James Roderick Burns’ work has appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, La Piccioletta Barca and TheYorkshire Journal. His story ‘Trapper’ (Funicular) was nominated for Pushcart 2020, and ‘Scotus’ a finalist for the 2021 JF Powers prize. His first short story collection, Beastly Transparencies, is due from Eyewear later in 2021. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.
The New New Colossus, or All Aboard!
1 ‘IT’S PRONOUNCED PRATTLE, by God! How many times do I have to tell you people?’ The newshound looked on impassively, rolling a damp cheroot from one side of his mouth to the other. He checked Stella’s cheat-sheet (again) for this contract duo’s stage name: Globe & Pratfall. Or Prattle, he supposed. McIntyre sighed round the end of his cigar. ‘Now yo’ve got me started,’ the lanky one continued – the other sat silent as a fireplug, beefy hands locked around a cup of coffee – ‘an while it’s true he does look a mite portly – alright, a bit more than a mite – so that his name seems to fit, it ain’t nothing whatsoever to do with that. It’s a fine old Scottish moniker, see, what his people brought over from the glens and mountains and that there. Globe, ya know. Look it up.’ There was a momentary, welcome interruption, then another voice intruded. ‘Shove over sideways, Mac. Need a better angle. Yeah, that’s it.’ The newshound’s sidekick leant over for a better shot, flash-bulb poised, the arm of his camera reaching in like a metal finger and dimpling his colleague’s hat. ‘Davis – hey! Tryin to work, here.’ ‘Sorry, Mac. All done.’ He nodded and grinned. ‘See ya back at the roost.’ McIntyre fiddled for a minute, taking off his hat and fingering it into shape, before getting comfortable again on his side of the booth. The skinny one – Prattle, by God – was still leaning out into no man’s land, fingers waving around like some undersea beast feeling the way out of its lair. The fat one remained inert, jammed up against the mirror at the far end, hands bound everlastingly to cup. His fingers, thick as sausages, bristled with dense black hair that crawled up and over his knuckles. More than he had left up top, the journalist thought, sourly. What a pair. One high falutin streak-of-piss, running over at the mouth, and his husky silent pal. Still, something was keeping him here, beyond his editor’s deadline. Most likely the looks he’d get from Stella, who’d booked this thing in for her Movie Madness slot, and wouldn’t take kindly to having to write up some other bit of substitute fluff at this late stage. He sighed again, manoeuvring the smoke around into the business position. Flipping his notebook open to a virgin page he tipped his hat and cracked a phoney smile. ‘So, fellas,’ he said. ‘Globe & Pratfall. What’s that all about?’ 2 ‘And? What did you think?’ ‘About what?’ ‘Those two movie klowns, you klutz – what the hell else?’ They were in bed, after hours, the copy put to bed and nothing on but a lamp in the corner. Stella’s shoulders poked from under the coverlet. She’d done her nails, and one set of pink piggies was gently taking the air. McIntyre tugged at his undershirt. The damn thing was damp, with no pocket, and he had no place to lodge his smoke. How come she always looked so cool? For that matter, how did she always plough through his prose and make it come out snappy every time? ‘Well, if you must know, I thought they were hiding something. Maybe several somethings, under all that yak and silence. Like some secret, some revelation.’ He accented the last word so she would see it in sixty point type. ‘Oh – do tell! Why wasn’t this in the piece?’ He reached down to pull on a sparkling toe nail, but the piggy promptly retreated to safety. McIntyre put light to another cheroot. ‘Are you saying my piece blew, Stella, that it? You coulda done the damn thing yourself, and saved me the bother.’ ‘Now, Mac, who’s being a baby, and who’s really interested, like a professional? I didn’t say it blew – it was a bit soft here and there, sure, but what isn’t? I got the magic pencil, after all – but hell, now you’ve got me really interested. What did you mean?’ ‘I don’t know.’ He waited for a moment to see if a pout might pay dividends, but nothing doing. ‘Well, take the two of them. All at odds physically, like that other pair – you know, limey and fat boy. Whatsisname, Georgia.’ ‘Yeah, I know.’ She smiled her editor’s flat, indulgent smile. ‘So one’s tall and rangy, right, like an electric string-bean, and the other’s sorta squat and hairy, like something outta the woods. Not just physically, either; personally too. The big lunk never said word one, just sat there nipping at his coffee now and then, watching the shadows lengthen in the mirror. The other one talked like a happy-dust freak, hands all over the place, going at it lickety-split and never shutting up. I barely got a word in edge-wise.’ ‘So?’ ‘What d’ya mean, so?’ ‘I mean so far, so what. They’re a couple of oddballs. Gimme the juice. What were they hiding?’ ‘Well,’ he said again, leaning back and taking a long contemplative drag. ‘That’s the question now, isn’t it? Grant the fact they knew I was a reporter, and that what reporters do – depending on how friendly they are, with yours truly the friendliest, most sincerest hound in the pack, you understand – is to pick up on the interesting stuff they’re trying to hide away, blow up the pre-packaged crap and see what surfaces. I don’t know, though. I can’t quite put my finger on it. They didn’t play the game, is all I do know.’ She raised an eyebrow and reached for his smoke. ‘Unseemly.’ ‘Blow it out your ass. So what you’re saying is, they didn’t yield to your charms, right? Didn’t melt like a pat of butter under the hot, thrusting knife of your interrogation?’ ‘Now you’re just being unnecessary. Wrong, too. They did the usual – dance round the soft spots, fence the hard questions, wedge in all that tired hoo-ha about art. But the one I couldn’t shut up, and the other might as well’ve been dead for all the juice I got out of him.’ ‘So maybe they aren’t that interesting. Take the other pair. Fatboy likes the ladies, I’ve heard, and the limey’s never off set. Always tinkering around, never satisfied, and his buddy’s itching for the links. Maybe you should talk to them instead.’ McIntyre remained still. In the quiet they heard the crackle of his tobacco touching a knuckle, the mad honk of a passing automobile. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I think I’ll stick with them. Find out what makes them tick. Might even go for a feature.’ She raised an eyebrow and in a feat of limber athleticism, poked her piggies up under his vest. They said no more about it that evening. 3 ‘Newsroom.’ He picked up the receiver with one hand while the other kept on pecking at the keys. He was expecting to hear from Ivy Close, an English starlet he’d interviewed Monday for a mini-feature on the international draw of Hollywood. She was from Stockton, she’d said, giggling, only not the one was familiar with. As he put the phone to his ear, he was sure he was about to hear all about the glories of some piddling English town, so splendid and charming he simply must hop a steamer and see it for himself. But instead a man’s voice, gruff and resonant, came bulling down the line. ‘Hello? I was trying to reach Mr McIntyre.’ ‘This is McIntyre. How can I help you?’ He sat up and yanked his tie straight, running a hand through his mop and trying to put a little authority into his voice. This guy sounded like business. ‘Ah, Mr McIntyre – yes. Thank you so much for taking my call. This is Alvin Bugge, at the studio.’ He didn’t need the name. ‘Yes, Mr Bugge! Hello. Yes, sir. How can I be of assistance?’ There was the whump of a desktop humidor, and after a significant moment, the snick of a heavy lighter. ‘I believe you’ve written a short – ah, piece – on two of my contract players. I’ve read it, of course; I like to keep up to date with all my people, and I do so admire your style. Furthermore, your editor mentioned you intend to pursue a longer series on them, their work as well as the usual personality material. Is that correct?’ Was this guy in bed with them last night? He briefly pictured smacking each little piggy with a boot-heel, till they gave up the ghost. ‘Ah, yes, Mr Bugge, that’s right. My editor has approved a series on Globe & Pratfall. A fascinating act, I must say, and thank you for the compliment.’ ‘Think nothing of it, Mr McIntyre. It’s no more than the truth.’ ‘So, yes. A feature, over a few editions possibly. Did my editor outline the general feel of the thing?’ ‘Admirably.’ ‘Then – ah, how might I help?’ ‘A very good question.’ McIntyre thought he heard the man run a hand down his vest, possibly the crackle of expensive cloth adjusting itself. Perhaps he was just cracking up. ‘Those fellows are indeed rather interesting. A profitable investment for the studio, I should say, at least in the long-term. A definite investment in art right away. Yet I have – what should I say? A trifling reservation.’ ‘Oh – what sort?’ ‘The sort that costs money, Mr McIntyre. In my business, the worst possible kind. Ambition, in short. Now you have met them, I should be very grateful if you could bear in mind that the talkative partner – Mr, ah, Pratfall – can occasionally overreach himself, and the silent partner, Mr Globe, often fails to restrain his colleague’s enthusiasms.’ ‘Does this have anything to do with my feature?’ ‘Oh, no! And yet, perhaps. I was merely calling to afford you a little inside knowledge of the pair, and advise, perhaps caution, you to temper Mr Pratfall’s wilder speculations with a dose of journalistic caution.’ ‘Not a problem, sir; no problem at all. Thank you for the tip-off.’ Bugge purred for a moment longer, then the line cleared. McIntyre leant back in his chair, then snapped to all of a sudden and stuffed a fresh sheet of paper into the machine. He had just begun typing when the phone rang again. He loosened his tie, picked up. ‘Ivy! How lovely to hear from you – ’ 4 A few days later, and surprisingly early – Stella had warned him to ditch his preconceptions about movie people – he found himself on a sound stage, or a set or whatever they called the damn thing, working at a paper cup of coffee and a crippling hangover. They’d had it out the day before, over Bugge and her indiscretions. For once they hadn’t tumbled into bed at the finish but parted with a round of curt remarks, and no worries about letting the sun go down on their anger. He’d headed back to his apartment with a fifth and an ice-pick. He wasn’t sure where she had ended up, and at this point he didn’t care. ‘Just make sure you get the good stuff,’ she said before he slammed out. ‘I gotta bunch of slots to fill, and audiences can’t seem to get enough of these duos, even the lame ones. The good stuff, Mac.’ Even angry, up on her high-horse, she was still fetching, damn her. He dabbed at his throbbing forehead with a handkerchief. Perhaps a little lean against this two-by-four might settle things down. The wood was stiff but sort of slippery-cool, and reclining he laid his neck against a fat wedge of plaster. ‘Hey, buddy!’ An insistent Asian man was barking in his ear. He wore a white cap, a tight golfing shirt, and the muscles flexed in his forearms as he moved. McIntyre’s brow creased again; his eyebrows shot up. ‘Wh – what, now?’ ‘Move yer ass, if you please – sideways, backways, don’t care. Gotta get the shot set up and it don’t include you.’ McIntyre groaned, unpeeling himself from the scenery, and staggered into the dark. It was some trompe-l’oeil sort of thing, he noticed, as the man wheeled it by; lumpen and crude sailing past your face, but ever more elegant as it receded. An arched doorway, with a hint beyond of a room down a short hall, some kind of painted sunlight spilling onto wood. He liked it, but it wasn’t around long enough to really admire. The technician bumped past and steered it round a corner, a slight smile on his face. McIntyre sat down on the rim of a barrel, his ass numb but grateful for the perch. In the dimness he closed his eyes and let the coffee do its work. Maybe some of that old movie magic would rub off and he’d wake up someplace else, on another day, with the damn feature written and Stella finally off his back. He smiled himself, but it didn’t last. A moment later a series of high, sharp cracks rang around the place and the biggest lights he’d ever seen came on overhead, to the sides, and right in front of him; in rumpled suit and dented hat, he felt like a bug wandering over the wedding-cake. He stood up, aligning the visitor pass with his tie-clip (why did he bother?) and buffing the tops of his shoes on the relatively clean cloth of each calf. After a minute McIntyre looked around and realised no one was watching him, or cared about how he looked. No one, indeed, seemed to know he was there. He looked at his watch – yes, ten on the dot, just like Pratfall said; in fact quarter after – and Pratfall was nowhere to be seen, with Globe absent, too. About a thousand technical types dashed about, adjusting the artificial world till its crooked edges aligned, the flat patches of colour and splashes of light were set at their correct angles. He walked head-on towards the open door, dumping his cup and looking round in wonder. Behind him, smells of dust and plaster lingered. He barely heard the thousand footsteps, rattling castors and squeaking joints as the set guys levered everything into place. He walked open-mouthed into a country house, and smiled. McIntyre could almost smell the polish wafting up from the wooden floor. Somewhere, no doubt, a lithe, spirited young woman was reclining on a couch, raising one decorous arm, perhaps yawning like a cat. A butler was off stage polishing the silver, and the whole scene waited on someone’s pleasure. Whose might that be? Why his, of course! He smiled like an idiot and padded over to the door. ‘Hey!’ The same technician appeared and grabbed his elbow, rammed him off set. ‘Thanks, Mac. Out with you. And stay out.’ The man pointed to a door – this one real, dinged with nicks and scratches like a gangster’s steely chops – before propelling McIntyre through it with one unyielding forearm. ‘Have a nice day, now.’ On the other side the world was calm, dull and dim. He looked around him, and what he’d assumed must be a back way out of the warehouse, even off the lot, was in fact another connected room, this one tall and skinny with a barren, neglected look. As his eyes adjusted he saw Globe and Pratfall balancing like mannequins on the top and bottom of an enormous spiral staircase. ‘Boys,’ said McIntyre, falling gracelessly into a canvas chair. ‘You mind?’ He did not, in fact, care if they minded. The canvas was baggy and moulded itself to his skinny shoulders like a grandmother’s embrace. ‘Never mind.’ He wasn’t sure they heard him, and was happy enough to sit, though missed the blinding celestial vision of the country house in this shabby annexe. The two of them remained still, poised between railings, Globe on a squat metal platform at the foot, Pratfall at the top, arms draped through twisted fleur-de-lys iron shapes. As he peered, he could see they were in fact moving; not quickly, or decisively, but with a stealthy persistence, from angle to angle round the stair, pushing at the metal, testing its give. Suddenly Globe sprang to his feet and jumped, once, in place. The platform gave a satisfying bong, but didn’t move. Pratfall waited a beat, then extracting his arms from the metalwork, jumped in similar fashion, as though a wave of unstoppable motion had finally reached him. ‘Good?’ Globe said. His voice was low and rough, more a grunt than anything else, a hound-dog patted for picking up the trail. ‘Yep.’ Pratfall’s he knew, though this curt version was something of a revelation. The man was intent, waiting like a pond-skater for all the ripples in the surface tension to reach him, then stroked the handrail and bounced down to ground level. ‘Mr McIntyre,’ he said with a half-sneer. ‘Gracing us with your presence?’ ‘Well – ah, yeah, you know. This is the time, right? Where we agreed to meet, and all?’ Globe nodded but contributed nothing further. He set off round the back of the staircase, whose fastenings he now appeared to be loosening from the earth – great bolts clanging up into the platform, the sound huge, piercing – and when he was finished, pulled its entire thirty-foot span around in a circle, pushed it towards the back of the room. ‘Sure is, bub. Still interested?’ McIntyre had just watched a man disassemble one significant aspect of a country pile, ordinarily fixed and unmoving, before shooing it from the room. How could he not be? 5 ‘We’re done here for now. Let’s get a cuppa coffee.’ ‘And – Globe?’ ‘Don’t worry bout him. He’s got shit to be doing. Follow me.’ They walked into deeper gloom at the back of the space, where Globe had disappeared with his machine, and an enormous hinged door appeared. Pratfall moved to the right, pushing at a smaller man-sized cut out, and they were back in the hanger-like studio. Globe was nowhere to be seen, but the staircase had already migrated into place, bridging two stories of the country house. Pratfall nodded. ‘Later.’ They came to a side-door, which he rather curiously held open like a suitor for his lady, then they were out in the glaring sun. ‘Goddamn furnace.’ Pratfall took out a pair of flat black sun-glasses, tucked his head into his chest. ‘Come on, bub, before we get roasted. Lightin film’s the only thing it’s good for.’ McIntyre’s head began to spin with the heat and the heady mix of contrary impressions. The morning was not turning out as he had expected, yet he still had little for the notebook, and Stella – blast her eyes – would be waiting when he finally crawled back to his apartment. She wouldn’t have her hand out; wouldn’t need to. ‘Hey, Pratfall – hold up.’ The taller half of the duo was already fifty yards away, barrelling like a horny rooster for the moist dark of the chicken-coop. He didn’t look up, and McIntyre had to scuttle just to catch him. Around a giant pair of scaly legs, seemingly abandoned in front of a wall painted like a blue sky, then a handcart stacked with boxes of dusty boots, and Pratfall was gone again. A swing door was whooshing shut, and McIntyre caught it just before the rubber seals clapped to. He went into the cool and dark. A whistle from the back and he saw his man, hat in hand and glasses off, ordering at a zinc bar on the far side of the room. McIntyre walked over slowly and fell into a chair. ‘Coffee?’ Sure – who cared? His head was a little better, but his eyes felt like the last few pithy strands of orange peel strung over a trashcan. He closed them again. As he lay back in the arch of the seat, his notebook jutted from his pocket. Who cared about that, either. At least the light in here was soft. He supposed he’d have to try and make the best of it. A few minutes later, Pratfall sat down opposite. ‘There y’are, boy. Coffee. What am I supposed to call ya, anyways? I already got through bub and feller, but you must hava handle you prefer,’ ‘Mac. Mac’s fine, Mr Pratfall.’ ‘Aw never mind all that stage-show shit. Get it right in the articles, mind you, don’t get me wrong, but call me Gene.’ ‘Gene, then. Gene it is.’ ‘Mac.’ ‘Gene.’ They both smiled. ‘You wanna know why I got you away from all that there – sets, lights an everything?’ ‘Globe – what’s his name, if you don’t mind my asking?’ ‘He’s Globe. Don’t you wonder, though, Mac? I mean, I read your gal’s fluff pieces like anyone else in the trade, an I’m glad she’s pullin in the payin folk, know what I mean? But she don’t exactly seem fond of the trade itself. More personalities, money an all that shit. I thought you and I could jaw bout something a bit more interestin.’ ‘Well, she’s not exactly my gal, but okay.’ ‘You don’t say? Seemed pretty chummy on the old ’phone to me.’ He raised one eyebrow and flashed a quick comic wiggle through the wrinkles on his forehead. Mac could see the appeal, and wondered if he’d spent time in Vaudeville before heading west. With that face, he could certainly hold an audience captive in the gods. ‘So what’s the deal with you and Mr – ah, with you and Globe? You said back in the diner he doesn’t like to talk, prefers to get on with the business. You, however, seem like a champion talker to me. Why the double act at all?’ Gene leaned back in his chair, his long body arching over the rounded aluminium, arms stretching out wide, then snapped back straight and took up his coffee. ‘That, sir, demands a long answer, and one I can’t entirely give – not today, anyways.’ He gestured with the rim of his cup towards the dormant notebook, and McIntyre uncapped his pen. ‘For the record, see, Globe is a genius. No two ways about it. The things he can do with his hands, his face, his body, on film, off it, on stage, whatever. No one can touch him. I’m just riding his coat-tails. But he don’t like to talk about nothin at all, and that’s fine with me.’ ‘What do you mean, things? Like what?’ Gene sipped, curling his hands tightly around the porcelain (a bit like his partner, McIntyre noted). ‘Take this staircase, here. Country house, right? Nice place. You saw the illusion. Dame’s in the parlour, all dolled up, drinking hot tea and whatnot outta little fancy cups, butler’s polishin the silver, the whole nine yards. Not sure where the man of the house is, quite yet, but the gag boys’re workin it out. Anyways, this is a short, right? Not a feature, nothing too fancy, but Bugge wants his money’s worth and figures the bigger the better, if it’s a hit it might make a series, even a full picture. I think he fancies himself a bit of a lord, you know, but he ain’t too high and mighty to take a few pot-shots at them people. So Globe an me, we’re outta the writin loop – boys keep themselves to themselves; we’re lucky if we see the script the day before we shoot – but Bugge puts round this memo statin how, in his humble opinion, the picture should be both ‘humorous and affectionate’, whatever the hell that means. Like, are we sendin up these posh clowns, or not? So in this scenario me and Globe’s the handymen trying to fix things up some in the old pile, maybe before the man of the house comes back from the war, or some shit. I don’t know.’ All very interesting, Mac thought. The guy had a way with words his partner was sorely lacking. But what was so special about it, after all that? ‘So we’re hangin round while they’re changing the lights for the early stuff, see – wifey all broken up but not showing nothin in front of the butler – and we hear them two gag-boys chewin over how can they make somethin frackin funny without being cruel to the nobs, ya know. Like the funnin comes outta the hurtin, right? And Globe, he pulls me aside, says, “Gene, I gottan ideer for dis, no problem.” An I says, “Ideer? What sorta ideer?” An he says, “A good wun, see. I know it’ll work. If I get it it up and runnin, will you talk to them boys?” An I says, “You know I will, bub, you know I will.” So he nods and smiles, sorta low, like, and off he goes. We was finishin up this morning when you come in.’ Mac took a long drink of his cooling brew, none the wiser. ‘And?’ ‘Whatta ya mean, and? Ain’t it obvious?’ McIntyre held up his notebook, a big curly question mark doodled over the page. ‘Humour me.’ Pratfall sighed. He drained his cup and pushed it aside, stretched out his arms as though he was going to pump someone’s hand, or maybe pick up a baby for a politician’s kiss. He grew still and his eyes burned into McIntyre’s. ‘I’d tear you one off right now, Mac, if I thought you was tryin it on, but I don’t. I figure Mr Sourmash is still in charge of yer head, and that’s alright, but listen up – brush away them cobwebs, now. I only needed to hear this once and I knew it would work, and I also knew I couldn’t have thought of it in a million years. Globe, though – well, I don’t know if what he does is thinkin or just doin. But it took him maybe two minutes to sell me on it – that, and a few other things.’ Gene arched his eyebrow. ‘So, the staircase. What, you may say, is so damn special about it? Well think about what it does. The thing winds up, bottom to top, and sorta conveys whoever’s on it from one state to another, right? First floor to second, downstairs to upstairs. Nothing to it, right? Wrong. That’s Globe’s genius right there. It don’t just convey somebody somewheres, it kinda transports ‘em, ya know – the lady, goin upstairs, to get a view down the drive where hubby maybe’s on his way; she feels hopeful, now. The butler, he spends his time with the motley crew downstairs, right, walks up her ladyship’s morning tray, he’s going up in the world, even for a minute – he’s on his way. Well what if we come in to fix this shuggly thing – steps is broke, maybe, railings out, or some shit else (it don’t matter) and now we’re loopin and swayin and wobblin round in place, but can’t get up, down or nothing else – then the lady she sees it and feels better, and the butler sees it and maybe takes some funnies out, too. That way we ain’t rippin on the nobs or the servants, but givin em both something to laugh at. It’s like healing, Globe says. The thing’s hinged in the middle and he and I are goin ta hang on for dear life while it swings around the set with our balls in the wind. That’s what I mean about Globe. Them gag boys took about a second to get on board, and we’re shootin this afternoon.’ As he talked, McIntyre’s thumping head began to recede. He could see the clean space of the country pile’s hallway, door standing inwards, the lady somewhere behind it, perhaps the butler’s shadow breaking the bars of sun on the wooden floor. Then into that calm, sad space come these two lunatic clowns – one cranky, pop-eyed and garrulous, the other a silent fireplug – both revolving in mid-air, like a flying dame in a puffy skirt, a pug-dog suspended on a high wire. It could work. ‘I get it,’ he said. ‘I think I do. How long did Globe take to come up with this?’ ‘Who knows, Mac. Ain’t no tellin. But no time at all as far as I could tell.’ They sat for a minute in the cool of the metal fans, chewing it over. With the coffee and mental gymnastics, his lizard-brain had finally crawled out onto the rock, and was basking in an idea. ‘I don’t suppose – well, no, not really.’ ‘What?’ ‘I just – sort of thought, it might be interesting – for the article, the series, you know – might be fascinating, even, to see that in action.’ ‘See what?’ ‘The Globe thing. You, too, of course. What makes the pair of you tick.’ ‘Beyond the money – hah! – and all the fine ladies, you mean?’ ‘Yes, beyond those things.’ Pratfall scratched his chin, gave great attention to the impression he was thinking things over. ‘I’d need to talk to Globe, ya know.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘An he’d get a veto. No yay, no go. Can’t get around it.’ ‘Not a problem. I can swing it with Stella on my end.’ They looked at each other for a moment, then smiled and shook hands. McIntyre rubbed his forehead and closed the flap on his notebook, then reconsidered and tore out the top page, crumpled it into a ball and dropped it in the dregs of his coffee. She’s have to drag it out of his with chains. She’d have to beg, grovel and plead for something this good, and to hell with little lapses in faith or lost confidences. She’d have to come to him. Mac nodded once more, then smiled. 6 It was definitely the desert. ‘It’s desert, Mac,’ Stella said, shuffling across the bench to the far window and extending an arm out past the side mirror. ‘Look – cactuses, scrubby ball-weed things. Little outcrops of rock, but mostly nothing.’ While she waved her arm about, cigarette trailing smoke in its wake, he fumed. He knew it was the desert – the Mojave, to be precise, and he knew that she knew he knew that it was – but here he was again taking all of her crap for the good of a story. She did look good in that sheath dress, mind you, and her new wavy do was rather fetching on the slow-rolling billows of hot wind coming in the window. But dammit – he hadn’t intended for her to accept when he told her about Pratfall’s invitation; quite the opposite. He’d undersold the thing as a dreary chore, a trip to some godforsaken hell-hole in the back of beyond, all dust and lizards and ladders in her stockings, but she had to find a sense of adventure. ‘Yes, Stella, I know that. Didn’t I say it might get a bit wild. His words, by the way, not mine. Pull your arm in a minute.’ ‘What?’ ‘In – yank it in, back inside.’ She did as he asked, and he leaned up near the steering wheel to have a gander at the car trailing along behind. Pratfall’s was still in front, keeping up a steady fifty, seemingly unruffled by the heat, but Globe’s heap was dwindling to nothing in the mirror. He laid on the horn to get the little caravan’s attention. ‘Oh Mac, now what?’ ‘Shaddap, will you Stella? We don’t want anybody losing any one, not out here.’ He noticed Pratfall pull over underneath a sagging telephone line – at least they were still within reach of the world – and drew up alongside him. Outside the car, without a breeze slipping in, the air was thick and insufferable. Not like the city, where at least the buildings pulled some wind down between them, if you were lucky, and on still days there were fans and ice, but wild and untamed, with an electric sizzle and the faint whiff of sour tobacco. Gene got out of the car and came up to the window. ‘Mac? Gotta problem?’ ‘Globe, I think. His car isn’t keeping pace, and I don’t want to lose him, not – well, you know. Out here.’ ‘Goddammit.’ Pratfall phlegmmed up a brown mouthful, hawking it high and wide over the hood. Beside him, Stella sniffed. ‘Alright, hell – it is a piece of shit, it’s true. Turn round and we’ll go pick up that tubby son of a bitch. He’ll be burnin up by now.’ When they reached Globe’s car he was a sorry sight – stripped half-naked in the sun and trying to tie his waistcoat to a telegraph pole for a skimpy bit of shade. McIntyre pulled up beside. He was surprised at the man’s physique. He looked like a fireplug, sure, and with his shirt off a little like an unhappy black bear scrounging through empty trash cans, but there was no flab to be seen. Flesh lay in great ripples on his barrel-like frame, and the same hair that bristled on his fingers wound around his torso like a black, crackling sheath. Globe nodded, and was about to get in behind Stella when Pratfall pulled up. ‘Hey – hey!’ He bounded across and snapped the soggy waistcoat off its pole, flicking it at his buddy’s backside. In the desert silence the crack echoed for miles. ‘Whaddya think you’re doin? Get up front there, and you – Mac – getcher ass into mine.’ He leaned through the window and Mac recoiled. ‘Sorry, bub. Just needta ask the lady here – you okay to drive, miss? Only Globe don’t do so good when he’s had a skinful of trouble. He probly needs a rest.’ He smiled like a death’s head, then withdrew. ‘Got stuff to talk about, Mac. He won’t bother your lady-friend.’ He looked back at Stella and she nodded, casting an apprehensive eye sideways as the bear of a man adjusted his clothes and thudded onto the bench. ‘I’ll be fine,’ she said, ignoring McIntyre and smiling at Globe. ‘Nice to finally meet you,’ she said. He smiled back. In Pratfall’s car, which had all its windows down and picked up a nice breeze as they pulled away, Mac finally felt himself beginning to relax. He trailed an arm down the side panel, drummed his fingers on the hot metal skin. ‘So. What did you want to talk about?’ ‘Oh, ya know – this and that.’ Gene looked at Globe and Stella a hundred yards back, then out of both windows, peering to the utmost reaches of his side mirrors, and making the same circuit again before winding his eyes back in and placing a finger over his lips. ‘This,’ he said, ‘and most definitely that.’ 7 ‘So. My boy’s back there with yer lady, an here we are with an hour or so to go. Ya know, till we get there.’ ‘Okay. Where is there, exactly?’ ‘Oh ya know – there, where we’re goin. The location.’ ‘Alright. A set, then? Like the staircase, or the country house?’ ‘Naw, Mac, it’s a location. I mean there’ll be sets there, acourse, once we’re up and runnin. But right now it’s a location, and a pretty damn fine one at that.’ ‘A location.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘For a movie.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘And we’re going out for a look, then, the four of us?’ ‘Yeah. That’s it. A look – he-he-he.’ ‘I don’t like the sound of that, Gene, I’ve got to say.’ ‘What! Whadda ya mean?’ ‘I mean you’re sitting there sniggering like a hyena, and your pal back there, old fireplug, he’s sitting next to Stella on a sticky car bench with half his clothes missing and his damn jalopy clapped out in the back of beyond. And I’m sitting here with you, making all these mysterious noises – that’s what I mean.’ ‘Oh – right.’ ‘Yeah. So maybe make with something by way of an explanation, seeing as I’m here and all.’ ‘Alright, Mac. Jeez – ya don’t gotta get sore about it. I’ll tell ya. Whatta ya wanna know?’ ‘Well, this movie location: what is it, and come to that, where is it?’ ‘It’s out in the desert, see. Beautiful. Not like this old road here, still connected to the city, but really out there. Pure, ya know; desert.’ ‘And why’s that important?’ ‘Did ya not hear what I said, bub? Didn’ ya catch Globe’s show?’ ‘Well – ’ ‘Ah hell, never mind. Now look. This is what you needta know. Movies is about image, right? We’ve only haddem for about thirty, forty years; before that, you wanted entertainment, some sorta spectacle, you took you and the wifey down ta Vaudeville or some fancy theatre, ya know, if you was a posh type. That was wings and scenery and ropes an all; basic. Didn’t transport you up an away into the sky with somethin huge. That’s what movies do – grab ya by the eyeballs, pull ya right outta yer seat.’ ‘Okay, I get it – the thrill of the show, spectacle, like you say. But what does that have to do with this location?’ ‘Oh, quite a bit, Mac. You’ll see. But lemme tell ya what I wanta tell ya, in the order I wanna do it, okay? So – spectacle, theatre, wings an all that, right? It’s there, but it’s all just there, if you know what I mean.’ ‘There?’ ‘Yeah – rooted, in the one spot. Kinda stuck. You can’t do nothin with it in yer head. But movies, and specially the kind I’m thinkin of, they’re in a different league, a different ball game altogether. Hell, the kind me an Globe is plannin, I’m not sure it’s even a game at all.’ ‘What’s that pole, over there?’ ‘Eh? Oh, one a the markers – good spot, Mac. Means it’s – ah, lemme see now, oh yeah – just unner an hour till we’re there. So, anyways, ya with me?’ ‘Yes – just assume I am, Gene.’ ‘Well, the big ideer is – sorta, well, sorta like – the big thing’s in Globe’s head, but as I get it, the big thing’s about what we can show coming right outta the screen, makin its point that way.’ ‘What point?’ ‘Well, that some things is bigger than others. That’s pretty much it. It’s America, ya know.’ ‘Give me a second. I don’t mean to be rude, and I can see you and Globe have got your heads screwed on right, but which things exactly are going to make the point you want to make?’ ‘Did ya know the first film they ever showed was of a train? Back there in France or someplace, with a cloth thrown up on a wall and the projector on a table behind people’s heads. Crude, really; nothin to it. But when the lights went down and them ol beams started flickerin – they’d shot a train, pullin out of some rinky-dink station – there was a riot, see! They’d shot it comin right at the camera, and them folk scrambled up like a packa wild dogs and beat feet for the exit! Thought it was comin right for ’em!’ ‘Is that true?’ ‘It’s the God’s honest truth, boy! Pretty much drizzled their britches getting the hell out!’ ‘Okay – that I can buy. It’s a spectacle, alright. Something like that would jump right off the screen and into people’s heads.’ ‘Yeah, yeah. That’s it, Mac! Now yer cookin. But think about this. What’s the biggest thing people bring to mind when you ask em about America, and I don’t mean nona yer skyscrapers and shit. They’re outta the way, huge ya know, too big ta fit inside some regular’s Joe’s noggin.’ ‘Ah – I dunno, a corn field, maybe? Amber waves, all that?’ ‘Yeah, maybe, but think bigger, more human.’ ‘I, ah – hmmm. Well – an ocean liner, maybe, pulling up to the dock?’ ‘Getting closer! Yer close at that. And what, pray tell, does yer average American, maybe not now but a generation back fer sure, see when he chucks his cardboard case on the dock?’ ‘Oh – the Statue of Liberty!’ ‘You got it, Mac! Lady Liberty herself. Came from France too, if I remember right, just like the movies. She was the biggest thing ever, an right away she got stuck like a burr in people’s heads. Can’t hardly shake her outta there, even now.’ ‘So you want to make a movie about the Statue of Liberty?’ ‘No, Mac! Are you even listening? Take Lady Liberty and sorta push her over to one sida ya brain. Right, think about it – she was the whadda you call it, ya know, for the last century, right?’ ‘I don’t know. Symbol, emblem maybe?’ ‘Yeah – whatever. She was this huge ideer what sat over everybody’s heads like a big flashin neon sign, and not just Americans neither. Everybody. Particularly people who wanted to come here. She was this – emblem; that’s it, Mac. Emblem of America. But that was before the movies, and if you stuck her in a picture now it would be lame.’ ‘So what are you thinking, you and Globe?’ ‘He don’t think, at least in words, much. But his hands does plenty of gabbin. Enough for the both of us. He was thinkin if we could somehow capture a new image, some emblem for everythin, that would work on the silver screen, we could bust outta this small-time world an move on to better things. Get outta them bean counters’ way. Bugge talks a good game about supportin his artists, but … well, that’s what we want – doin it ourselves. An I think you might wanna help. You an that tasty lady of yours, these here articles in magazines.’ ‘Ok. I can see that. But the new thing, this bigger-than-Lady-Liberty draw that’s going to knock my socks off, and my editor’s too? What is it?’ ‘Take a look, boy, cause we’re almost there. Right ahead, where the track drops down between them two escarpments, see?’ ‘Behind those trees, or bushes or whatever they are?’ ‘Yeah – right there. That’s where we’re headin. You’ll see in a few minutes, then you’ll understand.’ 8 ‘Oh my God, Mr Globe,’ said Stella, stepping out of McIntyre’s car. They’d followed through the gap, parked alongside a ramshackle shed flanked by cactuses. ‘Pete. Please,’ said Globe. ‘Pete. My God.’ She gawked at the vast, sprawling sight, and he looked pleased, gestured with one beefy hand. ‘After you.’ 9 McIntyre stood dumbfounded in front of the locomotive. In the middle of the desert, under a roasting sun, with nothing but weed and stumpy cactuses dotted here and there for fifty miles in any direction, it was so large he stood in its cool and imposing shadow. ‘The new New Colossus, right, Gene?’ he said. ‘Right.’ ‘So big it comes at you right out of the screen, striking out across the country into the endless west?’ ‘Right.’ ‘Like some sort of moving Lady Liberty, getting bigger every minute, impressing on the viewer the might and energy of America?’ ‘Right!’ Pratfall grabbed hold of a rail, grimaced for a moment at the heat sizzling his skin, then pulled himself into the cab. ‘All aboard!’ McIntyre wandered out of the shadow and back through blinding sun to where Globe and Stella leant against a stack of metal drums. Stella was working on a long cigarette, Globe fiddling with his sleeves, eyes downcast. ‘Oh boy,’ he said. ‘Oh boy oh boy.’ Stella laughed. ‘Get your notebook out, feller. This is some story heading your way!’ 10 After a few hours the sun had declined, and they’d made a circuit of the camp. It was far longer and wider than the gash between the low rock humps suggested, and spread out like a dark pool across the floor of the desert. Someone – quite a few someones, by the look of it: Globe? Pratfall, their confederates? – had hacked apart loose earth across the whole of the space, stumping up cactuses and yanking the tangled roots of desert plants into piles around the borders. McIntyre could see, in the resulting hugely scaled-up baseball diamond, some purpose and element of design, but what sat atop the cleared ground made no sense to him at all. In the immediate foreground, where Gene had hauled himself up and away – the giant locomotive chugging backwards along a pair of winking lines – was nothing but a buffer fashioned from several sawn-off sleepers, stacked side by side like pulled teeth, with dull grey mushrooms sprouting out of them like metal caps. That much figured; the thing had to stop somewhere, if nobody was to get hurt. But beyond the buffer lay a mass of intricate score marks – railway lines, he supposed – that branched and looped away in interlocking patterns as far as he could see. The metal, cold in the dim evening light, traced the sides of a wide circle around them, radiating lines across its face like cuts in an orange, split exactly down the pith. Stella was sitting on an upturned crate by a pile of knotted roots. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Hey yourself.’ She had a compact in one hand, a stick of kohl in the other. Her eyes appeared insufficiently racoony for the desert setting, and she reapplied deftly, asking the obvious questions without needing to look him in the eye. ‘So – what do you think?’ ‘I think the pair of them are crazy as loons. You?’ ‘Yeah, pretty much.’ He laughed and ran a finger round his damp collar. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be here when the sun cranked up and that massive boiler started putting out steam. ‘I do think it will be a great series, Mac. Don’t you agree? I can imagine a dozen ways to spin it: little guys against the giants, artists getting out from under, curse of the money makers, and so on. The pix will be marvellous. We’ll need to get Davis out here right away.’ McIntyre paused. It certainly would be something, but he’d yet to free the notebook from his jacket pocket. His hands clenched and unclenched with uncertainty. ‘Lemme ask you something,’ he said. ‘You seem to get along with old chunky boy, Globe, right?’ She nodded, snapping her compact and yawning. ‘Well what’s up with this thing? I got some of it out of Pratfall – a chance to pursue Globe’s ‘artistic vision’ without having to bow to the whims of the studio, or something like that. I’ve no idea how they’re going to make the money side work, and as far as I know, they’re both under contract to Bugge, and he’s no pushover. Did you see what he invested in that country-house short? They’d better get themselves a good lawyer. And what about the man himself? What did he say?’ ‘Oh, he’s a sweet man, Mac. A lot sweeter than you. He doesn’t say much, granted, but he talks a lot with his hands. A good listener can get to the heart of things.’ ‘A good listener?’ ‘Yes, Mac, a good listener. Did you know Mr Globe has been supporting his kids by helping other actors with the physical stuff, training and movement and whatnot, in his spare time?’ ‘His kids? Didn’t know he was married.’ ‘See – that’s what I mean. He’s not, anymore. But still. Those hands convey a lot, if you know what I mean.’ McIntyre yawned and stood up. ‘Alright, Stella – fascinating chat and all, but hadn’t we better be getting back? It’s a good couple of hours … ’ ‘No, there’s – ah, accommodation, for the crew tomorrow, a little kitchen and everything, on the other side. We’re welcome to stay. In fact I think they want us to stay, and get a feel for what they’re trying to do.’ McIntyre looked stunned. He had visions of an abandoned school bus jacked up on cinder-blocks, dirty cloth flapping in the wind and narrow cots wedged in like sardines. But in the end it was okay. The duo seemed to have thought of everything: a small block of buildings, proper corrugated roofs, tables and beds you could sleep in. They looked as though they might have been here before, and put to new purpose. For form’s sake he grumbled about clothes and showers as Pratfall arrived in another car, one that presumably stayed on set, and ferried them over, but eventually he got used to the idea of a night in the desert, and took out his notebook over bourbon and cigars. It had a few leaves filled, but heaved with fat, virginal pages thirsty for ink. In wavering lantern-light he cornered the pair, questions at the ready. ‘Mac, Mac – cool down, bub. We’ll be ready in the morning, when the guys get here. You can ask us whatever you like.’ In the morning, McIntyre woke alone. He had a throbbing head – boy, the novelty! – and an odd sense of fate, as though the day was poised on the edge of something momentous. He found a clay jar full of cold water in the kitchen, and the feeling soon departed. Outside was a carnival. A dozen lean, wiry stagehands had materialised from nowhere, and were bustling around raising dust, hauling metal plates and beams on their shoulders, filling the trunk with cones and bolts of pale cloth, and talking non-stop while they moved. He shifted out of the way as a six-foot bruiser wobbled by with a girder-like strip of iron under both arms. He whistled sharply at the journalist, then disappeared round the corner. McIntyre shrugged and went back inside for the rest of his things. On the wooden counter was a note: Mac – whatcha doin still sleepin? Get yr ass over to the far side pronto! Straight out the door, right, little bit further on then right again and you’re there. Can’t miss – you’ll know it when you get here. It was signed Pratfall, though the letters had been scratched so hard into the back of a discarded garage bill, they’d dug into the paper, obscuring his signature. McIntyre wondered if he needed a ride, but Gene seemed to think it was walkable, so he slipped the note into the back of his notebook and took another drink before he left. It was cool in the shade of the walls, then the shadow of a long storage shed he hadn’t noticed the night before, but when he stepped out into the sun it caught him like the back of a woman’s hand. Sweat broke out on his forehead, stippled the back of his neck under the collar. He loosened his tie and followed a row of old sleepers laid out in fresh dirt. Outside, turn right; okay. Here he was. On a bit, right again – at this twisted tree stump, or whatever they called these damn things in the desert? The sleepers hooked right then dropped down a slight incline, and suddenly he knew he was in the right place. It looked like a scene from an old-timey biblical epic – right down to the blasted desert and sky ranging on mad and searing for miles – but updated to the modern age, or at least the only modern age that counted: Pratfall’s age of the train. In the centre of a great oval space lay a network of crazy. sprawling track – so massive it looked as though an engine could get up a head of steam then clatter round the circumference without needing to stop – with a bustling crowd of workers at its heart, manhandling equipment, raising plywood walls, sloshing paint about in great white buckets, and everywhere laying down iron rails, tiny men in hand carts manipulating metal strips by means of mechanical arms hanging off the hand-trucks, the glinting strips dropping into place one after the other. New lines criss-crossed the space; lines, he assumed, that would let the great behemoth turn around and steam away into another shot, or back up out out of range for a suck at the overhanging rubber pipe that swayed in the distance. Around the outside of the track were high walls, curving inwards and neatly placed within inches of each other. As he got nearer, he saw stage-hands tacking canvas sheets into place, pulling the white fabric till it stretched out taut and shiny. He had no idea what they were for, but took a quick note in his book – hoardings? screens, of some sort? – then picked up his pace. Beside the nearest sweep of rail was a crude tent pitched against the sun, and he could see workers passing in and out of its shadows, glasses winking in their hands. He beetled down the last of the rise and stuck his head inside. ‘Hey, Mac! Glad you could join us.’ Pratfall reclined in a canvas chair, tall lemonade in hand. ‘Yeah, yeah. Some operation you got here, Gene. Where’s Globe, and Stella? Where did all these other guys come from?’ ‘Oh, we been recruiting them on the sly for months, gatherin all this junk together, too. Engine’s not ours, but Globe’s got a buddy knows some dude in the business, said we could borrow it for six months on a cost basis. Gotta pay the men, though, an that’s addin up.’ ‘Are you serious? This is what, some sort of parallel company?’ ‘Naw, but don’t tell Bugge, Mac. It’s strictly on the QT. What you might call an – ah, industry experiment.’ A quick wind got up and flapped the sides of the text. Pratfall gestured to a stand with a tin canister set up over a tap. ‘Get yourself a drink; cool down. It’s – well, you know. This thing’s all Globe, at least the art, but I’ve bin sortin mosta the logistical stuff myself. Got the men on contingency, ya know. Not the busiest tima their year, an they was willin to take a little piece for their trouble. Me an Globe’s on the best contingency of all. Nothin. If we get it out there when it’s done that’s us in the shit with every studio in America, so it’d better work, ya know?’ ‘And is it going to?’ ‘Course – acourse! Wouldn be here if it wadn’t. Now, let’s stop jawin and get out to the rails. Wanna show ya what I been talkin about the last few days. Wantcha ta see it in the flesh, so ta speak.’ McIntyre smiled, flipping open a page and brandishing his pen. ‘Let’s go.’ At the far side of the oval, Pratfall pushed open two of the canvas-covered sidings and slipped in between. On the other side, McIntyre noticed they were mounted on small castors, and took a note. Pratfall trundled them back together and the sudden shade was very welcome. Now they were inside the ring. Above them the sun burned on in a bright and uninterrupted wash of sky. ‘Hot,’ he said, dabbing his neck and brow with a damp handkerchief. ‘Yep. Just the way Globe likes it.’ ‘Where is he, by the way? Supervising workers?’ ‘Naw – they don’t need no supervisin. They’re mostly working with him for the sake of it, an a few greenbacks on the sly, like I said. He’s up there yonder, with yer lady.’ McIntyre shielded his eyes and looked away to the cab of the mighty engine, stationed a few hundred yards away facing the near side of the oval. Globe was indeed standing in the cab; a small, jerky version of his usual confident self, like the figures in those what-the-butler-saw machines his father told him about one drunken evening long ago – the figures’ slightly shifty, fuzzy lines wavering back and forth in discernible action, despite their size. Stella’s back was to the oval, Globe standing opposite and gesturing with his stick arms here and there. She reached out to touch his arm and Globe stopped dead, still as an automaton with its key wound down to nothing. She seemed to be wearing a pink blouse. How had she come by that? ‘Hey Gene, we waiting for something here?’ ‘Yeah.’ Pratfall looked at his watch; it was just shy of ten o’clock, and he tapped the face with the end of one long finger to make sure it hadn’t stopped. ‘Ten on the nose, this baby’s startin up and you’re gonna see what we’re made of.’ ‘What, with Globe and Stella up there, in the cab?’ ‘What, ya think that thing drives itself?’ ‘Well no, but I figured your train guy might have had – you know, an engineer to spare.’ ‘Naw. Globe’s got it. He’s had a few good practice runs while the boys was settin up, an I’m sure he has it down. Your gal wouldn’t take no for an answer. Said she was fascinated, or some shit. Wanted to see him in action.’ ‘Him?’ ‘It, then – whatever. The beast. She’s in for the ride, alright.’ McIntyre swallowed hard and raised an arm to wave in their general line of sight. Back and forth he waved, for half a minute, more, till his sleeve went limp and his muscles hot and hard. He thought his arm had disappeared in the mass of shimmer rising from the earth. But eventually Stella, small and bright as the bride on a cake, turned his way and waved back. ‘Alright, then,’ said Pratfall. He fished around in a battered leather bag and came out with a whistle. He gave three shrill blasts, and in the distance the tiny model Globe pulled on the engine’s horn. Three great rumbling toots rolled across the intervening dirt. ‘So now what?’ Pratfall pointed at the engine with a grin. Globe, who apparently had run through whatever preparatory stages were necessary to get the great iron monster rolling, now stood with his arm in the cab window – was it around Stella? – and their two small figures, pink and black, shifted slowly about as the engine started to move. McIntyre flinched, but knew a story when he saw one. He’d deal with the pair of them later. Pointing at the engine, the short run of track in front, the broad oval sweep of the stage dug round in the desert (for this was what it was, he realised; what it must be, the biggest, boldest stage for the world’s biggest spectacle) he grabbed at Gene’s sleeve. ‘Do they come down front, then, and get on the circular track?’ ‘You bet.’ He didn’t remove the journalist’s arm, though even in the relative cool of the screen-walls his fingers seemed hotter than a brazier’s breath. ‘Done it a few times now. Globe works the thing till it gets up a head of steam, one of the fellers – there, look! standing by the switcher – slings him over to the big track, and then the thing belts round the oval like a dragon spittin out fire.’ ‘Okay, but you know, so what? It’s a big engine and all, but … ’ ‘We run the films! Don’t tell Bugge, but we lifted em from some piece-a-shit western for a coupla weeks. Hopin he won’t miss em. They’re views out the bumpy stagecoach window sorta things – on the screen it looks like yer pelting through the desert to hell knows where, San Fran or Seattle or someplace, who knows? But we loop it round and round till the audience’s head starts to pop right off, and they get their money’s worth.’ McIntyre wanted to speak, but couldn’t find the words; his fingers flew instead over the pages of the notebook, eyes moving up and down from page to engine, as it gained speed, then page once again. He watched his fingers blur, crudely capturing wheel and cab and cowcatcher as they started their lumbering journey round the far side of the oval. They hadn’t reached a screen yet, though the figures in the cab were becoming a little clearer. Stella’s pink blouse was bent at the waist, and if he could make out correctly, there was a black-clad arm moving underneath hers, the pair of them fiddling with something near the roof. Suddenly the engine tooted, and his hand skidded through a half-assed diagram of the circuit. Pratfall laughed. ‘Whoo, boy, you blow that thing!’ He took out his whistle and in response blew a high, sounding note over the roasting ground. Globe tooted again, and this time Mac saw – quite clearly – the soft pink slip of an arm drop over the black sleeve holding the string of the horn. They were perhaps four hundred yards off; no, not even that – the curve of the railway, the earth perhaps, must be distorting his vision. How could he see such detail at that distance? He jammed notepad and pen back in his pocket then grabbed again at Pratfall’s sleeve. ‘How long, Gene?’ ‘Don’t worry – you’ll get your spectacle, Mac! Keep on scribblin. Here they come!’ As the engine rounded the first corner of the loop, he saw a little man appear between the screens with a white flag fixed to the end of a pole; he dropped it, held still for second, then disappeared again behind a baffle-board. Pictures began to spring up along the curving walls (projected by another man, he assumed) but odd, huge and shaking in the unsettling silence, not smooth like on a theatre screen, as though they formed some rough organic segment of the landscape, rather than an illusion: hot morning suns, little different from the day (save for that wobble); long shots of a fixed horizon passing a window, the occasional bobble of a cactus-top or scrub bush puncturing the monotony; here and there a water tank – he recognised the ridged grey elephant’s trunk of the feeder hose – and a motley collection of weathered buildings, bumping quickly through, passing out of the shot. ‘Hah!’ He squinted slightly and things resolved themselves to a settled picture, the true vibration of the pounding desert. Suddenly he wished he was up there, in the cab, pink blouse be damned. The engine was rounding the second corner, now, passing the curved screens and their joggling pictures. The drivers tooted the horn in a long blast of joy. Pratfall slapped the journalist on the back. ‘Here it comes, boy – heading our way. Getcha peepers on. It’s the past, but it’s the future, too!’ As the engine turned into the straight, Mac realised this was the home stretch, and smiled; the notebook slipped back effortlessly into his hands, and he took up the scene without missing a stroke. The engine loomed, high and grey and imposing. Behind Pratfall, who had stood to his full height in the slim shade of the screens, eyes wide as though this was all new, the full spectacle unbeheld till this very hour – McIntyre knew he was a showman, and full of shit, but nonetheless the excitement seemed genuine – Mac had to step aside and around the taller man to get a proper look. Here it came, then, at last! A few years back, before the advent of sound, there would have been some mad saloon-bar tickler hammering out a frenzied rhythm to accompany the increasing presence of the train, but here, over the hot endless space of the desert, its rhythms grew unassisted, multiplying crazily over and over in the dead air, until his mind was filled with the kick and rattle of thumping metal, the whoosh of steam. In the cab, the drivers, arms mingled in who knew what combination, pulled the cord again and didn’t let go. Here it came – Gene’s great, mobile show, the greatest thing since Lady Liberty; better, even! Those poor, benighted peasants, sailing half-starved into New York harbour, limp after months below decks, crawled in slow motion past the grand dame of welcome; here the continent itself thundered past, smashing into their eyes and reverberating through the fragile bones of their ears with all the unstoppable glory of America! Globe and Pratfall were right. The screens behind the hammering engine spiralled up, round and away, their juddering images blending like scenes glimpsed from a great gay carousel, calliope tootling mellifluously overhead, candied delights of light and space bobbing up around them in a throng. He threw down his notebook and raised his hands, clasping Gene’s in congratulation, waving at the cab as it hurtled by huge and bellow-loud, tremendous, the stink of hot coal fizzing like champagne in his nostrils. But here, Gene – what was this? Beyond their two pairs of hungry eyes, all teary with joy, the wheels began to clash and squeal as the engine turned into the final loop, gearing up for home and a thunderous run to victory. Through the cab windows, for half a second, building-tops flashed by then were gone, replaced by unending blue. Pink and black were a blur, now, as some harsher note crept in – McIntyre registered sudden sparks, hot and not unexpected, but surely a few moments early for the final, cresting run? Gene jumped out of the screen’s shadow. He grabbed backwards for McIntyre, and his hand found the notebook, seized it in a sweaty grasp. ‘No, Mac – no!’ But it was apparent, before he could respond, that the world was serving up a huge and sonorous yes. The notebook squeaked between clutching nails and dropped to the dirt. McIntyre jumped forward, batting away Pratfall’s hands, as they flailed uselessly after the cab. Now sparks had bloomed into clouds of fire, misty and violent as the early stars, and were engulfing the cab; pink-and-black was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the vast grey side of the engine began to fold up like a squeezebox as the train hurtled too quickly into the turn, and the wheels left the rails. McIntyre and Gene stood together, hands limp and jaws agape, as the spectacle of the century rammed itself down the line, turning, flipping up like a snake bursting from a can of nuts, and ramming through the curved screens in a spiral of flame. As he watched an errant wheel take off a workman’s head, McIntyre turned to his companion but the tall man lay flat on the ground, eyes twitching to white. ‘I, I – ’ he said. ‘I – ’ A breeze lifted a handful of sparks in his direction. One caught on the notebook’s cover, puffed it up with fire. He reached out, across a space as cold as the blank universe, before the flames could touch the tips of Pratfall’s fingers.