M.E. McMullen



The Rose and the Briar


              ‘They buried Willie in the old church yard,

               And Barbara in the choir,

               And out of his grave grew a red, red rose,

               And out of hers, a briar.’

                                                    ---Bonny Barbara Allan (Trad.)            


        If I know Arnie and Harry, they’ll chug their martinis and come up with twenty reasons not to do the project. “Too expensive,” Harry will say, nodding sagely. “The market’s wrong right now,” Arnie will add, squaring his jaw. This veneer of self-satisfied inaction that attends their public personas, these `big time Hollywood producers’ of Sunday supplement fame, masks a near fanatical intent not only to do the project, but to do it with vengeance, to do it so completely and ruthlessly, that their places in the lore of cinema will be forever secured. They begin every project this way.

       They’ve come up with a plan to do a film built around an old Scottish folk ballad. All very hush hush until everything’s in place. They want me to assist.


       This in Harryspeak means write a screenplay for peanuts, take no credit if it succeeds, take the blame if it doesn’t, and have to listen to him the whole time, talking about how he’s noticed my work slipping over the last few years.

       “No way,” say I.

       “Way,” say they.

       “We gave you your start in the business, Tex,” says Harry.

       “You owe us big time,” says Arnie.

       “You pay ‘B’ rates, Arnie; you get ‘B’ work,” says I. “You get clichés crawling over the screenplay like cockroaches.”

       “When can you start?”

       “Forty against three per cent of the gross is fair,” say I, “but since I owe you guys so much, we’ll do two per cent. I can start when the check clears, or last night, if you’re carrying that much cash.”

       “Some attitude, Tex,” says Arnie.

       “How soon we forget,” says Harry.

        On and on that went.

       The bottom line is still peanuts, but they hold still for a percentage of the gross because they like what I do, mostly. When Harry doesn’t like something, a look comes on his face like his gall stones are grinding together. He won’t say he likes anything. The most praise Harry will throw your way is, `If this is the best you can do, I guess we’re stuck with it.’

       They signed two big country singers whose names they couldn’t divulge. “She has a great little body, bedroom eyes and a voice that’ll run down your back like a spinal tap,” says hyperactive Arnie.

       “She’s our Barbara Allan,” says dyspeptic Harry, popping an antacid, “after some cosmetic renovation in the chest area.”

       “He’s got his own white hat, tight jeans and his name is emblazoned in sparkle across his guitar,” says Arnie. “He’ll play dual roles for one check, Sir John and Willie.”

         Being no expert on traditional Scottish folk ballads, I sought consultation. It was my vague notion that there were only two main characters in the Barbara Allan ballad, not three, so, I called Betty. Ordinarily, I need a good reason to call Betty because Betty is still carrying around a little anger where I’m concerned. I generally hear about it, one way or the other, when I call. Couple years ago, she had to stop in the middle of a screenplay because she got involved in her sister’s divorce and came down with hives. I finished it on spec with a co-credit, which made me a sell out in her book, and a hack, which is what she called me at the time, among other things.

       I called Betty and told her about Frankie Wills, an old friend of ours, dying in a charity hospital, which she hadn’t heard about. Frankie was our crazy drummer when we worked as musicians. We told ‘Frankie’ stories. We laughed and cried, and for a few minutes it was like old times. I told her about Arnie and Harry’s project, mentioning the deal about the ballad, Barbara Allan. I saved my plea for her help on the project to the end.

       “Piss off,” says Betty, but in a loving way, I thought, or maybe I was just reading things in because I still love Betty. I miss the old days when we were together. I know we’d eventually drive each other crazy if we tried it again, but every time we talk, I love hearing her voice and remembering the laughs we used to have, and the good times.

        Betty soaks up more information than any three people I know, which is why I like her help on projects. She called back a couple days later. “In the original versions,” she said, “Sir John Graeme was a nobleman who died for the love of a commoner named Barbara Allan. In later American versions, noble John became Willie, a country boy. They were never different characters.”

       The unhappy lot of telling the Bellow brothers fell on me.

     Under the impression that Willie and Sir John were separate guys, they’d concocted a love triangle, with Sir John and Willie as rivals for the hand of Barbara Allan. It was a riproarer, with Sir John killing Willie in a dramatic show down, fleeing to the hills after, where he dies of grief upon learning he’s killed his little brother, and that his love, Barbara Allan, is also dead, having told her mother that she can’t go on without Willie, who she’s loved all the while. “And you think you had a bad day,” Betty says.

       “Write it that way,” says Harry from his cell, which I did. If Betty thinks I’m a hack for writing to specs, so be it.

        There’s a tavern scene, where Sir John is jacked up on malmsey and passes Barbara Allan over while he’s throwing around his toasts to all these women he’s loved. Jacked themselves on martinis, the brothers lounge on the patio of Harry’s fabulous pad in the Hollywood Hills, looking out across the sparkling lights of what Harry calls his `sweet, forever valley’, a name related to Harry’s longevity thesis. “If I take care of myself,” Harry says, “lay off fried foods and look out across that valley every morning at six, I can live forever, or, at least, indefinitely.”

       At one of those Hollywood parties where everybody goes around telling everybody how great they look, which is usually, but not necessarily always, true, the Bellow boys have me front and center for a little examination of the dynamics of their tavern scene. “Sir John made the ‘healths gae round and round’,” I explain, reading from Betty’s notes. “‘Here’s to Lady Bray’s health, and Lady Jane’s, and Lady Brett’s health’, John says, while slighting his true love, Barbara Allan, who is not of the gentry but a simple country girl.”

       “So, after Sir John has revealed his love and said, on his death bed, that he is indeed dying of love for her,” Arnie says, “Barbara Allan reminds him of the tavern slight and spurns his ass. Remember, he’s dying because Willie’s cut him in a tavern brawl, a brawl in which he’s killed Willie, thinking Willie’s toast to Barbara Allan was intended as an insult, which gets a little, you know, complicated, because Willie also loves Barbara Allan.”

       “What’s complicated?” Harry says. “She tells the schmuck to take a hike because he’s been badmouthing her in joints like she’s some street hustler.“

       “Whoa, whoa, whoa, ---”

       Arnie’s out of his seat, waving his arms in frustration. “He hasn’t been badmouthing her. He’s left her out of the toasts he’s been throwing to the other ladies he’s been dallying with. It’s a class division thing. It’s a metaphor for what’s going on in America right now. It’s why we’re making this fucking picture, Harry.”

       “Anyway, in the end, they all die,” Harry said. “They bury Sir John on his estate. They bury Willie and Barbara Allan in the churchyard, and there’s a bit at the end about the rose and the briar, taking everything forward a few years.”

       “What? You and Tex turned this into ‘The Time Machine’?”

       “We have to give the rose and the briar time to grow, numb nuts.”

       “What rose?”

       “The one that grows out of Barbara Allen’s grave.”

       “Actually, ---” I was about to tell him that the rose grew out of Willie’s grave, but decided to shut up because the time lapse work was well under way, and shutting up was almost always the best option with Harry and Arnie anyway.

       “We got nothing in the budget for any of that.”

       “We do now.”

        Things went smoother than anyone had a right to expect.

       During the shooting, the brothers came storming into my office only once. It was right after Lisa Ann Danderson, the little country singer they hired to play Barbara Allan, quit for the third time, which set Harry griping about dealing with drama queens.

       “What’d you expect, Harry?” Arnie said. “Of course, she’s a drama queen. You saw her demands. Four personal beauticians?”

       “Fire her.”

       “We can’t, Harry. We got five weeks’ shooting invested.”

       “Fire the beauticians,” Harry grumbled, stalking out.

        In the end, it was resolved.

       Everyone had too much at stake. Turned out they wanted me involved in this Lisa Ann Danderson contract dispute because my ex-wife, Betty, was our little star’s drama coach and mentor, which I didn’t know until Arnie Bellow sent me to see Betty. Most of the rose and briar part was done, but they were stuck for the ending. “If we want everybody lying around dead at the end, we’ll do Hamlet,” Harry ranted.

       The graphics people got the time lapse sequences down well, covering the rose that grew out of Barbara Allan’s grave and the briar that grew out of Willie’s. Somebody told Harry they had that backwards, and when Harry came to me about it, I grinned and shrugged, expecting him to be pissed, but we had a laugh instead. Harry was very happy because Lisa Ann Danderson was back in the fold to finish the death scene, thanks largely to the efforts of Betty, who talked her back to the set with some vivid depictions of what would happen to her career when Bellow Brothers Productions torched her up for breach of contract. “You think Joan of Arc went fast?” Betty told her. “Wait’ll you see how long your tinder box career lasts against Leo Fiedler, their blow torch lawyer.”

        I wasn’t there that day, but they say Lisa Ann knocked ‘em out with the death scene. After Barbara Allan learns about Willie’s death, she tells her mother she plans to die for Willie because he died for her. They said there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time they wrapped it up on the twenty-third take.

       When the time came, I told Harry Bellow I wanted to share writing credit with Betty. When Betty heard about it, she actually came to my office and gave me a rose. I was touched. Betty and I have always loved each other in our way. We just can’t live together. Too many similarities. Betty says we’d both be dead if we were living together. She didn’t want money but I kicked her half. She took me to lunch. Afterward, we went down to the studio to see the time lapse sequences. They set up a screening room for us. Gave us popcorn. We held hands.

       The time lapse stuff was good. The idea was to kind of wrap them around the film and complete them with a little pastiche at the end, something Betty wrote:

           The rose rises from Barbara Allan’s grave resplendent in its best summer foliage, clinging to the rock walls of the country church like a desperate sinner. Not far away, the stalks of the briar spring from the ground like children scurrying to playtime, climbing the grey walls with thick little darts and dashes, bright and lavish against the spare tendrils of the summer rose. Upward they climb, clutching tendrils and clinging stalks, driving toward the light, relentless dynamos driven by Nature’s green force. Over time, they grow near the very top of the steeple where the soft wind whispers, `They could grow no higher, locked in a true love’s knot, the red rose ‘round the briar.’

       There they were, still wrapped together in Nature’s sweet embrace after all those years. The film began and ended with still shots of the intertwined plants. “Roll the credits, Tex,” Betty said, laughing. We’d had a grand time and decided on the spur of the moment to keep it going. We’d head up the coast to a B&B we knew about. Take the laptop. Tweak the edits. Drink wine, eat cheese.

       It started coming back on the drive.

       Betty’d quit smoking for the umpteenth time and was dealing with that. I was back fighting my uphill battles to lose weight and cut back on my, ahem, drinking. We laughed it off remembering how great it used to be when we didn’t worry about stuff like that; when we got rolling on a project, polishing each other’s ideas, finishing each other’s sentences, seeing eye to eye without saying a word.

       I asked Betty at breakfast, “Maybe they won’t buy the rose and the briar still clinging together after all those years.”
     "Sure they will," she said.

© 2011 M.E.McMullen


M.E. McMullen's work has appeared in numerous print and online journals and been nominated for both the Pushcart and Hugo awards. His stories will be appearing in The New Renaissance, Untoward Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Temenos, Nova and Blue Lake Review.