Gerard McKeown

Never Wases Anonymous


‘Every time I see Justin Bieber’s face on a poster, I want to spit on it.’ I’d hoped that would get a laugh, but it doesn’t even earn a nod. ‘It’s not his fault, but his initial popularity suggested to record companies on our side of the Atlantic that there was space in the teen idol market for a British Justin Bieber: Freddie Spring.’

No one reacted. I expected something. A look of recognition on their faces. One lonely laugh, but nothing.

‘Freddie Spring doesn’t appear on posters anymore. I didn’t see why we needed a British Justin Bieber; I wanted to see the last of the American one, or is he Canadian?’

You’re rambling.

‘Anyway, Freddie Spring’s short time as the Brit-Bieber presented me with an opportunity – a leading role in his film Spring Kleen, made between his best-selling debut album A Date With Freddie Spring and his career ending second one Let’s Heal This World Together. Spring Kleen was supposed to be a standard cash-in popstar vehicle; Freddie would be the new kid in town, fight the rival gang leader, me, and get the girl: some Saturday morning pop princess whose career never took off either.’

Does this sound over-rehearsed?

‘After studying drama at university, I moved to London to start my career. I starred…’ careful with that word, ‘…as the lead in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a small theatre in Deptford, where, despite me being ten years too young and wielding a dodgy American accent, my performance as Brick Pollitt received a few strong reviews from local theatre bloggers. The part landed me an agent. It was him offered me the Brit-Bieber film, saying it would help me break into the teen market as a bad boy type. I had my doubts, but I assumed my agent knew the business. My apprehension returned on the first day of the shoot when Freddie’s people approached me in the canteen.

‘‘Freddie doesn’t want to see you except on set,’ a steroids experiment in a bomber jacket said. ‘Your characters aren’t friends, so you two can’t be friends.’

‘‘Trust me,’ I said. ‘I’m sure if we met, we wouldn’t be friends.’’

No one laughed at that either.

‘The producer pulled me aside, saying Freddie was the only reason the film had any budget, so we needed to keep him happy. I ate my lunch back on set after that.

‘The first single from Freddie’s second album proved controversial with the parents of his tweenage fans, who worried the lyrics were too mature for their little princesses. Skin on Skin had the chorus, ‘Skin on skin, it’s the best feeling to touch you within.’ Freddie held a press conference saying he was sensitive to his young fans, himself being a virgin who intended to stay one until he was married. The song, he claimed, was about a girl who was picked on at school, but then she found the right kid, and he touched her heart. That’s what it meant to touch within. A few days later, the songwriter, angry about the record company withholding his royalties, told a journalist that of course the song was about sex, and anal sex at that.’

Again, no laugh.

‘The cast and crew were warned not to mention Skin on Skin or they’d be fired. Most of us felt sorry for Freddie, to some degree, but Freddie didn’t want sympathy; Skin on Skin became a catalyst, propelling Freddie overnight from bubble gum popstar to the my-fame-has-to-mean-something phase of his career.’

Am I boasting? Is that why they’re looking at the floor, at their watches, pretending they don’t care. I bet they care. Their indifference is beginning to piss me off, feigned or not.

‘His next single, Stop All Wars, bombed, barely scraping the top forty. On set there were whispers that the film would bomb too. The production company, who feared Freddie’s star was falling, rush released the film, rewriting the plot from the footage already shot. The film was puffed out to hide Freddie’s bad acting; the missing story largely replaced by scenes of him at the beach looking sun soaked and simple.

‘All but one of my scenes were cut.’ That got their attention. ‘Acting beside me showed Freddie up for the talent free zone he was. He tried to do that so-cool-I-won’t-emote shit bad actors do, saying he was saving it for his big speech. When the day came to shoot it, he turned straight to the camera, screwed his face up like he needed the toilet, and spluttered pseudo-deep bursts of ad-libbed gibberish. I laughed my head off.’ 

That received a laugh. One half-hearted laugh from the woman sitting beside me.

‘Unprofessional I know, but by then my part had been relegated to Thug in Arcade. In my scene, I insult Freddie when he’s chatting up the main girl. He laughs it off, but when I insult her, he gives me the kicking of my life and says, ‘I kleened up his act.’

I’m glad no one laughed at that.

‘I’m five eleven and thirteen stone. Freddie’s five four and built like a dirty look could snap his spine, but in his film, I get slapped around like he’s Hulk-fucking-Hogan. When Spring Kleen came out, my scene gained a sort of Z-level fame…’ the word landed strange, as if any kind of fame shouldn’t be mentioned here. ‘…through an internet meme of Freddie round-housing me endlessly on a loop. People used it on social media to call bollocks in arguments. It’s not widely-known, but he took an entire day to shoot the roundhouse and had to jump off a box.

‘Maybe I should have lain low and let it pass, but in panic I took whatever work my agent threw at me. My next role was in Hollyoaks as a drug-dealer-slash-cage-fighter. My character got dropped after a few weeks. A wisecracking character even said a line about how I was such a wimp Freddie Spring could knock me out. Then everyone laughed, except me. Then my agent dumped me. I tried to go back to theatre and rebuild things, but I couldn’t land the parts.

‘So I moved back here, and into a bedsit. I planned to get myself together and have another crack at acting, but I got caught in a cycle of call centre work. I lost the energy for anything apart from drinking and sleeping. I started missing days at work and had to borrow from my family to pay rent. It was my sister discovered you lot. So my name’s Darren and I’m a never was.’

I sat back down in my chair without looking at anyone. Relief dripped off me like sweat, as if I’d lost half my body weight and received a deep tissue massage, all in one instant. The rest of the group mumbled hellos. This was my fifth week, and I’d waited as long as I could to tell my story. I felt I’d taken up too much time telling it, but there was so much more I wanted to say. It would keep. There would be other weeks, other times I’d want to vent.

The session was at an end. I lingered to refill my coffee. The tasty biscuits were all finished, so I left the Rich Tea.

‘Our biscuits not good enough for you?’ said the woman stacking the chairs. She was one who’d laughed at my description of Freddie’s acting style.

‘Keeping my weight off in case I get a second shot at fame.’

‘Part of accepting you are a Never Was, is accepting you never will be. That’s the third step.’

‘It was just a joke,’ I said, picking up the chair nearest to me and, not so much helping her stack them, but using it as a prop to look as if I was assisting.

‘Careful with jokes. The others have already nicknamed you Popstar Superstar.’

‘Already? I only told my story tonight.’

‘Well, someone must have googled you. They always do.’

‘They probably shared my meme during my fifteen minutes. Have you heard their nickname for you?’

‘Fanny Pad. I was in a Tampax commercial. My one TV appearance.’

‘Better than some.’

‘Better than them all, except you. Before you came here, I was the only one who’d acted on TV.’


‘Yes, Paul, who you haven’t heard yet, was a contestant on Big Brother a couple of years after it moved to Channel 5. He got voted off in the second week.’

Fanny Pad seemed protective of her status as the one who’d got the furthest. I’d heard others in the group mock Paul. Calling him a “no talent”. Fanny Pad may have been a Never Was, but with this lot she could be an Almost Was. Even her nickname was due to her achieving something none of the rest had.

‘Well, I’ll scoot off then,’ I said. ‘Thanks for listening.’

I couldn’t make my mind up how I felt, because really, I’d hoped to find others who’d came as close as I had. People who’d fallen from greater heights and survived. From the month or more of stories I’d listened to, the closest any of the group, aside from Fanny Pad and Paul, had come, was a guy who had been cast as a kidnapper on Coronation Street. He’d even filmed his scenes. Two days before it was due to air, a similar incident happened in real life and the plot was shelved. Amid the widespread coverage in the national media of the real kidnapping, one single still frame from the episode, where the guy in question was wearing a balaclava, appeared in The Daily Mirror. The footage was never shown.

A few others had got down, or claimed they’d got down, to the last two or three for a part, only to meltdown when the fame they knew they were destined for was handed to someone else. One guy had been in the last three for Harry Potter and whined bitterly that Daniel Radcliffe had been shite in the films and shite ever since. He still sounded like a twelve-year old, one who was making a class presentation to a crowd of other students who bullied him and would bully harder after this. One woman, Amy, had auditioned for both Rose Tyler in Doctor Who and Belle in The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, roles won by Billie Piper. I’d heard Amy speak twice, and both times she couldn’t finish her story without dissolving into tears. I had trouble picturing her as either character. She had also been up for the part of Cassie in Skins, a role she was ten years too old for.

The following week, I sensed a change in the group. Prior to me sharing my story, they had been casually friendly, now they seemed to avoid me in the politest way possible. Was this a group to help us cope with our lack of success or lack of fame?

‘Funny vibe tonight,’ I said to Fanny Pad at the end, while she stacked the chairs, and I refilled my coffee.

‘You’re doing it,’ she said.

‘Doing what?’

‘Playing the star. Just because you got further than any of this lot, don’t cast them as your public.’

‘But people were different to me. They barely spoke.’

‘This isn’t a social club,’ Fanny Pad reminded me. ‘We’re all here to deal with our trauma. People have crap in their daily lives you know nothing about. If people seemed different, maybe they had a bad week. Don’t make it about you.’

‘Do you want to go for a drink?’

‘I’m an alcoholic,’ she said. ‘Where do you think I got the idea for this?’

‘Coffee then?’

‘It’s not a social club.’

I didn’t buy that, that everyone must have had a bad week. I could feel the jealousy in the room as people told their stories, the looks I’d get when people went off in tangents about how talented they thought they were. How they’d had the lead role in their school production of The Boyfriend or whatever. My fifteen minutes had been in a film, with a theatrical release, however limited. I still occasionally saw copies of it in Poundland. My name was on the back of the case, albeit in minuscule lettering. That was more than any of them, more than all of them combined. Their fifteen minutes had been the equivalent of a cheap watch missing the minute hand and destined for the bin at the funfair where they won it. Mine had been a Rolex mugged from me by some brat teenager. But I needed all the help I could get. I’d swallow any pride to make this work.

The next morning, my self-esteem took a further kicking when the Oscar nominations were announced. David Shank, who I’d studied alongside at university, and who no one thought was anything special, had got a decent-sized part, but not the lead, in a low budget American movie that had been all but ignored on its theatrical release. That movie was nominated for best picture. It was a complete underdog and hardly any of the coverage in the lead up to the Oscars focused on it. I willed it with all my energy not to win best picture and was relieved when it didn’t. Talking about it in group really helped me cope. Maybe it soothed the others to see me jealous of someone.

I’d hoped David Shank would fade back into the obscurity of doing a minor character on a Shetland Island themed soap opera shown on regional television, his only other professional work. What happened next was all over the news. While still at University, David Shank, had acted in a feature length student film, starring none other than yours truly. It was typical self-conscious student fare. A group of early twentysomethings sit around in a café, talking about sex and drugs, while not doing much of either. Cod-philosophy and uninformed politics are rife. David is only in it for about ten minutes. He plays a character who gets sold sherbet fizz for cocaine. He snorts it in the toilet and runs around acting high, before getting told the truth and slinking off embarrassed.

The cast had signed contracts at the time saying the guy who wrote, directed, and produced it, could do whatever he liked with the footage, and we’d all receive a percentage of any profits. I’d completely forgotten about it and suspected everyone else had too. Very soon the film started showing up in Poundland, alongside Spring Kleen. David’s was the only name on the cover. “DAVID SHANK in HAROLD’S WAB!” The Wab being the name of the café.

David sued to block all distribution of the film. Suddenly, I found myself afforded another fifteen minutes of fame. Newspapers wanted to interview me, local radio too. No television though. I declined all of it out of an invented sense of solidarity with an old coursemate. David never got in contact with me. Not him, not his people.

Fanny Pad was waiting for me outside the next meeting, saying I was no longer welcome at the group.

‘It’s just fifteen minutes of fame,’ I said. ‘I’m a footnote in that story. In a week’s time, no one will remember it.’

‘Your two fifteen minutes of fame make up half an hour.’

‘Half an hour isn’t even long enough to hold a meeting.’

‘The group has already agreed.’

‘I need you,’ I said.

She sniffed and blinked back tears. ‘You could be the answer to a pub quiz question.’

I watched as she turned and ducked into the meeting, slamming the door behind her.

My sister bought a copy of Harold’s Wab before the others were seized in the court action. She confirmed to me it was in no way a path back into an acting career. Trying to be funny, she would drop my most cringey lines into conversation at family get-togethers. I was so deflated after getting kicked out of the group, I didn’t have the energy to tell her where to go.

That Christmas she did a nice thing though. Taking my few lines from Spring Kleen, a scene from my time on Hollyoaks, and the least embarrassing lines from Harold’s Wab, she had them professionally edited into a show real. Forgetting the mess surrounding all three, I achieved a mild sense of pride, seeing my short career summed up in the way it would be if someone made a documentary about me.

I’m toying with the idea of sending copies out to agents, because as my expulsion from the Never Wases Anonymous confirms, I’m not a never was. I’m a someone. At least, I could be.


Gerard McKeown has been shortlisted for The Bridport Prize and longlisted for The Irish Book Awards’ Short Story of the Year. His work has been featured in a number of journals and anthologies, most recently Best Horror of the Year Volume 14 (edited by Ellen Datlow), and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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