Alternative Version, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Peel Sessions

Jukebox Dury

Released in 1977 at the height of Year Zero (or would this be Year1?), Ian Dury‘s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was, suprisingly, not a hit. Given its familiarity, I’d always thought of it as something of a late 70s monster smash, but apparently not. Neither was it an Ian Dury & The Blockheads record. Despite both Chaz Jankel and Norman Watt-Roy playing on it, Dury’s first single was credited to him and him alone.

Ian DurySex & Drugs 7 Rock & Roll (7″ version)

The low sales can be attributed to a couple of factors: it was wrongly thought of as a celebration of everything that punk was set on destroying, as bloated and offensive perhaps as anything by The Eagles or Rod Stewart. It just wasn’t cool to be seen buying a copy. Due to its title, the record found itself on the BBC’s banned list too and, unlike the unintended consequence of appearing on such state-sponsored naughty lists (see Relax, Je t’aime et al), this time round, the banning actually worked, snuffing out any possibility of Dury having a hit single. With less than 20,000 sales and next to no airplay, it was swiftly deleted. 

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll opens up side two of my charity shop-rescued, ‘previously loved’ copy of New Boots And Panties. Not on the original version (Dury had a strict ‘no singles on the album’ policy), but all future pressings of the album contained the non-hit following the Bockhead’s chart success with What A Waste and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. And just as well.

It’s a great tune.

The Peel Session take from a couple of years later might be even better…

Ian Dury & The BlockheadsSex & Drugs 7 Rock & Roll (Peel Session, 12.12.79)

There’s a tin pot rattle of percussion and we’re off, all superfast snakehip slink guitar and a riff that’s slightly different, slightly further up the strings or frets or whatever than the single version you already know and love.

Coming a couple of years after its release, the Peel version finds the band dextrous to the point of muso, stretching out beyond the tight-trousered confines of their original take, because, well, just because they can.

Bopping along for a full minute longer than the original version, there are fruity keys on the offbeat, phased and flanged, thick and syrupy guitar in the bridge and a chittering, chattering guitar in the verse, clattering away like the false teeth on a couple of old chimney-smoking fishwives on the top deck of the number 37 up Kilburn High Road, surely an unintentional influence on those wee clang-a-langs that punctuate the singing in the verses of Orange Juice’s Rip It Up.

Then there’s the Hammond solo, a wonderful warm and cosy sound that predates Mick Talbot’s role in the Style Council by a good 36 months. Lovely stuff, all in.

It’s also a clear influence on the Merseyside Magpie himself. Lee Mavers cocked one ear at that riff and that clanging percussion and thought, ‘I’m ‘avin’ that.’ So he did.

Tha La’sCome in Come Out

And talking of Liverpool…

The Blockheads were great, great players. When Trevor Horn was constructing Relax and becoming increasingly exasperated at the technical limitations of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, he roped in The Blockheads to fix Frankie’s botched job. Not for the first time in history did a band barely play on their big hit record. I’m fairly certain you knew that already though.

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 6

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.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 6

 

Connor kicked off his Converse at the heels and heard them fall to the floor. He instinctively pulled his phone from his front left pocket and impatiently waited as it came back to life. When it did, he got the shock of his life. A never-ending sequence of pings and vibrations announced that he had literally thousands of notifications. The Babble app showed ‘50000+’ next to it! Olé had even more! ‘The Elements’ app announced 122378 notifications. Connor checked the numbers closely. Over fifty thousand Babble notifications! That was insane. On a good day he might miss 1 or 2. If his phone was off between classes at school, maybe 20 or so. Never fifty thousand. He’d never even used Olé until now but suddenly he was trending on it! And ‘The Elements’ app, the TV show’s own social media platform showed that he’d missed over a hundred thousand interactions with, well, with who exactly?

Connor opened up ‘The Elements’ app first. The screen on his phone was split in two. On the left-hand side, a series of pictures, text and hashtags could be scrolled through. On the right-hand side were the personal messages that only he could see. He read, flitting between the two sides of the screen.

Connor tapped the ‘Reply?’ option, fired in a quick “Hi!” and replied. His text zoomed off and out into the ether. He scrolled on.

Connor swept the screen. Text after text rapidly sped upwards, swipe after swipe after swipe after swipe.

There were more.

They went on and on and on.

Connor couldn’t possibly read all of them. There was no way on earth he could reply to them all. He regretted sending that one reply. ‘If I don’t reply personally, will they follow someone else? Will I end up getting knocked out?’ It was a dilemma.

Connor scrolled through the pictures on the other side of the screen. The most-recent had been taken just a few minutes before; the press room emptying, the Japanese journalist and his translator standing smiling for the photographer, Steve de la Cruz caught off guard, the boys being ushered out of the room, the boys standing up from the table, boys 5, 6 and 7 – Alan, he’d almost forgotten about him! – seated at the table.

Swipe.

A picture of a cameraman. The man standing with his arms outstretched, de la Cruz by his side. A panoramic view of all 9 boys at the table. Rhys speaking. Fowler speaking. Pamela and the other two girls in huddled conversation. A head shot of Grayson.

Swipe, swipe.

A different head shot of Grayson. The man again, speaking. A female journalist standing with a microphone. Two production assistants with clipboards. Stephen’s spiky hair. Connor beside Grayson. Connor himself. De la Cruz dazzling everyone with his smile. A bird’s eye view of the room. Another pictu…

A ping.

Message from @soccermomNYC’ appeared across the middle of the screen. Connor’s heart sank. His text had gone, reached the recipient and now they were replying.

He thought for a moment and opened the message.

What now? Did he reply? Did he ignore? He had a decision to make.

He didn’t reply. Instead, Connor tapped the pencil icon in the top right of his screen, opening the ‘Get It Out There Now!’ field at the bottom.

He added a #elements at the end and sent it off.

Feeling a bit foolish, he looked around his room for where there might be a hidden camera. Settling on the light fitting in the middle of his ceiling, Connor looked, smiled and waved. He gave a double thumbs up, felt embarrassed and returned to his phone.

A series of ever-increasing red love hearts flashed rapidly across his screen. Connor swiped to the top of his feed. A fresh batch of messages were waiting for him.

On and on they went, screen after screen of those little yellow waving hands. The sinking feeling returned once more.

‘They’re watching me right now. Right now!’ Connor wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. ‘The bathroom,’ he surmised. ‘Surely they don’t film in the bathroom.’ Connor swung off the side of the bed, phone in hand, and closed the bathroom door behind him. There was no lock, or he would have locked the door too. He sat on the lid of the toilet and let out a long, low sigh.

A lot had happened in the few hours since breakfast. And now this social media overload. He hadn’t even, he realised with growing anxiety, opened the other two apps. He hesitated then opened Olé first. He was met by a stream of pictures, all of him, take by goodness knows who. The press conference in close up. The press conference far off. Black and white. Filtered colours. Wearing his ‘night’ jacket. Holding up his fireproof layer, a blurry Pamela in the background. There were around 30 or so. Every picture had thousands of comments and emojis underneath it, the content mirroring the comments on ‘The Elements’ app.

Babble was the same. A nightmare vision of complete strangers being friendly attached to hashtags, emojis, gifs and video clips. Comment after comment after comment.

Connor placed his phone next to the fresh towels – when did they appear?! – on the marble counter and sat, letting everything sink in.

“Can you dim the lights, please?” he asked aloud. He fancied gathering his thoughts in darkness for a bit. He’d yet to acknowledge the unseen voice that welcomed him in that slightly emotionless way each time he came ‘home’ but given there were no light switches he could manipulate himself, he had no option.

“Certainly, Connor Stewart. Dimming lights now. Say ‘stop’ when I reach the desired level.”

“Stop,” commanded Connor as the room fell into a fuzzy grey twilight. He sat for a bit, contemplating. Then it came to him. This woman, this voice, might be able to help him.

“Hello?” he said again.

“Hello Connor Stewart,” it replied.

“Can you tell me if there are any cameras filming me in here?”

“For dignity and privacy reasons, there are no cameras in the bathroom, Connor Stewart.”

That was a relief.

Then it came to him again.

“Are you able to turn off the camera in my room?”

“Certainly, Connor Stewart. Which camera would you like me to deauthorise?”

“Eh….the one in the light fitting above my bed, thanks,” said Connor. “And all the other cameras too, thank you.” And as an afterthought he added, “And any microphones as well, thanks.”

“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.”

The voice said this eight times in total. There were no tiny clicks or whirrs or whines to suggest anything had been turned off, but then, he rationalised, there was nothing to suggest they were there in the first place. Connor would have to trust the voice.

He had an idea. He entered his room again and bravely stuck two fingers up to the light fitting. He flicked them angrily several times. He checked his phone. His actions had been met with silence. No one had seen him.

He went to the mirror and waggled his bum.

He picked his nose at the dressing table.

He shouted a loud “Rarrrrgh!”

He did a bad moonwalk across the floor.

No one had commented on any of his actions. Satisfied that both the cameras and mics in his room had been disabled, he lay back on top of his bed. He was going to have to keep on his toes at all times here.

 

———-

 

It was Stephen who spoke first. Pamela had arrived and they were going for Rhys. There was to be a press debriefing, whatever that might mean, and lunch.

“Man! I’ve got thousands of followers! See that Babble app?! They’re sending me messages, tagging me into things, they’ve got pictures of me and everything! Some of the comments I can’t even read cos they’re in a foreign language!”

Stephen gesticulated wildly with his arms. Connor nodded enthusiastically and grinned.

“Me too! I’ve got like over a hundred thousand followers on the ‘Elements’ app! What’s that all about?!”

Pamela, for the first time, didn’t need to kick-start the conversation.

“Me too! And I’ve got my own hashtag too,” continued Stephen. “hasthtag le gingembre. I Googled it – it means I’ve got ginger hair! Obviously!”

Rhys joined them.

“Rhys! Rhys! What about you? Have you been online?”

Rhys could barely contain himself.

“It’s totally insane. I switched on my phone and I’ve got, like, TWENTY! THOUSAND! FOLLOWERS! on that ‘Elements’ app….people commenting, messaging me. Have you seen the pictures on Olé? They’re right up to date. We’re on camera, like, all the time!”

Rhys followed on behind Pamela as Connor and Stephen exchanged unspoken glances. Rhys was well behind in the popularity stakes and the pair of them took security in this. They arrived at their usual table and sat. The other groups were at their tables. A chef was talking to the boys at one of them. Connor scanned the room but could see no sign of the man or Cameron. The large screen was showing silent footage of the press conference from earlier, a reminder that this was TV and not some modern-day reformation centre for wayward boys. The thrum in the room was palpable, every boy eager to share his new-found discovery of his popularity on social media. The noise reminded Connor less of the atmosphere in the room at breakfast time and more like the echoing hum of the school dinner hall.

The chef arrived and the boys and Pamela ordered. She lifted the pitcher from the centre of the table and poured four glasses of water. The chat continued between the three boys.

“I got a message from some guy in Canada,” said Rhys excitedly. “Told me I was doing this for science geeks everywhere!”

“I got one from a girl in Bordeaux, asking how I kept my hair so spiky!” said Stephen. “I sent her a picture of that Solid Rock gel that I use.”

“Did you reply to all your messages?” asked Connor, looking back and forth at the others.

“God, no!” snorted Stephen. “I’d have been there all week doing that! I just replied to some of the girls!”

“I tried to,” answered Rhys, “but there were far too many. Did you?”

Connor wanted to tell him that he had. He wanted the others to think that they’d made a mistake by not, but he also wanted them to know how popular he seemed to be, that he’d had hundreds upon hundreds of messages too.

“Nah. No chance. I posted a message to thank everyone for their support. That was far easier than replying to everyone individually. There’s no way you can reply to them all.”

“I never thought of that,” said Stephen. “I’m gonna write a message like that right now!”

As he pulled out his phone, Pamela, so far anonymous, cut in.

“No phones at the table, please, Stephen. If anyone sees you with that here it won’t just be you who gets it, it’ll be me too. Now, put it away!”

Chastised and ashamed, Stephen put his phone back in his pocket. He made a mental note to post a message like Connor’s the first chance he had.

The chef arrived and the four at the table ate in relative silence. As they were finishing off their fruit, the man and Cameron made themselves known.

“Boys! May I have your attention please? Thank you.”

He waited as the room fell quickly silent.

“After lunch I’d like to have a short press conference debriefing with you. A few notes, a few pointers on how to carry one’s self in that environment. Afterwards there’ll be the opportunity to have a quick haircut, a quick tidy up, before the official photoshoot. I’ll explain more about that though after our press conference debriefing. Shall we meet in the press room in say,” he checked his watch, “fifteen minutes? That should give you time to freshen up before our afternoon sessions. Mr Harrison, number three…….” The man waited until he had Harrison’s absolute attention. “Would you be so kind as to wait behind for a minute or two? Thank you.”

The noise in the room picked up again. All boys got back to chatting about their popularity on social media, about how good they looked in the pictures that had made it from the press conference and onto the internet and what messages of support they’d had from complete strangers in all corners of the world. All, that was, except for Harrison. He’d suddenly lost his appetite and his tongue. As the boys filtered from the room, Connor noticed him sitting, head in hands, alone at his table and awaiting the coming storm .

Connor was beginning to get familiar with the layout of the corridors but nonetheless, Pamela led the boys back to their rooms. There was a familiarity between them now too, as if the ice had been broken, and all three chatted with no subconscious unease. Stephen was teasing the front of his hair up and into a stiff spike as he chatted.

“The thing is,” he remarked, “you’re going to find yourself famous, whether you like it or not. When you get out of here, the girls are gonna go mad for you! I’m making the most of this.”

“If you get out of here,” corrected Connor. “There’s no guarantee. Someone leaves in the first round, remember. Whenever that is…”

“Yeah, and it’s not going to be me.” Stephen had developed a bit of a swagger since this morning, something that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the other two boys. “Keep giving all those followers on social media what they’re after and they’ll keep you in. That’s the plan. Simples. Hasthtag le gingembre!”

Back in the dining area, the man was seated at the table across from Harrison. He chose his words carefully before speaking. He couldn’t after all, make contestant number three vanish, as much as he wanted to. The press, Yoshiro in particular, would ask all sorts of questions – boy suggests TV show isn’t all it seems to be, same boy vanishes that afternoon. Hmmm – The man stared Harrison down until the boy could take no more and refocused his gaze on some crumbs on the tabletop.

“Look at me,” seethed the man. “Look at me.” He waited. Harrison slowly returned his gaze to the man and his bared teeth.

“There are some things you just don’t say, Harrison. Some things must never ever be said in a public forum whilst you are a participant in ‘The Elements’, is that understood? I can’t have the world’s media running stories of death camps and the likes, even if Kimble is in a lot of ways exactly that. A death camp.” His measured, menacing whisper tailed off. “Allude to anything like this again and I will see to it myself that you will take no further part in this show….or indeed life itself. Do you understand?”

Harrison nodded and returned to the crumbs in the table.

“As long as we’re clear, Harrison. As long as we’re clear.”

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

Get This!, New! Now!

Captain Hook

You don’t know this yet, but Gorillaz are the band that passed you by. Damon Albarn’s cartoon collective of rappers and rockers will turn (blink!) twenty years old this year. That’s almost as old as the cor blimey mockney Cockney band he’s still synonymous with.

Since their Clint Eastwood single made number 4 in the charts in March 2001, Gorillaz have released no less than 7 studio albums (with an 8th just around the corner) and 43 singles. Go on – name some! Then there are the trio of compilation albums, the remix album, the double figures-worth of EPs. From somewhere, from nowhere, Gorillaz have created quite the back catalogue. You should dive in.

He’s clever, that Albarn. Gathering together the cream of a world far-removed from Blur and featuring them on Gorillaz records instantly takes him to a whole new audience.

From Grace Jones to Mick Jones, the list of Gorillaz collaborators reads like a who’s who of the great and groovy in music, an ever-shuffling iPod lassooed and coralled under the Gorillaz umbrella; Neneh Cherry, Terry Hall, Simonon, Snoop and De La Soul, Benson, Womack, Elton John, Mavis Staples, the list goes on…..the real Lou Reed and Dennis Hopper, Mark E Smith before he came a cropper…

…every one of them has been on a Gorillaz record. The clout of Albarn is mightily impressive.

On Gorillaz most-recent album, Song Machine Season 1: Strange Timez (‘Season‘ – tsssk!), party mode Beck rubs shoulders with a downtrodden Robert Smith, St Vincent sits side by side with Joan As Policewoman, Slowthai and Slaves battle it out in a noisy, sweary fight to be top dog… and everything is underpinned by the happy/sad signature sound of Gorillaz – sing song choruses to lift the mood after Albarn’s melancholic verses, a ripple of chiming electronic percussion here, a rumble of electronic bass there, room-shaking phat beats throughout. I’m not sure what wizardry Albarn employs to produce such glossy, shiny contemporary sounds, but whatever it is, it’s really great.

Thematically I suppose, the album runs a bit like a 6 Music show; you’re not going to like everything that’s on it, but there’s always a beat or a melody or a wonky background noise worming its way into your head and setting up camp in your cerebellum. You’re never all that far from an unexpected cracker.

The standout on Song Machine is Aries, the collaboration between Albarn, producer/rapper/drummer Georgia and Peter Hook. With her dad being half of Leftfield, rhythm is in the blood for Georgia, and once welded to the instantly recognisable sound of Peter Hook’s bass, it all makes for a fine noise.

Gorillaz feat. Peter Hook and Georgia Aries

Hook is in full-on, low slung Viking mode on Aries, his imperial, mercurial bassline slinking up and down the frets like prime time, box office New Order. The section at two and a half minutes where he plays in confident abandon could quite easily have flowed straight off the grooves of Power, Corruption and Lies or Low-Life, leather keks, Triumph Motorcycles t-shirt, beef with Barney…the lot. He even adds his spoken voice – ‘Aries!‘ to the start, much as he did in the past with those ‘You got love technique!‘ vocals on Fine Time.

Albarn knows a hook when he hears one. And who better to provide the hook than Hook himself?

FYI, there’s a regularly updated list of Gorillaz contributors here.

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 5

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

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

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

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 5

 

Connor awoke to the sound of classical music streaming through the room. Sweeping violins and see-sawing cellos brought him into the here and now. It took him a moment to adjust, to remember where he was and why he was here, before his head was immediately full of unwelcome thoughts of bullet-proof trousers and subzero body armour and thermashields and ‘The Elements’ and the possibility of death.

“Good morning, Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice. “It’s 6.30 am. Please be dressed and ready for 7.15 prompt. You must bring your mobile phone with you to the meeting room.”

Connor raised his head from the pillow and scratched and yawned. He swung his legs and let them dangle from the edge of the bed, feeling for the soft carpet with his outstretched toes. He sat upright, stretching. His suitcase had been returned at some point. It sat in the middle of his room, an envelope atop it.

Connor Stewart. These are the clothes you selected yesterday. They have been tagged and should now be placed in your storage facilities. On day 1 you are free to wear any R&R clothing of your choice.’

Someone must have been in his room while he had been sleeping. The thought unnerved Connor, but nothing much about this place Kimble surprised him anymore. Connor picked through his case, looking for the clothes he would wear for the day ahead. He selected a pair of beige R&R trousers, a dark blue ‘Elements’ t-shirt and the dark blue ‘Elements’ hoody. The first thing he noticed was that the hoody had ‘Stewart’ printed across the back. A large chunky number 9 was centred underneath. ‘Centre forward’, he thought to himself, before the reality of this particular game came back to him. He threw that day’s clothes on top of the unmade bed and turned his attention back to the case. He began sifting through the assortment of garments that he’d picked out the day before. Everything had ‘Stewart’ and ‘9’ on the back. On all trousers it was printed on the back right-hand pocket, or in the same general area if the trousers, the wet trousers for example, didn’t have a pocket. On the t-shirts and layers it was prominent on the left breast. On the hoodies, he noticed on closer inspection, it was printed both on the back (big) and on the front left breast (small). He had been branded. Although he was yet unaware, this was how the public would refer to him for the duration of his time in ‘The Elements’.  With everything hung accordingly in the wardrobe, he shoved the chunky white trainers at the back, placed the hiking boots in front of them and closed both doors with a woody thud.

Showered, dressed and ready for the day, Connor didn’t have to wait long for Pamela to knock the door.

“Good morning, good morning, good morning!” she breezed, her white, toothy smile just a touch too bright for him. Behind her stood Stephen, half asleep but dressed accordingly.

“You look very smart, Connor Stewart!” she said with a smile. “Did you sleep well? I must say, you’re very cute when you’re sleeping, haha! Now, make sure you have your phone with you. Got it? Good. Then let’s go get Rhys!”

Connor and Stephen exchanged vague ‘how ye doin’?’ glances before less than surreptitiously checking each other’s name and number. ‘McPherson, 1’ notified Stephen’s, as they fell into step behind their exuberant chaperone. They waited as Pamela repeated the same routine at Rhys’s door (‘Campbell, 4’) and the three followed her through the sterile, white corridors to the meeting area where they’d watched the video the day previously.

The man and Cameron were already there, busying themselves with tablets and mobile phones. The screen was showing the spinning ’The Elements’ logo again. At the far corner Connor spied Grayson (‘Anderson, 8’) and his group. They were sitting on couches, listening to one of the girls. Connor scanned, looking for Alan’s group. ‘Alan, 7’ and his two team-mates, ‘Harrison, 2’ and another whose name (number 5) was too difficult to read were at the opposite end again. All three groups were out-with speaking distance of one another.

“Boys! Good morning and welcome again. We’ll have a short meeting first, if you don’t mind, then we’ll have time for breakfast afterwards. Please, come and seat yourselves in the same chairs as yesterday.”

The three groups merged into one as they patiently filed into the seating area. As before, the three girls took the remaining seats in the second row.

“Thank you. I trust you slept well. Certainly, there have been no reports of nightmares or sleep-walking. A good night’s sleep is always important at Kimble. ‘The Elements’ requires you to be functioning to your highest capacity. A healthy body and healthy mind is so important. But enough of the small talk! Cameron…”

Cameron, with his slick hair and beige chinos and perfectly-pressed pink shirt stepped forward. He spoke for the first time.

“Good morning all.”

‘His voice hasn’t even broken!’ thought Connor.

“Before we begin our rigorous training programme, we will first set up social media accounts for you all. Now, I know all of you already use social media, some of you even have your own blogs and YouTube channels, but we have taken the liberty of deleting those accounts for your own good. At the moment, none of you has any online presence whatsoever.”

There were a few muffled grumbles and a pained sigh from someone sitting behind Connor. Cameron ignored this distress and continued.

“It is necessary to start afresh, to begin ‘The Elements’ with a clean slate and no previous history. Some of you will welcome this clean break, I am certain of that.

You will need four accounts. Once they are up and running it will be your responsibility to maintain three of those four accounts. One of the accounts will be controlled by us. These four accounts will be how the audience interacts with you. Build up a following, interact with your public and you will stand a better chance of progressing through ‘The Elements’. It’s simple.

You are all familiar with YouTube, yes?”

Without waiting for an affirmative response, he went on.

“We here at Kimble have already created a YouTube channel for the show. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but we have filmed you all since departing on the train yesterday morning, and we continued filming throughout the day and night. Each evening, around 8pm, we will upload new content, edited highlights of your day. Here’s just a taster of what is already online.”

He dimmed the lights, aimed the remote control at an unseen sensor and the screen lit up with camera footage of the boys on the train. Hidden cameras had picked out Connor and Grayson talking. Here they were at Grayson’s table. There was Alan joining them. The three sharing sweets. Other boys looking bored. Sleeping. Reading. Watching the trio. Here was Connor wandering up and down the carriage. Stopping to read the strange poem. Suddenly, sound burst from the screen. A cheering crowd. The scrum at the station. A man’s voice, off-screen asking Connor how he felt to be taking part in television history. Connor blinking, blanking him. Now they were in the limos. Then the sound cut again. They were standing in a semicircle as the man addressed them. The film continued in a fast-cut blur of the previous day’s images; being led through corridors, selecting clothes, eating dinner. The last image was of Connor, Rhys and Stephen sitting alone in the recreation room. “This place is weird,” Stephen’s voice had been electronically treated, making it echo. “D’you think they’ll really kill some of us?” The phrase ‘kill some of us’ echoed infinitely, repeating, repeating, repeating before the voice and the image of the three boys faded to black, to be replaced by the spinning ‘The Elements’ logo.

Allowing the boys no time to draw breath, Cameron continued.

“You already have fans! And foes! Look at some of these comments.”

A scrolling screenshot of a YouTube comments section whizzed upwards from the bottom of the screen. Hundreds of comments. Maybe even thousands. It was very difficult to read them in their non-stop blur.

JacquiTGT: ‘Grayson is soooo cool!’

EBoy94: ‘Ginger dude sucks!’

MintaBoy: “Insane!”

MorganD: “Play more air drumz, Grayson!”

Rambo’n’Ella: “We heart the fat kid x”

“Currently,” Cameron spoke as the comments continued behind him, Mr Jones, number 8, is top of the popularity tree. It would be unfair of me to suggest who might need to work hardest to gain the favour of the viewers, but clearly, some of you will need to market yourselves a bit better.”

Beside Connor, both Rhys and Stephen subconsciously sat slightly more upright, offering more attention to Cameron than they had been doing.

“So that is the YouTube situation. You will have no control over the content we show, I’m afraid, but you are free to view it whenever you are in R&R time. You will, however, have total control over the three other accounts. That is why we have asked you to bring your mobile phone with you.”

The man stepped to the podium now as Cameron took a step back and to the side.

“Thank you, Cameron. Firstly, is there any boy who doesn’t have a mobile phone?” He waited.

“No one? Good. You are all familiar with social media. You will be far more adept at its inner workings than I am. Firstly, you are going to need a Babble account. As Cameron said, your current accounts are no more, so you’ll need to set yourself up again.”

Connor and the others were already tapping and filling in information.

“It is up to you to select a profile picture, boys. Remember, you will be seen by millions around the globe.”

Connor went to his camera roll. He wanted to use the picture of him standing beside the yacht that was taken when he was on holiday just a few months before. He liked his hair in it. His camera roll was blank. There wasn’t a picture to be found in it. He checked his contacts. It was empty too, save one number. His mum’s. His emails? Blank. Text messages? Blank. The chat app he used to talk to all his pals at the same time? Deleted from the phone altogether. They – the TV folk, or this man, or Kimble, or the lot of them – had been through everything.

Connor aimed the phone at his left breast pocket – ‘Stewart’ and ‘9’ – and shot a wobbly selfie. It would do for the time being.

Two other accounts were set up using the same profile picture; Olé, the app that allows the user to upload filtered photos with a short piece of explanatory text, and a brand new ‘Elements’ app that would enable the user to upload short bursts of video activity with scrolling text across it. This app, the man said triumphantly, had been downloaded over 637,000 times already since being launched the day before yesterday. The public, he remarked, were desperately awaiting our accounts so they could follow them.

As at dinner time yesterday, Pamela led the boys to a table for four, situated far away from the other two groups. They were given all sort of options for breakfast and when their orders arrived, brought to the table by a large man in blue checked trousers and chef’s hat, Connor and his two fellow contestants ate heartily. Pamela, as was becoming the norm, ensured little in the way of silence.

“I love scrambled eggs! Do you Stephen? Rhys? I know you can’t eat them, Connor, what with your allergies ‘n all, which is a shame, as you’re really missing out, isn’t he boys?”

Connor ate in silence, partly to process the fact that everyone at Kimble seemed to know so much about him, partly through tiredness – it was still only 8am – and partly because, should he have wanted to say something, the likelihood of getting a word in between Pamela’s non-stop volley of words was minimal at best. He crunched his toast and slurped his tea, safe in the knowledge that any noisy eating on his part would be drowned out by Pamela’s incessant small talk.

Connor had to be alert though and not block out Pamela completely, because sometimes she’d let slip a little nugget of useful information.

“I hear, Connor, that you’re very much the favourite in South America already. Those Argentinians really love you! And Stephen, the French really have a thing for your hair! Rhysy boy, we’re gonna have to work harder on your media profile, sweetie, You’re not where you need to be on the list. I mean, you’re not that far down, but you’d probably want to be further up the field. Remember, you’re on camera all the time. Even now! All. The. Time!”

As those last three words were whispered slowly for emphasis, Rhys looked around, trying to see where any cameras and microphones might be hidden. His search was interrupted by the man once more.

“Boys! I’d like to get moving if we may. Can I suggest you take 15 minutes to freshen up and meet back in here for the press photoshoot? Girls, can you make sure they find their rooms and back to here again? Thank you. Stephen McPherson,” the man looked at their table. “Could you kindly wait behind for a minute, please? Thank you.”

The sound of chairs scraping backwards punctuated the air, but Connor’s table sat in uneasy silence. The three boys exchanged concerned looks. Pamela had visibly paled. Stephen had picked up on this and of the three boys was clearly the most-worried.

“What does he want, Pamela? What is it?” Stephen’s voice quivered.

Pamela shook her head slowly.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “But I’m sure it’s nothing.” The tone of her voice suggested even she didn’t believe herself.

The man approached their table, his hands behind his back, his suit jacket buttoned at the middle button.

“Thank you, Pamela. See to it that Rhys and Connor find their rooms, will you? Thanks.”

He waited until the three of them had stood up. Connor felt the need to push his chair under the table again. He half-nodded to the man before glancing at Stephen. Stephen was shaking, of that there could be no doubt. Pamela and Rhys stood to the side, anxious to leave.

“C’mon Connor,” said Pamela with forced enthusiasm. “Let’s get freshened up.” She left the room, followed closely by the two boys.

Had they stayed they would have heard the man tell Stephen under no circumstances was he ever again to sneak a phone call home to his parents. As punishment, the man said, he could have Stephen expelled form ‘The Elements’. This was said in such a way that being a contestant in ‘The Elements’, with its stab-proof layers and fireproof trousers and threats of death, was very much the preferred choice. Did he understand, asked the man, or did it need to be spelled out clearer? Stephen understood. He had phoned his mum for barely a minute when he was first alone in his room, as he’d agreed the day before at the train station. “Let me know you’re in and settled,” she’d said, and he had.

“Do it again,” the man threatened, “and I’ll see to it that you don’t return home. Clear?”

Stephen nodded.

“Clear?!” The man raised his voice.

“Yes, sir.” Came the meek reply.

“Good. Now, hurry along. I want you back here shortly.”

Stephen couldn’t wait to leave the table. He had no clear idea of how to find his room from here, but he knew he needed to take the corridor that peeled to the left from the meeting area. Luckily, Pamela was coming in the opposite direction with Connor and Rhys.

“Connor. Rhys. Head back into the meeting area yourselves. You know where you’re going, don’t you? Stephen. Is everything OK? I’ll take you back to your room. We’ll need to be quick, just a quick brush of the teeth and then back again. Okay?”

Connor and Rhys both gave Stephen a sympathetic smile. Whatever the man had said had clearly shaken him up. Maybe they’d find out what had got him into bother. Maybe they’d never know. The message was clear though. Step out of line and there are consequences.

On returning, Pamela and Stephen were the last two to sit down in the meeting area. The man looked at Stephen.

“All freshened up? Settled and ready to go? Good.”

Stephen sat upright and forwards, appearing keener than everyone else there.

“Boys. We will shortly reconvene in the media centre. There, you will take part in a press conference. The media of the world is invited and awaits; Süddeutsche Zeitung from Munich. The New York Times. Le Monde. El Pais. The Herald Sun. The LA Times. The Buenos Aries Times… Asahai Shimbun, the largest-selling newspaper not just in Japan but in the whole of Asia has sent their chief news reporter as well as Hiro Akari, the award-winning photojournalist. You should be very honoured.”

As he reeled off the list, he watched the boys’ reactions.

“Not to mention all of our own national dailies. And TV Crews too, from the UK, the US and Canada, all over Europe and Asia, Australia…South America…even Nairobi…all are going to be in attendance. They await now!”

The man lowered his voice, adopting the fatherly role again.

“It can be quite daunting, boys, to look out and face a sea of cameras, a swill of reporters all eager to land a quote or a titbit of gossip. I must prepare you for what you are about to face. You will be overwhelmed at first, I have no doubt about that, but you will also rise to the occasion. Remember, the world is watching. This is a good chance to garner public affection. Don’t squander the opportunity! Remember, please turn your phones off.”

The press room was a five-minute walk from the meeting area. On arrival, the man instructed the girls to keep the boys waiting “for a second or two.” As he opened the door, the noise of a large, unruly crowd filtered through. The boys looked at one another, a mixture of panic and nervous laughter. One boy, ‘Harrison, 3’ fixed his hair. Grayson air-drummed, oblivious to, or perhaps ignoring, Connor’s nod of recognition. Pamela smiled at the boys.

“Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.”

The man returned with another man. Connor recognised him from the YouTube footage from earlier. He was the man who’d thrust the microphone into his face when he stepped off the train yesterday. He carried the same microphone today. His suit was silvery grey, really shiny, and he wore equally shiny shoes that were ridiculously pointed at the toes.

“Boys,” the man said. “This is Steve de la Cruz. He’s the presenter of ‘The Elements’.”

“Hey guys! How y’all doin’?!”

He had a face full of teeth and fake tan to match. His eyes looked strange, an unusually bright blue. His eyebrows were waxed to perfection, his hair a gravity-defying colossus of quiffery. Connor couldn’t place his accent. He had one of those TV voices that made the person sound like they came from nowhere at all, which made Connor think he was probably from the Southern Regions.

“We gotta lotta folk through there to see y’all! They’re super-keen to find out all about who y’all are. Y’ready?”

The man opened the door again and de la Cruz stepped through. The noise was intense. Holding the door open, the man beckoned the boys to follow. He said something to them, but by now, it was even louder and his words were swallowed by the ocean of noise. Connor followed the first couple of boys through and into the room.

One long line of tables was set up. The tables were covered in blue cloth and sat in front of a massive backdrop that included a repeating pattern of ‘The Elements’ logo, the TV company logo and the brandings of Babble, YouTube and Olé. The line of tables was punctuated at intervals by the numbers 1-9 and a series of small black microphones. Jugs of water and small glass tumblers were placed at each section of the table. A girl, new to Connor but dressed in TV cap and ‘Elements’ t-shirt leaned close to his ear and instructed him to sit down at his number. He sat and surveyed the room as the rest of the boys took their places at the table. Grayson sat to his immediate right. They exchanged brief friendly smiles.

It was an intense scene right enough. A riot of jostling reporters, voices of every nationality, whipped themselves into a frenzy at the arrival of the boys. Prime positions were lost and won as flashbulbs flashed, cameras clicked and elbows elbowed in every direction. At the back of the room, a dozen, maybe more photographers stood on step ladders, their cameras trained on the nine boys at the table. A large TV camera sat in the middle between them, raising and lowering seemingly of its own free will, the camera operator aiming straight down the lens towards the boys at the table opposite. At one point the camera swept across the top of the heads of the reporters below, coming to within a few feet of them. At either side, hand-held TV cameras filmed the chaos, flitting between the startled boys and the hungry journalists. A crush barrier had been erected between the table and the rest of the room. Between the barrier and the table, a cameraman roamed free with unobstructed views of the boys. Along the front of the table were placed 30? 40? mobile devices. Belonging to the journalists, they were already recording the voices that would form the quotes in tomorrow’s entertainment news pages.

Steve de la Cruz stepped out into the gap between table and crush barrier. The man, the ultimate authority, the one in charge, stood to the side near the door, arms folded, surveying the room with satisfaction. The presenter spoke into his microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the world’s press. Welcome to Kimble! And welcome to ‘The Elements’!”

The lights dimmed and from behind him, Connor felt the low rumble as the promotional video they’d watched the day before began to play.

Nine contestants….Five challenges….and one winner! Physical strength. Mental stamina. Mental strength. Physical stamina. Each is crucial to your success. Survive all five challenges… Survive the public vote…Survive ‘The Elements’ This is war…! ’The Elements’ is war!

The lights came up and de la Cruz once again took centre stage.

“Nine contestants!” he shouted dramatically. “Five challenges!” He held up his left hand, his five fingers spread wide. “Just one winner!” He dropped four of the five fingers, his forefinger remaining rigid in the air. “And that winner sits somewhere at this table!”

He turned, microphone arm outstretched to face the table, his quiff wobbling stiffly with the sudden movement. His left forefinger swept across the width of the table and back again. He turned again to face the media.

“’The Elements’ will be the most-watched, most-streamed, most talked about show in TV history. Everyone who watches and interacts has the power to influence this show and will have a say in which boy ultimately wins.

We have asked you here today to meet our nine contestants, to gather the stories you will print in your newspapers and magazines and feature on your news channels and TV shows. I ask that you raise your hand should you wish to ask a question and, if chosen, identify yourself before asking. No subject matter is off-limits but I do ask that you are respectful.”

The chaos of the room had settled to a thrumming buzz. On de la Cruz’s last remark, more than thirty hands shot straight up.

“Aha! Yes! And off we go… madam, there, the lady in the blue cardigan…”

“Good morning Mr de la Cruz. Felicity Amersham, Daily Mirror. I would like to put a general question to all the boys, if I may. I was just wondering…did you all know exactly what you were getting yourselves into? This seems quite a big deal, this TV show, and I’m not sure the contestants may have appreciated what they were signing up for.”

De la Cruz responded swiftly, with a smile.

“Yes! A big deal indeed. ‘The Elements’ is certainly the biggest of big deals!”

He turned side-on, facing half of the boys.

“We might as well start at the beginning, eh? Number 1, Mr McPherson, did you know, exactly, as the Daily Mirror asks, what you were signing up for?”

Stephen looked at de la Cruz. He looked out into the throng of reporters and cameras and lighting rigs and microphones.

“Eh, not really, no. I was told they were looking for boys like me to take part in a new reality TV show. I took part because all of my pals said it would be better than going to school.”

At this, the room laughed. More hands shot up again. Ignoring them, de la Cruz went down the line.

“Fowler. Number 2. Did you know what you were signing up for?”

“I didn’t, no, but d’you know what? I’m glad I did. All this is brilliant! I can’t wait to get started!”

Connor listened, impressed. Fowler carried himself well. He’d probably gain followers and votes – were there even votes? – because of this. Connor tried to formulate the perfect answer in his head, a difficult task given the charged atmosphere in the room.

“Harrison. Three. What about you? Did you know what you had signed up for?

Harrison looked nervously out into the room. His tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth and he spoke with a tacky awkwardness.

“No. I had no idea I was getting involved in anything like this.” He paused to take a mouthful of water. “The fireproof clothes…the stab proof clothes…”

At this, the man appeared in the pit between the front of the table and the crush barrier.

“…the subzero armour….the threat of actual death…”

He had his arms out, open in front of him and a wide smile on his face. Inwardly he was seething. De la Cruz stepped aside and allowed him centre stage.

“Aha! Now, now! Let’s not get carried away with ourselves, shall we!” The man turned, looked at Harrison and turned again to face the reporters. “Let’s not give the game away, eh, Mr Harrison?! Apologies, ladies and gentlemen of the press. Mr de la Cruz alluded to no questions being off limit, but unfortunately, due to contractual obligations, we cannot discuss the actual content of the show at present. I trust you’ll understand.”

The man remained at the front, conceding only slight space to de la Cruz who gamely carried on as if nothing of significance had happened. The press though would know a good story when it was right in front of them. As he spoke, the man turned and fixed a stony stare on Harrison. Harrison poured himself a glass of water, willing the man to look away.

“Campbell, number four. The Daily Mirror asks if you knew what you were signing up for…”

Rhys took a gulp of water. In the short time since the man had interrupted Harrison’s answer, he had had to rethink what he was going to say.

“I knew that the show would probably be exciting, yes. And who wouldn’t want to be involved in an exciting TV show? I’m a bit of a science geek, actually…”

Internally, Connor cringed. ‘Rhys! You want to win followers, not lose them!

“…and when I discovered that the show was called ‘The Elements’, well, it piqued my interest. Like most of the boys here, I just can’t wait to get started.”

Good recovery,’ surmised Connor. Rhys had spoken well.

De la Cruz continued down the line, all of the boys a mixture of nerves and excitement, and all, since Harrison’s faux pas, giving stock ‘it’s great to be here’ answers.

“Mr Anderson. Contestant number 8. Did you know what you’d be signing up for?”

Grayson leaned back in his chair and puffed out a sigh, both hands behind his head. He leaned forward and rested his chin in his cupped hands, his elbows on the blue tablecloth.

“No. I had no idea. It was either this or juvenile detention, I don’t mind telling you that. And I didn’t much fancy the thought of going to a detention centre for most of the year. I must say though,” he sat upright and held his arms out to the room, “this is fantastic! If ‘The Elements’ is half as good as this is just now, I can’t wait to get going!”

Grayson had easily been the most confident of all the boys. His popularity rating would be growing even more on the back of this. Connor knew it was his turn next, yet he still didn’t have a clear idea of what he was going to say.

“And lastly, but by no means leastly…!” De la Cruz faced him with an extra-wide smile. “Stewart. Nine. Did you, as the Daily Mirror wants to know, as the whole world wants to know, understand what you were signing up for?”

Connor had already taken two gulps of water, but he downed a third before he spoke.

“Like the other boys, I had no real idea, or expectations of what ‘The Elements’ would involve.” Connor had mentioned the name of the show, just as Grayson had, and he felt it would be important somehow when it came to winning and losing. “I have to say, we’ve been treated brilliantly since we got here. Our rooms are amazing. The food too. We have a chill-out zone, a recreation room where we can relax at the end of the day. I never knew being on TV would be as exciting. I too am looking forward to getting things started. I think ‘The Elements’ is going to be a good show.”

De la Cruz faced the throng again. The man stood to his right. Without asking the audience, thirty or more hands shot straight in the air again.

“Ok. We’ll take a second question. This lady here….with the dark hair and emerald pendant…yes, you!”

“Good morning. Johanna Adler, Der Bild, Germany. My question, which I would like to direct to number 8, Anderson, if I may, is this. Are you always so relaxed? I watched the YouTube highlights last night and I couldn’t help but think that nothing fazes you. And the way you have carried yourself so far today suggests to me someone who is very calm. You seem very relaxed in the face of this, this brutal competition.”

De la Cruz stepped to the side, allowing the cameras a clear shot of Grayson. Grayson took a slow drink of water and, as if playing up to his public image, drummed a quick rat-a-tat on the table.

“I’ll tell you this,” he remarked. “I’m just being myself. I see some of the other boys and they’re not quite sure how they’re supposed to act here. I say, ‘don’t act’. Be yourself. When you’re told your every move is going to be on TV, it can change the way you think about things. If you let that get to you, you might never again be the person you actually are. Me, yeah, I might look relaxed, and that’s because I am. It doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous though. I’m a wee bit nervous just now, actually, but I just tell myself that you’re all normal people, like my mum and dad, my gran, my teachers. I act naturally around them, so I’m going to act naturally around everybody here too.”

Adler scribbled something into a spiral notebook and smiled a thanks towards Grayson. Hands were up again.

“Jason Katz, Entertainment Now!, New York City. My question is for the science guy, number 4, Mr Campbell.”

Rhys straightened himself again, braced for the question.

“Hello Mr Harrison. I’d like to know how you got selected for the show. What qualities do you have that made you stand out from the other applicants?”

Rhys didn’t know how to answer this. The truth was, he had been caught getting up to stuff in the chemistry lab at lunchtime, and not for the first time. He hadn’t auditioned for anything. Rhys had been told by the judge that he would go to either the shale pits or the new TV show. It was a no-brainer.

Before he could answer, the man had forced de la Cruz aside and was back centre stage.

“Again, I’m afraid for various contractual reasons, we cannot discuss the selection process. I can tell you that all the boys here possess the desired qualities essential for ‘The Elements’. Each individual has been carefully profile-matched. Who you have in front of you here today are the nine best possible contestants for what will be the greatest show in televisual and online history.”

The man’s answer hadn’t answered Katz’s question at all, but it was all he was getting. Rhys was quite relived to have dodged it. The questions continued thick and fast.

“Will you miss your parents?”

“When will the first contest take place?”

“Does it excite you to think that people in Nigeria will be watching this?”

“Are you worried about being first out?”

“How far do you think you can go in this competition?”

“Do you worry that your fitness levels might not be up to scratch?”

And so on and so on. As the press conference continued into its second hour, Connor found himself beginning to enjoy it, although a permanent voice in his head reminded him that everything he said and did would be seen. Even when a question wasn’t directed towards him, he felt the need to nod approvingly at the other boys’ answers or smile when they said something light-hearted. Enjoyable, yes, but exhausting too.

“We’ll take another question.” Scanning the room, de la Cruz looked for an interesting face. “You, sir, in the gillet and polo shirt….the lanyard….yes, uh huh, yes, you!”

A Japanese man stood and bowed. A second Japanese man stood with him. The first man said something in his native tongue then the second man spoke.

“Good day, Mr de la Cruz, sir,” spoke the second man. “This is Mr Furuta Yoshiro of Asahai Shimbun, Tokyo’s best-known daily newspaper. My name is Imai Satoru. I am his translator.”

Both men bowed humbly once more. The room instantly felt calmer. Slower. Less intense.

De la Cruz smiled his full-on TV smile at Yoshiro. “Welcome to ‘The Elements’, Mr Yoshiro, Mr Satoru.” De la Cruz offered a bumbled-looking bow before continuing. “It’s our honour to welcome you here today. Please, what would you like to ask the contestants?”

Yoshiro spoke for a full minute. Slow and husky-voiced, his demeanour demanded patience.

“Mr Yoshiro says,” translated Satoru, “that in Japan there is a long tradition of humiliation in TV game shows. Will ‘The Elements’ follow a similar format to those shows, where contestants are made to look foolish? He understands that these games involve the wearing of fireproof clothing and carry the threat of death. Are we to presume that some of the boys here today might be killed in the name of entertainment?”

At this, the recently calm-again man visibly bristled. De la Cruz answered for him.

“Well, as we said earlier, unfortunately we cannot discuss the content of the show…a show that is going to be regarded as a watershed moment in TV history, of that there is no doubt!”

The man unceremoniously nudged him aside.

“With the greatest respect, Mr Yoshiro sir, you do not know what you are talking about. I am aware of those Japanese TV shows to which you refer, but let me tell you, ‘The Elements’ is nothing, NOTHING! like that at all.”

His cool blown, the man composed himself in front of the room full of journalists. He made a show of checking his watch.

“I think we have had enough questions for the time being. I thank you for your attendance and your questions, ladies and gentlemen. I very much look forward to reading your reports and watching your bulletins later on. We will be in contact in advance of the next press briefing. I bid you a good day.”

The man left quickly. The room began to dismantle. Chairs scraped, cases clicked shut, voices of all internationalities chattered, feet shuffling out of the two doors at the back of the room.

Connor sighed a long, weary sigh. He suddenly felt very tired.

“That was alright, eh?” said Grayson, just as his host had arrived to take him away.

“Yeah, it was,” replied a slightly untruthful Connor. It had been alright, but it had also been full-on and tiring. And the way the man lost it at the end…no doubt the boys would pay for that.

The boys were rounded into their groups of three and led back out into the sterility of the corridor. Somewhere, voices were raised in anger.

“I do not want that Japanese man near this place again! Do you hear me? Who the hell authorised his pass? I want to see them now!”

A quieter female voice spoke. It was too difficult to hear what she was saying.

“I don’t care if he’s a respected journalist…he’s not welcome on my show again! Now, get me the press officer…”

Pamela spoke to the boys, diverting their attention.

“Well done, all of you, you answered really well. Rhys, I reckon you’ll have gained some new followers on the back of that performance. Connor! Very smooth! Great answers! Stephen! Solid. It’s not easy, is it? You all did remarkably well. I’ll take you back to your rooms. You can get freshened up and then I think you have a good bit of down time before we need to meet again. You’ll probably be glad of the peace and quiet, eh?”

The four walked the corridors until they arrived at their respective rooms. Pamela would meet them here in an hour or so, she said. The three boys gladly retired to the tranquility of their rooms and each of them flopped onto their respective beds.

 

(more to follow in the future)

Hard-to-find

Neu! Beginnings

Negativland, from Neu!’s first, self-titled album is a near ten-minute odyssey of prog-infused Krautrock.

Beginning with the sound of juddering road drills fighting for ear space with electronically-treated voices and crowd effects, it creeps up on you in a rush of linear feedback that gives way to its simple, steam-powered groove. Bringing to mind Bowie’s title track from Station To Station, it’s all repeating bass lines and simple drum patterns; long, straight and endless – proper head music for the cross-legged longhairs and wispy beard-strokers of the world.

Over the course of the track, the rhythm rarely changes. There’s a brief spell in the middle and again towards the end when the rhythm section hits downhill without the brakes on and moves into second and what might even be third gear, but just as things seem like they might be getting out of control, they reign it all in again and bring us back to the groove. It’s not repetition, as self-confessed Neu! fan Mark E Smith might’ve said, it’s discipline.

The melody on top, the colour, is provided by wind-tunnel effect guitars redolent of that whooshing Leckie-produced ambience that colours much of the Stone Roses’ debut album. There are no vocals. Vocals, clearly, are for wimps. Featuring just two members – Michael Rother on guitar and bass and Klaus Dinger on spartan drums – with heads down and minds locked, there was never going to be anything as conventional as a vocalist, at least, not until the closing track on the album, if indeed sporadic, whispered, strangulated mutterings are your idea of vocals. Rother and Dinger had left an early incarnation of Kraftwerk to form Neu! and where their former band would go on to pioneer the use of synths, so too would Neu! push the boundaries of what was possible with guitars.

As Julian Cope says of the band in his essential reference Krautrocksampler,

The sound that replaced the hectic stop/start of the Kraftwerk trio was an ambient bassless White-light Pop-rock mantra that steadied itself directly between the two extremes of Bubblegum music and the extreme German experimental music.

Neu! was the product of two young Master-magicians who had so grabbed hold of the creative ‘moment’ in the studio as to create a true jewel of an LP.’

It’s a record that’s not for everyone, Neu!’s debut, but if you get it, you really get it. Minimal, with clean lines and no clutter, from its day-go logo sleeve in it’s the very antithesis of the bloated, overblown, hobbits and goblins musical landscape of the era. You’ll hear its influence ring true in the records of the aforementioned Bowie as well as the ambient scrapings of PIL – check out Albatross – and the electro-fried stylings of Stereolab.

Negativland and the rest of Neu! (with a side order of Sister Ray) is clearly to art-rock what Black Sabbath (and a side order of Blue Cheer) were to metal – gate-opening, trailblazing and quite unique.

You knew that already though.

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 4

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

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

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

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 4

 

Pamela walked with Rhys, Stephen and Connor along a sterile white corridor. In the absence of windows (again!, thought Connor) harsh lighting lit the way. The soles of their shoes squeaked softly on the highly polished floor. No one spoke. Even Pamela was subdued. The corridor led to another equally anonymous section of the building. Here, they had the option to go diagonally either left or right. Pamela continued left and the boys followed. Along this corridor were dotted the boys’ bags, each placed outside a stark white door. There were no numbers. The TV company logo was positioned at eye level. A small metallic key-pad was in place of where you might expect to find a lock. No door had a handle.

Rhys was first to be given his room.

“This is your key-card number,” said Pamela, and handed him a small business-card sized piece of green paper. “Key it and the door will open automatically.”

Rhys keyed it and the door slid softly to the side. The room inside was in darkness. He picked up his bag, turning to Connor, Stephen and Pamela as he did so.

“We have about half an hour until we meet in the recreation room,” instructed Pamela. I suggest you’re ready in 20 minutes. I’ll meet you here. No one likes to be kept waiting at Kimble.”

They walked to the next door. Connor recognised his bag. Pamela repeated the instructions, waited until Connor had keyed in the number and the door opened, and left with the spiky haired boy who by now Connor had deduced was called Stephen.

As Connor stepped into his room, two things happened. The lights came on automatically and a hidden voice welcomed him.

“Good evening, Connor Stewart. Welcome to Kimble,” the calming female voice said. “If it’s too bright or too dark, just say and I’ll adjust accordingly.”

It was a bit bright – everything about this place so far was bright – but Connor didn’t speak. He surveyed his surroundings. A bed, larger than the one he had at home, took up half the room. A small bedside table sat beside it, a lamp on top of that. There was a large TV on the wall facing the bed. A desk with an angle-poised lamp and a laptop sat at the far corner, a comfy-looking chair pushed neatly underneath. In the opposite corner stood a wicker laundry basket and a large wooden wardrobe. Next to the wardrobe was a door which opened into a large chrome and marble bathroom. Stepping back into the bedroom, Connor saw there was a mirror and a couple of framed prints on the wall – a racing car and a nest of eagles – and, intriguingly, a framed copy of the poem he’d read earlier on the train.

People of Kimble, The

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

Natural order of things.

Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.

Not all will make the return journey, the

Consequence of failure should be obvious to

Everyone.

The word ‘Kimble’ now jumped out at him. He read the poem again. ‘Not all will make the journey home…..the consequence of failure should be obvious to everyone….

What have I got myself involved in?’ thought Connor to himself. Suddenly, eight months working with the Department of Enforcement didn’t seem quite so terrible.

Connor distracted himself by unpacking his bag. His toiletries he placed by the sink in the bathroom. His medication went in the drawer of the bedside table. His spare shoes he placed in the bottom of the empty wardrobe. Did he have time for a shower? He wasn’t sure he did, but then, the man had said they should shower. He didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

I am the ultimate authority here, the man in charge,’ he’d said.

The shower was a fancy, voice-activated one. Connor got in, washed, got out and got dressed again. He’d barely towelled his hair when there was a sharp rap on the door. Connor punched in the code and the door opened to reveal Pamela and Stephen. His hair was still damp too.

“Just coming,” said Connor. He stepped back inside for his phone and, slipping it into his left jeans pocket, followed the other two, presumably to get Rhys. As they walked, Connor’s door swished shut behind them.

With Rhys joining them, the three boys and Pamela walked the length of the corridor.

“The layout of Kimble can be quite confusing at first,” explained Pamela. “It’s basically one, large, square figure of eight. But all the corridors are identical. it’s easy to get lost. That’s why I’ll be with you for the first few days, until you find your feet. The recreation room is a few minutes’ walk from here. Keep up!” The group squeaked onwards, silently following their guide.

They were the first to arrive. The recreation room was larger than Connor had expected. Two pool tables and a table tennis table sat to the side, next to a window that ran the length of the room. It was dusk now, and all that could be seen was thick greying greenery in every direction. Couches were laid out in small huddles. There was a juice bar. Bowls of fruit. Connor silently thanked his dad when he saw the vending machine filled with chocolate and crisps. A pinball machine and a retro arcade machine sat against the wall, lit up, blinking invitingly and ready for use. On the far wall, a huge TV screen beamed out. A spinning logo with the words ‘The Elements’ rotated silently. In front of the screen was a small podium, the same as the ones that Connor had seen on television when Prime Ministers and Presidents and important people made a speech. A thin, bendy microphone jutted up from it. Arranged around the screen and podium was a dozen or so chairs. Clearly, this was where the boys were to sit.

Pamela led them to the chairs and invited them to sit in the front row, not at all where any of the three would have chosen to sit, but there they were. The carpeted footsteps of other people made the three boys instinctively turn around. Connor spotted Grayson with another couple of unfamiliar boys. They too were being led by one of the other girls, dressed just like Pamela. They were shown to the three remaining chairs in the front row and took their positions. Sitting as they were Connor wasn’t able to catch Grayson’s eye. It would have been good to have had a couple of words or even a reassuring glance or two. More footsteps and muffled shuffling indicated the last of the group. Three boys, including Alan (or Randolph, to give him his proper name) sat in the second row of chairs. The three girls who were looking after the boys took up the remaining chairs in the back row.

As if on cue, from a side door the man who’d spoken to them on arrival emerged. He walked purposefully to the podium. He wasn’t alone. The boy who walked a half-step behind him had changed his shirt and taken off his jacket, but even out of context Connor recognised him immediately as Mackintosh boy. He was desperate to turn to Grayson and Alan to see their reactions. Had they recognised him too? He’d ask them later.

“Good evening, boys,” the man began. “Good evening. Thank you for your punctuality. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.” He looked at the assembled boys with a reptilian smile.

“It’s so good of you to join me at this hour. I appreciate you will be tired and probably hungry too. Worry not. After this short briefing you will be given an evening meal and some down time for you to…catch your breath, as it were. I know it’s been a long day for all of you – all of us too – and that bed must seem quite appealing right now. First though, we must explain why you are here. ‘What have I signed up for?’ you must be thinking. Well….you’re about to find out. Cameron, lights and film please, thank you.”

The lights dimmed. Mackintosh boy aimed a remote control at the massive screen and the spinning logo faded to black. A fiery explosion lit up the room from the screen. Cinema surround-sound booms vibrated from Connor’s feet upwards. The chairs shook. The windows rattled. Had he turned around, Connor would have noticed the ends of the girls’ hair dancing independently in the space above their shoulders. As presentations went, it was certainly an attention-grabber.

“Welcome to ‘The Elements’!”

An unseen American voice, as deep and grainy as the gravel they’d stood on an hour previously spoke from the screen.

“You have elected to join the most-prestigious game show on television. A game show like no other. A game show that everyone will be talking about. A game show that will be beamed nightly into Every! Home! On! The! PLANET!!!.”

The voice stopped and a large, chunky number nine appeared on screen.

“Nine contestants….”

The nine faded and gave way to a number five.

“Five challenges….”

The five faded away to a number one. It appeared to grow larger and smaller as the voiceover continued.

“…and one winner!”

The number one faded to the sight of a crass golden trophy, clip art really, that flashed and teased as the voiceover continued. Cartoon fireworks fizzed around it.

“Physical strength. Mental stamina. Mental strength. Physical stamina.”

Each statement was accompanied by a relevant graphic.

“Each is crucial to your success. Survive all five challenges…”

A large red tick emerged on screen and faded.

“Survive the public vote…”

Another tick.

“Survive ‘The Elements’!”

The picture on the screen changed quite unexpectedly to grainy coloured footage of American troops in Vietnam, rifles rat-a-tat-tatting, low-flying helicopters circling, white flashes of death punctuating the thick, moist jungle.

“This is war.”

The voiceover trailed off to allow total focus on the visual imagery.

“’The Elements’ is war.”

The logo of ‘The Elements’ spun into view and remained spinning. Connor was aware of how silent the room now was.

The lights went up. Connor blinked. The man was back at his podium.

“Well. I hope that gives you a flavour of what you’re here for!”

He eyeballed them all.

“You boys are our first-ever contestants! The guinea pigs, so to speak, but nonetheless the groundbreakers! The pioneers! The trailblazers in a brave new world of interactive, audience participation survival tee-vee! The viewers of the world will have a say in your fate. They will watch nightly, develop a fondness for one or more of you, follow your social media profiles, interact, become invested in your pursuit. It is those followers, boys, those fans, those fixated viewers that you will be relying upon to keep you in the competition.”

He stopped, letting his audience unscramble everything. He spoke again, lowering his voice for dramatic effect.

“Let’s be clear, boys. Not all of you will make it. Indeed, some of you might not even make it beyond the first challenge. That will be so. Call it natural order. Call it weakness. Call it a lack of popularity with the viewers if you must, but guaranteed, at least one of you will not see Challenge 2.

Now. We don’t expect you to go into each challenge unprepared. Of course we don’t! Did the gladiators of Rome go to the fight unprepared? Of course not! They trained until they were at peak fitness levels, and so shall you. You will train daily, both physically and mentally. You will eat well. You will sleep well. You will become the man society demands of you. Some of you will clearly find this tougher than others…”

He broke off and looked again at Alan.

“..but your life depends on it. You have a say in the outcome. Make sure your voice is heard.”

The room was in silence again. Connor felt sick.

“Now, I want to explain a little bit about your teams.”

The man’s voice was softer now, more fatherly.

“You have been placed into teams of three. The boys you came in the car with, the boys you walked to your rooms with, are now your best friends and team-mates. Without their help you will not get far. You must rely on one another. Encourage. Motivate. Do not let your team-mate down. We take great care to ensure a balance in each team. We have looked at your files, noting your individual strengths and weaknesses. We have considered your sociability and grouped you accordingly.” The man turned to Mackintosh boy.

“Cameron here is my right-hand man. My eyes and ears. He has compiled profiles of each and every one of you. There is nothing he doesn’t know.”

A sudden realisation dawned on Connor. The steely stare. The lack of interaction. The changing of seats during the journey. ‘He’s been watching us! He saw how we became friends, talking, getting on….and now he’s split us up!’

“So, if there are no questions….”

The man’s voice tailed off, daring anyone in the room to ask him something. All eyes remained anywhere but on him.

“….we’ll break there and have a bite to eat. Afterwards we’ll kit you out with the clothing you will wear from now on. If there’s time we may have some rest and recuperation time, when you can enjoy the facilities on offer. Lights out is always 2200 hours and no exceptions. Anyway, enough from me. Food!”

Pamela led Connor, Rhys and Stephen to a table set for four. Each of the other teams was taken to their own table, all apart from one another. Connor wondered if he’d get the chance to speak to Grayson and Alan at all tonight.

The food arrived. Some sort of pasta with little nuts through it. It tasted great. A bowl of grapes and a jug of orange juice were brought out afterwards. Between the four of them, they left nothing. The talk was a bit stilted throughout. Pamela did her best to keep things upbeat, but no one was in the mood for much conversation. This had been the most eventful day in Connor’s life. He was tired, he was being forced to make friends with people….and the unwelcome threat of death hung over him like a cloak.

After dinner the three girls took their respective groups to a large, clinical store-room. Floor to ceiling metallic shelves ran the length of one side. Every so often a sign announced what was stored in that section; Trousers (combat), Trousers (wet), Trousers (R&R) and so on. Connor could see Grayson’s group at the far end, trying on jackets. Alan’s group was bunched together near the middle, listening to their leader say something. Pamela stopped Connor and the others at a section marked ‘Layers’.

“Alright guys! Layering is super-important at ‘The Elements’. Sometimes you’ll be outside and, because you’ll be running around and stuff, you’ll be, like, hot and sweating. If you don’t have your layers on you’ll either be too warm or too cold. It’s really important to layer up! All these layers you see here are essential ‘Elements’ wear. This one…” In her right hand she held up a tiny, red, long-sleeved lycra top, “is fireproof. And this one…” In her left hand she waved a similar-looking garment in black, “is stab-proof. Come and find one in your size.”

Fireproof?! Stab-proof?!”’ thought Connor and Rhys and Stephen, independently yet simultaneously. They slowly stepped forward.

“Rhys,” Pamela held up the red top she’d just shown them. “This looks like it’s in your size.”

Rhys caught it as she threw it to him and held it limply against himself.

“Connor, you look like a medium. You too Stephen…or maybe even a large. Here, check for yourself.”

The boys dipped into a plastic box labelled ‘Fire (Med)’ and pulled out a top each. Stephen returned his, reached instead for the ‘Fire (Lge)’ box and selected a top he was happy with. This routine continued until they had quite a handful of items; as well as fireproof and stab-proof layers, they also had ‘subzero armour’, ‘thermashield protector’, a running vest and something that was ‘solarwind-immune’. They were also given a couple of fleeces, two different-coloured hooded tops and a selection of plain-coloured R&R t-shirts, to be worn in their down time. Every item of clothing was branded with an ‘Elements’ logo on the left breast.

Pamela gave each of the boys a suitcase.

“Stick yer layers in there, boys, and we’ll go and pick us some trousers.”

The boys found their size and filled their cases with two pairs of each trouser; combat trousers, wet trousers, R&R trousers that were midway between jeans and chinos, and other more worryingly-named forms of legwear; fireproof, explosive-proof, bite-proof as well as multiple pairs of running (long) and running (short) trousers.

Next, the jackets. Each boy was given just two jackets, a ‘night jacket’ and a ‘day jacket’. They didn’t need any more, Pamela said, because they wouldn’t be wearing a jacket for the water tasks and they’d be too warm for the fire tasks, and in any rate, she said, they already had their fireproof layers. The three boys exchanged glances. Rhys and Stephen looked at one another and then at Connor. Silently, subtly, he had just been elected group leader.

“See these tasks, Pamela,” he asked with hesitation. “What exactly are they? What do they involve? It’s just….I dunno, they seem a bit…extreme?”

“Oh, yes, Connor! They’re extreme all right! This is ‘The Elements’! It’s supposed to be extreme!”

The Elements’. What were the elements? A memory from school nagged him. ‘Were there four? Five maybe? Air…fire….earth…water…’ Connor couldn’t think of a fifth.

“The air,” he said aloud. “And fire.”

“The Earth!” added Rhys “And water and wood!”

The boys and Pamela looked at him.

“I’m into science. I know my elements! The five basic elements of earth are earth itself and air, fire, water and wood. I expect the show gives us tasks based on these five elements, am I right?”

Pamela looked at him with a knowing smile.

“I’m not supposed to tell you, Rhysy boy, but you’re on the right tracks! Now! Boots!”

They were given two types of footwear. The first was a heavy black ankle-height boot that was surprisingly comfy on first fitting. They looked like the sort of boots you might wear to go hillwalking or fell climbing. Connor’s experience of hiking boots was that they took a while to break-in and usually left you with blisters on your heels and soles for half a year afterwards. These boots didn’t feel like they’d do that. They were made of Goretex and suede but the front felt protected – steel toe-capped, maybe. The laces criss-crossed to the top. Connor liked the way they felt on his feet.

They were also given a pair of ‘Elements’-branded trainers, ugly-looking white things with chunky soles and big round toes. They were definitely not the sort of trainers Connor would choose to wear. Connor was pleased that he’d brought the suggested spare pair of shoes with him. There’s no way he’d be wearing these trainers, unless forced to. He wouldn’t be seen dead in them. ‘Seen dead in,’ he repeated internally, a wave of anxiety sweeping through him once more.

Their wardrobes complete, Pam handed each boy a sharpie and instructed them to label their own suitcase. The cases would be taken away, she explained, and their clothing tagged with their names on each item. They would be ready to wear tomorrow.

“It’s an hour until lights out. This is your own time now. I can show you back to your rooms if you like, or if you’d prefer, I can take you back to the recreation room for a little while. What’s it to be?”

Stephen and Rhys again looked at Connor. Connor was tired, exhausted even, but he desperately wanted to chat to Grayson and Alan and get their take on events so far. He hoped they’d be in the recreation room too.

“Yeah, I think we should go to the recreation room for a bit. Not long though, just enough time to let us relax a bit before bedtime.”

As it turned out, they were the only three there. The lights had been dimmed. The pool tables and table tennis table remained untouched in the shadows cast by the trees outside. The lights flickered away on the arcade machines, failing to hook a willing player. The low hum of the vending machine suggested it was ready for action, but no one was biting. Pamela switched on a set of low lights and left. Rhys, Stephen and Connor each flopped into a large orange sofa.

“I’m knackered,” sighed Stephen.

“Me too,” said Rhys.

“And me,” replied Connor.

“This place is weird,” said Stephen, stretching his legs in front of him. “D’you think they’ll really kill some of us?”

The silence from the other two was the answer he feared. The trio sat in exhausted silence with nothing more to say.

In another room not too far away, in a room that the boys would never know about, Pamela and the man sat watching on a series of large LCD screens, listening to the boys’ non-conversation.

“Time for bed,” suggested the man, and Pamela left to gather the three boys back to their rooms.

Connor barely remembered the soothing voice welcoming him back to his room or getting himself undressed and into the ‘Elements’-branded pyjamas that had been laid out on his bed. He was unaware of when exactly his head softly hit the pillow. He was asleep though before his new friend Stephen had even keyed the number into his door.

 

(more to follow in the future)

demo, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Iggypedia

Raw Power, Iggy & The Stooges 3rd album, the first to be credited to Iggy and… and featuring a slightly different line-up to the late 60s version is a loud, abrasive, violent album. Danger lurks around every panther-snarled verse and every slash of razor blade guitar. It’s uneasy listening and totally essential.

Bowie and Pop, Berlin drug buddies, relocated to Germany in a failed attempt to kick their habits and, in Bowie’s case, help kick-start his pal’s solo career. They even did so in matching outfits.

You can say what you will about the drugs, but they certainly made for prodigious times. Bowie crammed in an insane amount of work over this short period of time. His Berlin trilogy of albums with Eno notwithstanding, as well as manning the mixing desk for Iggy he regularly found time to be out on the randan with a visiting Lou Reed, a combined weight of 8 stones and a generous handful of grams.

Dave, Iggy and Lou. There’s your Berin trilogy right there.

One of the first tracks Bowie and Pop tackled was Tight Pants.

Iggy PopTight Pants

From the enthusiastic count-off and in, Tight Pants is overloaded gutterpunk blooze straight outta 1972; nagging, insistent, a proper primal scream of snakehip guitars with needles ramped round in the red.

There are Supremes handclaps perhaps, or maybe just a heavily slapped snare – it’s hard to tell from the cardboard box production – alongside riff upon riff of juddering guitar, vying for earspace with the Iggy barks and yelps, but far as garage band rockers go, it’s a whole lot of don’t-give-a-damn snarling fun, with a guitar solo in the outro that sounds like a wheezing tramp running over broken glass.

Tight Pants was eventually redone, louder, clearer, less murk and maybe perhaps less menace, renamed Shake Appeal and ended up on Raw Power, with Bowie firmly at the controls to ensure those needles (on the monitors not intravenously) stayed as far into the red as they could go.

Iggy & The StoogesShake Appeal

It’s oft-considered a sloppy production, out of step with the musical landscape of the era, but it certainly captures a proto-punk spirit that would, within a few years, be omnipresent in the underground.

Most of your favourite bands have listened to Raw Power back to front and inside out in an attempt to capture its flying majesty. James Williamson’s guitar in particular is a beautiful maelstrom of whirling feedback and ear-splitting, jagged riffing, the real star of the show in spite of Iggy’s hang-dog American drawl. Fantastic stuff. Play loud, as they might say.

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 3

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

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

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

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 3

 

Connor hadn’t been prepared for the greeting that awaited them. A tanned, smiling man in a tight suit and ridiculously tall hair shoved a microphone to his face as he stepped into the daylight. The man said something, but Connor failed to notice. Three, maybe four females with clipboards and mobile phones hovered around the boys, guiding them where they had to go. They were dressed identically; box-fresh white trainers, faded blue jeans, black cap-sleeved t-shirts bearing the logo of the TV company and green baseball caps. To the side a man with a television camera filmed this way and that. As he turned, Connor realised the cameraman had been filming him in profile since he’d alighted from the train. At the back, on some sort of raised platform, there was another, bigger TV camera. It filmed the whole scene from above.

In the melee, Connor had been separated from Grayson and Alan and was now being herded towards a sandstone wall by one of the girls. She smelled of Juicy Fruit. Two of the other boys were already there, one of whom was the sulky, ginger-haired boy.

“And you must be Connor Stewart,” she said with a toothy smile. Connor placed her accent as Australian. “You look just like your picture! Here, I’ll take your bag for you.” Passing Connor’s bag to a man in a bomber jacket, she scribbled something onto her clipboard, tapped into her phone and spoke into an unseen headset.

“Hi…yes….hi! Hi? HI?!? Can you hear me?…..Yes, it is awfully noisy!…..Yes, that’s right. Uh huh…..Yep…..Yes. I have my three here now, yes…….OK, wilco. Thanks.”

She turned to look at Connor and the other two boys.

“This is exciting isn’t it?! You brave, brave boys!” She squealed a little bit and brought her shoulders up to meet her fake-tanned jawline.

“Now, just so you know, the limo will be along in a minute or two. Give the camera a wave!”

She turned, pouted and waved an over-friendly wave straight down the lens of the television camera. The bearded man operating it lifted his eye from the viewfinder to give her a wink before swinging the camera in the boys’ direction. All three stared at it with a mixture of squint-eyed awkwardness and wide-eyed wonder.

The girl’s long eyelashes batted rapidly.

“Don’t be shy! You’ll soon get used to it! Pretty soon you’ll not even notice they’re there at all.”

She turned her attention back to the camera and was blowing kisses to it by the time the limousine had appeared. It was white with brilliant black tyres. The TV company logo was embossed on each door. From somewhere inside, a door slid open to reveal long sofa-type seating. Pulsing neon lights ran along the top edge. An ice bucket sat on a small round table, bottle tops jutting jaggedly out of it.

“In we go my heroes, in we go!” She stood by the door as the three boys awkwardly bent inside. “Shuffle along, don’t be shy! Room for one more?” She slid in right next to Connor, invading more of his personal space than he was willing to concede. “It’s OK honey, I don’t bite!” she said, reading his mind. “Coke?”

A shellshocked, speechless Connor was still trying to work out what exactly was going on.

“Or Sprite. Would you prefer a Sprite?” The girl reached for a bottle from the ice bucket and pulled it loose. She handed it to Connor.

“And what about you two? Rhys? Stephen? What would you like to drink? Coke or Sprite?”

All three boys sat drinking in silence while their companion? chaperone? named adult? kept the conversation in full flow.

“Well! My name’s Pamela. My job is to look after you today and make sure you get settled in all right. I’ve only been here a few weeks myself, but I know you’re gonna love this place! Everyone is soooo friendly! And the show is going to be really great, I can just tell! Imagine – you’re the first contestants! Isn’t that just the best?! Do you three know each other? Oh, of course you don’t! Silly me. Well….there’ll be plenty of time over the next few weeks, don’t you worry about that.”

Connor and the other boys sat in self-conscious silence. Trees flashed past the darkened windows. An occasional building. More trees. Greenery. Connor had no idea where he was. None of them had drank more than half their bottle when the limousine turned sharply from the highway and onto a bumpier road. The sound of tyres on gravel signified the end of the journey.

“Just leave your bottles there and follow me,” said Pamela with another honeyed smile. All stepped out of the limousine. They were in the countryside. A large modern building was set between the rustling trees in front of them. A fountain – more modern art than anything – sprayed with a bubbling hiss at its front. Two other limousines had already parked nearby and the other boys from the train stood beside them. The girl, Pamela, left Connor, Rhys and Stephen and joined the other two girls in the middle of this semicircle with an older man in a suit but no tie. He stood with his hands behind his back, surveying the scene. There were no cameras.

“Boys,” he began. He had a nasal whine to his voice and an English accent. He had to shout slightly, given that they were outdoors.

“Welcome to Kimble.” He paused, revealing the name of this unknown place. The name meant nothing to any of the boys assembled.

“My name is not important, but my position is. I am the ultimate authority here, the man in charge, the one who says what goes….please know that now.” The man scanned the boys in front of him. He took a gravelly half-step forward.

“Boys. You have chosen to be here, am I correct?” Without waiting for an answer he went on.

“You have all been found guilty of crimes punishable by prison or even worse. The law, however, takes your age into account. It’s lucky for you that I am not the law, for I would have dealt out far stronger punishments than the ones you have chosen to accept, please believe me. Some of you might have gone to a juvenile detention centre. One or two of you could well have found yourselves deep in the shale pits. Some of you may even have been sent to the Northern Shires to work with the Department of Enforcement.”

He spat the ‘t’ sound when he said this. He paused before continuing.

“There are some amongst us who are lucky to have escaped far worse punishment. Isn’t that so Randolph Alan?” He paused again.

The boys chanced a glance to the side, to the man in the middle, to the other boys, in the hope that Randolph Alan might make himself known. The man was looking at a huddle of three boys next to the last car on the right. The only sounds were from the fountain and the wind in the trees.

“Isn’t that so, Randolph Alan?”

Alan, the boy who’d sat with Connor and Grayson on the train journey, nodded meekly. Not for the first time he looked like he was about to cry.

Randolph?!’ thought Connor. This was no time for that though.

Alan and the man eyeballed one another briefly before Alan conceded and dropped his gaze.

“Would Mr Alan care to share his story with the rest of us here today, I wonder? Or is Mr Alan’s story already known to a select few?”

Connor felt his toes curl and his stomach tighten. He looked around carefully, trying to pick out Grayson. Grayson had already found him and was looking at him with a worried look on his face.

“Perhaps Mr Alan’s two newest friends might care to help him out?” At this, the man looked directly at Connor. Connor didn’t want to eyeball him, as Alan had done, but nor did he want to drop his gaze. Connor looked over the man’s left shoulder and focused on the hair of one of the girls. Its curls blew hypnotically. The man shifted his gaze to Grayson. Grayson shifted uncomfortably in his shoes. The gravel crunched harshly below.

“Well?” The man‘s voice rose a notch slightly at this.

It fell to Grayson to speak.

“Ehm, yes, Alan, eh, Randolph, sorry, told us that, eh, he had..he had…he had set a boy on fire.” The last word came thick and fast and loud. As an afterthought, he added, “Sir!”

“Exactly. Thank you, young man. It’s Grayson Anderson, I believe, isn’t it?”

Grayson nodded, hoping that was him finished.

“Yes. It seems our Mr Alan here sets his friends on fire! Sets. His. Friends. On. Fire! Not the sort of friend you want really, is it, eh?” The man looked around. Even the girls behind him were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the situation.

“And did our good friend Mr Alan tell us how the story ended, I wonder?” The man turned to face Connor.

Alan hadn’t told them the rest of the story. They hadn’t even asked.

“Connor Stewart. A voracious reader, I’m told. Can’t get enough of magazines, they say. Am I right?” The man didn’t need an answer. Everyone there knew he was right. “Did your friend Mr Alan explain what happened to the poor fellow whom he set ablaze? No! Of course he didn’t! For he wouldn’t want you to think of him as a murderer, would he now?”

The man’s voice went slightly giddy at the word ‘murderer’.

“That’s right! Mr Alan set his friend on fire…and killed him!”

Connor glanced at Alan. His lip was quivering, his hunched shoulders trembling.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” came the soft, strangulated reply.

“Oh! I don’t doubt you didn’t mean to kill him, young man. But the fact remains that you did in fact kill him…and kill him most horribly. And now you have accepted to be here as a punishment, am I right?”

This time the man waited for an answer.

“Yes,” replied Alan, sobbing. “I am here to accept my punishment.”

“Indeed you are. Indeed you are. As are you all….”

He surveyed them from left to right and back again.

“Here at Kimble, we treat punishment as art. As entertainment. In Roman times, the poor and the petty and the scum of society were thrown to the lions. You boys will all be thrown to the metaphorical lions. One of you will end victorious. Others may escape with their lives. Others though….”

His voice tailed away, leaving the bubbling fountain to hold its place.

“…but first! To your rooms! Your host for the day will show you your living quarters. Please, relax, get comfortable and be ready to meet in the recreation room in 45 minutes. I’d suggest perhaps a shower, a brush of the teeth, but strictly no phone calls home. There is a time and place for mobile phones, but this is neither the time nor the place, am I understood?”

 

(more to follow in the future)

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Make Me Up Before You Go Gio

In 1974’s embryonic form, Japan were a glam rock band. They had the peroxide and the platforms and the plastered-on foundation to prove it.

Vocalist David Batt, forever with an ear on the pulse and an eye on the future twisted his name into an approximation of the New York Doll’s Sylvain Sylvain. His guitar/keyboard playing brother Steve became Jansen in dyslexic homage to the Doll’s vocalist David Johansen. And to go with the name change, the music underwent an identity change of its own too. Out went the chipped polish sneer – check out their Adolsescent Sex single and album for proof – and in came a decadent and louche new sound, European in outlook and ice-cool in ethos. Dropping glam rock and the tail end of the second wave of punk like the lumpen crock of cack it had become, Japan instead took the stylings of Roxy Music and David Bowie and created a run of arty, obtuse and fantatstic tunes.

Life In Tokyo was the big one.

JapanLife In Tokyo (12″ version)

With a golden touch production courtesy of Giorgio Moroder, Life In Tokyo is the sound of cruising Jetstreams and elongated, curved aerodynamics, the decadent sound of a high society 80s that was still a year away, with helicoptering synth lines and slink-funk serpentine basslines wandering between the steady 120bpm disco beat with all the sashaying grace of a Bond girl in a Monaco casino.

Moroder got the band to play live in the studio, deconstructed it and then added his magic touch. Chrome and mirrored synth washes, spacey and linear, horizontal and widescreen, percussive pulsing with blasts of Mini Moog… a production as razor sharp as the cheekbones and jawlines on its principal players, Life In Tokyo is something of a masterpiece. 

Sylvian’s vocals, yawning yet urgent, are the finishing touch, pitched somewhere between Roxy’s vocalist and the Thin White Duke but instantly recognisable as Sylvian in his own right. Hero worship, yet true to himself.

He might’ve had the hair and complexion that Lady Di would, er, die for, but crucially his style transferred to record. He sounds as he looks. As it spins, you can almost picture him in baggy, high-waisted Bowie breeks, a wee thin microphone held at 270 degrees and a flash of blue eye shadow beneath a blow-dried fringe of Pearl Platinum.

It’s a great record.

That 12″ version above goes on for maybe a wee bit too long, but it’s noticeable for the background noises halfway through that you’ll maybe only spot after 2 or 3 closely-monitored plays.

It isn’t, as Moroder would want you to believe, the bleeding of the track’s reference pulse, and isn’t actually the sound of David Sylvian applying another layer of Elnett either (that’s the hi-hat you’re mishearing). It is in fact Nick Rhodes and the rest of Duran Duran frantically firing up the synthesizers and cribbing notes on how to have a glamorous-sounding hit single. Felt fedoras off to them too, for they made a good fist of it, and the rest. You knew that already though.

 

 

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 2

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

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

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

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 2

 

The instructions were that Connor’s parents must accompany him to the central train station for no later than 10.48. In the event, they were there a full 20 minutes earlier than that. On the platform, Connor’s mum fussed uncontrollably.

“Remember. You take the liquid paracetamol whenever you need it. If it runs out, you call us and we’ll send more. You must carry your allergy pen wherever you go. Check all your food. Don’t get caught out. Egg is hidden in all sorts of food. Do whatever you’re asked to do. Don’t argue with anyone….don’t give them any excuse to keep you there longer than you need to be. Do as they say and we’ll see you in a few weeks.” Much to Connor’s annoyance she ruffled his head.

A few other boys and parents stood in similar fashion up and down the platform. A large fat boy cried loudly, much to his parents’ embarrassment. No amount of shushing or arms around his doughy shoulders would calm him down. A boy with orange spiky hair sat sullenly on the ground, a bag by his feet, his parents talking to one another but not to him. One mum licked her finger and wiped something from her son’s cheek. He didn’t offer resistance.

One boy was particularly noticeable because he stood alone. Upright and proud, his black leather bag sat snugly between his feet. This boy stood like a soldier and when he noticed Connor noticing him, he stared straight through him as if he wasn’t there. His hair was oil-slick thick, gelled to perfection and with nothing out of place. This boy wasn’t dressed like the others either. No unzipped hoody. No branded t-shirt. No battered trainers. His black shoes were so shiny that from where Connor stood, they looked white. He wore dark grey suit trousers too, creased as sharp and thin as Connor’s mother’s wry, forced smile. He had on a black Mackintosh raincoat, which he wore on top of a brilliant white shirt, unbuttoned once, with no tie. This boy looked like a professional; an accountant or an architect and not at all like a pre-teenage petty criminal.

“Stay safe, son,” Connor’s father added proudly, one arm on his shoulder. “This is an exciting opportunity for you. Take it all in and enjoy the experience. We love you very much.”

The train slid silently into view. Unusually it was just one carriage long and there was none of the livery you’d normally expect to find on the side. There was just one set of doors too, slap bang in the middle of the carriage, which, by the time the train had slowed to a stop, were further up the platform from where Connor and his family stood. As they walked towards them, Connor caught sight of himself in the mirrored window and flattened his hair back down.

“Take care, Connor. Be good. I’ll maybe see you on the telly. I love you very much.” His mum kissed him awkwardly on the cheek, failing to hide the slow stream of tears that were running in tiny rivers through her powdery foundation. His dad shook his hand proudly and forced a smile. “We’ll see you in no time at all.”

Connor stifled his own tears, muttered a quiet but honest, “I love you too,” and stepped into the carriage. He looked around for a seat. The fat boy was still crying. Looking in the opposite direction, Connor saw a handful of four-seater berths and plenty of empty two-seaters. Most of the boys who were already inside had chosen to sit alone in the two-seaters, their bags sat defiantly in the spare space beside them. Connor picked two seats together, as far away from anyone else as was possible in this one carriage and slumped in, dumping his bag on the outside seat, taking the window seat for himself.

Only, there wasn’t a window.

Anywhere.

He looked up and down the carriage. Smooth, beige plastic, punctuated by the occasional logo of the TV company ran the length of the insides. A small notice that was too far away to read broke the pattern. But there were no windows anywhere.

As Connor contemplated the meaning of this, the train smoothly started up and he felt himself eased by an unseen force gently back into the soft seat. He imagined his parents outside, waving at their own reflection in a fake window, oblivious to the fact that Connor couldn’t see them. He took cold comfort from the notion that his parents thought Connor could see them and then he started to cry a slow, silent cry. The carriage was eerily quiet.

After a bit the first noises of life started. A sweet wrapper rustled somewhere behind him. A stifled yawn crept from a mouth somewhere to his left. The tell-tale ping of an incoming text message announced itself up ahead. Connor wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve and looked around to take stock of his surroundings. The spiky haired ginger boy swiped through his phone, clearly still in a sulk. The fat boy had cried himself to sleep. One boy was reading a comic. Another, sitting alone at a four-seater, had a family-sized bag of sweets scattered loosely on the table. He had his feet up on the seat opposite, a bottle wedged between his legs, and he was tapping his fingers to an unheard beat that was playing wirelessly on the pods in his ears. The boy in the Mackintosh stared straight ahead, eyes open, no devices or flim-flam around him. His demeanour unnerved Connor.

Looking away, he unwittingly caught the eye of the spiky haired boy. He tore his face further into a lip-curling snarl and aimed it in Connor’s direction. Message clearly received, Connor lowered his gaze and settled himself in for the journey. The letter that had arrived three days ago, the one that instructed him to be at the central train station for no later than 10.48, gave little in the way of useful information;

  • Pack a small overnight bag. On arrival at the TV studios, clothing will be provided.
  • Bring toiletries and essential medication. Do not worry about running out.
  • You may wish to bring a spare pair of shoes.
  • You may bring a selection of confectionary for the journey.
  • Reading material is essential.
  • Mobile devices are essential but must not be used to call home.
  • This letter is your train ticket. Do not discard it. Bring it with you on the day.
  • NO MONEY IS NECESSARY

Connor’s parents had followed the instructions carefully, although his father had slipped him a £20 note as they’d packed the car earlier that morning. He reached into his bag and pulled out a football magazine, one of over a dozen he’d stolen from Mr Szczęsny’s shop in the past few weeks. A sudden pang of guilt shot through him and after thumbing through less than half a dozen pages, he dropped the magazine to his side.

Connor leaned back into his seat and considered what the TV show might be about. Since the trial, he’d thought of little else. He couldn’t believe his luck! Right now, he might’ve been up to his waist in god knows what in who knows where with the Department of Enforcement. Instead, here he was, a passenger on a private train being taken to film a new TV series. No one knew anything of the show being made. It was top-secret. Connor had wondered if it might be a new soap opera but given that all the boys on the train were of similar age to him, he’d began to have doubts. Maybe it’d be a sports-related show. Football, perhaps. Or maybe ice hockey. Maybe he’d get to be the funny guy in a new sit-com. Or cooking. Cooking shows were all over TV. Perhaps Connor and his fellow passengers were to be filmed for some sort of junior Top Chef series. Food was being provided, after all. Maybe they’d be cooking it. His mind worked overtime and now, a day that had started quietly and forlornly had begun to hold appeal.

“Hey! You! Converse!”

Connor was aware of the voice but not yet aware that it was directed at him.

“Hey, You! Yeah, You! Mate!”

Connor turned his head over his shoulder to look between the gaps in the seat rests. The boy who’d been drumming on the table earlier was now diagonally behind him in the next row of seats. He was quite animated.

“Y’alright? How long d’you think we’ll be on this train for, eh?”

Connor had no idea, but before he could answer the boy had spoken again.

“I reckon we’ll be here for 5 or 6 hours. That’s what I heard.”

Connor didn’t have a clue where they were going, no one did, but that length of journey would indicate a destination quite far away. The Southern Regions, most likely. The Northern Shires were at most 4 hours away and they were as far as you could go before ending up in the sea. Until now, Connor hadn’t actually thought about where they’d be going. But now he was thinking.

“5 or 6 hours?” Connor repeated. “Who told you that?”

“That’s just what I heard. Somewhere south, probably. Miles away. Right out the road. That’s where they send criminals like us who are too young for proper jail.”

Criminals like us.’ Connor let the words sink in. He had forgotten about his status. In his wild thinking about TV shows and potential fame and all the stuff that comes with it, Connor had let the fact he was being sent here a criminal slip his overactive mind. The boy spoke again.

“I’m Grayson, by the way. What did they send you here for?” He emphasised the ‘you’.

Connor felt his cheeks flush. He hoped it wasn’t showing.

“Connor. What you here for?” He also emphasised the ‘you’.

“I ran through the neighbour’s garden and wrecked it – jumped on the vegetables, kicked the heads off all of their flowers. It was just a daft joke, but here I am.”

“I got caught stealing a magazine from the shop.”

“Man!” Grayson blew a soft whistle. “They’ll send you away for anything these days. Flowers….magazines…hardly bank robbery, is it?!”

Send you away.’ Those words stabbed at Connor’s heart. I am a criminal, he thought. I’m being sent away. Not to jail. Not to the Department of Enforcement. Maybe somewhere worse.

“D’you want to sit over where I’m sitting?” Grayson had moved next to Connor, but Connor’s bag prevented him from sitting down. “There’s more space. There’s a table. You can spread out a bit.”

Connor had been quite content on his own, but if this journey was going to be as long as Grayson seemed to think, it might help pass the time quicker if he’d someone to talk to. He squeezed out past his bag – it was a good excuse to come back to if Grayson turned out to be a total pain.

Connor slid into the four-seater berth, sitting backwards. With no windows this wasn’t really an issue.

“Sweet?” Grayson pushed a handful across the table. He spoke with his mouth full. “What d’you think he’s here for?” Grayson nodded in the direction of the spiky ginger-haired boy. “He looks angry. I bet he’s a dog kicker or something. A cat drowner.” Grayson chewed noisily.

Despite his eating manner, Connor maintained his focus on Grayson.

“I bet,” he said with a loud, wet, snap of a chew, “that he tortures pets. I bet he put a hamster in the washing machine. Or fried the tropical fish in a frying pan. He’s got that sort of look about him.”

Connor was reluctant to take part in this conversation, but he couldn’t disagree.

“Or that guy there,” Grayson said, a bit louder than he maybe realised. “Slick Rick. How long d’you think it takes him to do his hair in the morning?! Look at him, all dressed up! Where does he think he’s going?! I think he’s been a proper bam at school. I bet he’s the guy who calls the teachers out when they make a mistake. I bet he’s like, “school’s crap…you can’t teach me anything!” and he storms out of classrooms, kicking desks and slamming doors. He looks rich too. I bet his parents have sent him to, like, five private schools, and none of them can sort him out.”

Grayson shoved another sweet into his non-stop mouth. Connor turned carefully and sneaked a peek at the boy in the Mackintosh. He was still staring ahead, still no phone or book or anything beside him. Connor hoped he hadn’t heard Grayson talking about him.

The conversation continued between the two, important stuff mainly about YouTubers and xBox and what the TV show might be about. Neither offered up where they were from, or what family and friends they had back home. Connor quite liked Grayson. Despite having the sort of mouth on him that might bring both of them a punch on the nose, he was funny and generous and friendly. He was also not in the least bit anxious about what might happen in the immediate future, a positive trait that had started to rub off slightly on Connor. As the conversation waned and the train sped ever-forwards, Grayson returned to his ear pods, punctuating the silence at the table with occasional rat-a-tats and under his breath “uh-huhs”. Connor found himself deep in thought about what the next few days and weeks held.

“Alright guys?” A new voice. Connor looked up. It was the fat boy who’d been crying at the station. “D’you know if there’s a toilet on this train?”

“Oh, I dunno,” replied Connor. “Sorry.”

Grayson, forgetting about the music streaming to his ears, shouted out.

“Hey man! Y’alright! Sit down, sit down! Here!”

As he swept his bag to the floor between his feet, heads in the carriage turned to face them. Connor felt himself flush again. The boy wedged himself in next to Grayson, who by now had removed his ear pods.

“Grayson, mate. Sweet?”

“Thanks,” said the boy, taking one. “Alan. D’you know if there’s a toilet in here?”

“Sorry pal, Alan, mate. I’ve no idea.”

Connor looked up and down the carriage. One or two of the boys were watching them. Connor had now found himself at the epicentre of things and he didn’t like it. He scanned the length of the carriage for a toilet, ignoring their nosey gazes. Mackintosh boy had moved! Weird! He was now sitting at another 4-seater, facing the table he and Grayson, and now this boy Alan, were sitting at. He must’ve moved while Connor had been talking to Grayson. He watched the trio, his gaze as steely as always. Connor realised he’d been staring at him for longer than he should’ve and turned back to Alan.

“Can’t see any toilets, sorry. I’m Connor, by the way.”

“Alan. S’OK mate. I’ll just need to hold it in.”

“So, what’re you in for then, Alan?” Grayson took charge of the conversation.

“What d’you mean?”

“What brings you here? What did you do to deserve this?”

“Och. Eh, well,…”

Grayson interrupted.

“I’m here because I kicked the heads off of some flowers. Connor here nicked a magazine. What did you do?”

“I set fire to a boy at school.”

There was a shift in the atmosphere at the table. Connor looked at Grayson.

“Jeez, mate. Jeez.”

Wary of him now, Grayson shifted subconsciously to his right.

“What….how…why….?”

They both looked at him as he spoke.

“He picked on me. Like, every day for four years. The same things. ‘Fatboy’ this and ‘Lard Ass’ that. He’d kick me. Slap me. Demand my money. And everyone laughed. No one did anything to help. Four years. I thought when I went to secondary school that he might find someone else to pick on. But no. First year was even worse. The same kicking. The same slapping. The same names. And he humiliated me in front of everyone, even the girls. Came up behind me in the corridor after science one day, pulled my trousers and pants down. It was so humiliating. The next day, I waited for him in the playground. Threw some of my mum’s vodka on the back of his blazer and threw a match at him. He was on fire straight away. He never bothered me again.”

Alan reached for another sweet and stared quietly at the table.

Grayson fidgeted with his phone.

Connor was wishing he could get up and go back to where he’d been sitting at the start of the journey.

The three of them sat in silence for a bit. It was Alan who broke it.

“I really need to pee. Really. I’m never gonna last until we stop.”

“I’ll have a walk up to the end of the carriage,” said Connor. “There might be something there.” At this moment he was super-keen to appear extra-helpful towards Alan. He slid himself out, glad to be away from the table, and headed to the end of the carriage.

Connor made his way, drawing yet more unwanted attention to himself. Stepping into a small vestibule he found a first aid kit and a swing-lid bin. On a small table sat a sleeping laptop. In front of him was a door marked, ‘Driver – No Unauthorised Personnel’. But no toilet.

Heading in the opposite direction, Connor silently counted the number of boys in the carriage. There were ten in total, counting himself. Alan and Grayson sat together but otherwise everyone was in their own space. Avoiding eye contact, Connor walked to the vestibule at the end. It contained a toilet, currently engaged.

‘That makes eleven of us, then,’ thought Connor as he returned to the table. ‘A football team.’

“There’s a toilet at the far end, Alan.” Connor gave him a smile. “Someone’s in it though. Keep an eye out.”

Alan turned, looking towards the end of the carriage, as if his stare alone would vacate the cubicle. Eventually he could take no more. Shuffling himself out of his seat, Alan made his way to the toilet at the end of the carriage. He tapped gently on the door.

“Alright? Is someone in there?”

Silence.

He tapped again.

“Hello?”

He banged this time. Heads turned in the carriage. Alan waited.

Still silence.

Alan banged the door once more before swearing under his breath and heading back.

“There’s no one in it, mate. It’s just locked for no reason.”

A boy had leaned out to speak to Alan as he passed his seat.

“I tried earlier. Can’t be much longer until we stop….”

“Thanks, man,” replied Alan forlornly. “Thanks.”

Alan joined Grayson and Connor, told them the situation then sat back with his eyes closed. Perhaps a sleep would distract him.

The journey continued. Connor and Grayson chatted some more, dozed a bit, ate some more sweets, checked the time, complained between themselves about the length of journey. Alan continued to snooze, at one point his head falling gently onto Grayson’s shoulder. Grayson thought it best to leave it where it was for the time being. He put his ear pods back in and pressed play on his phone. Connor decided to stretch his legs and went for another walk along the carriage.

Ghosting past the boy in the Mackintosh he happened to glance at the small notice posted between the TV company logos. The text was small and Connor had to lean across the seats to read it. I was some sort of poem.

People of Kimble, The

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

Natural order of things.

Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.

Not all will make the return journey, the

Consequence of failure should be obvious to

Everyone.

A tiny version of the TV company’s logo, centred at the bottom, completed the notice.

Connor was pondering all of this when the train noticeably slowed in speed. Fairly soon, he gathered, it would be coming to a stop. Passing his original seat, he pulled his bag and joined the other two. Stifled yawns, stretches and the sound of impatience began to filter through the carriage. The muffled bump of bags dropping to the floor. The clattering of plastic as possessions were retrieved and manipulated out of the overhead storage units. The ginger haired boy was standing up, tucking himself in, his jacket already on, his bag swinging from his shoulder. A couple of others were putting on hoodies, readying themselves. Mackintosh boy sat as impassively as ever.

Sure enough, the train was coming to a stop. Grayson scrunched the sweet wrappers into a ball, leaving it to roll on the table. As the train jerked to a halt, the boys were momentarily pressed back into their seats. The false lighting of the carriage which they hadn’t been aware of until now was flooded with brilliant daylight as the central door opened automatically. Ginger was first out, followed by a trickle of boys from the other end of the carriage. Connor, Grayson and Alan were next. Behind them, last off the train, was the boy in the Mackintosh.

 

(more to follow in the future)