True Stories

BACK TO BLACK

June 21st – The virus was long-lasting. I don’t recall when it began, before I lost the urge to dream I guess. I climbed to the top of a red London double-decker bus and hobbled down the aisle. I sensed him, a young boy, dead inside. I pulled off my mask, popped my earbuds in and hit play. The song Back to Black by Amy Winehouse dropped on my iPhone. I limped to the window, dragging my injured right foot behind me and glanced outside. The midsummer sky had turned a whiter shade of pale, men and women lined the streets wearing surgical masks and carrying blood red roses for the dead. As we idled at the traffic lights, children hurled their frail bodies against the driver’s door praying for mercy. On the footpath, a beggar carried a placard with the phrase, ‘The End is Nigh,’ scrawled across it in black paint.

I had no fight left. No fear either. If the end was a bus ride away, I’d travel mask free listening to Back to Black. No time for regrets. The bus hit a speed hump and turned hard right, leaving Kensington tube station behind. I steadied myself, gripping the pull-ring tight and watched the chaos outside disappear before my eyes, as the bus raced towards its destination. With music playing in my ears, I dropped my mask on the floor. I hummed Back to Black, and looked up. He stood before me, a fair-skinned boy, holding a sharpened bread and butter knife. He wore an oversized Kill Bill T-shirt, checked pants and sandals. “You dropped your mask? It’s not safe outside,” he scolded, “They’ll die out there. So, might you?” “I’ll take the risk!” I smiled, looking around at all the empty seats. “Don’t worry. You’re safe…as long as we stay 1.5 metres apart! The virus can’t travel further than that!” he assured me. “I’m Thomas Nixon, at your service, sir. Westminster Abbey is where we’re headin’. I’ve been travellin’ this route for a while now. Since this bleedin’ contagion took hold of old London town. Oh, the characters I’ve entertained on board this bus, you wouldn’t fucking believe! Kings, poets, scientists, even wandering minstrels. All of them sinners, of course. Are you infected?” I didn’t answer, I knew he was. “Once, I met a suicide bomber, delirious with fever. He tried to blow up the bleedin’ bus. I fought him off. With this bread and butter knife, dragged him kicking and screaming onto the road and set him alight. He went off like a firecracker! A superb ending, don’t you think?” He lit a cigarette and slowly inhaled. “That leg looks bad,” he cautioned, cigarette smoke billowing from the corners of his rather cruel mouth. “Take care, won’t you? You don’t want to catch an infection.” I didn’t respond, I don’t like chitchat. “I travel back and forth, you see,” he continued, “…alone on this bus. Not a soul to converse with since the virus hit. I’m looking for someone, but I’ve no fuckin’ idea who it is! Are you that someone?” “I’m not sure. I could be I suppose,” I added. “My old man would say to me, Thomas Nixon, remember this when I’m gone, only the good die young. He was right! I mean, every good man I’ve ever known is dead or dying in London. It doesn’t matter much at the end of days, if this virus doesn’t kill us, something else will. As for me, honestly…I’ve died a hundred times already. It’s all about space and timing, isn’t it?” He scratched his nose, and using the tips of his fingers, put out his cigarette, tucking the smouldering butt into his pants pocket.

The bus came to a sudden halt outside Westminster Abbey. “This is our last stop,” Thomas Nixon announced, ceremoniously taking my hand. “It’s alright,” he assured me. “This is the fairy tale ending you’ve always dreamt about.” What he didn’t know was I’d stopped dreaming years ago. He took my hand and led me, mask free, across the lawn, which was scattered with the dead bodies of homeless men, their faces contorted in pain, and ravaged by disease. They lay like rag dolls on the grass, barricading the entrance to Abbey, all of them forgotten. Climbing over bodies, we made our way to the entrance of the Abbey. Holding the door, Thomas Nixon proclaimed, ‘Here’s to all the things you love, my dear,’…and kissed me on the cheek. In that insignificant moment, time ceased to exist. We walked hand in hand to the nave of Westminster Abbey and stopped at a memorial stone wedged between two graves, that of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Inscribed on black slate the words – ‘Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking 1942–2018.’ I let go of his hand, feeling unsettled.

But Thomas Nixon cupped both my hands in his and held them close. He whispered, “Did you know black holes in the universe are not entirely black? In fact, if you look closer, you’ll notice they emit light. A warm, somewhat loving glow.” With that said, Thomas Nixon plunged his bread and butter knife deep into my heart. “Life would be tragic if it weren’t so funny,” he laughed, twisting the knife. Blood ran freely over the memorial stone, and I remember thinking, there are no coincidences.

And… I go black.

June 21st – It’s been two years to the day since I went away. It took less than two minutes. I often think of Thomas Nixon. It’s a shame we never got a chance to say goodbye. I miss London town, before the virus, and before the blackness took hold of everything. Mostly though, I miss Amy Winehouse, I miss humming Back to Black. And I miss the midsummer sun against my skin.

Author’s Note – This short story was written when I was in isolation, during the second wave of coronavirus in Melbourne, August 2020. While at home, I’d followed the virus outbreaks on TV news reports, particularly in the United Kingdom. When I sat down to write something on the virus, London immediately sprang to mind as the setting for the story. To all the frontline healthcare workers, thank you for your continuous dedication, selflessness and sacrifice during the pandemic. Best wishes Noel 😊
Written in St Kilda East, Melbourne, Victoria

True Stories

I Wear The Same Size Shirt As William Holden (from Sunset Boulevard)

I’m at home eating Vegemite on toast, wondering how to kick start my film career when the phone rang.

“Hello Noel it’s June, I’ve got job for you, filming in the Blue Mountains, starring William Holden, you know from Hollywood. Can you talk?”

The job was The Earthling and  I remember I was very excited to be working on such a high profile film.

“Who am I playing?” I asked my agent.

“There’s no role as such, they need a Stand-In for William Holden. He’s the lead, playing a character called Patrick Foley, a drifter. You’re exactly the same shirt size and height.”

Boy, I’m the same size as William Holden? William Holden who danced provocatively with Kim Novak in the film Picnic, won an Oscar for Stalag 17…and starred in the Hollywood film classic, Sunset Boulevard…well, fancy that!  I continued…

“But, isn’t he like a hundred?”  I was after all only in my early twenties.

“Yes, he’s much older than you but you’re the exact same size” June repeated. “Can you do it? It’s shooting next week.”

“Yes, of course I can do it. Who turns down the chance to work with  a true Hollywood legend?”

“Oh I almost forgot about Ricky Schroder,” my agent continued, “You know the kid in The Champ…”

“The film with with Faye Dunaway? Didn’t he win a Golden Globe Award?”

“Yes. Sure did. Anyway, he’s playing the boy” June barked and hung up the phone.

Kid I’ll show you a step I learnt in LA, first you gotta set the rhythm – William Holden in Picnic.

The Earthling was produced in Australia by Samuel Z Arkoff, a Hollywood B movie producer, responsible for some of the best exploitation films around, films like Blackula, The Amityville Horror and The Thing with Two Heads starring another Hollywood Legend, Ray Milland. Samuel Z Arkoff often stated his film formula for success as 1. Action 2. Revolution 3. Killing 4. Oratory (good dialogue) 5. Fornication.  This is interesting thinking back, as The Earthling didn’t have anywhere near the five points Samuel Z Arkoff mentioned in interviews.

You’re half dead. Together that makes one of us – William Holden as Patrick Foley.

The Earthling told the touching story of an old man returning to the Australian wilderness to die, only to find a young boy, an earthling, wandering lost in the bush after the tragic death of his family.  The old fella teaches the boy the art of survival.  The film was shot mostly around the Blue Mountains…however, when I arrived for my first day’s work as Stand-In for Mr William Holden, the production was filming in a national park on the out skirts of Sydney.  I remember being nervous, and to complicate things my car radiator started to boil over on way to the shoot, which was stressful. I arrived on set flustered, and was quickly ushered in and introduced as Holden’s Replacement Stand-In to the director Peter Collinson (The Spiral Staircase and The Italian Job starring Michael Cain) and also the great Aussie cinematographer Don McAlpine (My Brilliant Career, Mrs Doubtfire, Wolverine and The Dressmaker).  I remember it being very cramped for some reason on set, and I recall a nervous energy at the very mention of the name, William Holden.  Pleasantries out of the way, I was then shuffled over to the costume truck and given a shirt, a sheep skin jacket and an old fashioned hat to wear.  Someone pushed a copy of The Earthling script into my hands, and pointed out the scenes we’d be filming that day. I was then handed a shooting schedule for the week. At this stage there was no sign of Mr Holden (or Ricky Schroder for that matter) but you could feel Holden’s present on set, it was everywhere.

You wanna know my name? It’s God! G – O – D, GOD! – Ricky Schroder as Shawn Daley.

The crew stopped and had morning tea while I ran over the scene to be filmed, preparing for my job as William Holden’s Stand-In.  In case you don’t know a stand-in runs the lines, stands in for the lead while the crew set lights, camera moves and focus. It’s a strangely lonely-challenging-job that requires you to be patient and alert, something at my young age I found difficult.  Still, I managed to fight off my uncontrollable nerves, and I got the job done.  Once the blocking was done, we were ready to shoot, it was time to bring in the star, William Holden. The first glimpse of him my brain switched to slow-motion…as this old man of similar build, emerged slowly from his trailer, wearing exactly the same clothes a me, his facial features movie-star-familiar. William Holden tipped his hat in my direction and offered his hand…

“Hi I’m Will Holden, you must be Noel…?” he prompted for my surname.

“Yes…I’m Noel Anderson…?” I said swallowing my name, unsure of who I was.

“Well, Noel…And-err-son welcome to our little movie!” He looked me in the eye,”You know you look about as old as Ricky Schroder, think you can play me? Play Foley?” he chuckled with an American drawl.

“Yes, I think so.” Did he like me? I couldn’t tell.

We shook hands…quickly Mr Holden flipped back his hat, it landed plonk on his head, just like in a Hollywood musical, and he took his place on set.  Suddenly there was fussing about, wardrobe started tugging at the clothing  Mr Holden is wearing, adjusting this, perfecting that…while the hair & makeup department went into a frenzy. Finally, Mr Holden held both hands high in the air, motioning he was ready act, and that he wanted everyone to FUCK OFF, which of course everyone did, immediately.

Peter Collinson the director asked me to run the moves for Mr Holden so he could get the scene down faster, which I did self-consciously, then I was escorted to the back of the set, behind the crew and William Holden took my place on set.  The legend was up and running. Lights! Camera! Action!

Nothing belongs here that wasn’t born here – William Holden as Patrick Foley.

By my third day working on The Earthling I had started to wonder what happened to the stand-in before me, the production was well underway by the time I was brought in.  Did he not get along with Mr Holden? Did the other stand-in get sick or something? I never did find out why I was brought in at such late notice…or why I was let go a week or so later.

The William Holden I remember was a cranky old codger with cracked skin and troubled mind…I thought.  Maybe aging, losing his looks in Hollywood damaged his spirit in someway, or maybe it was Lady Demon Drink that had soured him. The Earthling was released in 1981 and took a pitiful $72,000 at the Australian box office. The critics weren’t kind to the film but over time it found an appreciative audience on television.

In 1966 William Holden killed a man in a driving accident in Italy, he was intoxicated at the time, and in 1981 just two years after we worked together on The Earthling, he died alone in his apartment from a fall, intoxicated.

Ricky Schroder who played the boy in The Earthling struggled as an adult actor and is mainly remembered now for the TV series NYPD Blues. I remember him as just another kid on set, surrounded by minders. I never spoke a lot on set to William Holden, I felt disappointment with himself whenever I looked  into those piecing eyes of his, and when I watch Sunset Boulevard on TV or his other film classic Network with Faye Dunaway, I’m proud to have experienced working on The Earthling with him.

You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big – William Holden as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard.

It was an exciting time back then, a time of pride in Aussie cinema, in some way I feel part of the renaissance of Australian films, thanks to the experience of being a Stand-In on The Earthling. Thankyou, Mr Holden.

For his contribution to the film industry, William Holden has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1651 Vine Street.

I Wear The Same Size Shirt As William Holden : The True Story Series – Written by Noel Anderson.

Noel Anderson’s 15 Mins of Fame Showreel

Why not checkout other work by writer/director NOEL ANDERSON