The Exploding Trousers – Part I

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“There we are, then,” Sandy said, standing back to examine his handiwork.

Hilton Ellis had been making an attempt to learn his lines, and he hadn’t noticed the transformation that had been taking place in the mirror under the make-up guy’s subtly flitting fingers. He looked up to find Adolf Dorkman, Mombasa pirate, scourge of the East coast and greasy B-movie sub-plot bad guy, staring bellicosely back at him.

“‘A rancid German adventurer’, it says,” Sandy continued as he consulted a copy of the script, which he had decorated with numerous little colour-coded tabs. “‘Mutton-chop whiskers, heavy black stubble, dirty white bandanna, eye-patch, lurid facial scar.’ Well, it’s what they said …”

“Director wants to know how it’s going,” said Rory the gopher at the door.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be ready,” said Sandy imperturbably, as he fussed with a strand of Adolf Dorkman’s lank hair.

Rory caught sight of Hilton. “Fuck me, you look like you eat live rats for breakfast.”

Hilton growled.

“Scary, dude,” the gopher said. “But keep it for the camera. And be on time tomorrow, okay? First assistant says he’ll tear you a new one if he has to wait.”

Hilton sent a sneaker flying, which Rory avoided deftly.

“Oh, and there’s a car coming for you this afternoon,” he added from the door. “They’re sending old Joshua.”

And laughing, as if this strange announcement should mean something to Hilton, he flew off on to his next mission.

Sandy, meanwhile, completed his work. These African adventure flicks were a trial when it came to the leading roles; colonial styles were so boring. Hilton’s character had at least been easy – he had a sort of sleazy colour to him. Brushing his hands together in the manner of a cook who had done his best with unpromising ingredients, he left to prepare for his work on the stars.

Hilton looked around his artist’s accommodation. It was a refurbished caravan, with his name on the door. The little star next to it announced that he’d made it to the next rung on the ladder. Still, it wasn’t the apartment on wheels that he’d imagined. It wasn’t a conveniently appointed lounge area, a kitchenette and well-stocked fridge, and a comfortable double bed. Indeed, it wasn’t anything like the gleaming new Winnebago implied by the words “artist’s trailer” in his contract. Instead, it was a weathered old Jurgens caravan that had clearly been left to stand in a backyard for some time. There were even patches in the rusting metal door that looked suspiciously as though they had once been bullet holes.

He’d been kept busy since he’d accepted the gig only a week before, and he hadn’t looked at the script in any detail until this morning. It lay on the dressing table, open at one of the scenes that he’d be playing. He leaned forward to read the words, and as he did so, the fearsome Adolf Dorkman leaned forward in the mirror to read them too.


Back at Speke Camp, at lunchtime, the rows of whitewashed bungalows were dreaming through a hot afternoon, and the canteen was offering meatballs with mashed potatoes and gravy – hardly suitable fare for a blazing day. Hungry and disgruntled, Hilton seized a couple of oranges and retired to his bungalow in a pique.

“From my window I have a view of the rather inhospitable game reserve camp where we have been accommodated,” he wrote in his diary. “The thermometer is hitting 40 Celsius as usual.”

He put down the pen. Writing his diary had become a necessity over the years, but it was hard in this heat. It was hard to think of anything to write about except the heat. He looked out of his window.

“What little shade there is lurks beneath the thorn trees that stand over the brick-built barbecues in a bleak central paved area,” he continued “A beaten red path winds sluggishly among the trees like a tired old python to a recreation area overlooked by a circle of high Msasa trees. An old trampoline hole full of spider webs yawns by an empty swimming pool, tiled in a florid fifties style and peeling slowly in the sun. If you climb the rusty steps of the high diving board, long emasculated of its projecting plank, you will be afforded a view of the surrounding Highveld savannah drifting in the heat, and beyond that, ranges of distant rocky outcrops and hills. I am in Africa, finally, after all these years …

“Which, I suppose, is why last night I dreamed that I was taking part in a weekly competition run by the old boy’s newspaper. It was old-fashioned treasure hunt. Father had warned me that I was disqualified from participation as the son of the editor, but to hell with that, I thought, if I won I’d claim the prize under an assumed name: Jack Brown, Lucky Johnson. The deception would be worth it. A grand prize, an all-expenses holiday in the Aegean islands would go to the person who first located the pot at the end of the rainbow.

“Following the weekly instructions in the newspaper, I visited places in the city of my youth. I drank a milkshake at the Doll House on Louis Botha Avenue. I stopped in at that solemn old apartment block on Claim Street where I used to go to ‘advanced liberal’ parties. I searched the pedestal of the bronze statue of the emaciated helmeted miner with his fist accusing the sky, which stands (I presume) at the beginning of the freeway to the airport. I examined the stone letterbox at the bottom of the garden of my father’s house in Houghton, with its view of the suburbs in the valley below. I visited the offices of a certain bookseller, which were located in a gloomy, turreted Gotham City-style art deco building downtown. I walked around the redbrick wings of the England-in-the-Veld school I attended. In each of these places I found clues.

“And a grand prize it would have been, too. But I woke up realising that it was a trick, that no one had noticed that each week’s search only led to more clues …”

Hilton put down his pen again. All this was very well, but what was really on his mind was the character he was playing.

“Now, putting two and two together,” Hilton wrote, “I see that Adolf Dorkman is my latest clue. But what can he possibly mean, and where will he lead?”

Hilton had seen the role as a step up, as the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the world of mainstream film. He’d persuaded himself that he’d look back on it with a degree of tolerant amusement one day, as the sort of thing one did to get a foothold. But he’d studied the script more closely now, and he was having qualms.

“God knows I’m no Olivier or Ustinov,” he wrote. “I can’t go round turning my nose up at jobs just because I don’t like them. Hopefully one day I will play roles worth playing – Uncle Vanya, even Professor Holly. Dear Diary, bear witness to the lines that I must say to get there:

SCENE 109. Mombasa dive. Day.

Floor view of Adolf Dorkman. He aims the
blunderbuss at the trio. Its fuse is smoking.

DORKMAN (heavy German accent)
Hold it!

Cut to

SCENE 110. Mombasa dive. Day.

Adolf Dorkman lurks in the shadows. He is in bad
shape. He is caked with dried mud from the landslide
and burned on one side of his face following his
misguided attempt to enter the Fire of Long Life.
He holds his blunderbuss in one bloodied hand.

DORKMAN (snarls)
Where is the Ruby of Great Wealth?”


Old Joshua arrived at the wheel of a highly polished car to fetch him later that afternoon. He was in his usual crisp white shirt and worn, well-pressed jacket.

“So where are we going?” Hilton said, as he made himself comfortable in the back seat of the car.

“Sir?” Joshua replied, glancing briefly into the mirror.

“Never mind,” Hilton said. Rory, in his typically elliptical fashion, hadn’t explained the purpose of the journey. Whatever the reason, it would be good to get out anyway.

Joshua swung the car out on to the road, which was little more than a strip of tarmac winding like a ribbon through a wild countryside. The bush in that part of the country was dotted with granite hills shaped like melons or gourds, half-buried in the ground. Others resembled grain bins and beer pots, or suggested the curved backs of antelope or lion. Among the stone hills, and among the stretches of high red grass, the tall palms and baobabs and mopani trees, stood columns of precariously balanced red standing stones. Here and there cliffs of rock emerged like castles in the bush and gave the impression of promising shelter. It was as if some giant child had been amusing himself there thousands of years before, using boulders as building bricks, and had been called inside.

Each outcrop had its own name in local memory, Hilton had learned from a ten-page mimeographed guidebook that had he had found in a drawer by his bed with a Gideon’s Bible. Some were named after lizards, others after leopards or anthills, yet others after events that had occurred there which no one now remembered – battles, trysts, moments of personal revelation that had turned ordinary men into heroes and chiefs. There was something desolate about this landscape; it wasn’t hard to see why a fevered imperial imagination might call these strange hills the Mountains of the Moon.

That man Cecil John Rhodes and his gang had signed his invidious peace with the Shona and the Ndebele somewhere among these hills, and somewhere here, too, the first white settlers had murdered King Lobengula. In more recent memory, these strange scattered humps and spines of red rock had seen some of the most uncompromising battles of the liberation war, which had ended barely ten years ago. And yet, despite all the centuries of human activity and despite all the energy of territorial assertion that had been expended here, the hills continued relentlessly the same, unmoved by human activity.

He wondered what the old man at the wheel had done during the war. Had he always been a chauffeur, or had he fought against the occupiers? Apart from the bullet holes in his caravan, Hilton hadn’t seen any signs of the war in this country. Not that he’d had much time to look around. He’d been caught up in the technical preparations for his scenes since he’d arrived, and he’d hardly left camp.

He wound down his window, suddenly wanting to feel the sun directly on his skin. The warm smell of the bushveld filled the car: long grass in the sun, dry red soil, animal droppings, the faint scents of wild flowers. He’d been noticing that smell over the past few days, but there’d been no time to savour it.

The warm breeze, and the sunlight pouring in through the open window, took Hilton back to memories of school trips long ago. He’d seen places as magnificent and strange as these Matopo Hills back then – the wild, the high red cliffs of the Golden Gate canyon, the grey grandeur of the Drakensberg mountains. He’d never seen anything in Europe that was conceived on the same scale – never seen places no human hand had shaped. Compared with this wilderness, even the Alps, seen through the porthole of an airliner, looked like a picture postcard.


A maroon-jacketed doorman opened the door when the car drew to a halt in front of the hotel, which looked rather like a Cotswolds mansion, although distinctively African touches were evident everywhere. The central part was a house of turrets and deep columned verandas in grandiose Sir Herbert Baker style, with mullioned windows, whitewashed walls and conical roofs. The African touches were in the rough thatch, the indestructible red stone plinth, the heavy olive-wood furniture on the veranda, the brown slate floor, the scenes of bush hunting on the walls of the lobby.

Sue-Jane, the assistant producer’s assistant, appeared. She was wearing her usual smart little business suit; she must have had a whole collection, all in the same cut and colour, in her wardrobe.

“Oh, there you are,” she said, as if search parties had been out looking for him for hours. “They’ll see you shortly.”

“Good,” Hilton said. He still didn’t know who he would be meeting, or why. “Um, who?”

The young woman glanced at her busy schedule. “You can wait in there,” she continued absently, waving her pen in the direction of the heavy double doors to one side of the lobby. “They’ll be down momentarily.”

Hilton wandered in and sat down at the old bar counter, which looked as solid as if it had been carved from a single massive tree trunk. The bar was a large, a dim, wood-panelled room with a view of the garden. Private bungalows and rondavels were scattered around a well-maintained lawn and connected by walkways lined with wisteria. Surrounded by a ring of thatched sun shelters, a swimming pool glinted in the bright sunshine. The whole place breathed peace, order, security. Here, the good life that could be wrested from a harsh continent was on discreet display.

“Would you like a drink, sir?” said the barman.

Hilton ordered a Diet Coke. There’d been some fuss and bother this week, during the technical preparations for his scene, about his unexpected girth, and it had made him self-conscious. Film people, it turned out, were obsessed with good looks. This was true even of those whose station in the scheme of things was quite humble (Rory the gopher, for instance). Hilton had seen dozens of beautiful bodies walking around during the past week and none of their owners had been stars, or even actors.

The barman poured Hilton’s beverage and set it in front of him with a deft gesture. He was a very fit-looking young man in a white T-shirt that set off his dark skin.

“Visiting, sir?” he said.

“I’m with the shoot,” said Hilton. “The film, you know.” Something about the man – his confident physicality, perhaps – made Hilton want to impress, and he added: “I’m playing a featured role.”

“Really?” said the barman. “So you’re earning big money.”

Hilton picked up the implication straight away, of course – this was Africa. It was true that the fee Hilton was being paid – or would be; he hadn’t seen a nickel yet – was astronomical compared with the modest monthly cheque that covered his living expenses back in Amsterdam. Compared with what the stars would be earning, though, it was a mere drop in the ocean.

“I wouldn’t say ‘big’, exactly,” Hilton replied. “For me it’s a lot, I suppose. I won’t be able to take much of it with me. I’ll have to spend it here.”

“Well, if you need anything, I can help,” said the barman. “You know, whatever.”

Hilton was saved from having to thank him by Sue-Jane, who appeared at the door of the bar.

“Ready?” she said. “They’re waiting.”

“See you,” Hilton said to the barman, as he slipped off the high chair. But the man nodded cynically in reply.


A table had been laid by the pool under the cool, protective shadow of one of the thatched sun shelters. It was covered with a crisp white linen tablecloth. Hilton couldn’t help noticing that the fare was of a much higher quality than the food they shovelled out in military quantities in the camp canteen. There were dishes of succulent-looking cold cuts, bowls of potato and green salad, loaves of brown and white bread, decanters of fresh orange juice, several bowls of fruit and nuts, a range of soft drinks and sparkling waters, even a couple of bottles of Veuve Cliquot chilling in silver buckets.

Three people were sitting on long chairs in the shade nearby. He recognised two of them, even behind their sunglasses: Dick Woodman, who was playing Leo, and Isabella Salazar, who was playing Ayesha. Hilton didn’t know the third member of the party, a heavy-set, scowling man in a florid summer shirt.

“He’s here now, sir,” said the assistant. She consulted her clipboard in an unnecessary way that made Hilton want to strangle her. “Mr Ellis.”

“Great,” said the heavy man impatiently, as if it was he who had been kept waiting. “Okay, Sue-Jane, you can go.” He punted a fourth long chair in Hilton’s direction with a sandalled foot. “Take a seat.”

Hilton sat down on its edge, suddenly cautious. Had he done something to cause offence? He was sure he hadn’t; he’d been too busy to get into trouble.

“Good to see you, Ellis,” said the heavy-set man. “You’ll be working with Dick and Issa here. It’s an important scene. They wanted to meet you.”

It dawned on Hilton that he was talking to the great man himself – Roger Bannerman. Hilton had heard much about him back at the camp, of course, and he’d even, purely by chance, seen some of his films. Roger Bannerman was a phenomenon in the film world. Zeppelin LZ2, his first major feature, a romantic epic about an airship bombing raid over London during the First World War, had gone massively over budget and been greeted with derision by the world’s critics, but it had achieved a huge box office. After that Bannerman had turned in two further budget-busting blockbusters, Messerschmitt 109 and Mig-19, both of which had scored multiple Raspberries but grossed millions.

Most people with a track record of critical suspicion like that would have been directing regional sitcoms or biker flicks for a living, but the director had a quality that everyone in the business wanted, but few possessed: he could reach a mass audience. This gave him immense power. Acting careers flourished or failed, suppliers of services turned profits or went bust, technicians got paid the premium rates working an A-list blockbuster or found themselves doing low-budget monster movies in Montana – all on his say-so. “The man’s as close to God as you’ll ever get in this life,” Slim Doogin, the stunt coordinator, had said. “If you ever meet him – try not to tick him off.”

“Welcome,” said Isabella, taking off her sunglasses. “I hear you are a wonderful artist.”

It was hard to believe that she was there in the flesh. Her slightly olive skin was smoother than Hilton would have believed possible, her long dark hair simply arranged in tresses over her shoulders. Her eyes were unsettling; they could have been blue or green, depending on the light, or how she turned her head. When he shook her hand he noticed a scent in the air that was light and rich and many-layered. There were hints in it of musk, absinthe, lemon, jasmine, patchouli, and underneath these a trace of white linen worn lightly on a summer’s day.

It was a scent that suggested graceful, creeper-covered apartments with tremendous views of glittering blue bays, white towelling robes on a well-exercised body, clothes always fresh or new, the attentions of A-rated hairstylists, voice coaches, body coaches, hot-stone masseurs and personal assistants, a busy and rewarding work schedule, a chef-cooked vegetarian diet and regular deep sleep. It was the scent of a life devoted to the service of beauty. It was a scent that could change the balance of forces in a room.

Hilton wasn’t sure how to reply to so extravagant a compliment, let alone when it came from a woman who was being talked about as the next Julia Roberts.

“You agree, then?” she said, a little mockingly.

Hilton cleared his throat.

“You do not believe you are an artist?”

“Um, no … Yes … Well.”

Hilton reminded himself that she was, like him, an ordinary human being – that she digested food, drank water, had sex and suspended her arse over the toilet, just like other people. The men, he noticed, observed the exchange with the tilted heads of men who had been through the same ordeal themselves once. Hilton willed his mind to action.

“I’ve never worked on a film as big as this,” he said at last. “I’m sure I have a lot to learn.”

Images of the micro-budget art movies featuring nudity and scatology that he’d done back in Amsterdam rolled across his mental screen.

“A diplomatic answer,” said Dick Woodman. “I’m sure you’ll do well.”

He looked as good as he did on the screen, if rather older than Hilton remembered him in the period productions that had made him famous: The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel, flicks like that, Sunday afternoon fodder. His jawline was still as taut as it had been in his heyday.

“Great, introductions over,” said the director. “Let’s eat.”

He waved a hand, and a waiter in a white shirt appeared like a genie, as if he had been conjured out of nowhere.

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