I have spent the last 72 minutes willing Luke Ryan’s bladder to fill with piss. And although he currently seems very happy slowly sipping his drink, I am poised in the corner of his autograph stand, ready to spring into action at any moment. I am taking the privilege and responsibility of stewarding the Luke Ryan to and from the toilets today at his ComicClash Convention signing session very seriously. I did three practice runs of the route when I arrived this morning, flashing my ID lanyard so quickly at one point, I gave myself a paper cut. All in the name of duty, for, I am determined that during these toilet breaks, Luke Ryan and I will become lifelong best friends. Or, at the very least, I am going to get myself one awesome selfie.
Toilet Break 1
‘Another demon that wants to eat children’s souls? I cannot wait until the vegan movement hits hell.’ – Ramsay Hunter, Phantom X, Season 3 Ep 1
Luke puffs his cheeks out. His eyes seem a little disorientated. He shakes his wrist.
‘Intense,’ he says, looking towards me. Behind him, a queue of expectant fans clutch memorabilia emblazoned with his face. They crane their heads to see why he has left his seat.
‘This way, please.’ My voice creaks out of me, making my face blotch with embarrassment. I guess it’s fitting to be thrust back a decade into puberty in the presence of my childhood hero. Luke Ryan was the inspiration behind my old frosted tips hairstyle and the reason I had a wardrobe of oversized skater clothes, despite never once owning a skateboard.
I hold the door open for him, leading us into the backstage area of a venue the size of an airport-hanger. As we travel down a long, grey corridor, his boots’ repetitive thud magnifies in the vast space. I flash my neon yellow pass at a security guard and receive a puzzled look, realising too late that he is the janitor. Still, the all-access laminate emboldens me, as does Luke by my side. I imagine we are striding to our next mission in a slow-motion scene. Operation Toilet.
‘This is long,’ Luke’s exasperated voice jolts me out of my fantasy, back into what is, well, still a fantasy.
Yeah.’ A long silence hangs between us. ‘It’s long.’
Luke Ryan is talking to me. Luke Ryan. Aka Ramsay Hunter, everyone’s favourite sidekick on a 90s cult sci-fi TV Show. I never missed an episode of Phantom X, the adventures of Phantasia, an ancient ghost warrior stuck in a high-school cheerleader’s body. As I say to people – from the kids who made fun of my Phantom X school bag to my dad questioning why I still collect the action figures – ‘it’s a much deeper show than it sounds’.
There’s still silence. I clear my throat.
‘There’s not a toilet closer?’ He asks.
‘No, sorry. It’s just thirty more seconds or so -’
‘Who’s got that booth? Prime position.’ He jerks his head at the nearest door leading back into the convention hall.
‘Uh… I think that’s where Cole Sprouse is set up.’
He gives me a blank look. Up close, I can see the grey in his stubble and the wrinkles around his eyes. I guess they put a lot of makeup on twenty-somethings playing teenagers on TV. Although, to be fair, he must be in his forties now.
‘From Riverdale,’ I explain.
He lets out a short laugh without smiling. I twist my lanyard tightly around my finger, feeling responsible for the complete dearth of a rapport.
‘Do you watch Riverdale?’ I eventually ask. I get the same laugh again.
When we reach the toilet, he gives me one final bemused look, before going inside.
On the walk back, Luke keeps rubbing his eyes and rolling back his shoulders as if limbering up before re-entering the arena of sycophancy. Conventions are full on. Fans will cry, try and cram their entire life story into the thirty second interaction, enthusing repeatedly about how much said show and said celebrity means to them. My friend Ivan still boasts about the time he got a high-five from the Jabba The Hut puppeteer. Luke is undoubtedly considered one of the best stars to meet. He always hugs overwhelmed fans, applauds the costume efforts and recreates classic scenes and iconic lines. He’s American without being too American. But right now, he just seems flat.
‘To be honest, I think Riverdale is just a rehash of all the good things about Phantom X. Everything they do, you guys did better.’
I’m wincing before I’ve even finished saying it but a wry smile works his way across his face.
‘You really think that?’
‘Yeah and –’
‘So, you’re a fan…’ He stops walking and looks down at my nametag. ‘Gregor?’
‘Yes, I really admire your -’
‘Listen, Gregor, can you do me a favour? These things can be really draining… Can you bring me a coke but ask the barman to pour a little vodka in it? I’ll take another break in thirty minutes to get it off you.’
‘I… I don’t know if I’m allowed –’
His eyes, wide and imploring, seem to be leaning into me. He lets out a small chuckle, this time with a broad, mischievous smile.
‘Sure, you can. I’ll be super grateful, buddy. Sign anything you want.’
‘Uh…’ I look around. People in the hallway don’t seem to be aware that the actor Luke Ryan and I are having a friendly, private chat. That he is asking me for a favour. That he just called me buddy.
‘Or get a picture together… Whatever you want.’
He winks. He knows he has me.
‘OK,’ I say, both thrilled and terrified in equal measure.
‘You’re a great kid. Hey, actually, make it a double. And keep it out of sight if you can. Gregor, buddy, I owe you.’
Toilet Break 2
‘I’m not scared. I’m just practicing my impression of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.’ – Ramsay Hunter, Phantom X, Season 1 Episode 12
Luke rises from the signing table and heads straight to me. I look at my supervisor, who nods and opens the door for us. In the hallway, I hand him the double-vodka coke I’ve hidden behind some curtains.
‘You are a legend.’ He takes a gulp instantly.
I’m already drafting my post on the Phantom X message boards – heading: ‘The day LEGEND Luke Ryan called me a LEGEND’. I want to ask for the picture he’s promised but we’re expressly forbidden from ‘hassling’ talent so I’ll wait until there’s no one around.
Luke cricks his neck. ‘Let’s stretch our legs to the far-flung continent the toilet’s on.’
‘Sure.’ I keep a stranglehold on my voice so it sounds semi-relaxed.
Drink in hand, Luke seems immediately more at ease. He walks at a leisurely pace, chest puffed out, arms swinging.
‘You from around here, Gregor?’
‘Yep,’ I sigh. ‘Born and bred local boy. I’ve worked here for six years.’
‘I’d never heard of this place until I got booked. It was my first convention. I thought “why not?”, these events look fun, they stuff your wallet with money and, hey, I’ll get to experience a little bit of culture.’ He laughs to himself. ‘You know where I can go to get any of that culture? And before you say, I’ve done the magic stone by the river thing.’
‘It’s pretty quiet around here…’ I concede.
‘The hotel’s bar is always crawling with fans. And fans are great… but I don’t want somebody asking me about continuity errors while I’m flirting with the cute waitress.’
I laugh along with him, completely unfamiliar with any form of life that involves flirting with anyone. I spent two years exchanging Game Of Thrones reviews online with a girl before she pointed out we could meet in person.
‘Where do you go for a good drink?’ he asks casually, as if asking a trusted friend.
‘Um…’ Much more of a fan of a beer on the sofa, I try somewhere I’m sure my dad talks about. ‘The Cross Keys?’
‘The Cross Keys. Interesting shout, Gregor. Interesting shout.’
By the time we get to the toilet, his drink is almost finished.
‘Luke?’ A husky voice stops us in our tracks on the walk back. We turn around to the sight of Irene Richie, a sixty-something sci-fi veteran, most famous for playing a cyborg panther-woman, marching over to us. She wrestles Luke into a hug.
‘Honey, I didn’t know they’ve got you in this rat race as well! God, no, get out, get out before you go as crazy as me!’ She smacks his arm as he grins. ‘All day long I’m signing pictures of myself thirty years younger and thirty pounds lighter with whiskers and a bionic tail. These kids don’t give two hoots that I’ve done Shakespeare.’
‘Lady Macbeth? A method role?’ He asks playfully as she whacks him again.
‘Nowadays I couldn’t land an audition to play her mother. How are you? You look terrible. Are you sleeping?’
His unhappy laugh returns, accompanied by flat, disconnected eyes.
‘I’m fine. These events aren’t so bad. I get asked about the episode you guest-starred in.’
She swats away the conversation with her bangled arms. ‘I never know what the crap they’re on about with the spells and the amulet and the metaphorical-thematical-spiritual-subtext-of-the-fuckin’-whatever. Who cares! Hey, how’s Jeanie?’
‘Uh… she’s OK.’
Her eyebrows would rise if there was an inch of give left in her face. I can’t help but stare at her skin, which looks yanked tight, her mouth unable to form an upward smile. With the surgery scars along her temple not quite knitting together, she looks like a rough approximation of her own wax doll.
‘No, we, uh, yeah, we’re not really… together anymore. I don’t know why I’m being weird. It’s known. It’s a known thing.’ Luke starts scuffing his feet against the floor.
She looks at me expectantly then clocks the bright lanyard. Her own escort had the decency to pretend not to eavesdrop a few feet away.
‘Well… bigger and better things. Are you working? Are you getting by?’
‘Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.’ He clicks his fingers as if remembering something. ‘I just did an episode of Dreadsville.’
I look up to see Luke smiling a little too earnestly. That episode aired at the end of last year.
‘Well here you’ll make more than in ten episodes of Dreadsville.’ She laughs as he looks at the floor. ‘See you around, Luke. Stay sane.’
She rattles down the hall, her escort chasing after her.
There’s an odd silence between us.
‘Irene Richie,’ he says, eventually. ‘I used to tug myself off to her every night back in the day.’
I laugh much harder than I should considering that is the kind of comment I complain about TV characters making.
‘Who did it for you?’ Luke asks me. I notice he’s crunched up his plastic drink’s cup.
‘Lucy Lawless? Sarah Michelle Gellar? Those Roswell chicks? Patrick Stewart? Hey, no assumptions, man.’
He laughs, my discomfort seemingly bringing him back to his chatty, brash best.
‘Scully,’ I half-whisper.
‘Stern and down-to-business. Nice.’
We reach the back entrance to his booth.
‘Can you do me a favour…?’
‘A double vodka and coke?’
‘Make it two.’
Toilet Break 3
‘I saved the world and flunked Math all in one day. And after I so carefully staked that vampire at an acute angle.’ Ramsay Hunter, Phantom X, Season 2 Episode 7
‘I’m stained with the tears of geeks.’ Luke takes both drinks and nudges me. ‘Just a joke.’
I smile, happy to be back in the presence of my new buddy. He starts counting his fingers.
‘So far I’ve had a marriage proposal, three butt grabs and even one personalised haiku.’
His phone rings.
‘Tell me you fixed it.’ He speaks down the receiver in a different voice. Lower. Brisk. As we walk to the toilet, he listens intently, only making intermittent ‘uhuh’ and ‘okay’ noises.
‘It’s disappointing,’ he says suddenly and I can’t help but turn to look at him. His face remains stony so I slow my pace down to give him some privacy. I worry about the implications that might have on my desire to get a chummy photo.
Once he’s inside the toilet, I can still hear him. I stand further away but his voice grows louder. A few people walking past look at me with startled expressions. I smile back lamely. Another guest, a stunt man who doubles for Vin Diesel, goes to enter the toilet. Luke must have forgotten to lock the door because it starts to open. I lunge forward.
‘Sorry, sir, there’s –‘
‘It’s occupied, asshole,’ Luke’s red face appears in the crack that has been created. He wrenches the door back shut.
The stuntman, thankfully Polish with limited English, blinks at me, dumbfounded. Using embarrassing hand signals, some pointed to my genitals, I direct him elsewhere.
Luke emerges, looking as if his face has been punctured and all the admirable assurance has slid out. As we walk back, the only sound is his agitated breathing. I don’t say anything.
We approach a security guard who has newly taken up a post by a doorway. He puts his hand out, indicating he wants to see our accreditation. I quickly produce my laminate, keen for this walk to end. He points at Luke.
‘He’s a guest,’ I interject. ‘He’s with me.’
The security guard, a tall guy in his thirties with a crew cut and a double chin, shrugs.
‘He needs a pass.’
I try to infuse my eyes with the urgent message that now really isn’t the time.
Luke laughs bitterly. ‘I’m on the posters, buddy,’ he says, patronisingly slow.
‘He’s from Phantom X.’ I attempt to distract from Luke’s aggression with a hopelessly upbeat inflection.
‘Phantom what?’ The security guard pulls a face that makes my insides clench.
‘Look, asshole,’ Luke steps forward and I breathe so sharply into my contracted muscles that it hurts, ‘I could really do without some nobody trying to feel good about his pointless little job.’
The guard looks caught between anger and concern that he might lose his job if he punches a potential VIP in the jaw. The two men stare at each other, inches apart. My heart hammers in my chest and I experience the horror of sudden, overpowering flop-sweat. I need to fix this and fix this fast. Luke’s Phantom X character Ramsay didn’t have any superpowers but that didn’t stop him from stepping up to do the right thing again and again. I straighten my posture and cock one eyebrow upwards, just like Luke did on the show.
‘Look,’ I point to the fine print on the back of my laminate. ‘You don’t need to get your reading glasses. Trust me, it says I can escort anyone.’ My intonation has changed and a slight American twang creeps into my words. ‘And an escort never leaves an escortee unescorted so… if you’d excuse us, I have some escorting to do.’
The guard looks confused by my sudden character-switch but I bluster my way forwards and he allows us past.
‘Thank fuck,’ Luke mutters under his breath.
We arrive back at his door. I want to both throw up and stage a victory dance. Luke’s face is still set in a scowl. He takes a deep, lung-scraping breath.
‘This job,’ He mutters, opening the door just a sliver, watching the queue of people waiting expectantly for his return. He closes it and turns back to me. I almost groan. I just want him to go back inside. Turn on the fan favourite act again. Leave me for a second so I can reapply some extra-strength deodorant. ‘You know…’ He looks caught in two minds, his eyes looking everywhere except at me. ‘There was an online petition for me to play the Green Lantern.’
I blink, taking a second to process what he has just said.
‘Did you sign it?’ I don’t know why but the vulnerability in his voice makes me feel uneasy. Now, my eyes are avoiding his.
‘Yes,’ I finally say.
He smiles, gratefully. But then he starts to shake his head.
‘I think you’d have been a great Green La-’
‘I had to turn down a part in a really cool play to come here,’ he says, cutting me off, in a low voice.
‘It could have been a really good opportunity to remind people that I’m more than just ghosts and high schools and stupid, sarcastic quips. But…’ He grimaces. ‘Conventions pay more. This pays for my divorce. For my house. For everything.’
‘That must have been a tough decision.’
‘Sure, make bad money but get a chance to do the job I love or make lots of money reliving past glories, answering the same questions over and over and over.’ He chews the side of his lip. ‘That was my agent on the phone.’
I start to sweat again. When I said I wanted Luke Ryan and I to form an unbreakable friendship, it involved playing PlayStation games and watching movie marathons, not supporting him through an emotional breakdown in a hallway.
‘He can’t even get me an audition for a part to play a fucking police officer in the next Green Lantern movie. An audition.’
He must have finally noticed my frozen look of discomfort, because, suddenly, he remembers he is supposed to be charming and wonderful to people like me. His face floods with warmth.
‘But, whatever, right? I get to come here and play at being god for a day or two. I bet Daniel Day Lewis wishes he’d done a science fiction show.’
He winks at me, all bravado again.
‘Thanks for dealing with that jerk. You’ve got a pair on you.’
I smile. Everything is back to normal because we both say so.
I remember my camera phone is in my pocket. Now feels like the moment to finally ask for that photo. Perhaps if I shared it online and tagged him, he’d even comment on it. Say thanks for being his buddy. Follow me back. Request I escort him again next year.
My supervisor comes through the door.
‘Everything alright?’ She smiles at Luke but glares at me. ‘You ready to wrap up, Mr Ryan? We’ve got about ten minutes left before I take you to your Q & A.’
He goes to follow her through the door. Then he stops and turns back to me. My hand is still in my pocket.
‘Do you mind getting me – ’
I nod. I watch as he steps through the door and the cheers rise.