barcelona review #15

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Fewer Scruples
by Javier Marías

original title: Menos escrúples
translated by Margaret Jull Costa

I WAS SO strapped for cash that, two days earlier, I'd gone for a screen test for a porn movie and was amazed to see how many other women aspired to one of those roles with absolutely no dialogue, or, rather, only exclamations. I'd gone there feeling shy and embarrassed, telling myself that my daughter had to eat, that it was no big deal and that it was unlikely that the film would be seen by anyone I knew, although I know that everyone always ends up finding out about everything that happens. I doubt, though, that I'll ever be important enough in future to merit being blackmailed about my past. Besides, there's quite enough material for that already.
      When I saw the queues inside the house, up the stairs and in the waiting room (the screen tests, like the filming, were being held in a three-storey house, somewhere around Torpedero Tucuman, not an area I know), I began to feel afraid that they wouldn't choose me, when, up until then, my real fear had been that they would, and my real hope that they wouldn't; that they wouldn't think I was pretty enough, or well enough endowed. There was no chance of that, I've always turned heads, all my life, I'm not exaggerating, it's true, not that it's done me much good.
      "I probably won't get this job either," I thought when I saw all the other female hopefuls. "Unless the film includes a massive orgy scene and they need loads of extras." There were a lot of girls my age and younger, and older women too, ladies who looked rather too homely, mothers like me probably, but mothers with kids, with irrecoverable waistlines, all wearing rather short skirts and high heels and tight sweaters, like me, badly made up, it was absurd really, if we appeared at all, it would be naked. Some had brought their children, who were running up and down the stairs, the other women clowned around with them when they passed. There were a lot of students there too, in jeans and T-shirts they would have parents, what would their parents think if their daughters were chosen and they happened to see the film one day; even if it was only going to be sold on video, they do what they like with them after that, they end up being shown on television in the small hours of the morning, and an insomniac father is capable of anything, a mother less so. People are really hard-up and there's a lot of unemployment: they plonk themselves down in front of the television and watch anything that's on just to kill time or kill the emptiness, nothing shocks them, when you have nothing, everything seems acceptable, atrocities seem normal and any moral scruples go by the board, and, after all, this kind of filth doesn't actually do any harm, it can even be quite interesting sometimes. You can learn things.
       Two men came out of the upstairs room in which they were doing the screen tests, beyond the waiting room, and when they saw the queue, they clutched their hands to their heads and decided to go through it slowly – stair by stair –thinning it out. "You can go," they said to one lady. "You're not right, you're not suitable, there's no point waiting," they said to the other matrons, as well as to the young women who looked too timid or too thick, they addressed all of them as "tu". They even asked one girl for her identity card right there and then. "I haven't got it on me," she said. "Then you can get out, we don't want any problems with under-age girls," said the taller man, who the other man called Mir. The shorter one had a moustache and seemed politer and more considerate. They reduced the queue by three-quarters, so there were only eight or nine of us left and we all went in, one by one. A girl ahead of me came out a few minutes later crying, I don't know if it was because they had rejected her or because they'd made her do something humiliating. Perhaps they'd made fun of her body. But if you go in for these things, you must know what to expect. They didn't do anything to me, just the usual, they told me to take my clothes of bit by bit at first. Sitting at a table were Mir and the short man and another guy with a ponytail, like a triumvirate, then a couple of technicians, and, standing up, a guy in red trousers, with a face like a monkey, standing there with his arms folded, I don't know what he was doing there, perhaps he was a friend who had dropped in for the session, a peeping Tom, a sex maniac, he looked like a sex maniac. They shot some video film, had a good look at me, this way and that, in the flesh and on screen, turn around, raise your arms, the usual, obviously I was a bit embarrassed, but I almost felt like laughing when I saw them jotting down notes on index cards, all very serious, as if they were teachers at an oral exam, good grief.
      "You can get dressed," they said then. "Be here the day after tomorrow at ten o'clock. But make sure you get a good night's sleep, don't come back with those great dark rings under your eyes, they really show up on screen." It was Mir who said that, and it was true, I did have rings under my eyes, I'd hardly slept a wink all night, thinking about the screen test. I was just leaving when the guy with the ponytail, who the others called Custardoy, called me back. "Hey," he said, "just so there aren't any surprises or problems and so that you don't let us down at the last minute: you'll have to do a bit of French, a bit of Cuban and a fuck, all right?" He turned to the tall man to confirm this: "She won't have to do any Greek, will she?" "No, not with her, not seeing she's a novice," said Mir. The primate uncrossed his arms and crossed them again the other way round, annoyed, God, he looked a sight in his red trousers. I tried to remember quickly; I'd heard those terms, or seen them in sex ads in the paper, perhaps I'd even known what they meant, more or less. No Greek, they'd said, so that didn't really matter, at least for now. French was obviously a blow job, but Cuban?
      "What does Cuban mean?" I asked.
      The short man looked at me disapprovingly.
      "You know," he said, and he raised his hands to his nonexistent breasts. I wasn't sure I quite understood, but I only dared ask one other question:
      "Have you chosen my partner yet?" I felt like saying "my fellow actor", but I thought they might think I was taking the piss.
      "Yes, you'll meet him the day after tomorrow. Don't worry, he's very experienced and he'll take the lead." That was the expression the short man used, as if he were describing a ballroom dance, when it still made sense to say: "I'll lead."
      Now I was back again in the waiting room, waiting for filming to begin, waiting with my partner, to whom I'd just been introduced, he shook my hand. We'd sat down on the rather narrow sofa, so small that he, at once, moved to a matching armchair in order to be more comfortable. The tall guy and the short guy and the one with the ponytail and the technicians were filming with another couple (I hoped the sex maniac wouldn't be there, he frightened me with his bulbous eyes, his flattened nose and his hideous trousers). In films, so I've heard, everything takes for ever and everything's always running late, and so they told us to wait and get to know each other That was absurd. "I don't know this man from Adam and yet, in a few minutes from now, I'll be sucking him off," I thought and I couldn't help thinking it in those precise words. "What's the point of our getting to know each other a bit and having a chat." I hardly dared look at him, I did so out of the corner of my eye, a rather unfortunate attack of modesty. When they introduced me to him, they had said: "This is Loren, your partner." I would have preferred it if they'd called him my "co-star", but I suppose that would have been a bit pretentious. He was about thirty, he was wearing trousers and a hat and cowboy boots, actors are always so Americanized, even if they only appear in porn movies. That's how a lot of them start, he might make it big one day. He wasn't at all bad-looking, despite appearances, an athletic sort, the type that goes to the gym a lot, he had a slightly hooked nose and grey eyes, calm and cold; he had a nice mouth, but that wasn't perhaps what I would have to kiss, that nice mouth. He seemed completely unfazed, he was sitting with his legs crossed like a cowboy and was leafing through a newspaper, he didn't take much notice of me. He had smiled at me when we were introduced, he had gaps between his teeth which gave his face a rather child-like look. He'd taken off his hat then, but had immediately put it back on again, perhaps he would keep it on during the filming. He offered me some liquorice sweets, but I declined, he sucked two at a time, perhaps it would be best if we didn't kiss after all. On his wrist he wore a strap made out of leather or elephant skin, very tight. I wouldn't call it a bracelet exactly. I suppose he looked modern, I felt suddenly very old-fashioned in my tight skirt, my black tights and my heels, I don't know why the hell I put on the highest heels I've got, perhaps, if they noticed them, they'd want me to keep them on, a lot of men like to see women like that, naked and in high heels, it's all a bit infantile that imagery, him with his hat on and me in my high heels. I realized that I was pulling my skirt down a bit, because it had ridden up while I was sitting, and that struck me as ludicrous. Not even my co-star was taking any notice of my thighs, and he was right, in a little while, there would be no skirt, no nothing.
      "Excuse me," I said then, "you've done this kind of work before, haven't you?"
      He looked up from the newspaper, but didn't put it down, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to start a proper conversation, or, rather, as if he was sure that he didn't.
      "Yes," he said, "but not that much, two, no, three times, a little while ago. But don't worry, you forget about the camera straight away. They told me it was your first time." I was grateful to him for putting it like that, rather than calling me a novice as tall, bald Mir had done. "Don't get embarrassed, that's fatal, just follow me and try and enjoy it as much as you can, and take no notice of the others."
      "Easier said than done," I replied. "I hope they're patient if I get nervous. I am a bit nervous."
      The actor Lorenzo gave me his gap-toothed smile. He was reading the sports pages. He seemed very sure of himself because he said:
      "Look, you won't even notice that they're filming. I'll take care of that." He said it more ingenuously than proudly, that wasn't what was worrying me, but it did worry me that it didn't even occur to him that it wouldn't be the people watching who would be the main cause of my nervousness on the set.
      "Right," I said, not daring to doubt him, perhaps intimidated. "But there'll be breaks won't there? For the different takes and so on? And what happens then? what do you do in between?"
      "Nothing, you can put on a dressing gown if you like and have a Coca-Cola. Don't worry," he said again. "There are worse things. And there's bound to be a few lines of coke if you need it."
      "Oh, so there are worse things, are there?" I said a little irritated by his excessive lack of concern. "I obviously just haven't come across them yet; go on tell me one." He finally put the newspaper down and I added hastily: "I'm not saying that because of you. I didn't mean you, you do understand that, don't you? I'm just doing it for the money, but you're not going to tell me that it's still not a pretty awful thing to have to do. Well, I don't know about you, but it is for me."
      Loren ignored my attempts not to offend him and focused on what I had said before. He looked at me with his calm eyes, but he seemed slightly irritated now, as if he had been provoked and as if he were someone who had no capacity for feeling provoked, and didn't know what tone of voice to use. His grey eyes were slightly wide-set too, quite far from his hooked nose, that seemed to draw his lips upwards, the kind of nostrils that always look as if their owner has a cold.
      "There is something worse," he said. "And I'm going to tell you about it now. What I used to do before was much worse, not that I'm going to do this for ever, but it's all right to be going on with until something else turns up, and you have no idea how great it is compared with what I used to do before."
      "What did you used to do, then? Did someone throw knives at you in a circus?"
      I don't know why I said that. I suppose it must have sounded offensive as if the actor Lorenzo must, inevitably, have come from the lowest sphere of the entertainment world. After all, I was only doing what he was doing, and I'd merely lost my job two years ago and had an ex-husband who had disappeared, gone missing, and a daughter to look after. He probably had a daughter too. And besides, they don't have shows like that now, that's old hat, there aren't even many circuses any more.
      "Look, smartypants," he said, but without sounding in the least reproachful and without intending to wound me, I'm not sure if that was simply because he was very tolerant or because he didn't know how to. He said it the way children say it at school: "No, smartypants. I was a guardian."
      "A guardian? what do you mean a 'guardian'? A guardian of what?" That was the last word I'd expected to hear from his lips and I couldn't conceal my surprise, which may have seemed offensive. I looked him full in the face, a guardian, he looked more like someone out of a spaghetti western.
      He touched the brim of his hat uneasily, as if straightening it.
      "Well, I mean, I had someone under my guardianship, under my protection. Like being a bodyguard, only different."
      "Oh, a bodyguard," I said, pulling a face, as if placing him further down the hierarchy. "And what was so bad about that? Were you constantly having to come between your boss and the bullets or something?" I had no reason to get stroppy with him, but I just kept coming out with these impertinent replies, perhaps I was beginning to feel sickened by the idea of soon having to suck him off with no preliminaries, time was moving on. Involuntarily I looked at his crotch, and immediately looked away again. I thought it again using that verb, 'suck him off', this modern age is making us all foul-mouthed, or perhaps we don't much care if we are, or perhaps it's just poverty: the less money you have, the fewer scruples too. And the older we get, the less life there is, there's not that long left.
      "No, I wasn't that kind of bodyguard, I'm not a goon," he said, not at all put out by my sarcasm, but speaking seriously, frankly, transparently. "I had to keep watch over a person who was ill, to stop her harming herself, it's very difficult. You have to watch them twenty-four hours a day, be alert all the time and you can't always manage it."
      "Who was she? What happened to her?"
      Loren took off his hat and stroked the top of it with his right forearm, the way cowboys do in films. Perhaps it was a gesture of respect. His hair was thinning.
      "She was the daughter of a rich guy, a multimillionaire, unbelievable, one of those businessmen who doesn't even know how much money he's got. You'd know his name, but I'd best not tell you. The daughter was crazy, a hysteric with suicidal tendencies, every so often she'd try and kill herself. For weeks at a time, she would lead an apparently normal life and then, suddenly, with no prior warning, she'd slit her wrists in the bath. She was completely nuts. They didn't want to hospitalize her because that would be too cruel and because the whole world and his wife would end up finding out about it, whereas only a few people, the people who were close to her, knew about the suicide attempts. So they took me on in order to stop it happening, so, yes, I was a bodyguard but not to protect her from others, as a bodyguard would normally do, but to protect her from herself. Her friends took me for a normal bodyguard, but I wasn't. My job was different, it was more like being a custodian."
      I thought that he probably knew that word because he had taken the trouble to find one that would describe his role. He would have recognized it when he found it.
      "I see," I said. "And that was worse than this. How old was she? Why didn't they get a nurse to look after her?"
      Loren passed the back of his hand under his chin, against the grain, as if he had suddenly realized he wasn't properly shaven. He was going to have to kiss me everywhere. But he seemed well-shaven enough to me, I was tempted to touch his face myself but I didn't dare, he might have taken it for a caress.
      "For the same reason, because a nurse is more obvious, what's a young girl doing all day with a nurse hanging around? You could understand her having a bodyguard, with her super-rich Daddy. She could lead a normal life, you see, she was going to university, she was twenty years old, she went to parties and to other flash dos, to the psychiatrist as well, of course, but it wasn’t like she was depressed all day or anything, no. She'd be normal for a while, and friendly. Suddenly she'd get an attack and it was always a suicidal one, and you could never tell when it would happen. There were no sharp objects in her bedroom, no scissors, no penknives, nothing, no belts she could hang herself with, no tablets anywhere, not even aspirin; not even high-heeled shoes, her mother was always careful to make sure they weren't too sharp ever since the time her daughter slashed her own cheekbone with one, they had to give her plastic surgery, you couldn't tell, but she'd given herself a really nasty gash. She wouldn't have been allowed to wear the shoes you've got on, quite a weapon really. In that sense, they treated her like a prisoner, no dangerous objects allowed. Her father was almost on the point of taking away her sunglasses when he saw Godfather III in which someone kills another man with his glasses, with the sharp part of the arm, honestly, they'd given the guy a full body search and he goes and cuts the other guy's throat with that. Have you seen Godfather III?"
      "No I haven't. I saw the first one."
      "If you like, I can lend you the video," said Loren amiably. "It's by far the best of the three."
      "I haven't got a video. Go on," I said, fearing that at any moment the door would open to reveal the tall face of Mir or the bony face of Custardoy or the short man's moustache, in order for us to start filming our scenes. We wouldn't be able to talk during them, not in the same way, we'd have to concentrate, get on with it.
      "Anyway, I had to be around her all day and sleep with one eye open, I had the room next to hers, her room and mine were joined by a connecting door to which I had the key, you know, like you get in hotels sometimes, the house was enormous. But, of course, there are countless ways you can hurt yourself if someone really wants to kill themselves, they'll do it in the end, just like a murderer, if someone wants to kill someone, they'll end up doing it however well protected their victim is, even if it's the Prime Minister, even if it's the King, if someone is determined to kill and they don't care about the consequences, they'll kill whoever they like, there's nothing you can do about it, they've got nothing to lose if they don't care what happens afterwards. Look at Kennedy, look at India, there's hardly a politician left alive there. Well, it's the same thing with someone who wants to murder herself attempted suicides just make me laugh. The princess would throw herself headfirst down the escalator in a big department store and we'd pick her up with a great gash in her forehead and her legs all grazed, it was just lucky I was there. Or she'd hurl herself against a display cabinet, against a shop window in the middle of the street, you've no idea what that's like, covered in cuts and with hundreds of glass splinters stuck in her, absolute madness, and howling with pain, because if you don't manage to kill yourself it really hurts. They couldn't lock her up either, that wouldn't have cured her. I got used to seeing danger everywhere, that's the real horror, seeing the whole world as a threat, nothing is innocent and everything is against you, I saw enemies in the most inoffensive things, my imagination had to anticipate hers, I had to grab her arm every time we were going to cross the street, make sure she didn't go near any high windows, be very careful in swimming pools, move her out of the path of any workman walking past carrying a pole because she might try and impale herself on it, well, that's how I came to see things, she was capable of anything, you start to distrust everything, people, objects, walls." – "That's how I used to be when my daughter was small," I thought, "I'm still a bit like that even now, I'm never completely at ease. I know what that's like. Yes, it is horrible." – "Once, she tried to throw herself under the horses' hooves in the final straight at the races, luckily, I managed to grab her by the ankle when she was just about to step onto the track, she took advantage of the fact that I was placing the bets and she slipped away from me, God, the panic I went through until I found her, she was already running towards the horses." The actor Lorenzo made only a verbal pause, not a mental one, I could see that he was still thinking about what he was telling or going to tell. "I can assure you, that was much worse than this, terrible tension, constant anxiety, especially after I'd fucked her, I fucked her twice: well, connecting door, me having the key, the nights spent always half-awake and jumpy, it was sort of inevitable. Besides, whilst I was there with her there was no danger, nothing could happen to her while I was on top of her with my arms around her, with me on top of her she was safe, you see." – "Sex is the safest place," I thought, "you control the other person, you keep them immobilized and safe." It had been a long time since I'd been in that safe place. –"But of course, you screw a woman a couple of times and you get fond of her. Well, not that fond, I've got a girlfriend too, and not because you have to, but it's different, you've touched her, you've kissed her and you don't look at her the same any more, and she treats you affectionately too." I wondered if I would treat him affectionately after the session awaiting us. Or if he would get fond of me because of that. I didn't interrupt. "So apart from the tension involved in the work, there was also the worry, not to say panic, I didn't want anything to happen to her, that was the last thing in the world I wanted. In short, it was a real bummer; beside that, this is a breeze."
      "Bummer" and "breeze", you hear those words less and less, they sounded almost funny.
      "Yes," I said. "What happened, did you get fed up?" I asked, not expecting him to answer in the affirmative. In fact, he'd already told me what had happened, by the way he stopped to think before telling me the rest.
      Loren put his hat back on and breathed hard out of those damp nostrils, as if he were gathering strength before doing something that required an effort. The brim of his hat covered his cold, grey eyes, his face was now just nose and lips, the nice lips that I would not kiss, there are no kisses on the mouth in porn movies.
      "No, I lost my job. I failed. The princess slit her throat in the kitchen of her house three weeks ago, in the middle of the night, and I didn't even hear her leave the bedroom, what do you think of that? I was left with no one to look after A disaster, a complete disaster" For a moment, I was seized by the thought that perhaps the actor Lorenzo was just acting in order to distract me and ease my nerves. I thought for a moment about my little girl, I'd left her with a neighbour. He stood up, paced round the room, at the same time hitching up his jeans. He stopped by the closed door through which we would soon have to pass. I thought he was going to punch it, but he didn't. He just said irritably: "when are we going to bloody well get started, I haven't got all day."

© 1999 Javier Marías
  translated by Margaret Jull Costa  
"Fewer Scruples" appears in the collection When I was Mortal published by Harvill Press, U.K., 1999. This electronic version is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the publisher. Book ordering available through
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Author bio:

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951 and published his first novel at the age of nineteen.  He is the author of several novels, the more recent ones of which have been translated into many languages.  English-language translations include All Souls (1996); A Heart So White (1995), winner of the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (1998), and the short story collection When I Was Mortal (1999). He is also a highly praised translator into Spanish of English authors, including Conrad, Stevenson, Hardy, and Laurence Sterne.  He has held academic posts in Spain, the United States (where he was visiting professor at Wellesley College) and in Britain, as Lecturer in Spanish Literature at Oxford University. 
navigation:                     barcelona review #15             November  1999 to January 2000
-Fiction Ian Wild - The Woman Who Swallowed The Book of Kells
Gotzy - Gotzy's Story
Greg Chandler - The Ghost of Sharon Tate
Alice Mullen - Glo-bug
Javier Marías - Fewer Scruples
-Essay Barbara Lefcowitz -Swans, Tricksters, The Letter 'S'
-Quiz Samuel Beckett- win a book
Answers to last issue's Nabokov quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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