The Continuity Girl

By Patrick Kincaid

A comic love story in which the discovery of a long-lost version of a cult movie sheds light on a 45-year-old love affair between a Hollywood filmmaker and a real-life Loch Ness monster hunter

Excuse me,’ Jim said, ‘do you mind if I borrow your paper?’

‘Not at all, young man,’ said the Watson actor. He picked it up from where he had dropped it by his chair. ‘Be my guest,’ he said, handing it up. ‘You following the moon mission, too?’

He was a thick-set man of about forty, with a real moustache and a receding head of tightly curled hair. His smile was natural and there was a light of genuine interest in his eyes. Jim felt the power of personality in a way he’d never felt it before. ‘I am, yes.’

‘It’s wonderful to have some good news in the papers for a change, isn’t it?’ Now that he wasn’t in character, it was possible to detect something in his voice that was neither English nor Scottish. ‘I suppose you’ve been interested in space since you were a nipper, eh? H.G. Wells and all that…’

There followed a somewhat intense exchange, in which their shared interest in science and technology was the sole topic. Neither acting nor filmmaking, nor yet Loch Ness phenomena, were touched on at all.

‘Well, I won’t keep you from your reading.’ The actor got up and offered Jim his hand. ‘I’m Colin, by the way. And you are…?’

Jim told him.

‘Nice to meet you, Jim. Am I right in thinking you’re April’s friend?’

‘She brought me here, yes.’

‘Lovely girl,’ Colin said, with an even more fulsome smile. Was there a suggestion of a wink, too? Jim couldn’t be sure now it was over. ‘Well, enjoy the rest of the day. Hope we don’t bore you too much. God bless.’

He found April sitting with a tray on her lap. There was a matching tray in Jim’s chair. Irish stew, by the look of it, with mashed potatoes and string beans. ‘Stuff to line your insides with,’ said April, ‘as my English grandma used to say. Isn’t Colin a sweet man?’

‘Very friendly, yes.’ Jim picked up the tray and sat down.

‘A gentleman. Like your Douglas.’

‘Maybe,’ said Jim. ‘But from Northern Ireland, I think.’

Some still unsmothered sunlight shone on her bare arms, making them look like polished pine. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, which diminished their power at least. He tried a forkful of the stew. It wasn’t at all what he’d expected: it had a deeper, red-wine flavour, and a little onion popped against his teeth when he bit down. Was that a shallot? He’d never knowingly eaten a shallot before. Whatever it was, it was delicious. For a while he sat and ate, almost paying April no mind. In fact, the silence between them might reasonably have been described as companionable.

It was April who broke it. ‘Oh, look,’ she said, ‘a butterfly. A Scottish butterfly—I’ve never seen one like that before.’

She kept her right hand still, even though she’d been about to spear a piece of meat with the fork it held. The insect had alighted on the knuckle of her thumb, and kept its wings open, sunning itself. A dusty brown, like cocoa, with a ruffled white fringe and copper-coloured eye-spots. Medium-sized.

‘You’re right,’ said Jim, ‘it is Scottish. Aricia Artaxerxes: the Northern Brown Argus. See those white spots, one on each wing? That’s how you can tell it’s the Scottish variety.’

‘You know all about butterflies, too?’

She seemed about five times as impressed by this as she’d been by his demonstration of deductive reasoning back in the screening room. ‘You pick this stuff up,’ he said. ‘I’d amaze you even more if we came across a newt.’

April put a finger to the butterfly’s antennae. It turned, folding and unfolding its wings, but didn’t take off. ‘Say its name again.’

‘Northern Brown Argus.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I mean the scientific name. Or did you make that up?’

He repeated it for her.

Aricia Artaxerxes,’ she said, working her lips around the consonants. Then she prodded the creature’s abdomen with a polished nail. ‘Now shoo. I’ve got to eat. Go brighten someone else’s day.’

It obeyed her, lifting itself on those powdery membranes and making a haphazard flight up towards the birches behind them.

The threatening cloud passed and the filming started again. The camera was placed behind Holmes, Watson and the woman, and a group of actors playing monks could be seen walking in line over the bridge, their faces obscured by their pointed cowls. Watson waved to them and repeated his previous line. This was done a number of times, and the actor—Colin—played each as exuberantly as its predecessor. Then the camera was removed to the bridge itself, so that the scene could be shot several more times from that position, too.

Jim turned his attention to the newspaper. The launch had gone more or less to schedule. Lift off had occurred at 13.32 GMT and orbit achieved eleven minutes later. Another three hours and they’d performed the lunar slingshot manoeuvre, sending the module in the direction of its destination, which it would reach in a further five days. It was extraordinarily thrilling, and Jim wished there was someone he could discuss it with. But Colin, who was the only obvious candidate, was deep in conversation with one of the crew now. Not the director, but someone who looked almost as important: a round-bellied, middle-aged man dressed like an American tourist, even down to the baseball cap. Close by, Sherlock was brooding again, peering down at the script that was spread open at his feet.

Jim got up and went for a wander. The trees nearest the bank were the usual birch and alder, and behind them, along the road, were the predictable green fronds of bracken and purple spears of willowherb. He strolled to the other side of the road which crossed the water by the bridge, to where the monks had been sitting while awaiting their cue. He couldn’t help but notice a script lying unattended on one of the chairs. He wondered whether it could really belong to one of the monks—as far as he could tell, none of them had any lines…

When Jim and April had first set out in the Land Rover that morning, she’d caught him looking at her own, annotated script, and had flashed her eyes at him in a way that had put him in mind of Sandra. ‘Hands off,’ she’d said. ‘I’d be sent straight to the Hollywood gulag if I let a civilian into our secrets. A lot more than my job’s worth, I’m telling you.’

Now, he looked around to make sure no one was watching. Attention seemed pretty squarely fixed on what was happening up on the bridge. With all the nonchalance he was capable of, he dropped Colin’s newspaper on top of the script, then picked it up again. The script came neatly with it.

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