The Elements

The Elements Chapters 20-23

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 20-23

 

The man and Cameron had removed the bodies of Burgess, Anderson and McPherson. They now lay in the morgue within the hospital wing of Kimble. Cameron busied himself on his tablet. The man sat on the edge of an undressed hospital bed and contemplated. How things would play out from here was still unclear. The man knew that by now, the boys would have used social media to alert the world to what had happened. He could still deactivate all their accounts with the touch of a button, but the damage had been done. It was just a matter of how quickly the authorities got here. Borrowing Cameron’s tablet, he deactivated their accounts anyway, partly because he could and partly because there was always a slim chance that the police would be tardy in showing up. He hadn’t finished with the others yet. He had to get to them before the authorities, or worse, the three grey men in grey suits. The man feared those old men more than anything else. His career in television was hanging by a precarious thread, but if he acted right, he might yet save it.

Did he need Cameron to help him? He’d certainly been useful when removing the bodies. And he might be useful later, if the room – the bloody scene of three senseless crimes – required sterilising. But he was so annoying, right there by his side all the time. He’d had loose intentions of moulding Cameron into a version of himself, but he’d quickly thought better of that idea. The boy was too trigger-happy, too eager to fire at will rather than treat each hunt as sport. And he wasn’t that great a marksman either. Truth be told, he was a bit of a liability, was Cameron. He would have to go.

The man needed to get the other boys back under his control. This whole event could be explained with a bit of collaboration and creative storytelling from the boys, he rationalised. If they all colluded, there was still a chance that the show might continue. Three eliminated contestants instead of one could be explained, he theorised, but that would require a story that they would all stick to. He could promise to make it up to the boys, maybe syphon off some of those Elements shares he had been given and pay the boys in cold, hard cash; silence money, bribery, whatever you chose to call it -he could buy both their silence and his future. He thought of Zimmerman. How he hated that man, but he did have a manner that the boys connected with. The professor might be the difference between getting the boys back on side or this whole thing imploding. He took satisfaction in dialling his number, knowing that Zimmerman was an early bedder, imaging the look on his face when the shambling professor saw the caller ID of who was calling.

 

 

Chapter 21

It was Alan who first realised his accounts had been deactivated and his service cut. One by one, all the boys realised that they were now disconnected from the world. The hope was that someone, somewhere had by now acted on their pleas.

“They know,” said Harrison. “They know we’ve sent messages, so they’ve killed our phones. They’ll be coming to get us right now.” Harrison stared into the dark, eyes trained on the inside of Fowler’s door. The others sat in silence, replaying the night’s events, praying that some sort of rescue operation was underway.

 

 

Chapter 22

Wilbur Arkwright quickly got dressed. He didn’t want to wake his sleeping wife, so he’d taken his grey three-piece suit out onto the freshly painted hall landing and was getting dressed there when his phone lit up for the second time. It was another message from Zimmerman. The psychologist’s first text had been straight to the point – he thought he should know that the man had flipped, that he and Cameron had been running around Kimble with guns and that some of the boys ‘might have been hurt’. The second message conveyed the news that there was a good chance that some of the boys were in fact dead, that the man wasn’t finished and that maybe he should get himself along to Kimble.

As he tightened his belt on his new made-to-measure suit trousers, he cursed himself for not terminating the man’s contract long before now. He’d easily been the best man for the job, but once he’d got to grips with its demands, his true personality began to take hold. At first, Wilbur and the others turned a blind eye. The show was generating more money than anyone had ever imagined, and, with a new house and two new cars to show for it, greed quickly got in the way of ethics.

Wilbur headed down the creaky stairs – ‘quaint’, the estate agent had called them, hoping that his wife would remain sleeping. In his kitchen he straightened his tie and set up a video call.

“John,” he said croakily. “Joseph. We have a problem.”

John and Joseph listened carefully as Wilbur outlined the situation as he knew it.

“I expect the police will be involved by this point,” he said. “Which is why we need to get down there before they do.”

Self-preservation made greedy people do irrational things. The simplest, most straightforward, most honest thing to do would have been to call the police themselves, give them the keys to Kimble and let them do their job. But being neither honest nor straightforward, this wasn’t quite what Wilbur, John and Joseph did.

 

 

 

Chapter 23

Zimmerman padded through the corridors from his sleeping quarters to his office. He locked the door behind himself and logged into his computer. Singing unselfconsciously, he found the application he was looking for, opened it up and, using the application’s thermal imaging capabilities, set about trying to locate the boys. It didn’t take long for him to find them, the bright orange and red glow emanating from one of the boys’ rooms giving them up. He made a mental note of the room number, logged off his computer and left his office, locking the door before heading to Fowler’s room.

As he walked, he messaged Arkwright.

How far away are you?

He then messaged the man.

I haven’t been able to find them, yet. Still working on it. Arty.

This would buy him time, but not a lot. The man was impatient at the best of times. His phone vibrated gently.

We’ll be there in 20 minutes. W.

Zimmerman returned a thumbs up emoji and continued on his way. His phone vibrated a second time. Seeing it was another text from the man, he chose to ignore it. Zimmerman busied his way through the softly lit corridors, crossed the middle figure-of-eight point and arrived at Fowler’s door.

He stood outside and listened. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought the room was empty. Zimmerman had a master key. It allowed him to access certain areas without anyone ever need knowing. He considered using it now but feared for what might await on the other side of the door. The boys were running scared. They were expecting the man and Cameron to show up at any time. They could be waiting behind the door to ambush anyone who might burst in. He didn’t fancy receiving a crack on the head from that boy Harrison.

Zimmerman knocked gently. Silence. He knocked again and spoke.

“Boys. It’s Arty Zimmerman. I’m here by myself. Can I come in?”

Shuffling and muffled voices could be heard. They spoke for a bit before answering.

“How do we know you’re alone?” spoke a voice. It was dull and far-off sounding from the other side of the thick door, but Zimmerman recognised it as Stewart’s.

“You must believe me, Connor Stewart.”

Silence.

Zimmerman spoke again.

“Give me your mobile number and I will call you on video. I can show you that no-one else is with me.”

More muffled voices. A pause. Then Connor spoke, giving Zimmerman his number. Asking him to repeat it, Zimmerman keyed the number directly into his phone and pressed the ‘video call’ option. His own sporadically whiskered face filled the screen. Connor, surrounded by the other boys, accepted the call. Zimmerman’s face now filled his screen. Connor spoke.

“Show your camera up and down the corridor, please, Professor Zimmerman.”

Zimmerman turned his phone one way and another, confirming that he was alone. The call was disconnected, more discussion took place between the boys and eventually, Fowler slid open the door.

Zimmerman stepped through, aware of Harrison holding a lamp above his head, ready to put it into action should he do anything sudden and unexpected. He raised his hands out in front of himself.

“Please, boys. I am on your side. I want to help you.”

 

(more to follow in the future)

Get This!, Hard-to-find, Sampled

Someday We’ll Evaporate Together

One of the high points of lockdown (pts 1 and 2) has been the consumption of new music. I’m a particular fan of Bandcamp Friday, when on the first Friday of the month, Bandcamp waives their usual artist fee and, with no string-pulling middle man, the artists benefit by an extra 15%. If a record costs you twenty quid, the artist gets every penny of your twenty quid; good business for both sides in the transaction.

I took a bit of a punt on Hifi Sean‘s ‘Ft.‘ compilation – only half of those twenty notes, as it goes – and I’m glad I did. Hifi Sean is Sean Dickson, one-time vocalist with the Soup Dragons and Ft. is a double album of Sean-produced electronica where a whole gamut of disparate guest vocalists pop up to add their recognisable voices and/or playing to the music. With collaborations involving Crystal Waters, Norman Blake and David McAlmont, an elastic-band bass-popping Bootsy Collins, Alan Vega and Soft Cell’s Dave Ball amongst others, it’s quite the pick ‘n mix. But the standout in what is undoubtedly a bountiful bunch is the Yoko Ono-voiced In Love With Life.

It’s astonishing. Ambient, textured and glossy, it’s a beautiful mesh of Pet Shop Boys’ minor key minimalism and the sort of dragged-out dark beats that Underworld might choose to close an album with.

Yoko OnoIn Love With Life

A good marker for the sort of music Sean has been creating in recent years, it’s as far removed from both his old band and Yoko’s more artistic endeavours as you could possibly get. Synthetic and computerised, sterile yet soulful, it’s a juxtaposition of spoken word against synth washes and echoing snares that triggers some sort of deeply conscientious nostalgia for simpler times and clearer values. Seriously, it does.

Yoko’s vocals are lovely, taking centre stage when they need to before dropping out to let the music wring your heart dry. It’s like an audible yoga trip or something; cleansing and spiritual and, despite the subject matter, life-affirming in many ways.

I hate thinking that our civilisation and the culture that we’ve created in 5000…10,000 years, we’re trying to destroy it.

It saddens me because

I am in really in love with life

and with people

They’re beautiful.

 

That’s it. That’s the message. We’re destroying everything that’s sacred…and standing back watching as we do so.

Yoko’s words are almost haiku in economy. She writes simplistically yet she says it with a real, undeniable gentle love, an extension of the words she first wrote in Grapefruit in the mid ’60s when she said, ‘Listen to the sound of the earth turning.

I assumed the Yoko vocal to be a sample but part of me would love to believe that Sean and Yoko (Sean and Yoko!) sat down together in some small studio or other and recorded it together, he at the faders while she recited her simple poetry atop the glistening beats. It’s all rather cryptic, though, as Sean told me.

“Myself and Yoko decided we would not reveal how we made this track, as the mystery of it adds to the magic of it all.

All I can say is that it was based on a poem Yoko wrote and we both worked together to make it work with the music. I wrote the track around the concept of the poem, with Yoko deciding where she wanted to place the words.

She loved the finished track and in 2016 featured it as part of the Ono Lennon ‘Give Peace A Chance’ campaign.”

So there y’go.

There’s also a remix/revision (track 7, below) on Ft.’s sister album Excursions. It’s currently a tenner on Bandcamp too, and if you wait until Friday to order, Hifi Sean will receive all of what you pay. You really should buy it.

In Love With Life in both its forms is terrific. Hippy, peace-loving and pleasantly at odds with the mess of the world around us, it’s the Balearic end-of-set closer that never was. I reckon you’ll play it forever.

*You can buy Ft. at Hifi Sean’s Bandcamp page here.

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 18 and 19

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 18 & 19

 

The boys didn’t go to their rooms. They made their way instead to the recreation area. Seated on the sofas, in the dark and bathed in the glow of the expectant arcade machines, the six of them tried to make sense of what had happened and what might happen next. Three of them were dead. The rest of them might be dead before the morning. On Rhys’s suggestion, they decided to hideout in one of their rooms. It was possible that the man might assume they’d followed his instructions. If they were out of sight, they may be out of mind too. If they were caught in the recreation room, Rhys said, there’d be hell to pay. It was likely he’d catch up with them before long – a quick check of the hidden cameras would reveal their whereabouts – which meant that this time right now was precious and shouldn’t be wasted.

Jumpy and alert, they made their way back along the familiar white corridors. Lights out had been and gone, so their way was lit not by the usual crisp light but by subtle uplighters at regular intervals on the floor. They arrived at Fowler’s room first and he ushered them all inside.

“Good evening, Andrew Fowler. It is now after lights out, so I do not have the authority to illuminate the room. Your alarm is set for 0730. Please be ready for breakfast at 0815.”

Andy flicked the middle finger into thin air. With the six boys inside, the room felt tiny and instantly too warm. Connor spoke.

“Hi. Is it possible for you to deauthorise the camera and microphones in the room, please?”

Five heads turned in the dark to look at him.

“What d’you mean, mate?” asked Fowler quizzically.

“You’re being filmed in here. I’ve asked her to turn the cameras and microphones off.”

“What?!? You can’t do that, can you?!?”

“You can.”

“You can’t!”

“You can!”

“Then how come she hasn’t acknowledged your request?”

“Because she probably responds only to your voice. Go on, ask her. And be quick. We don’t want anyone listening in to us.”

Fowler looked up at the ceiling, towards the general area of the central light.

“Hello again. It’s me, Andrew. Can you please deauthorise the camera in the room, please?”

“All cameras and microphones,” interrupted Connor.

“Sorry, hello again. It’s me, Andrew, again. Can you please deauthorise all the cameras and all the microphones in the room, please? Thank you.”

Fowler turned to look at Connor as if to say, see, it doesn’t work, when the unseen voice replied.

“Deauthorising camera 1 and mic 1 now. Deauthorising camera 2 and mic 2 now. Deauthorising camera 3 and mic 3 now. Deauthorising camera 4 and mic 4 now.”

She continued until all eight cameras and microphones were turned off. The room was silent again.

“I had no idea you could do that,” uttered Fowler, mainly to himself. Nor, it appeared, did anyone else. Even in the dark, Connor could see the realisation dawn on all their faces. The possibilities this would have given them over the past month or so!  

“Right. Now no-one can hear or see us…for the time being. Does anyone have a plan?”

Of all people, it was Harrison who hatched a sensible idea. He recommended they bombard their social media accounts with pleas for help. Every boy had his phone out and was tapping online before he’d even finished what he had to say.

“Tell the world exactly what’s going on!” he encouraged. “Someone somewhere must be able to do something.”

“No names though!” interrupted Reilly. “We can’t have Anderson’s parents finding out online that their son has been murdered. Or Burgess’s. Choose your words carefully.”

A frenzy of thumbs and fingers sent multiple messages out into the ether. Messages begging for help, initially, and then once those had been sent out, more detailed ones outlining what was really going on at Kimble.

“Turn on your location services too,” commanded Connor. “And send out a new picture – any picture, even from here in the dark. The co-ordinates of the picture will let everyone know exactly where we are.”

There was a collective wha…? amongst the boys at Connor’s brilliance.

“That’s Rhys’s idea – clever, innit?”

Rhys gave Connor an approving nod, an unspoken thanks for giving him credit. The replies were coming in rapidly. Every boy’s mobile device was receiving messages far quicker than they could read them.

As the replies mounted up, the boys started sending out location-tagged selfies. Grey, fuzzy and impossible to make out, the important part was the geographic tag at the bottom. After ten or so minutes, the frenzied posting abated.

“Might be worth sending your folks a message too,” suggested Alan. “You could call, but…” he looked around, “…there’s not much in the way of privacy.”

The boys quietly tapped away on their phones, sending messages of love alongside pleas for help that were direct but not too upsetting for their parents. In the midst of it all, Campbell’s phone rang. Every boy jumped, spooked at the sudden and unexpected loudness of it.

“It’s OK – it’s my mum!”

He answered and the room fell silent. Rhys turned his back for privacy, but the boys listened in any way.

“Yes…listen…yes, I’m alright…yes, honestly, I am…Listen to me. Listen! (pause) You need to tell the police. We are in danger here. We’re OK for now….Listen, mum, don’t interrupt…We’re hiding, we’re safe. We’ve been sending out pictures. The pictures are all tagged with the location of Kimble….Kimble… K-I-M-B-L-E…Kimble mum, it’s where we are just now, it’s where the TV show is made. Yes….yes…uh-huh…no…ye -listen! LISTEN! SEND FOR HELP BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE…. I love you too. Please hurry. Love you. Love you.”

Rhys hung up.

“Jeez. She’s hysterical.”

“Is she getting help though?” Fowler asked.

“Yes, she’s phoned the police.”

“What do we do now?” asked Alan to no-one in particular.

“We wait,” snarled Harrison. “If they try to take us, we go down fighting.”

 

Chapter 19

The switchboard operator at the Police Headquarters had never had a night quite like it. Normally she’d deal with 3 or 4 calls an hour. Tonight, her phone was red hot. The system couldn’t cope. Lights flashed on panels, indicating multiple calls waiting. No sooner had she answered a call than her headset announced another one incoming on another line. All the calls were of the same nature. Something about a disturbance at a place called Kimble, the place where that Elements TV show was being made. She enjoyed watching The Elements. Her favourites were Alan and McPherson. She wanted to mother poor Alan and she laughed at McPherson’s stupid humour. She’d sat on the sofa just last night after the flag had been won and sent Stephen a message saying she hoped he was alright and not too sore from falling in the hole. He hadn’t yet replied, but he’d have been tired last night, she reasoned. Maybe when he had more time, she’d get a message back from him. The operator’s husband had tutted at her. Reality TV, he said, was not for him, even if he’d watched The Elements every night right there beside her on the leather sofa.

After 20 or so calls, the operator put the line on hold. All calls, including one from Alan and one from Connor were backed up in a queueing system. The operator hesitated before calling her superior this late at night, but she thought he should know about this. He had the authority to send a couple of policemen round to check things out and it sounded as if they might be needed on this occasion.

Her superior tried not to sound irritated by her call. He told her she’d done the right thing and that he’d take it from here. Right away, he said, they’d send a car out to check up on things. Actually, he said, they’d probably need to try and locate Kimble on a map first. He’d never heard of the place until this Elements show had started. Did she have a postcode for the sat-nav, he wondered? The operator didn’t, but she wasn’t to mind, her superior told her. It surely wouldn’t be too hard to find.

 

(more to follow in the future)

Get This!

File Sharing

You know that scene in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta’s character Henry is out of his head on cocaine and convinced he’s being followed everywhere by police helicopters? Soundtracked by a fast-cut montage that jolts from Nilsson’s Jump Into The Fire to Mick Jagger’s Memo From Turner to The Who’s Magic Bus, it’s a great marriage of music and film, the trio of FM radio rockers the perfect foil for Henry’s descent into uncontrollable paranoia. As perfectly pitched as the movie’s soundtrack is, from streetcorner doo-wop standards and Italian crooners via Spector’s Wall of Sound to classic rock as the story moves through the decades, I think Martin Scorsese missed a trick. How he never thought to find a space for the Rolling StonesFingerprint File has always baffled me. For a director with such a handle on how to splice music and movies together, it would have been a perfect fit.

Rolling StonesFingerprint File

All open-tuned, phased and flanged riffing with the odd tickle of wah-wah, Fingerprint File is serpentine funk rock; Sly and the Family Rolling Stones, perhaps. It’s Mick and Keith on guitars, Mick holding down the choppy open-handed rhythm while Keith splashes multiple colours of blooze funk on top. Bill Wyman hands bass duties to Mick Taylor in what would be his last recorded input for the Stones – and, with a fluid and wandering freestyle, the boy Taylor bows out in exquisite fashion.

Wyman moves over to synth, his vamping chords ghosting in and out of the thick funk stew inbetween the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins on piano and Billy Preston doing his best Stevie Wonder routine on the clavinet. At the back, the ever-reliable Charlie, the true boss of the Stones, is loose and louche, his brilliantly-recorded airy and alive drums a tiny half-beat behind the others – all the more important for adding that general air of flung-together grooviness that runs through the whole thing like everything else the Stones touched once their hair had grown in direct proportion to the length of their songs. What a sound!

Jagger’s vocal is pure creeping coke paranoia, confident and self-assured, but with one eye over his tiny-vested shoulder. In fact, given the stuffy nose he sings most of it with (there’s even the odd ssssniff-ff now and again), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you told me he’d had half the GDP of Columbia stuffed up his nostrils prior to he or Keith pressing ‘record’ at the mixing desk. Over the course of the track he runs the whole range of his schtick; he sings, he drawls, he sleazeballs, he pronounces the end of every line with exaggerated comic effect (‘haaa-yee-aaa-igh‘, ‘daaa-yee-aaa-own‘, ‘ultra vaaa-hlet-laaa-eee-aa-ight‘), at one part he breaks into a wiseguy, street-smart proto-rap. It’s quite the performance.

The lyric, no doubt inspired by Watergate and Nixon and the political climate of the mid 70s is presciently on the mark for the 21st century; you know my moves…you’re listening to me…feelin’ followed…feelin’ tagged…some little jerk in the FBI keeping papers on me, six feet high….it gets me down…these days it’s all secrecy and noooo privacy… All perfect Goodfellas material too, as it goes.

Good night, sleep tight, whispers Jagger at the end, knowing full well that that’s the last thing you’ll be able to do. If you’re not wide eyed at the thought of being snooped on 24/7, that groove’ll make you want to return the needle to the start of the track and play it just one more time. As far as underplayed Stones’ classics go, Fingerprint File is one of their very best.

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 17

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 17

 

 

In full view of Stephen, the man picked up the box of baseball bats – ‘he really means this’ thought Connor, still hoping this was all an elaborate joke – and walked towards a door behind the screen. Cameron opened it for him and the man went through. Cameron continued to hold the door. Stephen happily followed. The other boys held back. They looked at one another. No-one said a thing. Fear was etched on every face. Eyebrows were raised. Quizzical looks exchanged. Staring eyes. Tense neck muscles.

Harrison was the first of the eight to go. Slowly, the others followed behind. Connor was last through the door, welcomed into this new room by a relaxed and smiling Cameron. It was a sterile white room. No windows. The only door in and out was the one they’d just used. There was no furniture and definitely no tables of canapes and sparkling water. The man spoke again.

“Mr McPherson. We will leave you here to say your final goodbyes.”

Stephen looked puzzled.

“There’s no time for food and drinks, boy,” said the man. He stepped aside, allowing Stephen to see the box of baseball bats.

Stephen continued to look puzzled.

“While you were away galivanting with the press, I gave the other contestants a short lesson in Roman history. Do you know, McPherson, where the word ‘decimated’ has its origins?”

Stephen looked puzzled still.

“Burgess. Remind McPherson for me, will you? There’s a good chap.”

Burgess remained silent.

“Mr Burgess. I asked you to tell Mr McPherson the origin of the word ‘decimated’.”

Burgess lowered his head

“Mr Burgess! Are you awake, boy?! Then answer me!”

Burgess kept his head lowered and shook it.

“No? What do you mean, ‘no’? ‘No’ as in, you don’t know the answer or ‘no’ as in you won’t say.”

Burgess said nothing and continued shaking his head.

“Very well, Burgess. Cameron?”

There was a sudden, shocking crack. Burgess fell to the ground, a pool of blood spreading slowly from where he’d been shot in the neck. He was dead, of that there was no doubt. The boys, Stephen included, cowered together.

The man began to shout.

“Look what you’ve made me do! This wasn’t part of the plan! Burgess! Pfffft! Now I’ll have to come up with an elaborate story to cover your untimely death, you irresponsible little bastard. Does anyone else, ANYONE ELSE, plan on following in Burgess’s footsteps?”

The man, wild-eyed and nostrils flared, dared the assembled group to defy him. An edgy silence took hold. Connor wanted to look at the crumpled form of Burgess but dared not even blink. Cameron continued to lean on the wall by the door, as if nothing had happened. Only the gun, still smoking silently in his right hand gave his actions away.

“So, now, McPherson.” The man was calmer again. “The other contestants will bid you farewell. Cameron and I shall leave you all in peace.”

Cameron opened the door and the two of them left.

Connor dared himself now to look at the poor, dead body of Burgess. His neck was pooling quickly, crimson blood spreading slowly across the stark white floor. He looked quickly away, catching the eye of McPherson.

“Wh-what the fu-fuh is going on?” asked Stephen, looking first at Connor, then at Reilly and continuing around the group until he’d looked at them all. No-one dared eyeball him or reply.

“Is this s-s-some sort of s-sick j-joke?”

Silence.

“Are you going to…?” He couldn’t bring himself to say what he was thinking….couldn’t believe he was thinking what he couldn’t say.

More silence. Grayson coughed. A terrified Alan could feel warm, fresh urine cloud across his groin. Connor searched his mind for the right words to say. Harrison spoke first.

“Yeah. He wants us to kill you. And I say we do. Cos if we don’t…” Harrison looked at the corpse of Burgess, lying dead in his own blood. He didn’t need to finish his sentence.

Stephen’s face twisted in silent anguish.

“What? No! NO! They told me my mum and dad would be here to pick me up in an hour!”

Stephen now began to cry. Angry, uncontrollable crying. Proper snot ‘n slevvers stuff, punctuated by incomprehensible babble and jerking gulps. The group remained silent, despondent, ineffective. All except Harrison. By now, he’d picked up one of the baseball bats and was holding it out in front of him, testing its weight, finding its sweet spot. Without even being aware of doing so, most of the boys took a step back. Harrison began to swing. Whoosh! Whoosh! The others now fanned out as far away from him as possible. Whoosh! Whoosh! In his haste to get to the wall, Fowler clumsily limped through some of Burgess’s blood and slid. He was lucky not to fall into the mess on the floor. Whoosh! Whoosh!

Harrison approached Stephen with menace and intent. Stephen hardly noticed or, if he did, he hardly seemed to care.

“Whoah, Harrison!” Connor suddenly found his voice and said aloud what everything else was thinking. Harrison wheeled and stared him down.

“Shut it, you, or you’ll be next!”

“He’s right, Harrison,” said Reilly. “Put it down, man.”

Harrison turned and swung the bat in front of Reilly. Whoosh! Whoosh!

“I’ve a good mind to batter you first, Reilly. ‘Can’t read a map! Ha! Ha! Ha!’ Aye – can’t read a map, but I can swing (whoosh!) a base (whoosh!) ball (whoosh!) bat (whoosh!)!!”

With that, Harrison swung a full swing in Reilly’s direction. He hit the wall. A chunk of white plaster fell. A tennis ball-sized indent remained, jagged cracks of plaster zipping out of it like the cracks on the shell of a hard-boiled egg, Reilly’s head a few centimetres from the epicentre.

Harrison looked at the damage on the wall and the terror on Reilly’s face.

“I’ll finish with you later.”

With that, he turned again to Stephen and without warning cracked him low across the kneecaps. Stephen screamed in agony, falling at once to the floor. Harrison raised the bat above his head and was in the process of bringing it down on McPherson’s skull when Reilly blindsided him and tackled him from the side. Harrison and bat parted company and he and Reilly went skidding across the floor. The other boys became animated. Grayson pinned Harrison’s ankles. Alan held him down at the neck, pinning him with the dropped baseball bat, a hand at each end. Rhys kneeled on Harrison’s back with all his weight. Harrison tried to wriggle free, of course, but strong as he was, he wasn’t strong enough to out-muscle the three other boys.

Connor sat with Stephen. Both legs were smashed and broken, hideously jutting out at wonky angles from the knees. Stephen was hysterical. Crying, shouting, wailing incomprehensible words and noises.

“F-f-f-f-f-f-f-Euuurrrggh! Aaaagggh! Y Y Y You b-a-a-a-st-a-a-a-d. Gnnnn, schh, pfffff….”

His ginger hair was matted to his forehead. Tears and snot caked his cheeks and lips. Connor tried to soothe him, but Stephen needed a doctor, not an arm around him.

Fowler spoke.

“Calm it! Everybody!” He held his hands in front of himself in defence. “This is totally messed up. I say we ask them to get a doctor for Stephen. And Burgess. Although….” His voice tailed off. “And he (pointing at Harrison) needs to go too. He needs to be kept well away from the rest of us.”

“I agree,” said Connor. “Stephen needs to get to hospital now!”

Alan, still at Harrison’s neck spoke next.

“They’ll kill us all! They will! When they come back in here, we’re all dead.”

Harrison tried to speak now, but with Alan still holding him down with the baseball bat, it was impossible.

“Let him speak, Alan, pal,” suggested Connor. Reilly selected a bat from the box on the floor and stood menacingly over Harrison, just in case.

“It’s what I tried to tell you, idiots,” snarled Harrison, his cheek still held fast to the floor by Alan’s baseball bat. “It’s kill or be killed.”

Outside, the man and Cameron could hear parts of the conversation – not every word, but enough to know that their idea for elimination wasn’t quite going to plan.

“We’ll give them another couple of minutes, Cameron. I was quite encouraged by the banging and shouting a minute ago. Less so now. We’ll let the group decide on their course of action and, if necessary, we’ll step in. Do you have those photos on your device?”

Cameron nodded in the affirmative.

Inside, Rhys offered a suggestion.

“How about we wait for them to come back in and we ambush them with the baseball bats – four boys on each of them…” Looking at the carnage around him, he corrected himself. “Three or four boys on each of them. They’re armed, but we’ll have the element of surprise.”

Connor thought this was a reasonable option.

“What does everyone else think?” asked Connor.

“I agree with Rhys,” said Alan.

“So do I,” said Connor.

“Me too,” said Reilly. “But I think we’re wasting our time.”

The others – Grayson, Harrison and Fowler were non-comital.

“I think,” said Fowler after a pause, “that we need a doctor for Stephen. Surely when they come back in, they’ll see what’s happened and stop it. They’ll need to get a doctor – this will be being streamed live. They can’t let us fight one another until people die.”

“People are already dead!” shouted Connor.

“And we’ll be next!” reiterated Alan.

“There’s no way this is going out online,” said Rhys. “The man shot Burgess dead! They’ll never show that.”

“No. No, they won’t.” It was the man. He and Cameron were now back in the room. “None of this will ever be seen on any screen. What happens in here will remain in here forever.”

The man surveyed the scene. Harrison was on the floor, a crimson trail smeared between his left knee and Burgess’s neck. Campbell was kneeling beside him, gripping a baseball bat. Alan was still holding Harrison’s neck down with his bat too. Burgess lay dead in a pool of blood. McPherson was propped, half-sat, against the wall, his legs broken and bent and totally useless. The others were infighting and arguing amongst themselves. They were fragile and ripe for the taking.

“Why is this boy even still alive?” the man queried, pointing to Stephen. “I asked you to kill him.”

Harrison tried to speak once more, but Alan kept his weight on the bat. The man ignored both of them and selected a bat from the box.

“You!” He pointed it at Grayson. “Take this and beat him.” He threw the bat towards Grayson and Grayson, more out of surprise than compliance, caught it.

All eyes fell on Grayson. He held the bat limply by his side. Stephen watched silently and fearfully from the other side of the room.

“Beat him!” The demand came loud and clear a second time. Grayson flinched at this.

“Go on!”

Grayson looked at Stephen. His swollen, red eyes pleaded him not to acquiesce with the man’s command. Grayson held the bat out as Harrison had done before, letting it bounce up and down in his hands until he got the measure of it. All eyes were on Grayson and what he was about to do. He took two steps forward and, just when it appeared he might actually carry out his order, he stopped. Stephen audibly moaned. All other boys held their breath.

“Beat him, boy! One hit and pass the bat on. We’ll all have a shot until McPherson is dead.”

With this, Stephen let out a long, low feral moan. He started to speak more words. Most were incomprehensible but one or two could be understood.

“N-n-n-n-no! Gzzzzht! Spffflnjja. N-no. Ma-ma-ma-ma-mum. Gzzzht! Ma-ma-ma dad. Puh-puh-puh-puh-leazzzze.”

“Your mummy and your daddy aren’t coming to rescue you, I’m afraid, McPherson. Y’see, around the time you were being voted boy least likely to by your global fanbase, your parents were involved in a terrible car crash. There’s no easy way to tell you this, but they both died at the scene.” The man paused, savouring the reaction. “They’re gone, McPherson. As you too will shortly be yourself.”

Visibly irritated by the banshee howl of despair that followed, the man paused until he had everyone’s attention again. Confusion mixed with silence and wounded animal noises from the injured boy made for a charged atmosphere. Had they really killed Stephen’s parents, wondered Connor. Really?

“Cameron. Bring me your device, thank you.”

Cameron stepped into the middle of the room and handed the man the tablet with the photographic proof of the car crash. The man jabbed and tapped at the screen, bringing up the images.

“It’s a Ford Spectacular your dad drives, McPherson, is it not? Registration WK67 CSM?”

Stephen’s choked gargle was enough to confirm, but the man showed him the first picture all the same. Stephen looked at the digital image of the twisted former car, front end crumpled like an accordion, stuck in a tree that had half fallen over, the hatchback boot sprung open. The driver’s side window had a spider’s web crack all the way across it.

“U-u-uh-huh,” sobbed Stephen.

“And is this your father?”

He swiped the screen then showed Stephen the slumped form of his dad, head at an unnatural angle across the steering wheel, his right eye obscured by dark blood.

Stephen continued to sob.

“And is this your mother?”

She lay back in her seat, nose pointing north, her mouth agape, seat belt mostly embedded in her neck, as dead as Stephen’s dad beside her.

“So, you see. No-one is coming to rescue you, McPherson. In fact,” the man turned to talk to the others, “no one is coming to rescue any of you. You are all only children, yes? None of you has brothers or sisters?”

Connor had no siblings. He looked around the assembled boys. Their nods confirmed the man’s statement.

“As you are eliminated, so too shall your parents. When the voting comes through at the completion of each stage, the losing contestant will not only lose his place in the contest, he will also lose the two people who are dearest to him. The people who he has relied upon all his short, dishonest life, the people who he will be hoping can somehow make it to Kimble and liberate him, will be dead even before he is. Who’s going to miss a couple of old folk and their troublesome teenage son? No-one, that’s who! As soon as the voting elects a loser, the machinations begin to roll, and your unsuspecting parents meet an untimely and unfortunate end. It may be a car crash. It may be an electrical fire, or a botched mugging, or a freak drowning. I’m sure we’ve only just scratched the surface of the multiple ways in which your parents’ deaths can be made to look like tragic accidents.”

Grayson was jolted back into action. He swung, not for Stephen as instructed, but for the man. No sooner had he felt the satisfying dull thunk of baseball bat on upper shoulder than he felt the burning pain of his flesh being ripped apart at the thigh from a bullet from Cameron’s gun. And no sooner had he registered that he’d been shot than he was shot again a second time. The second shot proved fatal. The bat fell from his grip, Grayson collapsed where he stood and he too began to bleed out from the neck, lying spread-eagled on the floor. The room erupted in chaos once more.

In the melee, Harrison had pushed past a petrified Alan and was standing again, wielding his baseball bat. Not at Cameron, who had just shot Grayson dead, or the man, who had not long ago killed Burgess. He was bearing down on Stephen. As Stephen placed his skinny arms out in front of him, Harrison cracked him hard across the ribs with a full swing. No-one would ever know how many ribs Harrison had broken with that one swing. Stephen passed out with the shock and pain and for almost half a minute, the room fell into silence. Most were convinced that Harrison had dealt the fatal blow to Stephen until Stephen began to cough up foamy, thick blood. As Harrison readied himself for another swing, Fowler attacked him from the side, scattering Harrison one way and the bat the other. They rolled on the bloody floor, smearing Burgess’s and Anderson’s blood on one another. They stopped fighting only when the man fired a shot straight into the ceiling.

“STOP!” he yelled, and they did.

Stephen continued to cough blood, drawing attention to himself.

“We now have TWO DEAD BODIES in this room! And the only person in this room who should be dead,” continued the man, “is this boy here.” He pointed a well-manicured finger at Stephen. “Now. Either you all follow the lead of Mr Harrison here and take a turn at finishing the job so we can all leave this room, or I finish it for you, and none of you will ever leave this room alive.” He stared them down. He wasn’t kidding. “What shall it be?”

Alan began quietly sobbing. Connor was numb. He had no idea what to think.

Without waiting for an answer, the man threw the bat towards Reilly. Already holding a bat of his own, he failed to catch it and watched it bounce across the hard floor, it’s echoing rattle reverberating loudly. The man might’ve been annoyed at Reilly’s failure to catch the bat, but he never showed it.

“It’s your turn, Reilly. Make it a good one.”

Reilly looked at the bat lying on the floor, dropped the one he was holding and contemplated his options.

“PICK IT UP!” screamed the man without warning and once more, through compliance rather than fear, Reilly picked up his own bat again.

Against the wall, Stephen continued to cry and moan and whimper and bleed. One of the broken ribs had punctured a lung, not that he knew this, and so, he was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe. His vain cries of defence were shallower and quieter to the point of whisper. He began to cough blood again, more painful than ever.

“Pick a spot and hit him with it, Reilly. It’s not that difficult.”

Reilly walked towards Stephen.

“I’m so sorry, man,” he said quietly to him, then changed tack. Instead of beating him with the bat, Reilly swung it limply and grazed the soles of Stephen’s feet. He dropped the bat and turned away. Cameron tutted in exasperation and fired a single shot into Reilly’s ankle. Reilly wheeled and screamed in pain.

“DO IT AGAIN!” screamed the man at him. “Hit him properly or Cameron’ll finish you off as well!”

Struggling to stand on his one good ankle, Reilly once again held the bat. He hobbled towards Stephen, who was clearly trying to say something to him. Had he been able to decipher the shallow gasping babble, he’d have known that Stephen was begging for him not to hit him. Reilly had no option though, and with a better swing than he should’ve been able to muster under the circumstances, he brought the bat crashing down between Stephen’s neck and his left shoulder. A sickening crack told everyone that he had hit him good. Stephen grunted an animal-like grunt and slumped further down the wall. “I’m really sorry, man,” acknowledged Reilly, tears streaming down his face. He found a corner that was free of violent TV hosts and dead bodies and wept quietly.

“Fowler! You’re up!” The man shoved the box towards him. “Choose your weapon.”

Fowler hesitated then limped towards the box of bats. He’d made up his mind that when it was his turn, he’d crack the man over the skull with the biggest bat he could find before turning it on Cameron, but after seeing what had happened to Anderson and Reilly, he’d had immediate second thoughts. Fowler had no idea what he was going to do, but he had no intention of contributing to McPherson’s death.

“Hurry up, boy. We don’t have all day.”

“I’m just seeing which bat is best,” stalled Fowler.

“They’re all the bloody same!” retorted the man, extremely impatient and eager to get things finished.

To reinforce things, or perhaps just to speed things up a bit, Cameron clicked the safety catch from his gun.

Fowler selected a bat. It suddenly felt deadly in his hands.

He hated it.

Fowler limped towards Stephen, who was definitely now more dead than alive. Ignoring the faint protestations from Stephen’s bloody mouth, Fowler swung the bat low, from waist height, catching Stephen on the top of the arm. “I’m really sorry, mate,” sobbed Fowler. He threw the bat away and found a spot near Reilly. Stephen slid in slow motion down the side of the wall to his left. The back of his matted, ginger hair left an arced brush stroke of blood as it went on its journey.

“See, that wasn’t so difficult after all, was it, Fowler? Who’s next?”

Connor prayed he was invisible.

“Who’s not been yet?” The man looked around the room at the boys. “Campbell. Stewart. Alan.”

Connor stared steadfastly at his feet.

As their names were mentioned, each boy’s heart beat a little faster, a little louder. Their mouths became that bit drier, their hands a touch sweatier. Alan began sobbing uncontrollably. Big, sniffy, child-like sobs.

“You’ll get your turn, Alan, don’t get upset, boy! Right after Stewart – up y’come, Stewart.”

Connor’s heart dropped.

His feet felt leaden. Each footstep was a gigantic effort. He wasn’t sure if the man had offered him a bat or if he’d picked one of the remaining ones from the box himself, but suddenly there was a baseball bat in his hand and it felt like it might be too heavy to hold, let alone swing. His ears rang. He had a sudden watery, metallic taste in his mouth. His vision began to blur and whatever the man was saying to him was drowned in a sea of ringing in his ears.

“…all day, Stewart. We don’t have all day! Beat him and be done with it.”

Connor gathered himself. He looked at Stephen, pathetic and slumped, near dead, beaten and broken by his own friends. He wasn’t so sure that Stephen hadn’t already passed away. He hadn’t moved. Hadn’t made any further noises in protestation at what was happening to him. It didn’t look as though his chest was moving anymore. His red and swollen eyes remained closed, dirty track marks of tears running from them, down his cheeks, around the contours of his crusted, bloody mouth.

“I think he’s dead now,” said Connor softly, to no-one in particular.

“Best give him one more decent thump for luck, Stewart. Make certain of it.”

Connor let the man’s sick demand sink in. There was going to be no way out of it. He had to hit him. With tears in both eyes he shuffled through the pool where Burgess’s blood and Anderson’s blood had now converged. He stood two metres from where Stephen was slumped, the bat wavering in his grip. He thought of Stephen on the trip through the woods, the times they’d shared cooking at the campfire, the friendship they’d created that was now suddenly and unexpectedly cut short. Blinded by tears, he stepped forward and brought the bat crashing swiftly down on Stephen’s head. As he dropped his weapon, he was sure he heard Stephen exhale for the last time.

Connor didn’t look back, didn’t look at the man, didn’t look at Cameron. He found a spot at the side and wept in anguished silence.

“Cameron,” said the man. “Check his pulse, please, thanks.”

Cameron confirmed to the man that Stephen was now dead. The man began muttering expletives under his breath. Shaking his head, he looked first at Stephen, then at Anderson then finally at Burgess. He let out a long sigh. He looked at the three weeping boys along the wall. Disgusted with them, he looked at the rest. They too – even Harrison – were also in tears. This was not supposed to have happened. The man thought that, with a bit of a pep talk and the underlying threat of violence if they failed to comply, they would carry out his instructions swiftly. How wrong he was. He now had three dead bodies on his hands. He needed time to think.

“Contestants,” he said, trying to keep his voice neutral. “Get out of here. Go to your rooms and await instructions. Cameron, remain here, thank you.”

The boys bowed their heads and made their way slowly from the awful room. Connor stole a last glance at each of the three bodies as he exited, a hellish sight that would live with him for as long as he lived.

 

(more to follow in the future)

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Chas Smash

They were a joke band perhaps. Or, to be kinder, a bit of a novelty. Up here, they definitely were. Well out of step with the musical times, you were never far away from a jauntily-angled pork pie hat framing a fuzzy face, and a piano tie worn with the cut of white jacket that Gregory might’ve worn to impress his Girl. On first-name terms with both the bubble perm and bubble and squeak, Chas ‘n Dave were purveyors of raucous Knees Up Muvver Braahn, pianer-driven barrelhouse rock ‘n roll, all walking basslines and rapid-fire, machine gunning Cockernee couplets that tripped over themselves in a race to outdo one another on the way to the finish line, Top of the Pops novelty fodder that provided the jokey sandwich filling between Dog Eat Dog and Girls On Film.

And yet, and yet…

They also produced There Ain’t No Pleasin’ You.

It’s a stone-cold classic of any era. But I suspect you knew that already.

Chas ‘n DaveAin’t No Pleasin’ You

Those strings! That melancholy! It wallows in pathos and regret until, by the final verse, the poor guy who’s the subject of the song has decided to leave his insufferable partner for good. Written solely by Chas Hodges (piano, aviator shades, hair and facial sculpting by Jeff Lynn), There Ain’t No Pleasin’ You came fully formed after a conversation with his brother about his wife giving him grief for hanging a pair of curtains the wrong way.

Hodges rewrote the story, added a Just Like Starting Over by way of Fats Domino groove and a drum intro that has at least one too many beats – count them – it’s just not quite right! – and quickly went about writing a song that, had it come from the pen of McCartney, or indeed Lennon – listen to the production on that bridge, it’s pure John – would be held in far higher regard than it presently is.

Well I built my life around you, did what I thought was right
But you never cared about me, now I’ve seen the light
Oh darlin’, there ain’t no pleasing you

You seem to think that everything I ever did was wrong
I should’ve known it all along
Oh darlin’, there ain’t no pleasing you

By the time you get to the first bridge you find yourself really rootin’ for the guy, a neat mirroring of subject matter where it’s usually the woman who’s had enough and is walking out on the man.
 

You only had to say the word, and you knew I’d do it
You had me where you wanted me, but you went and blew it

Now everything I ever done was only done for you
But now you can go and do just what you wanna do
I’m telling you

That double vocalled harmony on the ‘do it/blew it‘ ryhme and then the ‘but now you!‘ line – double tracked with his best pal for moral support – is stupendous! But it’s that ‘everything I’ve ever done‘ line that does it, isn’t it? Proper soul-baring stuff. It’s no coincidence that Bryan Adams would co-opt its sentiment for his monster smash hit a decade later, but whereas Adams was all kitchen sink bluster and bombast, Chas ‘n Dave were kitchen sink drama, angry and antagonistic. Melodrama in a minor key, they meant it, maaan.
By the time Chas has had the audacity to rhyme bluffin‘ with nuffin‘ it dawns on you just how great a song this really is. Chas ‘n Dave wrote dozens of cheerful pub song singalongs that I couldn’t care less about ever hearing again, but There Ain’t No Pleasin’ You is something of a beauty in amongst all the daft stuff they are usually associated with. Structurally, it plays out like a proper classic, with a repeating bridge, a signature string sweep and a great vocal. It can happily revolve on repeat for an entire evening and I’ll never tire.
There’s a really great session from Abbey Road, here…

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 15 and 16

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 15 and 16

 

 

Chapter 15

A few hundred miles north, a car was returning home. The man and woman inside had just completed their weekly trip to the supermarket. For the past few weeks, they’d bought far fewer items – no cans of fizzy drinks, hardly any crisps, just a couple of packets of chocolate biscuits. Their teenage son loved fizzy drinks and crisps and chocolate biscuits, but with him being away filming this new TV show, they’d not needed to buy nearly as many.

The boy’s mum was just saying to the dad how they were spending less at the supermarket each week and, as they neared a corner, the dad nodded in silent agreement. The mum reached out to turn up the volume on the radio – a favourite song of hers had just come on – and as they sang tunelessly together, the car’s brakes unexpectedly failed. The car shot off the road, down a grass verge and ploughed into a tree. Both the driver and his passenger were killed instantly. When the police arrived, they discovered the driver was a Mr Donald McPherson. His wife Marjory was beside him. One constable pointed out that it was strange that the airbags hadn’t been triggered on impact. On closer inspection of the car, it appeared that the brakes had been tampered with – sabotaged, even. Their only son Stephen would need to be informed.

 

Chapter 16

The evening meal came and went. The food was of the usual high standard, but two thirds of the boys sent back almost untouched plates. Connor found himself getting increasingly annoyed watching Fowler’s table, the three of them joking and laughing as they ate, relaxed and carefree and still very much Elements participants. Connor’s table ate, or rather didn’t eat, in silence. The three boys shoved uneaten food around their plates before pushing the almost-full plates into the middle of the table. They were no sooner cleared away than the man entered, Cameron by his side as usual. He was quick and to the point.

“Contestants. It is almost 1900 hours. Voting is about to close and one of you will be eliminated. Please meet in the conference room once you have finished your meal.”

The conference room was laid out in the usual way, except there were nine chairs in a semicircle, with none laid out for Pamela and the other two girls. On the screen, the Elements logo spun lazily. The boys sat in their usual seats and, at the same time, the man took his place behind the lectern, Cameron close behind.

“Contestants! It is now 1903. Voting is definitely closed, and we definitely have a loser.”

The man scanned the room, enjoying the uncomfortableness his presence created.

“Let me tell you, it was an extremely close call. In fact, only a few hundred votes separate the three contestants who occupy the bottom three places.”

He leered at the boys, a glint of mischief? excitement? power? In his eyes.

“So, without further ado…”

Connor’s heart pounded to the point of caving in. He needed to pee. His palms and neck were oily with sweat. He couldn’t look at the man or Cameron or the screen or the other boys. He focused his gaze on a black rubbery mark on the floor at his feet and began rubbing it off with the sole of his own shoe. He was aware of Rhys’s left leg beside him, jerking rapidly up and down of its own accord. Stephen on his other side was totally silent and motionless.

“…let me announce the three contestants with the least number of votes.”

The logo on the screen disappeared and, as it did so, three images faded in. They were full-length video images, similar to the ones they used for football players when they showed big football matches on television.

Reilly.

McPherson.

Stewart.

There was a strangled gasp from somewhere behind. Stephen swore under his breath. Rhys’s leg stopped shaking. Connor lost all focus. He looked at the screen. Looked away. Returned his gaze. Blinked rapidly. He was one of the three. The man spoke, but he could hear no words. His ears rang with a high-pitched whistling noise. His brow was dripping. His t-shirt was sucked to his soaking back, cold and clammy. Slowly and steadily, the man’s words were pulled back into focus.

“…three hundred and thirty-seven votes. That’s how close the margins are, contestants. If only you’d Babbled just once more, it might’ve made all the difference.”

The man paused and looked at the three boys, his eyes flitting from one to the other and back again. He enjoyed the drama he was creating.

“Contestants. It is my duty to announce that the first contestant to be eliminated from The Elements is..”

As he spoke, two of the images pixelated and faded, leaving just one boy left.

“…Stephen McPherson!”

Connor exhaled far louder than he thought possible. Behind him was a muted cry of ‘Yes!’ Beside him, Stephen stood immediately. The man looked surprised but allowed him to continue.

“Aw, boys!” said Stephen, turning to face them all. “I suppose someone has to be first out, eh? And if you can’t be the winner, you might as well be the first loser.” He smiled a wry smile and opened his arms to Connor.

“Connor, mate! It’s been a blast!” They hugged tightly, Connor blinking away tears of relief. Stephen went along the line. He hugged Rhys and shook hands with the other boys, wishing them luck as he went. Finished, he turned to the man.

“So? What now? Do I go and get packed? Does someone pick me up and take me home? What happens?”

The man stepped out from behind the lectern.

“Questions! Questions! Yes! You must pack immediately. Cameron will assist you with anything you may need.”

Stephen said that he’d pack quickly. The man told him he had 15 minutes to gather his stuff – he should leave all The Elements-branded items of clothing – and he should return by 7.30pm.

Once Stephen had left, accompanied by Cameron, the man spoke once more to the boys.

“There’ll be a short press conference for Mr McPherson. He’ll stop for pictures, answer some questions, give the quotes that will see him trending online half an hour from now. When the press conference is over, you will have your own chance to say a…special goodbye… to him.”

The man softened his voice.

“I must attend now to the ladies and gentlemen of the world’s press and media, but I shall be back shortly. Please feel free to chat amongst yourselves until I do.”

In the man’s wake, a buzz of conversation filled the air. Connor turned to look for Reilly.

“You OK, man?” he asked. “I was sure it was going to be me.”

“So did I,” admitted Reilly. “In fact, I’m still not sure how I escaped that vote. I thought McPherson was popular.”

“Yeah, so did I,” replied Connor. “It’s a relief, isn’t it, knowing you’re still in.”

“Eh, I think so!” came the reply, Reilly not entirely convinced that it was a good thing to still be here.

The boys talked amongst themselves. Rhys muttered a grudging ‘well done’ to Connor before turning to chat with Reilly. The relief in the room was tangible. All that though was about to change.

The man returned almost as quickly as he had gone and without being asked, the boys’ conversation stopped.

“Contestants? Do you like history? Wars and battles and heroes and villains and stuff like that?”

The man didn’t wait for an answer.

“My favourite period in time is the Roman Empire. They were such a clever civilisation, the Romans. Mathematicians. Engineers. Scientists. Much of what they did is still very much a part of our lives today. You’d know that already though if you were paying attention at school. Ask yourself this – will you leave such a mark on society? It’s unlikely, isn’t it? Not impossible, but very unlikely.

I love the words the Romans gave us. Viaduct. Testify. Legacy. All words that derived from their civilisation. Are you familiar with the word ‘decimate’?”

The man looked at the assembled boys, an encouraging look on his face. Alan raised his hand, half up and half down and spoke when the man nodded with a smile towards him.

“Does it mean something that’s totally destroyed?”

“Yes! It does! As in, ‘the storm decimated every house in the village.’ Every house was totally destroyed by the storm. Yes! Very good. Thank you, Alan.”

He eyed the boys again.

“Are you familiar with word origins? That word testify, for example? You know that testify is something you do in court, yes? Well, of course, you do! You’ve all done just that recently, haven’t you?! You were asked to tell your version of events, you swore to tell the truth and proceeded to tell it. That was you testifying.”

The man nodded, seeking non-verbal feedback from his audience.

“The word testify comes from the word testes. Testicles. I’m sure I don’t need to explain what they are. If you were up for trial in a Roman court, they’d ask you to literally put your testicles on a block of wood. A swordsman would be standing close by. If the judge thought you were telling the truth – testifying – he’d let you go. But if he thought you were lying…”

The man paused, enjoying the audience reaction.

“…swoop! Down would come the sword and chop! Off would fall your testicles!”

The boys sat in sniggering near-silence.

“Luckily for you, we no longer conduct trial by swordsman nowadays, eh? There’s a room full of boys here who’d have been testicle-free by now, am, I right?”

Connor felt himself blush and determinedly avoided eye contact with the man. Most of the others did likewise.

“So. What about the word ‘decimated’. Where might it have its roots?”

He looked out to eight blank faces. He carefully spelt the word out.

“Think of the first part – dee, ee, cee. Those letters are a common prefix in our words today. What words begin with dee, ee and cee? They sometimes make a ‘deck’ sound, as well as a ‘dess’ sound.

“Decade!” shouted Grayson, surprising himself more than anyone.

“Decimal!” said Fowler.

“Yes!” encouraged the man. “Keep going! I’m thinking of an athletics event…”

“Decathlon!” interrupted Grayson again.

“Spot on, Anderson! Spot on! Now, what do all these words have in common? The prefix is the same dee, ee, cee, but what does that mean?”

He waited to allow the boys to answer, but none was quick enough for his liking.

“How many events in a decathlon?”

“Ten!” someone shouted.

“Yes! How many years in a decade?”

“Ten!” came the answer again.

“So, what does the ‘dec’ prefix mean then?”

“Ten?” replied Alan hesitantly.

“Yes! Top of the class, Alan! Top of the class! The ‘dec’ part means ten.”

“But what about December? That’s the twelfth month!” Alan was wishing he hadn’t said out loud what he was thinking.

“Aha! Yes! A very good observation. December is indeed the twelfth month…but it was at one time the tenth. The Romans, as vain as their emperors were, added a couple of months in the middle of the calendar to celebrate two of their most popular leaders. But I’ll leave you to work out which two were added.

Back to ‘decimated’. The word relates somehow to the number ten. Would anyone care to guess where the word originated?”

The lack of response told the man that, no, no-one cared to guess. A mix of fear of getting it wrong and not wanting to look too smart in front of their peers meant that no boy dared rather than cared to answer. The man didn’t mind. He was enjoying giving his impromptu history lesson.

“The Roman army, contestants, was the most-feared army in history. They were extremely well-drilled, super-fit and could march hundreds of miles before engaging in combat. They were rarely beaten. It was a matter of great honour to each Roman soldier that he won in battle, so much so that should an army be beaten in combat, the Centurion would be asked to select ten of his legionaries at random. Those ten legionaries would then be clubbed to death by the others. It served both as a punishment for losing the battle and as a strong warning never to lose in battle again. The group of soldiers would be decimated. Totally destroyed. That’s where the word comes from. Nowadays, we say that the garden was decimated by the weather, or that the cat decimated the bin, but the word has far more sinister origins.”

The man stepped out in front of the lectern again, his audience rapt and interested.

“Contestants. We shall adopt the Roman way for our little TV show.”

The boys shuffled nervously in their seats, waiting for a punchline, or a hearty, jokey laugh from the man, but none was forthcoming. The realisation of what they might be asked to do began to creep up on them. The man’s steely gaze confirmed what they all now were thinking. He watched in sick amusement as puzzled looks were replaced with speechless faces of horror and terror, colour draining as quickly as water down a plughole.

The man moved behind the curtain at the side where Cameron usually stood. He dragged a heavy cardboard box from behind it and pulled out a wooden baseball bat.

“When McPherson returns from his press conference, we – or rather you – will ensure his total elimination, not just from The Elements, but from life itself.”

The man swung a theatrical swing of the bat, the air singing gently as it moved smoothly from over his right shoulder to over his left and back again. You could tell it was a heavy bat when the man dropped it unnecessarily with an echoing rattle on the shiny floor. His voice became unpleasant once more.

“Let this be a warning to you. Win at all costs or face the ultimate penalty. This just might toughen some of you little mummy’s boys up. Any questions?”

There were none, of course. Just a stunned, shared and confused silence. No-one knew what to think. Muffled voices told them that Stephen was returning. He and Cameron came into the room, Stephen jocular and swaggering. He was laughing at what he’d said to a journalist and how the room had laughed with him. Cameron massaged his ego by asking him to tell him again what he’d said to that woman from the Daily Mirror. He did so with characteristic hur-hr-hurring and unnecessary guffaws. Poor Stephen had no idea what was really going on.

The man took control again.

“Aha! Mr McPherson! I trust the ladies and gentlemen of the press were kind to you? Did you give good quote? Show your best side for the photographers? I bet you did! Are those French girls still asking for you? Give them my regards, will you?”

Stephen grinned. He looked at the other boys. They responded with a mixture of ashen faces and avoidance.

“Alright?! Jeez! Who died?”

Eight faces looked to the floor and eight pairs of shoes simultaneously shuffled.

“Mr McPherson. Before you leave us, we’ll have a short farewell party. We have some food and drinks laid out in one of our reception rooms. Grab a bite to eat, say your fond farewells and we’ll see you on your way.”

At this, the man acknowledged Cameron with the slightest of nods.

“Follow me, everyone!”

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

 

Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Heavy Shit Goin’ Down

Fela Kuti was, to borrow from That Petrol Emotion, an agitator, an educator, an organiser. A music and sociopolitical trailblazer, he was equal parts multi-instrumentalist and political activist. The founder of Afrobeat, he combined on-the-one funk with rippling, rattling one chord jazz and more often than not included a lyric that savaged the powers in charge; look for 1977’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood, which calls out police brutality as the perfect example.

1975’s Expensive Shit is the story of being framed, set to a groove that falls somewhere between the freeflowing Blue Note jazz of Gil Evans and James Brown’s mid 70s excursions in funk. Wandering, electric piano fights for earspace with chattering, polyrhythmic drums and clickety-clacking off-beat percussion. Underpinned by body popping bass and fanfaring trumpets, Fela’s saxophone noodles across the top with just as much regard for boundaries as its player’s attitude to authority.

Fela KutiExpensive Shit

Just as you begin to think you’re in the middle of a tight-but-loose instrumental – those muted trumpets really know how to elongate their presence – along comes Fela and his backing singers, singing a song, half-Nigerian, half-English, of being set up by the police.

Finding himself in posssesion of a joint that had been planted on him by corrupt police officers, Kuti swallowed it. The police took him into custody, knowing that nature’s way would eventually incriminate their innocent target. Always one step ahead of the authorities though, Fela managed to swap stool samples with a sympathetic inmate and was released without charge.

On 1976’s Zombie, Kuti waged a war on the militaristic Nigerian government of the era. He likened the military to zombies, dead-eyed government stooges, incessantly carrying out sinister orders from above.

Fela KutiZombie

Propelled by a fluid and skittering Tony Allen drum groove and the assembled brass of Africa 70, Kuti’s band, Zombie begins on a fade-in, suggesting the band have been working up the groove for a quite some time before we get to hear it. It’s not until it reaches Kaa the snake levels of hypnotism that Kuti’s call-and-response vocals come in.

Attention! (Zombie!) Double up! (Zombie!) Fall In! (Zombie!) Fall out! (Zombie!) Fall down! (Zombie!) Get ready! (Zombie!)

Nigerians loved it, to the point where they’d mimick the soldiers who lined the streets. “Zombies!” they’d shout, arms straight out ahead and limp at the wrist in mocking pose. So incensed was the government at Kuti, they systematically attacked and destroyed Kalakuta Republic, the studio-based commune he’d set up with his family and band. On the government’s say-so, 1000 soldiers raided the community. They beat Kuti to within an inch of his life, raped the women and threw Kuti’s elderly mother from a first floor window. She would die of her injuries.

  

As an inflammatory reaction to the charge that he was kidnapping women and keeping them hostage against their will, on the first anniversary of the Kalakuta violence he simultaneously married 27 of the women in his community; dancers, vocalists, musicians. Not long after, he was banned from Ghana after a riot broke out during Zombie. Later that same year at the Berlin Jazz Festival, his band would quit following rumours that he planned to use their fee to fund his presidential campaign. A colourful figure to say the least.

Fela Kuti fought a long fight with authority, calling out injustice, corruption, brutality and downright wrongness at every possible turm. He continued to be a real thorn in the side of those in charge for another 20 years, before his death in 1997. His back catalogue and life story is worth some of your time.

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 13 and 14

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 13

 

The journey back to Kimble was long, silent and, for most, troublesome and anxious. All nine of the boys and what was left of their possessions were packed into a large minibus for the journey. Harrison’s team had no tents and no love lost between them. The last team to arrive at the flag, they’d kept the others waiting almost three hours. It would’ve been longer too, had they not succumbed to the ‘Mayday’ option on the app. A team of production assistants picked them up in an Elements-branded jeep and brought them to the others just as dusk was falling. Bedraggled and arguing amongst themselves, they were beyond care that they were the last team to finish.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” said Harrison directly to Connor, Stephen and Rhys, “’cos it’s the two losing teams where someone gets eliminated. We were last, yeah, but it might be one of you three that gets put out…”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Connor could hear a faint recollection of this very fact, yet for the entire journey he and the others had convinced themselves that as long as you weren’t last, you were safe. Right on cue, the man spoke to the assembled group.

“Ah, boys, boys, boys! Let us bicker not of first and last and eliminations. It is true that one from six will be gone by this time tomorrow, but that is for the public to decide. In the meantime, I suggest you use the journey home to rest and maybe update your socials. It’s not too late to influence public opinion….which reminds me! Stewart!”

Connor’s heart leapt at the sound of his name being spoken by the man.

“I believe this is your mobile phone, yes?”

The man held up Connor’s phone, a snake-like grin pursed on his thin lips. To his side, Cameron smiled a smugly.

“It was found in the woods by one of our production assistants and, given that your social media postings recently have been sparse to non-existent, I surmised that it was probably yours. What do you say?”

“Eh, thanks. Yes, it’s mine. I think it fell out my pocket when we were packing up our camp for the night. I only noticed the next day after we’d walked miles and miles. I thought it was gone forever. Thanks!”

Connor reached out his hand and took back his phone. It felt cold yet familiar. The man was lying about how the phone had come into his possession, Connor was lying about how the phone had come to be lost, and both the man and Connor knew the other knew, but the charade played out for the unsuspecting other two teams to see.

“OK then. Contestants! All aboard! Rest, sleep, socialise. We’ll be back in Kimble quite late. There’ll be no early alarm in the morning. Tomorrow is a rest day. Sleep as long as you need.” The man ushered the boys onto the bus.

As they queued, Rhys sidled up to Connor and whispered a hiss.

“You shoulda covered me when I went for the flag instead of sissy-hiding in that hole with Stephen. We’d have won if it wasn’t for you.”

“Aw, come on, Rhys. That’s not fair. You wanted me to get shot at so you could get the glory of getting the flag!”

“I did get the flag, you coward! But you weren’t there to help me when the other team beat me up for it. And now there’s every chance that one of us is going out because of it. Some team-mate you are.”

Rhys bumped his shoulder against Connor’s and boarded the bus. By the time Connor was aboard, Rhys had taken a double seat to himself, his expression suggesting his pal wasn’t welcome anywhere near him. The winning trio had taken over the seats at the back, the Elements flag stuck up against the window. Connor found his own seat and as he settled back, a jerk and a hiss of steam brakes announced the journey back to Kimble was underway.

Connor replayed the end of the journey over and over on his mind. Could he have acted differently? Yes, he could have, but it was dangerous to do so. Should Rhys have been angry at him for staying in the hole? He was, now, but then, he was all about the glory. They wouldn’t have had the conversation had Rhys managed to keep a hold of the flag. They wouldn’t have had the conversation had it been the last team to finish that would see a team member leave. As it turned out, finishing second was really just ‘best of the losers’ and you were still equally in with a chance of being eliminated. There was nothing they could do now, save ensure their online profiles were interesting enough to the public to garner the votes required to stay in The Elements.

Connor updated Babble and Olé with pictures copied from Stephen and Rhys’s accounts. He turned some into memes of his own. He took content from the YouTube channel and made GIFs from it. He thought about re-posting the videos of Harrison looking gormless with his map and decided against it. A cheap laugh, perhaps, but he wanted to present himself as a team player, a hard worker, a do-gooder. He couldn’t have anyone think he was a coward or a person that couldn’t be relied upon. He was tired – shattered, actually – but he had a lot of social media catching up to do. He needed the public on his side. He would sleep once back at Kimble. Right now, as the others slept around him, was his chance to make his online presence count.

What Connor didn’t know was that the ambush – it had been the man and Cameron, he was sure of it – they’d shot at them from the viewing tower after all – was unknown to anyone out-with the immediate circle of those involved. Cameras filmed much of the three teams’ journeys which was then broadcast on a slight time delay to the Elements official YouTube channel,  but the footage of the attack had been conveniently consigned to an electronic file that no-one would ever find. As far as the Elements was aware, it had never happened in the first place. The millions of global viewers who had watched the first event were none the wiser. Imagine the outcry if they had broadcast footage of three young boys being shot at by two unknown men?! No! Those grey men in grey suits in the office at the far end of Kimble would never allow that to happen. The Elements was rapidly becoming the most-watched, most interactive TV programme/social media phenomenon/social experiment in history. Advertising revenue had passed the £100 million mark. A second season was already at the planning stage. There was a waiting list of companies eager to product place on the show. Celebrities, sports stars and even Prime Ministers and Presidents were sharing content on their own social media feeds. Yes, boys might drop out or even disappear from the show, but if it were presented in a clever way, there would be no outcry. And no outcry meant more revenue. Which meant those grey men would be wearing the very best in grey suits for a long time to come.

 

Chapter 14

Connor slept well into the next day. It was almost three in the afternoon before he was fully awake. His legs, his back, his shoulders, all of his body, ached. He enjoyed a powerful shower, dressed and made his own way to the dining area.

A small peg board at the entrance announced that today only was self-service. Connor looked into the empty room, saw that his usual table was set and, picking up a tray, went to the heated metal trays in the serving area and piled his plate high with food; bacon, sausages, hash browns, potato scones, pancakes. Unhealthy but required. He piled them into a wonky tower and sat the plate at his table. He returned to the serving area for a mug of tea and a glass of apple juice, which he drank in one go and then refilled before sitting down to eat.

Silence.

Only the metallic clank of cutlery on porcelain broke it. That and the occasional slurp of tea. Connor scrolled through his phone, a pleasing series of thumbs up and love hearts and smileys and positive messages blurring past with every smudge of his thumb. Somewhere amongst them he hoped would be a comment or even just a like from his parents, but he wasn’t about to go through the hundreds of thousands of interactions to find it. He hoped they knew he was OK, that he’d survived the first event. He’d still to survive the public vote, though he was fairly confident that he’d get its seal of approval. Despite his ineptitude at leading his team, Harrison was super-popular. Both Reilly and Alan had less followers and likes and re-shares than Connor. Alan would probably get the sympathy vote, which left Reilly in last place. Of his own team, Stephen was the most popular. Rhys was probably about level pegging with Connor but perhaps his heroics at the flag pushed him a touch ahead. As he ate hungrily and considered all of this, the less confident Connor became that he’d escape elimination and his anxiety levels began to rise in inverse proportion to the food left on his plate.

Finished and worrying, Connor returned his dishes to the hatch at the serving area and stacked them beside another set of empty plates. He made his way into the recreation area. Fowler was there by himself, absent-mindedly clacking two pool balls together at the pool table. He was wearing shorts, his lower left leg heavily bandaged. As he looked towards Connor, Connor noticed he was sporting a black eye. As he got closer, he saw too that Fowler had a cut on his chin.

“Jeez, Fowler! You’ve had better days!”

Fowler smiled a sad smile.

“My left leg was shot. When we were fighting your lot for the flag, someone shot me.”

Fowler looked cautiously around the room and lowered his voice.

“I think it was the man!”

Fowler looked at Connor, eyes like saucers, the purple and black bruising around his right eye giving him a cartoonish appearance. Connor wasn’t sure what to say.

“Was it sore?” he asked.

“Total agony. Like a burning, ripping sensation tearing through your flesh.”

Connor looked on.

“….and I don’t think he was aiming for me, either,” continued Fowler.

Fowler continued to stare straight at Connor, afraid, yet not so afraid that he couldn’t voice his opinion.

“…I think the bullet was meant for Campbell on your team. If he’d wanted to shoot me, he could’ve got me when I was climbing the hill. He could’ve shot anyone on the hill. It was only after Campbell had the flag and we were fighting him for it that he shot. I don’t think,” Fowler continued, “that the man wanted your team to win.”

Fowler let his quietly whispered words hang in the air.

Connor turned things over in his mind. Fowler might well be right. He looked around the room, making sure they were the only two there.

“We were shot at! In the woods! We were about halfway to the flag and had stopped for a rest.”

Fowler leaned closer, still clacking the pool balls, perhaps unselfconsciously, or perhaps as a noise distractor should any microphones be picking up their conversation.

“We were in a clearing next to a river. We sat down and almost straight away, the three of us fell asleep.”

Connor continued, egged on by Fowler’s rapid nodding and wide eyes.

“I was wakened by someone coughing. I woke the others. When I told them someone was hiding in the bushes, they didn’t believe me at first. Then whoever it was started firing at us. It was non-stop. Terrifying. We grabbed our stuff and ran for it. That’s when I lost my phone.”

Fowler looked on, wide-eyed once again.

“The man gave you your phone back at the minibus last night!”

“…Rhys reckoned there were two gunmen, not just one.”

“The man and Cameron!” whispered Fowler.

“It has to be,” said Connor.

“And it looks like they really don’t want you to win…”

Connor mulled this thought over in his overactive mind. If the man didn’t want anyone on his team to win, and it certainly looked that way, then surely he could just fix the vote so that whoever he wanted out was ‘voted’ out. Maybe, thought Connor with returning horror, he would find himself voted out later. Unlike other reality TV shows, ‘out’ didn’t mean being sent back home to your loved ones with a ‘hard luck’ and a ‘well done’ ringing in your ears. ‘Out’ in The Elements meant something sinister. Out for good, perhaps. To be ‘taken out’ was hit-man terminology, wasn’t it? No-one had discussed this. It really didn’t need discussing. The inference had been there since the start. Connor didn’t want to be voted out. No-one wanted out. No-one really wanted to be ‘in’ either. Connor’s mind flashed suddenly back to that time in Mr Szczęsny’s shop. What an idiot he had been.

Somewhere, back in the room that the boys would never know about, the man and Cameron sat and listened. Despite the intermittent clack of pool balls, they’d heard everything that Fowler and Connor had discussed.

“How’s voting going, Cameron?”

Cameron prodded the smart screen in front of him and swiped with his thumb until he had the information.

“Right now, it’s looking like Reilly.”

The man considered this then spoke.

“But that can change, yes?”

Cameron smiled in agreement and returned to his screen, thumbs and forefingers going to work.

The boys drifted into the recreation room one by one. Burgess was limping. He and Fowler went off to sit and chat, Fowler shooting Connor a conspiratorial nod before limping off, two limpers together. Grayson arrived, asked aloud if food was available and left immediately for the dining area. Others appeared. Alan and Reilly. They took up a game of half-hearted pool. Stephen, absent-mindedly scratching his upper leg scanned the room. He flopped on a sofa. Rhys was next. He nodded an ‘alright?’ to Stephen and sat beside him. He ignored Connor’s gaze and focused his attention on his phone.

Harrison was last to enter. He stood just inside the door. He wore a close-fitting grey Elements t-shirt that accentuated his upper-arm muscles. His trousers were tightly belted, possibly a notch further than was strictly comfortable, but this gave the impression of impressive upper body strength. His boots were laced all the way to the top and he stood, legs shoulder width apart, arms by his side, fingers moving agitatedly. His left hand held his mobile phone.

“Anyone,” he shouted for everyone’s benefit, “who makes fun of me again on social media is going to wish they hadn’t.”

Harrison waited for everyone’s full attention. Reilly played a pool shot, the rattle of the ball going into the pocket breaking the silence. Harrison looked in his direction, the stare enough to momentarily end the game.

All eyes were now on Harrison.

“Reilly. Anderson. Alan.”

Harrison looked at each boy as he spat their names, stopping at Alan.

“When your own team-mates make fun of you to gain a few extra likes, you know it’s every man for himself. I don’t care who’s on my team. From now on, everyone is an enemy to me.”

Harrison looked at each boy, his anger magnified by the savage haircut on his head.

“You.”

He turned and pointed.

“You.”

He turned again, jabbing his forefinger.

“You. And you. And you too.”

He turned once more, singling out each boy in turn.

“You.”

Jab.

He did this until he’d pointed out every boy individually.

“Starting from now, it’s me against you.”

He stared them down for a good few seconds.

“…and there’s only going to be one winner.”

Harrison made his exit. The room collectively breathed out.

Back in that room that the boys would never know about, the man laughed out loud.

At half past five, the man summoned the boys. There’d be an evening meal, he said, someone’s last supper. He’d made a joke of that part, but really, it was no joke. At 1900 hours, the voting would close and someone would be eliminated. Voting was tight, he said, and it would be an unlucky contestant who found himself voted out, but that was the nature of the game. Despite the man’s suggestion that they took to social media to try and garner a few extra votes, none of the boys had the appetite for self-promotion. The winning trio had no need for it and the other six were sick to the stomach with worry. Perhaps only Harrison was confident of remaining in the process. The majority of the boys had come to accept that what would be would be. Connor considered that getting put out now could actually be the best option. He was sure that over time, every boy would meet the same unavoidable fate. Why prolong the agony of the worst possible outcome?

Hope.

That was the reason. Connor hoped that despite his inner fears and worst-case scenarios, it was possible to win The Elements. Or at least survive it. Yes, it was unlikely, but it wasn’t impossible to envisage himself the last boy standing. It was this hope that made Connor yearn for enough votes to enable him to stay.

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

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.