Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Long Days Journey into Friendship

The second most infuriating question asked of a thespian, by either a journalist, or a civilian is, 

“What’s it like being an actor?”

My favourite reply to this inane and irritating question is, “It beats working!”

Unfortunately I can not lay claim to the creation of this sarcastic retort, but I do think it conveys an unnerving sub-textual ring of truth.

A quicker riposte would, of course be, “Better than nothing!”

This latter sharp response is however more appropriate when asked, “How’s the wife?” “How’s the girlfriend?” or “How’s the job?”

And whilst we are on the subject of conversational put-downs, have you ever been in a quandary, when asked by an ebullient over confident hostess, or a snotty maitre-de, “How was your meal?” when the plate of fodder you have just consumed, would have been better served in a trough to ravenous pigs, who were ready for the slaughter house.

“I’ve tasted a lot worse!” should stand you on firm ground, but be prepared for a hasty retreat, should the hostess brandish a carving knife, or the chef charges out of the kitchen wielding a meat cleaver.

I owe undying gratitude for all the above answers to a close dear thespian friend of many inebriated years, Mr. Richard Cox, or Cocksy, as he was affectionately known; a true cockney born and bred, and certainly a Tricky Dicky as well.

Born during the second world war in Peckham London, he often swore on his mother’s grave that on the day of his birth the bombs stopped falling for six hours, and the sound of the Bow Bells carried clearly across the Thames from St. Mary’s le Bow in Cheapside, to his war ravaged house.

The fact that the bells were destroyed on 11 May 1941 by a German air raid, and seeing as Cocksy was only born in 1942, the only place he could have heard the sound of the Bow Bells was on the BBC World Service. This was a recording made in 1926, and is still used by the Beeb, as an interval signal on their World Service.

Cocksy was a man of small stature, a gigantic heart, a true prankster, and had he been born forty years later he would have been an ideal presenter for the BBC TV show “The Real Hustle”.

Twenty five years of numerous intoxicated nights were spent with Cocksy, fleecing unsuspecting punters, and casual customers in bars of their hard earned cash. Unseen spirits rolled cigarettes along bar counters, full unopened bottles of beer were mysteriously glued into the corner of walls, coins always landed on heads, and Gypsy Rose-Lee’s psychic telepathic trick was played on many a gullible punter. He was a master craftsman in the game of matches, and always left the bar with more cash in his pocket than when he arrived.

His greatest talent, apart from his ability to make you laugh, was his capacity to produce methane worthy of a herd of the finest dairy cattle. He specialised in the silent but deadly variety, and attributed this inane skill to the vast quantity of Castle Larger he consumed. I however, as the years passed by, began to suspect another rather ominous reason for his latent skill in producing his unwelcome farts. A sudden loss of weight, and yellowing skin were tell-tale signs of sclerosis of the liver, and the possible onset of cancer, even to my untrained eye.

Mr. Cox did not start treading the boards till he was in his early thirties. He was a qualified draughtsman, and earned an excellent income guiding his dextrous fingers, pencil, crayon, or pen in hand across a virgin white sheet of paper. However his addiction to the well known brand of amber fluid did tend to make some of his straight lines a trifle wobbly, especially when nursing a severe hangover.

I first met him during the halcyon days of steam radio in Johannesburg South Africa.

This was the late sixties. The then Nationalist government of South Africa had banned The Beatles, the book “Black Beauty”, all works by Enid Blyton, Nelson Mandela, and the then president John Vorster, had named the television “The Devil’s Box”. The poor brainwashed white public of the country were starved of entertainment. So, the radio and live theatre were the only avenues open to creative minds, and the culturally starved population.

However by the mid-eighties, the television industry was in full swing, and Cocksy and I found ourselves camping in a lean-to on a desolate beach at Disappointment Bay, near the mighty Tugela River’s mouth, in what is now Kwa-Zulu-Natal in the New South Africa.

We had been hired to portray the two leading villains in a TV series drama entitled “John Ross”. Young John Ross was an intrepid and enterprising teenager of the late eighteen hundreds, and rode bare back for fourteen days through the lush sub-tropical vegetation of Natal to raise the alarm in Durban of a Zulu uprising in the far reaches of the British colony.

Our drama did not deal with this episode of his eventful life. Our story started with a ship-wreck scene on the Natal coast, and delved into how John, who was a stow-a-way developed from frightened teenager into a heroic young man.

It was a nine week shoot. Cocksy and I decided we would rough it on the set at the shooting location, rather than travel two hours at 5 o’clock in the morning from the hotel in Eshowe, where the crew and the rest of cast were billeted. This meant we could save our per diems, and as we managed to twist the production office’s arm that we should be reimbursed the accommodation costs we were saving them, we lived a life of luxury. If the TV series “Survial” had been on air at the time Cocksy and I would have been prime contestants, and possible joint winners.

Our living quarters were spacious, and the lean-to covered at least fifty square metres. We quickly acquired an old, and battered small gas-driven bar fridge, an old metal dust bin lid served as our cooking pot, and the friendly “chippy”, the set production carpenter, partitioned off our sleeping quarters. Using a few gum poles, and some fish netting washed up on the beach, we each had our own private bedroom. The production drivers eagerly offered their services for a small remuneration, and collected our alcoholic requirements and minimal groceries from the shops in Eshowe. By the end of the first week the rear wall of Cocksy’s bedroom was stacked to the roof with cases of Castle Larger.

But our secret weapon, and the hidden bonus were the locals.

“The Sugary-Coolies”, as they were affectionately known. They became our bosom buddies, as we soon discovered they too held a similar fascination with alcohol. Cane spirit was their poison. In exchange for a case of this noxious clear fluid made from sugar cane they would, at spring tides, catch crayfish for us. So, at the going rate of eighteen Rand for a crayfish tail, versus twelve Rand for a bottle of Cane, we were batting on an excellent wicket. Their method of catching these delectable crustaceans reminded me of cowboys practicing their lassoing technique before a rodeo show.

They worked in two teams of three. The main man in each team, Naidoo number one, stood up front as close to the sea as possible. He held in his hand a long nylon rope. Attached to the other end was a wire mesh funnel shaped contraption. Broken live mussels were used as bait, and rammed into the interlocking wire strands.

In Grecian chorus style Cocksy and I would shout, “Stand bye!”

Naidoo number one would then begin twirling his contraption in a small circle above his head. With each revolution he extended the length of rope until it reached a radius of six or so metres. Suddenly he would stop, and the trap would plunge into the sea and disappear. As this happened the Greek chorus would scream, “Lights!” and both Naidoos number twos, would switch on their torches.

“Camera!” we would scream.

A minute or three later.

“Action!” and Naidoo number one would yank firmly on the rope bringing the trap now laden with crayfish hurtling back onto the rocks.

Naidoo number three now sprang into action, as number two illuminated the entrapped crayfish. His seemed to be the most difficult task, as these highly sought after culinary trophies are tricky customers to catch as they hop from rock to rock trying to return to the sea.

The whole operation lasted about half an hour, and one full moon lit night, we were presented with eighty crayfish in exchange of a case of Cane.

But what about the work? You may well ask.

Well, the art of being a believable villain in a TV drama is simple. Say as little as possible, look mean, and lurk constantly in the background. Seeing as Cocksy and I were nearly always under the influence, the uttering of dialogue was a no-no, and Thank God the scriptwriter also believed villains should be seen and not heard.

As regards our costumes? We were sleeping rough, so our appearance was visibly villainous. The make-up department loved us. We were always last in the queue, as they didn’t need to daub us with dirt and soot, and the wardrobe department were also pleased, as our costumes, which we never took off, took on a dishevelled life of their own.

Our only problem area was the assistant director, a robust young man whom we gave the nick-name Sabre Tooth on our first acquaintance. He was a large bearded burly man with the voice of a regimental sergeant major, and the manners of Al-queda terrorist.

“Where the fuck are Mr.Cox and Mr. Poole?” was his opening line every morning.

“Harvesting our breakfast!” I would scream back.

We were always down on a rocky outcrop about six hundred metres from the base camp. As the location was part of a nature reserve, the rocks were teeming with edible crustaceans. The back mussels were enormous, and featured regularly on our breakfast, lunch and supper menus.

“You’re in the first scene! Make sure you’re ready!” was Sabre Tooth’s standard reply, even if it was not the case.

Being a true Cockney, and a fan of Michael Caine, Cocksy always yelled back Michael’s catch phrase, “Notta Lotta people know that!” and we would continue scraping our breakfast off the rocks.

The shoot ended in the middle of the year and we both parted company. We went our separate ways. We briefly contemplated opening a fresh seafood restaurant, but I was booked to film a documentary in India for six weeks, and Cocksy went onto another local production playing the brother of the famous gold magnate Barney Banarto. He gave a stunningly brilliant performance in this TV mini series, and I firmly believe that had he not passed away the following Christmas Eve, he would have been nominated for an award.

I had been right, cancer and sclerosis of the liver.

To this day, I also believe that his timing was deliberate, as during the month of December the whole of South Africa comes to a virtual standstill; especially Johannesburg, which is almost deserted, with most of the residents taking their summer holidays in greener, and more pleasant pastures on the coast.

That particular year I was in my Don Juan mode, and had to make a mad dash to Durban, as I had been summoned to meet the family of my third Lady in Wedlock for Christmas Day lunch.

As it was Christmas Eve the mortuary van took ten hours to arrive at Cocksy’s flat. His body was discovered at nine o’clock in the morning. By twelve noon a small party of his closest friends had gathered in the cramped confines of his dingy bed-sit. As most of us were either working, or had pressing family commitments over the festive season, another friend, Mr. Iain McPherson, of E=mc squared fame, took control of the funeral formalities.

Cocksy was cremated in the last week of December, and thus began the Saga of the Ashes.

On my return in mid January from my enforced confinement in the hands of my prospective in-laws-to-be, I was told the funeral parlour had mislaid the ashes. An administrative error they said. Cocksy at that time had no living relatives, and had never mentioned anything about his family background, so the funeral parlour had taken the unsolicited decision to send the ashes to a PO box number they found in the visitor’s book that had been placed at the door of the crematorium on the day of the service, instead of putting them in storage, as instructed by Iain.

Jobbing actors are notorious for never having a place of permanent residence. This is for two reasons. One, they can never afford it. Two, they still retain the stance of a travelling minstrel, and are always hoping that one day they will get the big break, and end up with a mansion in Beverly Hills. So, a PO Box number was the next best alternative in the days before the cell phone and e-mail.

After a week of playing Holmes and Watson, Iain and I finally tracked down the missing ashes. They had been sent to Ms. Debbie O’Nair, an old Cocksy flame that had been the first to sign the visitor’s book, as she had been in a rush to return to her lunch time Xmas pole dancing assignment at a Southern suburbs bowling club.

We transferred the ashes to an ornately decorated Zulu pot urn, and arranged a memorial service for our departed friend. The service was held in the garden of a retired diva of the entertainment industry, Joan. Food and drink was supplied by a kind film catering unit. Speeches were spoken. Songs were sung. Salutations were saluted, and drinks were drunk. The latter to such an extent that by ten o’clock that night eight of his closest friends were still imbiding at Cocksy’s favourite drinking haunt, The Bohemian Club; The Bows as we called it.

The following morning I was in a sad state of disrepair. As Cocksy used to so eloquently say, “My mouth was as dry as a Nun’s nasty!”

Orientating myself, and trying to piece together the insane actions of the previous night’s long day’s journey into drunken insanity, I stumbled towards my fridge in search of a hair of the dog. My motor functions were a trifle unstable, and as I trapped my finger in the fridge door, a loud, high pitched laugh cascaded around inside my swollen head echoing with my scream of excruciating pain.

“Oh shit!” was my first exclamation, closely followed by Sabre Tooth’s line, “Where the fuck is Mr. Cox!?”

The urn was not in its pride of place on top of the fridge.

The reasons for the choice of this resting place were four fold. One, it had been decided that I would scatter the ashes on Easter Sunday in the sea at Disappointment Bay. Two, the fridge was in constant use. Three, I would always be able to see them, so I could not loose them. And four, and the most important, it was Cocksy’s voice that had been used in a famous TV advert of the time for a coffee creamer called Cremora. “It’s not inside…… it’s on TOP!”

Frantic phone calls ensued. “No, they were on the altar in the garden.” “I last saw them while you were talking.” “Didn’t you leave them at Joan’s?” “Did the vicar take them?” “No. You had them!” “Didn’t you put them in the boot of your car?” “No, I gave them to you!” ”No, you didn’t, we put them on the pool table so he could watch the game!”

Of course the Bows! Yes, that was the place I’d seen them. But where would they be now in the none-too-clear light of day?

The establishment was being cleaned when Iain and I arrived. Hovers were hovering, and Emanuel the barman was wiping down the bar.

“Have you seen Cocksy’s ashes Mannie?”

He smiled benignly; a soft African toothless grin creased his face. He opened the fridge, revealing the Zulu urn neatly nestled beside the Castle Larger Long Toms, “Ja, ma boss, I put them inside….. Not on Top!” and there they stayed till I drove down to Disappointment Bay.

Two months later I, my Lady in Wedlock, and another local white Zulu Fergus and his two children, arrived at the corrugated lean-to. Memories of crayfish tails, a dust bin lid of steaming mussels, freshly caught fish, and a skyscraper of Long-Tom Castle Larger cases came whizzing back.

While Fergus and his kids built a fire, and my Lady in Wedlock organised some lunch I was left to my own devices. I wandered down to the rocks clutching my Toddie, a Long-Tom, and the urn containing the ashes. It was late morning and extremely hot, the mid thirties, not a cloud in the sky, or the slightest breeze. The becalmed Indian Ocean lay before me.

Selecting the exact spot from where we had harvested the mussels, I sat down, took a quick slug from Toddie, and eyed the urn.

“Now’s a good a time as any.”

I replied immediately, “Notta-Lotta people know that.”

I opened the urn and took out a small press-top plastic bag.

“That’s right. KNOCK. KNOCK!”

“Who’s there?” I said as I inspected the grey ash and small fragments of bone.

“’Aventa you got a?”

“’Aventa got a what?” I replied opening the bag, standing, and lifting my arm ready to scatter Cocksy’s remains on the still ocean.

Out of nowhere a sudden, a swirling wind engulfed me, waves crashed over the rocks, the open bag flew from my hand, and rose in the air. The ashes fell out, blew up my nose, into my eyes, my mouth, and covered my head.

The voice inside my head echoed in the wind with a howling screaming laugh, “A FUCKING BELL!”

“You fucking bastard!” I screamed as I dived into the crashing waves to rescue Toddie that had been washed off the rocks.

As I surfaced, the sun was shining and the sea still. I caught sight of my breathless companions staring at me.

“What the hell was that?” asked Fergus. “All that screaming?” continued by beloved Lady in Wedlock.

Pulling myself onto the safety of the rocks, clutching Toddie, and trying to wipe the remaining fragments of my closest friend out of my hair I replied, “Oh, just a slight gust of Cocksy’s astral wind.”

May he rest in peace.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic story. When I started reading, I would have NEVER thought that I would be one of the kids that was mentioned. lovely memories of Coksy. Kim

Anonymous said...

Haha nice one

Daniele said...

Hi Ron - loved this story. I was a big fan of John Ross and can just picture the scenes you described. Ken read it and said you had a gift of writing in such a way that draws the reader in. Look forwards to reading more - Dani and Ken

orla said...

Absolutely briliant writing Ron > Sinead and I had a great chuckle reading this - serious talent here ! xxxx

Iain said...

Hi, Cess,
Having Just returned from another exploratory dive into the depths of a bottle of scotch reading "A Long Day's Journey into friendship" brought back fond memories of that fateful Christmas Eve and Cocksy's departure. I must admit I'd forgotten some of the detail of my involvement. Well recounted, I enjoyed it immensely. Fellow jobbing actor and friend of the late Cocksy and, of course yourself, Cess.

Iain McPherson (Of E=MC2 fame)