In combat camouflage, stricken on the red-waxed floor, Richard stares into the cone of thatch above the flailing fan. When pain spasms, his vision is lost to a prolonged wince.
“On the bright side,” says Harris, emoting unsympathy from somewhere in the rondavel, “you’ll die with your boots on.”
“Bugger off,” says Richard.
The agony relents. Richard blinks his eyes clear and fixes on the hypnotic revolutions overhead. A drink is what he needs, though he won’t get one out of Harris. The two of them are contractually on the wagon. A ciggie’s the next best thing. He makes his request. Harris frisks the room for a pack. Drawers open and shut.
“Trouser pocket,” says Richard. Harris comes over to him, crouches, attempts to prise a hand in. “Not these, you damned fool. Civvies. On the chair.” Pain thrusts up once more, like an impalation. “Hurry up, for Chrissake.”
“Hold your bleedin’ horses.” A pause. “Got ’em.” A pause. “Matches?”
“Shirt pocket,” says Richard. Harris’s boot steps crescendo. “Not this shirt. Civvy shirt.” The steps recede. A sustained fumble before Harris declares he has Marlboros and matches both.
He returns and slots an unlit fag into Richard’s mouth. Richard spits it out.
“Light the bloody thing first.”
“So now you tell me. What am I, your bloody skivvy?” Harris puts the cigarette between his own lips and fires it up. Done, he readies it above Richard’s mouth, waiting for the latest paroxysm to ease.
The craggy face sags to repose. Filter tip plants into famous gob. Richard drags long, vents smoke. With a self-induced grimace, he brings up his right hand and scissors the fag between index and middle fingers.
“Wouldn’t you just look at us?” says Harris, plonking himself into the chair, probably onto the clothes Richard left neatly folded. “Couple of old farts no longer able to stand to piss.”
“We caroused for thirty years, near enough,” says Richard. “Kidded ourselves the bill would never arrive. It’s arrived.”
“We’re not done yet, you mark my words.”
Richard is increasingly discomforted by the cold hardness of the concrete floor. It’s the first indication that his back spasms are relenting. The billows of pain had served as a kind of mattress, cushioning all else. With the lessening of frequency and intensity, the surface under him has firmed up.
He spouts another plume into the fanned air. The smoke stirs and dissipates. He wills the next onslaught of pain to dissolve similarly. One of Elizabeth’s quack gurus taught him the method, way back when. Imagine pain as smoke. A thousand bucks for that nugget. The technique seems to provide a modicum of relief when the anticipated surge hits. Hardly his money’s worth, but he’ll accept any diminution of suffering.
After it eases off, he creaks onto his side, onto the wicker mat at the foot of the bed.
“He lives! He lives! Rise, Lazarus!” says Harris in full-throated pomp.
Richard sees him now. The Irish arse is indeed crimpling his clothes. He’s helped himself to a cigarette, too.
“Have they gone on without us?” Richard asks, keeping the cork in his resentments.
“No. The rest of today’s filming has been nixed and the boys have got the afternoon by the pool. They’d owe you a drink if you could accept one.”
“Where’s Susan in all this?” says Richard, failing to blunt the edge of anxiety.
“Our darling ladies are tennising.”
The tennis court is in line of sight of the swimming pool. The thought of Susan and Ann gallivanting in short skirts, knickers flashing to lustful eyes, heaves Richard to all fours. Another crippling assault unfolds him, turns him over, puts him back to his original position. He stares up impotently at the fan and the convergence of thatch beyond it.
“Suzy and Annie can look after themselves,” says Harris for Richard’s benefit, though he has his own worries about a bunch of actors and mercenaries in their Speedos enjoying a clear view of the two bronze-legged lovelies.
“Where are you going?” says Richard. Harris is on his feet.
“Off for a status report.”
“My throat’s parched. I need water, a Tab, something.”
“Has anyone told you you’re a demanding son of a bitch?”
Harris commandeers two Tabs from the small fridge; he also has a thirst on. He came here direct from the shoot, without opportunity to rehydrate. It’s a hundred and twenty degrees out there, and not a great deal cooler in. Placing two glasses on the fridge top, he plunks in handfuls of ice from the bag in the top compartment, and hooks a spurting hiss from each can.
“How will you drink flat on your back?”
“Get some pillows,” says Richard. “I’ll prop against the bed.”
“Jesus. What did you last entourage die of?”
“Elizabeth got custody of the entourage. Susan does it all now. Why’s she not here?”
“I said not to interrupt the tennis. More fool me. By God, Burton, I didn’t know what an old woman you are. The sooner she relieves this put-upon old Irishman the better.”
Harris arranges the pillows against the foot of the bed. Richard smokes the fag down and stubs it on the floor beside him. Fagless, he gazes into the vault above the whirling fan and breathes the voluminous, dusty sweetness of thatch and wooden beams. Africa inhaled.
“The girls will be okay, won’t they?” says Harris. His vulnerabilities can be surprisingly close to the surface.
“They married us, didn’t they?”
“That’s an undeniable fact.” Harris takes a mouthful of the foul, synthetic fizz while suppressing the urge to round Annie up post-haste.
“How many years between you?” Richard asks.
“Fifteen,” says Harris.
“Twenty-two,” says Richard.
Harris feels better, Richard less so. He’s minded again to heave himself to his feet. The mere notion provokes another debilitating stab of pain. There is language.
“Christ in heaven, Burton, you’ve a mouth on you.”
Richard directs that mouth at Harris, explicitly charging him with hypocrisy. Harris loads a stinging riposte on a maternal theme and is on the cusp of firing it, but disarms. He has known Richard long enough to know which lines must never be tested. Poor bastard lost his mother at two.
The vehemence fizzles. The two of them drink their Tabs. Long familiarity enables them to change direction tacitly, without recriminations.
“This picture is my boyhood fantasies made real,” says Harris. “Can’t tell you how many times I made Limerick Africa, a stick for a gun, and rat-tat-tatted across the emerald veldt.”
“Same game for me on the slag heaps,” says Richard. “And here we are, realizing our adventures for rich rewards and calling it work.”
“They’ll find us out one of these days.”
Richard needs another fag. He scuffs the catch when Harris throws him the pack, and pats the floor blindly until he bags it. The matchbox arcs through the air, opening in flight, arriving depleted. Matchsticks chain the floor between the two men, manifesting their bond.
They are both of Celtic high temperament, with a corresponding weakness for the good stuff. Their careers have been intertwined almost from the start. Many nights have been mislaid in pubs and bars along the way.
It has caught up with them here in South Africa. They have each deferred half their fee on condition of getting through the movie dry. Richard’s sudden incapacity has put the balance of their contracts at risk without a drop touched. The fate of the entire picture now rides on his recovery. They both know it, and talk around it.
“Who’d have imagined we’d still be doing this in our dotage?” says Richard.
“Or be alive, even? Not me, that’s for sure. Didn’t expect to see forty. But here I am, three years shy of fifty.”
“Forty hit me hard, I can’t pretend otherwise. It brought on ten years of what I can only describe as male menopause. Fifty was solid ground. When I hauled myself out, I had no idea how I made it to safety.”
“Still,” says Harris, “we’ve had high old lives, the two of us. More booze and women than most men could handle in a hundred lifetimes.”
“And we can’t remember a damned thing.”
“True enough, true enough.” Harris toasts with Tab, takes another mouthful. Sitting in his military fatigues, he looks, by turns, heroic and ludicrous. Such is the lot of an actor in costume but out of character. On Richard, the effect is compounded by the attack of infirmity. Dressed for battle, he can barely lift an arm.
They slip into silence for a time. The unsteady whirr of the fan is counterpointed by the exterior sounds of the Transvaal: the liquid gurgle of African pigeons; the rusty rasp of insects. Female laughter chirrups from the general direction of the swimming pool.
“Bugger this,” says Harris. He’s definitively up now, downing the last of his pop. He discards the glass atop Richard’s suitcase.
Richard impulses to join the mission, but in attempting to overcome his predicament receives a raw jolt. The ciggie drops from his mouth, sparking. He collapses to place on the smooth concrete. In the periphery of his view, the door opens onto the vast dazzle of the veldt, then clams shut.
With Harris buggered off, Richard is defenceless once more. His exertions have calcified his incapacity. Pain ratchets along his spinal cord, through bone and sinew. He’s a passenger in his own suffering.
He offsets the agony with reverie. It’s two years since he was last in Africa, with Elizabeth then, at the top of their game. That peak of their celebrity was simultaneously the nadir of his mid-life crisis. Their chemistry was – still is – incendiary, all-consuming in its brilliance, and always fated to burn itself out. It culminated with the blaze of remarriage; the irrevocable bonfire of their addictions.
Elizabeth. Dear Elizabeth. He emerged from their second divorce emotionally cauterized. He’s put on ten years in the last two, unflatteringly evidenced in the mirror and in the rushes. New love and sobriety have been a balm of sorts, but it’s too late for restoration. Age is upon him.
The pain returns with unexpurgated ferocity. He wails through it unabashed, benefitting, for once, from no audience. The cap of thatch damps his shrill dramatics. When the surge at last sinks away, his thoughts are off-kilter. He diverts himself back to the here and now. The movie. It is not destined to be a masterpiece by any means, but it’s a damned sight better than most of the trash he’s squandered his talent on in the last decade. If he can see it through to the end.
On location this morning, before his back let him down, he asked a ruddy-faced Afrikaner, local crew, about the small, conical pits pocking the red earth.
“Antlion traps,” the technician said. “There’s an antlion at the bottom of each one, hiding, pincers ready. When an ant falls in, curtains.”
Richard knows where he is, and when, and why, but the world has flipped, and he is suspended now above the thatch funnel. He looks into it through the fan’s blurry vortex, certain the next bout of pain will spin him in. The rondavel door opens. Tennis soles squeak across the floor. Susan kneels beside him and, with loving words and softness of touch, brings him back from the brink.