SMOKE: My 21st Birthday

Originally published: 18 March 2005

I had a rip for my 20th birthday - a bunch of mates carted me off to The Crowbar and purchased a yard of ale in one of those long glasses with the huge bowls underneath, and I drank that sucker down until I was as sick as a pike.

When my 21st birthday came around the previous one had to be topped, but nobody seemed particularly interested.

A couple of drama school mates said they'd meet me at Bob's for a drink that evening, but nothing too hectic - I was shooting a television commercial the next day and had to be there at the crack of dawn.

So I went to Bob's in the evening, drank a toast, managed to convince everyone to stay for another couple of beers and then we all dispersed. Two mates said they'd come back to my flat with me for a night cap before heading on home themselves.

We got home and instantly I realised something was wrong - the lounge door was open and I could see someone sitting in a chair. I walked in, the lights came on and there was a group "Surprise!" - the first and only surprise party I'd ever had.

It was a smallish lounge and it was stuffed to the rafters with people. Not normal people either - the sort of people I associate with. Abnormal people. And they'd been getting stuck into the booze for two hours already.

The first thing that happened was a pint beer glass full of undiluted whisky was put in my one hand and a massive - and I mean massive - joint in the other.

Now that's the sort of homecoming I'm talking about. None of this "Where have you been?" or "The dog just crapped on the floor" nonsense - a beer mug full of whisky and a giant slowboat.

Life was good.

The joint was lit by an earnest young marijuana fan and the first person to take it from me dropped it into my mug full of whisky, snuffing it out. There was general consternation and panic for a while, but where there is a drowned joint there'll always be some hippie to resuscitate it.

A bevy of bong-lovers carried it tenderly through to the kitchen and bunged it in the oven, spending the next two hours of their night drying it out and getting it smokeable again.

I have to say I was pretty taken aback at the whole turn of events, and seriously touched. Nobody had ever thrown a surprise party for me before and it was the last thing I expected.

What surprised me the most was how many people were there - I've never held parties because I've always been terrified nobody will show up, and it felt good to see so many cool folks there, getting their funk on.

But I had a sense of foreboding - in the back of my mind was the fact that I had the commercial shoot in the morning, and it was a whole day affair out on the garden route somewhere.

I'd long since chugged down my half a litre of neat whisky and had made steady progress through an array of drinks and narcotics that magically appeared in my hands.

What is it with folks at your party trying to get you as wasted as possible? I do it too - there's a simple joy to force-feeding someone dangerous toxins in an effort to get them to fall down unconscious. A certain naive charm, if you will.

The night carried on, the party - if anything - got more and more raucous, and when the first grey shade of dawn became apparent nobody had yet left.

I considered just never pitching up for the shoot, but even in my highly catatonic state I realised that since it was my first job with my new agent I was highly unlikely to be given any more future calls if I ducked.

So at around half past five in the morning I said goodbye to my guests and trudged down the road to catch a taxi into town. The last thing I heard as I walked down Flower Street was the raucous laughter of everyone having a great time at my party.

I was still drunk when I arrived on set shortly after 7am.

It was the day of my birthday and it was the greyest, foggiest day I had ever seen. We were out on a wine farm somewhere that had been converted into a medieval village and the whole place looked quite surreal - especially when two knights straight out of the Crusades strolled past me, sucking hard on their Bensons.

I put on my courtier outfit and discovered that the boots were far too big for me, which is unusual because I take size 11 shoes. These must have been about size 14, and they zipped up to my thighs with rusty old zips that required maximum strain and effort to work.

The leather was quite soft but the heels and soles were solid blocks, and I found that when I walked my feet kept slipping off the side of the block, which made me hobble. It was agony and I asked the wardrobe mistress for another pair, but there weren't any more so I had to make do.

The commercial was for the new Honda Ballade of that year, and the (incredibly embarrassing) brief was that for some reason the car was returning from the Crusades or something, driving through a village as the villagers cheered madly.

A bunch of courtiers, knights and flag bearers surrounded the car and walked alongside, behind and in front of it, in a procession.

I was the flag bearer to the left rear of the car and the distance we had to travel was about 100 metres. But it was 100 metres through thick mud which was still very wet and slippery and my bloody feet kept slipping off the base of my bloody boots.

Just as we were about to start Take 1, my hangover set in. No warning, no gentle hint of things to come - it arrived full force as the director yelled "Action!", and if you've ever had a hangover brought about by around a litre of whisky, 12 beers, various drink cocktails and endless, endless reefers - well, you should be able to imagine just a fraction of the world of pain that hit me.

Then we started trudging, and perhaps fittingly a light drizzle began.

We kept trudging those hundred metres through that glutinous treacle posing as mud before turning around and going back to the start, time after time. We just kept doing that over and over and over again - 10 hours straight.

I forget how many takes there were - at some stage endorphins kicked in and I became a vacuous zombie, devoid of emotion, staggering around behind a stupid car that nobody was going to buy anyway in the middle of a storm 100 miles from home on my 21st birthday.

I retched once or twice, there were some knowing grins, and somehow I managed to forge on. I've been to many shoots since then and I can honestly tell you I've never done as many takes of a scene as I did on that gloomy day. Eventually all the extras were slightly hysterical.

When darkness fell we were finally released and upon taking those vile boots off I discovered my toes were stuck to my socks with congealed blood. My feet were a mess and I could hardly walk on them for a week after that.

We picked up our paycheques - R150 for the day (which worked out to little more than R10 an hour) - and silently drove home in the cast bus.

That was my 21st birthday. Shades of Jekyll and Hyde.

The final ignominy came when the commercial was flighted - all you saw of me in the ad was one brief moment in which my flag reflected in the rear window. You never actually saw a stitch of me at all.

And they wonder why I gave up acting. Some jobs just ain't worth it.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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