Live Your Dream
Barry had one moment of glory in his long acting career. It was so long ago few were alive to remember it. Even he was beginning to find that moment of fame on the big screen merging with daydreams and half recalled snapshots of lost glory.
Was it really so long ago? He had been famous for a few precious weeks, only to wind up in a dingy basement flat, riddled with arthritis and type 2 diabetes; forgotten and unemployable. Barry's last role was in an advert for margarine in which he provided the voice of a cranky cow who resented the oily product. Even if the looks had long disappeared, the voice was still there. During these twilight years his virtually estranged agent would phone on the odd occasion to offer a crumb of comfort in some tiny voice over role for a CGI movie or as the narrator for an inane documentary to be aired on an obscure cable channel.
The more time went by, the more Barry lamented that he had once been on the verge of Hollywood stardom. For several glorious weeks he had believed his destiny to be with all those other heavenly bodies posing for the cameras and being pursued by the paparazzi of the day. Of course the film companies kept the private lives of their stars strictly controlled then, but that would have been a small price to pay for immortality. Now, not only was he totally forgotten, he was alone after his long-term partner had succumbed to the ravages of AIDS. Having nursed Jason for so many years, Barry was well aware of how brutal life could be. All the more reason to once again crave communion with that fantasy celluloid world, which had slipped so unfairly from his grasp.
There had been no scandal, no disagreement over the contract with the major studio; just one comment from its mogul that he was "too English". 20th Century Fox had George Saunders, and there was no way Barry could compete with that. So they signed up a totally unknown bit part player with the charisma of a rattlesnake and habits of tomcat.
By the time the studio realised their mistake, Barry was well down the slide to obscurity, even depending on income from appearances as a drag queen. Then followed pantomimes and washing up at an upmarket hotel. Only Jason had made it all bearable. Now the bit part player, who had snatched stardom from him, the suave George Saunders, and Jason, were all dead. Barry had been offered a place in a home for retired performers, but graciously declined, fearful that he would encounter greater names than him who had also fallen on hard times. What could he hope to say to them given their once elevated status? Fortunately he was still mobile and could remember his pin number, if not much else, though the expense of keeping a car and seeing oncoming traffic had become too much so he gave up his driving licence after Jason died.
And Barry had his laptop to search for the stars and films of yesteryear.
One evening he sat sipping his gin and tonic, Googling the biographies and film credits of other long forgotten actors in IBMb, when, changing links, an advert popped up from nowhere as though it had detected the yearning in his world-weary soul. Barry may not have been techno-savvy, but the services it offered seemed quite plausible as well as tempting. For a modest fee "Live Your Dream" would, using their newly developed technology, put the customer centre stage of any film, old or new, they chose. With the aid of a harmless opiate, electrodes stimulating selected areas of the brain and images flashed onto the retina, the subject would be able to live with the stars for one glorious hour.
Humphrey Bogart was at the top of Barry's list. He had always been a fan. The man may not have been an astounding actor or handsome, and had troublesome teeth, but his screen presence was unmatched. So what if it did involve cortical stimulation and having images beamed onto the retinas? Given Barry's encroaching forgetfulness and age, there was little that could be done to make his brain any less efficient. It might even do his mind a power of good.
So the veteran actor pulled out his credit card and tapped in its number; £60 for one hour of bliss. Not a bad price to relieve the unremitting dullness of his life.
He printed out his receipt and went to bed reasonably content.
"Live Your Dream" was located in an old disused studio which at one time had half a dozen busy sound stages. It had been easy to reach by train and Barry vaguely remembered performing a cameo role on at least one of them.
Not much at the studio was as he remembered it. The place was like an aircraft hanger, partitioned off for businesses making jewellery, recycling electronic systems or testing robots. It was just the sort of environment an enterprise like "Live Your Dream" would slot into.
The technicians that greeted Barry were so young he felt as though he was gate crashing a student end of term party. But they were all charming, greeting him as though he was a star. There was even a medically trained attendant just in case something went wrong.
They took his coat and escorted him to a chair rather like that of his dentist's, where electrodes were applied to his balding pate. It wasn't as uncomfortable as he expected, though the weight of the goggles did tend to drag on the ears. As Barry drank the tea with the mild stimulant he wondered if any of them had watched The Maltese Falcon all the way through. Barry knew better than to enthuse about the performances of Sidney Greenstreet, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. He didn't want to embarrass the young people by eulogising over a period they could not comprehend, so quietly allowed himself to slip into that mono Dashiel Hammett dimension.
Initially the sensation was unsettling, but as the mild opiate took effect he relaxed and, to his delight, found that he was part of the action, speaking those hard-boiled lines to his long dead idols. Barry was even allowed to face down Sidney Greenstreet and flirt with Lauren Bacall while Peter Lorre lurked sinisterly in the background, unperturbed by this newcomer and diversion from the script. It was so real, Barry wondered how long he could exist in this dream state before being snapped back to the world of his basement flat and bus pass?
So he made the most of it, continuing to talk, walk, duck bullets, and add alternative dialogue to the classic film. He became such a part of it, the fact he was sitting in a chair with electrodes stuck to his head and goggles over his eyes totally escaped him.
And then the impossible happened.
The director called ‘cut!’
This was not one of the "Live Your Dream's" technicians announcing that his time was up, but a much older voice husky with smoking and screaming directions at actors and film crew.
Barry's imaginary world had become tangible. He could feel the heat of spotlights and hear a camera cease to whirr. He was no longer in a film, but on a sound stage.
A flurry of attendants bustled on set to tend to their particular star, offer refreshments, or add touches to make-up. And most gratifyingly, Barry was brought a cup of tea by a beautiful young man wearing a huge silk tie. This vision in monochrome held up a mirror for the actor to check that he was still camera perfect.
This was too glorious to be real. Vigour and pain-free movement flowed through Barry's arthritic limbs and the gnarled hands that had been freckled with age spots were now powerful and wore Tiffany diamonds. Reflected in the mirror were firm features, suave with a hint of moustache. Barry was in his early thirties, glamorous as only a Hollywood star could be. All right, he may have still been in monochrome, but that was a small price to pay to live the dream fate had stolen from him.
He was a star. The young "Live Your Dream" technicians surrounding him no longer existed. Barry was determined to stay in this world they had created for him and nothing, but nothing, would drag him back to mundane reality.
All attempts to coax the customer back to reality were futile. They had to accept that this one had been trapped by the allure of his personalised never-never land and was refusing to leave. The only indication that his brain was still functioning after the electrodes and goggles had been removed was a blissful, distant smile. Barry did manage to get up, and even speak a few words of gratitude, but he was no longer with them.
The insurance from the "Live Your Dream" policy guaranteed him that place in the home for retired actors, which happily accepted him as a harmless, easy-to-manage resident.
In his armchair in the corner of the lounge, Barry lived on in his Hollywood mansion with that beautiful young man as a companion and an entourage to pander to his every whim. His fixed, distant smile belied the fact that he was actually living the fast life with visits to nightclubs and illicit gambling dens; an existence full of romance, scandal, and stardust. Barry appeared on the covers of film magazines, arm in arm with (female) models the studio obligingly supplied on a regular basis to conceal his true preferences. And of course, he drove a fast car along Sunset Boulevard and down to Rio, a flash of silver as he speeded along the Californian coast road.
Then it crashed.
The mangled wreckage must have filled newspaper front pages - but Barry no longer had any way of telling.
For a brief moment he was aware of lying on comfortable, cotton sheets, sunlight streaming through an open window as he surrendered his last gasp to the serene NHS nurse looking down at him.
The dream was over, though glorious while it lasted.