The stage management team has been surprisingly creative. They’ve switched the set around. It no longer looks like a typical Saturday night talk show with separate areas for the band and the interviews. They’ve pulled everything into a more intimate set. Janet is sitting on a couch, I’m on a soft armchair at an angle to her. The pianist from the band is just to the left of the couch. Behind us is fake window showing the London skyline with winter effects added. It’s obviously not real because it’s not drenched in flashing blue lights.
More casualties have been found, according to the staff behind the camera who are updating us from their phones. The police seem to be constantly a few steps behind. It doesn’t feel real. We’re about to broadcast a talk show while people are being stabbed to death outside.
The LIVE light turns on and the auto-cue starts rolling. The writers have done an amazing job in a couple of hours. There’s a few jokes at the expense of the celebrities who were supposed to be here tonight. A joke puts one of the woke, would-be guests at the protest. Another, jokes that a celeb has symptoms of COVID after hosting a birthday party of 30 guests, as was alleged in the press. The writing is edgy and refreshing. It’s had no time to go through editor sanitisation. This is actually fun, if completely surreal. The whole team is starting to relax. Just before the first commercial break the auto-cue brings up the breaking news for us to deliver.
Janet takes the lead: “A description of the suspect has been put out by the police. Anti-racism protests are ongoing but they are disrupting the manhunt. The police are requesting that protesters please… go… home. Resources are being redirected to managing the protest and away from the manhunt.”
Some live video from the protests is showing on the monitors facing us under the cameras that show us what we are broadcasting. The groups of protesters are scattered and mixed. Some are clearly bored, if sincere, student types waving platitudes on cards. Others are paramilitary looking ANTIFA types. Masked, helmeted, dressed in all black and wearing backpacks. They look vaguely paramilitary.
Janet continues, “There have been isolated reports of violence in what is a largely peaceful protest.” I raise an eyebrow. The monitors switch to pictures of smashed shop windows on Oxford Street and a car on fire. It shows a line of police in riot gear backing away from a crowd. One or two Molotov cocktails arise from the crowd like baby phoenixes and crash in front of the police officers’ feet. “Police are reminding protestors that under coronavirus legislation the protests are illegal and you can be arrested and fined. I would like to express a personal appeal to the protestors. We know that there is systematic racism in Britain,” Janet says softly. I snort and it is heard by the mics. Cathy glares at me from behind the camera. “But you must go home so the police can focus on catching the suspect and so that we can contain the spread of the coronavirus and protect the NHS.”
That was my cue but there is a second of dead time because I am still watching the monitors. I feel Janet’s glare on me. “The police have reportedly found another three bodies which have suffered wounds consistent with a hurried stabbing. There have also been two reported injuries at one of the groupings of protesters that are not believed to be connected. Please go home. It’s not safe on the streets.”
“Ad break,” shouts someone behind the camera. The monitors show a three minute countdown. Make-up moves onto stage to top us up.
“Try not to snort on mic,” says Janet.
“Sorry. I got caught off-guard by the bullshit,” I say insincerely.
“I can’t be bothered with it either,” she says attempting to confide in me, “I don’t know why they don’t just beat up the rioters and sort it out. I couldn’t give a shit about them. But you’ve got to play the game.” I have half an exhaled breath caught in my throat. She winks at me. Make-up moves off stage and we have about 120 seconds left. “You’re hot when you’re cynical,” she says. “The offer’s open if you’re interested. You used to be a ladies man. I’ve not seen you with anyone for a years. Have you gone gay or are you not sure you can handle me?”
None of this will feel real until I do something real.
I release the half swallowed breath, stand up and walk to Cathy who is behind the camera comparing notes. I take her hand, spin her around, put my hand behind her neck and lower my lips to hers. I give her a long, clumsy, first-date kiss. I feel the collective, shocked intake of breath among the staff. I walk back onto the set and sit down. A make-up rushes on to correct my smudged face in the last 20 seconds.
Seven, six, five… the LIVE light turns on.
“Welcome back everyone,” I start on cue. “If you’re wondering why a Saturday night talk show is lecturing you with government messages instead of entertaining you like we used to do, you’re not alone. I don’t know why we’re doing it either.
“If you’re watching this, you’re at home anyway. So why are we telling you to stay at home if you’re already there? Virtue signalling of course.” The stage management team lift their faces from their phones and tablets. The guy controlling the auto-cue is looking at his screen confused. One of the writers is chuckling. Cathy has a hand to her mouth in shock but her eyes are smiling. “But you’re probably bored of that by now so how about some unvirtuous signalling?” I flash a big smile at the camera. “Most of you are only watching us because we’re the only show that has managed to get on air and you have forgotten how to read a book. But don’t worry, so had I. But I started reading one earlier today and it was pretty good. So don’t feel like you have to sit and accept this mind control for our sake. Make us work for your attention, or this is just going to get worse. Anyway…” I go back to the auto-cue. The stage management crew look at each other with blank expressions, unsure whether to be relieved or disappointed that I’ve stopped my rant. Janet misses her cue but takes over after a few dead seconds.
I want to know how this is landing with the audience so I start reaching out with my mind. Vaguely and broadly, trying to spread my sensitivity in a thin veil across the studio, out into the street, across the neighbourhood, over the city, as far as I can without it perforating. I’m losing resolution but I can still sense people muddy and primal emotional blobs. People watching at home are alert and thrilled, anticipating the next outburst of honesty. My cue arrives.
“Thanks for those empty platitudes Janet,” the writer spits out a ‘ha’ and I think it is picked up by the mic. “And now here’s some more topical humour to help you ignore the circus outside.” I continue on script so I can maintain the gossamer shroud my mind has laid over the city. Then I hand over to Janet.
I can sense the blunt, relived agreement of the viewers. I can sense the protesters too. Angry and proud in a directionless sort of way. Some are overflowing with sincere righteousness. Others have the opportunistic thoughts of thieves and provocateurs.
Despite most of my mind being spread across the city, I pick up the cue like a pro, “Thanks for that insincere segment, Janet. It’s a good job we brought you in tonight. I know everyone at home will be delighted to see that we are working together again. Nobody at all is wondering how you can be working with me tonight if I really did what you suggested I did.”
“Hold on…” Janet starts, breaking script for the first time.
I turn to her and whisper in an exaggerated manner, “Just wait for your cue while I show you how to nuke my career properly.” Another, uncontrolled “Ha” hiccups from the writer. This one was definitely picked up by the mic because the sound guy glares at him. I slide back onto the script.
In my peripheral vision I see the stage doors fling open and a man wearing a suit and a plastic visor storms in. It looks like one of the studio execs. He’s making a cutting motion across his neck.
Something pricks my mind. In the swamp of protesters I can feel a pocket of fear with a singularity of blind hatred at its centre. I get to the next cue but Janet doesn’t pick it up. She’s sitting there looking frightened for some reason. Fuck it. I try to focus my mind on this kernel in the crowd. These are the last breaths of my power. One of the minds is louder. It is consumed with fear. It’s drenched in pain too; visceral, physical pain. I use it as a hook for my focus. It disappears. They’ve died. There’s another loud mind. But they’re weakening too. I try to lock onto the centre, the hatred.
It’s gone. My power is exhausted forever. I know what it was.
“The killer is in the Oxford Street protests,” I say deadpan to the camera. “He is currently outside TopShop. He is still armed with a knife. The police must get there immediately. If you know anyone in the protest, call them and tell them to get away.” The LIVE light is not illuminated. “Put me back on now, Cathy,” I shout, “I know where the killer is.”
“How the fuck do you know where the killer is?” asks Janet. She’s terrified. I don’t need my power to know that. But she tries to cover it with aggression. “What the fuck is wrong with you, psycho?”
Cathy has her back to me. Her shoulders are shuddering. I can’t reach into her mind. I don’t know what I need to say to make her flick the switch and put me back on air. I consider getting my phone and calling the police but what can I tell them? The suited executive is spitting into his visor that I need to get off his set now.
“Three more dead bodies found in the protest outside TopShop,” says the assistant stage manager reading from his phone. “It’s complete carnage out there.”
Everyone on the set is staring at me except Cathy. She is looking into her hands. I can’t get into any of their minds.
“How are the ratings though?” I ask, through a barely suppressed smile.