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.
You can read previous chapters here.
by Craig McAllister
The instructions were that Connor’s parents must accompany him to the central train station for no later than 10.48. In the event, they were there a full 20 minutes earlier than that. On the platform, Connor’s mum fussed uncontrollably.
“Remember. You take the liquid paracetamol whenever you need it. If it runs out, you call us and we’ll send more. You must carry your allergy pen wherever you go. Check all your food. Don’t get caught out. Egg is hidden in all sorts of food. Do whatever you’re asked to do. Don’t argue with anyone….don’t give them any excuse to keep you there longer than you need to be. Do as they say and we’ll see you in a few weeks.” Much to Connor’s annoyance she ruffled his head.
A few other boys and parents stood in similar fashion up and down the platform. A large fat boy cried loudly, much to his parents’ embarrassment. No amount of shushing or arms around his doughy shoulders would calm him down. A boy with orange spiky hair sat sullenly on the ground, a bag by his feet, his parents talking to one another but not to him. One mum licked her finger and wiped something from her son’s cheek. He didn’t offer resistance.
One boy was particularly noticeable because he stood alone. Upright and proud, his black leather bag sat snugly between his feet. This boy stood like a soldier and when he noticed Connor noticing him, he stared straight through him as if he wasn’t there. His hair was oil-slick thick, gelled to perfection and with nothing out of place. This boy wasn’t dressed like the others either. No unzipped hoody. No branded t-shirt. No battered trainers. His black shoes were so shiny that from where Connor stood, they looked white. He wore dark grey suit trousers too, creased as sharp and thin as Connor’s mother’s wry, forced smile. He had on a black Mackintosh raincoat, which he wore on top of a brilliant white shirt, unbuttoned once, with no tie. This boy looked like a professional; an accountant or an architect and not at all like a pre-teenage petty criminal.
“Stay safe, son,” Connor’s father added proudly, one arm on his shoulder. “This is an exciting opportunity for you. Take it all in and enjoy the experience. We love you very much.”
The train slid silently into view. Unusually it was just one carriage long and there was none of the livery you’d normally expect to find on the side. There was just one set of doors too, slap bang in the middle of the carriage, which, by the time the train had slowed to a stop, were further up the platform from where Connor and his family stood. As they walked towards them, Connor caught sight of himself in the mirrored window and flattened his hair back down.
“Take care, Connor. Be good. I’ll maybe see you on the telly. I love you very much.” His mum kissed him awkwardly on the cheek, failing to hide the slow stream of tears that were running in tiny rivers through her powdery foundation. His dad shook his hand proudly and forced a smile. “We’ll see you in no time at all.”
Connor stifled his own tears, muttered a quiet but honest, “I love you too,” and stepped into the carriage. He looked around for a seat. The fat boy was still crying. Looking in the opposite direction, Connor saw a handful of four-seater berths and plenty of empty two-seaters. Most of the boys who were already inside had chosen to sit alone in the two-seaters, their bags sat defiantly in the spare space beside them. Connor picked two seats together, as far away from anyone else as was possible in this one carriage and slumped in, dumping his bag on the outside seat, taking the window seat for himself.
Only, there wasn’t a window.
He looked up and down the carriage. Smooth, beige plastic, punctuated by the occasional logo of the TV company ran the length of the insides. A small notice that was too far away to read broke the pattern. But there were no windows anywhere.
As Connor contemplated the meaning of this, the train smoothly started up and he felt himself eased by an unseen force gently back into the soft seat. He imagined his parents outside, waving at their own reflection in a fake window, oblivious to the fact that Connor couldn’t see them. He took cold comfort from the notion that his parents thought Connor could see them and then he started to cry a slow, silent cry. The carriage was eerily quiet.
After a bit the first noises of life started. A sweet wrapper rustled somewhere behind him. A stifled yawn crept from a mouth somewhere to his left. The tell-tale ping of an incoming text message announced itself up ahead. Connor wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve and looked around to take stock of his surroundings. The spiky haired ginger boy swiped through his phone, clearly still in a sulk. The fat boy had cried himself to sleep. One boy was reading a comic. Another, sitting alone at a four-seater, had a family-sized bag of sweets scattered loosely on the table. He had his feet up on the seat opposite, a bottle wedged between his legs, and he was tapping his fingers to an unheard beat that was playing wirelessly on the pods in his ears. The boy in the Mackintosh stared straight ahead, eyes open, no devices or flim-flam around him. His demeanour unnerved Connor.
Looking away, he unwittingly caught the eye of the spiky haired boy. He tore his face further into a lip-curling snarl and aimed it in Connor’s direction. Message clearly received, Connor lowered his gaze and settled himself in for the journey. The letter that had arrived three days ago, the one that instructed him to be at the central train station for no later than 10.48, gave little in the way of useful information;
- Pack a small overnight bag. On arrival at the TV studios, clothing will be provided.
- Bring toiletries and essential medication. Do not worry about running out.
- You may wish to bring a spare pair of shoes.
- You may bring a selection of confectionary for the journey.
- Reading material is essential.
- Mobile devices are essential but must not be used to call home.
- This letter is your train ticket. Do not discard it. Bring it with you on the day.
- NO MONEY IS NECESSARY
Connor’s parents had followed the instructions carefully, although his father had slipped him a £20 note as they’d packed the car earlier that morning. He reached into his bag and pulled out a football magazine, one of over a dozen he’d stolen from Mr Szczęsny’s shop in the past few weeks. A sudden pang of guilt shot through him and after thumbing through less than half a dozen pages, he dropped the magazine to his side.
Connor leaned back into his seat and considered what the TV show might be about. Since the trial, he’d thought of little else. He couldn’t believe his luck! Right now, he might’ve been up to his waist in god knows what in who knows where with the Department of Enforcement. Instead, here he was, a passenger on a private train being taken to film a new TV series. No one knew anything of the show being made. It was top-secret. Connor had wondered if it might be a new soap opera but given that all the boys on the train were of similar age to him, he’d began to have doubts. Maybe it’d be a sports-related show. Football, perhaps. Or maybe ice hockey. Maybe he’d get to be the funny guy in a new sit-com. Or cooking. Cooking shows were all over TV. Perhaps Connor and his fellow passengers were to be filmed for some sort of junior Top Chef series. Food was being provided, after all. Maybe they’d be cooking it. His mind worked overtime and now, a day that had started quietly and forlornly had begun to hold appeal.
“Hey! You! Converse!”
Connor was aware of the voice but not yet aware that it was directed at him.
“Hey, You! Yeah, You! Mate!”
Connor turned his head over his shoulder to look between the gaps in the seat rests. The boy who’d been drumming on the table earlier was now diagonally behind him in the next row of seats. He was quite animated.
“Y’alright? How long d’you think we’ll be on this train for, eh?”
Connor had no idea, but before he could answer the boy had spoken again.
“I reckon we’ll be here for 5 or 6 hours. That’s what I heard.”
Connor didn’t have a clue where they were going, no one did, but that length of journey would indicate a destination quite far away. The Southern Regions, most likely. The Northern Shires were at most 4 hours away and they were as far as you could go before ending up in the sea. Until now, Connor hadn’t actually thought about where they’d be going. But now he was thinking.
“5 or 6 hours?” Connor repeated. “Who told you that?”
“That’s just what I heard. Somewhere south, probably. Miles away. Right out the road. That’s where they send criminals like us who are too young for proper jail.”
‘Criminals like us.’ Connor let the words sink in. He had forgotten about his status. In his wild thinking about TV shows and potential fame and all the stuff that comes with it, Connor had let the fact he was being sent here a criminal slip his overactive mind. The boy spoke again.
“I’m Grayson, by the way. What did they send you here for?” He emphasised the ‘you’.
Connor felt his cheeks flush. He hoped it wasn’t showing.
“Connor. What you here for?” He also emphasised the ‘you’.
“I ran through the neighbour’s garden and wrecked it – jumped on the vegetables, kicked the heads off all of their flowers. It was just a daft joke, but here I am.”
“I got caught stealing a magazine from the shop.”
“Man!” Grayson blew a soft whistle. “They’ll send you away for anything these days. Flowers….magazines…hardly bank robbery, is it?!”
‘Send you away.’ Those words stabbed at Connor’s heart. I am a criminal, he thought. I’m being sent away. Not to jail. Not to the Department of Enforcement. Maybe somewhere worse.
“D’you want to sit over where I’m sitting?” Grayson had moved next to Connor, but Connor’s bag prevented him from sitting down. “There’s more space. There’s a table. You can spread out a bit.”
Connor had been quite content on his own, but if this journey was going to be as long as Grayson seemed to think, it might help pass the time quicker if he’d someone to talk to. He squeezed out past his bag – it was a good excuse to come back to if Grayson turned out to be a total pain.
Connor slid into the four-seater berth, sitting backwards. With no windows this wasn’t really an issue.
“Sweet?” Grayson pushed a handful across the table. He spoke with his mouth full. “What d’you think he’s here for?” Grayson nodded in the direction of the spiky ginger-haired boy. “He looks angry. I bet he’s a dog kicker or something. A cat drowner.” Grayson chewed noisily.
Despite his eating manner, Connor maintained his focus on Grayson.
“I bet,” he said with a loud, wet, snap of a chew, “that he tortures pets. I bet he put a hamster in the washing machine. Or fried the tropical fish in a frying pan. He’s got that sort of look about him.”
Connor was reluctant to take part in this conversation, but he couldn’t disagree.
“Or that guy there,” Grayson said, a bit louder than he maybe realised. “Slick Rick. How long d’you think it takes him to do his hair in the morning?! Look at him, all dressed up! Where does he think he’s going?! I think he’s been a proper bam at school. I bet he’s the guy who calls the teachers out when they make a mistake. I bet he’s like, “school’s crap…you can’t teach me anything!” and he storms out of classrooms, kicking desks and slamming doors. He looks rich too. I bet his parents have sent him to, like, five private schools, and none of them can sort him out.”
Grayson shoved another sweet into his non-stop mouth. Connor turned carefully and sneaked a peek at the boy in the Mackintosh. He was still staring ahead, still no phone or book or anything beside him. Connor hoped he hadn’t heard Grayson talking about him.
The conversation continued between the two, important stuff mainly about YouTubers and xBox and what the TV show might be about. Neither offered up where they were from, or what family and friends they had back home. Connor quite liked Grayson. Despite having the sort of mouth on him that might bring both of them a punch on the nose, he was funny and generous and friendly. He was also not in the least bit anxious about what might happen in the immediate future, a positive trait that had started to rub off slightly on Connor. As the conversation waned and the train sped ever-forwards, Grayson returned to his ear pods, punctuating the silence at the table with occasional rat-a-tats and under his breath “uh-huhs”. Connor found himself deep in thought about what the next few days and weeks held.
“Alright guys?” A new voice. Connor looked up. It was the fat boy who’d been crying at the station. “D’you know if there’s a toilet on this train?”
“Oh, I dunno,” replied Connor. “Sorry.”
Grayson, forgetting about the music streaming to his ears, shouted out.
“Hey man! Y’alright! Sit down, sit down! Here!”
As he swept his bag to the floor between his feet, heads in the carriage turned to face them. Connor felt himself flush again. The boy wedged himself in next to Grayson, who by now had removed his ear pods.
“Grayson, mate. Sweet?”
“Thanks,” said the boy, taking one. “Alan. D’you know if there’s a toilet in here?”
“Sorry pal, Alan, mate. I’ve no idea.”
Connor looked up and down the carriage. One or two of the boys were watching them. Connor had now found himself at the epicentre of things and he didn’t like it. He scanned the length of the carriage for a toilet, ignoring their nosey gazes. Mackintosh boy had moved! Weird! He was now sitting at another 4-seater, facing the table he and Grayson, and now this boy Alan, were sitting at. He must’ve moved while Connor had been talking to Grayson. He watched the trio, his gaze as steely as always. Connor realised he’d been staring at him for longer than he should’ve and turned back to Alan.
“Can’t see any toilets, sorry. I’m Connor, by the way.”
“Alan. S’OK mate. I’ll just need to hold it in.”
“So, what’re you in for then, Alan?” Grayson took charge of the conversation.
“What d’you mean?”
“What brings you here? What did you do to deserve this?”
“Och. Eh, well,…”
“I’m here because I kicked the heads off of some flowers. Connor here nicked a magazine. What did you do?”
“I set fire to a boy at school.”
There was a shift in the atmosphere at the table. Connor looked at Grayson.
“Jeez, mate. Jeez.”
Wary of him now, Grayson shifted subconsciously to his right.
They both looked at him as he spoke.
“He picked on me. Like, every day for four years. The same things. ‘Fatboy’ this and ‘Lard Ass’ that. He’d kick me. Slap me. Demand my money. And everyone laughed. No one did anything to help. Four years. I thought when I went to secondary school that he might find someone else to pick on. But no. First year was even worse. The same kicking. The same slapping. The same names. And he humiliated me in front of everyone, even the girls. Came up behind me in the corridor after science one day, pulled my trousers and pants down. It was so humiliating. The next day, I waited for him in the playground. Threw some of my mum’s vodka on the back of his blazer and threw a match at him. He was on fire straight away. He never bothered me again.”
Alan reached for another sweet and stared quietly at the table.
Grayson fidgeted with his phone.
Connor was wishing he could get up and go back to where he’d been sitting at the start of the journey.
The three of them sat in silence for a bit. It was Alan who broke it.
“I really need to pee. Really. I’m never gonna last until we stop.”
“I’ll have a walk up to the end of the carriage,” said Connor. “There might be something there.” At this moment he was super-keen to appear extra-helpful towards Alan. He slid himself out, glad to be away from the table, and headed to the end of the carriage.
Connor made his way, drawing yet more unwanted attention to himself. Stepping into a small vestibule he found a first aid kit and a swing-lid bin. On a small table sat a sleeping laptop. In front of him was a door marked, ‘Driver – No Unauthorised Personnel’. But no toilet.
Heading in the opposite direction, Connor silently counted the number of boys in the carriage. There were ten in total, counting himself. Alan and Grayson sat together but otherwise everyone was in their own space. Avoiding eye contact, Connor walked to the vestibule at the end. It contained a toilet, currently engaged.
‘That makes eleven of us, then,’ thought Connor as he returned to the table. ‘A football team.’
“There’s a toilet at the far end, Alan.” Connor gave him a smile. “Someone’s in it though. Keep an eye out.”
Alan turned, looking towards the end of the carriage, as if his stare alone would vacate the cubicle. Eventually he could take no more. Shuffling himself out of his seat, Alan made his way to the toilet at the end of the carriage. He tapped gently on the door.
“Alright? Is someone in there?”
He tapped again.
He banged this time. Heads turned in the carriage. Alan waited.
Alan banged the door once more before swearing under his breath and heading back.
“There’s no one in it, mate. It’s just locked for no reason.”
A boy had leaned out to speak to Alan as he passed his seat.
“I tried earlier. Can’t be much longer until we stop….”
“Thanks, man,” replied Alan forlornly. “Thanks.”
Alan joined Grayson and Connor, told them the situation then sat back with his eyes closed. Perhaps a sleep would distract him.
The journey continued. Connor and Grayson chatted some more, dozed a bit, ate some more sweets, checked the time, complained between themselves about the length of journey. Alan continued to snooze, at one point his head falling gently onto Grayson’s shoulder. Grayson thought it best to leave it where it was for the time being. He put his ear pods back in and pressed play on his phone. Connor decided to stretch his legs and went for another walk along the carriage.
Ghosting past the boy in the Mackintosh he happened to glance at the small notice posted between the TV company logos. The text was small and Connor had to lean across the seats to read it. I was some sort of poem.
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
A tiny version of the TV company’s logo, centred at the bottom, completed the notice.
Connor was pondering all of this when the train noticeably slowed in speed. Fairly soon, he gathered, it would be coming to a stop. Passing his original seat, he pulled his bag and joined the other two. Stifled yawns, stretches and the sound of impatience began to filter through the carriage. The muffled bump of bags dropping to the floor. The clattering of plastic as possessions were retrieved and manipulated out of the overhead storage units. The ginger haired boy was standing up, tucking himself in, his jacket already on, his bag swinging from his shoulder. A couple of others were putting on hoodies, readying themselves. Mackintosh boy sat as impassively as ever.
Sure enough, the train was coming to a stop. Grayson scrunched the sweet wrappers into a ball, leaving it to roll on the table. As the train jerked to a halt, the boys were momentarily pressed back into their seats. The false lighting of the carriage which they hadn’t been aware of until now was flooded with brilliant daylight as the central door opened automatically. Ginger was first out, followed by a trickle of boys from the other end of the carriage. Connor, Grayson and Alan were next. Behind them, last off the train, was the boy in the Mackintosh.
(more to follow in the future)