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.
by Craig McAllister
“What you have to remember boys, is that the eyes of the world are on you constantly. Even if a question hasn’t been directed at you, don’t think you don’t need to behave appropriately.”
The man was standing at his podium, film of the morning’s press conference playing behind him. Connor was pleased that he’d confirmed the need to be always ‘on’ but was equally annoyed as he felt that, until now, it might’ve given him some advantage over the others.
“Look at this boy here.”
He tapped into a keyboard and an area of the screen pixelated before enlarging.
“Number 5. Reilly.”
The boys laughed as Reilly absent-mindedly picked at his nose.
“And this boy. Alan, seven.’
Alan was laughing internally and rolling his eyes at something; a question from a journalist perhaps, or another boy’s answer. It didn’t really matter.
“Mr Alan. This little expression has already been clipped over 1000 times and is currently doing the rounds as a meme. You’ll no doubt find it in your down time later.”
The boys continued to laugh, each grateful that it was someone else being highlighted.
“And Harrison, number 3.”
On screen, Harrison could be seen muttering something under his breath. The man tapped at his keyboard and the image replayed multiple times, each time zooming in on Harrison’s moving lips.
“Mr Harrison. I’m no lip reader, but I have a fairly good idea that in this clip you were saying unsavoury things about someone. Would that be fair to say?”
Harrison shrunk into his seat.
Harrison remained silent.
“That someone being me, I believe. Would I be correct?”
The frivolity in the room had dissipated, the atmosphere immediately tense.
“Luckily, here at ‘The Elements’, we do have lip readers to hand, and let me tell you boys, let me remind you Harrison, of what it was you said, shall I?”
Harrison brought his knees up to his chin, heels on the edge of the chair, his arms around his knees keeping him tightly packed together.
“That bastard is going to get it. That’s what you are saying in this clip, is it not? That bastard is going to get it.”
Harrison remained in the same position, angry tears of frustration making slow tracks down both cheeks.
“Quite how this bastard is going to get it will be an interesting spectacle to watch, I’d wager. I’d be more worried about this bastard getting you first, Harrison. Don’t forget our little chat, thank you.”
Any fun that had been in the room had evaporated. The film continued to play silently for a moment as Cameron and the man busied themselves; the man at his keyboard, Cameron writing with a stylus on a tablet.
A new image appeared, this time of Stephen’s carrot-coloured spiky hair. Stephen’s stomach dropped instantly.
“This,” said the man incredulously “is apparently the number one trending subject in France! Mr McPherson’s hair! Currently something of a phenomenon, the French girls can’t get enough of it! This has put Mr McPherson (number one) at the actual number one in the popularity stakes…and you don’t need me to tell you the importance of popularity if you’re going to survive this show.”
The man continued, lowering his voice.
“Boys. Take notes. Your image is all-important. The public is vain, by and large. They don’t care about how good you are at chemistry or what books you’ve read or how nice you are to your mum at the weekend. They just want something nice to look at.”
He hesitated, looking first at the image of Stephen on the screen and then at Stephen himself.
“…even if that ideal of ‘nice’ might be subjective.”
Stephen really wasn’t sure what the man meant by this. Was he being complementary? He didn’t think he was. But maybe he had been. Still, he was number one in the ratings. That was all that mattered.
“So! I have arranged for a hair stylist for each of you. They will take the mop you currently own – McPherson excepted, obviously, although you too will be given a stylist – and transform it into a public-pleasing look. Following that, there will be a photo shoot. We will produce a series of shots of all of you in the various clothes you selected yesterday. They will be sent out to the media for promotional purposes. You may wish to choose an image or two for your own social media platforms.
As you have seen, your public image is everything. Make the most of this opportunity.”
The man led the boys into a new room on the other side of the corridor. Around three of the walls were placed dressing tables with large square mirrors, the mirrors bordered by bare lightbulbs of the sort you’d find in a theatre dressing room. A team of stylists were already there, a mixture of men and women, standing around in the middle chatting idly. One or two filed their nails. Two of the men sat apart from the group, engrossed in their phones. All immediately ceased activities when the man entered.
“Afternoon all,” he said light-heartedly as the boys filed in behind him. “Here are your clients. As we have already discussed, do as you wish.”
He happened to catch sight of Grayson and his near collar-length highlights, and as an afterthought he added, “Take as long as you need.”
The team of stylists spread out amongst the boys.
“You must be Connor Stewart,” said a male voice as Connor felt a tap on his shoulder. “I’m Gerry. Pleased to meet you.”
The pair shook hands and Gerry led Connor to one of the dressing tables.
“It’s a bit weird this, isn’t it?” said Gerry. “Boys your age tend not to have stylists, really. Who normally cuts your hair?”
“Eh, it’s a guy called Dave. Dave the Shave he’s called. My dad calls him Shaky Dave because his hand shakes now and again.”
“When he cuts it, do you tell him how you’d like it?”
“Not really, no. I’ve always gone there. He just cuts it the same way every time.”
“And are you happy with how he cuts it?”
“I think so, yeah. I’ve never really thought about it.”
“Would you mind if I tried something new with your hair? Nothing radical. We’re not talking totally shaved off or bronze highlights or anything.” Gerry ran his fingers through Connor’s hair. “But you have a good head of hair here. I could give you a style that’ll look good but would be easy to maintain.”
“I suppose so,” said Connor. He’d never, ever considered that hair might need maintaining.
“Trust me,” replied Gerry. And with a swish of the sharp blades between his fingers, he set to work.
A short while later, Connor was in possession of a new haircut that didn’t look too different from what he normally had. A bit longer on top maybe, a bit better shape, a less-obvious cow’s lick, but he was still recognisably Connor. Looking around the room, most boys looked pretty much the same as before too; smarter, shorter, more shine maybe, but no-one looked noticeably different. No-one that was, apart from Harrison. He’d opted for a full-blown into-the-wood buzzcut but had left a tiny circle of dark hair at the front. It had been gelled up into a jagged point.
Harrison had taken the opportunity to adopt the full-on teenage psycho look. Instantly, he looked intimidating.
After a long and drawn-out photo shoot which Connor found incredibly boring; ‘look here….and up there….point….serious face….more serious….smiling now….look tough…tougher…yes…now in the subzero armour, thanks…’ the boys sat at their evening meal. The talk was naturally of the day’s events. The general consensus was that, no matter how this was dressed up, ‘The Elements’ was essentially an extreme punishment camp for boys who had erred to varying degrees. Each of the three boys had spoken in hushed tones about what they’d done to end up being sent here. Pamela, despite her presence and authority, didn’t intervene. In fact, if anything, she promoted the conversation.
“Connor,” she said with a smile. “Is it true you’re only here because you stole a magazine?”
The other boys looked at Connor, mid mouthful. ‘You know fine well!’ thought Connor to himself.
“Uh huh,” he said nodding, his mouth still full of food.
“And Stephen. You’re also here because you have a habit of stealing things too, is that right?”
Stephen looked in turn at the three of them.
“Yeah,” he said. “I stole money from my gran’s purse.” He flushed. “It was a terrible thing to do. No excuses.”
Everyone turned to Rhys.
“I pocketed chemicals from the science lab at school. I was trying to make my own hallucinogenic drugs.”
No-one, perhaps except for Pamela, expected that answer.
Connor spoke next.
“So, however you look at it, we’re all here for stealing things. What about the others? What are they here for? I know Grayson vandalised his neighbour’s garden. And Alan…Randolph…he…”
Connor stopped himself saying it out loud. The man had seen to it that everyone there already knew what he’d done.
“What d’you think the others are here for?” asked Rhys. “Do you think we’re, like, the stealing team. That lot over there are the vandals and Alan’s team are the really bad ones, the ones who’ve done terrible things to other people?”
All three plus Pamela looked at the table where Randolph sat. Number 5, Reilly, the nose-picker was busy shovelling heaps of mashed potato into his sharply-featured face. Alan and the girl were in conversation, he talking and she listening. Beside her, Harrison sat in silence, an empty fork in his hand, a storm on his brow. He’d been an insignificant presence until the press conference, but now, coupled with the menacing haircut, he had all the classic characteristics of someone who might tip over the edge.
“What d’you think Harrison’s here for?” said Stephen, his voice even lower than before.
“He’s probably murdered someone,” said Rhys matter-of-factly, a mouthful of spaghetti snaking into his mouth. “Or set someone on fire, like Alan did.”
“Boys. I think we should leave the speculation for another time. Remember, the eyes and ears of the world are watching.”
Somewhere nearby, in that other room that the boys would never know about, the man and Cameron sat on a pair of leather swivel chairs watching and listening.
“Nice work, Pamela,” said the man, reaching out and touching ‘her’ on the LCD screen in front of him. “Nice work.”
Cameron wrote silently onto his tablet as the man leaned back and swivelled.
After eating and freshening up, the boys were given some free time in the R&R room. Once Pamela and the other two girls had brought them to the room, they’d disappeared, leaving the boys on their own. For the first time since arriving, all nine boys were permitted to mix together. The arcade machines were in use, colourful explosions lighting up the faces of the boys at the controls, the bleeps, bloops and retro whooshes travelling far into the middle of the room. The vending machine dispensed chocolate and other confectionary. Connor was amazed to discover that none of it cost anything. You keyed in your room number, followed by the product number and whatever you’d selected dropped promptly into the tray. The large video screen at the far end of the room was showing YouTube footage of the day’s events. A couple of the boys were sat on the couches they’d dragged in front of it, their legs dangling over the side as they ate crisps and watched themselves. The tell-tale clack of pool balls and the click-click-click of the ping-pong ball transported Connor straight back to the youth club at the scout hall. He wondered, suddenly, if he’d ever get to spend his Friday nights back there again.
The R&R room was a bit over-stimulating, truth be told. Connor had hoped for something a bit more relaxing where he could gather his thoughts from the day, maybe check out his social media updates. He’d wanted to change his profile picture, maybe use one of the professional ones that had been taken earlier. He was curious about the YouTube footage, how he was presented and so he dragged a couch to the side of the boys and sat down to watch. They nodded a short acknowledgement before returning to the screen. On it, a bare-chested Stephen was singing into his mirror. The sound being low and the added stimulation of the noise from the arcade machines, as well as the pool balls, ping-pong balls and general buzz as the boys talked made it difficult to hear exactly what it was Stephen was singing. His eyebrows arched as he strained to hit a high note and he collapsed onto his bed in a fit of fake hysterical laughter. Stephen, it seemed, was trying a bit too hard. De la Cruz appeared as a talking head, intercut with various segments of the day’s activities. Below the images, Connor studied the information that would come to be something of an obsession with him.
As the film continued, Connor switched his attention to his phone. More notifications. He opened ‘Elements’ first. Another ‘50000+’. He scrolled quickly, stopping now and again to read. None of it was of any substance. It was all drivel. ‘You’re the best’, ‘You’re gonna win’, ‘I like ur new haircut’, all that sort of stuff. Pretty vacuous. The private messages were no different. He changed to Olé. More of the same. A meme showed him sniggering at something at the press conference. Across it in white letters had been added, ‘when your bro goes to the cookie jar but you already ate da last one!’ A blur of hashtags and emojis whizzed past as he scrolled, stopping randomly to look at the sharply-filtered photos of himself. He came across the official ‘Elements’ shots from the afternoon’s photoshoot, found a couple he liked and saved them to his phone. Switching between the three accounts, he uploaded his new profile picture. On Babble, he wrote another message for his followers.
‘Hey everybody! Thanks a million for all the messages and comments again. Hope you like the new profile pic – this is supposed to be my tough-guy look haha! We start training tomorrow so maybe by the end of the week I’ll have got a bit more tougher. Signing off for the night, Connor.‘’
Connor copied the same message into the other two accounts and turned back to the YouTube highlights playing out on the screen. They were showing film of the photo-shoot, cringe-inducing stuff of the boys being forced to pose unnaturally. No-one looked comfortable, least of all Connor. Then Harrison appeared, psycho haircut and thousand-yard stare. At one point, the camera seemed to stare down into the depths of his very soul and Harrison, oblivious to the hidden camera, stared straight back. Cut between the stupidity of Stephen singing and de la Cruz’s slick TV act, it was chilling.
Connor needed to get away from all of this. The screen was too big. His own head looked gigantic every time he appeared. It was ridiculous. The noise from the room was overpowering. His phone was constantly reminding him of the need to interact and engage with thousands of strangers. There was nowhere he could escape to. He could maybe find his way back to his room but he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to. Would doing that earn him a post-meal meeting with the man? He wasn’t willing to take the chance. For the first time since arriving, Connor missed his mum and dad. He wasn’t sure he could call them. Text them even. He had his mum’s number, the only number now in his phone, but no-one had given him permission to contact her. He daren’t call without being given the go-ahead. Lost in his thoughts for the time being, Connor looked at the screen but took nothing in.
“Connor! Yo! Connor!”
It was Grayson. He was with Fowler. Both looked happy to see him.
“Andy, this is Connor. Connor, this is Andy.”
Each acknowledged the other with a smile, bonded by their mutual friendship of Grayson.
“Pretty crazy this, innit?” said Grayson. “Not just this.” He nodded back into the body of the room. “But all of this. The clothes, the photo shoot, that press conference…..’The Elements’. What’s that all about?!?”
“I know,” agreed Connor. “Did you think you were signing up for this? ‘Cos I wasn’t.”
“No chance, mate.”
“I’m liking it!” said Fowler. “The rooms are great, the food is awesome and this place rocks!”
Connor looked at him wearily. He wanted to be upbeat but found it impossible.
“S’OK,” he replied. “But it’s a bit much. At the end of the day I think I prefer a quieter space.”
“Suit yourself, man,” said Andy. “Grayson mate, d’you fancy a game of pool?”
Grayson looked at Connor and smiled a weak smile before bouncing off to the free pool table, where Fowler was already racking up the balls. Connor’s thoughts turned once more to home. His mum in the kitchen, cooking at the stove. His dad at the sink, sleeves rolled up, foamy washing-up liquid halfway up his arms. Connor at the table, flicking through one of his magazines. Magazines! His sudden, overpowering feeling of guilt momentarily blotted out the buzz of the room before his thoughts were once again swallowed up by the chaos around him.
Somewhere nearby, in that other room that the boys would never know about, the man and Cameron sat on a pair of leather swivel chairs watching and listening. The three girls stood behind them, each focused on a different screen.
“This boy,” said the man, manipulating a joystick until Harrison’s face appeared on one of the screens, “Number 3, Harrison. An interesting young man. Worth keeping an eye on, eh Rebecca?” The girl behind him nodded in the affirmative.
“And this serious young chap…” The camera picked out Connor sitting alone, staring at the big screen. “The only boy so far that has had the foresight to have all the cameras and microphones deauthorised in his room. Very smart. He is not permitted to call home just yet. Is that clear, Pamela?”
“As a bell,” replied Pamela, a smile appearing on her face.
“It’s an interesting experiment, I must say,” said the man, swivelling to talk to the three girls. “Already we’re seeing signs of comradeship, loneliness, rage and anger, stupidity… The real stuff starts in the morning though.” He closed down the LCD screens with a click, asked Cameron to print him the daily report and double-checked his watch. “Time for bed, I think.”
The three girls returned to the recreation room. None of the boys paid much attention to them. Games of pool and table tennis were in full flow. There was a huddle around the arcade machines. The screen still showed the YouTube highlights, but by now, no-one was sitting watching them. From somewhere a switch was flicked. The screen shut down instantly. The two arcade machines went black and dead. A groan came from the huddle and the faces turned to complain.
“It’s lights-out time, boys. 2200 hours and no exceptions. It’s a big day tomorrow. Day 1 of training. You’ll need to be fresh for that.”
The girls led their respective groups back to their rooms.
“I’ll see you all in the morning,” smiled Pamela. “Bright eyed and bushy tailed! Sleep well.” She left them at the top of the corridor, allowing the three boys to walk the last part on their own.
“See you in the morning,” said Rhys as he arrived at his door.
“See you,” said Stephen and Connor in unison.
“Some day, eh!” said Stephen. “Can’t wait for tomorrow now!”
Connor wished him goodnight and entered his own room.
“Good evening Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice. “Lights out is at 2200 hours and no exceptions. Your alarm is set for 6.30am. Would you like to change that time?”
“No,” said a weary Connor. “Thanks.”
Midway through brushing his teeth, the lights cut to black. Connor stopped, wiped his mouth on a towel and felt his way back to his bed. He lay in the dark. Despite the tiredness that had swept over him, he was restless and unable to sleep. He was tormenting himself over the idea of texting his mum. He’d been here two days now and had no contact. She would no doubt be getting worried. Even if she’d been watching what he’d been up to on YouTube she’d still want to talk to him, to hear his voice. Connor felt likewise. He held his phone under the covers and manipulated it in his hand. He wouldn’t dare call her. But he could text her. Would anyone find out? Maybe. Possibly. This place knew everything. They’d find out. Maybe not immediately or the next day, or even the day after that. But at some point, they’d find out. And, at some point, Connor would find himself invited to a post-meal meeting with the man.
He texted anyway.
‘Mum. It’s Connor. I’m missing you and dad so much. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to call you, so I’m texting instead. This TV show is not what it seems but I’ll be OK. We have to do a series of challenges before we can come home. I’m not quite sure what they involve yet. Some sort of running and swimming and stuff. The other boys seem OK. We’re well looked after. Our rooms are nice. The food is tasty. And we have a room full of video games and stuff too. We start training in the morning, whatever that is. As soon as I’m allowed to, I’ll call you, I promise. Love you both, Connor x’
His face was bathed in pale green light as he re-read the text. Happy with it, he paused, reconsidered the consequences then pressed ‘send’. Off it whooshed.
He lay back, wishing for an instant reply. His mum was usually quite quick at replying, but not tonight. Connor had an idea. He texted his mum again.
‘Mum. It’s me again. I know you don’t really bother with social media, but you should download Babble and Olé. ‘The Elements’ app too. And YouTube. You’ll be able to see what I’m up to at any point in the day. Everything we do is put online. You’d be able to message me too, so even if I can’t phone or text you, you can get me there. You can even comment on any pictures of me. So download Babble and Olé and ‘The Elements’ and get yourself on YouTube as soon as you can! Connor x’
Connor waited, willing his phone to light up in reply. Nothing. He couldn’t fight his tiredness any longer and felt his heavy eyes closing on the day just gone. That night he dreamt of a street of people all going in the same direction. Connor was in the middle of them, trying to head the opposite way and being buffeted aggressively by those around him. He felt panic at his inability to progress on his journey.
(more to follow in the future)