Never Strike a Civilian

A battle of egos between two actors gets totally out of hand at a cosplay event in Porto.

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

Jack Treece spotted fellow actor Martin Kayle marching across Heathrow departure lounge and knew he was going to be trouble. His stringy bleached hair flicked over the collar of a faded leather jacket and his bony shoulders swivelled as he trailed a cheap battered suitcase on wonky wheels behind him, desperate for public recognition. Jack paused behind a cash-point machine long enough to see which check-in queue Martin joined and, to his dismay, found that they were both on the same Thursday 8.30am flight to Porto.

Like Jack, Martin Kayle – or The Nutcracker, as he was known to horror fans — was headed to Portosplatter fantasy cosplay convention. But whereas Martin’s acting reputation rested on just one notorious character – a fact that made him perpetually insecure and frustrated – Jack Treece was a mid-ranking New Hollywood insider who’d played many varied roles, one of which was the lead in the cult satirical creature-feature “The Roach,” which he’d thrown off just for fun to help restore the faltering career of his old friend Hart X. Just about everyone was familiar with Jack’s finely etched features, which couldn’t be said for Martin without his Nutcracker costume.

Jack charmed a flight upgrade out of the checkout desk staff and slipped beyond Martin’s gaze into the VIP lounge until it was time to board. Before the curtains were drawn to the first-class section, Martin glanced forward as he stowed away his case and noticed Jack taking his seat. He was offended that he wasn’t getting the same VIP treatment, but shortly after take-off a few dedicated Nutcracker fans asked for his autograph and provided a salve for his wounded pride. He consoled himself with the thought that he was a genuine hero to the members of the horror and fantasy community, unlike Jack who was merely an overrated interloper. There were no free drinks in economy class, so Martin arrived in a sober state and cursed as he saw Treece ahead of him greeted by passport control staff and waved through with a smile. By the time he’d made it out to the arrivals lounge Jack had gone, but at least there was a driver holding a card with his name on it, correctly spelled.

Due to the vagaries of the traffic both their cars pulled up outside the Infante Sagres hotel in the centre of Porto at the same time, and Martin took the opportunity to take Jack’s arm and start talking as if they were old acquaintances, though to Jack’s recollection they had never met.

“How long are you here?” he asked Jack. “Until Monday? Well you’re in luck then, I’m doing my acclaimed dramatic monologue for the Sunday evening finale, couldn’t turn Jose and Beatriz – the organisers – down and, you know, it’s an extra treat for the fans.”

“Amazing,” said Jack, “see you around this evening, I expect.”

“Wait, what’s your room number?” asked Martin. “Mine’s 57.”

“No idea,” said Jack as he buried his keys in his pocket, but Martin had already made a note, 24. Jack was relieved that they weren’t on the same floor, this Kayle guy was a Limey jerk.

Forty minutes later Jack had showered and was transferring the contents of his suitcase into an ornately carved armoire when Martin appeared at his door and slid past him into the compact-but-grandly-appointed suite. Nothing was lost on Martin as he peered into every corner, from Jack’s Goyard luggage to his Rick Owens suits, Alexander Wang joggers and Y3 trainers.

“You have an extra chair and your bathroom has better marble and fixtures than mine.”

“Is that so?” said Jack. “I guess they are all different.”

“Plus,” continued Martin, “you have a bowl of fruit and flowers I only got the fruit.”

“Some oversight, perhaps.”

“Nonsense,” Martin replied, “in a world-renowned five-star hotel like this, nothing is unpremeditated, ever.”

Jack tried to shake Martin loose but it was no use and they ended up in reception when Jose and Beatriz arrived with small gifts and itineraries. They were both dressed in dark linen suits, neither of them was particularly memorable, but they were extremely enthusiastic and engaging and Jack was grateful for their company. Once he had a clear idea of that evening’s activities, he made his excuses, leaving Martin talking about the staging requirements for his monologue. It was good to get some fresh air and follow the snaking black and white mosaics of the Portuguese pavement, taking photos of the shops for Instagram until he came to the Paderia Ribeiro Pasteleria and stepped inside for a Galão and a Bola de Berlim, vowing to run for an extra 30 minutes before breakfast to cancel out the indulgence.

By the time he got back he was in a better frame of mind. He checked his emails and read a few pages of a script he was working on before reception rang up at 7pm to tell him Jose and Beatriz were waiting for him. Dinner was at a famous steakhouse just off the Praça dos Leões. There were film critics from the national newspapers, horror movie experts, some Portuguese producers, distributors, sponsors and local politicians plus scream queen Alida Vex and Barbara Steele’s ancient stunt double whose name everyone forgot. Jose and Beatriz had to distribute the stars out around the table so Jack was sat safely beyond Martin’s reach, if not earshot, but he only had to suffer a couple of interjections from Martin’s end of the table where he was holding court like a B-Movie Medici. After a surprisingly pleasant evening marred only by the occasional spat between the Lisbon and Porto contingents of the press, they were all packed off in taxis from the restaurant back to the Infante Sagres. Jack was feeling cheery enough to have a nightcap at the bar with a couple of his new friends and was starting to think that he’d been right to accept the invitation here at the last minute and extricate himself from a liaison with the actress Mistral Thane that was rapidly turning toxic.

Next morning at breakfast Martin was buzzing. The film critics were taking him to a soccer match in the afternoon. As luck would have it, Porto were playing Lisbon and it was going to be a fiercely fought, possibly ill-tempered game. Jack decided to accept their extended invitation but he knew little about the game, cared less, and as soon as he said his team was Chelsea FC (the first and only name that came into his head) he provoked incessant snarking from Martin, a staunch Manchester United fan, that continued whenever they were close during the merchandise signing event in the exquisite Archive Hall at the Alfândega Porto Congress Centre on the Rua Nova Da Alfândaega, with Martin’s stage-whispered jibes rising all the way to the vaulted ceiling of the imposing white room.

Jack tried to focus on the fans and was rewarded with their genuine affection for The Roach – some even wore the costume. Jack was satisfied that he was attracting the hipper cosplayers, the ones who had a sense of irony and dug his flip, self-deprecating schtick. In fact, he was so pleased that he decided to throw himself wholeheartedly into the event from now on and wear his costume, claws included, which had been shipped over, when he introduced a special screening of the film that evening.

The soccer match went well with the home team winning 4-3, though not before three bookings, a penalty and a sending off raised the emotional temperature within the Estádio do Dragão Stadium to boiling point. Jack sat with critics from the broadsheets Jornol de Noticias and Público, and Alice Madeiros, a features editor of Blitz music magazine while Martin was flanked by Santi Sangre and Lupe Luza, two local gorehound fanzine reviewers, and the entertainment editor from Correio de Manhã tabloid.

A great cheer rose around the stadium when Jack’s face appeared on the giant TV screens. Martin responded by encouraging his little coterie of supporters to start chanting “Nutcracker” and he stood up to take a bow when the cameras focused on him, but the chant died away quickly. On the way back to the hotel Jack got the distinct impression that Martin was trying to stir up rivalry between their respective admirers and after one particularly sarcastic comment decided it was time to respond.

Later, Jack kept Martin waiting inside their car to the Teatro Rivoli for the gala, while he strolled over to reception and spoke briefly to the duty manager. Jack introduced the screening of The Roach in full costume, taking off his headpiece and antennae to share some outrageous stories about making the movie with Hart X and the mayhem that attended the acting legend Nigel Void during the shooting of his brief cameo.

At the post screening reception Jack introduced Martin to Maude Mackinaw, who’d produced The Roach and was now one of the most influential film executives in Hollywood. He tried to include Martin in the conversation at dinner but his tendency to boast, condescend and tout for work did not endear him. As the evening proceeded he fell back on the ego-boosting support of Santi, Lupe and the rest of the pro-Nutcracker critics and curators and sniped at Jack when the opportunity arose.

Maude immediately had the measure of Martin, just as she saw beyond Jack’s droll deadpan demeanour to the arch manipulator. For his part, Martin was convinced Jack was deliberately throwing shade on him, cracking jokes about his cheap tux and name-dropping to put him at a disadvantage.

Two can play at that game, he thought, and I have the loyal affection of the people who really count — the fans. We’re not in Hollywood now Toto; these are my people and you, Jack Treece, are just a passing novelty.

A little too much wine was drunk but everyone got back to the hotel in an amiable fashion and stopped for a nightcap at the bar. Jack got a wink from the desk staff as he walked past up the grand staircase to his room, smiled and went to bed.

On Saturday morning Martin swept into the breakfast room as Jack quietly tapped a boiled egg with his spoon. Martin had gone to bed in a state of tipsy omnipotence but woken with alarm to see that his armchair had been replaced with an extremely ugly wooden stool. Worse, someone had taken a bite out of the mango in his fruit bowl.

“I can’t accept that this sort of thing can happen,” he raged at Jack between mouthfuls of scrambled eggs and toast. “I’ve spoken to the concierge but he’s completely bemused.” It didn’t take long for Martin to decide that this was all Jack’s work, but this was his day, his film was showing, and he would make sure he outshone Jack Treece to see how he liked being made uncomfortable.

Jack graciously took a back seat in the day’s proceedings, offering amusing and interesting advice to young fans and film-makers in a panel discussion on getting low-budget fantasy films made, although Martin put up his new cronies Santi and Lupe to ask Jack annoying questions from the floor when the discussion opened up. He also attended the screening of the new Spanish vampire film Un Poco de Sangre en la Carretera and posed for selfies with fans wearing his claws before doubling back to the hotel unnoticed for a quick word with the concierge.

Jack was back in his seat for the end of the Korean film Goyang-I Goemul and caught up with Maude who was leaving that evening, relieved to be avoiding any more aesthetic contamination, as she put it, from Mr Kayle. Jack asked what an ultra A-Lister like her was really doing there and she explained with her usual feline grace that she’d come to meet a relatively unknown young Libyan short-film maker who’d shown up on her radar and could be perfect for a new blue-sky project she was putting together. Jack was in awe of the enigma that was Maude Mackinaw and speculated on the nature of her connection to those weird research cats Carpel and Stamen. The charismatic arthouse producer Paulo Branco joined them briefly for a coffee and Martin was extremely offended when he passed by and wasn’t invited to join them.

When Jack got back to the hotel he waved to the press contingent in the bar and returned to his room to dress for the Nutcracker screening. After his call from reception, Jack went down to meet Jose and Beatriz for a brief drink and update. They were hugely grateful that he’d agreed to stay around to please the fans, have his photo taken with industry types and help maintain press coverage of the event.

Just as they finished their drinks Martin stormed down the ornate main staircase in high dudgeon.

“More of this shit I will not take,” he shouted. “I hold you responsible,” he said, glaring at Jack.

“Me?” said a bemused Jack as he straightened Martin’s wonky clip-on bowtie. “What’s up, Nutcracker dude?”

“As if you didn’t know,” Martin sneered. “Someone’s been fucking around with my room again. It took me 15 minutes to prise open my wardrobe and get my evening suit after some joker removed the handles and my fruit’s stale.”

“Stale fruit? You’re bigger than this, rise above it compadre,” said Jack.

Jose and Beatriz flew into action, cradling Martin’s fragile ego, and calming him down. They needed him to keep his shit together for the gala and by the time he arrived at the theatre and saw the crowd he was temporarily placated and went on to give a hammy but exuberant introduction to the first film in the Nutcracker series.

Jose and Beatriz had got hold of a nice clean print of the film which was well-appreciated, and after a successful Q and A Martin was mobbed by his fans and went back to hotel on a high. It didn’t last long though as he struggled to squeeze into his room which was now dominated by a vast four-poster bed on which had been placed a pair of nutcrackers and two walnuts. Martin was exasperated and theatrically threw himself on the bed, which of course had all its screws removed and promptly collapsed. Later Martin found Jack in the bar entertaining the staff and berated him. Jack shrugged and suggested he have a cocktail — then passed him a screwdriver.

Jose and Beatriz interceded again and sat Martin next to Alida Vex at that evening’s dinner at the Michelin-starred Yeatman which offered them inventive food and inspiring views over Porto’s twinkling hills. The evening went well until an argument broke out between the Porto and Lisbon contingents again, this time over their regional music differences. It was a case of rock versus fado and the band Madredeus came in for particular ridicule from the Porto-based diners. For once Martin stayed out of the dispute, then, not feeling the centre of attention, he tried to needle Jack by making a few derogatory comments about Hart X and the rock musicians Jack hung out and jammed with at Joshua Tree.

Feeling emboldened and slightly the worse for drink Martin directed his limited seduction skills to Alida, who was impervious to this kind of tedious behaviour. Alida gently but firmly batted away his overtures but Martin persisted to the point where Alida put her hand on his lap then gripped his crotch tightly and said she’d show him who the real Nutcracker was if he didn’t behave.

Martin winced then saw Jack laughing and said, “you put her up this, didn’t you Treece?”

“Nutcracker, you did it all by yourself,” said Jack.

Whereupon Martin swung a fist at Jack and, egged on by his cronies, lunged at Alida who took a step back and let him fall on his face. Jose and Beatrix picked up the pieces and said what a shame that Martin’s big night had ended in such an unfortunate misunderstanding between their guests. The evening was over and there was nothing to do but return to the Infante Sagres and let everyone try to sleep off the worst excesses of the evening.

Next morning passed quietly without incident on a tour of the Sandeman port house, once famously advertised by Orson Welles. The tour ended with a beautiful in-house lunch and the presentation of bottles of port with personalised Portosplatter labels for the visitors. Martin had overslept and missed the tour but Beatriz promised to make sure he received his bottle. Jack kept a low profile at the screening of a freshly restored print of Nosferatu in the afternoon and kept out of Martin’s path who was occupied with judging a fan costume competition. More out of idle curiosity than a sense of duty, Jack decided to attend Martin’s monologue in which he re-interpreted a selection of classic speeches, from Professor Frankenstein to Dr Jekyll, in the voice of the Nutcracker while dressed in his trademark costume of silver face paint and orange boiler suit. It was a dismal exercise in overblown theatricality in Jack’s opinion but, as far as Martin and his fans were concerned, it was a performance of sheer genius.

Martin’s recaptured sense of superiority started clouding his judgment again at the closing party back at the Archive Hall, and when he saw Jack and Alida sharing a private joke he sent Santi and Lupe, and a few fans, over to them with instructions to take photos and post them on social media with inappropriate comments in the hope of stirring up trouble for Jack with Mistral Thane. Soon Martin was waving his phone in Jack’s face and asking him if he’d seen Mistral’s response on social media to the recent photos of him and Alida. Jack merely thanked him for terminating his relationship with Mistral and asked him if he ever got into reckless on-set romances or did he always return to his trailer to play with his nutcrackers, like you know all those weird sexual rumours that circulate about him. This even got a laugh from Lupe and Martin finally flipped, running around the room for his famous prop then wielding it at Jack in senseless rage.

“What’s the matter dude, lost your nuts?” Jack asked as a number of guests tried to subdue Martin.

Martin shook himself free and stuck his face up against Jack’s.

“Let’s take this to the bridge, Treece, and settle this once and for all,” ranted Martin.

“You know you’ve misunderstood the meaning of that phrase,” replied Jack, “anyway which one? Porto has six bridges apparently.”

“The Eiffel one, you idiot,” said Martin. “It’s the ideal setting for a dramatic climax. We’ll see who’s the best man there at high noon tomorrow, and wear your costume. Nutcracker will destroy the Roach.”

“Wait Martin, I have your bottle of port,” said Beatriz, “it’s personalised.”

Martin looked at the label which had been tampered with and now read Buttcracker, hurled it to the ground and marched off with his supporters.

“What a ham,” said Jack as he made his way back to the Infante Sagres bar leaving the cosplay organisers worrying over whether they were sufficiently insured for any damages that might occur the next day, but thrilled at all the free publicity this stunt was going to generate for Portosplatter.

Next morning Martin arrived at the Dom Luís I bridge over the River Douro at the appointed hour with a huge entourage of fans, friends, vloggers, and a local TV news team. People had been repeatedly making some kind of last minute objection to him on the way over that he was too fired up to understand and he’d simply decided to ignore. Striding out onto the top deck of the imposing metal arch bridge he saw Jack in his Roach outfit on the other side and stormed towards him. The Nutcracker — he wasn’t really Martin anymore — rushed up to him and struck a vicious blow with his oversized metal nutcrackers. The Roach howled, staggered for a second then recovered and swung his cumbersome claws down on The Nutcracker’s head as he shouted an incomprehensible oath.

It was more than Nutcracker could bear, he shrugged off the blows and sprayed The Roach with spittle, his silver face contorted by rage as he shouted, “You think you deserve better treatment than me? You think you can make a fool of the Nutcracker?” He paused then smirked. “If you cut a cockroach’s head off it’s supposed to stay alive for a week. Let’s find out!” He threw down the nutcrackers, pulled off The Roach’s brittle prosthetic head and looked with amazement at the face of a bewildered but equally deranged cosplay fan in thick black metal spectacles. Then he lost his balance and lurched sideways.

One kilometre east on the Maria Pia Bridge, the railway bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel which is occasionally confused with the Dom Luís I, the one built by his pupil Teófilo Seyrig, stood a bemused Jack Treece in full Roach costume. He bowed when drivers passing by the bridge started honking their horns at him then noticed they were making phone signs as well. He pulled out a cell phone from beneath his plastic thorax and swiped idly through social media channels and almost immediately saw the viral clip that was blowing up globally of Kayle and the unfortunate Roach fan tumbling splenetically from the Dom Luís I bridge into the Douro in an ugly tangle of limbs.

“He’s broken the first commandment of Hollywood there,” said Jack to the traffic.

John has worked in cinema, journalism and advertising and writes fiction when he can.

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