This story is by Nigel Tunstall and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Night fell on Los Angeles with an unexpected abruptness, and the shadows moving slowly across the lawn where Marshall McCandless stood dissolved into the deep, all-consuming blue of the Hollywood Hills. Looking out across the drive, he took in the palm trees, street signs and figures milling around that marked an outer limit to the party, to the surface fizz of film people engaged in film talk, and headed back inside.
Like most parties, it was a riot if you were in the right place — men trying to impress their dates, women cashing in on their ravishing looks; and all the scenarios of Hollywood beginnings and endings, and everything in between. Fragments of conversation, contemptuous laughter, expressions of mock concern all crashed around his head with the intrusiveness of a TV movie left on too loud while you’re falling asleep.
“My best scenes never made final cut. Know why? Because the producer thought the star was being upstaged. That’s not going to happen again.”
“Forget the studios. Those guys haven’t got a clue. I cast everyone in my pictures myself down to the last extra, Marshall. Actually, there aren’t any extras in my pictures… but the point is, I know how to put things together!”
“Real Life Productions acquired the novel rights to make it into a miniseries, and they brought it to me.”
McCandless’s attention was abruptly drawn to a National Enquirer lying on a shelf: on the cover, the image of an actress he recognised from All Our Splendor, a TV show that had run for a few seasons in the late seventies. He leafed through it hurriedly, and came across more shots of the woman, apparently working in a coffee shop in Beverly Hills, alongside a studio portrait of her as a stunningly beautiful girl.
He read: “The thirty-five year old former child star, once described by a TV critic, in an unusually prescient review, as ‘criminally beautiful,’ was in 1983 added to the long list of Hollywood actors gone bad, following an incident in a Hollywood movie theater that halted the political career of Los Angeles mayoral candidate Scott Redecker.”
He knew the location; he folded up the magazine and placed it inside his jacket. He poked around his shirt for the outline of a cigar, but there was too much stuff to coordinate, and his sunglasses fell down onto his arm. Picking them up, he headed for his car, and drove down to Murray’s coffee shop.
Taking a seat by a window looking out onto the street, McCandless ordered coffee, and began to pore over a newspaper. He strained to make out the print without spectacles, and kept padding his jacket pocket as though doing so were going to make them reappear. The following morning he was still there. It was a bright, clear day. He was still wearing flannel pants and a button down shirt, and sweat patches were beginning to form at the armpits. Finally, he gave up on the newspaper and picked up the menu.
His eyes abseiled down the menu and he turned over the option of ordering “Scrambled Heaven,” which was really scrambled eggs with pieces of bacon, pepper, onion, and mushroom thrown in. The clinking of metal on china distracted him for a moment, but the waitress was refilling cups of coffee with a kind of restless exuberance that quickly recaptured his attention.
Even though he had come here specifically to find her, he was transfixed by the recognition that struck him, and found himself walking right up to her.
“Excuse me, but your face looks familiar. You’re Paige Byfield.” There was no immediate response, so he continued: “I mean, the actress.”
“Oh, yes — I used to be. I mean, yes, I am.” Her unassuming manner, combined with her liveliness and beauty, pulled him into a current of attraction he felt no need to resist.
“You look —” He hesitated, suddenly experiencing a sense of pressure as he tried to avoid saying anything that might lead to the conversation’s sudden end.
“Like I might have had too much coffee myself?” She looked at him with sad, oval eyes. Instantly he knew she was the kind of person to whom you could say anything: sense of humor counted for a lot.
“Ha! I was going to say, ‘lonely.’” He wanted to say something back that was witty and intelligent, but became engrossed in the patterns of her irises — the swirls and ridges and color variations, their strange iridescence.
“Really? I wonder why you didn’t,” she said, genuinely curious.
“Well, I guess maybe I thought it sounded rude.” His gaze flicked toward her mouth to catch a glimpse of her licking her lower lip, and felt tempted to kiss her.
She nodded, ever so slightly. “There’s really no denying it.“ She looked down at her feet. “But I get by — I keep up a front, anyhow.”
He stretched out a finger, and, ever so gently, lifted her chin, so that she again met his gaze. “That doesn’t look like a front.”
She shrugged. “Everyone gets lonely. You, for instance — you’re sometimes lonely, aren’t you?”
He answered with a nod, the corners of his mouth turned down, but smiling at the same time. His eyes caressed her features: an unusually interesting face and a certain poise that was, he reckoned, beyond anything that could be taught. Sadness was in there, too, darkening everything ever so slightly — but it hadn’t beaten her spirit.
“What would you like to order?” she asked, now more perfunctory in tone, acknowledging that food wasn’t necessarily uppermost in his mind. Without waiting for a response, she continued,“Why do you get lonely, then?”
“It’s not because of being alone, I can tell you that much. I believe I’ve asked most of the right questions over the years, including that one, and gotten very few answers.” He reflected momentarily. “I’ve asked a lot of questions, anyhow.”
“I know what you mean. You can’t be yourself with everyone, can you?” She went toward the back wall behind the counter and tuned the radio to a classical music station. “I mean, I’m being myself with you. I’m pretty sure of that. I can tell you things without feeling self-conscious.”
She paused momentarily. “I can tell you that I find this music very beautiful.”
He quickly sized up whether he should tell her that she was beautiful, but stuck to his rule never to say this to a woman.
“And this is what you do for a living, now? It’s just that I’m interested in your movie potential.”
She let out a delightful laugh so little it was almost a gurgle. “I think we know where that ended up, Mister — it went kaboom in 1983.”
“Yet the aura of stardom has not left your face.” McCandless’s words struck him as phoney-sounding, and he flinched with embarrassment. But she was unfazed.
“I never saw myself as a waitress, that’s for sure.” She laughed again, gaily and freely — and now it was a clear, light, mirthful laugh, like birdsong.
They fell into a relationship, based on McCandless’s promises of a career revival — and, after a lull of only a week, Paige got a call to meet the director Monroe Veitch.
“The movie’s called A Touch of Silk. Let me outline the story: Daisy’s money problems lead her into working as a chambermaid.” He finished his cigarette and was already lighting another. “You’re the servant of a rich man, and you serve him in every sense of the word.”
She felt that she knew what she was getting into.
“We’re going to do something bold and provocative. I don’t want it to be like some Hollywood lie.” He looked into her eyes. “That means you’ll be stripping down to your underwear, honey.”
She thought to herself: Everything that is written down is fiction, and so is this.
Paige appeared in her chambermaid’s outfit with square-cut décolletage, and the effect was charming and erotic. Her hazel eyes sparkled.
Her naturally beautiful physique and exquisite, almost dreamy, femininity came into perfect focus under the studio lights. Now she had the chutzpah to use her attributes to best advantage.
Veitch was realistic. He thought: I don’t know whether or not her acting is first rate, but underestimating her beauty would be a serious mistake.
He walked over to the camera. “Nice shot. Can we get in more of the chambermaid uniform?”
She swallowed both the excitement and the shame like she was drinking a particularly potent cocktail. And, as she did, she imagined a childhood of a kind she would have liked to have known: one filled with ballet and piano lessons, with horse riding, perhaps cultivated by wealthy, admiring parents with society connections. But the dreams she remembered had turned bitter, and blue — the blue of gutter rainwater reflecting a Hollywood neon sign; a cold, pitiless blue that qualified her entire life.