Melody (Karen) pulls the pint and pushes it across the bar to Niall (Will), like she’s done a thousand times before.
Apart from that New Year’s Eve, when Karen stepped in after the barmaid at her local twisted her ankle on a packet of pork scratchings, she’s never had a bar job in her life. She posed for a lot of photos that night. People found it hilarious that Melody Mackay off the telly was serving them their drinks. Her friends left early. She walked home alone through the thin southern snow, stone cold sober.
‘There you go, love.’ Karen slides into her second voice. Only she can tell them apart: Unlike her, Melody speaks with idle defiance; her sentences have coarser margins. Where their shared defeats have worn Karen down, they’ve toughened Melody up.
Melody’s worked at The Red Oak for ten years, ever since her fiancé, Kevin (Lenny) jilted her. Lenny got arrested for drink-driving on the way to the studio one morning and they had to write him out of the show for a year. But Kevin’s back now, shacked up with someone else. He and Melody have the odd row in the market square, but that’s all.
Will (Niall) smacks his lips, pretending that the tepid apple juice has hit the spot. But Karen knows he misses the tang of pale ale, and that budget cuts aren’t the reason for the substitution.
‘You and that wife of yours patched things up?’ she asks.
‘I’m not sure whether I want to, if you know what I mean.’ Will puffs out his cheeks and then narrows his eyes. He’s always been a hammy actor. As rehearsed, he inches his hand across the bar to stroke Melody’s fingertips. Karen tries not to flinch. When the grainy photo from her desperate stripping days got splashed all over the red tops, Will set it as the lock screen on his phone. He made sure she noticed it was the uncensored version.
The camera to their left zooms in. Melody looks away, checking the pub for gossip-mired mouths, while Karen enjoys the reprieve of the darkness beyond the lights, away from Will’s ruddy cheeks and demanding stare. Beyond the storm cloud of the boom mic, her eyes find refuge on the dark shape of her cameraman. The one who’d filmed her playing Polonius in an all-female production of Hamlet, her first job out of drama school. The one who’d told Will to delete the stripper photo. Karen had thanked him on one of their cigarette breaks. It’s nothing, he’d said. I just couldn’t stand it.
They chat most mornings, by the bins. Even though he’d kicked the habit, he must still like stepping outside for a breath of fresh air. He asks about her ambitions. He tells her she was the best Polonius he’d ever seen.
Unbidden, the tabby pushes the dome of its head into the hollow behind Karen’s knee and she almost jumps. She prides herself on never retaking a scene. Melody found it as a stray, fell in love with it on the spot. It made Karen think that a cat would be company for her, too, at home. But her grey scrap of a thing stays out all night mewling for her neighbour’s branded cat food. And it scratches.
Karen concentrates on her next line, turning back to Will and curving her pink, glossed lips into Melody’s coy smile. ‘What’re you suggesting?’
‘My mind’s on other things, that’s all.’
Melody leans forward and offers Niall a flirtatious pout while Karen surveys the valleys of Will’s irises, searching for glaciers of kindness.
People will yell at their televisions in frustration when this episode screens. Don’t go near him, Melody! Don’t even think about it! But they’ll end up in bed together, anyway. Tomorrow they’re filming a furtive kiss and next week, Tash catches them, half-dressed, in the back room of Mrs Perkins’ shop.
Will trails his eyes down to the first fold of Karen’s blouse. Not in the stage directions, but as she expected. The wardrobe lady had let her do it up one button higher than usual for this scene.
Something clatters to the floor. Her cameraman has dropped his clipboard and is stalking towards the emergency exit.
‘Cut!’ calls the director. Karen is too busy ducking beneath the bar to decipher his volley of expletives. She runs, catching the door before it swings shut behind the cameraman. A wall of cold air knocks cobwebs from her eyes.
‘Are you alright?’ she calls.
He turns to face her. ‘I’m done with that jerk. With this place.’
Karen draws her fingers into the sleeves of her cardigan.
‘It’s too real, and not real enough, all at the same time. You know what I mean?’ As he taps the side of his head, the pencil is dislodged from behind his ear.
Karen watches it bounce from end to end on the frozen ground. Its quickening rattle claws its way up her clothes and shakes her around the shoulders. She reaches out to steady herself on the railings, remembering only at the last moment not to let them take her weight. They’re made of flimsy plastic, like the daffodils, and the scattering of leaves in the trees. Realistic, but false. By the time today’s show screens, it’ll be spring in the real world, no longer midwinter.
‘You know?’ he repeats.
Yes, Karen thinks. She does know. She just wants one story, the real one. Unscripted, lived in flesh and blood and hormones. ‘Sometimes, I don’t know where Melody ends, and I begin,’ she whispers.
The cameraman rests his fingertips on her shoulder. ‘How about here?’
Karen looks down. She’s standing over the threshold to the set, her toes on the concrete of the yard.
The curved lines formed by his smile ask her to remember something once shared. Not forgotten. ‘To thine own self be true?’
She speaks the last few words with him, taking his hand.