The Movie People
When the movie people left, the town grew sad. An air of disaster lingered in the stunned streets—of cuckoldry, or grief. There was something shameful to it, like defeated virtue, and also something confidential, because the townspeople were so in need of consolation they turned to one another with all their private burdens of ecstasy and despair. There had been in that season a run of extraordinary weather—as if the blank blue sky, the unshaded sun, and the minor, pleasurable breeze had all been arranged by the movie people. The weather lasted for the duration of filming and then began to turn, so that within a few weeks of the close of production a stiff, mineral wind had swept television aerials from roofs and disorganized the fragile root systems of more recently imported shrubbery.
My primary sense of this time is of a collective mourning in which the townspeople began to wear the clothes they had adopted as extras and meet on corners to reenact their past happiness. I didn’t participate. I was happy the movie people had left. I was overjoyed, in fact, to see no more trucks in the alleys, no more catering vans in the supermarket parking lot, no more boom lights standing in frail forests outside the town hall. The main street had been closed to traffic for filming and now the townspeople were reluctant to open it again. It’s a broad thoroughfare, lined with trees and old-fashioned gaslights (subtly electrified) and those slim, prudish Victorian storefronts that huddle graciously together like congregants in church, and as I rode my scooter on those windy days, our surroundings looked more than ever like the picturesque period street, frozen in the nineteenth century, that had brought the movie to us in the first place.
I rode my scooter to the disgust of ladies in crinolines with their hair braided and looped, men in waistcoats and top hats: citizens of some elderly republic given an unexpected opportunity to sun itself in the wan light of the twenty-first century. I knew these people as butchers, plumbers, city commuters, waterers of thirsty lawns, walkers of imbecile dogs, washers of cars, postmen, and all the women who had ever taught me in school. They stayed on the footpaths all day. They eddied and flocked, up the blocks and down again, as if following the same deep and certain instinct that drives herring through the North Sea. They consulted fob watches and pressed handkerchiefs to their sorrowful breasts. The wind blew out their hooped skirts. It rolled the last of the plastic recycling bins down the street and into the countryside, where they nestled lifelessly together in the scrub.
I rode to the home of my wife’s parents. She was sheltering there, my wife, Alice, because the movie people had left. She loved them, you see. Not her parents—that tranquil couple of bleached invertebrates—but the director, the key grip, the costume ladies, the hairdressers, the boom operators, and most particularly the star. The whole town loved the star. Even I succumbed, just a little—to the unpredictable feeling we all had in the weeks he was among us, that he might at any moment emerge from a dimly bulbed doorway or unfold his long legs from a rooftop. We’d never seen anyone so beautiful. He shone with a strange, interior, asexual light, and his head seemed to hang in midair as if requiring nothing so substantial as a body. Looking at him was like entering a familiar room in which you see everything at once—and at the same time, nothing.
I rode to my wife and said, “Alice, darling, he’s left now, they’ve all left, so can you please come home and love me forever, entangle your limbs in mine on the sofa while watching television, pluck your eyebrows in the bathroom mirror while I’m trying to shave, go running with me in the gorgeous mornings, and dance to bad disco music in your underwear?”
But Alice, attired presently as a sexy, spinsterly librarian, was trim with repressed desire and lit, at her throat, by Edwardian lace; she only sat on her parents’ chaise longue embroidering silken roses with inconsolable fingers. Her parents hovered nearby: her father, that placid old sinner, was turned out as a country parson with a monocle in his crooked eye, and her mother peered at me from the battered piano, which until recently had been nothing but a prop for picture frames. Now she played it with a watchful plink and plunk, with maternal suspicion tinkling over the expanse of her oatmeal-colored face, a frill of veil in her ornamental hair.
Other times I visited, the door was opened by a sour maid who informed me that my wife was not at home.
“Is she not at home?” I’d ask. “Or is she not at home?”
The maid, with a grim, polite smile, would shut the door in my face.
The mood of the town improved with the success of the movie. A special preview was held just for us, in the town hall; we sat in the municipal pews and called out the names of everyone who appeared on-screen in a long and lustful litany. We laughed and teased in order to conceal our bashful pride; it felt as if finally the world had reached a solicitous hand into our innermost beings and, liking what it found there, held us up for emulation and respect. We were so distracted that, afterward, nobody was quite sure what had actually happened in the movie. A forbidden love, generally—something greenish and unrequited—one of those glacial fin-de-siècle stories in which the tiniest gestures provoke terrible consequences about which no one in polite company speaks.
At the premiere party, the townspeople danced the gavotte and the quadrille; they waltzed among potted palms with a slow, bucolic concentration; they feasted on tremulous dishes of jellies and aspic. All throughout that strange, orchidaceous, combustible room, women fainted into arms and onto sofas, and a tiny orchestra of men with Dickensian whiskers played endlessly into the night as Alice—my Alice—turned time and double time and time and again with the star, who appeared to have flown in especially for the occasion. Her parents nodded and smiled and accepted the nods and smiles of other doting gentry, and Alice spun over the floorboards, her face alight.
I demanded of everyone I met, “Who does he think he is? Just because he’s famous, he can dance all night with another man’s wife?”
Unlike that decorous crowd, I was insensible of my own dignity. Finally the man who had formerly serviced my scooter (dressed these days in the handsome uniform of an English corporal, which made of his red belly a regimental drum) drew me aside to tell me that the man holding Alice wasn’t famous at all—was, in fact, Edward Smith-Jones, a man of the law, and selected from among the townspeople as the star’s stand-in. Apparently it was obvious to everyone else that the entire scene in the stables featured this man and not the star, who was nervous around horses, especially during thunderstorms. So there he danced, lordly Eddie, with another man’s haircut and another man’s wife; but, as the corporal pointed out, Alice wore white in the film and her hair on her shoulders—unwed, available—and Edward’s hand now rested on her supple back, and my heart was filled with hatred for the movie people. When I asked Alice for a waltz she told me, with a demure shake of her head, that her card was full.
I lost my job when the graphic design firm for which I worked was asked to move elsewhere. Certain other sectors of the citizenry were similarly dissuaded: the Greek fruit shop became a dapper greengrocer’s, manned by a portly ex-IT consultant with Irish cheeks and a handlebar moustache who measured out damsons and quinces on gleaming bronze scales. The town’s Chinese residents, unless willing to wear their hair in long plaits, were encouraged to stay off the main street between the hours of eight-thirty and six, and preferably to remain invisible on weekends. The gym was forced to close for lack of customers, and the Video Ezy. The tourists came in excitable herds, transported from a neighboring town in traps and buggies. They mistook me for another tourist, and I was comfortable walking amongst them, watching as my wife strolled in the botanical gardens, her face in parasol twilight, a brass band playing in the rotunda, a British flag afloat above the trumpets, nannies sitting with their neat ankles crossed on benches as children toddled near duck ponds. Alice was accompanied by her Edward and by her parents, who followed close behind. She tilted her head this way and that. In the movie she’d been one of those extras who almost have a speaking part, the kind the camera focuses on to gauge the reaction of a comely crowd.
When I heard they were engaged, Alice and Mr. Smith-Jones, I retired my scooter. I took a job at a printer’s, and the finicky hours of setting type allowed me time to think things over. On the day of their wedding I dressed in costume: in the movie I’d played the role of a man about town; you can see me in the lower right corner of the frame at 20:16, loafing with friends on a street corner while gauzy women flutter behind us, in and out of seedy cottages. Yes, right there—I’m the one watching the dog. I hurried to the church, past apple carts and small, sooty boys, and there was a yellow quality to the air, a residual loveliness, as if the sun, rather than setting completely, was instead hovering just below the horizon.
The church doors swung open before me, revealing soft, pale heads among bridal flowers. The parson—my father-in-law—trembled in the moment when I should speak or forever hold my peace. I spoke. Eddie and I met in the aisle. He swung and I dodged and I swung. Alice shook in her slim, white dress, and roses fell from her hands. I floored the groom; he pulled me down; we rolled on that ecclesiastical carpet, up and over and around, while flustered ushers danced at the edges of our combat. Ed would be on the verge of springing up, a lawyerly Lazarus, but I’d claw him back; I, on my knees, would be making my way altar-ward, only to find him wedded to my foot. The organ began to play. The congregation piped in alarm. An elderly woman keened among her millinery. Finally we exhausted ourselves, and it was me—me!—Alice came to comfort. Edward loped away into the high noon of heartbreak. Her counterfeit father had been ready to join them in mock matrimony, but with a merry shake of his worldly head he reunited us instead. The sun set, and the moon rose. We ate ices at the reception, and great silver fish surrounded by lemons, and that night my wife gave a virginal shudder as she withdrew her slender foot from a slender slipper.
There followed a happy time of croquet and boating expeditions; then Alice went through her suffragette period, of which I pretended to disapprove. Now we read Darwin together, without telling her parents, and she’s discovered Marx. We take walks in the country, where my naturalist wife sends me scrambling into trees for birds’ nests. Things aren’t what they used to be, but there are consolations: a certain elegance to the way she stands at open windows, and longer, darker nights since the town switched from electricity to gas.
Yet I’ve noticed in her lately a strange inability to discern resemblances: a tennis ball (she plays modestly, in white dresses) is nothing like the sun; a glass of water, she says, has no kinship to the ocean; she scowls if I comment on the similarity between her neck and a swan’s. In fact she dislikes any similarities, even without recognizing them, and can’t bear, for example, to see a brown, short-haired dog on brown, short-haired grass. The rest of the town is like this, too. They panic when confronting photographs, even the hoary daguerreotypes they once loved so much. They’ve removed all the mirrors from their houses, and the paintings of jaded horses on hillsides, and the china that depicts, in blue and white, the far-flung tale of luckless lovers. It’s as if they’re repulsed by the very idea of reproduction. What a singular world they live in, in which no thing has any relation to another. They no longer mention the movie. They no longer watch movies. They’ve taken up laudanum. They expect to live forever. They seem happy, however—timeless and happy. I watch them all, a little wistfully, in my fraudulent frockcoat. Meanwhile, the trees shake out their leaves in the wind, and in the evenings my wife wanders through the spent garden. Her face is like a flag that says, Surrender.