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.
Make-up is finished. I am doing last minute breathing and voice exercises. Trying to hype myself into a good mood for the broadcast. But I can’t stop picking up my phone and doom-scrolling.
A serial killer was running above my head as I was commuting to work. Someone intentionally drove a truck into a line of people queuing for Marks & Spencer and is currently on an active stabbing spree. There’s a man-hunt happening around where I am right now.
I can’t make it feel real. It is just news on a screen. Just something that is vaguely in my way. It has the same urgency in my mind as my Disney+ watchlist. That scares me, in a numbing sort of way. Homer Simpson, deliver me from my inanity.
The police have put out a description of the suspect. A mid 20s-to-mid-30s male. They say his height is between 5′ 10″ and 6′. They describe him with short, black hair, wearing a grey puffer jacket, dark blue jeans and black boots. The article says he was sporting a surgical mask originally but that he might have taken this off. That could be anyone.
The next story reports that the home secretary is asking protestors to stay at home while the manhunt is active. She reminds people that protests are illegal under current coronavirus legislation. I look at the pictures of the protest on the live feed. People are holding up slogans like “Hate speech is not free speech,” “Feminists against Islamophobia,” and other oxymorons. I don’t understand what this has to do with the events at hand.
I scroll back to the suspect’s description. It doesn’t state the suspects religion or assign any motive. I check a couple of rivals news sites. It’s the same. I flick back to the pictures of the protests. It doesn’t make sense.
A knock at the door drags my attention from the screen. Janet steps in. I swivel the chair around and face her. She is dressed in a sequined, ankle-length dress with thin shoulder straps. She is perfectly made up and her hair hangs in elegant waves to her shoulders. “Can I help you?” I ask.
“That’s no way to greet an old friend,” she says, closing the door behind her. “I just wanted to say that I have no hard feelings.” She lifts a hand to her heart.
“Why would you have any hard feelings?”
“What do you mean?”
“My career was ruined. Your career, if you can call it that, was boosted.”
“It was just a misunderstanding,” she sighs. “I thought you would be bigger than this.”
“Put that on your social media now.”
“Say what happened was a misunderstanding and that I did nothing wrong.”
She rolls her eyes, “I can’t do that. It’s not topical anymore. #MeToo is over now. Well, it’s not trending anyway.”
I exhale and lean back in a chair, “You know, some of the stage management team still won’t talk to me. Two of them quit when I was announced,” I say, neutrally.
“They were probably on the way out anyway,” she says.
“OK.” I turn around and continue with my warm ups. I see her approaching me in the mirror.
“You know,” she says, “if you play your cards right you could still have a chance with me.” She places her hands on my shoulders. I reach into her head. She’s absolutely fucking serious. The mental gymnastics she is performing are immense. The cracks of cognitive dissonance smoothed over with the thick polyfiller of entitlement. She pushes her thumbs into my shoulders. A bit of bile spits into the back of my mouth.
The door opens and Cathy steps in. She looks at the scene and has to suppress a smirk with a cough. “Sorry,” says Janet, “just a bit of co-star chemistry.” She gives Cathy an aloof grin.
“Right…” says Cathy, swallowing a laugh. “You’re on set in three minutes.”
I’m reading The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea when make-up comes in to the room.
“I’m sorry I’m late, it’s an absolute nightmare out there.” Make-up is a 50 something Asian woman. She’s attractive in an austere, sexless sort of way. If I hadn’t just been drained by Cathy, it is something I might appreciate a lot more.
“So I heard, don’t worry about it.”
“I just got through before the police closed all the roads.”
I make eye contact with her in the mirror, my post coital serenity dissolving, “The police have closed the roads?”
“You don’t know? There’s a killer on the loose.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s all in the news, there’s an active man-hunt.”
I look at my watch, “Do you have time to do everyone’s make-up in an hour.”
She struggles to speak, “Nobody has told you?”
“Told me what?”
“You’re the only one here.”
“I’m sorry,” she says because that’s all she can think to say.
I jump out of the chair and run onto the set. It’s chaotic. People everywhere. I start stopping set technicians, “Where is Cathy?”
“I don’t know, dude.”
“Cathy!” I shout out across the set. Everyone looks at me. I can feel them bracing themselves. They’re expecting the celebrity meltdown. Some of them want it.
“How can I help?” her voice comes from behind me, without a trace of familiarity. Nobody knows about us and she wants to keep it that way.
“Where is everyone else?” I grunt under my breath. She points at the rest of the stage crew with her eyes. “No. Where is the rest of the on-camera team? The presenters and the guests?”
“Oh. You don’t know?” Pity opens her expression.
She whisperers, “I thought you were a mind reader. How was I supposed to know you didn’t know? Don’t you check your phone?”
“I’ve been busy reading about a fucking Japanese sailor, I haven’t checked my phone since I went into the tube.”
Cathy pulls me to one side and waits until she thinks everyone has stopped listening in. I told everyone I just spent the last hour in your room explaining the situation to you. It’s going to raise a few eyebrows if you start acting weird about it now.”
She’s right, I should’ve known, but I can’t stop myself being a dick, because it’s easier to be a dick, “How am I going to present an evening talk show without any fucking guests?”
She nods over to a group of guys sitting where the audience would have been, too close together, hunched over Macbooks, wearing their masks under their noses and leaning over each other’s shoulders looking at each other’s screens. “They’re redoing the script and it will be up on the auto-cue before you start. It’s going to be a bad show but it looks like we might be the only ones broadcasting live. All because you turned up early. The other channels have no show. Even if we have a disaster, we have something. So everyone will be watching us.”
“Christ. So is anyone turning up?”
“We have the pianist and we have one person who was on the backup list who might be able to help?”
“She lives close by. Within the sealed off area. She can get here.”
“No way, Cathy. No way.”
“It looks good.”
“How the fuck does it look good? It looks like I’m admitting it.”
“No, it doesn’t. It looks like you’ve both moved on, that you’ve reconciled. She’s totally up for it. She said she is going to be totally professional.”
“I’m sure she fucking will be. She’s not the one who got their career destroyed. Hers got enhanced.”
“Trust me, it will work out good for you.” But she’s avoiding my eyes. “Look, we need this. I wouldn’t do it to you if we weren’t desperate.”
“She’s already on her way isn’t she?” She looks down at her pumps. “Fucking hell, Cathy.”
After a couple of chapters of Yukio, Cathy opens the door slightly and slips through the narrow gap like a spy for no reason. “Oh, you’re reading it?” she asks.
“It’s pretty good.” It’s fucking amazing.
“I knew you’d love it. You know you need to wear a mask when you’re on set?” She moves over to the vanity table and throws a few disposable face nappies down. Her own mask is hanging below her nose making it useless. No doubt she’s doing that to stop her thick-framed glasses steaming up. She is wearing a pair of loose, black slacks and a brown, oversized, knitted jumper. Her sleeves are pushed up her wrist-less forearms revealing a bunch of tacky, plastic bracelets. Her bangs are pinned back with an assortment of different clips. Despite the dry, winter weather her face is pimpled and greased like a teenager’s in summer. She’s a shapeless, mottled mess.
When I first met Cathy, I thought her dishevelled appearance was an act of rebellion against the beauty standards of the industry. But when I reached into her thoughts I found no unrequited desire for fame. No angry principles. Just shy confidence.
Cathy perches her wide arse on my vanity table and spins my chair with her dirty pump so that I’m facing her. “You’ve got about an hour until make-up arrives,” she says. “What are you gonna do?” She cocks her head.
“Well,” I say, standing “I’m going to fuck you. But it’s a good job I have this book because I don’t know what I’d do with the other fifty minutes.” She snorts. I tilt up her chin and kiss her, then lift her onto the vanity table properly. She wraps her thick calves around the back of my hips and pull me closer. Her pumps slip off and land on the floor with a soft thud. She leans back, making me dip down to kiss her and grinds her crotch against mine.
I pull down her slacks and underwear to her ankles with one hand and try to undo my jeans with the other. I wrestle my cock out of my jeans. Her arse squeaks on the shiny vinyl table as she tries to position herself. That makes us both laugh. She leans back and bumps her head on one of the hot mirror lights. I try to help her but I stumble backwards over my own trousers and fall to the floor.
Cathy bursts into laughter before I can ask her if she’s OK. She steps out of her slacks and knickers and dumps them in a tangle on the table. “Come here,” she says, helping me up then pushing me onto the couch. “Sit there.” She puts my arms on the shoulders of the couch and sits in my lap. She shifts her hips inelegantly until she finds my cock and slides herself onto it. She’s always drenched and her vagina hardly offers any resistance. She pulls off the oversized jumper, smashing my face clumsily with an elbow and getting her glasses tangled in the knit. Under the unflatteringly large top she is wearing a soft, navy bralette with thin shoulder straps that offers no support for her sugar bag sized breasts.
She starts to take it off. “Leave it on,” I say. Cathy always wears pretty and impractical underwear that strains under the pressure of her curves, usually half-trapped in her arse or spilling her tits.
She holds down my arms at the elbows and rides me rhythmlessly. She pushes her tongue violently into my mouth and sucks on my neck and shoulders. Her enlaced breasts smack against my chest.
“Go inside me,” she breathes into my ear.
“I am inside you.”
“No, go inside me.”
“Do you have enough left?”
“Yes,” I lie. “Keep moving.”
I let my mind slide into hers. It’s always easier when someone wants it. Our pleasures are layered on top of each other. I adjust my hips, feeling arousal slip around in her mind until I find the right position. Her movements get slower and harder. Her breathing deeper and off beat. Her vaginal canal closes on my cock. The vortex of her orgasm grows in my mind, obliterating my pleasure. I come when she does. My mind folds in on itself, breaking the entanglement. She sits in my lap a while, letting me drip out of her as my cock softens to a useless cork.
“You were quite quick,” she says, without judgement.
“So were you.”
“I’m always quick.”
“I told you I quit Porn.”
She snorts, “No fap, red pill cliché.”
“If you say so,” I say sleepily.
Once we dress she asks me, “Did it make your power any better?”
I’m four hours early to the broadcast studio. Cathy is already signed in. I take a moment to read the names on the visitor sheet. All of the stage management team are already signed in. I didn’t realise that they arrived this early. I exchange a few words with the security receptionist. He looks vaguely familiar. I don’t recall the name on his badge. When I hand the pen back he wipes it thoroughly with and anti-bacterial wipe. I can’t think of anything to say so I ask him if he’s seen the new Mulan film but he says he’s stopped watching new films.
I go through the stage door and walk around the back of the cameras to get to my dressing room on the far side of the set. Cathy and the stage management team are on the set having one of those trendy standing meetings. I notice most of the crew are not wearing their masks properly. They spot me passing behind the cameras, stop their conversations and stare at me. I give them a friendly wave. I can feel a vague tremor of worry emanating from them. Just nerves I guess. I’ve learned not to overanalyse everything I pick up.
My dressing room is bare except for a bottle of spring water. The rider hasn’t even been set up yet. Christ, I am in early.
The tuxedo I am supposed to wear is here, hanging on the back of the door, freshly pressed. It probably arrived last night. Costume don’t fuck around. They had my sizes three months ago and emailed me every week for any weight update. Nobody has any faith in my professionalism anymore.
There is a soft knock at the door. Cathy enters the room and asks, “What are you doing here?”
“I thought I worked here?”
Cathy frowns, “Have you been drinking?”
“No.” She moves closer to smell me. I can smell lemon. The cheap perfume that she buys at the market.
“I can smell coffee. What are you trying to cover up?”
“Nothing, I stole it.”
“You’re doing that again? It’s so cringe.”
“It’s so cringe,” I imitate her squeaky voice. She smiles. I smile. The tension dissolves.
“Why are you here so early?”
I raise my arms, “There’s fuck all to do. I can’t even buy a newspaper and read it in a café because of this tier 4 shit. Or is it tier 5 now?” Cathy lets out a little sigh. “What?”
“Everyone on the team thought you were coming in to storm out.”
“Coming in to storm out?”
“Yeah, coming in early to find something to complain about to give you an excuse to quit.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I know, I told them that’s not your style.”
I laugh, “What’s my style, Cathy.”
“You’d just not turn up.” She shrugs.
“Bollocks, I’m a professional!”
“Oh really. I bought tickets for Jack and the Beanstalk. On the poster it said you were starring…”
“I had COVID symptoms,” I say avoiding her eyes.
“You were probably at home drinking Suntory and watching blow job compilations on Porn Hub.”
“I’ve quit that shit.”
“You quit drinking?” she raises an eyebrow.
“No,” I laugh. “Drinking is fine. I’ve quit porn. That shit is…” She raises her eyebrow even higher. I reach into her mind, just a little. “But you didn’t think that I was going to walk out.”
“You’re in my head?”
“I thought you were running out of that… power. Aren’t you saving it?” I shrug
“So, what are you worried about?”
She purses her lips and squints her eyes, “I thought you were coming in early to dump me. Or worse.”
“Tell me you love me.” She laughs. I force a laugh. I do love her.
“Why is the stage management team here so early?” I ask.
“This is when we arrive, the set doesn’t just appear five minutes before you go on stage.” She looks around, “Your rider should be here by now. They’re late. That’s why we get here early, to sort out all of the things that don’t happen as they’re supposed to.”
“What happened to the rider?”
“I don’t know. I’ll chase it up when we get a second. Probably just traffic.”
“The streets are dead.”
“So do you have time to… you know… get dumped?”
Cathy smiles and shakes her head, “Yes I do. But I thought you’d be here later. So you have to wait.” She blows me a kiss then leaves.
Make-up won’t be here for another couple of hours. I root around in my bag. There’s an iPad Mini but it’s only got 5% charge. There’s a book buried underneath it. Something that Cathy gave me about four years ago when we were filming B-roll for something else. Before we started fucking. Or whatever it is we’re doing. It was the height of summer and I was hungover from a bender. It was horrible. I’d read her mind the day before and discovered she was in to me. Not because I was famous. She liked the ways I looked at things. She thought my cynicism was cute. But I was in a shit mood and I took it out on her. Because I knew she would take it.
At the end of the shoot she chucked the wrapped book at me saying I didn’t deserve a birthday present. It was The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima. I open the cover, wondering if I remember how to actually read a book.
Forty-five minutes later there is another knock on the door. It’s a delivery boy with the rider. A platter of fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, a few cheeses, some overpriced coffee and tea, sparkling water in cans, dumb shit. I don’t even like some of it. A rider is a statement, nothing else. If I actually want something I just get it on Deliveroo.
“Thanks,” I say, taking it from the flustered delivery boy.
“Sorry I’m late. It’s hell out there,” he says.
“Yeah it’s crazy, something has happened. A few roads are blocked.”
“OK, well no harm done,” I say. “There must be an accident I guess.”
“I have to shoot. I’m behind on the next one.”
“Shoot then,” I say, and smile generously.
“Thanks,” he turns to leave but stops. “It’s good to see you back on TV. I never believed any of the stuff that came out on Twitter.”
“I mean, even if it’s true, what they said you did, it wasn’t even that serious.”
“Don’t worry it’s not true,” I say, my broad grin tightening.
“Right, lack of evidence.”
“Lack of evidence… because nothing happened,” I say nodding. He nods. “Anyway, you better shoot.”
That sounds nice. I step forward to claim it. The person who paid for it steps forward too. But he stalls. I pick up the cup. We look at each other over the tops of our masks. He recognises me. “Oh, I ordered the same drink as well,” he says.
“It’s a common drink,” I say. He blushes. I can feel his embarrassment without that cue. I can’t stop myself from feeling it. I don’t even have to reach into his head. Some people are like that. Their emotions are rank farts I can’t help but breathe in. He doesn’t challenge me for the drink. My minor fame warps his sense of reality. “Lots of people order the same drink.” I give him a big, fat, lying grin.
“I guess so,” he says. We both squint-smile with our eyes over our masks. Both silently agreeing that I fucked him but he won’t say anything about it. He knows he will stand around for a few minutes before telling the barista that they missed his order. Then the universe will be back to normal.
Outside the generic franchise café, I pull my mask down and take a sip. Too much sugar. It tastes like I’m giving the Easter Bunny a rim job. I put the coffee into the nearest bin.
It’s a few hours until I’m supposed to be at work. COVID-19 regulations have made it impossible to kill time in the city. Everything except takeaways and supermarkets is closed. All you can do is work and buy stuff. Nowhere to sit, nowhere to have a beer. Nothing to help you forget that your life is ending right now and you have nothing to show for it except some mild fame and a cupboard of unfinished courses of different antibiotics.
A digital billboard above the train station screams, “Follow government guidance to avoid local lockdown measures.” It must’ve been ordered before the third national lockdown. Then it switches to an advert for Disney+. Mulan looks down on me with her righteous glare. Homer Simpson looks dumb and happy.
Deliver me from caring, Homer Simpson.
I pull up the face nappy and head into the nearest underground station. Under the giant image of the Righteous Mulan and Sage Simpson, a man hands me a leaflet telling me that Jesus is a prophet of Islam. “Where do you stand on Homer Simpson?” I ask him.
You discover an alien junkyard on mars, and slowly piece together what the civilization was like through examining its trash.
The wormhole opens for a fraction of a second. Photons tumble through the space curtain, gasses do not, as is procedure with exploratory wormholes. A few seconds later the wormhole is reopened for another fraction of a second to detect any scanning radiation being directed at the spot of the initial wormhole. That would reveal the first wormhole had been detected.
Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight, studied the data in stages. Its security zooid was studying the data first. It had locked out the other zooids from most of its central nervous system and was pumping its powerful, but short lived, hormones around Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight so that it could control or suspend all of the cortexes, until it was sure that there was no threat.
The data from the second wormhole revealed that there was was no evidence that the first had been detected. There was no evidence of any life whatsoever. Again.
The security zooid quickly released Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight from its grip and digested the debilitating hormones out of its system. Other zooids re-established control of different portions of the central nervous systems and drew on their relevant prefrontal-cortexes and other ‘brain’ functions.
Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight began analysing the data from the first wormhole in detail. It was indeed another small, disused exploration vehicle. But where did it come from? No settlements, either abandoned or currently in use had been found. But the planet was fairly large. Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight had only opened wormholes at several points so far.
Through the first wormhole it had found another small exploration vehicle, roughly 20 years older than this one according to its dating equipment. At first it thought the aliens must be minuscule, until it realised that the small vehicle was piloted remotely. But Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight had not detected any control buildings, or any evidence of wormholes where remote commands could be passed through to the vehicles.
Whatever civilisation had been here or was still here, was obviously advanced at one point. Dead satellites were in orbit around the planet along with its two natural moons. But there was no trace of the civilisation itself. It was as if the planet had become a junkyard for odd, exploratory technology. But from where were they exploring?
One of the zooids within Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight was stimulating the cortexes with ideas, outrageous ideas. It was the innovation zooid. It slipped its idea in the central nervous system like ink into a stream. An idea Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight had already dismissed. An idea that its colleague and competitor, Waterfall-Joining-of-Nine, had argued for at the space exploration institute, but had been ridiculed.
The idea was to investigate the third planet in this system, where some possible technological signatures had been detected. The idea was that the third planet, not the fourth planet, was the true home planet of this system’s aliens.
Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight dismissed these thoughts again. The facts hadn’t changed. The atmosphere of the third planet contained far too much oxygen for colonial organisms to evolve and thrive. 21% oxygen content would only allow for non-colonial life to evolve which couldn’t possibly have evolved intelligence. Individualistic life hadn’t evolved intelligence anywhere they’d explored so far.
Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight dismissed these thoughts. It would return to the institute with its findings and a hypothesis that the indigenous life of this system must be living under the surface of the planet, for unknown reasons. He would propose landing ultra-sound, subsurface detection equipment through a wormhole. Merged-At-The-Creator-From-Eight would find the lifeforms living in this system, he was sure of it.
Synopsis: The heist was a success, but the gemmologist is dead, they can’t find the other half of the team, and worst of all, it’s fucking snowing.
One more job they said.
This is why so many guys end up retiring in jail and divorced. They think they can squeeze out one last heist. I fucking fell for it. This is going to be the one that gets me I can feel it. I’m already divorced so may as well double down.
Bernie, the fat bastard, is really starting to stink up the van. He’s barely been dead six hours and he smells like yesterdays vindaloo. Not the leftovers, when you shit it out. Dave is mouthing-off at the universe again. Christ knows what he’s saying, it’s all in Cantonese or whatever.
Bernie had a kebab induced heart attack halfway through packing the van. With the gemmologist dead there’s no way to tell which bits of the gear are valuable. So now we have a load of gems, we know half of them are priceless and half of them are coal. But we can’t tell which half is which. We can’t unlock Bernie’s phone to call the other team and it’s pissing it down with snow too which, isn’t helping things.
Bernie is propped up between us in the van, COVID nappy on his face and sunglasses on. I’m trying to figure out what the next move is while driving in circles around the slippery Kensington suburbs. Every numb-nut in London is at home because of the lock down, so the streets are lined with badly parked, expensive cars. We’ve had a few near misses already. I’m supposed to only be the getaway driver, now I’m the fucking de-facto gaffer on this job.
A siren squeals briefly behind us and I see the lights in the mirror. Shit. “Just stay cool, you two,” I say for my own benefit.
I pull over. An officer knocks on the window. I step out of the car into the snow. “You know you’re driving the wrong way down a one-way street?”
“Oh, I didn’t know. I can’t see the road markings.”
The officer peers in through the driver’s window, “Uh huh. What you boys doing out in the lock down?”
“We’re out on a job,” I say, pointing to the side of the van where the words ‘Sauvin Landscapers’ and a phone number that goes nowhere is printed.
“On a Sunday?” asks the officer.
“Yeah.” I lower my voice, “Rich bastard called us in on a Sunday to finish off some job. Another contractor left them in a hole and they want it done before they come back from holiday tomorrow. You know how it is with rich folk and we have to take every job we can get during COVID.”
“Can I have a look in the back?”
I open up the van. It reveals pile of landscaping tools, a lawnmower, various other gardening paraphernalia and three bags of compost, which I know have some precious jewels hidden in them.
“Alright,” says the officer walking me back to the driver’s door. “Be more careful. Everything around here is one way. Look for the road signs.”
“Will do, officer.”
“Do you know where you’re heading?”
“Err. We’ve got the address but…” I pat my pockets pretending to look for my phone.
“It’s probably a place on Addison Road you’re after.”
“Yeah that’s it,” I stutter, “Addison Road.” What a diamond. If only officers helped all our jobs it’d be a lot easier.
“We tend to know when the… special residents are out of town. The housekeeper is home I think.” He looks through the driver’s door, “What’s wrong with that guy?”
“He had a couple of shandies last night, the job was last minute.” I shrug.
I get back into the van and exhale for a long time. Dave is finally quiet. “I’ve got an idea to get rid of our dead gemmologist,” I say to no one.
Addison Road is a long road and we can’t see which house it might be from the front. Dave starts climbing up lampposts trying to see over the large fences that protect the back gardens. At the third attempt, he points at one of the houses then slides down lamppost gracefully. Grease-men might be one trick ponies, but it’s a hell of trick.
I move the van closer to the door and park between a couple of cars I still won’t be able to afford even when we cash the loot. I whip on a surgical mask and knock on the door in hurried way. Hopefully a sense of urgency will be enough to blag us in. A blonde woman in her late 20s opens the doors. “Can I help you?” she asks, in an Eastern European accent. I guess she’s the housekeeper. She’s wearing a pair of tight jeans and a sparkly halterneck with fluffy slippers. The bassy din of a party is spilling out around her. She has a champagne flute in her hand. I have the feeling we’ve caught her doing something she shouldn’t be – beauty.
“We’re the landscapers, we’re here to finish the job in the back garden before the owners come back on Monday.”
“They’re coming back on Tuesday…” She panics.
“Yeah, Tuesday morning. Same difference. Look we need to crack on, Duck.”
“Yeah.” She looks over her shoulder.
“We ain’t here to grass you up. We’re just want to do the job and get home. It’s Sunday, you know?” She nods. “We can’t bring all the clobber through the house. Is the gate at the side open?” She reaches behind the door, grabs a keyring and hands it over. “Perfect, you won’t know we’re here.” I give her a big grin.
Dave and I grab a few things from the truck to take to the back garden first so we can do a reccy. The garden has three different levels. The lowest has decking that connects the house and the first level of lawn. The second is perfectly manicured lawn with some boxed up loungers. The third step, furthest from the house, is where the unfinished landscaping is. A Zen fountain and sand garden is being installed. The type that went out of fashion fifteen years ago and never gets used properly anyway in London because it’s always shitting it down. But the excavation hole is perfect to hide Bernie in.
The kick in the nuts is that the garden faces the back of the house. The lower floor is a façade of glass looking in to a giant open-plan kitchen. Four or five women are milling around in the kitchen and making drinks. They see us and sheepishly move deeper into the house. The glass is tinted so I can only see so much of the kitchen.
“Fuck it, we’re going to have to risk it.” Dave gives me the ‘OK’ sign, I think he got the gist.
We go back to the van. I hoist half of Bernie’s weight onto one shoulder and Dave gets his tiny frame under the other half. Bernie was a fifty-something brick shithouse. Dave has the build of a high-school gymnast. We limp around the house, kicking Bernie’s feet forward to make him walk. We look like a horrifying ventriloquist show but getting him up the garden is the real challenge. My armpits are drenched with stress sweat despite the freezing cold. My chest is prickling uncomfortably. “Don’t look back. Just plonk him here.” Dave looks at me shocked as I start positioning Bernie to sit facing the window. “It looks like he’s slacking off, it’s less suspicious and it will make the girls self-conscious. He always was a lazy cunt.” And it works. While we’re digging the hole, I see one of the women come into the kitchen, glance at Bernie and quickly slink out of sight after grabbing a drink.
We only need to excavate a bit more earth but ground is brutal. My fingers are freezing but my back is screaming hot. Dave weighs about nine stone wet. He might as well be working with a teaspoon.
“Is he okay?” Someone asks. Shit. I look at Dave. Squeeze me out of this one grease-boy. I look around the mound of dirt we’ve propped Bernie against. The housekeeper is there, wrapped in an oversized designer fur coat she nabbed from her boss. She lifts the sunglasses off Bernie’s face and jumps back. “He’s dead.”
“This ain’t what it looks like,” I say, because what else can I say?
Dave leaps out of the hole and stands between her and the house. It would be a nice move but he is about half the size of her and I don’t fancy his chances. “I’m calling the police.” She tries to sound brave but she is bricking it. Dave adjusts into a crouching position, as if he is going to tackle her. You can’t knock the lad’s effort. She pulls a mobile phone out of her pocket.
“Think for a second, Duck. What’s going to happen when the pigs arrive?”
“They’re going to arrest you.”
“Then what?” She looks at me blankly. “When the cops see the party happening and start asking you birds questions, are all the visas gonna come up squeaky clean?” Her soul exits her body. “Now let’s have a sensible conversation.”
I hear the glass doors open and another bird falls out of the house without a coat on and a canned cocktail in her hand. “The police are here,” she whispers. Here we fucking go.
“Who called them?” asks the housekeeper.
“Up there,” I say. Everyone looks up at one of the bedroom windows on the house next door. The curtain flutters closed as whoever was watching backs away from the window. “Someone probably grassed you up. You can hear the music you guys are playing halfway down the fucking street. Ten grand fine on the spot. Plus more trouble for any of your friends who aren’t supposed to be here.” Both the girls look like rabbits frozen in the headlights, the poor things, they’re on our side now, “Has anyone opened the door yet?”
“Well someone better before they just walk around the side of the house. The gate is still unlocked. You, answer the door. You, take all the other girls down into the basement. I know a place like this will have one. Make sure your mates take all their drinks bottles and shit down too. Let the police in and just say you’re having a few drinks and you were playing music to drown out the noise we are making.” They both look at me blankly, “Well get a wiggle on!”
The girls move quickly. Dave and I reposition Bernie so he is hidden in the hole. Then I put on my face nappy, move into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. I want to stop the officers going into the garden if I can. I turn around to see Dave jumping over the 8ft fence. What the fuck is he doing, making a run for it? Too late now to give a shit. In the front room I can hear the housekeeper speaking to the officer. Apologising for being so loud. Yes, she has been drinking, she admits. No, there is nobody here.
One of the officers comes into the kitchen, wearing all his gear, holding his radio like they do. His mask is below his nose.”Are you working here?” He asks.
“Yeah, last minute job. You want a cuppa?”
“No thanks. Seen anyone else here?”
“Just her,” I say, nodding at the living room.
“She says she’s been drinking on her own.”
“This lock down is tough,” I say, shrugging. The police officer turns away and mumbles something into his radio, then turns back, “Did you bump into my colleague earlier today?”
“Yeah, I think I did actually.”
Dave bursts through the door with his mask on and looks at the officer, then looks and me and says, in perfect English, “There’s a problem with the plumbing.”
I stare at him for five long seconds before saying, “What?!”
“The water for the fountain.”
“Oh,” I turn to the officer expectantly.
“I better let you lads get to it,” says the officer heading back into the living room.
“Since when do you speak perfect fucking English?” I whisper.
“You fucking cunt. What’s the plan?”
“There’s a pool next door and door in the fence connecting the two gardens. I’ve unlocked both sides. All the curtains are closed next door. Looks like they’re hiding after calling the cops. Let’s strip Bernie to his underwear, so it looks like he’s been partying hard and dump him in the pool next door. We call the police, report a party, they turn up and find a body at the bottom of the pool, we drive off into the sunset.”
Alright he’s a two trick pony. “Let’s do it now. The neighbours are probably looking out the front window to see what the rozzas are doing.” We move quickly. No time to look over our shoulders, no time to check for cameras. We should be long gone before anyone looks at any tapes anyway.
I grab an empty bottle of prosecco out of the bin on the way outside. I hold up Bernie in the excavated hole while Dave strips him. Then we half carry, half drag the icy cadaver through the gate. I try to slide Bernie into the pool but he has so much rigor mortis at this point that he just flops in. I throw the empty bottle after him. Dave makes a call to the police on his burner phone. I can heard them telling him that they have officers in the area and they will be around shortly. We head back to the other garden, Dave sorts the locks on the door in the fence and packs Bernie’s clothes into a bag. We stroll around the front of the houses. The front door opens and the housekeeper appears.
“Are the police gone?”
“I think so, but they’re going to be back in a minute love so I’d keep your head down.” I throw the keys to her and she catches them.
“Where is the other guy?”
“He went for a swim next door. Just remember, if they ask, you’ve never seen him in your life before. In fact you barely remember what we look like. I’ve left a cuppa on the kitchen side for you, just a little thank you.” I give her a wink.
We get into the van, I take a second to breathe then start it up and drive off calmly, the right way down the road. In the wing mirror I can see a police car rolling around the corner quietly and parking outside the neighbour’s house.
“Looks like I’m not retiring in jail just yet, Dave.”
When I wake-up my body feels sticky and my feet feel numb. I sit on the edge of the bed, surprised to find the floor dry and wait for the feeling to return through the dull cramp. I look around the room and it echoes vague memories. Far above me a tacky textured ceiling makes me feel dizzy even though it is mundane. I must be hung over.
I am naked. I am the only one in the room. I can’t hear any other guests or any noise coming from outside. My bag and clothes are here but Daniel’s are missing. There are some bottles of beer and win on the vanity table. No car keys. Do not entertain that thought.
I throw on what I was wearing last night and half-stumble down the five flights of stairs. I stop at every floor, listening for any other guests. I can’t hear any. There is no housekeeping and on the ground floor the reception desk is unstaffed. The breakfast room is empty, but the tables are laid with white tablecloths, cutlery and coffee cups. When I breathe I can see my breath. Has everyone checked out? The clock in reception tells me it’s 8:51.
Outside the guest house the warm air soothes my goosebumps. On the porch is a plate with a fried egg on it. Two of the friendship bracelets have been left next to the plate.
The car is where we left it but the town square where we parked is lifeless. Daniel’s bags are on the back seat and the car’s hood is open. The dipstick has been removed and is laid across the exposed engine. One of my feet slides. A puddle of oil is emerging from under the car. I take deep breaths until the creeping panic resides. We’ve probably smashed the oil dish. But I don’t remember hitting anything. I crouch and try to look under the car. I don’t expect to be able to find anything but I do. The oil dish is on the road undamaged and I can see at least two of the screws in the thickest part of the oil.
Back on my feet I see someone across the square, standing still with their arms by their side, looking straight at me. I brush down my jeans and look again, they are still staring. “Do you know who did this to my car?” I ask. They shake their head but they don’t speak.
“Thanks,” I say, under my breath. “Where is everyone?” He shakes his head and points toward the river. I take another slow breath. Conclusions are battling for attention in my mind but there’s no reason to think this is Yana or Daniel’s doing, yet. Find them first and check they are OK. The people in this town are starting to scare me.
I head in the general direction of the river and I see two more figures on the street. Neither of them speaks. They stare silently and point toward the river.
Yana unbuckles her bra, covers her breasts with one arm and uses the other to throw her bra onto the river bank. Then she submerges enough for the water to cover her nipples. The river here is shallow and wide. It seems to be just over head height at the deepest point.
“It’s a bit late to play coy,” I look around, then slide off my boxers and tip-toe into the river. The water is cool and thick. It dissolves the crusty fluids off my skin and drags the hangover off my muscles.
“I was drunk last night,” she says, smiling through her dishevelled black hair.
“Oh, do you always have a threesome when you’re drunk?” I wade toward her.
“That was your idea.”
“No it wasn’t,” I laugh, she slides her arms over my shoulders and her legs around my hips.
“I was happy just having you,” she presses her forehead against mine.
“Oh really, you didn’t seem to be complaining.”
“Neither did you.”
We stay like that for a while. I hold out my arms to keep us steady. She stays wrapped around me. I feel the little iron-fillings lump of her pubic hair grinding against my lower abdomen with the gentle sway of the river.
“Stay,” she says.
“I can’t, I promised Benji we’d carry on.”
“What if you couldn’t?”
“But we can.”
“But what if you couldn’t, would you stay?”
“Well, I’d have to.”
“Would you want to?”
“Yes,” I don’t know anything about her. “But, I’ll come back.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Yes, I will,” I have no idea where we are. “The water looks so black and opaque.”
“It’s just because the sun is so low. There’s nothing in the water that can hurt you.”
“I’m not so sure,” I smile. Yana looks over my shoulder, I turn my head. Benji is on the riverbank.
“Who broke the car, Daniel?” he asks. What the hell is he talking about?
“Stay,” she whispers into my ear.
I try to ask Benji about the car, but when I open my mouth it feels like a dry, fibrous web is stretched across the top of my throat. I try to tongue it and bite it, but it becomes thicker and muscular. Yana tightens her legs around me.
“Who broke the car?” he shouts.
“Stay,” says Yana. My arms are now being held out in the water. I can’t can’t pull them in. Something black has spiraled around them. Yana’s hair.
“You’re an areshole, Daniel. You’re an absolute arsehole.” Benji turns and walks away.
Yana’s hair is snaking around my legs, planting them into the river bed. “What if you can’t leave?” she asks me. Her eyes are swirling. I want to tell her I’ll stay. I want to scream that I’ll stay, whatever it takes for her to let go, but the sound is trapped in my throat and vibrates against the web. We are sinking. She kisses me while the water reaches my chin. She releases my arms. I try to grab her. Her skin and hair is slick like oil. The water is entering my nostrils. She grinds her pubis against me hard and digs her ankles into my back like spurs.
“What if you can’t leave?” I ask him. He’s too lost in the moment to find words. I grind myself against him. The tip of his heavy, hangover erection brushes my thigh and my buttock. He grabs at my body and hair. He wants to go deeper. I tighten my legs and grind against him harder. His mouth is gasping for mine. I put my open lips over his. I put my tongue into his mouth. His breath is hot and desperate. The water slips over our heads. I lean into his passion. He wants me and I want to give in. I want to let go. Make me whole.
His hands fall away. His mouth slows and locks. His body is limp in the grip of my legs. I pull him closer.
He said he would stay.
I press my forehead against his.
He said he would stay.
I let go. Daniel falls away from me to the river bed. He will not even look at me. I turn away so he can’t see me cry. But he will see the shudders of my heartbreak.
I lift my head above the surface to find twenty or thirty of the townspeople are on the bank of the river. Many of them are wearing those gaudy bracelets they make. One of them points at me. They are silent but they start tossing small branches into the river. One of them points to a birch tree next to the river. It is overdressed with garlands. Some of them are so long the ends trail into the river. One of them chants in a low grow, “Rusalka’s soul; safe in the tree.” The crowd follows the chant.
Rusalka’s soul; safe in the tree.
I move closer to the riverbank, they back away, chanting more enthusiastically.
Rusalka’s soul; safe in the tree.
No, I deserve to be happy.
Rusalka’s soul; safe in the tree.
There is someone out there who will stay with me.
Rusalka’s soul; safe in the tree.
They will love me.
Rusalka’s soul; safe in the tree.
I submerge myself and let the river carry me downstream. Beyond the river’s surface some of the townspeople cry for me to come back, but it’s useless now like half a memory of a dream.
The river takes me out of the town. The water holds me snug until I reach an area where the bank is covered in long grass. I lift myself up, leaving my feet in the water. Here the river is calm and looks like it has a thick skin over it, like sour milk. A few meters down the river something breaks the skin. A fishing line.
A young man secures his rod, grabs a beer out of an icebox, opens it and takes the long, deep glug of the parched throat.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” I say.
He turns, startled, but his eyes widen when he realises my modesty is maintained only by the long grass.