Who's Who 13: A Swing and a Ms

She sat beside his bed. A weak coffee clutched in her hand, when she liked it strong. She’d asked for it strong. Very strong. Incredibly strong. So strong it could’ve beaten her in an argument. Instead they’d handed her something milky enough to be mistaken for a late breakfast.

There were lipstick traces around the rim of the mug when she wasn’t wearing any. She kept catching herself checking the nurses, looking for one with patchy crimson lips.

Her father was still as stone. His eyes closed. A tube down his throat. Wires taped to his chest. Drips in his arm. If she allowed herself to relax into the shock, it was easy to think of this as just another role. He’d joked, as he aged, that it’d be medical dramas and daytime doctor soaps for him. Well, here he was. Thanks to her. She’d pulled strings. She’d called in favours. It was meant to be a treat.

He said he took his pills, she thought. Why lie about that?

Doctors flitted by. Nurses checked his notes like they were furtively searching for treasure hunt clues. A porter appeared, jittery in his large frame, porky fingers fidgeting.

“I just wanted to see if it’s him.”

“It is.”


It took him a second to hear the inappropriate awe that’d escaped past his manicured beard.

“I mean, obviously, this isn’t…it’s just…my mum loved that movie. I must’ve seen it a hundred times.” Darting eyes inspected large feet. “I haven’t seen him in much recently. Apparently he’s in that horror thing they’re shooting at the old dock.”

“That was the plan.”

She set her outcast coffee on the tray over her vacant father. Next to the full jug, empty glasses and her obese handbag.

“Who’s he playing?”

“Undead pirate four, I think.”

“Right.” The pity he cast her father turned her stomach. “Suppose I best be going.”

He scuttle-lumbered off, leaving her with her anger. She watched the waxwork impression in the bed closely. He’d pitched a fit when she’d told him about this. She’d received the latest riff on his greatest hit.

I was in a movie directed by James Arlington. James Arlington! I can’t play some bloody zombie.

At home, he kept a large poster of The Burial framed over his bed. There he was, caught in late seventies pomp, like an insect trapped in amber. A sweeping, swooning, romantic version of himself clasping Vanessa Arlington. Daughter of the director, star of the film. She’d won plenty of awards for that performance.

If you spoke to anyone in the industry, you’d know Ness (as simply everyone called her) had wanted her daddy to cast a co-star who came with the right accent but wouldn’t get in the way of her act three monologue.

The man in the bed still refused to believe that. As she’d dropped him at the set this morning for make-up he’d announced Nessie had sent him a card.

“Did she get your age right this time?”

“It’s the thought that counts.”

He was always making excuses for her, but perhaps that’s where this started. His pride festering as he was slowly transformed into the undead. The director who wouldn’t listen a word Undead Pirate 4 had to say. The lead character, who she’d later learnt was called Vanessa. A tall woman with dark hair. Not unlike Vanessa Arlington if you hadn’t taken your medication.

The blunt, weighty sword on his hip. All that historic costume they’d piled on him. So authentic that museums were wincing over the fight scenes.

The young woman running from him, not too far from where they’d filmed those final moments back in the seventies. Ness pushing him away and diving into the harbour, never to be seen again.

They’d played that scene over and over again at awards shows. Each time, she came away with another glittering little friend. Each time, she never thanked him in her speech. Always her father, never him.

He’d joked once, drunk after a family wedding, that his character had got to the end with as much right to kill himself. I should’ve jumped off the ruddy pier. My Oscar was in that filthy water.

She’d heard the crew whispering down in A and E about the already infamous take. The mist thick and stirring. The light casting sharp shadows. ‘Vanessa’ running into a maze of packing crates. The camera creeping close as she hid. Then an expected figure steps out of the gloom and swings his sword at her.

The poor girl was still two floors down, having her stitches applied.

The milky coffee was taken away. Another replaced it. More people took notes about the frail old body in the bed. Some of them spoke to her. A couple said The Burial was their mother’s favourite film. In the end, she was forced to retreat, using the excuse that time was still running at normal speed beyond these white walls. The kids would be home soon. They’d need someone to explain all this to them. She kissed her father’s frigid forehead before setting off.

A while later, after the ward settled down for the night, those heavy eyelids finally parted. The eyes they revealed looked, for all the world, as if they belonged to some grim, desolate pirate. It wouldn’t be long before she was called back to the hospital.