The Woman in the Picture

Extract

A narcotic smell of fresh paint, wood resin and hot celluloid hits me. I can sense the cavernous space from the current of warm-cool air that eddies across my face, but all I can see is a square of black, fraying into grey along one edge. A man's voice that seems to be coming from half a mile away says something I can't hear. A moment later there's an echoey clatter, that might be the sound of pebbles hitting the bottom of a well.

Nicky Weedon eases the door to, cushioning it with her fingers so as not to make a noise. Around us I can just make out the skeleton of the studio: tiers of steel rods clamped together, and trailing ropes and cables. It's as big as a small cathedral. Pressed against the walls are paint-pots, ladders, buckets, rolls of canvas, chairs, sofas, window-frames, a gramophone, the front of a car. On the floor are piles of tripods and black-shelled lamps. You can imagine the scarab crunch if you stepped on one of them. As I inch along behind Nicky Weedon, I'm careful not to.

The set is at the far end. It's so brilliantly lit I have to half-close my eyes to see what it is: a desolate Thames-side wharf at night. The edge is marked by three squat bollards; the ground is a vipers' nest of chains and hawsers; there's an unlit watchman's hut in one corner. The river scene beyond is painted in Turnerish chiaroscuro, with a hazy moon above St. Paul's making a wrinkle of white on the inky water. Along the far bank indistinct little blobs of yellow peep mysteriously out of the mist. They could mean danger or sanctuary: you can't tell. The romance of it makes me shiver with pleasure.

After twenty feet or so Nicky Weedon stops in the lee of a canvas flat leaning against a stack of mattresses. I station myself close behind her and we cautiously peer round the frame. Maxted is perched Buddha-like on a tall chair, stage right. He's heavier and younger than I imagined, with a plump unlined face and small intent eyes. He's bending down, saying something to a boyish, floppy-haired man on a canvas stool beside him. The cameraman stands in front of them, shoulders hunched and neck craned as he peers through the eyepiece. Next to him, holding a slate-board, is a spotty-faced chap who looks about sixteen. Three or four other people are dotted about, though I can't immediately see what they're doing.

Maxted straightens, and shouts: 'Action!' A woman runs on to the set, her hands bobbing in front of her in an operatic gesture of panic. It takes me a moment to recognize Greta Szagy beneath the mask of make-up. She totters to the edge of the wharf, glances down as if she expects to see something in the water, then strains on to tiptoe and stares first up the river, then down it. A sudden noise distracts her. She turns, just in time to see the door of the hut open, and the mastiff leap out at her, tugging so violently at its chain I'm afraid it'll snap one of the links. She backs away, stumbling over a bollard, and stands cringing on the brink, her face pulled into a mimic grimace of horror.

It suddenly strikes me that though the camera's been following her, I can't hear the sound of the mechanism. I lean close to Nicky Weedon, and whisper:
'Is he filming?'

She twitches her head: No. It's a tiny movement, but enough to catch the eye of the floppy-haired young man, who glances across at us and smiles. Nicky Weedon acknowledges him with a waggle of her fingers.

'All right!' shouts Maxted. 'Again!'

Greta Szagy glowers at him, then hurries off the set. The dog is dragged back spluttering, and the hut-door closed. A wireless-murmur of conversation erupts among the technicians. The words are lost to me, but the tone's impatient, aggrieved even, and there's an undercurrent of subversive laughter.

'Action!'

Greta Szagy reprises the whole routine, tracked by the silent camera. Maxted still isn't satisfied. She does it again, but this time the gestures are less graceful: her fists beat the air, and when she trips against the bollard she's so close to falling that she has to thrust her hands out to save herself. At the end, she frowns anxiously up at Maxted. He shakes his head, and she gives a despairing wail.

'Please!' she says. Her voice has a phlegmy rasp, and her accent's almost impenetrable. 'The dog scare me. We make take now, please.'

'I'll decide that,' say Maxted.

She stamps her foot, but is too close to tears to reply. The technicians mutter and shift uneasily. The floppy-haired young man walks over to her, says something in her ear, then touches her elbow and guides her gently off the set. After a few seconds he reappears alone, and calls up to Maxted:
'A couple of minutes?'

Maxted nods. The young man wheels round, and makes his way towards us.

'Hullo, Val,' says Nicky Weedon.

'Hullo, shrimp.' He turns to me. 'Are you the chap who's here to see Max?'

'Let me introduce you,' says Nicky Weedon. 'This is Mr. Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker: Val Farrar, the first Assistant Director.'

'How do you do?'

'How do you do?' He holds on to my hand a moment, and looks directly at me, inquisitive but friendly. 'She's still awfully correct, isn't she? We're not that formal here, as a rule. Tend not to mister very much.'

'I'm Henry.'

He nods and smiles. Nicky Weedon blushes painfully, and stumbles:
'He — Mis — Hen — I thought it might be rather fun for him to see how it's done. I hope that's all right?'

Val Farrar pulls a face. 'I expect so,' he says absently, glancing towards the set. 'Max is in a bit of a mood today. As you can probably tell.'

'How?'

'Well, he's not really giving poor Miss Szagy any direction at all, is he? Just letting her stew in her own juice. Obviously got out of bed the wrong side this morning.'

'Perhaps we should go back to the office, and leave him to it,' I say.

'No. He'll have seen you. You'll just have to brazen it out. That's the only way to deal with Max.' He turns towards me again. 'Anyway. What do you make of it all?'

'It's marvellous.'

He nods. I'm conscious that Nicky Weedon's looking at me, waiting for something more. I hear myself saying:
'It's like being inside a giant head. All this lumber' — sweeping my hand towards the pile of mattresses, and a wobbly tower of furniture beyond, crowned with a heavy-framed Victorian picture of cattle by a highland stream — 'all this random accretion of odds and ends lurking in the shadows. And the job is to drag bits of it out into the light, and use them to form a coherent world.'

Neither of them speaks: they're too surprised. I'm pretty surprised myself — that's not the sort of thing you say to strangers, particularly when you want them to give you a job. I try to redeem myself:

'Anyway, I thought it was fascinating, what we were watching just now. What exactly's the story?'

'Oh,' says Farrar. 'Greta's a publican's daughter. Father's a drunk, mother's a harridan. One day she brings home a handsome young man. But he isn't all he seems.'

'Poor girl. Isn't it a shame?' says Nicky Weedon.

Farrar laughs. 'Turns out he's more interested in the pub than he is in her. The back overlooks a bank, you see.'

Out of the corner my eye I see one of the technicians bustling towards us. An electrician, maybe: he's wearing gloves, and has a pair of pliers stuck in his belt. Farrar hears him coming, and spins round.

'Val,' says the man urgently. He stops, and jerks his head towards the set.

'Right,' says Farrar. 'Here I am.' As he hurries off, he calls back over his shoulder: 'But it's all right. She meets a nice policeman. Ask Duplicity for a leaflet about it, if you're really want to know.'

My puzzlement must be obvious. Nicky Weedon whispers:
'He means Publicity.'

Her voice is apologetic. I look at her. She's still blushing. Farrar's facetiousness embarrasses her, for some reason.

'Camera!' calls Maxted. The pimply boy holds his slate-board in front of the lens. The motor whirrs. 'Action!' Greta Szagy runs on to the set. The wretched woman is frantic now: she looks as if she's flying for her life, and when the dog appears she trembles and starts to cry. Afterwards she doesn't even look at Maxted, but slumps down on one of the bollards, her head in her hands.

'That'll do!' shouts Maxted. He levers himself out of his chair and drops on to the floor, landing with surprising nimbleness on the balls of his feet."

Cover of The Woman in the Picture

Faber and Faber (20 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 0571202764

Buy on Amazon