A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (28 page)

Your Charlie

P.S. Funny thing happened today. Not serious, but makes me wonder about the Indians.

P.P.S. Can’t think why you haven’t written.

Letter
7

Dearest Pippa –

Bloody jungle. It just doesn’t give up. Bloody clouds of flies and biting things and humming whatsits and for the first couple of weeks you think how extraordinary, well it doesn’t matter getting bitten, everyone else is, except Matt with his NASA US-Govt issue personal mosquito repellent and corned-beef face-protector. But they just go on and on and bloody on. After a while you just want the Jungle to take a day off. Go on, Jungle, it’s Sunday, knock it off, you want to shout as it rattles on 24 hrs per day. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not the Jungle it’s the film. You can feel the tension mounting. Matt and me getting edgier with one another off camera as well as on. The film’s all spilling over into the rest of the time. Even the Indians don’t seem so sure that I’m not Firmin all the time and Matt’s Antonio. It’s as if they think I’m
really
Firmin and then from time to time I just pretend to be this white man called Charlie. Really upside down.

Sunday. That thing about the Indians. To tell you the truth I was a bit miffed when I found out, but now I’m beginning to see it from their point of view. I told you I was learning the language – she’s really very sweet and not a stitch on but as I said no need to worry, angel, riddled with diseases I’m sure, apart from anything else, I mean. It turns out that half the words she’s been teaching me are all wrong. I mean, they’re real words except they’re not the right ones. The first thing I learned more or less was
thkarni
which means – well she said it meant – this white stork we’ve been seeing a lot of. So when we saw one go flapping by I used to shout
thkarni
and the Indians would all
laugh. Turns out – and I learned this not through Miguel but our second guide who hasn’t said much most of the trip – that
thkarni
is the Indians’ name – well, one of their many names, to be precise – for you-know-what. The thing up which the little fish in the river swims if you aren’t careful. Same goes for about half the words I’ve been learning from that little minx. I’ve learned about 60 I suppose overall and half of them are duds – naughty words or words for something completely different. I was majorly unpleased as you can imagine at the time but I think what it does show is that the Indians have got a terrific sense of humour. So I was determined to show them I could take a joke and the next time a big stork went over I pretended not to know what it was called and asked my girl.
Thkarni
she said with a straight face. I looked very puzzled and shook my head a lot and said No it can’t be
thkarni
because
this
is
thkarni
(no I didn’t pull it out or anything – just pointed). And then she knew the game was up and started giggling, and so did I to show there weren’t any hard feelings.

Monday. Getting near the end now. Just the big scene to do. Taking two days off first. I think that’s a silly decision by Vic but I expect he’s got the unions on his back. He says it’s a good idea to recharge the batteries before the big scene. I think if you’re on a roll you better go with the flow. It’s all right, honey, I don’t really talk like that, I do it to irritate Matt, though it usually doesn’t because he’s so thick-skinned and thinks everyone else talks like that anyway, so I guess I do it for my own private amusement. ‘Hey, Matt,’ I say to him, ‘we’re on a roll, let’s go with the flow,’ and he nods like some old prophet in The Ten Commandments. Anyway the plan is today and tomorrow off, then two days rehearsal for the capsizing of the raft, then Friday the big deal. Maybe Vic is right after all, we do need to be at our best. It’s not just doing it right it’s covering all the angles. We’ve got to have ropes on us as per contract in case anything happens. Don’t
worry
darling it’s not really dangerous. We’re doing some covering footage on a stretch of the river where there are some rapids, but the actual capsizing which is meant to happen there doesn’t really. The crew have got a
couple of machines which churn everything up to make white water and the chippie ran up some rocks which they anchor to the bottom of the river and look just like the real thing. So no need to worry. I’m quite looking forward to it though naturally we’ve had a few of the old arguments about it. What happens is that both the priests get tipped into the water, one of them hits his head on a rock and the other one rescues him. Point is, who does what? I mean, here are these two, fighting tooth and nail all the way upstream, there’s this huge split of doctrine going on, one of them very authoritarian and hardline (Me) and the other very permissive and soft on the Indians (Matt). I think it would be much more effective if the one who was meant to be the hardhat and who might be expected to let the other one drown in fact saves the other one even though he thinks his ideas about the Indians and his plan to baptise them when they get to the Orinoco are blasphemous. But no, it has to be
Matt
who saves
me
. Vic says that’s what’s historically the case, and Matt says that’s what was in the script he read back in Dudesville North Dakota or wherever he hangs his hat and that’s what he’s going to play. ‘
Nobody
rescues Matt Smeaton,’ he said. He actually said it, can you imagine? ‘
Nobody
rescues Matt Smeaton.’ I said I’d remember that if ever I found him dangling upside down by one toe from a ski-lift cable. So it’s all going to go ahead as per the script.

Tuesday. Another rest day.

Later

Later

Later

– love Charlie

Letter 8

Jesus Pippa. Jesus. I just couldn’t go on with that last letter. Jolly bits of news from each day’s shooting. Couldn’t go on with it, not after what happened. But I’m fine. Really I’m fine.

Later. Poor old Matt. Shit, he was a good bloke. Sure he
could get under your skin but so would St Francis of Assisi on a job like this. He’d have spent all his time looking at the bloody birds in the Jungle instead of reading his cue-cards. Sorry, love. Bad taste, I know. Just can’t find the way to put things. Very low. Poor old Matt. I wonder how you’ll hear the news and what you’ll think.

Jesus those fucking Indians. I think I’m going to die. I can hardly hold this biro. Sweating like a pig,
comme un porco
. God I do love you, Pippa, I just hold on to that.

C

Letter
9

I get out your photo with the chipmunk face and kiss it. That’s all that matters, you and me and having babies. Let’s do it, Pippa. Your mum would be pleased, wouldn’t she? I said to Fish do you have kids, he said yes they’re the apple of my eye. I put my arm round him and gave him a hug just like that. It’s things like that keep everything going, isn’t it?

It’s true what they say. Go into the Jungle and you really find out what people are like. Vic’s a whinger, always knew it. Whingeing on about the sodding film. I said don’t worry you can always sell your memoirs to the paper. He didn’t like that.

Why did they do it? Why did they do it?

love C

P.S. Wish you’d written. Would have helped now.

Letter 10

It could have been me. It could just as easily have been me. Who decides? Does anyone decide? Hey you up there in the sky, is anyone home?

I’ve been having this thought all day. I said to Old Fishy do you have kids and he said yes they’re the apple of my eye and we
just hugged each other right there in front of everyone and ever since I’ve been wondering what it means. The apple of my eye. What does it mean? You say words like that and everyone knows what they mean but when you look at them you can’t understand them. The film’s like that, the whole trip’s like that. You go along thinking you know exactly what everything is, and then you stop and look at it and it doesn’t make any sense and you think maybe it only made any sense in the first place because everyone was pretending it did. Does this make any sense? I mean it’s like the Indians and the fake rocks that the chippie ran up. They looked at them and looked at them and the more they did the less they understood. They started off knowing they were rocks and they ended up not knowing anything. You could see it in their faces.

I’m going to give this to Rojas now. He walked past a few minutes ago and said that’s the third letter you’ve written today why don’t you put them in the same envelope and save postage? I got up and you know I swear I turned into Firmin for a moment and I said, ‘Listen, Our Lady of Communications, I shall write and you will transmit as many fucking letters per day as I happen to feel like writing.’ Well Firmin wouldn’t have said fuck of course, but his tone was there. Sort of austere and pissed off with anything less than perfection in the world. Oh well, better go and say sorry, otherwise he’ll throw them all away.

– love C

Letter 11
Waiting for copter

Pippa love –

When we get out, I’m going to do the following things. Have the biggest fucking Scotch they can pour in Caracas. Have the biggest fucking bath they can pour in Caracas. Have the longest phone call I can have with you. I can just hear your voice answering the phone, as if I’ve been to the shop for some ciggies and I’m back late. Then I’m going to the British Embassy and get a copy of the Daily Telegraph and I don’t care if it’s weeks
old and I’m going to read something I never normally look at like the nature notes if they have them. I want to be told that the house-martins are nesting or you might see a badger if you’re lucky. Ordinary things that go on all the time. I’ll look at the cricket scores and pretend I’m some old member in from the shires with a striped blazer and a pink gin in his fist. Maybe I’ll read the births column as well. To Emma and Nicholas, a daughter, Suzie, sister to Alexander and Bill. Good old Alexander and Bill, I’ll say, now you’ve got little Suzie to play with. You must be gentle with her, you must protect her all your lives, she’s your little sister, you must make her the apple of your eye. God I’m crying Pippa, the tears are just streaming down my face.

love C

Letter 12
Caracas 21st July

Pippa love, I don’t believe it, I mean I just don’t believe it. We finally reach what we laughingly call civilization, we finally reach a telephone which is capable of handling transatlantic calls, I finally get my turn in the queue, I finally get through to home, and you’re out. ‘Number no answer, sir.’ Try again. ‘Number sti no answer, sir.’ Try again. ‘OK sir, number sti no answer.’ Where are you? I don’t want to ring anyone else. I don’t want to ring your mum and say look we had a spot of bother but now we’re back in Caracas and Matt’s dead, yes, you heard it on the news but I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to talk to you, honey, and I can’t.

Tried again.

Tried again.

All right, so I’ve got a bottle of Scotch which costs about 50 quid and if the studio doesn’t pay for it I’ll never work for them again, and a big pile of this flimsy hotel notepaper. The others have gone out on the town. I couldn’t face it. I keep remembering
the last night we were here – same hotel and all – and how Matt and I went out and got stinko-paralytico together and ended up doing the Zorba dance and got thrown out and Matt pointing at me and saying to the waiters Hey don’t you recognize Mista Rick from Parkway Peninsula and they didn’t and made us pay for the plates.

We’d had our rest days, just three days work left. The first morning we rehearsed in the white water, pretty gingerly I don’t mind saying. Vic and the crew were on the bank, Matt and I were on the raft with about a dozen Indians paddling and poling. Just to be on the safe side we had a long rope attached to the raft and tied round a tree on the bank so that if the Indians lost control the rope would pull it to a stop. Matt and I had ropes on us as per contract. So we did a run-through in the morning which was OK, then had an afternoon in the shallows with the churning machine. I thought we didn’t need another day of rehearsal but Vic insisted. So the second morning we all went out again only this time wearing radio mikes as well. Vic hadn’t decided whether to dub or not. The rope was attached to the tree, the crew set up on the bank, and we got ready to do three or four runs past the camera with Matt and me so busy arguing about baptising the Indians that we couldn’t see the danger behind us which the audience could see for themselves. I’ve thought about what happened next a million times and I still don’t know the answer. It was on our third run. We got the thumbs-up, started our argument and then noticed something odd. Instead of a dozen Indians on the raft there were only two, each with just a pole at the back of the raft. I suppose we thought Vic must have said try it this way because Matt and I were already into our quarrel and it shows what a pro he was to his fingertips that he carried on as per normal. So did I for that matter. Then at the end of the scene we noticed the Indians weren’t doing what they normally did which was stick their poles in to stop the raft. They were just poling away and Matt shouted ‘Hey, fellers, cut’ but they didn’t take any notice and I remember thinking maybe they’re testing the rope to see if it works, and Matt and I turned at just the same moment and saw
where the Indians were heading us – straight into a pile of rocks and foaming water – and I knew the rope must have broken or something. We shouted but what with the noise of the water and not knowing their language of course it wasn’t any use and then we were in the water. I thought of you as we capsized, Pippa, honest I did. Just saw your face and tried to think about you. Then I tried swimming, but what with the current and the fucking cassock – and then bang I got hit in the ribs like someone had kicked me and I thought I was a goner, it must be a rock I thought and I gave up and sort of passed out. What happened was that the rope they’d put on me suddenly pulled tight. I don’t remember anything else until I was on the bank throwing up water and puking in the mud while the sound-man thumped on my back and put his fists in my stomach. My line held, Matt’s line broke. That’s how it was, that’s my luck.

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