Smorgasbord Short Story Festival – 9th – 12th June – From Hackney to Hollywood by Wendy Janes

I am delighted to welcome my next guest Wendy Janes with her contribution to the festival. A story of a rise to stardom that has its roots in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

From Hackney to Hollywood by Wendy Janes

“You’re on in ten, Mr Sullivan.”

I glance up to see the outline of a young woman in jeans and t-shirt standing by the green room bar.

“Can I get you anything?” Her thin arms gesture to an array of refreshments.

“No.” I just wish you’d go away and leave me in peace. I’ve been in interviews all day.

Radio, magazines, blogs, and now telly. You name it, I’ve done it. I’m knackered, and to cap it all, this settee is bloody uncomfortable.

“Oh, OK, sorry.” A look of alarm crosses her elfin face. For one awful moment I fear I must have voiced my thoughts out loud, but then realise my one-word growl had been sufficient to make her think I’m simply one more celebrity jerk.

I hastily add, “No thanks. Very kind of you, I’m fine, thanks,” and flash her one of my award-winning full-on smiles. Her cheeks flush. She really is very pretty … but also very young.

When I started out, these creatures scurrying around with headsets and clipboards, and more recently iPads and tablets, had been my contemporaries, but while I’ve got older, they haven’t. This one – she could only be about nineteen – well, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that in another life I could have had a daughter of her age. I feel protective towards her. I hope she has a family to keep her safe.

Turning away, she busies herself at the bar, tidying up bottles, glasses, plates and bowls left lying around by previous guests this evening. Job done, she perches on edge of the armchair opposite me and says, “If you don’t mind my saying, you look all in.”

“Thanks, precisely the look I’m going for today.” I give her my wry smile this time.

“Must be exhausting being a glamorous Hollywood star, going to all those fabulous parties with famous people, and having to jet first class between England and America.”

“Are you teasing me?”


I like how her playful tone matches mine.

“I’m not flying first class with the Hollywood stars, yet.” I continue to keep things light. I’m aware she doesn’t want to hear how I feel about shallow glitzy parties, soulless hotels, and forever taking crumpled, stale clothes out of a suitcase. Today’s suit has seen better days.

“A long-running series on television over here, and three films in three years in America – you’re getting close,” she says.

“Well, I’ll admit it’s more fun than street theatre in the pouring rain and bit parts on TV.”

“Oh, a bit part would suit me. I’m doing work experience here before I go to drama college.”

Jeez, she’s even younger than I thought.

She tells me about the plays she’s been in at school, how brilliant her drama teacher is, and her hopes for her acting career – stage, not television or film – but she knows she can’t be too choosy. I relax and listen to her chatter. Her naivety is delightful.

“Mum’s been a big fan of yours for years.”

Oh, lordy, she’s making me feel so much older than my forty-three years.

“We saw you the other day in a repeat of that series you used to be in on the BBC. The episode ended with you storming round to your girlfriend’s workplace to have it out with her boss who’d been harassing her.”

I remember that role; I was barely out of my teens, and at the time thought stardom was round the corner. How wrong I was, but my career of waltzing in and saving damsels in distress – on and off screen – dates from then.

“Mum told me she saw that episode first time round. Reckons she’s watched everything you’ve been in. She’s going to see your new film next week with some mates from her book club.”

“Well, please thank your lovely mother for being such a loyal fan. And I hope she and her friends enjoy it.”

The girl giggles and attempts to smooth her wild curls which spring back the moment she lets go. Nadine’s beautiful face from long, long ago flashes before me, but is cruelly snatched away as I’m whisked off by a couple of people wearing headsets, and I find myself sitting on a vast sofa, under the harsh studio lights, answering questions about my latest film, Lying.

Claudia Marshall has been doing this Friday evening slot for years. I know how it goes. You have to give her a chance to show off her knowledge first, then, usually after the clip, she gives you the space to tell one anecdote. I’m not a fan of all the interruptions, the flattery, and the fluttering of her false eyelashes, but, hey, if it gets the job done.

“… the studio re-worked the original book to focus on the men, but the wrangles over the rights and the script meant this film nearly didn’t get made …”

God, that on-off-on-off stuff was a nightmare.

“… out of this stellar ensemble cast, your character is the most complex and talked about.

Now, without giving away the audacious twist at the end, can you tell me, and this lovely audience, a little bit about Billy O’Keefe?”

Ah, my turn.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say Billy is the most talked about role, in fact I think there are other characters in the film who are more controversial.”

“You’re being far too modest. Come on, Ryan, tell us what makes Billy tick?”

“OK, let’s see.” I pretend to think, trying to keep this as spontaneous as I can, despite trotting out the same lines for what must be the tenth time today, the hundredth time this week. “Billy’s an ambitious man, and he’s a romantic. The key to his character, his flaw, is that he loves his wife too much. He’d do anything for her. Literally anything.”

I pause, and Claudia leans in towards me, all eyes and teeth.

“Oh Ryan, I’m sure there are many of us who can only dream of such devotion. But can you explain to us how one reviewer can describe him both as ‘a pushover, the weakest sop on earth’ and ‘a ruthless man who’s determined to get what he wants whatever the cost’?”

“Well, I think it comes initially from the great writing. As soon as I read the part I understood why Billy feels and acts the way he does, and–”

“Is Billy anything like you?” she interrupts.

I rush my reply in order to cover my irritation. “I’m a romantic like Billy, but he’s obsessive, and I’m definitely not. Right at the start of the film Billy says he’s been bewitched by his wife–”

She jumps in again. “Over the years we’ve seen you take on a variety of roles – troubled teen, devoted family man, lovable rogue – but always with a strong love interest. I think I can safely say this is the steamiest film we’ve seen you in.” Claudia does the leg-crossing, cleavage thrust forward pose. “How did you feel about doing the bedroom scenes?”

“Hey, if it’s integral to the plot …”

The audience pick up their cue and are generous with their laughter.

Claudia coaxes more from them. “Yes, we get to see quite a bit of you.”

As the laughter begins to ebb, she continues, “I understand you had no need of a body double, even for the more risqué scenes.”

“At first I considered it, but then after a few sessions at the gym, and I thought, why not, I can do this.”

“I think this clip proves that!”

And there on a huge screen is a man in boxers having a stand-up row with his semi naked, fabulously beautiful wife. The contrast between his tousled black hair against her mane of red looks incredible. The cameraman has captured the smooth curves of her milk-white skin, and I find it difficult to comprehend that the man with the lightly bronzed torso is actually me. The argument has resolved itself in an embrace, and for a moment I can almost believe that long, passionate kiss is real. The film pauses on the close-up, and the applause thunders out.

“Wow! Let’s move from your latest role to your first role, Ryan. I’d now like you to tell us about your first acting experience.” Claudia sits back in her chair, as if to indicate, yes, it’s anecdote time. Your turn.

Nadine’s beautiful face appears again.

“I was fourteen, and I had a huge crush on this girl at school.” I’m not sure why I’m in such a confessional mood, but I need to tell this story. “She was ever so popular, constantly surrounded by her girlfriends.”

I can picture Nadine in the dinner hall, deep in serious conversation with a couple of other girls. Her mass of brown curls framing her face, her left hand reaching up to touch the silver pendant she always wore. It had her initial on it, and she’d slowly run the N back and forth along the chain whenever she felt nervous or was concentrating really hard.

“Well, when I heard she was part of the drama group performing short scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream I went along for the auditions. Not sure how the drama department thought Shakespeare was the right choice for a bunch of kids from Hackney, but anyway I was cast as Pyramus, and this girl as Thisbe in the tragicomic play within the play. I don’t know what I thought I was doing, I hadn’t even read the script properly; I just wanted to be near her. Sounds pathetic, I know.”

“Not at all,” says Claudia. Her voice low.

“The first rehearsal was a nightmare. It was only at this read-through I found out we had to kiss. I really wanted to kiss her, of course, but not on stage in front of everyone. I can still remember the ordeal of sitting round with our scripts, stuttering out the words, ‘O, kiss me through the hole of this vile wall,’ and hearing her reply, ‘I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all.’ Honestly, I’ve never felt more embarrassed in my whole life. It was a valuable lesson learned though, because I’ve never taken on a part since without reading every single word of the script first.”

“Sound advice for all young actors who may be watching,” says Claudia. “So, what happened next?”

“Before I could dash down the corridor never to return, my Thisbe came up to me and suggested we get over our embarrassment by practising so much before next week’s rehearsal that it didn’t feel awkward any more. So we met after school in an empty classroom, and she helped me see the humour in the role, and as soon as I got that, I could do it. By the end of the week, we were totally comfortable and getting quite blasé about the scene, and the kiss. But I still didn’t have the guts to talk to her about anything beyond the play.”

“Sorry, I find it difficult to believe that the handsome, confident hero, Ryan Sullivan could ever have found it difficult to talk to girls.”

“Ah, but I was a shy, fourteen-year-old with a face full of spots.”

In fact I wasn’t even Ryan Sullivan then, I was Ryan Eyre – a name my agent had refused to let me keep and had sworn me to secrecy about. When I told my da, he’d said, “Ye’d have to be a bletherin’ ejit to confuse an airline with an actor.” My ma on the other hand was thrilled I’d chosen her family name.

“So, Ryan, did you and your Thisbe sizzle with on-stage chemistry?”

“If only we’d been given the chance! The day before the next rehearsal, the drama teacher, in her infinite wisdom, decided the play within the play would be re-cast to reflect historical accuracy. In other words – an all-male cast. She tried all sorts of bribery and trickery to persuade me to play Thisbe, and in the end she paid me hard cash. I’m guessing she did the same with the six-foot-two high jumper from the school athletics team who played Pyramus. And we were brilliant, even if I say so myself. Had the audience in stitches, we did. But I could never have done it without that girl’s guidance.”

“This audience won’t forgive me if I don’t ask: did you and the girl ever get together?”

“Alas, no. Her family moved to south London during the summer holidays and I never saw her again. But if she’s out there I’d like to thank her from the bottom of my heart for giving me my first acting lessons and for kick-starting my career.”

“Well, thank you, Ryan, for sharing your bitter-sweet story. Unfortunately that’s all we have time for this evening. So it only remains for me to thank Mr Ryan Sullivan, star of Lying, for being such a charming and witty guest, and I wish you all a good night.”

With the applause from the audience ringing in my ears I’m ushered out of the studio and into a cab to take me through the dark, rainy streets to my last interview of the day.

In a small south London suburb, Nadine sits on the sofa beside her husband watching the credits roll on the 42-inch TV dominating their modest living room. She runs her silver pendant back and forth along the chain around her neck. Throughout the programme she’d seen traces of the teenager she once knew in the middle-aged man now recognised by millions. A smile to cover his shyness, a laugh to hide embarrassment. She knows it shouldn’t still hurt like this. Not after all these years. Not when she’s made a good life with Archie and the kids.

“Bit of a pretty boy, isn’t he, that O’Sullivan bloke,” says her husband.

“Sullivan. There’s no ‘O’.” She fixes her eyes on the screen as if doing so will hold Ryan there.

“Can’t you picture him poncing around in tights doing that Shakespeare stuff.” Archie lets out a big belly laugh. “Wouldn’t catch us doin’ it at our old school. They do it at yours?”

“Nearly, um, well actually…” As she has many times before, Nadine senses she’s on the verge of telling him. She’s filled to the brim, the words are waiting to spill from her. Turning to Archie, she’s about to speak, but as she opens her mouth she sees his attention is focused on his mobile phone.

“Meeting the lads for a pint in The Harrow before the footie tomorrow.” The sofa creaks as her husband hauls himself up.

“Cuppa tea, love?” he says as he lumbers into the kitchen.

“Yeh, thanks,” she replies, unsure whether she feels relieved or thwarted. She thinks of the two younger ones upstairs in their bedroom, and Davina at the TV studio. A flutter of something a little bit like hope quivers in her chest as she wonders if her daughter and Ryan could have met tonight.

“No, you silly woman. Get yourself back to the real world,” she mutters to herself, wrapping her cardi around her and reaching to the pendant round her neck.

Alone in the living room, Nadine allows the familiar waves of longing and regret to sweep through her.

About Wendy Janes

Wendy Janes lives in London with her husband and youngest son. She is the author of the novel, What Jennifer Knows and the short story collection, What Tim Knows, and other stories. She has also contributed short stories to a number of anthologies, including the fundraising anthology, A Kind of Mad Courage.

Her writing is inspired by family, friends, and everyday events that only need a little twist to become entertaining fiction.

As well as writing contemporary fiction, she loves to read it too, and spreads
the word about good books online and in the real world.

Wendy is also a freelance proofreader, and a caseworker for The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service.

Books by Wendy Janes.

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My thanks to Wendy for sharing her story and please share on your own networks.  Coming up tomorrow a story from Mary Smith and one from Robbie Cheadle.


39 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Short Story Festival – 9th – 12th June – From Hackney to Hollywood by Wendy Janes

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Short Story Festival – 9th – 12th June – From Hackney to Hollywood by Wendy Janes | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  2. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on my story. Your feedback has made me very happy!

    Just thought I’d mention that the story was inspired by an anecdote my father-in-law told me. Aged 12, he auditioned for a part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in order to get close to a girl he liked, but soon after he got the part the teacher changed to an all-male cast. I love weaving a little bit of family history into my fiction. 🙂

    Thank you to Sally for giving me a chance to share this short story here.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Smorgasbord Short Story Festival and weekly round up – and The Mummy! | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

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