes. “But what happened?” she asked him, and there was so much bright-eyed sincerity in her question.  He realized then that there wasn’t anything he could say to her that would get through. He simply said, “I’ll be in touch.”

*

There is another take. And another. Alex feels now he knows what to do. He walks to the belt, picks up the boxes, loads the dolly in a more reassured way. Then he rolls the cart off, overturns it and returns for the second load. He forgets about the camera. He is right there, on that strange factory floor, moving methodically, loading and unloading, loading and unloading, the Sisyphus job but he feels that he likes it.

One time they are asked to do another scene. “Imagine there is a heist,” commands Sara. “The good guys attack the drug-making space station. There will be an altercation. We will film it later. But for now, let’s pretend there is a smoke that we’ll add later on the computer.” They are asked to startle and jolt and fall on the floor. When Alex falls, he stays on the floor facing sideways, counting till twenty, as instructed, sensing the camera fly above him. A thought comes to his mind: what if he had died – back then, on February 24th, and now through a series of strange loops his body reincarnated in this weird costume of a cosmic security guard, working on a strange space station three hundred years from now, where there is still an Eastern European gang. Then, he hears, Cut.

*

“…With time, though, the scenes they need us for all feel the same,” says Mateusz, unwrapping a sandwich. “There’s a corrupt policeman, a tired oligarch, a fugitive mafia boss, you know!” It is their lunch break. They have stepped outside of the sound stage and sat on a grass patch in front of it, surrounded by a neatly assembled garden of tall grass and lavender. A guy Alex has learnt is Romanian lays down on his back and appears to be asleep. The golden chain on his neck sends glints of light around. Two others, from Bulgaria, play cards. Then there is an Albanian who reads a newspaper. Alex sees the white letters of a headline: “40 years on… No close encounter of the heard kind from aliens.”

“What is your favorite?” Alex asks. He feels sweaty in the rubbery costume and notices a large bumblebee land on a sprig of lavender. The most British flower, as he once read somewhere.

“I like doing action scenes. It’s fast and easy. A no-brainer for an Eastern European, ha-ha, just remember your childhood,” Mateusz takes a sip from a coke can. “But with those, you have to be careful. Once we were shooting, and there was a fight scene. This guy was supposed to pretend-hit me on the face. I don’t know what got into him, but he just whacked me with all his might, and I got my tooth blown away,” he points to a front tooth, “and a huge bruise. I had blood flowing down my nose. After that, they apologized and paid me for the damages, but, you know, it’s not my tooth anymore!” 

One of the Bulgarians says,

“Oh yeah, I heard about this director who actually liked doing that. Not Spielberg. The other famous one. They once were shooting a village burned by the Nazis. They got all the extras into a house and, without any warning, set it on fire. The people started screaming, jumping out the windows.”

“And the director?”

“Oh he just kept shooting, and then later told them it was the best acting he’d ever seen.”

Alex suddenly remembers the first day of the war when he saw on the news the black shapes of military helicopters zooming through the residential buildings in Kiev and Kharkiv. He thought it was a movie, didn’t believe it would last long – maybe a day or two. Any moment, he had thought, some good guy would enter the scene and fix everything. A superhero, like in some American blockbuster movie. Tom Cruise. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger. But as it turns out, there is no superhero. And this war never ends.

*

Before the next take, Alex sees Sara take Mateusz aside, saying something to him in a hurried way. Alex overhears some words, “The day player didn’t show up… we’ll just be shooting you from behind …” But Mateusz doesn’t agree, as Alex can read by his facial expression. His voice grows louder, “Sara, honey, you know me. I am always happy to help. But you realize I am too old for this kind of thing…” Sara’s face tightens. She bites her lips. Her walkie-talkies are chattering against each other.

Mateusz turns to Alex and, as if continuing to argue with Sara, says, “They want me to replace a guy who didn’t show up. But it’s a scene with an altercation and I am not doing those anymore!” He points to his front teeth again.

When Alex hears it, it is almost like the sound disappears on the studio floor. It’s still summer. He knows it. There is a bee in the small garden outside. It’s afternoon. This day, like this year, has been so so long. The year – seventeen months – he has been in the UK, having run away from the war his country had started. Unable to stop it. Unable to prevent it from happening. He remembers Anas from his hotel. His light wave at him this morning as he raises his eyes off his tiny phone screen. His small hand. The dark eyes that have seen so much suffering in the eight years of his life.

“I can do it,” he suddenly says to no one in particular, and Mateusz looks at him, not understanding. “I can do it. I want to try playing someone else.”

Mateusz attempts to argue with him, “Wait for her, she should bring you a new contract. Besides, I told you there may be a risk with a scene like this…”

“I don’t care,” Alex says and goes to catch Sara. Her face changes from surprise to strain to alert, as she listens to him, but he’s insistent. She looks over him as if measuring his height. Then she steps aside, “Let me check with the 2nd Assistant Director,” and talks on her radio. Then she turns to him, her look mad and desperate at the same time, and says, “Let’s go.” As they climb the ladders to the top of the cosmic structure, she whispers to him, “We can’t tell anybody that you are you. Remember you are not Misha. You are Nick, the day actor guy who didn’t show up. Otherwise, they’ll eat me alive.”

Alex agrees. It doesn’t matter to him, really. He has spent this entire day as a copy of somebody else anyway.  

*

There are lines that he is given on a sheet of paper. He practices them, whispering, imagining, walking back and forth while the crew prepares the lighting for the set. The first line is: “Anton, what is he doing here?”  The second one – he imagines he should say it when there is an attack – reads, “Shoot!” Then the third line, “Davaj, davaj!” He turns to Sara to ask what this last line means. She shrugs and says that somebody who knows Russian in their translation department wrote these.

“But don’t worry, really, because we will just be using the shots of your back. The focus will be on the lead actor,” says Sara. “It’s just to keep you in the moment.”

When he arrives on the floor, Alex feels like a crowd of people is waiting for him. Waiting for him to act. He feels naked. Then he becomes focused. The director, elderly and soft, with the gentle authority of a psychiatrist, approaches him and asks for his name.

“Nick,” says Alex.

“Here’s what we are going to do, Nick!” says the director.

*

The spotlight is turned on him. It floods the floor, blinds him. He is given a sinister-looking plastic white gun and a headset. He stands on the tip of the edge. The heist is happening. He knows that. He thinks he can hear the superhero entering their clandestine factory. He practically sees him as he enters, in a silver space suit. Is it Tom? Brad? Or Matt!? The superhero is light on his feet. He walks fast, unnoticed, along the hallways of this strange structure, passing through the warps and necks of the spaceship. Alex’s fingers squeeze the gun as he knows the superhero is approaching. He can barely see what happens, except for the silhouette of the lead actor. He tries to discern his features. It isn’t Tom or Brad. But he definitely knows him.

As he sees him up close, he shouts his first line, summoning some invisible Anton into his headset. But the superhero is faster than him. He lashes out and grabs the gun away from Alex. Alex screams into the headset, “Shoot.” And then, before he knows it, he receives a punch into his face – it is not a real hit, but at the moment it feels like one. And then there’s more, unexpected, something the director didn’t tell him to do. As he ducks away from the blow, Alex takes a step back, following an instinct, moving along. As he is doing that, his leg catches onto something on the floor, perhaps a screw or the base of a metal pole that holds the railing. That second he feels it, he immediately knows what is about to happen. But he isn’t surprised. He gives in. His body is pushed, by its own weight, over the railing, and the next moment he sees the grey surface of the stunt mat, with a red square in the middle, growing on him rapidly. All the staircases of the Esher etching move, stretch and shift around him, and as he falls, he utters the third line. Yet, instead of saying the nonsensical “Davaj davaj” words, he lets out a scream. It is a loud, roaring kind of scream. Primordial. 

*

There was a moment last winter. He never answered it clearly. All this time, this moment didn’t sit well with him. It was the first week after the war had started. He was active on social media, creating, posting and reposting antiwar messages. Then one day, his manager pulled him aside. The manager wasn’t aggressive or angry. He looked tired. He told Alex that it would be best if he stopped doing that. It would be best for the company, for their relationship with the clients. Besides, as he said, things are not as straightforward as he might think. “We will never know the whole truth behind this war,” that’s how the manager put it. When Alex returned to the office, he looked over his teammates, their grey faces, and thought about asking them what they should do now. But he didn’t. He doesn’t know why. It felt like it would be strange. They were used to banter, to talking about sports and triathlon competitions… So, he kept doing what he had been doing. He pushed for the deadlines. He worked on finishing a complex project. He tried to live as if nothing was happening. There are different ways he can explain this hesitation to others. But how can he explain it to himself?

*

They run towards him, all at the same time. He sees a paramedic shoving his way through, Sara’s contorted mouth as she’s screaming into her walkie walkies, “Stretchers, we need stretchers now!” There is Mateusz’s face, pale and confused, looming in the back, and above him, all the way up at the top, the perturbed crew and the director watching, looking stunned. Alex rises up, patting the sides of his hips in the rubbery suit. He is fine, he tells them, fine! After all, those years of triathlon training have come in handy.

Later, when they are dismissed for the day and get beers in a pub not far from the studio, Mateusz keeps patting him on the shoulder, repeating, “What did I tell you!? You see I was right!” As they laugh, he adds, shaking his head, “But honestly, man, you nailed it as a pro. And guess what, they kept the camera rolling.”

Alex doesn’t know it yet, but many months later he will get his asylum petition approved. When that happens, he will be able to take any work legally, not relying on Misha’s name or bank account anymore. Still, though, he will wish that Anas’s family got it first. What is more, many days from now he will return to the moment just after the blow on his face – to his falling down off the ledge that his memory would cast back in a slow motion. He would think of that often. Of how he became not words but a scream. The glottal, all-consuming, absolute scream. Because then, at that moment, he got all his questions answered, one of them being, yes, this is you now. It is still you. And yes, even if all of this is not real, you still are.

64 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

209

Comments


bottom of page