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When you’re dressed as a nun

Image by Vadim Tashbaev from Pixabay 

We were five weeks into shooting, and I’d hit rock bottom. I’d been so excited for this summer job, but it had not gone as planned. And I’d had plans! Believe me. I’d had PLANS. I was going to be the best extra on the planet, so that the German film crew would notice and hire me for real, for an actual role next year. I was going to make firm, fast friends with all the other girls who’d also been hired as extras, to play young nuns. I’d planned super quiet card games, and quizzes and competitions and…well it doesn’t really matter, as all my attempts had gone down as well as…well…as well as a clown at a funeral. They’d earned me nothing but side-eye and shushes.

I got it.

The verdict on me, from one and all, was that I needed to DO LESS.

Less smiling. Less moving. Less talking. Less of everything.

‘You girl! Third from the left. You are supposed to be contemplating God, not grinning like…like… a buffoon.’

That was my last piece of directorial feedback. Super great.

I’d had the weekend to consider and dwell on last week’s sins, and now it was Monday, and I was anxious as a nun trapped in hell. I needed to get through one more week. DOING LESS. Or more of the right things? I was really going to try. Try hard.

By 9 am I was in my costume – a nun’s habit – super great, as there are pockets to put things in, and no hair or make up required. I was stood on set, the flower garden of a lower grade stately home that was acting as a nunnery.

The Assistant Director had positioned me at the back of the shot, next to a rose bush that had been rigged up with extra fake roses. Pink. It would likely look fine from a distance. My fellow young nuns had been positioned around with various baskets, and watering cans, and nunly gardening accoutrements.

Me, I was holding an old pair of snippers, or ‘secateurs’ as the prop master corrected me.

The August sun was shining down. You would think this would be a happy scene. And in the script it kind of was. Filled with longing at least? I’d read the scene multiple times, as always. I’d even read the book it was adapted from – Rosamund Hart’s ‘Pure Love’. It was the scene where the star, Layla Gudrun, was supposed to enter, sniff a rose, and think about the man she was in love with. The man who she shouldn’t be in love with, as she was a nun. (No-one was supposed to do anything around here.)

I opened my snippers in a slow, nunly way to get ready for the shot.

“You! Don’t cut anything!” Came the piercing voice of Barb Endecott, the Continuity Supervisor. She was pointing right at me with both a very fierce looking finger, and her clipboard, chin jutted.

I nodded and closed the snippers, clenching my teeth, cheeks burning, eyes watering.

I fingered my note to myself in my pocket.

JENNA TONE IT DOWN

DO LESS

SAY LESS

FOCUS.

ONE MORE WEEK.

I looked to the blue sky heavens, and jumped out of my nunly skin as the clapper board sounded, and Hans Markman the Director cried out…“Aaaaaand ACTION!”

I studied the rose bush at my side, and made myself contemplate God, no peeking at Layla Gudrun and whatever rose sniffing acting she was doing.

‘Dear God,’ I said (in my head, I’m not stupid). ‘I am only a young nun, and I am feeling a little lost on my path, sorry to trouble you, but I am troubled.’ (This was going well. This would be good actual dialogue. This could be an actual scene.) I nodded to myself, in contemplation. ‘Dear God, What should I do?’

‘Ben bad dog.’ Came the reply in my head, and my whole body clenched. Shock. Trying not to show shock. Trying not to break the connection. Had something broken in my brain? What was happening? That was an actual voice. In my head. Answering me.

I closed my eyes for a moment. ‘Hello?’

‘Hello, friend.’

“AAAAAAND CUT!”

My eyes snapped open.

What had just happened?

I looked around me, feeling like I’d just been stung awake, but not in a bad way. More like a cold splash in the lake when your veins are full of mud.

I looked left and right. Up and down.

Then I noticed Amanda, one of the other young nuns, glaring at me, and mouthing, ‘Stop showing us up!’

I nodded.

But I also couldn’t help the smile that was spreading over my face, like sunshine. Sunshine that cannot be stopped. I needed the scene to start again so I could go back to my praying. I focused my nunly features into a serious…countenance. Contemplation. I pressed my snippers to my thigh. I kept my mouth closed.

I was ready this time for the clapperboard. And as soon as the scene started rolling, I tried again.

‘Dear God, are you there?’

‘Ben here.’ The voice was soft and sweet.

But, Ben? Ben who? Who was Ben? A ghost? A ghost sent to me by God?’ I closed my eyes to concentrate harder. Let them all think that I was praying. (Which I kind of was.)

I replayed the last part of our conversation, before we were interrupted. ‘Ben bad dog. Hello friend.’

Could he really be a dog?  A dead dog? God as a dog?

“AAAAAND CUT!”

Shoot. I’d missed my opportunity to reforge the connection. I think an UGGGGH sound came out of my throat.

My eyes snapped open again. And I could feel too many eyes on me. And then both Barb (Continuity) and Hans (Director) striding towards me. Hans was shouting. “If you refuse to take this seriously….! I see you!” He strode towards me, head bobbing erratically, face gurning in…an impression of me?

I froze in place, hell burning my cheeks.

A tutting sound spread from young nun Amanda to Chloe, to Rachel, on and on – a clear, clacking chain of disapproval.

Hans stopped right in front of me, a tall exclamation point of bearded fury. He reached for my elbow and then pulled back at the last moment and nodded to Barb. “She’s a girl. I’m not having her sue me. You remove her.”

Barb jabbed her pen through her bun, jutted her chin at me again, and then shooed me with her clipboard, like I was a calf in the road, all the way until we were past all the bushes and fake flower patches, through the green archway.

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks, and I dabbed at them with the fabric of my wimple.

“I was really trying,” I mumbled. “I was praying to God, and then….”

Barb wheeled around, and now she was facing me, outside the catering van, and the first tent, where the extras and crew ate their lunch every day. She scanned her clipboard. ‘Significant other, Tony Sargent. Your father, yes? Call him to come collect you. I am needed!’ She spoke something fast into her radio, then gestured back in the direction we’d come from with her clipboard.

In a bonfire of shame, I started to strip out of my habit, but the wimple had been clipped in place, and it caught in my hair. I swore.

“I can still hear you! Go back to wardrobe!” Barb called, over her shoulder, marching off back towards the action. The action I’d been fired from, for trying to talk to God. For trying to do an excellent job, and doing…too much.

“HELLO FRIEND!” Came an eager voice, from behind the catering van.

I took a couple of steps towards it, still tugging at my wimple.

“Klaudia, make sure she goes to costume!” Barb yelled from the far-off archway, then disappeared through it.

Klaudia stuck her head out of the front hatch of the catering van. I’d seen Klaudia dishing out our dinners every day, but never spoken to her. She was always locked in factory-line efficiency. “Cheese or ham? Pasta or bake? Salad or stew?” Whatever that day’s options were. There was always such a long line. But now she popped out of the end doorway of the van, wiping her big hands on her apron, eyes squinched up and focused on me. The van swayed as she strode down the steps.

“Hello chicken,” she said in a warm, thick accent.  “Not good day?” she said in ultra-hushed tones, shrugging her colossal shoulders.

“HELLO FRIEND! ME HERE!” came the voice again. I craned to look in the direction of the sound, and Klaudia’s gaze followed mine.

“You hear Ben whining?” she said, sighing, with great gusto. “What am I going to do with him?”

Her voice was flooded with exasperation. But also love?

“Too hot to leave Ben in the car, but he ate the ham, little thief. Then stole Hans Director’s cigarettes. Bad dog, I know. What am I going to do with him?”

“Ben?” I said, reaching out in my mind, like I was praying.

“BEN!” came the voice.

I stood there smiling as Klaudia scrubbed at my tear-stained face with her rough fingers. “Come on chicken, go to costume and get this off before more trouble happens.” She plucked at the front of my habit.

I nodded, and whispered, “Then can I come back and see Ben?”

She tilted her head to one side, and then nodded. “You getting picked up? Your Papa?”

“My phone’s with my costume. But yes, I’ll call him.”

She folded her arms tightly over her big chest. “You know anyone who wants dog? Not forever, but for today. Tomorrow too maybe. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”

“Maybe!” I grinned and walked at a fast but sensible pace, to the costume van, holding my snippers responsibly at my side. It was thankfully empty of wardrobe ladies. They must have been off on a smoke break. So, I got to untangle myself from my habit, and swap it for my own clothes, in peace. I whirled the habit up into a bundle, put it on a chair and laid the snippers carefully on top. Then I remembered my note to myself in the pocket, retrieved it, flipped it over and scribbled a quick message to go with the pile.

I AM DONE.

I’VE BEEN CUT.

JENNA (IN CASE YOU COULDN’T GUESS).

No more days to get through though. No more acting. No more being a nun. I rolled my shoulders back, and it did feel like there was a little more helium in my veins. I had a dog to meet. A dog who could speak to me, in my brain. I mean….!

I grinned and ran back to the catering van, my bag over my shoulder, phone in one hand. Oh shoot. I still had to call my dad. Cold dread rolled over me and sank down through my ribcage, into my stomach. How was I going to explain this to him? He’d be so exasperated. “Jenna? What did you do? You’re sixteen, not six.”

My knees gave out and I crumpled down into the dirt. I put my head between my knees, phone clutched to my chest. My breath came in painful spikes, and …oh shoot, I could not let anyone see me like this. I felt a nudge at my thigh and warm fur against my cheek. I picked my head up slowly. There was a goofball of a golden retriever, now resting his paw on my knee, a strand of slobber curled up over his cheek, brown eyes beaming. So cute.

“Ben! Ben! Grab his leash!” Klaudia called in a stifled way that was all face and flailing, not sound.

I took his leash gently in my hand.

“Hello Ben.”

“FRIEND!”

I smiled and pushed up onto my knees. He stuck his wet nose right in my face, and I laughed as I hauled myself up. I held onto Ben as Klaudia flapped her way towards us, her flipflops snapping time.

“You two come with me,” she said, steering me towards the van, Ben trotting at my side, like the happiest little thief in living history.

She gestured for me to sit down on the steps of the van. Ben sat neatly at my side, and I looped my arm around his soft neck. Klaudia squidged past me, up into the catering van.

“I guess we’re both in trouble,” I muttered into his golden fur.

“Ben bad dog. HELLO. HELLO.” I heard in my head.

“Hello friend.” I squeezed him gently.

Klaudia re-emerged and thrust a cold can of coke at me. I still had my phone in one hand, so I unhooked from Ben, took the can, and put it down next to me.

“Thank you.”

Then I braced myself to step into the hell of disappointed father land. He picked up on the fifth ring.  Part way through my explanation I pressed the cold can of unopened coke to my forehead, and Ben leaned into me.

“I know dad,” I said… “I swear, I really was trying.”

I felt Klaudia snatch my phone up from my sweating hand and launch in, “She good girl! I give her special job of looking after my dog. Very important! She have to leave because of dog.”

Ben wagged and lowered his drooling chin onto the knee of my jeans.

“Such a good dog,” I said, patting his head gently.

“You come here, get good daughter!” Klaudia said sharply. “Goodbye. Good day to you.”

I gazed up at her, and so did Ben. From where I was sitting on the steps, she was a solid mountain of hope. She frowned and clucked.

“You want that job, yes? You look after Ben for me? You good friends.”

“Yes I want that job,” I grinned, and wiped some of Ben’s slobber off the knee of my jeans. Now it was on my hand. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, so I just wiped it back onto the thigh of my jeans.

I was already picturing Ben and me, driving home, windows down, ready to do more, no matter the mood my father was in. I was going to be the best dog sitter. And we were already firm, fast friends.

“Good girl! Klaudia pinched one of my cheeks, and patted Ben’s scruff. Ben licked my other cheek.

I laughed and said out loud. “You want to go to the river? You want to play ball?”

“BEN WANT YES!”

Perfect. We’d do ALL THE THINGS.

 

Week 19

I spent several summers as an extra, working on a TV series with a German film crew. They were filming adaptations of Rosamund Pilcher novels, and in one of them I was a nun. The crew were actually lovely, but there were lots of reasons why I found being an extra really hard! And being as composed as a nun for weeks…even more so.

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