Rough Draft

The oldest new kid on the block

Jim arrived in Singapore with little in the way of preconceptions about the place, or indeed any interest in it whatsoever. He was there for a conference and that meant he would barely get out of the conference rooms before it was time to return to England. He could have been anywhere and probably should have been anywhere but here, as he had little faith in his mission and even less in those who had chosen him for the mission. But mission he had, of sorts.

As he arrived at the airport what he needed was a quick taxi to his hotel and a comfortable bed. Long haul always took it out of him. The glamour of travel was only for those in business class and then probably not - because those guys were permanently jet lagged. And that seemed to be the case with every thing deemed concomitant with success. The downside dominated though the downside of failure was that there was no upside.

A shopping mall was a shopping mall even if there was a landing strip incorporated in the design and Jim waded his way through the mall that was Changi Airport to immigration, thinking just one more push, one more step, one more weary attempt to kick down doors that had soundly shut him out would finally stop the nagging in his head: he should be resting on his laurels at his age; he should be on his third wife and complaining about having to work to pay the alimony; he should be complaining about his children and looking forward to them putting him in a nursing home; he should be looking back upon a career and feeling he has had enough and would like to sit back, indulge himself, read a good book, hang by the pool, do that travel he always wanted, learn that language, fight off the paparazzi and refuse to be interviewed ever again!

Instead, here he was, the oldest new kid on the block with a prize winning spec script, and newly partnered up with a crazed teenage producer desperate to make a movie and happy to have found someone desperate enough to say yes to his preposterous deal. And then luck of sorts got him an arts grant promoting British talent in some hands across the water campaign to woo Singapore’s unlimited money by backing their supposedly International Film Festival and Media Market.

On breaking through immigration, Jim looked for the gathering point for participants, saw the placard held aloft by a smiling Chinese man in a suit, and joined the collection of shifty young men in cowboy boots and tight jeans. He did not recognise anyone though they all seemed to recognise each other. There was a circuit they were on. A few lumpy girls from Korea and Japan joined them, kissed everyone’s cheeks but for his, and proceeded to light up cigarettes only to be told of the no smoking signs. This was Singapore. And everyone laughed. Such was the glamour of the world of film.

“Jim!” said a voice. And Jim turned and saw Raj Singh, another veteran of the British TV writing world, though hailing from the aristocratic end. He had managed to get backed by Channel Four when it was desperate for minority talent to fill its airtime. Jim and Raj had once written a sitcom together: “Spungeon’s Dungeons.” The premise had been England turned into a great theme park with the main occupation being re-enactment of great British historical events for tourists, in particular the beheadings of prominent members of Royalty. Raj redeveloped the idea, or stole it, as Jim remembers it, and turned it into a soap opera on the British Empire, written of course by a strictly non anglo-saxon writing team.

“What you doing here?” asked Jim, happily shaking the hands of an old partner.
“I got fired. Reality TV shows have wiped out anyone over forty in the industry. So what else is there but to do a few little indie movies?”
“I know what you mean,” said Jim, who only wished he had had something to be fired from.

Raj had prospered. Jim had survived. Neither liked to dwell upon the differences. For Jim it was too depressing thinking of what he had missed, and for Raj it was too depressing thinking, for he was back where Jim was stuck. That was the luck of the draw.

“Nice project,” said Raj, lying, “And your picture in the brochure makes you look kind of professorial, and slightly crazy. Obviously a comedy.”
“Obviously,” said Jim, for indeed it was.
“Looks like it’s all coming together. Mark my words, this is your year Jim.”

Raj did not need to say that and ten years ago he probably would not have, just in case somehow it dragged him down as much as it dragged Jim up.

“Best women in the world,” added Raj, a much-travelled man who knew these things.
“Who are?”
“Singapore girls. There’s something in the combination of Malay and Chinese that just blows you away: a mix of delicacy and voluptuousness. And the skin. Copper! Shiny. Beautiful. No spots or warts or red blotches or anything you might find in a pub in Essex. Just beautiful. Remind me to book you a room at one of the legalised brothels.”
“I didn’t know they went in for that.”
“They don’t broadcast it. Singapore likes everyone to think they’re boring so that they can keep it all to themselves.”

Jim wondered if Raj’s worldly life was actually true. Most people he knew were either too poor to indulge in anything considered a vice or too busy to risk letting the ball drop because there were always rivals hot on their heels itching to take it all away. Maybe Raj had been dropping the ball a bit and indulging in what he failed to when they were struggling for recognition. Or perhaps he just did not want it enough and so was now settling for independent film making.

“This Indie producer game is a doddle, man,” said Raj, “You just go to parties and meet all these actresses and then take photos of them and say they’re in your movie . Then you go find some distributor and introduce them to one. Easy.”
“So what’s the name of your movie?”
“The working title is Hot Asian Babes but the official title is The Baker’s Dozen.”
“And it’s about?”
“A nineteenth century baker who wants to become the baker who supplies the Royal Family with Wedding and Birthday cake. We’ll get some British dame to play the Queen, and assure ourselves a BAFTA.”
“And where do the Hot Asian Babes come in?”
“He’s an Indian. It’s a true story.”
“Sounds dismal.”
“British Screen love it.”
“Sounds even more dismal.”
“He has twelve daughters he wants to marry off to British aristocracy. And if the Queen orders a cake, then he thinks they’ll all have a chance of getting an introduction to someone eligible.”
“And people like this pitch?.”
“They like the fact we’re casting twelve bits of Bollywood cheesecake, skilled in the art of schmoozing the money. Like I always told you, it’s the concept stupid!”

And maybe it was. When he and Raj had met up and started co-writing it was always Raj who had the basic idea and it was always Jim who sat down and did the writing. And it was Raj who went on to make the money and Jim stayed in his basement flat in Stepney worrying about that month’s rent. He was still worrying about the same basement’s rent, though now he was worrying that the landlord’s death would bring a new owner a little less inclined to indulge a sitting tenant on a rent that should have increased ten years ago.

The mini-bus ride into the centre of Singapore was uneventful. Jim thought how green the place was and how soft his bed would be when he finally arrived. The highlight of his journey would be a four star hotel, sponsored by the Singaporean government. He could never work out what benefit to the government any of this was but he was glad they saw some. And around him a dull murmur of alien languages and laughter filled the air. Raj snored loudly. He had drunk lots of champagne in business class. It was an expense he would get back once his film was financed. Jim thought “if” but he knew Raj never had an “if” in his head, merely a rather flexible version of “when.”

Filmmakers are natural optimists and cadgers. They spend their lives dreaming up grand projects and working out ways of cadging money here and there to finance them until the big deal comes through, which it rarely did. But like hardened gamblers, the bigger the risk, the bigger the obsession, and the odd meagre victory served only to reinforce the conviction that if one risked everything then somehow fate would give you your just rewards. Only the true believer went to heaven and there was no surer sign of a true believer than mortgaging the home, and emptying out the bank accounts, sending the wife and children to hell, for the sake of a “relevant” comedy or gangster story or some dismal cry for something to be done about some great disaster of the recent past.

As Jim pulled his trolley case into the Four Seasons, avoiding the bagmen who he was sure he would have to tip if he let them “help”, despite being told you do not need to tip in Singapore, he noticed a couple of very pretty girls in long dresses, their hair pinned up with jewels, and an escort of shaven headed Chinese in dinner jackets. The photographer popping away with an industrial strength digital and flash led him to believe that these were the “stars” of some movie. Though, as ever with stars, they exuded in person tininess, neatness, and an horrendous youth. They probably played convicts and prostitutes in some chaotic Asian gangster movie but he had no idea which. He never watched them. He never watched any movie if he could help himself. The thought that there was pleasure in this pursuit filled him with horror. It had been a disaster for him, though here he was, almost among the stars, but the stars of somewhere else, in a place where the stars that once mattered to him, never mattered.

His room was thankfully smoke free, roomy, perfumed, and equipped with TV that obtained channels from all around the world without much to watch for longer than ten seconds. He did not care what the news was nowadays anyway, and even less what the business news was, which the channel providers assumed was the obsession of those trapped in hotel rooms. And so he slept for about four hours, and then awoke in the middle of the night and after an hour of trying to set up his internet connection and work out how extortionate the cost of the connection was, he returned to sleep, a sleep of many dreams that he was sure he would recall. But on waking they faded away as he tried to grasp them. That was the story of his life, and yet here he was, a little uncertain about where and when exactly, but he was in with a chance of something or other.

He had long given up hope for anything, but that morning he allowed himself a little schoolboy enthusiasm for the day. It was a new world. Everything was interesting. Everything was different and for a few days he would not be stuck in dismal London, grey London, wet and windy and miserable London. He was in bright lights, air-conditioning, in the presence of starlets and if Raj was anything to go by all he need do is tell a girl that he was a film producer and life would get a whole lot more interesting. After this he would be spoilt. After this… suicide… Unless… Unless…

He dared to dream a little and went down to breakfast and to register with the organisers of the event. Already he could see Raj working the system, glad-handing, elbow squeezing, back-patting. He knew everyone. Jim knew no-one except his teenage partner who was flying in that day and would be joining him in the afternoon, though he thought he would be fast asleep by then. He was banking on his partner to supply the youthful enthusiasm while he sat back and looked suitably wise and amiable, the purveyor of intelligent witty comedies that did more than just make you laugh, they made you think as well.

“Fuck,” said Raj, “D’you see that over there?”
“See who it is? Thingy. Used to be the sexy nurse in what was that show? Did the movie where Michael what’s his face buggered her and she went “Oooh!””
“That oooh made her a million dollars.”
“That’s the one. She was really hot in the one where the beast slathered all down her décolletage, leaving all those stains that clung to her as she ran. Alan Frensham directed. Best thing he did. Died the other year owing millions. Who says you can’t take it with you?”

Jim watched the actress sorting through the papers and books in her conference bag and wondered what on earth could she be doing there? She did not look bad either, in an ordinary well kemped sort of way. It was a far cry from her red carpet days but she had a look about her that made him think she could still turn it on. Still! She was probably ten years younger than him and had had a career and was now an independent moviemaker.

Raj was already shaking her hand and the stench of bullshit seemed to be rippling through the air like a mirage. What he said was irrelevant, it was how he said it that seemed to impress. Whether it did impress was another matter, but that did not seem to matter. Some people could bullshit by listening to bullshit. Raj was highly disrespected in the industry and everyone thought it was probably because he was so successful until now, now he was down and out and strangely in the same position as Jim, who was considered to have got lucky for once.

“This is my friend Jim,” said Raj, pulling Jim over to meet the actress whose name both were struggling to recall. “Jim is your greatest fan. He has masturbated over all the dvd’s of your movies. It’s sad but true. As you can see you have made an old man of him. And he’s only twenty-two.”

“Nice to meet you,” said the actress shaking Jim’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” said Jim, “But I can’t remember your name.”

Raj rolled his eyes. Honesty was always Jim’s problem.

“Frankly, he can’t remember his own name nowadays,” explained Raj. “I’ve told him what will happen stuffing all that snow up his nose, but I’m afraid it’s too late now. His jungle has been rumbled and like Ali, the Great, he is no longer at his peak.”
“That’s probably why I’m here with Raj,” said Jim, “You have to have a few brain cells below par to believe anything he says.”
“I can see that,” said the actress. “I’m Sylvia Irving.”
“Aaah! Yes!” said Raj and Jim together.
“Oooh!” said Sylvia.
“Oh!” said Raj and Jim together.
She still had it.

“I think you should pitch Jim’s movie for him,” said Raj. “He’s liable to tell people it’s a dismal come down from the lofty heights he aspired to.”
“So you’re an artist are you?”

“I’ve had my moments,” said Jim, shrugging his shoulders. He just had not had enough of them or been paid for them so he did not want to go into detail.
“So have I,” said Sylvia, “So have I.”

And with that she went on to her first meeting leaving Raj and Jim panting. With a sigh they checked their watches and headed for the meeting room where they would be assigned a desk and would await their scheduled meeting with prospective financiers.

Jim braced himself. He wanted to have his partner there for the opening meetings but they could not arrange it that way. So he was on his own and the first meeting was supposedly an important one. Fox Studios, nonetheless, though whether who he was seeing was authorised to do much, he did not know. Fox was in theory one of the companies to impress but years ago they had turned down the same script that was now deemed so hot. So he hoped that they would not remember this. Not that that would matter. He had learnt recently that everything he had ever thought about the business was wrong. He had thought people sat around reading scripts and waiting for works of genius to inspire but that was not the case. It was all about attachments, reputation, ingredients, and timing timing timing. He, it seems, was the story and that was that. Not the script. But him! He had won a prize that should have gone to much bigger and better and much younger people. He was a mystery man, an obscure hack who had somehow not made a name as a hack. He was a survivor and probably all those who had written him off years ago were now dead and a bunch of youngsters were in charge and for some reason they saw something that his peers had not. He was years ahead of his time, maybe. Or just lucky. He did not know which. He was not querying it. He would not think it to death. He would sit at his desk and await Miss Akers, the name on the list. She was Vice President of Fox and so must be someone. After all after Vice there was but President. Unfortunately after President everyone was Vice-President. The flattening of ranks in the industry belied the immensely steep pyramid.

Other voices filled the hall and Jim listened as he waited his moment:

“It’s a mix of Rocky meets Brokeback Mountain…”
“He’s there, he’s naked, he’s cold, and the ice is forming around his mouth as with each strike he hammers home the spike into the cows heads. Because that’s what it is when you’re in the slaughter yards of Chicago: life, death, cold, naked!”
“There’s a psychic symmetry between the motorways of Beijing and the Chinese communities scattered about New York. So by superimposing the map of Beijing on New York the camera follows the journey of an Asian immigrant trying to connect with his new life by ignoring actual geography and preferring psychic geography…”
“One city, twelve murders, starting at twelve noon and on the hour till midnight. And only one guy believes the threat. Because he once discussed killing one stranger in twelve cities with a school friend before joining the police and putting his obsession with guns, and crime, to a positive use…”
“All I need to say is lots of hot girls, lots of hot guys: Shameless!”

Jim was certain he stood as much chance as any of these guys though he was certain they thought they stood a better chance than he did. They were all so much younger and when he looked over to where Sylvia sat he noticed she did not have anyone with her. He waved to her and she smiled. She pointed to her watch and rolled her eyes. "Well, what can you do" they shrugged to each other and Jim glanced about looking for his meeting.

The air conditioning was fierce. He shivered. The lighting was fierce too; the sodium glare of the strip lights always set his eyes twitching if he glared at them too long. He could feel his right eye flaring up. If an inflammation attack was triggered at the wrong moment he would never be able to conduct his pitch. He had a PowerPoint presentation to get through and being unable to see would be a big problem. He had typed whole scripts with his eyes inflamed and suffering what he called white out. Luckily touch-typing allowed him to get through the ordeal and claim dyslexia as the result of his strange spelling. Spell checkers do not work for the blind. And he would have to go through the jokes about how he should learn to use one. It was all another sign of his age, his blood pressure exploding. He had a problem hearing as well. The murmur of the room would sometime drown out all individual voices. Some of his frequencies had disappeared through, he thought, persistent illness in his very long poverty stricken phase. He seemed always to have some cold or other and then grew out of it. He assumed he finally caught everything and was thus immune.

So much for Singapore! He could be anywhere. He could feel his positive attitude slipping as he waited and then finally Ms Akers appeared. Her eyes wide, her skirt short, her breasts near hanging out.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Had an over run with an Australian director. Very funny guy.”
“I hope your company is picking up more than one project then.”
“Yeah, we pick up plenty of stuff. What you got?”

The air froze. The moment froze. Would it make any difference to him if this changed everything? Would it really change anything? Could he pitch the bitch? He tried to get in touch with his inner Raj. It must be his time. It must be… He checked if Sylvia Irving was still waiting for her meeting. No, she was in full flow. She was charming the pants of some fifty-year-old executive. Could he charm the pants off Ms Akers?

“Well?” she said, waiting for him. “What you got?”

Something was coming out of his mouth. His laptop was flashing pictures. And he watched it all from high up, floating near the ceiling… Was his luck going to hold?