When someone from the past blackmails the tunnel folk to take part in a movie - guess who has the star role?
Mouse hurried down the steps leading into Father’s chamber, where he found the older man drinking tea with Vincent, before they began the day’s activities, and both looked up startled when they heard Mouse breathing fast. “You really should learn to slow down, Mouse,” Father told the boy, replacing his cup into the saucer, “you’ll give yourself a heart attack. Or me. Did you want to see Vincent?”
Mouse hovered at the side of Father’s chair. “No. Bring this letter for you. Man Above tell me to bring it to you.”
Father drew his brows together. “Man Above? Do you know this man, Mouse?”
“Nope. Never seen him before. He knows you though, called you by name.”
“By name. But few people know my name, least of all you, Mouse.”
“Do now.” Mouse grinned cheekily.
“Then how did you know he was referring to me?”
“He said you bin down here thirty odd years and you were a doctor. Had to be you.”
“Without stating the obvious Father, I think you should open the letter to throw some light on this mystery.” Vincent stood up to brush a soft kiss upon his father’s brow. “I’ll be in my chamber if you need me. Mouse, thank you for bringing the letter.”
Feeling ruffled at his obvious dismissal, Mouse lingered a few minutes more, until the stern gaze from Vincent got under his skin. Casting a sideways glance at Father, he waited just a fraction longer, then turned and fled, as Father called after him, “Thank you, Mouse.”
Vincent chuckled, and left his father to read the letter in peace.
Turning the slim envelope over and over in his hand, Father chided himself on his fear of opening it. That someone from thirty years back, knew he lived in the tunnels beneath the streets of New York, worried him. There weren’t many who had from that time stayed living Below, and the ones that had left seldom returned.
Pulling himself together, Father squeezed a finger beneath a loose corner of the envelope, and slid it along, careful not to cut himself on the sharp paper, and then with trembling hands he extracted the sheet of carefully folded paper from within, and prepared to read the contents. Pushing his spectacles firmly up to the bridge of his nose, and pulling a candle closer for brighter illumination, he began to read:
‘My Dear Jacob,
No doubt you are going to be turning this letter to its end to find out who it is from, so I will save you the bother. Do you remember me, I wonder? Well, here goes. It is Thomas Ashberry that writes to you this day. Just in case I do have to jog your memory, thirty odd years ago, you took me under your wing, and allowed me a temporary stay in your home beneath the city streets.’
At this point, Father felt a rise of anger mount up; he could not believe the foolishness of the man to actually make reference to the whereabouts of his home in writing—anybody could have gotten hold of the letter. At the same time, his mind was re-tracing steps back thirty years trying to remember the man—the name meant nothing to him. He spread the letter out upon the table and proceeded to pick up from where he’d left off:
“Perhaps you don’t remember my name simply because you knew me at that time as Jack. I didn’t want anyone to know who I was for fear of being found. You may, however, remember the story. My wife and I were witnesses to a bank raid, actually seeing one of the men remove his mask, and as we were running away, the man chased after us. He shot and killed my wife, but I managed to escape, and found my way into the tunnels. The rest, as they say is history, for no doubt you can remember now.”
Father found that he did, this man Jack stayed with them, until he was able to help the police to capture the bank raiders, and then he left the tunnels for a while, returning from time to time to see the friend’s he had made in the world below.
Continuing the letter, Father read:
“Perhaps you don’t know however, how I continued to help you way down there beneath the city streets. I became a secret helper. And when good fortune smiled upon me, and I became good at my chosen profession of movie producer, I was able to contribute further, with things that you needed down there, generally in the line of medicine, since my brother has a drug store, and I was able to get whatever I needed from him, no questions asked. I know your doctor friend helps as much as he can, but there were times when even he was unable to obtain the required medicines, often needed for your unique son.”
At this point Father felt his blood boil, two references to the underground home, and now one directly to Vincent, what more would the man say? Nothing could have prepared him for the conclusion of the letter:
“You only have to check with your doctor friend to establish the truth of my words; I had in the past begged him not to mention my help, but now I will make allowances for that. At no time did I ever endeavour to help you for future personal gain to myself, you must believe that. What you gave me in the beginning, deserved all the help and more that I repaid you with from then on, however, loath as I am to ask, I am calling in my favours, and expect that you will now help me. After all, three weeks refuge against thirty years of medicine is rather unbalanced, don’t you agree? And I feel that now you are indebted to me.
As I mentioned earlier, I became a producer in the movie business, and generally speaking over the years I have done very well for myself, but I have always hankered after that really big break, and have run up some considerable debts in trying to achieve it. What I needed was something new to capture the hearts and minds of people everywhere, some kind of love story with a difference. It was then I remembered your world down there. And even more than that, your unique son. I know he still exists, and I have seen him on one occasion, not too long ago, while in the park late one night. He didn’t see me, though he knew I was there; his acute senses are remarkable, so is his power. I was inspired by his strength and physic, and I have to admit, the sight of him set the seed which flourished into my dream.
This is what I propose you repay me with for all the help I have given. I wouldn’t want to expose your world Jacob, and hope I don’t have to do, so no doubt you will give me your word to help me in this request.”
The desire to screw up the letter was strong, but Father resisted the urge; he didn’t like to read on, he was furious, the gall of the man! Request indeed, more like out and out blackmail. He was also furious that Vincent had been seen; hadn’t he begged and begged his son never to go Above? Hadn’t he told him time and again, what if he were seen? Returning his gaze to the letter, Father turned over the sheet and smoothed it out, reading faster now:
“I intend to make a movie about your world beneath the city streets—oh, don’t worry, I won’t bring the camera crew down there. I have hired a large, very large warehouse, not far from several of the tunnel exits, and am in the process of recreating the world Below as I remember it. I should like for your unique son and as many tunnel dwellers as possible to come along to the warehouse as the cast for this movie— don’t worry, as far as the camera crew are concerned, your son will be in make up, they will never know otherwise. Even the actress that I intend he will fall in love with in the movie will be none the wiser. All I ask is that you be yourselves. Though I shall have some scripts, generally speaking the movie will be as true to life as is possible, and if the movie does as well as I hope, you will also receive royalties which will no doubt help you further down there. So what do you say? Is it a deal? I hope for your sake that it is. I’ll be in touch. Yours etc., Thomas Ashberry.”
Father leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes with disbelief. He didn’t know what to think. But his life seemed to have drained away from him. And he suddenly felt very weak and extremely cold.
The tunnel community, whom Father deemed should know about the letter, were no more impressed than Father. Not only was the idea a foolish one, but also would put the whole community in great danger. “It might only be fiction to them, Father, but what if some people really believe it, and come looking for this secret world beneath the city streets, what then? I don’t want to think about it,” Pascal told him, nervously.
Father nodded, “Yes, it is unthinkable that we can allow this to happen, that has been my worry also. Yet what is the alternative? Can we risk going against this man’s wishes, would he not produce the film anyway, with his mock tunnel world and another cast, the conclusion would thus be the same? And what if he were to tell about what we have here in retribution. I really don’t know which way to turn.”
“Would it be so bad, do you think.” Everybody turned wide eyes towards Mary, did they hear her right?
“Don’t look so shocked. I was just wondering, maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as you all think, and Lord knows we could do with the money. There is so much we need down here, and if he will make the movie anyway, it could be at a loss to us.”
She had a point of course, everyone could see that, but it didn’t make them any happier.
“I suppose the one to take the greater risk here, would be Vincent. Perhaps we should let it rest with him.” Mary went on.
Vincent smiled. “Passing the buck is so unlike you Mary, but I take your point. And in many respects I am to blame. If I hadn’t of been seen that night in the park, then Thomas Ashberry might never have thought this dream up. I shall have to go over it very carefully, but I have to admit, you could be right, Mary; right now we have an equal balance of loss and gain over this, but I can see that if we don’t agree the eventual loss could be greater.”
Father slowly nodded. “Then you would be willing to give it a try, Vincent?” he was incredulous to even believe it so.
“Yes, I think so, but it will have to be a team effort, and I would need absolute confirmation that the camera crew really believed I was in costume and make-up, especially any extra’s that are brought in, that don’t know me, like this actress he spoke of for one.”
“Personally,” Pascal laughed out loud, “I think that’s what drives you, isn’t it, Vincent? Go on, admit it, the thought of a beautiful woman falling in love with you, not that one never could of course.” He blushed, “What I mean is...oh hell you know what I mean, me and my big mouth.”
Vincent draped an affectionate arm around Pascal’s shoulders. “Had it been anyone else but you, Pascal, I may have taken offence, but I think I know what you were driving at, and I must admit that side of the whole affair does have a bonus for me.”
“Very apt word, too, I’d say,” Pascal grinned. And as Vincent drew his brows together Pascal laughed some more, “Affair, Vincent, affair.”
Acutely embarrassed, Vincent hid behind a long curtain of glorious tawny hair, and everyone who saw, laughed. It lightened the mood, and within minutes those who had been summoned to Father’s chamber were laughing too.
“All right then,” Father announced at last. “When Thomas Ashberry contacts us, we will tell him we are agreeable with reservations. All those in favour, say Aye.”
“Aye,” everyone chorused, and the motion was carried.
*** *** ***
Having decided upon the ‘request,’ many were disappointed at the length of time before Thomas made contact again, many weeks in fact, until one afternoon the pipes announced the arrival of a stranger, and Pascal brought the man down to Father himself.
Father recognised him at once, and still unsure of things, refrained from taking hold of the man’s outstretched hand in greeting. “So, you aren’t offering your warmth this time, Jacob; that is a pity, I had hoped that you would see the sense of my offer, you’ll regret it you know.”
Father did not like the sound of the menace in the other man’s voice, but chose to ignore it. “I have my reservations, Thomas, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t decided to go along with your request.”
Thomas Ashberry’s face lit up, as Father went on. “All we have to talk about are our terms and conditions.”
The man was as different again. “Of course, of course, oh this is wonderful, and I have the perfect actress to work alongside Vincent, she is really beautiful; perhaps they will really fall in love, huh? Then the film will come out even better. You know chemistry, magnetism, and all that.” Father glowered at him.
“Hey, it was just a joke, anyway she is already spoken for. She’s engaged to Tom Gunther, you ever heard of him? Makes the papers all the time now. Oh, I guess you don’t have the paper delivered down here, should have thought of that, I’m sorry, anyway where were we? Oh yes, contracts and all that.”
Father could hardly keep pace with the man!
In no time at all it seemed, scripts were being sent Below for everyone with a part to remember off by heart. Vincent found the whole thing a little exciting, even though his nerves often got the better of him. So much so in fact that when at last the day came for the first roll of the camera’s he found his feet firmly rooted to his chamber floor, and he was unable to leave that day at all.
Finally after much encouragement and some threats from Thomas about bringing the camera crew Below after all, Vincent managed to actually move his feet for the second day.
*** *** ***
Throughout the following weeks, Vincent really got into the swing of it, and yet found it all beyond him. He was, on the one hand, pretending to be something he already was. To all intents and purposes he was an actor beneath a mountain of make-up, who always arrived made up onto the set, and went home in the same guise. Nonetheless, the story that it took hours to put on and take off sufficed, and the extras did not question it, save for one, the actress who played alongside him.
From the moment Vincent had set eyes upon her, he felt something stir within him. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, there was more to it than that. In some way they seemed to be connected, and wherever he was, he could feel her joys, her troubles, her problems and fears, and he could not quite understand why this emphatic connection should be with her, when everything was just make believe.
As they stopped for a break during filming one day, he heard her arguing with Thomas Ashberry, and when she was alone, he went over to offer some assistance.
“Would you like to talk about it?” he asked her, surprised at himself, for asking, while knowing without a doubt that she wanted this very much.
She nodded. “Yes, do you mind. Perhaps we could go and sit, and eat our sandwiches over there where it’s quieter.”
He looked to where she pointed; there was no one around, and nodded. Taking her hand, (which by now after so many takes together along the same lines, seemed only natural), they walked across to the empty seats and sat down facing one another.
She seemed almost afraid to open up, pulling at the cling film which covered the sandwiches without actually unwrapping them, and Vincent prompted her. “Catherine?”
She looked up, and he was stunned to see large tears well in her eyes.” “I’m sorry,” she stammered, brushing them away, “I’m not usually so weak.” She smiled then a watery smile, and sniffed hard, “You know I was only to do part of the movie, don’t you?”
“I had heard, yes.”
“In the beginning, I made Thomas agree to writing out the contract for only three quarters of the movie, because I was supposed to be getting married and leaving New York before the movie would be finished.”
Vincent nodded, he had read the script, and didn’t like the way it was turning out, he had hoped for a more of a happier ending, to their developing love affair on-screen.
“Supposed, you say. Has something changed?”
“Yes, I no longer wish to marry Tom Gunther.”
Vincent felt his heart lift. “You don’t, why?”
“Call me stupid, Vincent.”
“You’re stupid, Catherine,” he smiled broadly.
Catherine smiled. “No silly, I mean call me stupid because I am basing reality too much upon fantasy. I don’t know, Vincent, but since you and I embarked on this wondrous love affair for the cameras, it seemed to rock me somehow. I began thinking, why isn’t real life like that? I mean, why can’t Tom love me the way you do? I began to feel something was missing, perhaps it isn’t, maybe I’ve got mixed up along the way somewhere, but I do know this, that if love like we have been portraying can exist, where is it, and why can’t I find it?”
“That’s a very complex question. It rests on a great deal, Catherine.”
“Yes, Vincent, I know. But I seem to be so happy with the fantasy, that reality becomes the fantasy and the fantasy becomes reality. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“No, I guess it was a bit mixed up.”
“Just a bit,” he smiled at her, and Catherine felt her heart melt.
“There,” she said, “you only have to do that, and I feel my heartstrings react. They don’t react the same way with Tom.”
“So you are in love with the fantasy; I too have enjoyed the time we have spent together, but all stories have to end, Catherine.”
“But do they? Doesn’t the fantasy tell us that they lived happily ever after? You know what they have planned for me in this movie, don’t you?” she asked him sadly.
“Yes. But that was because you weren’t going to be able to see it to its conclusion. Has something changed?”
“Most definitely, that’s what Thomas and I were arguing for. I don’t need to go now, I won’t be marrying Tom, so the movie could have a happier ending, but Thomas has already hired the actress who’s to take my place, signed her up and everything for her part. He wants me out.”
“And it’s important to you, that it has this happier ending. Without wishing to repeat myself, I feel obliged to do, it is only a story after all. You are confusing fact with fiction, aren’t you?”
Catherine sighed, “I guess so. But if only it were real.”
“The story. If only there really was a tunnel community beneath the city streets, if only there was a kind man named Father that everyone looked up to, and if only there really was someone as beautiful as you are in that mask,” she sighed wistfully.
“And if there were?” Vincent whispered, truly amazed.
Looking at him strangely for there was something in the way he had asked it, Catherine thought long and hard about her answer, “If there were someone that actually looked and lived the way you have been portraying your character to be, then I would want to be with him. I could really fall in love with a guy like that.”
“You could!” Vincent was astounded.
“Oh yes, for you are a beautiful beast, Vincent, not just outwardly, but inwardly too. Thomas certainly knew what he was doing when he hired you to take the part of the beast; I only hope my part compliments him, the way it was intended.”
“Catherine? Is that your real name, Catherine?” Vincent hadn’t thought to question it before.
“Yes, it is actually. So is the surname. Thomas usually likes people to play themselves. In first movies, that is. From then on they have to alter names to avoid confusion. I take it that as you haven’t been in a movie before, that Vincent is your true name also?”
“You presume right.”
“So what are you like beneath all that make up, are you as good looking without it, as you are with?”
Vincent didn’t know how to take her words; surely she was making fun of him, but it didn’t come over that way. His reluctance to reply made her blush. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you, but truly for whatever reason I don’t know, I just find myself looking upon that face mask with eyes of adoration. Maybe the face has nothing to do with it, maybe it’s the inner beauty that shines through, making the facial looks unimportant, yet beautiful too, I don’t know, but I do know without a doubt ,Vincent, that I wish you were really like that.”
“And if I were to tell you that I was?” He spoke so quietly, she wasn’t sure if she had misheard, but something about those honest blue eyes told her she had, and it wasn’t just the words; they touched her, that was true, but it was the way he uttered them that had her almost believing.
“Then I would want to spend the rest of my life loving you outside the boundaries of fantasy. You are truly beautiful, Vincent, and whether within the movie or not, or within both or not, I know I could love you.”
“Do you feel connected to me?” he asked her softly, he had to know if she could feel it too.
Her eyes opened wide. “That’s so funny. Why, yes I do. In many respects the strength of the feeling of being part of you, led to the break up between Tom and myself. He was always accusing me of thinking about someone else, and I was, though often subconsciously. I never meant to hurt him, but somehow, I just didn’t seem to fit into his world anymore. It was almost as if I was a part of someone else, and when I meditated on it, I realised that someone was you.”
“I’m sorry, I was the cause of your unhappiness with Tom.”
“Don’t be. You made me realise what I was missing. Or rather this movie did. My problem now is how to go on, now that the fantasy for me is almost over.”
“There will be other movies. And you have your life to lead.”
“Yes, maybe, though since the death of my father and my mother many years prior to that, I don’t really have anywhere to belong. I guess that’s why I like fantasy so much; one can escape reality, and pretend everything is right in life. I just wish, that’s all.”
“Yes, for someone like you, Vincent. Tell me, under all that make-up, what are you really like as a person? Is the script any way a mirror of your true self, or are you just an excellent actor that makes everyone believe it’s natural. I would love to know the real you.”
“You already do.”
Catherine frowned. “That’s the second reference you have made in that direction. I don’t know if you are laughing at me, or if you are trying to tell me something, and I am afraid to believe. Vincent?” she queried.
“This is not something I do lightly, Catherine, in fact I have never done so in my life, and I hope I am not mistaken, but something tells me I would be right to trust you, so I will ask anyway. When the shoot is finished today, I should very much like to show you my home.”
Catherine laughed, “Huh, a sheep in wolf’s clothing! Nonetheless I am intrigued. Yes I would like that very much.”
Vincent smiled, he only hoped Father would like it too, but somehow he couldn’t visualize such a thing.
*** *** ***
Catherine’s eyes opened wider and wider as the two of them along with a few of the tunnel cast, made their weary way home beneath the city streets after the day’s filming. She could not believe her eyes!
Wordlessly, she allowed herself to be taken deeper and deeper beneath the city streets, until at last she came to a warm glow that signaled golden candlelight filling a chamber entrance. Father was already there, having finished his part in the movie earlier that day, he stood up when Catherine entered alongside Vincent. “What on earth! Vincent, what have you done!”
Vincent descended the steps quickly to grasp the older man’s shoulders firmly and ease him down into his seat, kissing his brow affectionately. “Don’t fret, Father, Catherine can be trusted to keep our secret without a doubt.”
Catherine’s eyes danced with pleasure, the candles lighting them up into a flashing brilliance that stirred Vincent’s heart.
“This is real?” she cried delightedly. “Why it’s like stepping into a storybook, or, or a movie.” Her eyes came back to rest upon Father and Vincent standing watching her, one with a look of joy, the other with a look of annoyance.
A unusual look crossed her features which Vincent would have been unable to identify the cause had it not been for the connection he shared with her, and as she stepped closer to him, his heart somersaulted in his great chest. “You are real, aren’t you?” Her words so softly spoken so full of incredibility stunned him, “and you do live this life.” Her eyes opened wider, and Vincent wanted to drown in the green depths.
“Vincent, this is wonderful”.
Father hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath, until she spoke those last words, any moment now, he had expected her to run screaming from the tunnels when she accepted the reality of Vincent, but she did not, and that pleased him in a quiet sort of way.
Coming to stand in front of Vincent, Catherine’s fingertips caressed his face. Not that she hadn’t done so a hundred times already for the benefit of the camera’s but now, it was with a sense of wonder and happiness that was real. “You know that I love you, don’t you?” She told him softly her green eyes misting over. “I can’t believe all this, it is too incredible for words.”
“You’re doing rather nicely, though.” Vincent told her truthfully, grinning at her. “Would you like to see my chamber now?”
Catherine’s eyes opened wide. “Your chamber, oh yes please.”
“Wait!” Father boomed. “What exactly do you have in mind, Vincent?”
“Father, please,” Vincent’s face reddened, “I’m only showing her my chamber.”
“Just as long as that’s all it is,” he grinned impishly.
Catherine stifled a giggle, and took Vincent’s hand, as together they walked to his room. Vincent didn’t reply; he felt too embarrassed.
However, once inside he turned to face her. “Welcome to my humble chamber, dear Catherine,” he told her. “Now perhaps we should talk in confidence?” He raised one eyebrow, and looked sternly at her.
“Are you married, Vincent, or is there anyone in your life?”
“No, to both questions, and I’m open to offers.”
Catherine laughed. “Oh, I love you.” She flung her arms around his body, hugging him tightly, and Vincent for a moment had to pinch himself, for the fantasy had become reality, or was it the other way around, he didn’t think he knew any more. He only knew he was deliriously happy, fit enough to burst.
“If what you told me earlier is true, could you really live down here with me?” he asked her.
“Yes, Vincent, I could. Look, I meant it when I said all those things. I think the question though, is whether you could bear to have me in your life.”
“Bear to have you! Why Catherine, I love you so much. I couldn’t believe it at first, but this empathic connection we share told me the truth of the knowledge before it had formed within my mind, we can make the fantasy become reality, Catherine, if only you say you will live here with me?”
“Of course I will, for as long as you’ll have me. You know, Vincent, in the movie we haven’t ever kissed, but I would really like to kiss you now.”
“Kiss me!” Vincent croaked, “what, as a woman kisses a man?”
Catherine smiled impishly as she advanced, “No less, Vincent, and if you think you could bring it about, I would most certainly like to take things beyond a kiss.”
“With me!” This really was too much. Vincent actually blushed.
Catherine laughed. “All right Vincent, I’ll wait until you are happier with both of those next moves, until then if you would only agree to my living here with you it would be enough.”
Vincent smiled, and embraced her, just as he had a hundred times on the set, but this time as he clasped her in his arms, it felt real, and Catherine knew that this fantasy would have a happy ending.
*** *** ***
A few more weeks and the movie was finished. Vincent sighed with relief, it had really taken its toll on him, especially the part when they killed off Catherine, after she had supposedly had his baby, which had been kidnapped, making the grief of Catherine’s death all the more traumatic. Not only that, but since he and Catherine had been living Below, and grown closer, the thought of losing her, brought the climax on screen to a successful conclusion. Thomas Ashberry was beaming all over his face. “That was wonderfully portrayed, Vincent; you really put yourself into that part, almost as if you were in love with the woman for real. It was terrific. Well done. That should have the cinema flooded with tears.”
So it was a weary Vincent who came home to the real tunnels after the last day of filming, glad at last that the movie was done. He wouldn’t want to do it again. He didn’t think his heart could stand it.
The movie had shown him being re-united with his son, but forced to live the rest of his days without the woman he loved, and as he came in through his own chamber that evening after filming, he literally fell into Catherine’s waiting arms, breaking down in great tearing sobs, that left him weak. Catherine held him tightly speaking consolingly to him. “It’s all right darling, its all right, I’m here, I’m really here, it wasn’t real, just a movie.” Vincent’s blue eyes looked down into hers, and to see the love shining from them, moved him, and slowly he brought his lips down to capture her own in their very first kiss. Catherine hardly dared to breath, then slowly, slowly responded, as hope flared in her heart, and she felt the gentle thud of his own beating strongly against it. Catherine moaned beneath the beauty of his kiss, and clung to him, and as her legs became as jelly, she would have collapsed had his strong arms not held her so steady.
“Oh, Catherine,” Vincent groaned against her lips, “I love you. Oh, if I should ever lose you like that I would want to die.”
“I thought you had gotten over that scene, darling?” she told him gently.
“I thought so too, but reaching the climax brought it all back, Catherine, and believing the part of having to spend the rest of my life without you, even though I had our son, was too much, I simply could not bear it. I could never live without you in my life.”
“Then we must make certain that neither of us take untold risks, for I simply could not face life without you either, Vincent. I promise that for as long as you need me I shall be here, I love you Vincent, and this story really will have a happy ending.”
Kissing her again, Vincent let out a deep gratifying sigh. “My love, will you marry me?”
“Oh Vincent, I thought you’d never ask. Yes, of course I will marry you.”
Sighing blissfully, Vincent whispered, “And they lived happily ever after,” before their lips met in a fiery blaze of passion that sealed the fantasy, forever.