Get This!, Live!

Bible Belter

There was a film shown on BBC4 recently, a restored print of Aretha Franklin‘s astonishing take-me-to-church Amazing Grace concert. Filmed over two nights at the start of 1972 in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it captures Aretha at the absolute peak of her spiritual powers.

The accompanying album would go on to be her best-selling album ever but on film it’s even better. Originally intended to be packaged as a double bill alongside Super Fly, new technology (and the death of Aretha – she was against its release) has enabled the film to be dusted down from the archives and completed in all its intended glory. I was lost, but now I’m found, as the song goes. A-men to that.

In this little church, Rev James Cleveland leads the worshippers through condemnation and contemplation, the good book instructing all in attendance with its life lessons masked in metaphor and moral. Dressed head to toe in their Sunday finery, the audience whoop it up, amen-ing and thank the Lord-ing with increasing fervour. By the time the Gospel according to St Aretha is in full swing, the tiny room is a hootin’ and a hollerin’ free-for-all.

The cameramen can be seen in nearly every shot. Respectful of both location and occasion, they squat in the aisles, hide behind the choir, hunker down in the front row. There are numerous unflattering shots of Aretha angled from below – you know those double-chin selfies you take because you can’t actually take a selfie? Those. Miles of electrical cable wind their way around the feet of everyone in attendance. It all adds to the sense of you, the audience, being in the eye of the holy storm.

At one point, one of the guerilla cameramen swings his handheld across the front row and picks out a giddy Mick Jagger, all tousled, shoulder length hair and pout, eyes closed and lost in the heavy holy vibes. You can almost reach into your TV screen and hold it, it’s that powerful.

Aretha FranklinHow I Got Over

Ghosting in on a rolling piano riff that over-keen Name That Tune contestants might name incorrectly in 5 as Otis Redding’s Hard To Handle, How I Got Over runs the whole gamut of ‘Retha’s religious celebration. Electric organ and finger poppin’ Fender bass bring the immediate groove, dragging an excitable drummer and a smokin’ hot gospel choir along for the ride.

You know that way that the human voice, like a finely tuned racing car engine has to warm up a wee bit before it can go full pelt? Well, How I Got Over comes mid-set, so Aretha is well warmed up by this point. She starts up here…and ends waaaay up here. It’s an extraordinary vocal, sweat-soaked, calling and responding to the heavenly choir who sashay their way from start to finish in a riot of spontaneous handclaps and octave-climbing hysterics behind her.

Aretha goes all-out freeform, fucking with the unspoken rules of how secular songs should be sung. This isn’t the stuffy mid 70s Scottish church of my Boys’ Brigade past, with a meagre crowd of withering simperers mouthing the words over a creaky dust-blown and cobwebbed organ, this is mid 70s California; black, soulful and uproarious, all-out communion with a crack rhythm section flung in for good measure.

Aretha is on fire, ripping it up the way she’s done already on Rock Steady and Respect and all those Atlantic Soul benchmarks of perfection that have gone before. Live, in the house of God, she’s turned up another notch – from ten to eleven (to heaven?) – a full force gale, gritty and dirty one moment, feminine and sweet the next. Heck, if it wasn’t for the words she was belting out with wholy holy abandon, you might forget you’re actually listening to a gospel record at all.

Amazing Grace is more a truly great Aretha live album – songs of found love and acceptance rather than lost love and rejection – than the religious curio you might be forgiven for thinking it is.

It’s church music, Jim, but not as we know it. Seek it out.

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 12 (Part 2)

A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.

Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.

I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 12 (part 2)

All three boys fell asleep. They were sheltered and safe from the weather and found it very easy to drift off. So asleep were they, they failed to stir when a family of squirrels approached cautiously, before scurrying away into the dense undergrowth. So asleep were they, they failed to stir when a crow squawked and flapped suddenly in the treetops directly above them, startled by the man and Cameron who’d taken up position nearby. The three boys were well within firing range and the man’s trigger finger was itchy. He was a fair man, but he was getting impatient. So asleep were they, the man and Cameron began to wonder in whispered voices if they shouldn’t wake them up themselves. They yielded, rationalising that big game hunters needed to be patient.

Connor dreamed of home. He was at his kitchen table, his father sitting opposite. His mum had a slice of toast in her hand that she hadn’t yet bitten into. It hung limply from her hand, drenched in yellowy butter, half a second from a slow collapse. She was angrily waving a football magazine in Connor’s face. In his dream, Connor couldn’t hear what his mum was saying, but he knew how upset she was with him. His dad stood behind his mum, one hand on her shoulder, the other covering rifling his hair in frustration. Connor now realised that the kitchen table was covered in magazines to the point where none of the varnished wood of the table-top could be seen underneath. Suddenly Mr Szczęsny appeared in the kitchen, walking through the same multicoloured strips that separated his shop from the little storeroom where the police officers had spoken to Connor. Mr Szczęsny was shaking his head at Connor and throwing magazines at him until quickly there was a mound of magazines piled accusingly in front of him. As they collapsed under the frictionless hold of their glossy covers and began tumbling onto the floor, Connor woke up with a gasping start. Confused, he looked around and immediately remembered where he was and why he was here. The other two boys slept nearby, Stephen still wearing his backpack, was curled into a foetal position and out for the count. Rhys lay flat out and motionless save the slow and steady rise and fall of his chest. Connor scratched, rubbed stray pine needles from his face and automatically reached for his phone. As he photographed his two sleeping teammates and updated his profiles, he heard the sharp snap of a twig. Or, maybe he hadn’t. He sat for a moment, telling himself he must have imagined it. He turned his attention back to his phone.

Nearby, under cover of the luscious undergrowth, the man elbowed Cameron and nodded encouragingly at him. It was his turn to “freak the boy Stewart out.” Cameron coughed. A low, quiet, throat-clearing cough, but a recognisable human cough all the same.

Connor’s heart missed a beat. He froze. It had been a snap. And now a cough! Someone was nearby. Maybe it was one of the other teams. As he tried to convince himself that somehow, a team had wandered so off-course they were now travelling to the flag in the same direction as them, there was another snap of twigs, followed closely by a rustling in the bushes. His adrenalin kicked in, but he had no idea what to do. Scrambling on all fours, still wearing his backpack like a giant, petrified tortoise, he reached Rhys and kicked his feet.

“Rhys! Rhys!” he hissed, quietly but loud. “Rhys!”

Rhys stirred, turned on his side and, with a wet smacking sound from his lips, went back to sleep.

“Rhys! Rhys, man! Wake up! I think there’s someone there!” He kicked him again and moved to Stephen.

From between bushes and bracken and low-hanging branches, the man and Cameron watched, supressing their laughs as Cameron repeated his actions at Stephen. The man rustled the undergrowth in front of him and made a hooting, owl-like noise.

By now Connor was beside himself with fear. Stephen had stirred immediately but wasn’t yet properly awake. Connor shook him by the shoulders and stage-whispered in his ear.

“Stephen! Wake up! Stephen, please! There’s someone out there! Listen!” He shook him again and Stephen sat up, rubbing his eyes and squinting as Connor came into focus.

The man and Cameron, watching everything from their hideout, took it all in. “Patience, Cameron, patience!” said the man under his breath.

“Stephen, man!” Connor whispered, eyes like saucers. “I heard a cough. Noises! Twigs snapping! And the bush shaking! Someone’s hiding nearby!”

“What?!” said Stephen in surprise.

“Shhh! Just wait and listen.”

They waited and listened. There were no further sounds. For now.

“You’re imagining it, mate,” said Stephen in a normal voice. “We’ve been out here walking all day and your mind has started playing tricks on you. You just need a decent sleep, that’s all.”

Connor considered this. He’d been having that weird dream when he woke up. Maybe it was all imagined after all. Maybe he…

…snap!

This time it was Stephen who lost his cool.

“F…Woah!” The two boys were on Rhys in a shot, shaking him awake.

“Rhys! Rhys! Wake up, for God’s sake! Someone’s hiding in the bushes!”

Rhys was awake quickly this time and sat bolt upright. He was suddenly instantly alert.

“Somebody? Where!”

“Just wait,” said Connor. “And listen.”

In the undergrowth, the man nudged Cameron. He coughed again.

The three boys looked in surprise at one another, none of them exactly sure of what to do. Rhys turned this way and that, trying to establish where the cough had come from. Stephen and Connor looked at one another for some sort of reassurance. There was another snap of a twig, quickly followed by more rustling of the bushes. Rhys stood up and walked in the direction of the noise.

“Rhys! Rhys! Don’t be daft!” hissed Connor loudly. But Rhys ignored him.

“Whoever’s there, make yourself known, please.” His voice was assured and confident. As an extra measure, he raised his hands in the universally recognised ‘I come in peace’ manner.

Deep in the undergrowth, thirty or so yards away, the man, bored of this game, keen to show off in front of his protégé and take things up a notch, cocked and loaded his rifle. The loud click that emanated from it was unmistakable. Rhys froze in his tracks. Stephen sat rigid with fear. Connor thought he might wet himself. The man took aim at a tree above and beyond Rhys’s left shoulder. He squeezed the trigger and instantly the bullet fired from the chamber with a loud airy crack. By the time the bullet had lodged itself in the tree behind Rhys, the three boys were scattering frantically through the forest. The man offloaded another bullet. And another. Each shot was designed to scare rather than kill, and, boy, was it working. Involuntary strangulated yelps rose from the three boys’ throats as the bullets whizzed past them and landed with a woody thunk in the nearby pines. They ran together, in the same direction, faster than they had any right to run with their heavy backpacks on.

The man spoke to Cameron, louder this time.

“Aim for Stewart, but don’t kill him. Aim to maim!”

Cameron stood under cover of the undergrowth, legs apart, the barrel of his gun pointing firmly towards the running boys. With one eye squinted shut he carefully followed Stewart’s crazed path and, when confident of a clear shot, squeezed the trigger.

The metal clang of bullet against metal informed Connor he’d been very lucky. He didn’t know it yet, but the bullet had put a hole clean through the pot that dangled freely from the bottom of his backpack. Without the pot there, he may well have been shot on the behind. The three boys ran on, faces scratched by low-hanging pine branches, ankles turned on uneven ground, arms flailing wildly in front of them, clearing nature’s objects that hindered their frantic escape.

The man took aim for one last shot and fired lazily into the trees beyond the three terrified boys.

“Leave them for now, eh, Cameron. We’ll see them again before they reach the flag.”

The man and Cameron stood, watching as the boys ran off and out of sight. Never once did they look back and never once did they stop until they were certain that the gunfire had ceased. Coming out from their hiding place, the man and Cameron surveyed the abandoned scene. A water bottle and a phone lay lonely amongst the brown pine needles. The man picked it up and instantly recognised the familiar dinks and scratches on its case. He had Stewart’s phone once again. He put it into his pocket, unsure yet of how best he could use it to manipulate events. He tossed the water bottle to Cameron and the pair of them headed back to the jeep.

Half a mile away, the boys lay sprawled on the ground. They were worried that they’d been tracked here, too scared to talk, too scared to breathe, even. Connor was convinced his beating heart could be heard by the others. They lay in terrified silence, looking back in the direction from where they’d just come. It was a good twenty minutes or so before any of them dared speak.

“I think they’ve gone,” whispered Connor.

“I hope so,” replied Stephen.

“Who were they?” wondered Connor aloud.

“Probably snipers,” said Rhys. “I bet there’ll be others as we get closer to the flag.”

Connor’s heart sank even lower at the thought. Stephen looked nonplussed. The three sat up and huddled closer together. Connor and Stephen greedily glugged down water.

“Any chance of a slug, anyone? I think I’ve left my water bottle behind,” said Rhys.

Connor handed his bottle to Rhys and watched as his teammate did his best to take a drink without pressing his lips to the bottle before handing it back with a thanks. As they so often did, they instinctively reached for their phones. As the other two opened their social accounts, Connor patted first one pocket, then another, then back again.

“I’ve lost my phone! I don’t believe it! I’ve lost my phone.” He felt physically sick. The others barely looked up from their screens.

“It’ll be in a pocket, surely,” said Rhys. “We left in a hurry back there. You’ve probably stuck it in a different pocket without thinking.”

Connor knew differently though and, annoyed at his blasé reaction, instantly wished he hadn’t given Rhys the drink of water. He frisked through the pockets of his trousers and jacket, even his rucksack too, but he knew he wasn’t going to find it. He cast his mind back. He’d had his phone out. He’d been taking pictures of the others sleeping, he’d heard the noises, he’d wakened the others, all hell had broken loose and somewhere in the melee he’d lost his phone. His first thought was that he should go back for it but, for one, he’d never find it and, two, the gunman might still be there, or worse, making his way towards them. The thought of having no phone – again – was the worst possible thought. Connor sat, a black mood enveloping him, with nothing to do but keep watch for the rogue gunman and look at the other two swiping freely through their phones.

“Where even are we?” he asked to no-one in particular.

“Dunno,” admitted Rhys. “I think we’re off the track though. We’ll need to find it again.”

“I’ve been looking at the others,” said Stephen, “but neither team has uploaded anything since the last time we looked. Let’s check where we are though, eh?”

Connor’s enthusiasm for the task had waned but he retrieved the map from his rucksack and Rhys went through the process of checking their coordinates on his phone. He checked back and forth between phone and map until he was certain of where they were.

“We’re here,” he said, circling the map. “We were here when the gunman – or gunmen, perhaps – opened fire on us. We haven’t strayed too far from the route, to be honest. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get back on track.”

Connor’s heart sank once more at the thought there might have been more than one gunman. He was sure Rhys had just said this for effect – and if he had it had worked – but there was no way of knowing for sure.

“How far have we walked now?” asked Stephen. “We must be more than halfway by now.”

Rhys studied the map, plotting their current location with the felt pen.

“We’ve done, let’s see…” He whispered quietly to himself as he counted the miles. “Eight, four, four….two….uh-huh….then three…and two there……I reckon we’ve walked twenty three miles, although we’re maybe a mile off the route. So, yeah, I think we’re at least halfway. Well done team!”

Between the tree-tops, Connor could see the sky deepening to an indigo blue. One or two stars were already shining. Dusk was falling.

“Would this be a good place to stop for the night?” he suggested, hoping the others would say yes.

“I think we should get back on track first, before it gets too dark,” offered Rhys. “It’d be good to find a river spot too. We can wash our feet in it, maybe even use it to drink or cook with if we’re too far from a water station. If we leave now, we should be able to pick up the path in fifteen minutes or so. That’s doable, even if we are shattered.”

“But what about the gunman, gunmen?” asked Stephen.

“Nah. They’ve gone, mate. They’ve gone. C’mon, let’s go.”

So, once more the trio got on the move, more careful with their footing in the failing light, still nervously checking behind to see if they were being followed or not. They picked up their route again, stopped to check for any nearby water stations – “this way!” ascertained Rhys and they walked grudgingly for a further twenty minutes. They arrived in the twilight at a clearing. A stream made itself known between the trees. Stephen and Connor left Rhys to find the water station and, with great effort, went about setting up their tents.

Stephen gathered kindling and set up a small fire in the middle between the three tents. The three sat, drinking from shared bottles and eating through their supplies. Connor had somewhat grudgingly loaned his ‘Juicebox’ to Rhys and Stephen. Their phones fully charged, there was no likelihood of dying phones midway through the next day. Uploads were made to social media and, once finished, Stephen passed his phone to Connor.

“Here y’are, mate. Log in and you can update your profiles.”

This gesture lifted Connor’s spirits somewhat and he enjoyed getting back online, reading comments and checking out the others’ statuses. Team positions were checked, and it was agreed that all teams had stopped for the night. Rhys wanted to discuss strategies and tactics, but the others were unreceptive to serious talk such as this. It would have to wait until the morning. A good night’s sleep was required, but in the event, none of the boys slept particularly well. Connor drifted in and out of dreams, waking with a start and convincing himself that he could hear things in the dark. There would be woodland creatures somewhere out there, but he thought it best to try not to imagine what might lurk beyond the canvas walls. The glowing embers of the fire might help to keep unwanted animals away, he reasoned, but maybe not gunmen.

He awoke properly at 6am and exited his tent. The fire was no more than an ashen charcoaled spot on the ground. The others were still in their tents. Stephen was snoring loudly. Connor stood tall, stretched, and scratched the back of his thigh. It hadn’t been a great sleep, but he felt alright, all things considered. The early morning sun came through the pines in hazy shafts of light. It was misty, womb-like and quite magical. He wandered over to investigate the stream that ran through the trees. As he sat lost in thought, he became aware of a small kingfisher, bright blue and orange, sitting on a low-hanging branch over the water. He was quite sure the bird could see him too, yet it hadn’t flown away. Connor was scared to move, lest the bird flew off, and wished he’d had his phone to take a picture. He was cruelly reminded then that he’d left his phone behind yesterday and for a brief moment his mood turned for the worse. Watching the bird lifted his spirits though. It opened its wings, preened its feathers and then majestically darted to the water, its wings tucked close to its body. Connor waited in anticipation for it to reappear from the water with a fish in its beak but when it bobbed back to the surface, it had nothing. It flapped its wings, took off once more and flew further downstream where it continued preening itself again. Connor watched it happily until the kingfisher flew off for good.

He busied himself with the cooking gear. He’d make a breakfast of some sort for the others, probably a cup-a-soup with a tin mug of tea and a cereal bar on the side. Looking at the bullet hole in the pot that had been hanging from his rucksack when they’d escaped the gunman (or gunmen, he internally corrected), he replayed the scene in his head. It was the most terrifying event to happen to him in his young life and, with only half this journey gone, and another four Elements events ahead of him, he began to wonder if he’d see his next birthday.

Intentionally noisy, Connor hoped that by clanging pots and rustling wrappers, the others might stir themselves awake. He was filling the kettle with water when Stephen appeared. By the time it was boiling, Rhys had joined them. The three sat around Connor’s makeshift kitchen, Rhys and Stephen watching as he poured three tomato cup-a-soups from the one good pan they had left.

“Here y’are, everyone. Tomato soup. The perfect breakfast!”

The three slurped the soup and Connor was congratulated on his improvised culinary skills. Rhys wanted to get down to the serious business of strategy and so over cups of strong black the three once more weighed up the pros and cons of a long walk with long break against shorter bursts with shorter breaks. They all agreed that they should walk for as long as possible, or at least until something – no-one wanted to hint at what that ‘something’ might be – hindered their progress. Checking the socials, it looked as though the other teams hadn’t yet stirred. Stephen leaned over with a ‘hur hur hur’ and showed Connor a repeating meme of Harrison chasing after a tumbling map. The comments below were interesting.

There were loads, all lambasting Harrison. Was this good news for everyone else? Did it mean that if Harrison’s team came last, he would be voted out for being the most inept, or would the public chose to keep him in because he was entertaining for all the wrong reasons? The three debated this. You couldn’t second-guess the public, theorised Rhys, and they all agreed to focus on coming first, or at least, not last, in this task.

They packed up, cleaned up, refilled their water bottles and doublechecked they’d left nothing behind before setting off. They strode with a spring in their step, smug at the thought of the other two teams still sleeping and either gaining on Grayson’s lot, perhaps even extending their lead over the both of them. It certainly looked to be a two-horse race between them and Grayson’s team for first place, but things might change yet. Another ambush from a gunman, for example, wouldn’t help anyone’s progress. Allowing for breaks and fatigue, Rhys had calculated they’d get to the flag by late afternoon, sometime between four and five. That seemed a long way off, but when he showed them how far they’d come and how many water stations were behind them compared to how many they had still to get to, it helped make the journey seem shorter. Zimmerman’s class really had been good for instilling a positive mental attitude and it was proving invaluable in the conditions.

The going was much like the day before, with tall pines blocking out the sun and a carpet of fallen needles cushioning their feet as they walked. After an hour or so, the group had thinned out into a fragile line of three, again headed by Rhys and again with Stephen at the back. It began to rain too, infrequent light drops at first before eventually becoming heavier. It dropped through the trees, drenched their hair and dripped down the back of their necks. It was futile to consider drying themselves until the rain had definitely abated and there was no point in stopping until then. A not unpleasant musty smell rose from the forest floor and, cold and miserable, the boys plodded onwards. They ascended tree-covered hillsides, slipped carefully down the other side, fought their way through impenetrable bramble bushes and crops of thistles – proper big, purple, jaggy ones – as they ate up the miles.

Around midday the rain eased off and the boys finally took a break. Connor took off his jacket and hung it to drip-dry from the branch of one of the trees, a move that was copied by the others. He towelled himself dry with a spare t-shirt, relieved on opening to note that his backpack had remained waterproof. He sat eating a packet of dried fruit and chewed as the sweet strawberries and apricots bled life into his dry mouth.

“The others are on the move,” said Rhys. “There are lots of photos and clips up on their socials.”

Stephen spread the map on the forest floor and Rhys began plotting points on it.

“This is us, round about here,” he said, inking a circle. “We’ve got about 10 miles left to go. We’ve come about three quarters of the way. It’s not far now. Grayson’s team is about….”

He checked his phone then the map.

“….here.

He drew a circle and wrote a capital ‘G’ inside it.

“By my working out, they’ve got about 12 miles to go. We’re a wee bit ahead of them, but not by much. Harrison’s team are…”

He checked his phone again.

“…about here. He drew a circle, adding a capital ‘H’ inside it. They’re further behind. I reckon they’ve still got the best part of 16 miles to go. It’s between us and Grayson’s lot for first place. As long as we don’t muck anything up, we should be safe from elimination.”

The boys walked on, upbeat and positive, determined not to drop their lead. Trees, streams and open marshland came and went quickly as the miles melted away. By early afternoon there was a sense that they were going to do it, they were going to finish first and nothing would get in their way.

A few miles away, sitting in their jeep, the man and Cameron listened in to Rhy’s conversation and plotted their next intervention. They had settled themselves less than half a mile from the tall, red flag. Even from this distance it was unmissable. If they’d followed their maps correctly, the teams would have no trouble in locating it. At the base of the hill where the flag fluttered, Cameron had covered each of three pits dug by a digger, making it look to the unwitting eye as if nothing untoward had happened there. Then, they’d both climbed the pines using the rope ladder that had been installed for them and took up position in a camouflaged treehouse. Looking down, it reminded the man very much of the viewing tower on the training ground. They’d had plenty of practice there with rubber bullets. Today he and Cameron busied themselves by loading live ammo into their high range shotguns. They went back and forth, up and down the rope ladder, carrying all the ammunition and artillery that they needed. The man’s target was Stewart, but from this position they’d have a clear view of all teams approaching the flag. It would either be Stewart’s team from the south or Anderson’s team from the west who arrived first. He hoped very much that, should Harrison’s team finish last, the boy himself was kept in the process. But that was to worry about later. Right now, they were armed and ready for any team who reached the flag first. All they had to do was wait it out until nearer the time, leave the comfy seats of the jeep and climb up into the treehouse and spot themselves some moving targets.

By three in the afternoon, they were down to the last four and a half miles. They agreed on a short break to allow for refuelling ahead of, as Rhys called it, ‘the final push’.

“Look at the map,” pointed out Rhys. “This is the last water station on our route. We’re expected to finish soon.”

The others crowded around the map, marvelling at the water stations and stopping points they’d left far behind on their journey. It had been a truly phenomenal walk, from the team bonding and improvised cooking to the kingfisher and the serious issue of being attacked by a sniper, a quite remarkable adventure for boys barely in their teens, or, in Connor’s case, not yet there. As they ruminated on this, Stephen had been checking their rivals’ media feeds and Rhys was aghast to discover that Grayson’s team was somehow nearer the flag than they were.

“I don’t understand! I don’t think I’ve made an error with my calculations, but it is possible, I suppose. Maybe they’ve found a shortcut. Or maybe it’s been all downhill for them.”

“Or maybe no-one’s popped up and shot them yet,” volunteered Connor. “Either way, if we want to be first, we need to get a move on. Pack up, clear up and move out!”

Within two minutes they were pounding the path again, focus and fire in their eyes. The land ahead curved steeply upwards, bordered by yet more pines. It took concerted effort to reach the top without stopping but when they did, the boys allowed themselves a 360 degree view of the landscape that stretched out in all directions.

“Look! There!” said Stephen excitedly. “Is that the flag?!?”

The others followed his finger to the horizon where, flapping briskly in the wind was a flag on a tall pole. From here it was impossible to identify as ‘their flag’ but Rhys, with the sat nav app opened on his phone confirmed that it was.

“Woo-hoo! Yeeeeeeah!” shouted Stephen, quickly followed by the others.

Back in the jeep, the man jumped angrily in his seat as the unexpected piercing shriek split through his earpiece. This had him in a rage and he couldn’t wait to take it out on the unsuspecting victims.

Connor dug his heels into the side of the hill and ran down, in spite of the backpack and aches and pains, carefree and full of life. They were near the end, so close that they could for the first time see it. From somewhere he suddenly had a second wind and a renewed strength in his legs. With the others right behind him, they jogged onwards, towards the flag, towards Grayson’s team, towards trouble.

From the opposite direction, Grayson and his team had also spotted the flag. Burgess had seen it first, much to the annoyance of Fowler who, as the team had discovered over the course of the two days, had to be first with everything. With unobstructed views – there was a heavy clump of pines on the horizon where the man and Cameron would shortly be, but with wide, open marshland between them and the flag, they too started running. They also sensed victory.

The man and Cameron shimmied their way up the rope ladder and into the treehouse.

Connor led his group onwards. They laughed as they ran. Edgy, excited, expectant.

Grayson and his team closed in on the flag. It was half a mile away at most, the most beautiful site any of them had seen in months.

“Remember,” said the man to Cameron. “Aim below the knee! Aim to maim, is that clear?” Cameron responded with a thumbs up, his left eye already peering in anticipation through his rifle’s sight.

“That’s the flag,” shouted Rhys excitedly, still running. “It’s red. And it’s got a black Elements logo on it. Can you see it?”

“Aye! replied Stephen, picking up the pace.

Grayson and his team were near the foot of the hill now, coming at the flag from a different angle to the others. They were going to be first, they knew they were. As they reached the foot of the hill though, the ground beneath them suddenly gave way and they went tumbling into one of the holes that had been dug out earlier that day. It was a shallow hole, not quite two metres deep, and they landed on a bed of straw, but the surprise paralysed them.

In their treehouse, the man and Cameron roared with laughter at the sudden disappearance of Grayson’s team. With them out of the running for the moment, they turned their attentions to “that boy Stewart’s lot”.

They too had reached the foot of the hill, with Stephen a good few steps ahead. Without warning, he too vanished below ground level, screaming as his backpack caught on the lip of the hole and jerked him back in an awkward ragdolling movement as he tumbled inwards. As Connor and Rhys skidded to a halt, Stephen screamed more than one expletive. He lay on his back in a trench that was about eight metres wide. He groaned in pain, still wearing his backpack which he’d landed on. Straw and bits of grass and earth covered his body in places, and he looked to be bleeding from his elbow.

“Watch your footing!” shouted Rhys to Connor as he stepped forward for a closer look. “You don’t know where the trap starts!” Connor froze, looking carefully at the ground to see where it had been tampered with. Between the groans from Stephen below, he could hear the flap of the flag in the wind. They were so close…

In the other hole, the three boys asked one another if they were OK. There were no injuries it seemed, but they were sore, and getting out of the hole would be a challenge. As Grayson jumped up to pull on the lip of the hole, the ground gave way again, pulling clumps of the soil and grass away in his hands.

“D’you have a good view of the boys?” inquired the man.

“Yes, both of them,” came the answer.

“Below the knees, remember. Below the knees. On my say-so, fire at Campbell. Stewart is mine.”

“Copy,” said Cameron.

Connor could see that the ground had been disturbed. It stretched either side of the hole Stephen was in by several metres on each side. If they could get him out quickly, they could make their way around the edge of the hole and then get up the hill to the flag. He was just about to suggest this when the first bullet whizzed into the ground near his foot. Instinctively, both boys hit the ground. By the second and third bullets they were face down, terrified once more. There was nowhere to hide except in the hole where Stephen was.

Back in the other hole, Grayson was alert to the new sounds. “Surely that’s not gunshots?” he asked the others. They stopped trying to get out and listened. Crack! Crack! Crack! Goodness! It was.

“Are they firing at us?!?” shouted Burgess to no-one in particular. “Are they?!?”

Cameron and the man were expert marksmen, but rather far away. Their shots were close and terrifying, but they failed to hit their intended targets. Connor and Rhys shouted to one another between the gunshots.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

“I think we should get in the hole alongside Stephen,” shouted Connor.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

“No way! We’ll never get back out. We need to distract the gunmen somehow. Give them a target to aim for while the other gets up the hill and snatches the flag.”

Crack! Crack! Crack!

Connor processed this plan, quickly working out what was happening. He was supposed to be the gunmnen’s target while Rhys ran up the hill and won the flag? I don’t think so!

“No way, mate! No way! I’m not being a target for anyone. Get in the hole. Sit it out until the other team have the flag. We’ll be second. I’m happy with that.”

“Well, I’m not,” shouted back Rhys, and he was off and running up the hill.

The man kept his aim on Stewart. He fired a couple close to him, letting him know he was still there then turned to Cameron.

“Follow him. Let him reach the flag. As he gets to it, shoot him.”

“Below the knee?”

“You can’t help it if you misfire though, can you?” The man looked at him knowingly before returning his eye to the immobile Connor on the ground.

In the other hole, Grayson was holding onto Fowler’s ankles. He’d volunteered to peer over the top of the wall and work out what was happening. There were gunshots all right, but they were trained exclusively on the other side of the hill.

“I think it’s safe….listen to me! The guns are firing at something, someone else on the other side of the hill. It might be another team, I dunno, but I can’t see anyone. It’s worth the risk, I think. If you can punt me back up, I’ll help you both out.”

Grayson’s team set about getting themselves out of the hole.

As they did so, Connor was flopping himself into the hole beside Stephen. He intended to stay there until being told it was safe to come out. Rhys though was running for his life up the hill. In the angle of the hill, the top of the flag had disappeared for a few seconds, but it reappeared, closer than ever, flapping wildly in the wind. It was almost within touching distance.

Cameron kept his rifle trained on Rhys’s shoulder.

By now, Fowler had emerged from the other hole and, satisfied that the bullets weren’t intended for them, had begun hauling out his teammates, Grayson first and then finally Burgess. The three of them charged their way up the hill, six eyes on the prize. They weren’t even aware that the gunfire had ceased.

Rhys made it to the top of the hill first – Crack! Crack! Crack! – but just as he stood up, he heard the clatter of the swinging metal pots that dangled from the other boys’ backpacks and was dismayed to see three heads appear on the opposite side. Crack! The four boys ran like hell towards the flag and, even though Rhys had a hold of the rope that would lower the flag, the other three had no qualms in wrestling it from him.

As the boys scrapped violently, Cameron in the tree house struggled to find a decent view of Rhys. He fired a wild shot – Crack! – that flew above the boys’ heads. It was enough to make them momentarily stop. In the gap of opportunity, Rhys once again had the rope, and the flag which had been halfway down the pole was now at head height. At once he was submerged by the other team’s limbs. He was kicked, punched and scratched in a frenzied attack that was so unlike any of the boys who were dishing it out.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

As Grayson and Burgess continued to beat Rhys, Fowler triumphantly unhooked the flag and was rewarded – Crack! – with a stray shot from Cameron to the shin. He howled in pain, and crumpled to the ground, dropping the prized flag. Before any of his other teammates had had the foresight to cease battering their opponent and grab a hold of it, the flag was swept onto the side of the hill.

Rhys had to get away from this battering. The two boys on top of him were more interested in harming him than retrieving the flag. Rhys kicked back, wriggled, scratched, bit one of the two at one point. This caused the bitten boy to roll aside in shocked pain and when he did, he saw the flag blowing horizontally across the side of the hill. As Grayson held Rhys down on the ground, the pair of them watched as Burgess chased after the flag and caught it.

The game was up.

The two boys fell aside. Burgess appeared draped in the flag and he and Grayson hugged an embrace before going to check on the injured Fowler.

Rhys was distraught. All the effort, all the bravery, all counted for nothing. He’d had the flag in his hand! If Stephen hadn’t fallen into the hole, they’d have won. He lay back, unaware from his position that the man and Cameron were bouncing across the open ground towards them in their jeep. He was alerted to the fact when he heard the megaphone burst into life.

“Contestants! The game is over! We have a winning team!”

In their hole, Stephen and Connor sat upright.

“Congratulations to Fowler, Burgess and Anderson for an excellent display of teamwork and skill. Commiserations to Campbell, McPherson and Stewart. You were very unlucky not to have won. We await the arrival of Harrison, Reilly and Alan. They may be some time yet. We will make sure the six of you here just now get some food and shelter for the moment. When the others return we will begin our journey back to Kimble.”

The man paused for effect.

“By vehicle, just to be clear. By vehicle!”

Stephen and Connor flopped back into the straw and waited for someone to get them out.

(more to follow in the future)

Football, Peel Sessions

The Twelfth Men

This great picture of young Celtic fans storming the Hampden Park barricades and getting themselves into the big match is a real look back in time, to an era when showpiece games at the national stadium weren’t always ticket-only, when brass neckery and opposable thumbs gave you and your pals just as much right to take your place on the ash and pish-coated terracing as anyone else.

This picture has everything; it’s in colour, so it’s not that old. It comes from an era in football somewhere beyond rollups and rattles and record attendances, from a generation deeply entrenched in brutal tribalism and Rangers Ends and Celtic Ends (check out the wee scribble of casual sectarianism graffiti in the picture), with the EBTs and biscuit tins and the Big Two’s unfounded entitlement that they win everything not yet quite in full view.

The clothes would suggest very late 70s or the early 80s. I vividly remember my mum asking me if I wanted ‘flares or drainpipes‘ when she was ordering my new school trousers from the catalogue. “What are flares?” I asked in all innocence, before, once she’d shown me the picture, I very quickly ensured she ordered drainpipes, and only drainpipes. In an era of 2 Tone and Madness and, yes, Baggy Trousers, if you wanted to avoid merciless slaggings and a lifetime of misery, drainpipes were the only obvious choice.

The wee guy side-on at the front, in his grey Harrington and grown-out suedehead is, I’d imagine, no stranger to the back catalogues of both the Nutty Boys and The Specials. His pal, a dead ringer for a young Roy Aitken as it happens, in the home-knitted Celtic jumper has pulled a proper ‘whityegauntaedaeabootit?‘ sneer on his face, purely for the benefit of the photographer, a gaffer ensuring every one of his troops makes it safely over to the other side. Wee bams, and brilliant with it.

The Hampden terracing was quite the place. For someone small like me, it could be exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Glimpses of the pitch, let alone the actual ball, could be few and far between, the abstract and abrupt swearing, the aw ayes and aw naws providing you with the necessary running commentary in lieu of the actual game. “Great ball Souness that’s shite!” is the one I remember the most, remonstrated from the North Stand during a Scotland V Wales qualifier sometime around 1985. The smell of cigarettes and alcohol and piss hung heavy in the nostrils while your feet hung hopelessly in the air. From first whistle to last, the Adidas Kicks would rarely touch the ash. If there was a goal – and in the 80s, when Scotland fielded teams of world beaters there were always goals – there’d be a massive surge; a tidal wave that started from front and back and all sides simultaneously, and you’d be swept along in its soup-stirring free-flow, down ten or more rows before being jarrred swiftly to the right or left or both then back again, like a giant man-made spin cycle that always, always, returned you to where you’d been standing (floating) before the goal had been scored. You might lose your pals temporarily, but everyone’s your pal when Kenny Dalglish has just swerved in Scotland’s third of the night v Spain.

By the mid 80s my pals and I were going to Hampden ourselves. I say ourselves, but the truth was, Irvine Rugby Club ran a minibus to Hampden and, organised by someone our dads knew, we’d get to go to the game on the bus with them. What our parents never knew was that the bus would park somewhere near the Church On The Hill pub, and while all the men nipped in for a quick pint before the game, we’d get all gallus and, visibly growing a couple of inches, swagger the mile or so to Hampden by ourselves, take in the game then swagger back along the shadowy streets of Glasgow’s southside to the bus again. Semi-free small-towners from the Ayrshire sticks, we’d never have had the nerve to loup the wall like those boys in the photo. Let’s not kid anyone on here.

One particular game (v Romania possibly) stood tip-toed on the North Stand is memorable not for the box-to-box penetration happening on the pitch in front of us but for the ball games happening behind. “Stephanie, Stephanie…c’moan, it’s ma turn!” said the guy in the tight Souness perm, moustache ‘n all, as he and his two pals took turns at disappearing down the ash path and behind the stand with a young woman wearing a tartan scarf and a Crombie and quite possibly nothing else.

He shouts, he scores, to paraphrase.

Like those wee boys in the photo at the top, or or those wee blue disabled cars behind the goals, not the sort of thing you’ll see at the football anymore.

Echo and the BunnymenOver The Wall (Peel Session 22.5.80)

From a similar time and place, here’s Echo and the Bunnymen‘s Peel Session version of Over The Wall. Del Shannon via The Doors, filtered through era-defining hair and total self-belief. A bit like that Scotland squad of the times…and the wee guys in the picture at the top.

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 12 (part 1)

A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.

Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.

I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 12 (part 1)

 

Connor was awoken far too soon. Abruptly too.

The music of choice this morning was Ride of the Valkyries, Wagner’s barnstorming battle cry for heroic Viking warriors and, seemingly, teenage petty criminals whose sole aim for the coming day was to stay alive. As it built to a crescendo, Connor stretched an arm outside the blanket, yawned externally and laughed internally at whoever it was who chose the daily alarm music. They certainly had a sense of humour.

“Good morning, Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice with quiet calm. “You will be collected at 4.45am. Please be ready with your bag packed at that time.”

Dragging himself in and out of the shower, Connor dressed for the day ahead. He was midway through checking his social profiles, amazed to find that people were active on his pages even at this early time of day (although he shouldn’t have been, he realised later, as it was a normal time somewhere in the world) when the familiar rap on the door told him that Pamela was outside waiting on him.

He was greeted by her usual dynamite smile and a rare, whispered “Good morning!” A bleary-eyed Stephen stood slumped by her side, his backpack hanging awkwardly from one shoulder. He looked like he hadn’t slept more than a few hours. Connor nodded a brief, curt ‘hello’ to the pair of them and they walked in silence to collect Rhys. He answered promptly and was all go, backpack on and ready for whatever the day ahead might throw at him.

“Alright Connor? Alright Stephen? Y’ready for this?”

“I will be after I’ve eaten,” murmured Connor, his stomach making him keenly aware that it needed filling.

They sat at their table, the four of them for the final time. Despite the early hour, the food went down easily, the boys mindful of the possibility that this might be their last decent meal for a few days. As they ate and grunted and made occasional small talk, it became apparent to Connor that they were the only team in the dining room.

“Where’s everyone else?” he asked Pamela. The others looked up from their plates and looked around at the normally full tables.

“One team has left already,” explained Pamela. “The other isn’t up yet. You are all to leave at different times in different transport.”

This unexpected turn of events was processed in silence before the trio returned to their plates. Did this mean the first team to leave had a lead on the others already? Were the three boys here better placed than the team still asleep in bed? Who was the first team to leave? Connor began to wonder if he’d ever see some of these boys again. Grayson and Alan, the first two boys he spoke to on the train – separated by that creep Cameron, a voice in his head reminded him – might’ve become close friends under different circumstances. There was a strong social bond between all the boys, an unspoken ‘we’re in this together’ camaraderie that would be difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate. Ever since the others had kept the #wheresconnor trend from him, Connor had decided that it was going to be every man for himself, but by creating three opposing teams, the TV people had made this an easier decision than it might otherwise have been. In a game where only one team could win, former friends were now firm foes.

The boys were herded into a large 8-seater taxicab. It had no livery or logos to identify it as such, but that’s essentially what it was. The driver was a small balding man with hairy forearms and smelly underarms.

“Stick yer backpacks and what have ye in the spare seats there,” he said. “But leave some space for yer food parcel.”

As Connor and the other two pricked their ears at the mention of a food parcel, the man stepped out from the building to hand them a fourth rucksack, smaller than each of theirs but chunky and heavy looking all the same. Whose job would it be to carry that?

“Inside this pack is a selection of protein bars, multiple packets of freeze-dried food and all the implements you might need to cook in the open. There is a small gas canister. Matches too. None of you will starve, I hope. Also in the pack is an ordnance survey map. You may find it helpful should you lose your way. Before you leave, I want you to install the Elements Sat Nav app on your phone. It’s essential if you want to locate the flag before the other teams. Not only can it help you track your journey, it’ll help us to track you too. Should you require emergency assistance – if someone needs medical help, for example – tap the ‘Mayday’ button and help will duly arrive. Do not, under any circumstances, abuse this function.”

The man leaned in to show them the app on his own phone and suggested now was the best time to download it for themselves. As the boys waited for the app to download to their devices, the man continued his speech.

“When you arrive at your destination, Pamela will give you this envelope.” He held a large manila envelope up in the dawning light. “Open it, read the instructions carefully and from then on, you’ll be on your own. Good luck boys and may the best team win. I’ll hopefully see some or all of you in a few days’ time.”

The man turned on his heels and merged back into the shadows of Kimble. Connor wouldn’t miss him in a hurry, despite what may lie ahead.

The journey was long and strangely silent. Whether the driver and Pamela had been instructed not to talk to the boys, or perhaps it was due to the early hour, but none of the adults engaged in conversation. The boys made small talk amongst themselves before a mixture of tiredness and boredom took over. Connor tried to remain alert, to work out where they were going, what direction even they were travelling in, but eventually he too succumbed to tiredness and flopped half-asleep with his head rattling against the window.

When the car eventually pulled to a stop it was after half-past seven in the morning. They’d been travelling for over two hours and in that time the sky had lightened, the birds had risen and the still air was alive with birdsong. They were in a clearing, somewhere, surrounded by trees. Pine needles lay softly underfoot. It smelled fresh, clean and vibrant, a million miles away from the sterile and mainly windowless ambience of Kimble. The driver unloaded the bags from the cab, and they sat now in a large pile between the three boys. Pamela stood to the side, wrapping herself in a long woollen cardigan against the early morning chill.

“I must give you this,” she said, holding up the envelope that the man had given her back at Kimble. “Read it carefully and it should help you find the flag before the others. Even if you don’t get to it first, as long as you’re not last….”

She let her voice tail off and handed the envelope to Stephen.

“It’s been great to get to know you boys,” she said with a wry smile. “I’m gonna miss you, I really am. I’ll be following you three more closely than anyone else on your social channels and I really hope we get to meet again at some point. Good luck, Rhys…Stephen…Connor. See you somewhere down the road.”

The driver turned the ignition, Pamela got back in the cab and they drove off. The three boys and the four bags were now very much alone.

They sat on a clump of mossy, felled pine trees and looked around at their environment. Connor had no idea at all where they were. Birds chirped, trees creaked and apart from that, they sat in silence. It was Rhys who spoke first.

“We’ve still got a phone signal and some 4G, so that’s all good. We can’t be too far from civilisation. Shall we read what’s in the envelope?”

Stephen ripped it open, annoying Connor who’d have taken more care to do so properly. He pulled out a one-sided A3-sized aerial map. Unfolding it, he laid it as flat as he could on the bit of trunk he was sitting at and the three gathered around to look at it. On first glance, the map looked like every bit of generic ordnance survey map Connor had ever seen, which admittedly wasn’t all that much. It was mostly green with coniferous tree shapes printed on top, unsurprising given their surroundings. Contours and lines narrowed and widened at various points on the page, signifying steep hill climbs and shallow valleys. Veiny blue lines threaded their way through here and there, indicating little rivers and streams, so insignificant that that they were unnamed on the map. A couple of buildings, identifiable by brown squares, were dotted occasionally around the edge. The bulk of the area though was green. Half a dozen blue dots had been inked by someone on top and according to the addendum on the legend at the side of the map, these were hidden water stations. At the top right-hand corner was a hand-drawn red flag. This was their goal.

“Right. We know where we’re going then, but we need to find out where we are.” Rhys had taken charge of the situation and, for the moment, neither of the others minded. Rhys continued speaking, more to himself than the others.

“Grid co-ordinates…eastings 83796….uh-huh….northings 241389….”

He tapped into his phone, studied what he was looking at, looked back at the map and back to his phone again. He held his phone out in front of himself and turned slightly away from the others, who watched him closely. He continued muttering.

“We are here. Due north….is here…”

He leaned on the map and squinted at the legend in the corner.

“1:25 000 scale… righto. So, yes, that’s, let me see….” He placed his hand span across the map, diagonally from bottom to top. “…40-ish, 45 maybe miles.”

At this, Connor’s heart sank.

“Okay,” announced Rhys, holding the map up with both hands. “We are here!” He held a forefinger to the bottom left hand corner. “And the flag is here, obviously.” His forefinger travelled up the map to the drawing of the flag. “By my reckoning, the flag is about 45 miles away, maybe a bit less, in that direction.”

Rhys pointed towards the trees. There was no magic parting of the pines at Rhys’s announcement, no shaft of light from a friendly celestial finger, no heavenly choir to suggest confirmation. No discernible path showed at all.

“If we walk at a steady 3 miles per hour, allowing for rest and some sleep, we should reach our flag about this time tomorrow morning. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, I can’t see how we’re expected to be out here for two or three days.”

Neither Stephen nor Connor doubted Rhys’s calculations, but Connor was cautious.

“Remember what the man alluded to… unexpected things to keep us on our toes…medical assistance…creatures… – remember those guns at the climbing wall! I reckon you’re spot on with your calculations Rhys, but I think we need to expect the unexpected on our way.”

“Yeah, good point Connor. As long as we’re prepared though – whose backpack is full?”

The truth was, they all were. All three of the boys had packed extra clothes and bits and pieces ‘just in case’. They were well-prepared.

“We’ll need to split the food rucksack up between us, or maybe take turns at carrying it. What d’you think?”

Connor knew that his backpack was jammed full. He had little room. He had little desire to lug around a second pack either. Stephen spoke first.

“I’ve no room in my backpack. It’s totally full. I didn’t want to discover I needed something that I’d left back at Kimble. I know I’ve got too much stuff, but I don’t want to take anything out.”

“I’m the same, Stephen,” said Connor.

“Yeah. Me too,” said Rhys.

Stephen picked up the fourth bag and opened it. Unzipping the top and tearing aside a strip of Velcro, he began unpacking the supplies that the man had given to them that morning. The others watched in anticipation as each new item was pulled out.

“Dried pasta…three-pack of cereal bars….box of powdered cup a soups…vitamin supplements, whatever they are…tea bags…more pasta…noodles…air-dried bacon – eugh – more cereal bars…some more cup a soups…even more cereal bars.”

How tasty they’d be was up for debate afterwards, but there was enough sustenance to keep them on their feet until they reached the end. The hidden water stations were a welcome idea. At least if the food was rotten, they could stay hydrated. Stephen continued pulling items and announcing what each thing was, even though the others could see for themselves.

“Metal water bottle. And another. And another…..one each! A frying pan…pot…kettle…pack of three sporks…another map – this one’s much bigger, look – extra-long matches…5kg of propane gas…..jeez! No wonder this backpack is bulky. A toilet roll!”

Laid out flat on the bed of pine needles, it was a lot of stuff.

“Well, I think we should split it up,” said Rhys. “We all get a water bottle each and we take either the pot or the pan or the kettle. They’ll all hang below your rucksack, so they won’t even need packed. One of us can surely find some space for the gas canister. If we split the food up, we can shove it into the pockets of our trousers and jacket, wherever we can find space. The food will disappear as we walk anyway, so by the end of this we really should have only the cooking gear left.”

The boys busied themselves with dividing up the contents of the bag. Connor volunteered to take the gas canister, squashing it down the side netting of his rucksack so that it was easy to get to. When they’d finished, all three had extra items and heavier bags, but a little more team spirit. The mood was upbeat and light-hearted.

“Before we set off, I think we should consider our strategy.” Rhys was in charge again. Connor and Stephen hadn’t considered such a thing as a ‘strategy’. They were more than prepared to walk in the direction Rhys had identified and keep going until they were too thirsty or too hungry or too tired to continue.

“Looking at the map,” said Rhys, “there’s a water station nearby. We should fill our bottles before we leave.”

Rhys laid the map flat once more and the three peered at it. Connor was just getting to grips with what he was looking at when Rhys announced with certainty that the water was located to their left and got up, pointing towards a clump of bushes as he walked. Stephen and Connor followed behind, apprentices to their master and on his say-so, began pulling back branches and shrubbery and undergrowth in the hope they’d find something that looked like a water station.

“A-ha!” exclaimed Rhys. He was standing nearby, his foot keeping pressure on the undergrowth to stop it from springing back up. Peeking out between the brown and green of the forest floor was a large clear blue cylindrical tank. A white tap stuck out of it about three quarters of the way down, covered for the moment in clear shrink wrap. By the time the other two had got there, Rhys already had the plastic wrap off of the tap and was filling his metal water bottle. He stood aside, drinking, and let the others do likewise. When all three had filled their bottles, drank some then topped up once more, Connor covered the tank and the now-empty rucksack that had contained the food with the surrounding shrubbery, hiding it from who exactly he didn’t know, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

They sat back on the same logs as before. Stephen pulled a cereal bar from his pocket and began to eat. Connor was about to tell him not to waste the food so quickly until he saw Rhys open a bar too.

As Connor unwrapped his own bar, Rhys led the discussion.

“We need to decide if we want to walk until we drop then sleep for a bit before carrying on, or whether we walk for, say three hours at a time then have a twenty or thirty minute break before continuing again. We have no idea where the other two teams are in relation to us. I’d imagine though that the flag is in the centre of a very large circle and while we walk north, one team will be travelling south and the other approaches from the east or west. We could try and second-guess how those teams will travel and aim to beat them that way, but I think we need to come up with a clear idea of our own, right now, and stick with it no matter what happens.”

He looked keenly at his teammates.

“Any thoughts?”

“I don’t think I could walk all day without the chance to sleep later,” said Stephen.

“But the opportunity to sleep for as long as you want will come at the end,” said Connor. “We’re all fit here, the three of us. We’re all able to keep at it for a long time before fatigue sets in. I reckon we walk for a few hours then stop for a bit and keep doing that until we arrive at the flag.”

“I could walk for hours,” answered Stephen, “but I’d still need somewhere to sleep at the end of it.”

“There might not be anywhere to sleep though,” pointed out Rhys. “Where we are just now is fine – it’d make a nice camp for the night, but we don’t know what lies ahead. The map suggests more of the same, but we won’t really know.”

The conversation between the three continued, with the various merits of walking and resting versus a long walk and an ample sleep debated. In the end they compromised. They’d aim to walk until 3pm with minimal rest. If Rhys’s sums were right, they’d have travelled the best part of 20 miles by then – about half the distance. At that point they’d make a collective decision on whether to have a decent recharging rest or whether to press on.

Somewhere, in a room far, far away that the boys would never know about, the man sat wearing over-sized headphones and listened intently to everything the boys said. He had no visuals, but the wizardry that the lab boffins had managed to embed in the Elements Sat Nav app meant that, so long as there was a phone signal, he could listen in to any boy via their mobile phone. The boy Campbell stood out for him. He had all the makings of a very good leader. He’d be keeping a close eye – or ear – on him over the duration of this first event.

With their strategy in place, the boys took a few minutes to update their social media feeds. Stephen filmed the scene and added a mock commentary of the situation. Rhys jabbed silently at his screen. Connor placed his phone on a trunk and the three got together, huddled close gangsta style and hammed it up for the camera. Adding some text and a couple of hashtags, Connor tagged in his teammates before sending the picture out and into many thousands of followers’ phones. As the first hundred or so responses bounced back to him, the boys were already walking in the direction Rhys had pointed out a short while ago. Their journey, their participation proper in the first Elements event, had begun.

Initially, the walk was fun. Spirits were high, the terrain underfoot springy and carpet-like. Little streams ran here and there. Bubbling water and loudly chirping blackbirds and bullfinches sound-tracked their trip, punctuated by a hearty laugh or the occasional echoing snap of a twig as it broke underneath the Elements-issued walking boots. They made good progress. The weather was mild enough that all of them at various points removed their jacket to tie around their waists. After just over a couple of hour’s-worth of solid walking they had travelled almost six and a half miles. Rhys seemed satisfied with this progress and encouraged his teammates to maintain this effort. A little later, they arrived at a clearing in the trees. To their left, a silvery stream burst between the pines and gurgled its way downhill. Hills and fells ran across the horizon in the gap between the trees. Rhys stopped to check the sat nav on his phone, comparing what was on the screen with what was on the annotated map.

“This is where we start to climb, boys,” he said. “Going by the maps, I reckon we’ll be going up and over those hills that’re through the trees.”

“Those aren’t hills,” complained Stephen. “They’re mountains!”

“Let’s take a break here,” suggested Connor, and without waiting for approval, sat himself down on the bank of the stream. The others joined him, removing their backpacks. Connor tapped on his phone.

“I wonder where the other teams are.”

He scrolled through Grayson’s social feeds. There were plenty of pictures of him with the rest of his team, hanging from trees, goofing around next to a water canister the same as the one they’d uncovered where they’d been dropped off, drinking open-handed from a stream before splashing whoever was filming him. It didn’t look as though Grayson and his team were taking things very seriously. Nor did the others. You could be forgiven for thinking that, with his threatening haircut and tight-fitting camouflage, Harrison was the most-likely to succeed out here. He had posted multiple selfies, no team shots, of him in the forest, a determined look on his face and plenty of cliched statements accompanying each shot. Reilly and Alan though had uploaded some short video clips of Harrison holding the map and arguing with himself over which direction they should be heading in. His two team-mates stifled off-camera laughs as it focused on the edges of the map flapping in the wind. They’d turned one of the video clips into a meme with ‘He’s holding it upside down!’ written across the bottom in large white lettering. It had been liked and shared thousands of times. Connor was confident that his team was the most focused of the three. Rhys, who’d been looking through the socials on his phone, suddenly spoke.

“Location services! Turn them off!”

The others looked at him, confused.

“Have you taken any pictures here?”

“Just one, of the river there,” said Stephen.

“Let me see it, give it to me, quick!” said Rhys.

Stephen handed him his phone with a puzzled look. Rhys took it and found the most-recent photo in Stephen’s camera roll. When he clicked on it, a series of co-ordinates showed where the photograph had been taken.

“Have you put this on your feed?”

“Not yet,” said Stephen, “but I was going to.”

“Well don’t!”

Connor, who’d been watching and listening carefully, was trying to work out what this was all about. As it started to make sense, Rhys explained.

“The others can work out where we are by checking our social feeds. If we have location services turned on, they can track us every time we post an image. Look!”

He pulled up one of Grayson’s photos, tapped a couple of times and the co-ordinates popped up on the screen.

“If I check the map, we should be able to work out where that photo was taken.”

Stephen produced the map and the three huddled around it. Even though he suspected Stephen would have no idea either, Connor didn’t know what he was looking for, but he wasn’t going to admit that to the other two. Rhys was proving to be an indispensable leader. Rhys traced his fingers around the edge, looking at the numbers that ran along both axes. He looked back at Grayson’s image on his phone, double-checking the co-ordinates.

“Those co-ordinates aren’t on this map. Where’s the bigger one?”

Connor raked through the inside pocket of his backpack and pulled the large ordnance survey map from it. Opening it fully on the ground, Stephen placed each of their backpacks on a corner. Connor kneeled on the fourth corner to stop the map from flapping about and Rhys leaned over his shoulder, looking for the co-ordinates that would give up Grayson’s team’s position. It didn’t take him long to locate them.

“They’re around here,” he said assuredly, his forefinger circling an area of the map on the right. “And we are here.” He placed his other forefinger on a totally different section of the map, near to where Connor’s knee was. “We’re travelling north from the south. It looks as though Grayson’s team are travelling west from east. The red flag is here…look.” Rhys pulled the smaller map on top of the bigger map and pointed out the identical features.  “So, Grayson’s team started way over here….” He pointed to the small map again, but far to the right of it, onto the ground. “When was that photo uploaded to Olé?”

“9 am,” confirmed Connor.

Rhys checked the time on his phone.

“And it’s now nearly 11 o’clock. If they’ve not stopped walking, they’ll maybe be as far as here now.”

Rhys moved his forefinger along the map showing how much further the other team might have travelled. It was clear to see that, although there was a long way still to go, Grayson’s team was closer to the flag than they were. Rhys looked up at his team-mates.

“What about Harrison’s team? Can we find the most recent upload from them? Hopefully we can take the co-ordinates from that too.”

The three of them busied themselves with finding something, anything, that might give Harrison’s team’s location away. It was Stephen who came up trumps.

“Reilly updated his feed twenty minutes ago. Check out the picture of him and Alan on the big boulder at the edge of the trees.”

Photo found, Rhys pulled the co-ordinates from it and cross-referenced them with the large map. It was he again who pinpointed the location of the photo. He pointed to the top left of the map showing where it had been taken, drawing an invisible line to the flag.

“I reckon they’re about the same distance from the flag as us.”

“How come Grayson’s team is closer when they’ve been mucking about? And how come Harrison’s team are about the same distance away as us when none of them can read a map?” Stephen’s question was a fair one.

“I dunno,” admitted Rhys. “But I think if we were all dropped off at different times, it’s logical to assume we were all dropped at a slightly different distance from the flag by way of compensation. That way, when the last team was dropped off, they were the same distance to the flag as the first team dropped off was, even although the first team had been walking for maybe an hour already.”

It was a plausible theory and probably the best they could go on for now.

“But turn of your location services. That way, we can still upload pictures, but no-one will be able to work out where they were taken from. If we can keep checking the others’ photos, we may have an edge over them.”

Rhys began tapping at his phone again, closely followed by the other two.

Somewhere far away in a room at Kimble that the boys would never know about, the man spoke to Cameron.

“This boy Campbell has excellent leadership qualities. Let’s put them to the test, Cameron, shall we?”

Oblivious to the notion that their phones might be tapped in some way, the boys marched on through the trees and into the hills. Somewhere back at Kimble, Cameron was packing a jeep with exactly the sort of equipment designed to put the very best leaders under the most intense pressure.

The boys, under Rhys’s direction had agreed that they’d walk for a further two hours and then check their rivals’ social feeds. If they had gained distance on Harrison’s group and closed the gap on Grayson’s, they’d maybe stop for a longer rest, dependant on how wide or narrow the gaps were. As they approached the fens, the trees began to thin out. As did their cover and, with the wind whipping up a cold breeze, each of the boys untied their jacket and put it on. It was amazing just how quickly the weather could turn. It had been close, balmy even, under the canopy of the pines. Out on the exposed moorland it was unseasonally cold. There was nowhere to shelter here, nowhere to take cover and so the boys ploughed on. The walk had become less of a novelty now and aches and pains were beginning to make themselves known. Stephen complained of a sore back. Connor internalised his grief, but these new boots had started to rub on his heel and pinky toe. He was looking forward to getting them off, giving his feet a good scratch and readjust his socks to help ease the discomfort.

The shape of the boys’ travel had changed too. Where they had been together and three abreast, now they were a thin, fragile line, stretched out over 100 metres or more with Rhys ahead at the front, Connor somewhere in the middle and Stephen way at the back. Connor wanted to slow down, to let Stephen catch up, but he knew Rhys wouldn’t, and he didn’t want to risk losing sight of their leader as he led them over the fens to whatever waited on the other side. This stretch for the most part was tortuous. The wind howled into their faces. Despite the sunshine it was freezing cold. At points, the solid ground gave way to a peaty, marshy bog and they found themselves sludging ankle deep through goo for parts of the way. By the time they’d negotiated the uneven terrain, Rhys had stretched further ahead of the others and Stephen had clearly slowed down. By the time Rhys had reached the top of the fens, Stephen was perhaps a kilometre behind him. When Connor arrived at Rhys, Rhys was sheltering against a huge volcanic rock, his back to the wind and his eyes looking towards what was still to be conquered. Stretching below them was thick gorse bush and shale, not the easiest of terrains to negotiate from the top of a hill. Beyond the gorse and shale was another pine forest, dark and foreboding, but welcome shelter from the exposed moorland they’d soon be leaving behind. As they waited for Stephen, they calculated they’d walked in excess of 12 miles in total. The small map was with Stephen. The large map would have blown away in the wind, so until they were back in the lowlands with shelter from the elements, they couldn’t be more exact. There was no phone signal here either, so none of the others’ positions could be worked out.

“The sooner we’re back down there,” pointed Rhys to the pine forest below, “the better. We’ll check on the others, work out our own progress and decide if we can afford a rest or not. I’m thinking that Stephen might have slowed us down a bit.”

The pair looked back down the hillside and watched as their team-mate slowly zig-zagged his way up the hillside towards them, a dot becoming a matchstick person and finally a full-sized Stephen. As he approached, they stood up and adjusted their backpacks.

“Aw man!” I need a rest, said a clearly knackered Stephen.

“Five minutes then, mate,” agreed Rhys. “It’s all downhill from here.”

Gratefully, Stephen sat down and leaned against the large rock, still wearing his backpack.

“My back’s killing me. My feet too. These boots aren’t the comfiest.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a nutri-bar, washing it down with a slug from his water bottle.

“I’ll need to refill soon too,” he said, tapping his fingertips against the metallic side of the bottle. “Not got much left.”

“Yeah, I’ll need to refill as well,” acknowledged Rhys. “When we get down to the trees there, we’ll get the maps out and locate the nearest water station.”

The boys, together again, cautiously made their way down the side of the hill. The shale made it very slippery underfoot and each of them at one point or another had to grab a hold of jaggy gorse bush to stop themselves careering down the hillside. They stopped several times, both to catch their breath and ease the adrenalin that would rush each time they wrongfooted. Unscathed but not unnerved, they made it to the bottom.

The welcome underfoot carpet of fallen pine needles told them they were on the outskirts of the forest again. The light darkened, the wind dissipated, and it immediately felt more tranquil and sheltered. They walked on, eager to find a suitable spot where they could stop and pinpoint water and see where they stood in what was a very different sort of race. Were they first? Were they last? Were they somewhere in the middle, gaining on the leaders or being caught up by those in last place? No one knew. All were desperate for a proper rest. They’d agreed on 3 o’clock, but that was before they knew they’d be traversing fells in high wind and unpleasant conditions. None of the three wanted to suggest breaking for a while here and now, but all three thought it. Connor checked his phone as he followed Rhys’s lead. Grayson, Fowler and Burgess all had pictures up of them cooking around the small gas canister. He checked Alan’s feed. There was a picture of him eating a metal bowl of something, the words ‘At last! Foooooood!’ below.

“Guys. Going by their latest pictures, it looks as though both of the other teams have eaten. I say we stop soon and rest for a bit.” Being the diplomatic sort he added, “I think we could all do with a good rest and something warm to eat.”

“Amen, brother!” shouted Stephen in response.

Rhys didn’t need much convincing either and so, as they walked, they kept their eyes peeled for an ideal spot where they could rest. They didn’t need to walk for long. The happy sound of a running stream and a small clearing on its bank made for a makeshift camp. Rhys took immediate control.

“Stephen, you get the cooking stuff up and running. Connor, you get the food. I’m going to check the maps and see where the nearest water station is. When we’re eating, we’ll try and work out where the others are.”

Without waiting for an answer, Rhys emptied a handful of foodstuff from his pockets to the ground before busying himself with the two maps and his phone, cross-checking as he went. Stephen and Connor added some of their food to the pile then untied the pot, pan and kettle from the three rucksacks and got things going with the propane gas. They used the last of their water to boil up some tea and some chicken-flavoured noodles, pouring three milkless and sugarless teas into dull metal cups and emptying the contents of the pan into three small metal containers.

“We’re here,” said Rhys between sporked mouthfuls of noodles. The noodles, if that’s what they were, weren’t the best but they were warm and welcome and quickly washed down by the bitter tea. “We’ve walked roughly sixteen miles, maybe just a wee bit more. We’re more than a third of the way there.”

Rhys let that fact hang in the air for a bit. He might’ve said ‘only’ a third of the way there, but thinking back to Professor Zimmerman’s class, he was mindful of the positivity that the power of carefully chosen words can have in a difficult situation.

“We’ve walked almost non-stop for about six hours. In a couple of hours from now, we’ll be halfway there. That’s not bad going at all.”

Taking a black marker from his pocket, he drew a snaking line from where Pamela and the driver had left them that morning, leaving an inky splodge on the part of the map where they were just now. The others looked at the distance travelled….and the distance still to go. Framed as Rhys had done, it didn’t seem so bad, but there was a sizeable distance ahead of them. If they walked continually as they’d been doing, they’d get to the flag sometime in the middle of the night. They couldn’t sustain that though, all three of them knew within themselves that this was an impossibility. At some point they’d need to stop and get some sleep. The halfway mark seemed like the logical choice.

“Let’s see if we can work out where the others are.”

“Already done it,” said Stephen, pulling up an image on his phone. “This is Harrison ten minutes ago. It was taken at 845369 and 257033.”

Connor watched as Rhys’s fingers ran along both axes of the large map before meeting at a point somewhere in the middle.

“It’s hard to say for certain, but I’d say they’re a good bit further away from the flag than we are. I think we might have stretched further ahead of them. What d’you think?”

“We should’ve marked where they were the last time we checked,” said Connor ruefully.

“Already done it!” said Stephen again. He pulled up the ‘Foooood!’ image that Alan had posted. It had the same coordinates as Harrison’s photo. He then found the video clip of Harrison holding the map upside down and read out the co-ordinates to Rhys. He traced his fingers back along the map.

“So, since the upside-down map clip, that team has walked only three or so miles to where that latest picture of Harrison is. They’re going much slower than us. That’s good!”

Stephen busied himself with his phone again before holding it up to show a picture of Grayson.

“This was Grayson splashing in the river.” He read out the coordinates and waited for Rhys to mark them on the map. “And this is Grayson 20 minutes ago, eating his lunch at the camp.” Rhys traced the co-ordinates and marked a new spot along the same trajectory.

Connor, feeling that he wasn’t contributing enough to the team, searched quickly for a recent picture of somebody, anybody from one of the other teams. He found what he was looking for and shared it.

“Here’s a clip from 2 minutes ago!” he shouted, far louder than he should have. In the clip, Burgess and Fowler were knee-deep in a narrow stream, each kicking water at the other, their trousers rolled up to their thighs. Off-camera, Grayson’s voice could be heard laughing and encouraging them for the benefit of the camera. “This is happening right now!” He read the coordinates and Rhys verified that the clip was taken at the same spot where Grayson’s team had stopped for lunch. They’d been stationary for at least 20 minutes, and probably longer.

“I reckon we’re gaining on them, what d’you thinkl?” asked Rhys. He’d marked Grayson’s team’s first known position and their current known position, showing a narrower gap between the two points than the gap between their own plotted locations.

There was a decision to be made; eat up and move on, hoping to close the gap with every step or rest for a bit and regain some much-needed strength. Connor made a suggestion.

“I reckon we take another ten minutes or so here. Locate fresh water. Maybe ease our feet – I’d love to dip mine in the stream there – and aim to walk until four in the afternoon. At that point we reassess our position.”

Stephen wasn’t so keen, but Rhys was, so the majority vote meant that they’d be packing up and moving out shortly. While Rhys set about locating the closest water station, Stephen and Connor packed up the cooking gear, washing the sticky pot in the running stream as best they could. While at the stream Connor took the opportunity to dip his feet in the cold water. It felt good to feel the water clean between his toes. He scratched the soles of his feet by rubbing them back and forth across the gravelly riverbed. Once satisfied, he dried his feet on the grassy riverbank and wiped off the excess water with the outside of his sock before putting his socks and boots back on again. Just this small act made his feet feel cleaner and healthier and ready for the next two hours of walking. Rhys pointed ahead and slightly to the right.

“We need to head this way. There should be a water station ten or so minutes from here.”

The boys looked in the direction of where he was pointing. Stephen sighed then led the way.

They found the water station easily. Rhys had proven to be an excellent map reader, an invaluable leader for the team. As they drank and refilled their bottles, an hour or less away sped a jeep. Inside was the man and Cameron. They aimed to be at the midway point well before Connor, Rhys and Stephen.

The boys walked on; through the forest, pine-fresh and silent, following narrow paths where possible, making their own when they needed to, crossing little streams either by leaping from one side to the other or navigating across natural stepping stones if the stream was too wide. Jackets were tied back around waists, conversation was minimal, the focus very much on marching through the miles. Endless trees loomed on the horizon, then brushed past their shoulders before slipping behind as the boys continued their determined push. At one point, their sat nav led them across a main road that split the forest in two. There were no cars on the road and tempted as they had been by Stephen’s suggestion that they hung about to hitch a lift if it could get them any closer and quicker to the flag, they crossed over and entered the next section of forest. Had they waited a quarter of an hour, they’d have seen the jeep carrying the man and Cameron speed past on its way to its intended location, a mile or two up the road.

By four in the afternoon, the boys were extremely tired. A combination of backpacks, bumpy ground and breaking in boots had take its toll. They were all desperate to rest for a reasonable length of time and dropped as one as soon as Rhys suggested they do so. Connor lay back on the bed of pine needles, backpack acting as a pillow, and watched contentedly as a dozen or so crows wheeled high in the air above the canopy of the trees. He had closed his eyes and must have fallen asleep, for he was brought back to the here and now by Stephen’s voice.

“Has anyone checked where the others are now?”

Grudgingly, Connor rolled over and up. Stephen dug into Connor’s backpack, returning with the big map. Rhys and Stephen were busily tapping on their phones, comparing social media posts for the most-recent ones they could find. All three teams had been on the move, but it did look as though the team of Rhys and Stephen and Connor was maybe ahead. It was hard to tell, given that the three teams were approaching the flag from different angles, with different obstacles behind and still ahead of them, but it was encouraging all the same.

“Let’s take a decent break here,” suggested Rhys, to absolutely no objections.

 

(more to follow in the future)

Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

New. Order.

In A Lonely Place first appeared on the b-side of New Order‘s debut release, Ceremony.

New Order In A Lonely Place

Unlike its flip side (a great introduction to a brand new band, but essentially (perhaps) Joy Divison’s Transmission given a fresh coat of paint), In A Lonely Place is a headswim of swirling, Hook-piloted bass and womb-like ambient atmospherics.

Continuing where he left off with Joy Division, Stephen Morris plays all manner of unexpected, inventive drum patterns; regimented and military-like in some places, free form and skittering in others, but always with a tectonic, glacial pace that might, when I stop to think about it, make him the lead instrument on the track.

Icy laters of synth coat the whole six and a half minutes in a sheen of glistening permafrost, with the warmth of a blown-in melodica and Morris’s cymbal splashes adding the requisite colour.

Turning the filters up from stark monochrome to an off-white sepia, a still-reluctant Sumner on vocals goes full-on Curtis, downbeat, downtrodden, down down down, grinding the gears of this New Order to a juddering, rumbling, fading halt. It’s bleak, it’s spacey, it’s elegant.

Caressing the marble and stone
Love that was special for one
The waste and the fever and hate
How I wish you were here with me now

Written by Ian Curtis and rehearsed by Joy Division, In A Lonely Place could well be Curtis’s eulogy to himself. In reality though, the song takes its title and subject matter from an old noirish Humphrey Bogart movie. The plot has all the ingredients of a classic pot-boiler; a down-on-his-luck writer, a murdered actress, a hard-boiled, finger-pointing cop, and presciently, as the movie poster says, a surprise finish.

It’s a year since the passing of Andrew Weatherall, and to mark the anniversary, his brother Ian has joined with Duncan Gray under the moniker IWDG to record an elegiac tribute to him. They’ve taken New Order’s In A Lonely Place and updated it for the clued-in and open-minded amongst us.

More uptempo and lighter on its feet that the original, it is nonetheless respectful of the source. The melodica is still there, dubby and ethereal. The vocal, when it chooses to appear, is synth-like and robotic, its ‘how I wish you were here with me now‘ refrain taking on new meaning. And New Order’s imperial engine room, the star of the show on the original version, has been shunted sidewards, replaced and replicated by a couple of anonymous chrome and silver machines. It’s a really great version…

(It’s four really great versions, in reality.) Spread across the other three tracks you’ll find mixes by Weatherall associates David Holmes, Keith Tenniswood and the Hardway Bros. From the brief snippet you’ll find online, that Tenniswood one, all 17 downtempo minutes of it, sounds incredible. The EP is both reverential yet forward-thinking. I think you’d like it.

If Weatherall is your kinda thang, you might want to head over to Bagging Area where you’ll find Adam and his always-authoritative take on all things Andrew.

A digital release is out now, with a vinyl release to follow in June. You’ll find more details at Rotters Golf Club.

 

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 10 and 11

A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.

Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.

I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapters 10 and 11

 

In a small living room somewhere in the far north, Connor’s parents sat on their neat sofa with their tablet on a cushion between them, just about getting to grips with its functionality and intuitiveness. They’d managed to log on to ‘The Elements’ main social media feed easily enough – “just tap the icon on the screen, love,” had said Connor’s dad and they were in, desperate to see if Connor had replied to their message, eager to see what pictures and comments he had posted of his day in training. There didn’t seem to be any messages, but neither of them was certain they were clicking on the right parts to access them. Confusingly, Connor’s mum couldn’t find the one she’d sent earlier, and she was fairly confident that she was clicking in the right place for this. They’d found pictures that he happened to be in; one as he led the group around the lap of the field, a candid one of him listening to George in the dressing room at the start of the morning, a handful from the classroom in the afternoon, but they couldn’t seem to locate Connor’s actual personal feed.

“I think you’re doing it wrong, Christine, dear,” said Connor’s dad patiently.

“I don’t think so, Robert. I just don’t think he’s posted anything for the day.”

“That can’t be right – all the other boys seem to have put lots of stuff up.”

Connor’s mum passed the tablet and watched with irritation as his dad closed and opened and reclosed and reopened the app. He clicked on hashtags, unwittingly saved random photos to the tablet’s camera roll and managed somehow to leave a love heart icon underneath an unexciting picture of Zimmerman addressing the boys in the classroom. But for the life of him he couldn’t find Connor’s feed.

“Something’s wrong, Robert, I can feel it.” Connor’s mum looked worriedly at her husband, still intent on unlocking this particular mystery.

“I’m sure it’s just us, dear,” he said, not taking his eyes or thumb from the screen. Let’s see if I can find him on that Bubble application instead.”

But Babble was the same; plenty of activity from eight of the boys, none from Connor. Olé, it turned out, was just like the others.

“Well, I’m flummoxed Christine, I really am. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation though.” Connor’s dad handed the tablet back.

Connor’s mum put the tablet to the side and picked up the cushion it had sat on. She pulled it close to her chest.

 

 

 

11

For the next three weeks, a pattern emerged. It went like this.

Connor rose to the sound of classical music. Sometimes he recognised it. Most of the time he didn’t. He’d hobble to the shower with stiff legs and aching muscles before dressing for physical activity. He’d eat a healthy breakfast and attend a briefing session in the changing room with the other boys and George. The instructor would show clips of the previous day’s activities, giving useful tips on planking technique or skipping style, pointing out how the boys were becoming fitter and healthier. Personal bests were being “smashed!”, “left, right and centre”, he said. All the boys were leaner and meaner. Even Alan. At one point he had to go to the clothes store to pick out new, smaller clothes, his waistline reducing in inverse proportion to his level of fitness. On the blackboard George would list the set of activities they’d be tackling that morning, explaining the benefits of each of them, going into the scientific detail of which muscle groups they worked and how, rain or shine, they’d go into the field for up to three hours and work themselves into the ground. Occasionally the man and Cameron would turn up to watch. Sometimes they’d write on clipboards or tap into mobile devices and offer weak encouragement from the sides. Sometimes, the man would bark insults and obscenities through his megaphone from the top of the viewing tower. Once, purely for thrills, Cameron fired a gun straight into the air and rolled around laughing in the viewing tower when all the boys fell face-first to the dirt in anticipation of what never followed. The boys learned to ignore these unwelcome visits and got on with the task in hand, which was mainly doing as George asked. They were rewarded with encouragement, praise and noticeable abs as a result. Connor would never have gone as far as saying he liked it, but his new routine was something he no longer dreaded.

After showering they had some time to themselves, before a quick lunch and then a session with Zimmerman in the classroom. These sessions, Connor really enjoyed. He’d sit, bones, joints and muscles humming in agony from the morning’s workout and listen as the professor talked to them in his calm and steady American accent, instilling in them a ‘can do’ attitude, a ‘growth mindset’ as he called it. In these sessions, Connor developed a fondness for meditation and an appreciation of the powers of a positive mental attitude. Zimmerman would sometimes start sessions with an abstract mathematical problem and leave the boys to puzzle it out between themselves, returning only once the puzzle had been solved. Initially, these puzzle-solving sessions were quick to break down but slowly over time the group came to appreciate the benefits of working as a team. Rhys and Alan often took charge and when they did, the problem was usually solved with less fuss and argument.

After Zimmerman’s class the boys usually had an hour or so of free time before the evening meal. The majority of boys used this time to update their social feeds. Connor used it to sit and stew, desperate to pluck up the courage to ask for his phone back, willing the man to return it before he had to lower himself to ask. There was no obvious end to the stand-off and Connor had all but resigned himself to never having his phone again. The other boys occasionally tagged him in their posts, but fear of falling foul of the man meant that such times were limited. No-one wanted to lose their only means of communication with the outside world.

What Connor didn’t know was that he was currently a trending online phenomenon. #wheresconnor had started after the first day or two when it was apparent that Connor wasn’t updating his feed. One of his followers had included it as a hashtag at the end of a post, someone else had jumped onto it and suddenly #wheresconnor was a thing. Over the course of the next few weeks it had grown to such proportions that it was more than mere groundswell – it seemed the entire planet was asking the question at once. The other boys knew about the hashtag, but self-preservation meant that none of them dared tell Connor. They knew he was popular, perhaps even more so as a bizarre result of his social media ban, and to have any advantage at all over him was one worth having. Despite the obvious closeness and camaraderie that had developed between all the boys, some things were best kept between only those who needed to know.

One day the man was summoned alone to the TV company’s office. In a room at the far end of Kimble, far away from the boys and the girls and Cameron, he sat opposite three old men with older hair and ancient suits. There’d been a request from the sponsors, they said, to have the boy Stewart back online. A popular boy, they told him, he had quite the following, and quite the following had quite the power. With talk of boycotting the show and the likes, the sponsors were getting nervous and panicky. A lot of their money had been put into this show, they said, and they expected a lot of money out of the show in return. If Stewart, number 9, wasn’t back online, they’d seriously have to consider their position. No amount of fist clenching or teeth baring or shouting could help the man and so, he returned with his tail between his legs and a chip on his shoulder. Stewart would get his phone back, he’d promised, but, oh! he’d pay for it. He thought it best not to tell the TV company that part though.

Connor found his phone on top of his bed. No note. No explanation. It was fully charged and insanely overloaded with notifications and messages. It was then that Connor discovered the #wheresconnor hashtag and shocked and mystified, realised that his celebrity was such that even soap stars and sports stars and pop stars and politicians were Babbling and Olé-ing about him. Without his knowledge he’d become properly famous. Connor typed a message. ‘Hello everybody,’ it read. ‘I’m back back back! #wheresconnor’ He added a humorous #heresconnor hashtag almost as an afterthought and revelled in the familiar whooshing noise his phone made as it was sent out into the ether. Ignoring the immediate flurry of response, he repeated this action across his other social media platforms and lay back on his bed, happy again that he could communicate with the outside world. He had three weeks of memes, messages and misquotes to plough through but they could wait. He only hoped his parents would find out that he was OK. He certainly couldn’t be contacting them in a hurry.

One morning, almost a month after they’d arrived, the boys were awakened at the usual time and accompanied to the dining area to eat breakfast at their tables of four, as normal. The man seemed more animated this day. Cameron too. He was busying himself with a clipboard and a handheld mobile device, seemingly already not enough hours in the day to do whatever it was he did. The man moved to the centre of the room, picked up a small glass of fruit juice and clanked the side of it with a teaspoon. The bright noise cut through the early-morning chatter and quickly, the room fell silent.

“Contestants. I would like a few words if I may, before you enjoy breakfast. There will be no training this morning. I know you will be disappointed at this, but there are a couple of more important matters at hand. You should know that two days from now, we will begin ‘The Elements’. All your training, all your focus has been leading to this moment and it is now almost upon us. We will meet this morning to go over the format of the show. There is much to explain and many questions, I’m sure, to be answered. I have called a press conference for this afternoon. The world’s media is eager to hear from you again, to ask new questions, to find out new information, to fill the columns in their newspapers and online features that will see your names carried across the globe.”

He lowered his voice a notch so that Connor had to concentrate to hear him properly.

“You don’t need me to remind you of the importance of saying the right thing in this environment, do you? It’s more ‘good boy’ than ‘good quote’, do I make myself clear?”

There was a murmur of acceptance from the boys and, as the man stepped down, they got on with the first important task of the day – eating breakfast.

With a mixture of excitement and apprehension, Connor, Rhys and Stephen chatted about the impending contest.

“I tell you,” said Rhys knowingly. “It’ll be based around the five elements; earth, air, water, fire and wood. Won’t it, Pamela?! Remember I said before?!”

Pamela gave nothing away, save a slight smile on her upturned mouth.

“I’ve no idea, Rhys. Really. I know just as much or as little as you. I like your theory though.”

“It will be! Believe me! There’ll be five tasks. Each task will see winners and losers and eventually, after the last task, there’ll be just one winner.”

“And that’ll be me!” said Stephen out loud with a grin. “D’you think we’ll be camping and that?” he asked to the group. “Living outside…living off the land. D’you think we’ll need to kill for food?!”

“Maybe,” answered Connor. “Just as long as we’re not expected to kill each other.”

The thought of this was new and subdued the conversation for the rest of breakfast. The three boys sat in silence, eating and drinking and lost in their own thoughts.

With breakfast over, the boys reassembledPin the meeting area. The room was set out as it had been on the first couple of days, with two rows of chairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of the massive screen. The rotating ‘Elements’ logo revolved lazily. A lectern was placed midway between the screen and the seats, off-centre to the right. Cameron was already busying himself with a small selection of electronic devices. Without prompting, the boys sat in the same seats as before, the girls doing likewise. On cue, the man appeared.

“Contestants. I trust breakfast has set you up suitably for the day ahead. There is much to get through this morning, and I expect you’ll want to ask questions as we progress. Please, watch this short film and we will talk afterwards. Cameron….”

The lights dimmed to black and the logo on the screen faded, giving way to footage of a boy running with purpose through a heavily wooded area. His feet scrunched on leaves and his breath was short and fast. Twigs snapped underfoot, shrubbery scraped across the large backpack that hung heavily from his shoulders and the boy let out an occasional gasp as the terrain below suddenly dropped or changed without notice. Once or twice he looked over his shoulder, back towards the camera. His terrified face told a thousand stories…and begged a thousand questions. Who was he? Where was he? Why was he running? Who was he running from? What was it that made him so obviously terrified?

A voiceover began. Connor recognised it as the same gravelly voice from before.

“The Elements is the ultimate survival show.”

The footage changed smoothly. The boy was still in the same position on the screen, still running frantically, but the landscape had changed to a frozen wasteland. His breath, still short and fast, puffed out in small clouds around his mouth. Where there had been deep green forestry there now was blue white nothingness. His backpack bounced with every tentative running step he could manage. As he looked back to the camera he slipped, his feet giving way. His entire body fell to the right and for one brief moment he lay poleaxed on the frozen ground below. As the camera closed in on his backpack, the boy made it back onto his two feet and he was off and running again, pulling away from the camera once more.

“He who runs the fastest…”

The footage changed suddenly to that of a cheetah racing gracefully across an African plain.

“He who runs farthest…”

The footage was now of turtles and whales and migrating birds.

“He who utilises the greatest survival skills…”

The footage transformed into that of a polar bear, its head poking proudly above a frozen icecap.

“Will win.”

The footage changed once more, this time to an aerial shot of a lion atop a rock, his head turned to the sun, his magnificent mane puffed up and blowing in the wind. The King of the Jungle. And the icy terrain. And the ocean, the skies and whatever else too.

The film faded and the poem, the one from the train, the same one that hung on Connor’s wall in his room, by now such a part of the furniture that he barely noticed it, appeared on the screen.

People of Kimble, The

Elements will see to it that some of you will fail. That’s just the

Natural order of things.

Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.

Not all will make the return journey, the

Consequence of failure should be obvious to

Everyone.

The initial letters in each line swelled in size, turned red and remained in that form until it slowly dawned on each of the boys sitting there.

P. E. N. A. N. C. E.

Penance was punishment you inflicted on yourself as an admission of some wrongdoing or other. All the boys here had committed a crime of some sort, some more serious than others, and all the boys had chosen to be here rather than serve punishment in a more traditional establishment. The poem now made perfect, chilling sense. ‘The Elements’ was perhaps the ultimate in penance.

The words remained on the screen after the lights went up and were visible while the man spoke.

“All your training thus far, the days and weeks spent sweating on the field with George, the uncountable hours spent solving unsolvable problems for Professor Zimmerman, all lead to this. ‘The Elements’. As you have perhaps gleaned from the film and the poem too, it is not for the faint-hearted. The rigorous input you have received ensures that all of you are in peak condition, that each and every one of you is in the best-possible mental state to participate. Our team of behind-the-scenes psychologists and analysts has monitored your progress from the off and we have now been given the go-ahead to begin the contest. Let me explain a little bit about the format.”

The screen changed again. This time one word appeared.

‘Earth’.

A second word appeared below.

‘Water’.

Then a third.

‘Fire’.

By the fourth, Rhys was mouthing them as they appeared on the screen.

‘Metal’.

The final word was ‘Wood’.

“I told you!” whispered Rhys, sitting between Connor and Stephen. “I knew it!”

Rhys hadn’t got them quite right, but he was remarkably close.

“The Chinese,” the man spoke, “regard the Five Elements as the foundation of everything in the universe. Each has its own character and can generate or destroy one another. Metal generates water; water nourishes wood; wood feeds fire; fire creates ash, or earth, and earth bears metal. It’s a natural cycle. The destructive nature of the elements also means that fire melts metal; metal chops wood; wood breaks up the earth; the earth absorbs water, and water quenches fire.

You boys all have your own character. You have generated team spirit and togetherness, but you also have the capacity to destroy one another too. I hesitate here to point out some of the things you have said and done behind one another’s backs, for that destructive element will rise naturally as the contest progresses.”

Connor wasn’t sure he understood everything the man said, but he got the gist of it; everyone has the ability to win, but no-one is infallible, and no-one can be trusted seemed to be the short of it. A sudden dawning came over him regarding the #wheresconnor hashtag. The other boys would’ve known about this, definitely, yet not one of them had elected to tell him of it. They knew – Rhys and Stephen especially – how difficult he’d found things without having access to his social media accounts. Had they told him he was popular despite his absence, he wouldn’t have worried so much. Instead, they’d kept this from him, and for three weeks too! This told Conor that he was feared by the other boys, that they considered him competition, a threat to their own survival, and from this he drew confidence and strength. It was there and then that Connor understood ‘The Elements’ was all about every man for himself.

“The Elements will play out over five discreet events, each themed around one of the five elements listed on the screen behind me. The first event will be ‘Earth’. For this, you will compete in your teams of three. You will be taken to an area far from here and given the task of retrieving a red flag. There is only one red flag so there can be only one winning team. From the two losing teams, depending on social media response, at least one boy will be eliminated from the process.”

The man made it sound like an interview for a high-flying corporate job. Did ‘eliminated from the process’ mean ‘killed’? Based on the video and the subtle clues dropped here and there over the past month – ‘it’ll be real bullets next time!’, it seemed quite likely. Connor started weighing up his options. Pushing aside unhelpful thoughts of #wheresconnor, Rhys and Stephen, he decided, were fine as teammates. They would all need to rely on one another’s skills and qualities for this task, something that they had been doing so far. Rhys was smart and analytical. Stephen was not the brightest but he was strong and fast and could run all day if he had to. Connor wasn’t sure what the others might consider to be his best features, but he himself knew he had the stamina and strength of mind to compete. He wasn’t going out easily, and certainly not first.

“It’s a simple concept,” the man continued, “but compelling, nonetheless. Are there any questions just now?”

Fowler raised his hand.

“Fowler, two. Question?”

“Eh, yeah. How long does an event last for? Is there, like, a full-time whistle and a draw if no-one wins?”

The man laughed loudly.

“There’s no full-time whistle, no! Ha! Each event continues until someone wins. That could be hours, days, even weeks if need be. I’m certain that our sponsors would prefer each event to be as long as possible without becoming drawn-out and boring. As you compete, we will live-stream events on YouTube. All of the action will be captured as and when it happens. A nightly highlights show will broadcast the best parts.”

Harrison was next.

“What happens if you’re on the losing team but you’re not the worst player in it? It doesn’t seem fair that you can be penalised because someone in your team has let you down.”

“It’s a team game, Harrison,” the man replied. “and if you’re on the losing team, there’s a chance you will be eliminated. It’s how the show works.” He smiled at Harrison, signifying this particular question had now been answered.

Connor stuck his hand up.

“Stewart, number nine. What’s your question?”

“How long is there between each event? You said the ‘Earth’ one could last weeks if it needed to. What sort of break will there be before the next event?”

“A good question, thanks. There’s no definitive answer to this, I’m afraid. If your first event is over and done with in a day, then I’d imagine we’ll get the next event underway a day or two after that. If the first event takes a week, then you’ll obviously need a longer recovery period. That’s one of the things that makes ‘the Elements’ unique in broadcasting. We are not fitting our programming into a traditional TV schedule, rather the TV schedule will bend and shape to fit us. When we first floated the idea of this show, we suggested it might last a year from start to finish, but it might also be over and done with inside a month. Obviously, our sponsors will be hoping for an extended run on prime-time TV but the length of the show will be determined by how quickly or slowly you all complete the events. The public too has a large part to play. They might choose to vote off more than one of you at a time, in which case, there’ll be less contestants, so things will finish quicker. Keep the public on your side and your chances of making it to the end increase.”

He surveyed the boys in front of him with a genuine smile.

“Are there any further questions? No? In that case I’d like to brief you ahead of the press conference. At the last one, one or two of you said some things that would have been better off staying in your head than coming out of your mouth.”

He paused for effect.

“If you remember, I faced the indignation of having to intervene and frame your comments in a positive manner. I’m sure it doesn’t need repeating, but for the record I will repeat it all the same. Do not, under any circumstances allude to things here at Kimble being anything less than perfect, anything less than wonderful and anything less than idyllic. Do I make myself clear?”

He paused, eyeing every boy individually.

“Anyone who makes my life difficult this afternoonmay not see the end of the first event.”

He let that thought hover in the space between them before extending this thumb and pointing his index finger out towards the boys, adding a definitive final two words.

“Bang, bang.”

He turned and left, with Cameron scurrying behind him.

One of the girls at the back stood up and addressed the boys. They had some free time, she said, to update their socials, freshen up, whatever, before they’d meet at noon for lunch. The boys dispersed accordingly, some to their rooms, some to the recreation room, some to the gym. Within a minute, the meeting room was empty.

Connor found a quiet corner in the recreation room, away from Grayson and Fowler who’d elected to hang out at the pool table, and scrolled through the various social media feeds on his phone. His glib #heresconnor hashtag had amusingly been adopted by his followers and almost every picture of himself was accompanied with the hashtag somewhere underneath.

 

He left his own feed and looked at the other boys’. Harrison’s was still full of square-jawed selfies, mid work-out poses and snarling pouts. Stephen’s too was much the same, even if he didn’t quite take as sharp a selfie. For reasons unknown to Connor, Stephen had more followers than anyone else. His teammate was loud and gormless, not the smartest nor the fittest, yet he had almost twice the number of followers of Rhys and Reilly combined. It really was quite something. Maybe it was the hair. ‘hashtag le gingembre’ and all that. The French really did love him. Most of the comments in his feed were from France. ‘If we finish last in this task’, thought Connor, ‘at least I’m ahead of Rhys in the popularity stakes.’ Alan’s feed was interesting. He seemed to have had the sympathy vote from the public, probably based on those first couple of weeks, but all of the comments now were complimenting him on his changing body shape, his levels of fitness and his new-found gung-ho attitude. With a new perspective on some of his fellow participants, Connor made his way to the dining area, keenly aware once more that he’d be on camera. Pamela had been right. She’d said at the beginning that you soon forgot all about the camera, but if Connor was going to survive ‘The Elements’, he was going to have to play up to it.

After lunch, the boys were taken to the press area. The room was nowhere near as frenzied as before. It was once again packed out with journalists from every corner of the world, and at the front, at the back and at both sides of the room, a fleet of cameramen, sound engineers and hairy men with grubby, low-slung jeans guided cables and wires safely away from unsuspecting journalists’ feet. It was much calmer than the first time they’d been here though, with the reporters far quieter and much more settled. Even with the production crew busying themselves continually, there was a relaxed, calm ambience. Connor recognised some of the reporters from before…the lady from the Daily Mirror was in the front row, the American man who’d singled out Rhys for being the science guy was sat on the left. An Indian woman behind the American man raised her take-away coffee cup and gave Connor a smile as he scanned the room. A few rows behind her was the German reporter who’d asked a question the last time. There were one or two faces that Connor didn’t recognise, but that wasn’t to say they hadn’t been at the last briefing. Notable by their absence was the quiet, elderly Japanese man and his translator, the subject of the man’s behind-the-scenes vitriol following the previous press briefing. As before, a big camera at the back swept here and there, capturing every angle of every boy. At a given signal, de la Cruz made his entrance, springing on like a ridiculously flung together cliché of every shiny and fake-happy TV presenter that had ever appeared in front of the cameras. His hair was even taller than the last gravity-defying time, and he had been given some sort of silvery-grey highlight on the front of the quiff. His suit was silver and super-tight, accentuating his already supremely-pointed patent grey shoes. In his hand he held a microphone that, Connor noticed now, had a square block below the round foamy part, a combination of ‘Elements’ and TV company logos around its edge. On his right wrist hung a massive black-faced diver’s watch that stuck out ugly and vulgar from underneath the sleeve of his shirt. To the side, watching everything with a keen interest, stood the man, arms folded, a forced smile stuck to his face. He’d be glad when this was over. A sponsors’ requirement, the press briefing led to the sort of column inches and internet traffic that put the show firmly into the consciousness of a huge percentage of the planet’s population. The stories made stars of the contestants. The contestants sold newspapers and paywalls and drove advertising revenue online. Each was dependant on the other. The man was ready this time for any awkward questions.

At the stroke of 10:50am (the broadcast would go out at 11:00, seemingly live to those watching around the world) de la Cruz turned his fake smile up another notch, visibly grew another inch and, after a brief, slick in’roduction, began directing questions from the press to the boys, or ‘competitors’ as he was now also calling them. Many of the questions related to the boys’ physical appearance, they all appeared fitter, bigger, stronger, the reporters remarked. They had clearly undertaken a programme of intense fitness and it had appeared to work. A well-groomed Frenchman asked Stephen about his hair routine. Many youngsters in France, he said, girls as well as boys, had started to cut their hair in the same style. Could Stephen pass on any fashion tips, perhaps? Other questions were asked around the subject of bullying, with all the boys who’d been on the end of the man’s wrath being probed by the journalists. With the shadow of the man forever-present, each boy gave a non-comital answer that helped maintain the plastic smile on their aggressor’s face. Alan in particular was singled out for questioning and when he struggled to find the ‘right’ answer for a persistent English lady, a subtle nod from the man led to two well-built men with wires coming from their ears appearing from the back to escort her from the room. Each had a hand under an armpit and, despite her noisy protestations, she was unceremoniously thrown out. Serving as a warning to others, this took the questioning along new, safer lines of enquiry; how were they feeling ahead of the first event…were they missing family and friends…what was their favourite thing about The Elements so far…the sort of flim-flam that helps pad out tabloid newspapers and shallow gossip shows, but not the sort of in-depth stuff that the more serious journalists were here to report on; the psychological effects of being part of a TV experiment, for example, or the ethics of some of the practice so far seen via the official YouTube channel. If this was the stuff we were permitted to see – the institutionalised bullying, the confiscation of phones, the effects of all of this on the mental wellbeing of young people, then what exactly, a nosy Spanish woman from El País wanted to know, were they not showing us? This proved to be the last question of the briefing, meaning the occasion ended on a rather awkward and unresolved moment. It also proved to be the stimulus for the online headlines that followed that same afternoon.

Fury as sick show throws us out!’ heralded The Mirror.

Death Camp Reality TV!’ screamed Entertainment Now!, America’s largest, most-powerful online news and gossip channel. ‘Who will die first?’ it asked in the subheading.

‘¿Es este entretenimiento en el siglo XXI?’ asked the online editorial in El País.

The newspapers the following day were even more scathing. With time to ponder, watch back and analyse the press conference, the more sympathetic of the world’s media tore the show and its producers to shreds. From Madrid to Moscow, Massachusetts to Melbourne, the same editorials were printed; that this show was unethical, that it exploited teenagers who had emotional and psychological issues to begin with, that it was plainly, going by the inferences suggested so far, murderous. Most scathing of all was Mr Yoshiro’s opinion piece in the Japanese daily Asahai Shimbun. Despite repeated requests, he had not been invited to yesterday’s press briefing and despite going through the proper channels he had been unable to secure an interview with any of the show’s producers, so Yoshiro had been forced to write, he explained, a one-sided opinion of the show. This ‘game’ show, he wrote, will systematically kill each of the unwitting boys who are taking part in it. Yes, it is true that they are all criminals to one degree or another, but the barbaric notion that it is somehow OK to eliminate, to eradicate, young people purely in the name of entertainment is a disgrace. We are all to blame, he said, for encouraging it. If any boy died during this show, every person who ever interacted with any element of the show would have that boy’s blood on their hand.

Issues were raised with politicians, motions raised in parliaments and letters sent by heads of state on headed paper, but the show would continue. For every complainer there were hundreds of thousands of fans. Each of these worshippers (for this is what they were) was tied to their phone, checking in on their favourites at least five times an hour, interacting, engaging, sharing content. Hashtag this, ‘love’ emoji that, all the time. It was non-stop. And every time an image was sent zooming across hyperspace or a gif was transferred between devices or #theelements was tagged on to the end of a post, a silent cash register rang and sang for the show’s sponsors, rich enough to begin with and now even more so. No-one, not the Prime Minister or the King of Spain or America’s First Lady would be able to stop its broadcast. Besides, they pointed out, these boys were brought here as criminals, don’t forget that. They were given an alternative, yet they all chose this is as punishment. Do the crime, do the time, that’s what they said, wasn’t it?

When the man saw the headlines, he was furious. Furious at the papers for writing words that were out of his control. Furious with the boys for answering in their ambiguous ways. Furious with himself for allowing these troublesome journalists to be part of the briefing in the first place. He was summoned once more to the office far away at the back of Kimble where he sat opposite the sponsors who suggested – told him, really – that ahead of the next conference he should ask the journalists to submit their questions in writing and to allow entry only to those who asked the ‘right sort of questions’. He kicked himself for not thinking of this himself, annoyed and upset that he was being forced to do what the sponsors asked of him.

When he returned to the boys, he was in a foul mood. Preparations were being made ahead of the big day tomorrow. The boys had been instructed to meet with him so that he could run through exactly what they should pack and prepare for the first event, but the man had a good mind to give them no help at all, or worse, give them false information, and see how that panned out. In the back of his mind though, he worried about the sponsors. They were in charge. They paid him handsomely. This was the best-paid job he’d ever had in TV production and he intended to keep it. Plans were already afoot for another series and associated spin-off shows and they could see him easy into early retirement. If he sabotaged the first event purely as some cheap form of revenge against the likes of Stewart or Harrison, he’d be as well packing his bags before the second event was underway. His revenge would have to wait.

“Contestants!” he shouted with false enthusiasm. “I’ve gathered you here as a group for one last time before our first event. ‘Earth’, as you know, begins tomorrow. I’d like to brief you, if I may, on what you should pack in advance.”

The assembled boys listened intently.

“You will need to prepare for probably a couple of nights and maybe three days-worth of activity. Bring layers. Bring jackets. Bring combat trousers. And your waterproofs. Probably your bite-proof ones too. I’m not sure what’s out there, but I’m sure you’ll find out.”

An uneasy, unspoken feeling crept across the boys.

“’Earth’ is a straightforward task. Think of it as a warm-up to begin with, an icebreaker so to speak. You’ll quickly get into the swing of things, I’m sure! As I have explained before, you will compete in your teams of three. In the morning, early, each team will be taken independently to an area far from here and tasked with retrieving a flag. The area is dense and dark and thick with forest. Creatures live there. No doubt there’ll be creatures neither you nor I have encountered before.”

He broke off to smile.

“You can tell me all about them when you return. If you return. There may be other little things that will hinder your progress along the way. It’s the unexpected things that will keep you on your toes… and keep the viewers watching. It’s all about the viewers, boys, don’t forget that. Give good telly, will you?!”

He smiled again. No-one smiled back.

“Remember, there can be only one winning team and from the two losing teams, depending on social media response, at least one contestant will be eliminated.”

He rubbed his hands.

“Any questions?”

None were forthcoming. The man felt better for having exerted his power and control over the boys. His chest swelled whenever he brought silence and unease to the proceedings. He loved being in charge again.

“Then we’ll eat. Afterwards you should pack. There may be some free time later on, but lights out tonight will be 2000 hours, ahead of a 4am or so start in the morning.”

The boys ate. They talked about the Earth event, sharing their concerns and fears in a frank and open discussion that none of them would have thought possible a few weeks before. Pamela had told them that after tomorrow morning they were unlikely to see her again, her role now having been fulfilled, so much of the talk was of funny stories and first impressions. She seemed sorry that her time was up and the boys were sad that their first connection to Kimble, to ‘The Elements’ was being severed.

Back in his room, Connor carefully packed his things. The man’s voice rang in his head as he looked out clothing that he’d only ever worn when he’d first tried it on. He packed everything he’d been told to pack, adding a couple of extra layers and a pair of fire-proof combat trousers just in case. In the inside pocket he stuck a ‘juicebox’ – a device that would give him an extra boost of battery power should his phone run out of charge. Alongside it he put in a notebook and a couple of pens and, most importantly of all, his anti-allergy medication. At the top of the backpack he squashed in a one-man tent that had been left in the middle of his room when he’d returned from eating. The note on it said simply, ‘Pack me.’ He lifted his camouflaged backpack, put it on and let his back and shoulders adjust to its weight. Could he carry this around with him for half a week or more? Even with his recently developed strength and fitness, he wasn’t sure he could. Still wearing the backpack, he ran through a mental inventory of everything he’d packed. Perhaps he could lose the fireproof trousers? Or the second pair of boots? He didn’t want to be hampered by it but nor did he want to find himself in a situation where he was wishing he had a piece of equipment that he’d removed from his pack at the last minute. He decided to keep the backpack as it was. He’d get used to it. He’d need to.

There was little free time that evening and so none of the boys emerged from their rooms. Inside, each updated and uploaded; pictures of backpacks, thumbs-up selfies, ‘see you on ‘Earth’-type messages. There was a mixture of excitement and anticipation, expectation of the competition and fear of the unknown. As ever, there were hundreds, thousands of messages from his supporters and as he read with constantly sweeping thumbs, the lights harshly shut off without warning. At 8pm, Connor lay atop his bed in just his underwear, the soft glow from his phone illuminating his face, casting an enlarged shadow of his head onto the wall behind the headboard. He plugged his phone in to charge, brushed his teeth in the dark and lay, trying to sleep in a bed that he hoped he’d be back in before too long. At some point, while lost in jumbled thoughts of parents and dark forests and the boys on the other teams, he nodded off.

 

(more to follow in the future)

Double Nugget, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Electric Soup

1966. The decade was in full swing. Skirts grew shorter as hair grew longer. Some team or other won the World Cup. Bands were beginning to realise that there might be a bit of longevity in this fleeting thing called the music business after all. The album was at the point of becoming more important than the single. At the end of the summer The Beatles put out Revolver and played their last live show in front of a paying audience, turning their attentions instead to using studio technology to realise their artistic vision.

The Stones were just warming up though. Barely four years old, they were on a phenomenal run of records. In 1966 alone, they released their fourth album Aftermath and a run of half a dozen singles/EPs, all unique, all still instantly singable 55 years on; As Tears Go By, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Paint It, Black, Mother’s Little Helper, Lady Jane and, the cream of them all, September’s Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?

The Rolling StonesHave You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?

Riding in on a snarling lip curl of droning, wah-wahd Brian guitar, Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow? rattles along for two and a half frantic minutes, a downhill-without-the-brakes-on clash of badly recorded trumpets, thumping, divebombing bass and hard-to-hear percussion, welded for posterity to a rhythmic piano riff, all left hand and boogie woogie blues, and topped-off by one of Jagger’s more throat-ripping vocals, slightly too high a key perhaps, but one that all adds to the urgency.

Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow? was indeed an urgent record. Needing a new tune to premier on the Ed Sullivan Show, the track was commited to tape almost as soon as Jagger had jabbed the last full stop on his lyric sheet. If you could pick apart its constituent pieces you might be able to spot Bo Diddley maracas and handclaps, Keith’s clipped, staccato guitars fighting for earspace with Brian’s fuzzed-out proto-punk riffage, some rattling, brain-jangling electrics in the breakdown and a brass section that pre-dates the loose ‘n louche Exile On Main Street by a good few years.

There’s an awful lot going on in its electric soup, not least a nod and a wink to the American underground, a Nuggets for the mainstream if you may. Keith Richards hated the final mix. It was muddy, he said. The trumpets sounded raspy and far-off. The track’s original groovy rhythm was buried underneath a blanket of white noise and peripheral faff and yet…and yet…Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow? may well be the best Stones’ track of ’em all, Keith.

Take note of those Mick ‘n Keith call ‘n response vocals. Richards especially is having a ball. “I’m glad I opened your eye-eye-eye-eyes!” he goes, rhyming eyes with ice and time and fine on every other line, filling the spaces where the band pause for the briefest of respi-ay-ay-ites.

Charlie, always the backbone of the Stones, almost always a half beat behind the others but not on this record, makes the most of these mini-breaks, pausing for a nanosecond before driving the band home to its wonderful, widescreen, barre chorded end. You can practically see the impish Jones smirking from underneath that beautiful outgrown bowl cut, the devil making work for his less-than-idle hands as it plays out in reverbed slo-mo.

The next year would bring Let’s Spend The Night Together, Between The Buttons, drug busts, Ruby Tuesday, court cases, We Love You, Who Breaks A Butterfly On A Wheel?, Their Satanic Majesties Request…. It was quite the time to be a Rolling Stone.

It’s worth highlighting too the record’s b-side, a psychedelic barrelhouse blues number titled Who’s Driving Your Plane?

The Rolling StonesWho’s Driving Your Plane?

In it’s sloppy, midpaced booming fug, all emphasised vocals and eee-long-gated vowels, I can never hear this without imagining a hunched-up Shaun Ryder singing it. It’s all rather great, an underplayed hidden gem(Stone).

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 9

A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.

Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.

I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 9

 

 

The boys were sat in a classroom. It had all the regular features of the classrooms Connor had been in at school; smartboard on the wall, a dusty chalkboard beside it, a teacher’s desk angled in the corner to see both every face in the room and anyone who might appear at the door. Bookcases crammed with paperbacks and hardbacks, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, ran the length of the back wall. Various informative posters – ‘Is your brain left-sided or right-sided?’, ‘Vygotsky v Piaget: Learning Theories Explained’, ‘Motivation: Extrinsic or Intrinsic?’ were dotted around the walls. Unlike Connor’s (old) school, where the desks in his class were arranged into groups, the desks here were laid out individually; three columns and three rows, a knots-and-crosses grid with a space for every boy. Unusually, given the controlled way in which the boys had been kept apart until now, they were free to choose wherever they sat. At each desk was a thick notepad of paper, a tin pencil case, a sleek tablet and a set of headphones, the cables for them spaghetti-ing out over the edge. Despite being a classroom, the room still very much had the same clinical feel as the rest of Kimble.

At the smartboard was a small, eccentric man. Even before he had spoken Connor knew he wasn’t like anyone else he’d met since being here. Firstly, this man had a somewhat relaxed approach to personal grooming. Whereas the man and Cameron, and de la Cruz especially, had a clear daily routine of highly-maintained hair and sculpted eyebrows and wore immaculate clothes with razor-sharp creases, this man’s hair was a vertical shock of hard-wired grey; a stranger to both shower and shampoo. He bumbled back and forth with the undone hems of his loosely-hanging trousers trailing behind him. Half of his gingham-checked shirt was tucked into the waistband, the other half flapping unselfconsciously by his side. He wore a wide tie with a repeated image of Bugs Bunny on it, some of which was obscured by a dull stain that may a few months ago have been tomato ketchup or chocolate fudge cake. Over the top of his shirt he wore a lab coat that had been a brilliant, sterile white when he’d first worn it. The side pockets bulged lumpily with unknown contents. A pen poked out of the top pocket, a small inky blotch from an old pen still in evidence on the material underneath. An ID badge was clipped apologetically from the same pocket.

“Welcome, boys,” he said, peering over the top of small, round, rimless glasses. Connor was amazed to hear an American accent. He had expected a voice very much like Mr Szczęsny’s from back home. “My name is Professor Zimmerman but I don’t mind if you call me Arty. We’re all friends here.” He smiled sweetly at the boys. The tension in the room dropped a notch.

“We shall begin by introducing ourselves. Your first name, please, followed by the first thing you plan to do when you get out of here.”

He looked at each boy individually, nodding a welcome, putting them at ease. Zimmerman couldn’t have been any less like the other authoritative figures here.

Silence.

The professor smiled and stepped forward.

“I’ll start. I know you’re all thinking, ‘Oh gosh! I hope he doesn’t choose me first, because I don’t know what I plan to do when I get out of here,’ so maybe this will help. My name, as I’ve already told you, is Professor Arthur Zimmerman. Most everybody calls me Arty and that’s what I’d prefer you to call me too. When I get out of here, the first thing I plan to do is go back home – my real home in the States, not the place I currently live in while I’m working here – and take a hike into the woods, followed by a midnight dip in Lake Wanda. It’s a supremely refreshing way of washing off the dirt and grime of the day.”

He stopped, gauging the reaction. All nine boys leaned forwards at their desks, listening to everything he had to say. He had their full attention, not through fear like the man or George, but by being open and honest and friendly, three traits that were so far unusual at Kimble.

“Would anyone like to go next? I won’t put anyone on the spot.”

Connor’s mind raced with what he might say when it was his turn. He wasn’t one for going first though. He wanted to hear what others had to say, to make sure what he said didn’t sound out of place amongst the other answers. In the event it was Reilly who started things off.

“Hi. Yeah, my name’s Lewis Reilly and the first thing I’m going to do when I get out of here is pet my dog Jarvis.”

“Thank you for that, Lewis,” smiled Zimmerman. “Who would like to go next?”

“I will.” It was Burgess this time. “My name’s Alexander. When I get out of here, the first thing I plan to do is sleep.”

Zimmerman moved from front and centre and sat at his desk. He slid his chair back and put his scuffed shoes on the edge of the oak desk.

“Grayson, Mr…sorry….Professor….Zimmerman. The first thing I’ll do when this is over is buy the biggest pizza I can and then eat it all myself.”

By now, the room was charged. The boys who had still to speak were respectful of not butting in and were acutely aware of Zimmerman’s non-verbal cues. Although he sat in relaxed fashion, the professor wrote notes as each boy talked and it became the unspoken rule that no-one continued until his head lifted from the notebook he was scribbling in.

“Andy Fowler. Eh, Andy. When we get out of here, I’m going to play xBox online with my pals.”

Now that he had gauged the answers, Connor wanted to speak. He didn’t want to be last to do so either. There was always the chance that Zimmerman might ask a follow-up question.

Rhys got in before him.

“I’m Rhys. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is hug my mum and dad.” Rhys had said the first honest answer of all the boys.

Connor seized his chance.

“My name’s Connor. When I get out of here the first thing I plan to do is ask my mum to make me her chicken curry.” This wasn’t strictly true, but Connor hadn’t wanted to copy Rhys’s answer.

Alan and Stephen both now started speaking and in an unusually strong display of character, it was Alan who talked Stephen down. Once he had everyone’s full attention, he started again.

“I’m Randolph Alan but, please, just call me Alan. It’s what I prefer. When this is all over, I think I’m just gonna disappear for a while, maybe just vanish forever. They all hate me back there.”

At this, Zimmerman stopped writing, lifted his feet from the desk and sat upright in his swivel chair. The boys watched as he leaned his elbows in front of him and brought his hands up, cupping them and allowing his chin to rest between them. He peered over the tops of his glasses again.

“Interesting, Alan. Interesting.”

The professor returned to his notebook, scribbling noisily. The scratching from his pencil was the only noise in the room. The boys either side of Alan – Reilly and Harrison, drew him a surprised look then returned their gaze to Zimmerman. He looked calmly at them, silently allowing the next boy to speak.

Stephen spoke next.

“I’m Stephen, but you can call me ‘Hasthtag le gingembre!’ Stephen followed his opening remark with a little snorted laugh. “When I get out of here…” he looked around knowingly, gurning at the others, “The first thing I’m going to do is have a party and invite all the girls who’ve been messaging me since I got here. Har har har har!”

He snorted alone into the silent space around him. Connor cringed. He was sure he wasn’t the only one. The professor allowed the last of the guffaws to peter out and indicated that the next boy should speak. Silence followed. He ran the sharpened point of the pencil down his page of notes.

“Let’s see…six, seven, eight…yes, we have one more still to go. Who shall it be?”

Zimmerman looked directly at Harrison and smiled. Harrison leaned back at his desk, one arm draped behind his chair, his legs crossed and stretched out to the side in front of him. He pulled what was almost a sneer from his curled lip then sniffed, wiped his nose absent-mindedly on the back of his hand and maintained gazing somewhere into the middle-distance.

“And what is your name, sir?” Zimmerman squinted from his desk to Harrison, trying to read his name tag on the front of his shirt. Either he was too far away, or his eyesight was too weak, or a mixture of both, for Zimmerman was unable to make out what the white blur said.

Silence still.

Reilly and Alan looked across their row to Harrison, who failed to acknowledge them. He continued staring beyond the ends of his feet at the floor. Zimmerman by now had stood up and was walking between the desks. He arrived at Harrison and read his shirt.

“Mr Harrison. Pleased to meet your acquaintance. And does Mr Harrison have a first name, by chance? Or is your name really Harrison 3?”

There was a muffled snigger from somewhere at the back. Harrison steadfastly ignored him and it.

“Or does Mr Harrison perhaps have an idea of what he’d like to do first once all of this is over?”

Silence still.

You had to admire Harrison’s steel. Zimmerman seemed nice enough, but only an idiot wouldn’t think this whole scene wasn’t playing out on a screen behind a wall somewhere else within the building. Connor, still smarting from his meeting with the man at lunchtime, found himself wishing, hoping that it would be Harrison, with his petted lip and stupid haircut who next felt his wrath.

Zimmerman was back at the smartboard. He tapped at a keyboard and ‘The Elements’ logo spun forebodingly on the screen.

“Boys. You and I will see a lot of each other over the next weeks and months. We will meet here every afternoon. In this classroom we will work on your mindset, on building positivity in each of you, on making you the best person you can be. There’ll be some lectures where you will be encouraged to take notes. There’ll be some practical group activities where you will be expected to contribute to the success of the task that is set. There’ll be individual tasks where you will be pushed to your limit, challenged to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. All of this will help you approach ‘The Elements’ in the best possible mental state. Do any of you have any questions just now? I appreciate all of this is new to you, so I’m happy to answer anything I can as we go on.”

He paused.

“No questions?”

The room was silent again. Calm.

“Okay. Well if anything jumps to mind as we’re working, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Turning his back to the boys Zimmerman scribbled on the chalkboard. A website, a user ID and a generic password were scrawled in spidery white-chalked letters.

“Boys. Please open the laptop on your desk and access this website. When prompted to sign in, use the information I’ve given you here. After that you will have the option to choose your own username and password. It’s important you do. We’ll be doing a little IQ test. Nothing scary, certainly nothing to worry about. We’d like to measure your intelligence as you progress through ‘The Elements’. We fully expect that, as your body gets fitter and stronger, so too will your mind.”

Lab rats’ thought Connor. ‘That’s all we are to them. Cheap entertainment for the masses and a scientific experiment for everyone else.’

Connor logged on, followed the instruction and found himself at an Elements-branded website. In the centre of the screen pulsed a huge cartoon brain. Multi-coloured mechanical cogs, lightbulbs and question marks expanded, shrunk and expanded again inside it. A button read ‘Take IQ test now’ and was begging to be pressed. Connor resisted temptation until Zimmerman had given them the go-ahead to do so.

“Are we all in, yes? Andy? Stephen? Lewis?”

The boys nodded in affirmation.

“Alan?”

“Just about….” There followed a quiet, forceful tapping as his forefinger prodded the relevant information onwards and he gave a definitive thumbs up towards Zimmerman.

“Everybody else? Connor? Rhys? Mr Harrison?”

Harrison failed to acknowledge Zimmerman’s response again. Zimmerman waited, smiling. Harrison sat in standoffish silence. A small amount of tension crept into the room and licked around the boys’ shoulders. Rhys peered across to Harrison’s desk. He could see the same cartoon brain on Harrison’s screen. Zimmerman waited, still smiling. Rhys was desperate for Zimmerman to look at him, so that he could signal that Harrison was in fact logged in and the atmosphere in the room could return to normal. The others were unsure of what to do, but no one pressed the button on their screen. Zimmerman spoke.

“If you have successfully logged in and can see this screen…” The professor clicked a mouse and the Elements logo gave way to the cartoon brain. “…feel free to begin when you feel ready. Answer each question as best you can and take as long as you need. There is no time limit on this.”

As he finished, fingers began stabbing at touchscreens and at least eight of the boys busied themselves with the task in hand.

The screen looked confusing at first, with a series of coloured boxes, all containing lines, shapes and dots inside, laid out in three rows of three. The last box in each question was blank and Connor was asked to click one of four possible options that would complete the pattern. Once the answer was submitted, a new puzzle appeared. It took Connor a handful of seconds to make sense of it all and, after his initial bewilderment, he was able to click through the first few quite rapidly. As he progressed, the logic behind each answer became harder to work out. The coloured boxes gave way to number sequences, which in turn gave way to number calculations involving ratios and percentages, which in turn gave way to a set of dials and arrows that required to be mentally rotated before the correct answer from the four options became clear. At one or two of them, Connor ended up guessing an answer, hoping that he’d done enough in the rest of the test to offset any wrong answer here.

After twenty questions, there was a 5-minute break where Connor was encouraged to put on the headset. A short, unrecognisable piece of classical music played soothingly and once finished, the laptop’s screen instructed him to continue.

The assessment changed from number logic to word logic. A series of word substitution and word recognition diagnostics followed. As before, these began easily enough but rapidly became challenging and, eventually at the last two or three, impossible, when Connor found himself guessing the answers. Once finished he was instructed to take another short break with the headphones again. This time, the familiar sweep of a Vivalidi tune filled his head. It might have been from the Four Seasons, Connor couldn’t quite remember, but he could see himself back in his art class, working his oil pastels into a good-quality piece of cartridge paper, Mrs Scott offering up encouragement at his side.

Connor was brought back to the present when the music stopped and Zimmerman’s voice cut in. Looking up, Connor could see the professor was talking into a small microphone connected to his own laptop.

“Boys, I don’t really expect many, any of you to have finished….but has anyone finished already?”

Connor thought he might have been until he noticed a third set of puzzles on the screen in front of him. The music had made his mind drift to the point where he hadn’t been aware of the laptop screen changing. He looked around. The other boys, even Harrison, were giving Zimmerman their full attention. It looked as though no-one had finished.

“If you’d like a longer break between sessions, please feel free to take something from the library at the back. There’re all sorts of books in there – classics, new fiction, explanatory manuals, comic books, there’s something for everyone. I don’t mind if you want to take a time-out from the online stuff. It can be tiring on the eyes as well as the brain. I don’t mind too if you’d rather just get on with it until you’re complete. There are four sessions in total, so that should give you an idea of how much you still have to go.”

Zimmerman pushed the microphone away from himself and went back to whatever it was he was doing. One by one the boys’ heads focused once more on the screens in front. No-one seemed brave enough to stop for a time-out just yet.

The next session facing Connor was a series of reaction tests. A traffic light sequence appeared, and Connor had 10 rounds at clicking a button as soon as it turned to red. At the end, an average speed of his reactions was calculated. Connor’s average was 0.3344 of a second. He had no idea if this was a good score or not. Next the whole screen went black. He had to click the mouse as soon as the screen turned white. Again, he did this ten times and again he was given an average time. The tests continued; stop the speeding ball in the middle of the circle, click when the number 9 appears, click when the sun turns into the moon, all sorts of fairly random stuff that generated an average time after each one.

The session concluded with another short dose of classical music on the headphones, designed to relax the participant before the final round.

The last test was something called the Harrower-Erickson Rorschach Test. Connor was shown a symmetrical image, similar to the effect of a piece of paper with a grey blob of paint on it being folded in half to leave a mirror print of the blob. The image on the screen  looked a bit like a bat with thin, narrow wings spreading out from its sides. It also looked a bit like two mice dancing face to face, their tails curling out behind them. ‘Memorise the given image’ the screen said and when the next page was opened, 10 options appeared. ‘Choose what would be the best description of the image you just saw and mark it in the column “1st”. If there is a second description that fits well too, mark it in the column “2nd”.

For the first image, Connor selected ‘bat’ as the best description and, for a second description, ‘mice.’ The other options – ‘x-ray image’, ‘human skull’ and ‘bear’, amongst others, seemed like strange options to him. Once submitted, a new image appeared. Connor studied it, clicked to turn the page and selected ‘flower’ and ‘ladies dancing’ from the next set of options. Once he’d submitted his answers, another image appeared. Connor did this multiple times, clicking on variations of ‘dancers’, ‘rats’, ‘flowers’ and ‘x-ray images’ until all images had been viewed and compared. Finally, the test was complete.

Connor was unaware that he was stretching and yawning until the professor spoke to him.

“Connor, I imagine you have finished by now, yes?”

Connor nodded, slightly embarrassed that Zimmerman had caught him yawning. This class was anything but boring.

“It can be very tiring, staring at that screen for so long. Why don’t you join some of the others in some light reading to help you unwind.”

Connor looked around and was surprised to see a few of the other boys already bent over books and magazines at their desks. He’d been so wrapped up in the testing, he’d failed to notice others finishing around him. Amongst the readers was Harrison, who sat engrossed in a big book.

Connor flicked through the bookcases at the back of the room. The professor had been right – it was a well-stocked library. Connor came to the magazine section and rustled through the shelves until he’d found something which caught his fancy. He went back to his chair and read quietly until Zimmerman broke the silence thirty or so minutes later.

“Boys. I believe we have all finished the testing. It wasn’t so bad, was it? I can see from my laptop that everyone completed every section, so well done for your attempts. Your answers will now be analysed by my team and myself and recorded for our records. We will have your individual scores ready within the hour. Until then you may choose to continue reading or, if you wish, you may use the laptop to visit your social media profiles and update your status and suchlike. I know how important these things are to the success or otherwise of your time here.”

At that, every boy discarded their reading material and started tapping away again on the touchscreens in front of them. Connor couldn’t believe his luck. His phone might be with the man right now, but he’d be able to access all his accounts from here. He was already formulating his next status update in his head as he typed in the detail required to access his ‘Elements’ account.

‘Hi everyone,’ he would write. ‘I’m having phone issues right now, so I’m probably not going to be as active on here as I’d like to be.’

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

The message across the screen was bold, blunt and not in the least expected. Connor stared at the words in front of him. Well, of course his account was suspended! The man was always one step ahead of everyone. He’d probably suspended Connor’s account even before he’d demanded his phone from him earlier on. Fruitlessly – maybe he’d entered incorrect details, he tried to convince himself – Connor re-entered the information and tried again.

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

He tried Olé.

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

He tried Babble.

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

Connor felt a surging mix of shame and anger rise in him. He looked around. Everyone else was hunched over their laptops. They were online, updating statuses, cropping and editing selfies, creating memes, adding pictures of themselves from this very room, interacting with the only people who could save them. Connor was locked out of the party.

Somewhere nearby, in a room the boys would never know about, the man sat back in his swivel chair, staring with interest at the LCD monitor showing pictures of the boys in Zimmerman’s classroom. He clicked a mouse and a close-up of Connor’s upset face filled the screen. The man smirked, quiet satisfaction etched on his face, Cameron and the three girls at his back.

Back in the classroom, Zimmerman spoke to Connor.

“Connor. Problem?”

“Yeah. No.”

“Come speak to me.” The professor pulled a chair to the side of his desk and beckoned Connor to sit.

“What’s the problem, Connor? I watched you becoming quite upset there. How can I help you?”

“It’s nothing,” said Connor unconvincingly. “It’s just….my phone was confiscated earlier on and when I tried to log into my accounts, they were all blocked.”

“I see,” said Zimmerman with a quiet nod.

“So, I can’t get online to update anything or share a picture or reply to comments. Right now, I don’t exist. Everyone else is gaining popularity and followers and I’m quickly being forgotten about.”

“Hmmm,” pondered the professor. “May I ask why your phone was taken from you?”

“I was caught texting my mum. I tried to call her too. That man, whatever his name is, he took it from me at lunchtime. I don’t know when I’ll get it back….if I’ll get it back.”

“That seems quite harsh punishment, given the circumstances. However, he makes the rules. You must earn his respect and trust that he returns your phone quickly.”

“But what do I do until then? I can’t get online to say things, see things, share things.”

“As hard as it may seem,” said the man, “you must accept this. You cannot change what has happened. You can only learn from it and use it to make you a stronger person. We must find positives in even the most negative of circumstance. Remember that.”

The professor looked at Connor with a smile and finished.

“I must get back to these results. May I suggest you continue reading for a few more minutes and shortly, class will be finished.”

“Thanks Professor Zimmerman.”

“Arty, please.”

“Thanks, Arty.”

Connor returned to his desk feeling no less sorry for himself, but a bit more enlightened for having had the one-to-one conversation with Zimmerman. He flicked distractedly through the magazine in front of him, all the time aware that those around him were gaining valuable headway over him online.

A short while later, Arty asked the boys to stop what they were doing, to log off and power down, to return any reading material back to the shelf where they got it. This they did with no complaints or fuss. Within 30 seconds of speaking to the class, every boy had a tidy desk and, Harrison included, a posture that told the professor they were ready for what he had to say.

“Boys. Your results are in and analysed. They make for interesting reading. It would be unfair of me to share your results with your peers so, shortly, I will make the point of giving you your scores individually.”

Somewhere nearby, in the room the boys would never know about, the man stood up to leave.

“Before I do this, I’d like to explain some things. The IQ test that you began with sets a baseline score of your intelligence quotient. We will use this baseline to plot your intelligence as ‘The Elements’ progresses. What we hope to find is an upwards curve as everyone’s brain adapts and grows to the challenges faced.”

The man, followed by Cameron and the three girls, walked quickly and purposefully through the stark white corridors.

“An average IQ score is usually around 100, so anyone scoring above that will be considered above average. Within this group, I’d expect maybe 2 or 3 of you to score over 100. Perhaps 1 or 2 of you will score less than 100 too. That is nothing to concern yourself with for the moment. What I will say though is…”

There was a brief rap on the door and the man entered, Cameron immediately behind him. The three girls loitered at the door until the man told them to come in. Suddenly the classroom felt smaller.

“Professor Zimmerman. Contestants.” The man took control of the room. “Cameron, girls, please find a seat, thank you.”

Zimmerman looked first at the man, then the girls as they sat down, then Cameron, then the boys, then back to the man. He was not impressed.

“Afternoon sir,” he said. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

The man ignored him to an extent and tapped a login on the laptop. The screen changed and a spreadsheet of data appeared.

“Contestants. These, I believe, are your test results from this afternoon. Now, I’m no data expert, but from what I can tell, I’d say we have some pretty smart contestants here, and a few that have more than a little way to go to meet the standard required.”

Zimmerman visibly bristled at his desk.

The man continued.

“Let’s see.” Tap, tap, tap. “Yes! Mr Harrison. I believe you are our top scorer! How interesting! IQ of 118! Excellent analyst although emotionally unstable. Sociopathic. Unreliable. Your Rorschach test was quite the thing.”

Zimmerman stood up, leaning at his desk.

“Sir, this is highly unethical.”

The man ignored him and continued.

“And Mr Alan. Who’d have known?  IQ of 116. Expert logician. Also emotionally unstable. Antagonistic. There are some serious issues you need to overcome.”

“SIR! PLEASE! ENOUGH!”

The man turned ninety degrees to look at Zimmerman. The atmosphere in the room, already rapidly cooling, was now positively cold.

“Sir.” Zimmerman caught his breath before continuing. “Sharing this information can have untold detrimental psychological and emotional effects on the individuals. I ask you to consider this.”

The man turned to face the boys. He continued speaking.

“Mr Campbell. The scientist. IQ of 112. Methodical. Precise. Slight schizophrenic tendencies.”

There was a clatter at Zimmerman’s desk and a jarring scrape as his chair was pushed behind him. Zimmerman was up and out. He pushed past the man, an unruly mess of outraged hair and lab coat tails following him out of the room.

The boys watched on in awkward silence. Connor felt for Zimmerman. In the professor, he thought, lay something of an ally against the man, but now he saw that Zimmerman was no more powerful than the boys themselves. At the front of the class, the man continued speaking.

“McPherson. Dear oh dear oh dear! Narcissistic. Highly sociopathic. IQ 85. Work to be done, there I’d say. Fowler. IQ 92….less than average…” Tap, tap, tap. “…emotionally unstable.” The man raised his eyes towards Fowler, who sat shame-faced at his desk. He continued tapping and muttering to himself. “Burgess…98. Inflated ego. Stewart…109. Attachment issues. Anderson…100. Slight neuroticism. Reilly…100. Jealous, insecure.”

He looked at the boys, eyeballing them the way he had done in the gravel car park on the first day.

“Quite a lot of work to be done, eh? What’s that phrase? ‘No-one’s perfect’. Well, that’s certainly plain to see. You all have much to learn before we start properly.”

He looked at Cameron, who rose immediately from his chair.

“Girls!”

As one, the three girls stood.

“Accompany the boys back to their rooms. You may have some R&R time, contestants, but please be ready for evening meal at 1800 hours. Thank you.”

With that, the man and Cameron left, perhaps on the war path for Zimmerman, perhaps to take some R&R time for themselves.

 

(more to follow in the future)

 

Get This!, Hard-to-find, New! Now!

Non-Rock, Non-Roll

One-man/one-woman bands tend to be easy to pigeonhole; talented multi-instrumentalist + laptop x headful of ideas = nattily-produced, hastily-manufactured, self-financed album, a bit scuffed at the knees, perhaps, a bit frayed at the elbows maybe, the rough charm grudgingly accepted as part of the deal. ‘Hey! I’m on my own here! I don’t have a record company behind me, I can’t make money from gigging and I just want to get my songs out there.’ We’ve all heard these musicians, more than ever in the current climate, earnestly bashing out their cottage industry wares into an overcrowded ocean of flotsam and jetsam for whoever happens to pass along at the right time. It’s admirable to the point of lunacy.

I’m not alone in this. Every second post on here since the turn of the year is another chapter in my own ‘book seeks publisher‘ serialisation of an admittedly flawed young adult novel. The irony of my opening statement is not lost on me. Fail we may, sail we must, as a great philosopher once said.

Blowing the preconception of the one man band clean out of the overcrowded water is Andrew Wasylyk. The nom de plume of Andrew Mitchell, sometime Idlewild bass player and guitarist/vocalist in Dundonian four piece The Hazey Janes, Wasylyk is a supremely talented individual. The Hazey Janes’ neat way with a twisted melody and an Americana-tinged acoustic arrangement has found favour in all the right places, yet despite tours with artists as disparate and massive as Wilco and Deacon Blue, the group never quite made the leap to the next level that might have been expected of them, and by them. Not that Andrew seems to mind.

For the past few years, Wasylyk has quietly gone about working on a loose triptych of gorgeous, free-flowing instrumental albums that study the themes of architecture, the Scottish coastline and the light on the land. Unlike anything remotely connected to his two bands above, these albums meander between neo-classicism, library music, sophisto-jazz and the off-kilter filmic soundscapes of David Axelrod. The most recent release, 2020’s Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation was 6 Music’s Gideon Coe’s album of the year and, had I discovered it at the time of release, would very likely have been one of mine too.

The album was promoted through the second track, Last Sunbeams Of Childhood, an evocative title that is reflected in the pastoral groove within.

Wobbly Fender Rhodes, staccato bass and rippling jazz guitar ease you in on top of a soundbed of far-off playground shouts. Wandering saxophone and honeyed, textured brass add the requiste colour before the breakdown and the low-in-the-mix, wordless, chanting female backing vocals that elevate from somewhere below the surface. Layer upon layer of non-rock upon non-roll, it’s lovely, somewhere between Colin Tully’s Gregory’s Girl soundtrack and the orchestral sections in Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly score.

Save string arrangements from long-term collaborator Pete Harvey, it appears that Andrew Wasylyk has performed everything on the album himself. I mean, wow! Surely not?! This would elevate him immediately to Stevie Wonder levels of prodigiousness. Oboe, harp, flugelhorn (?), drums and percussion swirl around his cascading guitar and multi-layered pianos, adding light and shade, melody and counter-melody to what is a modern day, stone cold classic in its field, with nary a scuffed knee nor frayed elbow in sight.

Really, it’s great. Such was Wasylyk’s and his label’s (Athens of the North) limited expectations, both vinyl and CD are currently out of print, but I’d imagine a repress is very much in the works. Keep your eyes and ears peeled. I know mine are.

Support Andrew Wasylyk via Bandcamp

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 8

A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.

Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.

I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 8

 

It was the clarinets or oboes (he could never tell them apart) that stirred Connor from his slumber. He recognised them straight away. Igor Stravinksy’s Rite Of Spring. He’d a teacher at school who played classical music during art lessons and while they drew or painted, the teacher, Mrs Scott, used to give them little informal lessons on the music that was soundtracking their scribbles. Rite Of Spring was one of the most-recorded pieces in classical music, she’d said. Stravinsky had denied it, but he’d stolen much of the melody from traditional Russian folk music. It wasn’t Connor’s favourite piece of classical music, but today, with its familiar dissonant jarring and wonky time signature, it brought him alive and well into the new day.

“Good morning Connor Stewart. It’s 6.30am. Please be ready for 7.15 prompt. You must wear your combat layers and trousers today. You may select your own choice of footwear.”

Connor rolled over and was aware of something hard at his shoulder blade. He reached underneath the blanket and pulled out his mobile phone. He was brought fully awake by the notification of three missed calls from his mum. Annoyed with himself, he checked the details.  She’d called at 10.16pm, 10.19pm and 10.28pm. He’d slept through every one of them. There was a text too.

Hi Connor,’ it read. ‘Pick up your phone! Dad and I are so happy to hear from you. We’ve been watching you on YouTube. You’ve had your hair cut! It suits you. I wish you’d answer your phone so we could hear your voice. We’re missing you. Give us a call when you get the chance. Love you, mum and dad xx

Connor was kicking himself for falling asleep so quickly. With some alarm, he noticed too that his battery was severely undercharged. He’d fallen asleep without plugging his phone in. He hoped he wouldn’t regret this error. He briefly considered sending a text but his conscience got the better of him. He’d ask Pamela later about phoning home. So far, she’d seemed approachable and reasonable.

In a mood, he set his phone to airplane mode – it charged faster this way, right? – showered and dressed, putting on his new ankle-height boots, fixed his hair and prepared for what would be another interesting day at Kimble.

When Pamela rapped on his door at 7.15, he tried not to let his foul mood show.

“Hey hey hey!” she beamed, flashing one of her polar white smiles.

“Hiya Pamela, hiya Stephen,” replied Connor. “Gimme a sec.” Connor unplugged the barely half-charged phone and stuck it in his pocket before joining the other two and Rhys as they squeaked along the corridor towards the dining area. As the four sat down, the man and Cameron made their presence known at the front of the room.

“Good morning contestants.”

Connor picked up the subtle change in vocabulary. Until now, the man had referred to them as ‘boys’.

“Today is the first day of training. It will be intense. It will push many of you beyond your limits. Please, encourage and motivate your team-mates. They will appreciate all the encouragement they get and you will too. Training will take the form of two parts; physical and mental. You will undertake the physical training first, so it is important to eat a full breakfast. You will need energy to carry you through until lunchtime. Enjoy this hour, contestants. I expect it might be the only hour of the day that you do enjoy.”

With that, the man and Cameron sat at a table far away from everyone else and started spreading their toast.

Already in a stinking mood, this was the last thing Connor needed to hear. He ate sullenly. The conversation flowed around him, excited chatter involving Babble messages and hashtags and memes and the likes. Stephen was clearly the most popular of the three but Rhys either couldn’t see this or wouldn’t concede to the fact. In his funk this morning, Connor hadn’t even checked any of his accounts. He briefly worried if this might’ve been an error on his part before quickly checking himself for being so caught up in the game. He stared at the table, his toast going cold and limp in his hand.

“Are you OK, Connor?” asked Pamela, genuine concern in her voice.

He looked up, his toast bending unappealingly.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just a little homesick, I think.” Seizing the opportunity, he asked, “When are we allowed to call home? I’d like to check in with my mum and dad if I can.”

Pamela smiled. “Soon, Connor, soon.” Looking at his toast she added, “Now, eat! Make sure you have the energy required for the day ahead. You heard the man. It’s going to be a full-on day. Stephen! Rhys! Make sure you fill up too!” The subject had been changed.

Full-up, they followed Pamela into another new room. It was large and square, its bare concrete walls painted with a watery whitewash. Wooden benches ran around three of the sides. Behind a jutting part of wall at the far end was, Connor presumed, the shower block. On one of the walls was a large, old-fashioned black board, currently blank. On the wall facing it was a large, lifeless flat-screen TV. In the corner at the far end was a pair of closed red doors, next to them the same metal key-pad that was on each of the boy’s own doors. The boys stayed in their groups of three, uneasy and unsure of what to expect. No one sat. Connor, still in a mood, studied the other boys. Grayson was his normal relaxed self, laughing at something Fowler was saying to him. Alan looked worried. Drawn and insular, his clothes were ill-fitting, and with nowhere to hide in this room, he appeared self-conscious. One or two of the others were doing basic stretches, bringing their heels up to their buttocks and the likes. Most of the boys though stood around awkwardly, checking the zips on their combat trousers or trying not to catch the eye of anyone else.

Harrison was different. He stood out, and not just because of his hair. He was like a caged animal straining at the leash. His head and chin jutted forwards and backwards with jerky nervousness, the cords on his neck lean and prominent. He wasn’t wearing layers like the others. With his t-shirt tucked tightly into his trousers Connor could see he was athletic. His eyes ablaze with determination, he looked this way and that, eager for something to happen. He settled on tightly tying and re-tying the laces on his boots. Was he chewing gum? It looked like it, even if Connor couldn’t remember seeing gum in the vending machine. Boots tied to his satisfaction, Harrison jumped up and down on the spot, exhaling loudly and quickly with each jump, expelling some of the nervous energy that was flowing through him. Harrison was clearly ready to go, almost possessed.

Cameron entered behind them and spoke.

“Good morning everyone.”

Given the authority he carried, his thin, child-like voice seemed very out of place.

“This is the changing area. This room will become very familiar to you over the course of ‘The Elements’. During training, you will meet here after breakfast every day. You will have a briefing with the coaches who will then lead you through that morning’s physical activities.”

He smiled knowingly.

“I hope you are prepared for our first session.”

The man entered next. His voice alerted the room to his arrival.

“Thank you, Cameron. Apologies, contestants, for my tardy arrival.”

Beside the man stood someone new. A triangular mountain of physical presence, he was at least six and a half feet tall. Dressed head to toe in military green and wearing the same ankle-height boots as Connor, he cut a totally imposing figure. His shoulders were broad and powerful. Muscles bulged in all directions. A whistle hung around his neck and lay flat, small against his massive chest. At the top of his left arm, just below the sleeve of his khaki t-shirt, Connor spotted a faded tattoo, an eagle in flight, its talons stretched out like jagged knives. Above it was a flag or a ribbon, inside which something was inscribed in Latin. At the top of his right leg, strapped and concealed in a holster was a gun or a pistol of some sort, its dull wooden handle poking out the giveaway. The man, the most powerful person at Kimble, the one everyone was afraid of, looked small and insignificant beside him.

This was theatre. The man had been intentionally late. It was all ceremony for the benefit of the TV. Right now, hidden cameras were picking out the boys with the most visual reactions to this giant of a man, hidden microphones recording the supressed gasps and mild swearing.

“Contestants. This is George. George is ex-military. He has served your country in Afghanistan, Syria and the Gulf. He has seen things….done things……that I hope you never need to experience. He is trained in the arts of combat and survival and right now is the most important person at Kimble. Do as he says and he will help you develop and improve as a person.”

The man didn’t need to continue speaking, but for the benefit of the TV ratings he did.

“Do otherwise, cross him, defy him, disobey him…. and George has my authority to punish you as he sees fit. Am I clear, contestants?”

A murmur of affirmation rose from the nine boys.

George stared at each boy individually, sussing them out. He recognised the ones with the guile to see this through, the ones who’d do well. He wasn’t interested in them for now. He’d break them later. He looked Alan up and down with contempt. Flared his nostrils at Reilly. Stared for longer than necessary at Stephen’s haircut. He knew the ones who’d give up, answer back, quit. He could tell that number 3 was worth keeping an eye on but he knew too from experience that the most difficult of recruits could also be the most changeable.

George spoke.

“Contestants. Let’s get this clear from the start. I don’t like petty criminals. I can’t stand teenage waywardness. And I absolutely abhor disregard for society’s rules and standards. You lot,” he stared at each of them individually, “are petty criminals, am I right? You are all wayward teenagers, is that correct?”

Connor would not be thirteen for a couple of months yet, but this wasn’t the time to bring that technicality up.

“And none of you what-so-ever has any regard AT ALL for how we should conduct ourselves in society. Am I right again?”

He paused then continued speaking in a patronising sing-song voice.

“Yes George, you’re right George.”

He leaned towards them and stared the boys down, the whites of his eyes growing visibly larger, the cords on his neck making Harrisons seem like fine thread by comparison.

He spoke again, daring them not to speak.

“Yes George, you’re right George,” he sing-songed again, staring wildly at the boys.

“Yes George, you’re right George,” came the muted, fumbled reply.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yes George, you’re right George,” the boys answered again, louder this time, but loose and not together.

“WOT?!?”

“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!” the boys shouted in unison.

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

“YES GEORGE!!! YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!!!”

The boys shouted louder, throats tearing, the walls vibrating. The man stood to the side, arms folded and smiled his smile.

George looked at the boys, this non-verbal action enough of a cue to silence them.

“Right. Now that we’ve established that George is always right, we will always listen to what George has to say, because whatever George has to say is the most important thing you need to hear, isn’t that so? ”

“Yes,” came the half-hearted reply from two or three of the boys.

“I THOUGHT WE’D JUST GONE OVER THIS YOU IDIOTS!”

The group of boys visibly shrunk. Connor gulped and spoke up. “Yes George, you’re right George.”

George turned his attention towards Connor.

“Oh look, everybody! We’ve got a right little teacher’s pet here!” George let that hang in the air. Connor squirmed. Every boy looked at the linoleum floor.

“…but I like teacher’s pets. Thank you for answering correctly…” George looked at Connor’s shirt. “…Stewart. I need more students like you in my class.”

Connor regretted speaking. He was on the good side of the coach, but had now isolated himself – or, at least, George had isolated him – from the rest of the boys. Divide and conquer. The oldest army trick in the book.

George addressed the group once more.

“My job here is to make you fit and ready to participate in ‘The Elements’. Do as I ask and you will become as fit as a finely-tuned athlete. The physical strength needed to take part in this competition cannot be underestimated, am I right?”

“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!”

“You want to be the very best you can be, am I right?”

“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!”

“Work hard, stay focused and push yourself beyond your limits and you will succeed. AM I RIGHT?!?”

“YES GEORGE!!! YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!!!”

Grinning, hands on hips, George lowered his voice.

“Then let’s go!”

The boys parted to allow George to pass. He punched a code into the door and it opened outwards. The boys followed behind, with Cameron and the man at the back.

They stood in a field, bordered on all sides by low hedges. In the background were tall trees and hills. No landmarks or scenery gave Connor any clues as to where they might be. Laid out in the middle of the field was all manner of exercise ephemera; medicine balls, wooden boxes of different heights, cones and markers, skipping ropes and boxing gloves. At the far end of the field there was a tall wooden wall with three coloured ropes hanging from the side. In the middle of the field stood a tower, also wooden, with a pointed roof covering what appeared to be a small viewing gallery.

The boys surveyed the scene with trepidation, standing in a rough semi-circle in front of George. There was a slight breeze which made Connor feel cold despite the blue skies overhead. He was aware of his shorts flapping coldly around his thighs. The sun in their eyes made the boys squint slightly as George spoke to them.

“We’ll take it easy to begin with,” he smiled, swinging his whistle in his hand. “We’ll do a little warm up. A lap of the field. Just a light jog, nothing fast. You! Number 9! Teacher’s pet!”

Connor’s stomach dropped again.

“Take the front. Lead your team for a lap. No one breaks out, no one gets left behind. You start as a team and you finish as a team. Let’s go!”

Connor looked at the others who stared back at him indifferently. He ran off in an anti-clockwise direction, closely followed by the other eight boys. By the time they’d reached the first corner, some of the boys were already panting quite heavily. The group was quite tightly packed and travelling as one. Then there was a bit of a disturbance just behind him. Connor lost his footing, recovered, felt an elbow in his side and conceded the front to Harrison who’d bulldozed his way through the pack. By the second turn, Harrison had kicked ahead, a cloud of pollinated grassy dust puffing up with each pounding step. The boys were no longer a pack and they were beginning to thin out into a stretched line. On either side of Connor were Grayson and Reilly. Number 6, Burgess, was just ahead of him. The wind was in their faces now as they ran along the back straight. Connor could hear George’s shouts carried by the breeze across the field, but it was impossible to make out what he was saying. Harrison was far ahead now, already rounding the third corner of the field, followed closely by his brown cloud of dust. Further back, the boys had stretched out in an ever-thinning line. By the time Connor and the boys around him had reached the third corner, Harrison was in the home straight, 50 or so metres from where George stood, still shouting. As they headed into the last corner, Connor could see Harrison, hands on hips, pacing back and forth at the end of his lap. Grayson now chose to push. He eased his way past the frontrunners. Steady, measured breathing and a strong kick ensured he was able to pull away, first from Connor and Reilly, then gliding past Burgess, the distance between him and the others widening. The pack crossed the line half a dozen seconds behind Grayson who lay on his back, legs bent at the knees, hands behind his ears, panting and coughing. A few of the others flopped to the ground. Connor stayed standing, his chest ready to cave in, his wheezy breath taking an eternity to return to normal. In the distance, not yet at the third corner, was Alan. He walked, hands by his side, with no urgency in the slightest.

George was straight over and in Connor’s face.

“You were told to lead from the front! Let no-one break out! Start as a team and finish as a team, that’s what I said!”

Connor could feel flecks of George’s spittle coat his hot cheeks. It was quite cooling in the circumstances.

“You let your team fall apart, didn’t you?”

Connor, still trying to control his breathing, looked up at the coach. He looked at the other boys who, realising George’s mood, had begun to stand. Harrison stood off to the side, hands still on hips, a cool spray of sweat coating the brow beneath his still-gelled spike. George leaned even closer to Connor.

“Let’s try it again, shall we?”

Connor groaned internally. He wasn’t certain that some of his groan hadn’t made it out of his mouth. He looked up at George. Surely he was joking. He wasn’t.

“Round up your team – even fat boy there – and get them going again. No one breaks out, no one gets left behind. You start as a team and you finish as a team.” Turning, he shaded his eyes and looked in Alan’s direction. Alan was still to reach the final bend.

“You! Fat boy! Move!”

Alan broke into an approximation of a jog. He was slow. Bits of him jiggled comically but under the circumstances no-one laughed. Connor felt for him. They all watched in pained impatience as he wobbled his way towards them, his purple face twisted in agony.

“Shift it, fatty!” George turned to the boys again. “What’s this girl’s name?”

“Alan, sir,” came the staggered reply.

“ALAN! GET HERE NOW!”

Alan arrived, his steps short and useless, his toes leading first and into the ground. His arms were bent thin at the elbows, his hands up by his neck. His layer had pulled up and a wobbling white belly rippled nakedly above his shorts. His hair was stuck to his face and neck. He wheezed. He said something. He fell.

“DON’T STOP, SON!” shouted George. “WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN! GET UP!”

Alan looked up from his position on the grass. He couldn’t speak, his eyes doing all his communicating.

“GET UP YOU LAZY CHUNK! ALAN! SEVEN! SHIFT!”

Clumsily, Alan forced himself to his feet again. He was not in a good shape.

“There you go, see? A little bit of encouragement is all you needed.” George addressed the group. “We go again. Stewart leads. We stay together for the whole lap.”

Connor looked at the boys. They were as unwilling to do a second lap as he was. Connor looked at Alan.

“I can’t do it, mate,” he said between heavy breaths. “I can’t”

“You can’t do it, yet, mate,” said Connor. “But we’ll get you through it. Come on.” Connor stood, waiting. Alan shook himself down, patted his chest and with glacial pace joined the others who stood together.

Slower this time, Connor set off. Alan was already falling behind so Connor slowed even more. The others, even Harrison, fell into line with him. When he thought he might be out of earshot of George, Connor spoke.

“It’s like this,” he said between gasping pants. “Unless we finish together, he’ll make us go again and again until we do. I say we go only as fast as Alan can go. If that means we walk this lap then that’s what we do. We all need to be in this together though. No one cutting ahead. Alan? Can you run?”

“Not really, no,” came the instant reply.

“Then we walk. Agreed?”

They jogged slowly onwards. No-one spoke.

“C’mon guys! I didn’t ask to be the leader here but it’s on my head if we don’t finish together. If Alan can’t run, we walk. He never said we had to run the lap, did he?”

“He said jog though,” came a voice from behind him.

“Then we walk most of it and jog over the line for the last part. Are we in?”

Silence again.

“C’mon guys!” Connor pleaded. “Are we in, yes or no?”

A light ‘yes’ rippled through the group and Connor immediately slowed to a walk. The others did likewise.

“Thanks guys,” said Alan. “Really.”

They walked the field. George watched but shouted nothing. As they neared the final bend Connor said, “Can you run for a bit, Alan? Just this last part?”

“I’ll give it a try, yeah, but just don’t go too fast, will you?”

Connor broke into a slow jog, followed by the others, Alan included. As they approached George, Harrison pulled out to the side and sprinted past. It didn’t matter. George was smiling.

“Excellent, team!” he beamed. “Great work! A team is only as strong as its weakest link. You identified that and adapted accordingly. Well done Stewart, well done team.” He looked at Alan. “You hurting, big boy?”

Alan couldn’t answer.

“Take 5 everybody. Hydrate. Refresh. Recover. Prepare for the workout. That was just the warm-up, remember!”

The nine boys sprawled out on the grass. A container carrying nine numbered water bottles had been placed at the side and taking their relevant bottle, the boys quenched their thirst. As they sat drinking in exhausted silence, Connor watched Harrison take his phone from his pocket before switching on his tough guy face and snapping a quick selfie. His fingers blurred across the screen as he fired the image out and onto his social media pages. In a matter of seconds every other boy was doing the same. All three of Connor’s pages had thousands of notifications, none of which he had the time nor inclination to read and he’d barely uploaded the selfie he’d just taken when he was informed of many more new interactions. He wasn’t sure which might tire him out more, George’s fitness regime or the constant need to update and interact on social media. Connor stuck his phone back in the pocket of his shorts and lay back, letting the breeze freeze-dry the cold sweat on his face.

“Right! Contestants! Let’s get back to it again. Follow me, please.” George marched off without checking that the boys were following him. He knew they were. “We’ll do a circuit of nine activities, three-minutes at each one. Watch me, please.”

The boys watched, squinting into the sunshine as George demonstrated burpees, crunches, curls and bicep dips. He skipped furiously, criss-crossing the rope for added effect. His huge muscles bulged and flexed as he raised and lowered the kettlebells. Controlled puffs preceded his jumps from a standing position to the top of one of the wooden boxes and back again. He plunged and planked, lunged and launched, doing everything with a smile on his face and no sweat on his brow.

“Your turn!”

He allocated each of them a starting point, blew his whistle and watched as the boys tackled their activity with varying degrees of skill and fitness levels. Any sign of weakness was immediately sprung upon by the coach who’d bawl loudly should they even consider resting during those intense three minutes. The gap between each activity was nowhere near long enough and by the time the boys had completed their nine activities, all were totally spent. They lay spread out across the field looking for all the world like massacred victims in some terrible war. There would be no let up.

“Contestants! Into your teams of three, please! Now! Vamos, vamos!”

Connor ached in places he never knew existed. His legs had seized up. His guts felt agonisingly tight. He dragged himself into the centre to find Stephen and Rhys. Stephen looked different with his matted hair stuck to his forehead. Rhys was purple and couldn’t speak.

“Straight ahead, contestants, is the wall. Simple task. First team with all members up and over the wall win. The last team is given a punishment by the winners.”

Connor looked at the wall. It was high. Even to grab a hold of the bottom of the rope required a jump. He didn’t think he’d get either of his feet off the ground. Getting over it would be tough. At the top was an overhang, designed for grabbing hold of but also an added obstacle to clearing it. Rhys and Stephen looked equally shattered, but he took joy in the fact that he wasn’t in Alan’s team.

“Campbell, number four, you are the leader of the green team. Fowler, two, you’ll lead the red team.”

George scanned the remaining boys.

“Harrison.” George recognised a winner when he saw one. “You’ll lead the blues.”

Harrison stepped forward showing little in the way of tiredness or unwilling.

“On my whistle the first boy will go. As soon as that boy reaches the top of the wall, the next can go. When you get over the top of the wall you should let go. There are crash mats behind to break your fall. It’s quite safe.”

The boys considered this as he continued to speak.

“…and just to keep it interesting, the spectators up there in the viewing tower,” George pointed to the man and Cameron, high up under the pointed roof – Connor had forgotten all about them until now – “will be dishing out some extra encouragement.”

Before any of the nine boys could ponder exactly what he meant by this, he’d blown his whistle.

Rhys and Fowler were off quite quickly, but this was nothing compared to Harrison. He sprinted on the whistle’s blast, screaming a banshee-wailing “Aaaaaargh!” as he tore up the field on his approach to the wall. At the sound of his scream, all eyes were upon him. With a gliding leap he had control of the rope and had shimmied half-way up the wall before either Rhys or Fowler had even reached it. With impressive ease Harrison reached the top, flipped himself over the edge and with another wail was over. Reilly raced off next, leaving Alan alone as the last member of their team to go.

Rhys and Fowler both took a couple of goes before securing hold of the rope. Fowler seemed to be doing better. His technique was good; backside jutting out at right angles to the wall, climbing with hand over hand, pushing himself up by the toes as he climbed. Fowler was slower than Harrison, but not by much. Rhys though was dead slow. He lost his footing at one point, swinging from side to side wildly until regaining control. As Fowler neared the top there was an unexpected crack from the tower. Instinctively the remaining boys turned to look at it. Cameron and the man had a pair of rifles! A second crack confirmed this. They were firing bullets towards the boys on the ropes at the wall! There was a third crack and a muffled whoop from the tower as the bullet lodged itself into the wall close to Fowler.

“It’s only rubber bullets, lads. Just a bit of fun. Should help your team-mates get over the wall quicker though, eh?” George was laughing. “Go on Fowler,” he shouted. “Before he hits your backside!”

A burst of static and feedback came from the tower. The man was speaking through a megaphone.

“Campbell, number four! You have ten seconds before I start firing at you. Ten….!”

Even from this distance, Rhys’s fear was tangible. He scurried and scraped, frantically trying to get up the rope.

“Nine!

Eight!

Seven!”

Fowler beside him had reached the top and was now half-way over. George spoke to Grayson.

“It’s you next, man. Come on!”

“Six!

Five!

Four!”

Grayson understandably hesitated before letting off a Harrison-style banshee scream and started running full tilt at the wall. He was at the rope while Rhys was at most three quarters of the way up.

“Three!

Two!

One!”

Rhys stopped climbing. A sitting duck, he braced himself for the worst.

Peee-ooow! went the bullet from the rifle. It lodged into the wood a good couple of metres away from Rhys’s left leg. With terror, fear and unknown strength, Rhys somehow dragged himself to the top, just as a second bullet splintered the wood where his backside had been seconds before. Reaching up and over the top, he let out a manic cry before dropping to the mats on the other side. Had he actually been shot, wondered Connor? As he worried himself with this, he was annoyed to see Stephen burst across the field. This meant Connor would be last to go for his team. He’d have the most ground to make up and he’d have all the attention from Cameron and the man and their two rifles.

Going up his rope in the middle of the wall, Grayson was good. Even when being fired at he kept his cool, hand over hand, pushing up and out with his feet, and he was catching Reilly who had stiltedly made it to the top. Next to Grayson on the other side was Stephen. He wasn’t too bad either. Further behind the other two, he wouldn’t make up ground but nor would he cause Connor’s team to fall further behind.

With Grayson over, Burgess was last to go for the red team. Taking his cue from the others he approached the wall full pelt and screaming his lungs out.

Alan was next to go, anchor man for the blue team, ‘encouraged’ by George and the man with his megaphone.

“Alan, seven!” he shouted through the megaphone from the tower. “Make me proud!” Cameron was already lining up the crosshairs of his rifle. Last to go was Connor. He quickly made ground on Alan, passed him and with superhuman effort had grasped a hold of the rope that dangled above him.

The dull thud of bullet into wood reminded Connor that he was unwilling game in a sport of two sides. Mentally trying to block the bullets out of his mind – which proved impossible to do – Connor dragged himself up the rope. The muscles in his shoulders burned as he gripped and pulled. He felt the skin tear from the palms of his hands. His legs had no feeling anymore. But he was

Thud!

Making progress. The top of the

Thud! Thud!

wall was almost within reach. One more

Thud! Thud!

push and he’d

Thud!

be there.

Thud! Thud! Thud!

The bullets from the tower were close – very close – but Connor dragged himself over the top just in time. He’d no time to decide if he wanted to drop from this great height or not. He let go. His stomach disappeared into his throat and with a sudden unexpected slap he landed on the thick crash mat. He breathed again, noticing a grinning Harrison who’d filmed his whole ungainly drop on his phone. ‘That’s one I owe you,’ thought Connor as he lay back, allowing himself time to recover.

On the other side of the wall, Alan had a grip of the rope but was swinging slowly from side to side and making no upwards progress. He cried, tears of frustration, tears of rage, tears of hatred at the people who’d put him in this position. The man laughed into his megaphone.

“Move it, Alan, you useless lump!”

Peee-ooow! went yet another bullet from a rifle. It struck the wall just above Alan’s head. Had Alan been a quicker climber, it might have taken his head clean off.

George was at the wall now, barking words towards Alan.

“Come on son, you can do it. Don’t be the only failure in your team. Your team has no place for failures!”

Alan was somehow higher up now, a combination of plain fear and hatred pushing him upwards.

Thud!

Another bullet. Not close, but a reminder that he was being shot at.

Thud!

This time, Alan felt the rush of wind. His sticky hair stirred around his right ear as the bullet whizzed past and lodged itself in the wall.

“That’s it!”

Was George actually encouraging Alan? To Connor it sounded as though he was.

“Yes! One hand over the other. Now, kick your legs. Come on, mate, you can do it!”

He was. And it was working.

Thud! Thud!

With an extreme burst of lethargy, Alan found himself at the top of the wall, its lip standing between him and failure.

Thud!

This bullet was the closest yet and, in fright Alan jumped, letting one hand go of the rope. He swung wildly to the left, grazing his knees across the wall, his rope arm and hand burning in pain, the free hand frantically grasping for control.

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

How they missed he’d never know, but from somewhere deep within, Alan found the required strength to get both hands on the rope and drag himself to the lip of the wall again. With his face squashed hard against the wood, Alan daren’t look down. He could hear shouts of encouragement from both sides of the wall. George was still barking positives his way and the boys who’d already scaled the wall began shouting when they’d seen his leg curling over the top to their side.

“Just let go, Alan!” shouted Harrison, eager to see the large boy flop from a great height.

“Drop!” encouraged Reilly. “It’s easy!”

With both legs now over the top, Alan held on with his elbows at his chin. He gulped and pushed himself back, dropped and crashed with great force onto, into, the mat below. There were scattered cheers and claps as he rolled off the mat and onto the grass. Once there, Alan burst into uncontrollable tears.

George quickly rounded to the boys’ side of the wall. He was excited.

“Excellent work, contestants. Number seven – Alan – that’s what I mean when I ask for 100% effort. You excelled yourself there, son. Amazing stuff!”

Alan wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his sleeve, nodding with a weak smile.

“Reilly! Fowler! Grayson! Spectacular! All three of you!”

He looked at Harrison, yet to appear in any way dishevelled or exhausted.

“Number three! Harrison! That was one hell of an outstanding effort, young man! Where did you learn to climb ropes like that?”

“I dunno,” shrugged Harrison, slightly aloof because of the appraisal he’d just received.

“Keep it up! And the rest of you – watch this boy and learn. Outstanding! Harrison, you will unfortunately be aware that we had a deal at the start of this event. The deal was that the first team over the wall would choose a punishment for the losers. It won’t escape your notice that, despite your sterling efforts, and those of Reilly too, your team nonetheless came last. I am almost prepared to say that, due to your awesome effort, I will let this go, but I’m afraid rules are rules.”

Six boys groaned internally, Connor amongst them. He’d forgotten about this. He didn’t think he could raise himself for anything else again today.

“Reds! Fowler! Anderson! Burgess! You three were first over. What’s the punishment to be? Dodge the bullets? Dangle from a tree?”

The three boys in the winning team huddled together, away from the others.

“I reckon we get them to do the wall again,” whispered Grayson.

“That’s just sick, mate! What about another lap of the field again?” answered Burgess.

“Nah,” replied Grayson. “If they’d won, you know they’d be giving us a hard thing to do. It’s not our fault they were last. What about some of those circuits again? They were agony.”

Fowler spoke.

“I reckon we get them to do another lap, but…”

Fowler waited until he had the attention of the other two.

“…we do it with them. Say to George that it’s either everyone or no-one. Show a bit of solidarity here. We walk it like the last time, take as long as we need. What d’you reckon?”

“No way, mate! Are you mad?” said Grayson. “I’m not doing one thing more! It’s not my fault they can’t climb the wall.”

“Some of them could climb the wall though…” pointed out Fowler, looking him in the eyes. Grayson knew what he meant. Alan had been so far behind it was embarrassing. The other two were probably just as quick as anyone on the winning team.

“Pfffttt.” Grayson let out an agonised sigh.

“I think you’re right, Andy,” said Burgess to Fowler. “It’s everyone or no-one. Agreed?”

“Yep,” said Fowler “Grayson?”

“Come on, guys! Think about it!”

“Agreed?” Fowler looked at Grayson again. Grayson had no other option.

“Agreed,” he said with a huff.

Burgess raised his voice so that George and the others could hear him.

“We, well, Fowler, had an idea.”

Fowler cut in.

“It’s only right that if there’s any sort of punishment we all do it together, all nine of us.”

George hadn’t expected this, but he looked pleasantly surprised at the suggestion.

“So you’re telling me that, even though you won, and even though some of these boys weren’t last, you should all do the punishment, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes, sir, that’s what I’m saying.”

“Well!” George looked at the others, laid out in various states of exhaustion in front of him. “I’m OK with that.”

There was a grumble and a groan from the boys who thought they’d avoided this. Connor couldn’t believe they were going to have to do another punishing regime.

“What’ll it be, then? What’s the punishment?”

“Another lap, sir, of the field. Starting as a group and finishing as a group. No breakouts. No-one left behind.”

“Alright then. Lads! You heard the man. One more lap of the field. No breakouts. No-one left behind.”

With little to no enthusiasm, the group forced themselves back onto their feet and stood in an unwilling huddle, daring one another to go first.

“Fowler! You’ll take the lead this time. One last burst of effort from everyone, come on!”

George rounded up the boys the way a farmer might herd his uncooperative sheep, sweeping the stragglers at the back with a sweep of his massive arms, using his bulk to manoeuvre the group. Grayson and Alan were the last two to comply. Together, reluctantly, the group of nine walked across the middle of the field to its perimeter. At a slow, measured pace, they shuffled off.

In the viewing tower, the man and Cameron eagerly reloaded their rifles.

“Whose idea was this again?” moaned Campbell.

“Fowler’s,” answered a sullen Grayson.

The boys were barely above walking pace by the time they’d rounded the first bend.

“You OK, Alan?” asked Burgess into thin air.

“Not really,” came the broken reply.

Rifles ready, the man spoke to Cameron.

“Wait until they’re in the last stretch. Aim for the ground just behind them.”

The boys were walking now, not even managing to talk. Connor’s lungs felt as if they were on fire. His legs were leaden, his arms heavy knots of useless flesh and muscle that could do no more than hang heavily by his side. The dusty grass kicked up around them. Little grains of dirt stuck to the thin film of sweat on their necks, blown by the wind that now gave a cooling respite to the torture that endured.

George stood at the end, legs astride. He was shouting things again, his voice lost to the wind.

“Can I fire now?” asked Cameron.

The man signalled to be patient.

The boys had at most 100 metres remaining when Cameron’s itchy finger squeezed the trigger. Peee-ooow! went the bullet as it exploded in the grass to the side of the boys. With thoughts of what had happened at the wall, instant panic broke out. The faster boys elbowed their way through to the front of the group, never more eager to reach George. Alan at the back was suddenly isolated, the others going as fast as their beaten legs would allow.

“Aim for the fat one,” said the man as he picked up the megaphone, a jarring screech ringing out across the field as he powered it into life.

“Alan! (Screeee!) Seven! Get those knees up, you useless lump! (Screeee!) Move it!”

By now the rest of the boys had reached George and were standing recovering in a tight circle, unsure of what to do. Beside them, George laughed.

“Come on, Alan! Nearly there! One last push!”

By now, Alan feared for his life, he really did. A part of him wanted to give up there and then, to turn and face the tower and tell the man and Cameron to do their worst.

Thud! Thud! Thud! went the bullets as they sprayed into the ground immediately behind him.

In the tower, Cameron laughed hysterically and continued to fire.

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

Alan continued his tortoise-like wobble to the end. Now he could hear the shouts of encouragement from George and the other boys. They helped. Determinedly he kept going, almost now at a full chest out and arms swinging jogging pace.

Thud! Thud!

Thud!

The last of the bullets exploded around him as Alan fell on the grass at George’s feet.

 

——————————————————

 

George led the boys back to the changing area. There, Pamela and the other girls met them and took them back to their rooms. They had an hour, the man had said, until they’d meet for lunch. Connor flopped on his bed, reluctant and unable to move. Eventually, he forced himself to undress and tossed the grimy clothes he’d been wearing into the laundry basket before standing under the shower. It felt terrific.

Lying on top of his bed wrapped in a towel, Connor checked his phone. More notifications. On Babble, there were over 20,000 comments underneath the selfie he’d snapped after the first lap of the field. He’d been tagged into one of Harrison’s ‘The Elements’ posts and was astounded to find 128,000 or so likes, loves and reposts for the video of him falling from the top of the wall. Harrison, or someone, had edited the video so that the frames of him slapping onto the crash mat re-re-re-re-repeated multiple times. They had gone so far as to add corresponding slapping sounds too. Ignoring his own feeds for the moment, Connor started scrolling through Harrison’s. He had a similar number of followers, but Harrison had been far more active. Today alone he’d posted over a dozen pictures of himself in various poses, from tough guy pre-training with George, to still-tough guy afterwards. He, or someone, had created a meme too, taking a shot of Harrison way out in front on that first lap of the field and adding the tagline, ‘Boom! Harrison shoots to number 1!’, a crass reference to the guns being fired from the observation tower but also an acknowledgment that currently, Harrison was the most popular boy (or ‘contestant’) at ‘The Elements’. There were also video clips of him running full tilt at the wall and of him zipping up the rope. Every photo, every video clip, every meme was accompanied by thousands upon thousands of comments and emojis.

Connor turned his attention back to his own feeds. On Olé someone had clipped short videos of him at the various circuits. Kettlebells, box jumps, burpees; all were accompanied by a screen after screen of comments. There was one rather disturbing clip of Connor struggling at the top of the wall, bullets ripping into the wood as it splintered around him. A look of genuine terror was etched on his face, captured forever by a cameraman unknown. It all made for good theatre though. And it helped to add followers, important if he were to maintain his place at the right end of the popularity scale. Watching back with the benefit of hindsight, Connor was certain that the man was playing with them – if he’d wanted to shoot any of them, especially Alan, he no doubt could have. This was merely the starter, the amuse bouche, before the main course to follow.

On ‘The Elements’ app, there was a whole thread running with people discussing how honourable he’d been to insist that the group walked that first lap. It made Connor feel good to see that he had the public’s support.

On and on the comments went. Scrolling and stopping at random, Connor couldn’t find anything negative. Those comments would be there somewhere, but the good stuff far outweighed anything nasty that folk might be saying.

There were private messages, page after page of them, and as Connor made a mental reminder to post something generic before going to lunch, his attention was drawn to one message in particular. It was the user-name that caught his eye: @christineandrobertstewart – his parents had taken his advice and set up an ‘Elements’ account.

Connor read the message, hearing their voices in his head.

Connor. We’re terribly worried for you. They were shooting at you! You must leave immediately. Tell whoever is in charge that you’d prefer to take your punishment in the Northern Shires. As soon as we can find out where this awful TV show is being made, your father and I will be coming to take you away. Until then, stay safe and don’t give anyone any reason to put your life at risk. We love you very much, mum and dad x.’

Great. This was all Connor needed. He immediately regretted telling them to set up an ‘Elements’ account. This wasn’t a safe place to be at all, but there was no way he was going to be allowed to leave. The only way he was getting out of here was by keeping his wits about him and by ensuring he remained popular on social media. He returned a quick, “Can’t talk now – I’ll message later” reply and then, with thoughts of his burgeoning popularity in mind he typed up a generic ‘thanks for your comments’ post, attached a picture of him with his hair still wet and sent it out on his three social media accounts. He was suddenly famished with hunger and was relieved to hear the familiar rap at the door as he changed into clean clothes.

Sitting at their usual table, the three boys discussed the morning’s events; Harrison’s feral determination, Alan’s hopelessness at the wall, walking that lap, the potential for George to be a decent person, everything, really. The three skirted around the subject and none of them came right out and said it, but it was clear they all expected Alan to be the first to leave. As some fruit was brought to their table, the man made his way to the centre of the room and raised a hand. Cameron stood faithfully at his side. Quickly, the room fell silent.

“Contestants! I trust you are not in too much pain and that you are suitably refreshed after what was quite a rigorous test this morning. I was delighted to see the camaraderie and solidarity you displayed towards one another at times. I asked you to encourage and motivate your team-mates and you most certainly delivered. For that I am thankful. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public either. Most of the messages sent across our social platforms today related to the team spirit, fairness and sympathy you showed towards one another. Ratings, contestants, ratings! Our advertisers and sponsors demand high ratings and already you are delivering. Keep it up!”

The man smiled, a glint in his eye preceding his next statement.

“There were too, thousands upon thousands of requests for both myself and Cameron here to use live ammunition in our rifles from now on. It appears that a section of ‘The Elements’ audience is fairly bloodthirsty. If ratings demand it, maybe we shall have to acquiesce.”

He broke off to scan the room, the atmosphere taking an uneasy turn. He addressed Alan’s table.

“Some of you will be hurting after this morning, and not just physically, but mentally too. ‘The Elements’ is unforgiving – and it needs to be.”

He paused for dramatic effect.

“Adjust…or fail.”

The room was silent. No-one, not even Cameron, knew if he was finished. Connor was desperate to get into the fruit that had been left in the middle of the table, but he daren’t start.

“Now, this afternoon…!”

The man’s mood was brighter, lighter again.

“…you will have a session with an analytical thinking expert. You need brains as well as brawn in ‘The Elements’, so although this afternoon’s session will give your body a rest, it will most definitely work your mind.”

He made a show of looking at his watch.

“Shall we say thirty minutes in the meeting room? Take time to enjoy the rest of your lunch, freshen up and be ready to begin again at 1400 hours. Oh, and Stewart, could I speak with you for a minute once you’ve eaten, thank you?”

Connor’s appetite instantly drained, along with the colour in his face. Rhys and Stephen turned to him. No words were exchanged but their sympathy was genuine and tangible. The boys, urged on by an unusually quiet Pamela, quickly finished eating and got up just as the man arrived at their table.

“Pamela! Campbell, McPherson. Nice lunch? Raring to go again?!”

The boys nodded an awkward nod, clumsily pushed their chairs under the table and left with Pamela. Connor sat at the table alone. The man pulled up a chair and sat side-on to him.

“And how about you, Stewart? Raring to go again?”

Connor looked up from his empty plate and turned his neck to face him.

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it.” He had a fair idea of what the subject of the conversation would be about, and he wished the man would quickly get to the point and get the conversation over with.

“Are you enjoying your stay here so far? Is there anything we can do to help? Is your room comfortable? The food?”

“Yes, no, it’s all very nice, thanks.”

“Made some new friends?”

“Yes, Rhys and Stephen, eh, sorry, Campbell and McPherson are OK. We all get on well.”

“Are you enjoying your new-found celebrity status yet? That’s quite the following you have already.”

“It’s a bit weird, to be honest,” said Connor. “But I’ll get used to it.” Using his forefinger, Connor focused his attentions on picking a bit of hard skin around the nail of his thumb. He braced himself for the reason he was being spoken to.

“Missing your parents yet?”

There it was.

“Yes. And no. I mean, of course I’m missing them, but we’ve been so busy since we’ve got here, I’ve hardly had time to think about them.”

Connor instantly regretted saying this. The man knew there’d been text messages. Of course he did. Connor had even anticipated this moment before he’d sent the first message home.

“You haven’t had the chance to call them yet, I believe. Have you?”

“No.”

“Hmmm. You see, here at Kimble we try to discourage that sort of to-ing and fro-ing. Maybe once you’re more settled in, we can relax that rule a bit. Until then, we feel it takes your focus away from what you’re really here for.”

The man looked Connor in the eyes, reading him.

“Being so busy, you probably haven’t even had the chance to text either, I expect?”

Connor searched in his mind for the right thing to say. As he weighed up the pros and cons of telling the truth and lying, his mind was made up for him. The man stretched out his arm and opened a soft, pink hand. A gold cufflink reflected dully on the empty plate as he did so.

“May I have your mobile device, please, Stewart?” The man smiled. There were probably half a dozen cameras, hidden in the walls and ceiling, filming this right now.

Stewart inadvertently felt for his phone in his left pocket.

“Phone, please, now. There’s a good fellow.”

Connor didn’t want to give him the phone, but there was little alternative. The man leaned in, close enough for Connor to smell the remnants of lunch on his breath. He hissed a low threat.

“Phone. Now. Or the next time it’ll be real bullets.”

Connor continued to pick away at the hard skin on his thumb.

The man’s hand remained outstretched, his reptilian smile etched on his face. He leaned closer still, whispering with a seething rage.

“Give me your phone you little shit or I will destroy you!”

Connor conceded and handed his phone to him. The man tapped in a sequence of numbers (‘They can access our phones too!’ thought Connor) and swiped through the screen to find whatever it was he was looking for.

“A-ha!” He held up the text conversation between Connor and his mother, showing it to Connor like a prize. With fat-fingered jabs, he deleted it, then jabbed some more, muttering all the while to himself.

“Mum….mum….ah, there we are. Three missed calls!?! Tsssk! Block caller…yes…confirm…. Delete number… hmmm. And…yes. There we go. Gone.”

The man looked at Connor once more, still holding onto his phone.

“You will have no contact with your mother from now on, understood?”

He didn’t wait for or acknowledge Connor’s weak nod and went back to stabbing at the screen.

“Babble….yes, uh huh… I see… Olé… of course…of course! ‘The Elements’! A-ha!”

Finding the recent message between his parents and him, the man shouted triumphantly.

“More messages! Oh! Delete….confirm….block….yes….confirm…and there we are.”

The man held up Connor’s phone, tantalisingly just out of reach. Connor wanted no part of this game. He just wanted his phone back and to get away from the table.

“I think I’ll be holding on to this for the time being, Stewart. There’ll be no social media for you for the foreseeable future. No chance to update, no chance to interact. No chance to contact anyone….”

His voice went quiet for the final time.

“…and no chance of progression. Watch your back, Stewart.”

The man upped and left. Connor remained at the table, confused and angry.

 

 

(more to follow in the future)