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
Connor awoke to the sound of classical music streaming through the room. Sweeping violins and see-sawing cellos brought him into the here and now. It took him a moment to adjust, to remember where he was and why he was here, before his head was immediately full of unwelcome thoughts of bullet-proof trousers and subzero body armour and thermashields and ‘The Elements’ and the possibility of death.
“Good morning, Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice. “It’s 6.30 am. Please be dressed and ready for 7.15 prompt. You must bring your mobile phone with you to the meeting room.”
Connor raised his head from the pillow and scratched and yawned. He swung his legs and let them dangle from the edge of the bed, feeling for the soft carpet with his outstretched toes. He sat upright, stretching. His suitcase had been returned at some point. It sat in the middle of his room, an envelope atop it.
‘Connor Stewart. These are the clothes you selected yesterday. They have been tagged and should now be placed in your storage facilities. On day 1 you are free to wear any R&R clothing of your choice.’
Someone must have been in his room while he had been sleeping. The thought unnerved Connor, but nothing much about this place Kimble surprised him anymore. Connor picked through his case, looking for the clothes he would wear for the day ahead. He selected a pair of beige R&R trousers, a dark blue ‘Elements’ t-shirt and the dark blue ‘Elements’ hoody. The first thing he noticed was that the hoody had ‘Stewart’ printed across the back. A large chunky number 9 was centred underneath. ‘Centre forward’, he thought to himself, before the reality of this particular game came back to him. He threw that day’s clothes on top of the unmade bed and turned his attention back to the case. He began sifting through the assortment of garments that he’d picked out the day before. Everything had ‘Stewart’ and ‘9’ on the back. On all trousers it was printed on the back right-hand pocket, or in the same general area if the trousers, the wet trousers for example, didn’t have a pocket. On the t-shirts and layers it was prominent on the left breast. On the hoodies, he noticed on closer inspection, it was printed both on the back (big) and on the front left breast (small). He had been branded. Although he was yet unaware, this was how the public would refer to him for the duration of his time in ‘The Elements’. With everything hung accordingly in the wardrobe, he shoved the chunky white trainers at the back, placed the hiking boots in front of them and closed both doors with a woody thud.
Showered, dressed and ready for the day, Connor didn’t have to wait long for Pamela to knock the door.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning!” she breezed, her white, toothy smile just a touch too bright for him. Behind her stood Stephen, half asleep but dressed accordingly.
“You look very smart, Connor Stewart!” she said with a smile. “Did you sleep well? I must say, you’re very cute when you’re sleeping, haha! Now, make sure you have your phone with you. Got it? Good. Then let’s go get Rhys!”
Connor and Stephen exchanged vague ‘how ye doin’?’ glances before less than surreptitiously checking each other’s name and number. ‘McPherson, 1’ notified Stephen’s, as they fell into step behind their exuberant chaperone. They waited as Pamela repeated the same routine at Rhys’s door (‘Campbell, 4’) and the three followed her through the sterile, white corridors to the meeting area where they’d watched the video the day previously.
The man and Cameron were already there, busying themselves with tablets and mobile phones. The screen was showing the spinning ’The Elements’ logo again. At the far corner Connor spied Grayson (‘Anderson, 8’) and his group. They were sitting on couches, listening to one of the girls. Connor scanned, looking for Alan’s group. ‘Alan, 7’ and his two team-mates, ‘Harrison, 2’ and another whose name (number 5) was too difficult to read were at the opposite end again. All three groups were out-with speaking distance of one another.
“Boys! Good morning and welcome again. We’ll have a short meeting first, if you don’t mind, then we’ll have time for breakfast afterwards. Please, come and seat yourselves in the same chairs as yesterday.”
The three groups merged into one as they patiently filed into the seating area. As before, the three girls took the remaining seats in the second row.
“Thank you. I trust you slept well. Certainly, there have been no reports of nightmares or sleep-walking. A good night’s sleep is always important at Kimble. ‘The Elements’ requires you to be functioning to your highest capacity. A healthy body and healthy mind is so important. But enough of the small talk! Cameron…”
Cameron, with his slick hair and beige chinos and perfectly-pressed pink shirt stepped forward. He spoke for the first time.
“Good morning all.”
‘His voice hasn’t even broken!’ thought Connor.
“Before we begin our rigorous training programme, we will first set up social media accounts for you all. Now, I know all of you already use social media, some of you even have your own blogs and YouTube channels, but we have taken the liberty of deleting those accounts for your own good. At the moment, none of you has any online presence whatsoever.”
There were a few muffled grumbles and a pained sigh from someone sitting behind Connor. Cameron ignored this distress and continued.
“It is necessary to start afresh, to begin ‘The Elements’ with a clean slate and no previous history. Some of you will welcome this clean break, I am certain of that.
You will need four accounts. Once they are up and running it will be your responsibility to maintain three of those four accounts. One of the accounts will be controlled by us. These four accounts will be how the audience interacts with you. Build up a following, interact with your public and you will stand a better chance of progressing through ‘The Elements’. It’s simple.
You are all familiar with YouTube, yes?”
Without waiting for an affirmative response, he went on.
“We here at Kimble have already created a YouTube channel for the show. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but we have filmed you all since departing on the train yesterday morning, and we continued filming throughout the day and night. Each evening, around 8pm, we will upload new content, edited highlights of your day. Here’s just a taster of what is already online.”
He dimmed the lights, aimed the remote control at an unseen sensor and the screen lit up with camera footage of the boys on the train. Hidden cameras had picked out Connor and Grayson talking. Here they were at Grayson’s table. There was Alan joining them. The three sharing sweets. Other boys looking bored. Sleeping. Reading. Watching the trio. Here was Connor wandering up and down the carriage. Stopping to read the strange poem. Suddenly, sound burst from the screen. A cheering crowd. The scrum at the station. A man’s voice, off-screen asking Connor how he felt to be taking part in television history. Connor blinking, blanking him. Now they were in the limos. Then the sound cut again. They were standing in a semicircle as the man addressed them. The film continued in a fast-cut blur of the previous day’s images; being led through corridors, selecting clothes, eating dinner. The last image was of Connor, Rhys and Stephen sitting alone in the recreation room. “This place is weird,” Stephen’s voice had been electronically treated, making it echo. “D’you think they’ll really kill some of us?” The phrase ‘kill some of us’ echoed infinitely, repeating, repeating, repeating before the voice and the image of the three boys faded to black, to be replaced by the spinning ‘The Elements’ logo.
Allowing the boys no time to draw breath, Cameron continued.
“You already have fans! And foes! Look at some of these comments.”
A scrolling screenshot of a YouTube comments section whizzed upwards from the bottom of the screen. Hundreds of comments. Maybe even thousands. It was very difficult to read them in their non-stop blur.
JacquiTGT: ‘Grayson is soooo cool!’
EBoy94: ‘Ginger dude sucks!’
MorganD: “Play more air drumz, Grayson!”
Rambo’n’Ella: “We heart the fat kid x”
“Currently,” Cameron spoke as the comments continued behind him, Mr Jones, number 8, is top of the popularity tree. It would be unfair of me to suggest who might need to work hardest to gain the favour of the viewers, but clearly, some of you will need to market yourselves a bit better.”
Beside Connor, both Rhys and Stephen subconsciously sat slightly more upright, offering more attention to Cameron than they had been doing.
“So that is the YouTube situation. You will have no control over the content we show, I’m afraid, but you are free to view it whenever you are in R&R time. You will, however, have total control over the three other accounts. That is why we have asked you to bring your mobile phone with you.”
The man stepped to the podium now as Cameron took a step back and to the side.
“Thank you, Cameron. Firstly, is there any boy who doesn’t have a mobile phone?” He waited.
“No one? Good. You are all familiar with social media. You will be far more adept at its inner workings than I am. Firstly, you are going to need a Babble account. As Cameron said, your current accounts are no more, so you’ll need to set yourself up again.”
Connor and the others were already tapping and filling in information.
“It is up to you to select a profile picture, boys. Remember, you will be seen by millions around the globe.”
Connor went to his camera roll. He wanted to use the picture of him standing beside the yacht that was taken when he was on holiday just a few months before. He liked his hair in it. His camera roll was blank. There wasn’t a picture to be found in it. He checked his contacts. It was empty too, save one number. His mum’s. His emails? Blank. Text messages? Blank. The chat app he used to talk to all his pals at the same time? Deleted from the phone altogether. They – the TV folk, or this man, or Kimble, or the lot of them – had been through everything.
Connor aimed the phone at his left breast pocket – ‘Stewart’ and ‘9’ – and shot a wobbly selfie. It would do for the time being.
Two other accounts were set up using the same profile picture; Olé, the app that allows the user to upload filtered photos with a short piece of explanatory text, and a brand new ‘Elements’ app that would enable the user to upload short bursts of video activity with scrolling text across it. This app, the man said triumphantly, had been downloaded over 637,000 times already since being launched the day before yesterday. The public, he remarked, were desperately awaiting our accounts so they could follow them.
As at dinner time yesterday, Pamela led the boys to a table for four, situated far away from the other two groups. They were given all sort of options for breakfast and when their orders arrived, brought to the table by a large man in blue checked trousers and chef’s hat, Connor and his two fellow contestants ate heartily. Pamela, as was becoming the norm, ensured little in the way of silence.
“I love scrambled eggs! Do you Stephen? Rhys? I know you can’t eat them, Connor, what with your allergies ‘n all, which is a shame, as you’re really missing out, isn’t he boys?”
Connor ate in silence, partly to process the fact that everyone at Kimble seemed to know so much about him, partly through tiredness – it was still only 8am – and partly because, should he have wanted to say something, the likelihood of getting a word in between Pamela’s non-stop volley of words was minimal at best. He crunched his toast and slurped his tea, safe in the knowledge that any noisy eating on his part would be drowned out by Pamela’s incessant small talk.
Connor had to be alert though and not block out Pamela completely, because sometimes she’d let slip a little nugget of useful information.
“I hear, Connor, that you’re very much the favourite in South America already. Those Argentinians really love you! And Stephen, the French really have a thing for your hair! Rhysy boy, we’re gonna have to work harder on your media profile, sweetie, You’re not where you need to be on the list. I mean, you’re not that far down, but you’d probably want to be further up the field. Remember, you’re on camera all the time. Even now! All. The. Time!”
As those last three words were whispered slowly for emphasis, Rhys looked around, trying to see where any cameras and microphones might be hidden. His search was interrupted by the man once more.
“Boys! I’d like to get moving if we may. Can I suggest you take 15 minutes to freshen up and meet back in here for the press photoshoot? Girls, can you make sure they find their rooms and back to here again? Thank you. Stephen McPherson,” the man looked at their table. “Could you kindly wait behind for a minute, please? Thank you.”
The sound of chairs scraping backwards punctuated the air, but Connor’s table sat in uneasy silence. The three boys exchanged concerned looks. Pamela had visibly paled. Stephen had picked up on this and of the three boys was clearly the most-worried.
“What does he want, Pamela? What is it?” Stephen’s voice quivered.
Pamela shook her head slowly.
“I have no idea,” she admitted. “But I’m sure it’s nothing.” The tone of her voice suggested even she didn’t believe herself.
The man approached their table, his hands behind his back, his suit jacket buttoned at the middle button.
“Thank you, Pamela. See to it that Rhys and Connor find their rooms, will you? Thanks.”
He waited until the three of them had stood up. Connor felt the need to push his chair under the table again. He half-nodded to the man before glancing at Stephen. Stephen was shaking, of that there could be no doubt. Pamela and Rhys stood to the side, anxious to leave.
“C’mon Connor,” said Pamela with forced enthusiasm. “Let’s get freshened up.” She left the room, followed closely by the two boys.
Had they stayed they would have heard the man tell Stephen under no circumstances was he ever again to sneak a phone call home to his parents. As punishment, the man said, he could have Stephen expelled form ‘The Elements’. This was said in such a way that being a contestant in ‘The Elements’, with its stab-proof layers and fireproof trousers and threats of death, was very much the preferred choice. Did he understand, asked the man, or did it need to be spelled out clearer? Stephen understood. He had phoned his mum for barely a minute when he was first alone in his room, as he’d agreed the day before at the train station. “Let me know you’re in and settled,” she’d said, and he had.
“Do it again,” the man threatened, “and I’ll see to it that you don’t return home. Clear?”
“Clear?!” The man raised his voice.
“Yes, sir.” Came the meek reply.
“Good. Now, hurry along. I want you back here shortly.”
Stephen couldn’t wait to leave the table. He had no clear idea of how to find his room from here, but he knew he needed to take the corridor that peeled to the left from the meeting area. Luckily, Pamela was coming in the opposite direction with Connor and Rhys.
“Connor. Rhys. Head back into the meeting area yourselves. You know where you’re going, don’t you? Stephen. Is everything OK? I’ll take you back to your room. We’ll need to be quick, just a quick brush of the teeth and then back again. Okay?”
Connor and Rhys both gave Stephen a sympathetic smile. Whatever the man had said had clearly shaken him up. Maybe they’d find out what had got him into bother. Maybe they’d never know. The message was clear though. Step out of line and there are consequences.
On returning, Pamela and Stephen were the last two to sit down in the meeting area. The man looked at Stephen.
“All freshened up? Settled and ready to go? Good.”
Stephen sat upright and forwards, appearing keener than everyone else there.
“Boys. We will shortly reconvene in the media centre. There, you will take part in a press conference. The media of the world is invited and awaits; Süddeutsche Zeitung from Munich. The New York Times. Le Monde. El Pais. The Herald Sun. The LA Times. The Buenos Aries Times… Asahai Shimbun, the largest-selling newspaper not just in Japan but in the whole of Asia has sent their chief news reporter as well as Hiro Akari, the award-winning photojournalist. You should be very honoured.”
As he reeled off the list, he watched the boys’ reactions.
“Not to mention all of our own national dailies. And TV Crews too, from the UK, the US and Canada, all over Europe and Asia, Australia…South America…even Nairobi…all are going to be in attendance. They await now!”
The man lowered his voice, adopting the fatherly role again.
“It can be quite daunting, boys, to look out and face a sea of cameras, a swill of reporters all eager to land a quote or a titbit of gossip. I must prepare you for what you are about to face. You will be overwhelmed at first, I have no doubt about that, but you will also rise to the occasion. Remember, the world is watching. This is a good chance to garner public affection. Don’t squander the opportunity! Remember, please turn your phones off.”
The press room was a five-minute walk from the meeting area. On arrival, the man instructed the girls to keep the boys waiting “for a second or two.” As he opened the door, the noise of a large, unruly crowd filtered through. The boys looked at one another, a mixture of panic and nervous laughter. One boy, ‘Harrison, 3’ fixed his hair. Grayson air-drummed, oblivious to, or perhaps ignoring, Connor’s nod of recognition. Pamela smiled at the boys.
“Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.”
The man returned with another man. Connor recognised him from the YouTube footage from earlier. He was the man who’d thrust the microphone into his face when he stepped off the train yesterday. He carried the same microphone today. His suit was silvery grey, really shiny, and he wore equally shiny shoes that were ridiculously pointed at the toes.
“Boys,” the man said. “This is Steve de la Cruz. He’s the presenter of ‘The Elements’.”
“Hey guys! How y’all doin’?!”
He had a face full of teeth and fake tan to match. His eyes looked strange, an unusually bright blue. His eyebrows were waxed to perfection, his hair a gravity-defying colossus of quiffery. Connor couldn’t place his accent. He had one of those TV voices that made the person sound like they came from nowhere at all, which made Connor think he was probably from the Southern Regions.
“We gotta lotta folk through there to see y’all! They’re super-keen to find out all about who y’all are. Y’ready?”
The man opened the door again and de la Cruz stepped through. The noise was intense. Holding the door open, the man beckoned the boys to follow. He said something to them, but by now, it was even louder and his words were swallowed by the ocean of noise. Connor followed the first couple of boys through and into the room.
One long line of tables was set up. The tables were covered in blue cloth and sat in front of a massive backdrop that included a repeating pattern of ‘The Elements’ logo, the TV company logo and the brandings of Babble, YouTube and Olé. The line of tables was punctuated at intervals by the numbers 1-9 and a series of small black microphones. Jugs of water and small glass tumblers were placed at each section of the table. A girl, new to Connor but dressed in TV cap and ‘Elements’ t-shirt leaned close to his ear and instructed him to sit down at his number. He sat and surveyed the room as the rest of the boys took their places at the table. Grayson sat to his immediate right. They exchanged brief friendly smiles.
It was an intense scene right enough. A riot of jostling reporters, voices of every nationality, whipped themselves into a frenzy at the arrival of the boys. Prime positions were lost and won as flashbulbs flashed, cameras clicked and elbows elbowed in every direction. At the back of the room, a dozen, maybe more photographers stood on step ladders, their cameras trained on the nine boys at the table. A large TV camera sat in the middle between them, raising and lowering seemingly of its own free will, the camera operator aiming straight down the lens towards the boys at the table opposite. At one point the camera swept across the top of the heads of the reporters below, coming to within a few feet of them. At either side, hand-held TV cameras filmed the chaos, flitting between the startled boys and the hungry journalists. A crush barrier had been erected between the table and the rest of the room. Between the barrier and the table, a cameraman roamed free with unobstructed views of the boys. Along the front of the table were placed 30? 40? mobile devices. Belonging to the journalists, they were already recording the voices that would form the quotes in tomorrow’s entertainment news pages.
Steve de la Cruz stepped out into the gap between table and crush barrier. The man, the ultimate authority, the one in charge, stood to the side near the door, arms folded, surveying the room with satisfaction. The presenter spoke into his microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the world’s press. Welcome to Kimble! And welcome to ‘The Elements’!”
The lights dimmed and from behind him, Connor felt the low rumble as the promotional video they’d watched the day before began to play.
‘Nine contestants….Five challenges….and one winner! Physical strength. Mental stamina. Mental strength. Physical stamina. Each is crucial to your success. Survive all five challenges… Survive the public vote…Survive ‘The Elements’ This is war…! ’The Elements’ is war!’
The lights came up and de la Cruz once again took centre stage.
“Nine contestants!” he shouted dramatically. “Five challenges!” He held up his left hand, his five fingers spread wide. “Just one winner!” He dropped four of the five fingers, his forefinger remaining rigid in the air. “And that winner sits somewhere at this table!”
He turned, microphone arm outstretched to face the table, his quiff wobbling stiffly with the sudden movement. His left forefinger swept across the width of the table and back again. He turned again to face the media.
“’The Elements’ will be the most-watched, most-streamed, most talked about show in TV history. Everyone who watches and interacts has the power to influence this show and will have a say in which boy ultimately wins.
We have asked you here today to meet our nine contestants, to gather the stories you will print in your newspapers and magazines and feature on your news channels and TV shows. I ask that you raise your hand should you wish to ask a question and, if chosen, identify yourself before asking. No subject matter is off-limits but I do ask that you are respectful.”
The chaos of the room had settled to a thrumming buzz. On de la Cruz’s last remark, more than thirty hands shot straight up.
“Aha! Yes! And off we go… madam, there, the lady in the blue cardigan…”
“Good morning Mr de la Cruz. Felicity Amersham, Daily Mirror. I would like to put a general question to all the boys, if I may. I was just wondering…did you all know exactly what you were getting yourselves into? This seems quite a big deal, this TV show, and I’m not sure the contestants may have appreciated what they were signing up for.”
De la Cruz responded swiftly, with a smile.
“Yes! A big deal indeed. ‘The Elements’ is certainly the biggest of big deals!”
He turned side-on, facing half of the boys.
“We might as well start at the beginning, eh? Number 1, Mr McPherson, did you know, exactly, as the Daily Mirror asks, what you were signing up for?”
Stephen looked at de la Cruz. He looked out into the throng of reporters and cameras and lighting rigs and microphones.
“Eh, not really, no. I was told they were looking for boys like me to take part in a new reality TV show. I took part because all of my pals said it would be better than going to school.”
At this, the room laughed. More hands shot up again. Ignoring them, de la Cruz went down the line.
“Fowler. Number 2. Did you know what you were signing up for?”
“I didn’t, no, but d’you know what? I’m glad I did. All this is brilliant! I can’t wait to get started!”
Connor listened, impressed. Fowler carried himself well. He’d probably gain followers and votes – were there even votes? – because of this. Connor tried to formulate the perfect answer in his head, a difficult task given the charged atmosphere in the room.
“Harrison. Three. What about you? Did you know what you had signed up for?
Harrison looked nervously out into the room. His tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth and he spoke with a tacky awkwardness.
“No. I had no idea I was getting involved in anything like this.” He paused to take a mouthful of water. “The fireproof clothes…the stab proof clothes…”
At this, the man appeared in the pit between the front of the table and the crush barrier.
“…the subzero armour….the threat of actual death…”
He had his arms out, open in front of him and a wide smile on his face. Inwardly he was seething. De la Cruz stepped aside and allowed him centre stage.
“Aha! Now, now! Let’s not get carried away with ourselves, shall we!” The man turned, looked at Harrison and turned again to face the reporters. “Let’s not give the game away, eh, Mr Harrison?! Apologies, ladies and gentlemen of the press. Mr de la Cruz alluded to no questions being off limit, but unfortunately, due to contractual obligations, we cannot discuss the actual content of the show at present. I trust you’ll understand.”
The man remained at the front, conceding only slight space to de la Cruz who gamely carried on as if nothing of significance had happened. The press though would know a good story when it was right in front of them. As he spoke, the man turned and fixed a stony stare on Harrison. Harrison poured himself a glass of water, willing the man to look away.
“Campbell, number four. The Daily Mirror asks if you knew what you were signing up for…”
Rhys took a gulp of water. In the short time since the man had interrupted Harrison’s answer, he had had to rethink what he was going to say.
“I knew that the show would probably be exciting, yes. And who wouldn’t want to be involved in an exciting TV show? I’m a bit of a science geek, actually…”
Internally, Connor cringed. ‘Rhys! You want to win followers, not lose them!’
“…and when I discovered that the show was called ‘The Elements’, well, it piqued my interest. Like most of the boys here, I just can’t wait to get started.”
‘Good recovery,’ surmised Connor. Rhys had spoken well.
De la Cruz continued down the line, all of the boys a mixture of nerves and excitement, and all, since Harrison’s faux pas, giving stock ‘it’s great to be here’ answers.
“Mr Anderson. Contestant number 8. Did you know what you’d be signing up for?”
Grayson leaned back in his chair and puffed out a sigh, both hands behind his head. He leaned forward and rested his chin in his cupped hands, his elbows on the blue tablecloth.
“No. I had no idea. It was either this or juvenile detention, I don’t mind telling you that. And I didn’t much fancy the thought of going to a detention centre for most of the year. I must say though,” he sat upright and held his arms out to the room, “this is fantastic! If ‘The Elements’ is half as good as this is just now, I can’t wait to get going!”
Grayson had easily been the most confident of all the boys. His popularity rating would be growing even more on the back of this. Connor knew it was his turn next, yet he still didn’t have a clear idea of what he was going to say.
“And lastly, but by no means leastly…!” De la Cruz faced him with an extra-wide smile. “Stewart. Nine. Did you, as the Daily Mirror wants to know, as the whole world wants to know, understand what you were signing up for?”
Connor had already taken two gulps of water, but he downed a third before he spoke.
“Like the other boys, I had no real idea, or expectations of what ‘The Elements’ would involve.” Connor had mentioned the name of the show, just as Grayson had, and he felt it would be important somehow when it came to winning and losing. “I have to say, we’ve been treated brilliantly since we got here. Our rooms are amazing. The food too. We have a chill-out zone, a recreation room where we can relax at the end of the day. I never knew being on TV would be as exciting. I too am looking forward to getting things started. I think ‘The Elements’ is going to be a good show.”
De la Cruz faced the throng again. The man stood to his right. Without asking the audience, thirty or more hands shot straight in the air again.
“Ok. We’ll take a second question. This lady here….with the dark hair and emerald pendant…yes, you!”
“Good morning. Johanna Adler, Der Bild, Germany. My question, which I would like to direct to number 8, Anderson, if I may, is this. Are you always so relaxed? I watched the YouTube highlights last night and I couldn’t help but think that nothing fazes you. And the way you have carried yourself so far today suggests to me someone who is very calm. You seem very relaxed in the face of this, this brutal competition.”
De la Cruz stepped to the side, allowing the cameras a clear shot of Grayson. Grayson took a slow drink of water and, as if playing up to his public image, drummed a quick rat-a-tat on the table.
“I’ll tell you this,” he remarked. “I’m just being myself. I see some of the other boys and they’re not quite sure how they’re supposed to act here. I say, ‘don’t act’. Be yourself. When you’re told your every move is going to be on TV, it can change the way you think about things. If you let that get to you, you might never again be the person you actually are. Me, yeah, I might look relaxed, and that’s because I am. It doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous though. I’m a wee bit nervous just now, actually, but I just tell myself that you’re all normal people, like my mum and dad, my gran, my teachers. I act naturally around them, so I’m going to act naturally around everybody here too.”
Adler scribbled something into a spiral notebook and smiled a thanks towards Grayson. Hands were up again.
“Jason Katz, Entertainment Now!, New York City. My question is for the science guy, number 4, Mr Campbell.”
Rhys straightened himself again, braced for the question.
“Hello Mr Harrison. I’d like to know how you got selected for the show. What qualities do you have that made you stand out from the other applicants?”
Rhys didn’t know how to answer this. The truth was, he had been caught getting up to stuff in the chemistry lab at lunchtime, and not for the first time. He hadn’t auditioned for anything. Rhys had been told by the judge that he would go to either the shale pits or the new TV show. It was a no-brainer.
Before he could answer, the man had forced de la Cruz aside and was back centre stage.
“Again, I’m afraid for various contractual reasons, we cannot discuss the selection process. I can tell you that all the boys here possess the desired qualities essential for ‘The Elements’. Each individual has been carefully profile-matched. Who you have in front of you here today are the nine best possible contestants for what will be the greatest show in televisual and online history.”
The man’s answer hadn’t answered Katz’s question at all, but it was all he was getting. Rhys was quite relived to have dodged it. The questions continued thick and fast.
“Will you miss your parents?”
“When will the first contest take place?”
“Does it excite you to think that people in Nigeria will be watching this?”
“Are you worried about being first out?”
“How far do you think you can go in this competition?”
“Do you worry that your fitness levels might not be up to scratch?”
And so on and so on. As the press conference continued into its second hour, Connor found himself beginning to enjoy it, although a permanent voice in his head reminded him that everything he said and did would be seen. Even when a question wasn’t directed towards him, he felt the need to nod approvingly at the other boys’ answers or smile when they said something light-hearted. Enjoyable, yes, but exhausting too.
“We’ll take another question.” Scanning the room, de la Cruz looked for an interesting face. “You, sir, in the gillet and polo shirt….the lanyard….yes, uh huh, yes, you!”
A Japanese man stood and bowed. A second Japanese man stood with him. The first man said something in his native tongue then the second man spoke.
“Good day, Mr de la Cruz, sir,” spoke the second man. “This is Mr Furuta Yoshiro of Asahai Shimbun, Tokyo’s best-known daily newspaper. My name is Imai Satoru. I am his translator.”
Both men bowed humbly once more. The room instantly felt calmer. Slower. Less intense.
De la Cruz smiled his full-on TV smile at Yoshiro. “Welcome to ‘The Elements’, Mr Yoshiro, Mr Satoru.” De la Cruz offered a bumbled-looking bow before continuing. “It’s our honour to welcome you here today. Please, what would you like to ask the contestants?”
Yoshiro spoke for a full minute. Slow and husky-voiced, his demeanour demanded patience.
“Mr Yoshiro says,” translated Satoru, “that in Japan there is a long tradition of humiliation in TV game shows. Will ‘The Elements’ follow a similar format to those shows, where contestants are made to look foolish? He understands that these games involve the wearing of fireproof clothing and carry the threat of death. Are we to presume that some of the boys here today might be killed in the name of entertainment?”
At this, the recently calm-again man visibly bristled. De la Cruz answered for him.
“Well, as we said earlier, unfortunately we cannot discuss the content of the show…a show that is going to be regarded as a watershed moment in TV history, of that there is no doubt!”
The man unceremoniously nudged him aside.
“With the greatest respect, Mr Yoshiro sir, you do not know what you are talking about. I am aware of those Japanese TV shows to which you refer, but let me tell you, ‘The Elements’ is nothing, NOTHING! like that at all.”
His cool blown, the man composed himself in front of the room full of journalists. He made a show of checking his watch.
“I think we have had enough questions for the time being. I thank you for your attendance and your questions, ladies and gentlemen. I very much look forward to reading your reports and watching your bulletins later on. We will be in contact in advance of the next press briefing. I bid you a good day.”
The man left quickly. The room began to dismantle. Chairs scraped, cases clicked shut, voices of all internationalities chattered, feet shuffling out of the two doors at the back of the room.
Connor sighed a long, weary sigh. He suddenly felt very tired.
“That was alright, eh?” said Grayson, just as his host had arrived to take him away.
“Yeah, it was,” replied a slightly untruthful Connor. It had been alright, but it had also been full-on and tiring. And the way the man lost it at the end…no doubt the boys would pay for that.
The boys were rounded into their groups of three and led back out into the sterility of the corridor. Somewhere, voices were raised in anger.
“I do not want that Japanese man near this place again! Do you hear me? Who the hell authorised his pass? I want to see them now!”
A quieter female voice spoke. It was too difficult to hear what she was saying.
“I don’t care if he’s a respected journalist…he’s not welcome on my show again! Now, get me the press officer…”
Pamela spoke to the boys, diverting their attention.
“Well done, all of you, you answered really well. Rhys, I reckon you’ll have gained some new followers on the back of that performance. Connor! Very smooth! Great answers! Stephen! Solid. It’s not easy, is it? You all did remarkably well. I’ll take you back to your rooms. You can get freshened up and then I think you have a good bit of down time before we need to meet again. You’ll probably be glad of the peace and quiet, eh?”
The four walked the corridors until they arrived at their respective rooms. Pamela would meet them here in an hour or so, she said. The three boys gladly retired to the tranquility of their rooms and each of them flopped onto their respective beds.
(more to follow in the future)