One glorious July morning, I was on my way to help John Joe Maher make hay, when I noticed a crowd of strangers in the town square. A film crew, so I strayed from my path and went to see what they were at.
Making television ads for Guinness, a gaffer told me. Great stuff, I thought, nothing like a bit of excitement and a bunch of strangers to give the town a lift. And what a great day for it. A day with butterflies, honey bees, soft scents of summer and the faraway sounds of hay machines.
John Joe would be interested in this, it would be right up his alley. I'd case the scene and bring it to him hot: great fodder for philosophical discussion while making hay under the mid-day sun. I made mental notes: there was at least a dozen men, running around like rats, all yapping and checking guages and dials and cameras. A few women in tight jeans who smoked hard, dashed here and there with clipboards and stopwatches. Everyone wore sunglasses and bright clothes, lots of neck scarves, jerkins and tweed caps. A fat man, wearing a baseball cap, sat on a chair in the back of a pickup truck and shouted at everyone. He was the director. When he saw me he roared,
“Hey you! What the hell are you doing over there? It's over here you should be!”
One of the women clutched my elbow and led me to where a few locals huddled in a caravan, fitting on white tuxedos: Gaga Murray, Paddy Logan, Stab Jordan, Matty Fullbright and Hopper Hogan. Pride of the Drinking Class. I was press ganged into the cast of the barman's race which was going to be a new tv ad for Arthur Guinness. Years later my grandmother would wail that that was when I lost my innocence and began slipping downhill. But that summer's morning there was no time to object, so I donned the tux and looked around for the cameras. I was just sixteen and mad for road. You could make hay on any sunny day.
A clipboard women came around with pages of forms to sign.
“Royalties,” whispered Matty Fullbright, “read everything extremely carefully.”
“When do we get our money?” whined Paddy Logan.
“Sign here sir,” the woman said, and he did because nobody had ever called him 'sir' before.
“Any hope of a few bottles of porter while we're waitin'?” asked Gaga Murray in the politest of voices.
“No problem,” she said and called someone on a walkie-talkie. In minutes, bottles of porter were frothing, cigarettes went around and we lounged in the caravan like the Rolling Stones before a gig. The crack was mighty. I was the youngest, and supped moderately, not being as used to drink as the others.
By the time the action began, the caravan was trottled with empty bottles; the lads must have downed at least two six pax each. We were hauled out into the sunlight, all eyes on us and I suddenly felt my feet go rubbery. Guards blocked off the street to traffic, the director waited for an aeroplane to pass overhead and we lined up at Healy's Corner. Six merry barmen in white coats, each carrying a tray with a bottle of Guinness and an empty glass. The director gave a countdown and on ACTION! we poured the porter into the glass like he ordered and ran with the trays balanced on one hand.
The first run was a disaster because Gaga Murray stumbled immediately and upset my tray. Porter spilled, glasses broke, and someone had to run into Healy's for a sweeping brush. Back to start. Next time was a little better, but we only got a few yards when something happened to a camera and it was ‘fall out for a smoke and a bottle’ time. I drank a little quicker—what else do you do with free beer, the lads encouraged, lashing it back as fast as they were able.
Paddy Logan began talking about ‘agents’ and ‘contracts’ and calculated how much we were making while we drank. Hopper asked if we could bring the tuxedos home with us and Stab wondered if this gig could affect the dole. Fullbright said we should make it last as long as we could and Gaga Murray, noticing we were running dry, called for more porter. No problem, the woman with the clipboard said.
“This is the life,” whispered Gaga , “say nothin', say nothin', this is the life. Hollywood. Hollywood.”
We had a third try at the race before breaking for lunch. Like the other ‘shoots’, this one was also a fiasco, marred (again) by Gaga who got an attack of nerves at the starting line and sprayed brown porter all over Logan's tuxedo. The director called him a ‘bungler’ and suggested finding a replacement. Fullbright stuck out his chest and warned,
“If you're going to replace Gaga, you'll have to replace us all. I don't give a fuck where you're from or who you're mother is— but if Gaga goes, we all go.”
The director was bewildered and shot quick looks at the rest of us. We played dumb. Fullbright went on,
“Anyway, we'll have to get more money to make this caper worth our while. I could be makin' hay today, instead of arsing around here waiting to do Arthur Guinness a favor.” Fullbright didn't own a blade of grass.
“More money!” screamed the director, “Jesus fella, you've already cost Guinness a fortune.”
“A fortune!” yelled Fullbright, “Jesus Christ, t'is Guinness that's cost us a fortune. Cost this whole bloody town a fortune.”
Before things got hotter, a man from the Sycamore Hotel arrived with a station-wagon full of sandwiches and dainties, tea, wine and coffee. Grub brought a cooling period and one of the women came over to our caravan while we ate and tried to reason with Fullbright who was now casting aspersions on the way things were being done. He said,
“I could shoot 'Gone With The shaggin' Wind' with half the crew here and still have change in my pocket.”
She nodded patiently and said if he left the director alone, she'd make sure that Gaga would be OK.
“But please take it easy, you fellas. Okay?”
“I wonder,” Gaga whispered to her, “would there be any chance of gettin' another drop of wine, t'is supposed to be great for the nerves.”
“No problem! Coming up! Just...just keep things cool, okay?”
“Mortal cool,” whispered Gaga, winking and nodding at her, “We won't say another word,”
We got back on 'the set' around two o'clock and by that time Gaga was totally spaced. The bottled porter was giving Fullbright gas problems and Paddy Logan was banjaxed, waiting for stardom with a bottle in each hand, cigarette hanging from the lips. Stab had hiccups and Hopper Hogan was filling his pockets with salad sandwiches.
The next shoot was a farce — Gaga again. Just as the cameras rolled he got the shakes and everything on his tray rattled like a snare drum. But he couldn't move, couldn't pick up the bottle and pour it into the glass like the director was shouting at us to do. The director screamed at him.
“Pour it you dumbhead! Pour the damn thing!”
Gaga couldn't move, just shook like a statue in an earthquake. I thought he was going to shake himself apart and collapse into a heap.
“CUT!!!” roared the director before more film was wasted.
There was a mini-conference and Gaga and Fullbright were brought over to talk to the director who seemed to have turned purple. We could pick up some of the argument: Gaga has to go: Then we all go. Gaga is a liability: He only has a touch of stage fright. Then he shouldn't be here: Gaga has every right to be here, this is his home town.
Fullbright wanted to call a strike and a man from the local Chamber of Commerce was dragged in to mediate. A compromise was reached: Gaga got one last chance and if he blew it, he was out of the race and the man from the Chamber of Commerce took his place. We went back to start, Gaga was propped between Stab and myself for support.
“Christ,” he whimpered, “I'm burstin' to make a lake.”
The director was on the countdown.
“Hang on to it,” I muttered.
“ACTION!’ We grabbed the bottles, poured the porter and rushed up the street, trays balanced like waiters. Everything was dunky-dory, no problems. Fullbright and myself were leading until about half-way up the town when Gaga passed us on the inside like a rocket, Grace Lennon's psychotic poodle snapping at his heels. Gaga's body was arched like an unfortunate cartoon character and my first reaction was ‘that's him gone for a burton.’ But the director kept the cameras rolling and zoomed in on the chase. The crew cheered, the dog went bananas, Gaga went faster. He won the race hands down, broke through the finishing line and kept going, straight into Hassett's pub, slamming the door in the poodle's face.
When Gaga re-appeared, race won, dog gone and bladder emptied, Fullbright was shouting at the director,
“Now is Gaga a liability? Hah? You'll never get a scene like that again. Hah? Gaga is a professional. This is the real thing man. Hah? The real Ireland.”
And so it was, back in the days of corncrakes, and us poor peasants making Guinness ads, instead of making hay.
(This story was originally published in 'The Island' and is included in Out of the Blue, my second collection of short stories)