"Cheese has always been good to me."
Jim Friteuse

Friday, September 21, 2012


Not only was Chaz Bracegirdle’s choice of wife greeted with a deep sense of bitter disappointment by his parents and many older siblings, but his move into television drama had united even the most hostile of family factions into declaring their universal loathing of him.

It was a shame because he was once the darling of the Bracegirdle’s; blonde-haired, blue-eyed, lantern-jawed and strikingly handsome, women circled around him like a flock of starlings. Throughout his teenage years and into his mid-twenties he was never without a beautiful woman hanging onto his arm and his every word. “He had the choice of any woman on the planet,” his mother had complained on one of her many death beds, “they used to throw themselves at his feet, so why on earth did he have to go and marry Stephanie.”

Stephanie Frobisher’s name was never spoken – it was always spat out, as if the very act of it tripping across the tongue was poisonous. When Chaz had brought her home and announced that they were engaged to be married a mild shockwave ran through those who had assembled in the drawing room of the large family home in Orangatanga. It wasn’t the suddenness of the announcement that bothered them, nor was it the fact that she wore her hair in a beehive that was doused with so much hairspray that people choked as she passed by. Neither was it the fact that she dressed in clothes that were so tight they looked like they had been sprayed on and that up until a year earlier she had been a man going by the name of Steven. These apparent faults in her character and appearance paled into insignificance when Chaz announced to his nearest and dearest that Stephanie was from Australia!

Chaz mistook the gasp of horror that filled the room for one of familial joy and he continued with what would be his last ever family speech. “And – great news – I’ve been offered – and I’ve accepted – the part of Doctor Normalsize in Shortarse Street.”

From its outset (and despite it being in colour), the Channel 1 soap opera Shortarse Street  was destined for failure. It failed for two reasons – firstly it was based on an idea that had been hurriedly written on the back of a dead possum by the exiled documentary film maker Clancy Taylor; and secondly it was let down badly by its rather mundane subject matter.  The plot, such as it was, revolved around a community of criminally insane dwarfs who were harbouring a wounded fugitive bearded lady from William Foley’s Circus, falsely accused of murdering and dismembering a trapeze artist with a foot fetish and her lover Corky the Clown, whilst a spliff smoking detective from Wellington stumbled around eating cherry pie and a disgraced doctor from Australia performed illegal operations on seals using only elastic bands,
blackboard rubbers and rudimentary 18th century carpentry tools. The show barely caused a ripple, many viewers finding its premise boring, predictable and too commonplace to be of any interest, although there was a minor controversy over its portrayal of the New Zealand Police Force as being stupid and unprofessional. 
Duncan Argostein, the television critic for the Orangatanga Times, however, laid the blame for the show’s poor performance squarely at the door of the Channel 1 casting department. According to New Zealand’s historical records, held in a small back room in the Wongawonga Museum of Anthropology, the country had been stricken with an acute shortage of dwarfs throughout the entire 1980s and so all the main protagonists of Shortarse Street were played by actors well over six feet tall. Described as the Great Dwarf Drought by popular historians, it lasted until the opening of the firstSanta’s Grotto in Nikkinakknori on the 1st September 1989.

The final episode of Shortarse Street was hurriedly written by the tea lady at Channel 1, because everyone else was (apparently) busy, and it featured a horrific scene where Doctor Nomalsize is eaten alive in a swimming pool by a pack of leopard seals, seeking revenge for his treatment of the other, more placid, members of their species.

Chaz Bracegirdle’s family had been happy with his decision to become an actor – they envisioned him gracing the stage of the Apollo in Wellington as Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Lear or any one of the Henry’s – and they actively encouraged his choice of career. All their praise, adoration and encouragement ended abruptly when he decided to perform in a soap opera.

The Bracegirdle’s were renowned for their hatred of soap operas. They considered them to be the lowest form of entertainment (worse even than The One Hundred Dollar Woman, a dismal imported American TV series about a woman who, after an accident in a manicure salon, is fitted with a bionic fingernail) and they looked upon those who watched that kind of show as, at the very least, retarded. That their son had chosen to be in such a waste of everyone’s time was akin to a betrayal of all the values they held dear. He was, they declared, a traitor to his family name and his ancestors, who had made their vast fortunes through the misery and unnecessarily painful deaths of others, would be spinning in their graves if they knew

And on top of all that he was marrying an Australian!

They saw no other course of action but to disinherit him and cast him out like the leper that he was.

With no money, nowhere to live and no prospect of employment after the debacle that was Shortarse Street, Chaz sought out the only person that had showed him any kindness during those dark days at Channel 1 – his cousin, twice removed, Claire Friteuse (nee Bracegirdle).

Claire and Chaz had met while she was filming her popular cookery show Cooking With Cans and they had liked each other immediately. Claire knew hardly anything about the Orangatanga branch of the Bracegirdle family and what little she did know had been supplied to her by her father in one word – snobs. She found Chaz to be anything but a snob – he was interesting and (in her own words) ‘fricking gorgeous’.

Jim had just finished breaking the news about their move to England when Chaz appeared on the doorstep with a battered suitcase. He looked dishevelled and miserable, not at all the person that Claire had got to know at Channel 1.

“Sorry about this,” he said, “but I seem to be in a spot of bother.”

Jim invited him in, sat him down and listened patiently to his sorry tale.

After Shortarse Street had been cancelled the life that Chaz had known fell apart. With his family refusing to even acknowledge his existence he returned home to the flat that he shared with Stephanie, only to find that she had gone, taking all of her belongings with her and leaving behind a note informing him that she had run off with a female mud wrestler from Auckland. In the extremely verbose and hurtful missive she stated that her sex change had all been a big mistake and that she had every intention of seeking out someone who could reverse the procedure. She also provided him with a detailed list of all his shortcomings in the bedroom as well as a recipe showing the correct way to cook cheese on toast.

Stephanie’s rejection devastated him, but that was not the end of his troubles. A delegation of dwarfs from New South Wales had started to camp outside his flat and protest about how they were misrepresented in Shortarse Street

This was quickly followed by a group of Animal Rights protesters who were incensed about Doctor Normalsize’s treatment of seals, a squad of policeman from Wellington who protested about the incorrect hand signals that were used by the extra playing the traffic cop in the background of each episode, a number of circus clowns who were enraged about the consistency of the custard pies used in the flashback scenes and a gathering of old ladies from the Orangatanga Knitting Circle who just wanted some fresh air, a cup of tea with a biscuit and the return of capital punishment.

In no time at all the area outside his flat was filled with protesters (some were even there to protest about protesters) and Chaz had no choice but to pack as many things as possible into his battered suitcase and leave in the dead of night, when the only people left at that hour were the ones wearing strait jackets and incontinence pants who were claiming that Doctor Normalsize was directly responsible for the increased number of wasps in the local park.

“I didn’t know what to do, Jim,” Chaz moaned. “I’ve been blacklisted by every TV and radio station in New Zealand and the authorities have confiscated my passport and cancelled my subscription to Australian Woman’s Weekly.”

“Alright,” said Claire, “the first thing you can do is stop panicking. We’re about to leave the country for six months and you can live here if you want.”

“But what about Cooking With Cans?” asked Chaz.

“Don’t worry about that – Channel 1 has just sacked me for no apparent reason.”

“But I don’t have any money. How am I supposed to pay you?”

“Okay,” said Jim, “tomorrow morning we’ll go along to see old Mr Gimli and see if he’ll let you have my old job working behind the cheese counter.”

“But what if the customers recognize me?”

“But, but, but,” said Claire. “No more buts. No-one will recognize you because no-one in Nikkinakkinori watches soap operas on TV. The people here are above all that – they watch serious dramas and sophisticated comedies from England like The Professionals and Love Thy Neighbour. They’ll just know you as that handsome young man behind the cheese counter and try to get you to marry their daughters. Don’t worry, Chaz.”

And so it came to pass that Chaz Bracegirdle started his new life in Nikkinakkinori. He would never be as proficient in cheese recognition as Jim had been, but his good looks and cheerful personality made up for that. As time went by he met the daughter of a local farmer and they got married and had three children. He became a pillar of the community and when old Mr Gimli died he left the grocery store to Chaz in his will. He was even elected mayor, where his campaign for equal rights for dwarfs was warmly received by the whole community. He never saw or heard from the Orangatanga branch of his family again, for which he was eternally grateful, although he did receive a letter from Stephanie in the October of 1996. In it, she informed him that she was now called Clive and was living with a hairdresser from Ottawa, where they managed a community of killer whales.

Six days after he had turned up on his cousin’s doorstep he was at Auckland airport waving goodbye to the couple who had turned his life around.

As the aircraft taxied along the runway, Jim opened the file that had been handed to him by Liam Schiffrin and looked at the shadowy figure in the photograph, but he was unaware of the other shadowy figure who had followed them to the airport and was, like him, bound for the United Kingdom.

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