The Elements

The Elements Chapters 10 and 11

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

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

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

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapters 10 and 11

 

In a small living room somewhere in the far north, Connor’s parents sat on their neat sofa with their tablet on a cushion between them, just about getting to grips with its functionality and intuitiveness. They’d managed to log on to ‘The Elements’ main social media feed easily enough – “just tap the icon on the screen, love,” had said Connor’s dad and they were in, desperate to see if Connor had replied to their message, eager to see what pictures and comments he had posted of his day in training. There didn’t seem to be any messages, but neither of them was certain they were clicking on the right parts to access them. Confusingly, Connor’s mum couldn’t find the one she’d sent earlier, and she was fairly confident that she was clicking in the right place for this. They’d found pictures that he happened to be in; one as he led the group around the lap of the field, a candid one of him listening to George in the dressing room at the start of the morning, a handful from the classroom in the afternoon, but they couldn’t seem to locate Connor’s actual personal feed.

“I think you’re doing it wrong, Christine, dear,” said Connor’s dad patiently.

“I don’t think so, Robert. I just don’t think he’s posted anything for the day.”

“That can’t be right – all the other boys seem to have put lots of stuff up.”

Connor’s mum passed the tablet and watched with irritation as his dad closed and opened and reclosed and reopened the app. He clicked on hashtags, unwittingly saved random photos to the tablet’s camera roll and managed somehow to leave a love heart icon underneath an unexciting picture of Zimmerman addressing the boys in the classroom. But for the life of him he couldn’t find Connor’s feed.

“Something’s wrong, Robert, I can feel it.” Connor’s mum looked worriedly at her husband, still intent on unlocking this particular mystery.

“I’m sure it’s just us, dear,” he said, not taking his eyes or thumb from the screen. Let’s see if I can find him on that Bubble application instead.”

But Babble was the same; plenty of activity from eight of the boys, none from Connor. Olé, it turned out, was just like the others.

“Well, I’m flummoxed Christine, I really am. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation though.” Connor’s dad handed the tablet back.

Connor’s mum put the tablet to the side and picked up the cushion it had sat on. She pulled it close to her chest.

 

 

 

11

For the next three weeks, a pattern emerged. It went like this.

Connor rose to the sound of classical music. Sometimes he recognised it. Most of the time he didn’t. He’d hobble to the shower with stiff legs and aching muscles before dressing for physical activity. He’d eat a healthy breakfast and attend a briefing session in the changing room with the other boys and George. The instructor would show clips of the previous day’s activities, giving useful tips on planking technique or skipping style, pointing out how the boys were becoming fitter and healthier. Personal bests were being “smashed!”, “left, right and centre”, he said. All the boys were leaner and meaner. Even Alan. At one point he had to go to the clothes store to pick out new, smaller clothes, his waistline reducing in inverse proportion to his level of fitness. On the blackboard George would list the set of activities they’d be tackling that morning, explaining the benefits of each of them, going into the scientific detail of which muscle groups they worked and how, rain or shine, they’d go into the field for up to three hours and work themselves into the ground. Occasionally the man and Cameron would turn up to watch. Sometimes they’d write on clipboards or tap into mobile devices and offer weak encouragement from the sides. Sometimes, the man would bark insults and obscenities through his megaphone from the top of the viewing tower. Once, purely for thrills, Cameron fired a gun straight into the air and rolled around laughing in the viewing tower when all the boys fell face-first to the dirt in anticipation of what never followed. The boys learned to ignore these unwelcome visits and got on with the task in hand, which was mainly doing as George asked. They were rewarded with encouragement, praise and noticeable abs as a result. Connor would never have gone as far as saying he liked it, but his new routine was something he no longer dreaded.

After showering they had some time to themselves, before a quick lunch and then a session with Zimmerman in the classroom. These sessions, Connor really enjoyed. He’d sit, bones, joints and muscles humming in agony from the morning’s workout and listen as the professor talked to them in his calm and steady American accent, instilling in them a ‘can do’ attitude, a ‘growth mindset’ as he called it. In these sessions, Connor developed a fondness for meditation and an appreciation of the powers of a positive mental attitude. Zimmerman would sometimes start sessions with an abstract mathematical problem and leave the boys to puzzle it out between themselves, returning only once the puzzle had been solved. Initially, these puzzle-solving sessions were quick to break down but slowly over time the group came to appreciate the benefits of working as a team. Rhys and Alan often took charge and when they did, the problem was usually solved with less fuss and argument.

After Zimmerman’s class the boys usually had an hour or so of free time before the evening meal. The majority of boys used this time to update their social feeds. Connor used it to sit and stew, desperate to pluck up the courage to ask for his phone back, willing the man to return it before he had to lower himself to ask. There was no obvious end to the stand-off and Connor had all but resigned himself to never having his phone again. The other boys occasionally tagged him in their posts, but fear of falling foul of the man meant that such times were limited. No-one wanted to lose their only means of communication with the outside world.

What Connor didn’t know was that he was currently a trending online phenomenon. #wheresconnor had started after the first day or two when it was apparent that Connor wasn’t updating his feed. One of his followers had included it as a hashtag at the end of a post, someone else had jumped onto it and suddenly #wheresconnor was a thing. Over the course of the next few weeks it had grown to such proportions that it was more than mere groundswell – it seemed the entire planet was asking the question at once. The other boys knew about the hashtag, but self-preservation meant that none of them dared tell Connor. They knew he was popular, perhaps even more so as a bizarre result of his social media ban, and to have any advantage at all over him was one worth having. Despite the obvious closeness and camaraderie that had developed between all the boys, some things were best kept between only those who needed to know.

One day the man was summoned alone to the TV company’s office. In a room at the far end of Kimble, far away from the boys and the girls and Cameron, he sat opposite three old men with older hair and ancient suits. There’d been a request from the sponsors, they said, to have the boy Stewart back online. A popular boy, they told him, he had quite the following, and quite the following had quite the power. With talk of boycotting the show and the likes, the sponsors were getting nervous and panicky. A lot of their money had been put into this show, they said, and they expected a lot of money out of the show in return. If Stewart, number 9, wasn’t back online, they’d seriously have to consider their position. No amount of fist clenching or teeth baring or shouting could help the man and so, he returned with his tail between his legs and a chip on his shoulder. Stewart would get his phone back, he’d promised, but, oh! he’d pay for it. He thought it best not to tell the TV company that part though.

Connor found his phone on top of his bed. No note. No explanation. It was fully charged and insanely overloaded with notifications and messages. It was then that Connor discovered the #wheresconnor hashtag and shocked and mystified, realised that his celebrity was such that even soap stars and sports stars and pop stars and politicians were Babbling and Olé-ing about him. Without his knowledge he’d become properly famous. Connor typed a message. ‘Hello everybody,’ it read. ‘I’m back back back! #wheresconnor’ He added a humorous #heresconnor hashtag almost as an afterthought and revelled in the familiar whooshing noise his phone made as it was sent out into the ether. Ignoring the immediate flurry of response, he repeated this action across his other social media platforms and lay back on his bed, happy again that he could communicate with the outside world. He had three weeks of memes, messages and misquotes to plough through but they could wait. He only hoped his parents would find out that he was OK. He certainly couldn’t be contacting them in a hurry.

One morning, almost a month after they’d arrived, the boys were awakened at the usual time and accompanied to the dining area to eat breakfast at their tables of four, as normal. The man seemed more animated this day. Cameron too. He was busying himself with a clipboard and a handheld mobile device, seemingly already not enough hours in the day to do whatever it was he did. The man moved to the centre of the room, picked up a small glass of fruit juice and clanked the side of it with a teaspoon. The bright noise cut through the early-morning chatter and quickly, the room fell silent.

“Contestants. I would like a few words if I may, before you enjoy breakfast. There will be no training this morning. I know you will be disappointed at this, but there are a couple of more important matters at hand. You should know that two days from now, we will begin ‘The Elements’. All your training, all your focus has been leading to this moment and it is now almost upon us. We will meet this morning to go over the format of the show. There is much to explain and many questions, I’m sure, to be answered. I have called a press conference for this afternoon. The world’s media is eager to hear from you again, to ask new questions, to find out new information, to fill the columns in their newspapers and online features that will see your names carried across the globe.”

He lowered his voice a notch so that Connor had to concentrate to hear him properly.

“You don’t need me to remind you of the importance of saying the right thing in this environment, do you? It’s more ‘good boy’ than ‘good quote’, do I make myself clear?”

There was a murmur of acceptance from the boys and, as the man stepped down, they got on with the first important task of the day – eating breakfast.

With a mixture of excitement and apprehension, Connor, Rhys and Stephen chatted about the impending contest.

“I tell you,” said Rhys knowingly. “It’ll be based around the five elements; earth, air, water, fire and wood. Won’t it, Pamela?! Remember I said before?!”

Pamela gave nothing away, save a slight smile on her upturned mouth.

“I’ve no idea, Rhys. Really. I know just as much or as little as you. I like your theory though.”

“It will be! Believe me! There’ll be five tasks. Each task will see winners and losers and eventually, after the last task, there’ll be just one winner.”

“And that’ll be me!” said Stephen out loud with a grin. “D’you think we’ll be camping and that?” he asked to the group. “Living outside…living off the land. D’you think we’ll need to kill for food?!”

“Maybe,” answered Connor. “Just as long as we’re not expected to kill each other.”

The thought of this was new and subdued the conversation for the rest of breakfast. The three boys sat in silence, eating and drinking and lost in their own thoughts.

With breakfast over, the boys reassembledPin the meeting area. The room was set out as it had been on the first couple of days, with two rows of chairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of the massive screen. The rotating ‘Elements’ logo revolved lazily. A lectern was placed midway between the screen and the seats, off-centre to the right. Cameron was already busying himself with a small selection of electronic devices. Without prompting, the boys sat in the same seats as before, the girls doing likewise. On cue, the man appeared.

“Contestants. I trust breakfast has set you up suitably for the day ahead. There is much to get through this morning, and I expect you’ll want to ask questions as we progress. Please, watch this short film and we will talk afterwards. Cameron….”

The lights dimmed to black and the logo on the screen faded, giving way to footage of a boy running with purpose through a heavily wooded area. His feet scrunched on leaves and his breath was short and fast. Twigs snapped underfoot, shrubbery scraped across the large backpack that hung heavily from his shoulders and the boy let out an occasional gasp as the terrain below suddenly dropped or changed without notice. Once or twice he looked over his shoulder, back towards the camera. His terrified face told a thousand stories…and begged a thousand questions. Who was he? Where was he? Why was he running? Who was he running from? What was it that made him so obviously terrified?

A voiceover began. Connor recognised it as the same gravelly voice from before.

“The Elements is the ultimate survival show.”

The footage changed smoothly. The boy was still in the same position on the screen, still running frantically, but the landscape had changed to a frozen wasteland. His breath, still short and fast, puffed out in small clouds around his mouth. Where there had been deep green forestry there now was blue white nothingness. His backpack bounced with every tentative running step he could manage. As he looked back to the camera he slipped, his feet giving way. His entire body fell to the right and for one brief moment he lay poleaxed on the frozen ground below. As the camera closed in on his backpack, the boy made it back onto his two feet and he was off and running again, pulling away from the camera once more.

“He who runs the fastest…”

The footage changed suddenly to that of a cheetah racing gracefully across an African plain.

“He who runs farthest…”

The footage was now of turtles and whales and migrating birds.

“He who utilises the greatest survival skills…”

The footage transformed into that of a polar bear, its head poking proudly above a frozen icecap.

“Will win.”

The footage changed once more, this time to an aerial shot of a lion atop a rock, his head turned to the sun, his magnificent mane puffed up and blowing in the wind. The King of the Jungle. And the icy terrain. And the ocean, the skies and whatever else too.

The film faded and the poem, the one from the train, the same one that hung on Connor’s wall in his room, by now such a part of the furniture that he barely noticed it, appeared on the screen.

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 initial letters in each line swelled in size, turned red and remained in that form until it slowly dawned on each of the boys sitting there.

P. E. N. A. N. C. E.

Penance was punishment you inflicted on yourself as an admission of some wrongdoing or other. All the boys here had committed a crime of some sort, some more serious than others, and all the boys had chosen to be here rather than serve punishment in a more traditional establishment. The poem now made perfect, chilling sense. ‘The Elements’ was perhaps the ultimate in penance.

The words remained on the screen after the lights went up and were visible while the man spoke.

“All your training thus far, the days and weeks spent sweating on the field with George, the uncountable hours spent solving unsolvable problems for Professor Zimmerman, all lead to this. ‘The Elements’. As you have perhaps gleaned from the film and the poem too, it is not for the faint-hearted. The rigorous input you have received ensures that all of you are in peak condition, that each and every one of you is in the best-possible mental state to participate. Our team of behind-the-scenes psychologists and analysts has monitored your progress from the off and we have now been given the go-ahead to begin the contest. Let me explain a little bit about the format.”

The screen changed again. This time one word appeared.

‘Earth’.

A second word appeared below.

‘Water’.

Then a third.

‘Fire’.

By the fourth, Rhys was mouthing them as they appeared on the screen.

‘Metal’.

The final word was ‘Wood’.

“I told you!” whispered Rhys, sitting between Connor and Stephen. “I knew it!”

Rhys hadn’t got them quite right, but he was remarkably close.

“The Chinese,” the man spoke, “regard the Five Elements as the foundation of everything in the universe. Each has its own character and can generate or destroy one another. Metal generates water; water nourishes wood; wood feeds fire; fire creates ash, or earth, and earth bears metal. It’s a natural cycle. The destructive nature of the elements also means that fire melts metal; metal chops wood; wood breaks up the earth; the earth absorbs water, and water quenches fire.

You boys all have your own character. You have generated team spirit and togetherness, but you also have the capacity to destroy one another too. I hesitate here to point out some of the things you have said and done behind one another’s backs, for that destructive element will rise naturally as the contest progresses.”

Connor wasn’t sure he understood everything the man said, but he got the gist of it; everyone has the ability to win, but no-one is infallible, and no-one can be trusted seemed to be the short of it. A sudden dawning came over him regarding the #wheresconnor hashtag. The other boys would’ve known about this, definitely, yet not one of them had elected to tell him of it. They knew – Rhys and Stephen especially – how difficult he’d found things without having access to his social media accounts. Had they told him he was popular despite his absence, he wouldn’t have worried so much. Instead, they’d kept this from him, and for three weeks too! This told Conor that he was feared by the other boys, that they considered him competition, a threat to their own survival, and from this he drew confidence and strength. It was there and then that Connor understood ‘The Elements’ was all about every man for himself.

“The Elements will play out over five discreet events, each themed around one of the five elements listed on the screen behind me. The first event will be ‘Earth’. For this, you will compete in your teams of three. You will be taken to an area far from here and given the task of retrieving a red flag. There is only one red flag so there can be only one winning team. From the two losing teams, depending on social media response, at least one boy will be eliminated from the process.”

The man made it sound like an interview for a high-flying corporate job. Did ‘eliminated from the process’ mean ‘killed’? Based on the video and the subtle clues dropped here and there over the past month – ‘it’ll be real bullets next time!’, it seemed quite likely. Connor started weighing up his options. Pushing aside unhelpful thoughts of #wheresconnor, Rhys and Stephen, he decided, were fine as teammates. They would all need to rely on one another’s skills and qualities for this task, something that they had been doing so far. Rhys was smart and analytical. Stephen was not the brightest but he was strong and fast and could run all day if he had to. Connor wasn’t sure what the others might consider to be his best features, but he himself knew he had the stamina and strength of mind to compete. He wasn’t going out easily, and certainly not first.

“It’s a simple concept,” the man continued, “but compelling, nonetheless. Are there any questions just now?”

Fowler raised his hand.

“Fowler, two. Question?”

“Eh, yeah. How long does an event last for? Is there, like, a full-time whistle and a draw if no-one wins?”

The man laughed loudly.

“There’s no full-time whistle, no! Ha! Each event continues until someone wins. That could be hours, days, even weeks if need be. I’m certain that our sponsors would prefer each event to be as long as possible without becoming drawn-out and boring. As you compete, we will live-stream events on YouTube. All of the action will be captured as and when it happens. A nightly highlights show will broadcast the best parts.”

Harrison was next.

“What happens if you’re on the losing team but you’re not the worst player in it? It doesn’t seem fair that you can be penalised because someone in your team has let you down.”

“It’s a team game, Harrison,” the man replied. “and if you’re on the losing team, there’s a chance you will be eliminated. It’s how the show works.” He smiled at Harrison, signifying this particular question had now been answered.

Connor stuck his hand up.

“Stewart, number nine. What’s your question?”

“How long is there between each event? You said the ‘Earth’ one could last weeks if it needed to. What sort of break will there be before the next event?”

“A good question, thanks. There’s no definitive answer to this, I’m afraid. If your first event is over and done with in a day, then I’d imagine we’ll get the next event underway a day or two after that. If the first event takes a week, then you’ll obviously need a longer recovery period. That’s one of the things that makes ‘the Elements’ unique in broadcasting. We are not fitting our programming into a traditional TV schedule, rather the TV schedule will bend and shape to fit us. When we first floated the idea of this show, we suggested it might last a year from start to finish, but it might also be over and done with inside a month. Obviously, our sponsors will be hoping for an extended run on prime-time TV but the length of the show will be determined by how quickly or slowly you all complete the events. The public too has a large part to play. They might choose to vote off more than one of you at a time, in which case, there’ll be less contestants, so things will finish quicker. Keep the public on your side and your chances of making it to the end increase.”

He surveyed the boys in front of him with a genuine smile.

“Are there any further questions? No? In that case I’d like to brief you ahead of the press conference. At the last one, one or two of you said some things that would have been better off staying in your head than coming out of your mouth.”

He paused for effect.

“If you remember, I faced the indignation of having to intervene and frame your comments in a positive manner. I’m sure it doesn’t need repeating, but for the record I will repeat it all the same. Do not, under any circumstances allude to things here at Kimble being anything less than perfect, anything less than wonderful and anything less than idyllic. Do I make myself clear?”

He paused, eyeing every boy individually.

“Anyone who makes my life difficult this afternoonmay not see the end of the first event.”

He let that thought hover in the space between them before extending this thumb and pointing his index finger out towards the boys, adding a definitive final two words.

“Bang, bang.”

He turned and left, with Cameron scurrying behind him.

One of the girls at the back stood up and addressed the boys. They had some free time, she said, to update their socials, freshen up, whatever, before they’d meet at noon for lunch. The boys dispersed accordingly, some to their rooms, some to the recreation room, some to the gym. Within a minute, the meeting room was empty.

Connor found a quiet corner in the recreation room, away from Grayson and Fowler who’d elected to hang out at the pool table, and scrolled through the various social media feeds on his phone. His glib #heresconnor hashtag had amusingly been adopted by his followers and almost every picture of himself was accompanied with the hashtag somewhere underneath.

 

He left his own feed and looked at the other boys’. Harrison’s was still full of square-jawed selfies, mid work-out poses and snarling pouts. Stephen’s too was much the same, even if he didn’t quite take as sharp a selfie. For reasons unknown to Connor, Stephen had more followers than anyone else. His teammate was loud and gormless, not the smartest nor the fittest, yet he had almost twice the number of followers of Rhys and Reilly combined. It really was quite something. Maybe it was the hair. ‘hashtag le gingembre’ and all that. The French really did love him. Most of the comments in his feed were from France. ‘If we finish last in this task’, thought Connor, ‘at least I’m ahead of Rhys in the popularity stakes.’ Alan’s feed was interesting. He seemed to have had the sympathy vote from the public, probably based on those first couple of weeks, but all of the comments now were complimenting him on his changing body shape, his levels of fitness and his new-found gung-ho attitude. With a new perspective on some of his fellow participants, Connor made his way to the dining area, keenly aware once more that he’d be on camera. Pamela had been right. She’d said at the beginning that you soon forgot all about the camera, but if Connor was going to survive ‘The Elements’, he was going to have to play up to it.

After lunch, the boys were taken to the press area. The room was nowhere near as frenzied as before. It was once again packed out with journalists from every corner of the world, and at the front, at the back and at both sides of the room, a fleet of cameramen, sound engineers and hairy men with grubby, low-slung jeans guided cables and wires safely away from unsuspecting journalists’ feet. It was much calmer than the first time they’d been here though, with the reporters far quieter and much more settled. Even with the production crew busying themselves continually, there was a relaxed, calm ambience. Connor recognised some of the reporters from before…the lady from the Daily Mirror was in the front row, the American man who’d singled out Rhys for being the science guy was sat on the left. An Indian woman behind the American man raised her take-away coffee cup and gave Connor a smile as he scanned the room. A few rows behind her was the German reporter who’d asked a question the last time. There were one or two faces that Connor didn’t recognise, but that wasn’t to say they hadn’t been at the last briefing. Notable by their absence was the quiet, elderly Japanese man and his translator, the subject of the man’s behind-the-scenes vitriol following the previous press briefing. As before, a big camera at the back swept here and there, capturing every angle of every boy. At a given signal, de la Cruz made his entrance, springing on like a ridiculously flung together cliché of every shiny and fake-happy TV presenter that had ever appeared in front of the cameras. His hair was even taller than the last gravity-defying time, and he had been given some sort of silvery-grey highlight on the front of the quiff. His suit was silver and super-tight, accentuating his already supremely-pointed patent grey shoes. In his hand he held a microphone that, Connor noticed now, had a square block below the round foamy part, a combination of ‘Elements’ and TV company logos around its edge. On his right wrist hung a massive black-faced diver’s watch that stuck out ugly and vulgar from underneath the sleeve of his shirt. To the side, watching everything with a keen interest, stood the man, arms folded, a forced smile stuck to his face. He’d be glad when this was over. A sponsors’ requirement, the press briefing led to the sort of column inches and internet traffic that put the show firmly into the consciousness of a huge percentage of the planet’s population. The stories made stars of the contestants. The contestants sold newspapers and paywalls and drove advertising revenue online. Each was dependant on the other. The man was ready this time for any awkward questions.

At the stroke of 10:50am (the broadcast would go out at 11:00, seemingly live to those watching around the world) de la Cruz turned his fake smile up another notch, visibly grew another inch and, after a brief, slick in’roduction, began directing questions from the press to the boys, or ‘competitors’ as he was now also calling them. Many of the questions related to the boys’ physical appearance, they all appeared fitter, bigger, stronger, the reporters remarked. They had clearly undertaken a programme of intense fitness and it had appeared to work. A well-groomed Frenchman asked Stephen about his hair routine. Many youngsters in France, he said, girls as well as boys, had started to cut their hair in the same style. Could Stephen pass on any fashion tips, perhaps? Other questions were asked around the subject of bullying, with all the boys who’d been on the end of the man’s wrath being probed by the journalists. With the shadow of the man forever-present, each boy gave a non-comital answer that helped maintain the plastic smile on their aggressor’s face. Alan in particular was singled out for questioning and when he struggled to find the ‘right’ answer for a persistent English lady, a subtle nod from the man led to two well-built men with wires coming from their ears appearing from the back to escort her from the room. Each had a hand under an armpit and, despite her noisy protestations, she was unceremoniously thrown out. Serving as a warning to others, this took the questioning along new, safer lines of enquiry; how were they feeling ahead of the first event…were they missing family and friends…what was their favourite thing about The Elements so far…the sort of flim-flam that helps pad out tabloid newspapers and shallow gossip shows, but not the sort of in-depth stuff that the more serious journalists were here to report on; the psychological effects of being part of a TV experiment, for example, or the ethics of some of the practice so far seen via the official YouTube channel. If this was the stuff we were permitted to see – the institutionalised bullying, the confiscation of phones, the effects of all of this on the mental wellbeing of young people, then what exactly, a nosy Spanish woman from El País wanted to know, were they not showing us? This proved to be the last question of the briefing, meaning the occasion ended on a rather awkward and unresolved moment. It also proved to be the stimulus for the online headlines that followed that same afternoon.

Fury as sick show throws us out!’ heralded The Mirror.

Death Camp Reality TV!’ screamed Entertainment Now!, America’s largest, most-powerful online news and gossip channel. ‘Who will die first?’ it asked in the subheading.

‘¿Es este entretenimiento en el siglo XXI?’ asked the online editorial in El País.

The newspapers the following day were even more scathing. With time to ponder, watch back and analyse the press conference, the more sympathetic of the world’s media tore the show and its producers to shreds. From Madrid to Moscow, Massachusetts to Melbourne, the same editorials were printed; that this show was unethical, that it exploited teenagers who had emotional and psychological issues to begin with, that it was plainly, going by the inferences suggested so far, murderous. Most scathing of all was Mr Yoshiro’s opinion piece in the Japanese daily Asahai Shimbun. Despite repeated requests, he had not been invited to yesterday’s press briefing and despite going through the proper channels he had been unable to secure an interview with any of the show’s producers, so Yoshiro had been forced to write, he explained, a one-sided opinion of the show. This ‘game’ show, he wrote, will systematically kill each of the unwitting boys who are taking part in it. Yes, it is true that they are all criminals to one degree or another, but the barbaric notion that it is somehow OK to eliminate, to eradicate, young people purely in the name of entertainment is a disgrace. We are all to blame, he said, for encouraging it. If any boy died during this show, every person who ever interacted with any element of the show would have that boy’s blood on their hand.

Issues were raised with politicians, motions raised in parliaments and letters sent by heads of state on headed paper, but the show would continue. For every complainer there were hundreds of thousands of fans. Each of these worshippers (for this is what they were) was tied to their phone, checking in on their favourites at least five times an hour, interacting, engaging, sharing content. Hashtag this, ‘love’ emoji that, all the time. It was non-stop. And every time an image was sent zooming across hyperspace or a gif was transferred between devices or #theelements was tagged on to the end of a post, a silent cash register rang and sang for the show’s sponsors, rich enough to begin with and now even more so. No-one, not the Prime Minister or the King of Spain or America’s First Lady would be able to stop its broadcast. Besides, they pointed out, these boys were brought here as criminals, don’t forget that. They were given an alternative, yet they all chose this is as punishment. Do the crime, do the time, that’s what they said, wasn’t it?

When the man saw the headlines, he was furious. Furious at the papers for writing words that were out of his control. Furious with the boys for answering in their ambiguous ways. Furious with himself for allowing these troublesome journalists to be part of the briefing in the first place. He was summoned once more to the office far away at the back of Kimble where he sat opposite the sponsors who suggested – told him, really – that ahead of the next conference he should ask the journalists to submit their questions in writing and to allow entry only to those who asked the ‘right sort of questions’. He kicked himself for not thinking of this himself, annoyed and upset that he was being forced to do what the sponsors asked of him.

When he returned to the boys, he was in a foul mood. Preparations were being made ahead of the big day tomorrow. The boys had been instructed to meet with him so that he could run through exactly what they should pack and prepare for the first event, but the man had a good mind to give them no help at all, or worse, give them false information, and see how that panned out. In the back of his mind though, he worried about the sponsors. They were in charge. They paid him handsomely. This was the best-paid job he’d ever had in TV production and he intended to keep it. Plans were already afoot for another series and associated spin-off shows and they could see him easy into early retirement. If he sabotaged the first event purely as some cheap form of revenge against the likes of Stewart or Harrison, he’d be as well packing his bags before the second event was underway. His revenge would have to wait.

“Contestants!” he shouted with false enthusiasm. “I’ve gathered you here as a group for one last time before our first event. ‘Earth’, as you know, begins tomorrow. I’d like to brief you, if I may, on what you should pack in advance.”

The assembled boys listened intently.

“You will need to prepare for probably a couple of nights and maybe three days-worth of activity. Bring layers. Bring jackets. Bring combat trousers. And your waterproofs. Probably your bite-proof ones too. I’m not sure what’s out there, but I’m sure you’ll find out.”

An uneasy, unspoken feeling crept across the boys.

“’Earth’ is a straightforward task. Think of it as a warm-up to begin with, an icebreaker so to speak. You’ll quickly get into the swing of things, I’m sure! As I have explained before, you will compete in your teams of three. In the morning, early, each team will be taken independently to an area far from here and tasked with retrieving a flag. The area is dense and dark and thick with forest. Creatures live there. No doubt there’ll be creatures neither you nor I have encountered before.”

He broke off to smile.

“You can tell me all about them when you return. If you return. There may be other little things that will hinder your progress along the way. It’s the unexpected things that will keep you on your toes… and keep the viewers watching. It’s all about the viewers, boys, don’t forget that. Give good telly, will you?!”

He smiled again. No-one smiled back.

“Remember, there can be only one winning team and from the two losing teams, depending on social media response, at least one contestant will be eliminated.”

He rubbed his hands.

“Any questions?”

None were forthcoming. The man felt better for having exerted his power and control over the boys. His chest swelled whenever he brought silence and unease to the proceedings. He loved being in charge again.

“Then we’ll eat. Afterwards you should pack. There may be some free time later on, but lights out tonight will be 2000 hours, ahead of a 4am or so start in the morning.”

The boys ate. They talked about the Earth event, sharing their concerns and fears in a frank and open discussion that none of them would have thought possible a few weeks before. Pamela had told them that after tomorrow morning they were unlikely to see her again, her role now having been fulfilled, so much of the talk was of funny stories and first impressions. She seemed sorry that her time was up and the boys were sad that their first connection to Kimble, to ‘The Elements’ was being severed.

Back in his room, Connor carefully packed his things. The man’s voice rang in his head as he looked out clothing that he’d only ever worn when he’d first tried it on. He packed everything he’d been told to pack, adding a couple of extra layers and a pair of fire-proof combat trousers just in case. In the inside pocket he stuck a ‘juicebox’ – a device that would give him an extra boost of battery power should his phone run out of charge. Alongside it he put in a notebook and a couple of pens and, most importantly of all, his anti-allergy medication. At the top of the backpack he squashed in a one-man tent that had been left in the middle of his room when he’d returned from eating. The note on it said simply, ‘Pack me.’ He lifted his camouflaged backpack, put it on and let his back and shoulders adjust to its weight. Could he carry this around with him for half a week or more? Even with his recently developed strength and fitness, he wasn’t sure he could. Still wearing the backpack, he ran through a mental inventory of everything he’d packed. Perhaps he could lose the fireproof trousers? Or the second pair of boots? He didn’t want to be hampered by it but nor did he want to find himself in a situation where he was wishing he had a piece of equipment that he’d removed from his pack at the last minute. He decided to keep the backpack as it was. He’d get used to it. He’d need to.

There was little free time that evening and so none of the boys emerged from their rooms. Inside, each updated and uploaded; pictures of backpacks, thumbs-up selfies, ‘see you on ‘Earth’-type messages. There was a mixture of excitement and anticipation, expectation of the competition and fear of the unknown. As ever, there were hundreds, thousands of messages from his supporters and as he read with constantly sweeping thumbs, the lights harshly shut off without warning. At 8pm, Connor lay atop his bed in just his underwear, the soft glow from his phone illuminating his face, casting an enlarged shadow of his head onto the wall behind the headboard. He plugged his phone in to charge, brushed his teeth in the dark and lay, trying to sleep in a bed that he hoped he’d be back in before too long. At some point, while lost in jumbled thoughts of parents and dark forests and the boys on the other teams, he nodded off.

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 9

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

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

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

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 9

 

 

The boys were sat in a classroom. It had all the regular features of the classrooms Connor had been in at school; smartboard on the wall, a dusty chalkboard beside it, a teacher’s desk angled in the corner to see both every face in the room and anyone who might appear at the door. Bookcases crammed with paperbacks and hardbacks, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, ran the length of the back wall. Various informative posters – ‘Is your brain left-sided or right-sided?’, ‘Vygotsky v Piaget: Learning Theories Explained’, ‘Motivation: Extrinsic or Intrinsic?’ were dotted around the walls. Unlike Connor’s (old) school, where the desks in his class were arranged into groups, the desks here were laid out individually; three columns and three rows, a knots-and-crosses grid with a space for every boy. Unusually, given the controlled way in which the boys had been kept apart until now, they were free to choose wherever they sat. At each desk was a thick notepad of paper, a tin pencil case, a sleek tablet and a set of headphones, the cables for them spaghetti-ing out over the edge. Despite being a classroom, the room still very much had the same clinical feel as the rest of Kimble.

At the smartboard was a small, eccentric man. Even before he had spoken Connor knew he wasn’t like anyone else he’d met since being here. Firstly, this man had a somewhat relaxed approach to personal grooming. Whereas the man and Cameron, and de la Cruz especially, had a clear daily routine of highly-maintained hair and sculpted eyebrows and wore immaculate clothes with razor-sharp creases, this man’s hair was a vertical shock of hard-wired grey; a stranger to both shower and shampoo. He bumbled back and forth with the undone hems of his loosely-hanging trousers trailing behind him. Half of his gingham-checked shirt was tucked into the waistband, the other half flapping unselfconsciously by his side. He wore a wide tie with a repeated image of Bugs Bunny on it, some of which was obscured by a dull stain that may a few months ago have been tomato ketchup or chocolate fudge cake. Over the top of his shirt he wore a lab coat that had been a brilliant, sterile white when he’d first worn it. The side pockets bulged lumpily with unknown contents. A pen poked out of the top pocket, a small inky blotch from an old pen still in evidence on the material underneath. An ID badge was clipped apologetically from the same pocket.

“Welcome, boys,” he said, peering over the top of small, round, rimless glasses. Connor was amazed to hear an American accent. He had expected a voice very much like Mr Szczęsny’s from back home. “My name is Professor Zimmerman but I don’t mind if you call me Arty. We’re all friends here.” He smiled sweetly at the boys. The tension in the room dropped a notch.

“We shall begin by introducing ourselves. Your first name, please, followed by the first thing you plan to do when you get out of here.”

He looked at each boy individually, nodding a welcome, putting them at ease. Zimmerman couldn’t have been any less like the other authoritative figures here.

Silence.

The professor smiled and stepped forward.

“I’ll start. I know you’re all thinking, ‘Oh gosh! I hope he doesn’t choose me first, because I don’t know what I plan to do when I get out of here,’ so maybe this will help. My name, as I’ve already told you, is Professor Arthur Zimmerman. Most everybody calls me Arty and that’s what I’d prefer you to call me too. When I get out of here, the first thing I plan to do is go back home – my real home in the States, not the place I currently live in while I’m working here – and take a hike into the woods, followed by a midnight dip in Lake Wanda. It’s a supremely refreshing way of washing off the dirt and grime of the day.”

He stopped, gauging the reaction. All nine boys leaned forwards at their desks, listening to everything he had to say. He had their full attention, not through fear like the man or George, but by being open and honest and friendly, three traits that were so far unusual at Kimble.

“Would anyone like to go next? I won’t put anyone on the spot.”

Connor’s mind raced with what he might say when it was his turn. He wasn’t one for going first though. He wanted to hear what others had to say, to make sure what he said didn’t sound out of place amongst the other answers. In the event it was Reilly who started things off.

“Hi. Yeah, my name’s Lewis Reilly and the first thing I’m going to do when I get out of here is pet my dog Jarvis.”

“Thank you for that, Lewis,” smiled Zimmerman. “Who would like to go next?”

“I will.” It was Burgess this time. “My name’s Alexander. When I get out of here, the first thing I plan to do is sleep.”

Zimmerman moved from front and centre and sat at his desk. He slid his chair back and put his scuffed shoes on the edge of the oak desk.

“Grayson, Mr…sorry….Professor….Zimmerman. The first thing I’ll do when this is over is buy the biggest pizza I can and then eat it all myself.”

By now, the room was charged. The boys who had still to speak were respectful of not butting in and were acutely aware of Zimmerman’s non-verbal cues. Although he sat in relaxed fashion, the professor wrote notes as each boy talked and it became the unspoken rule that no-one continued until his head lifted from the notebook he was scribbling in.

“Andy Fowler. Eh, Andy. When we get out of here, I’m going to play xBox online with my pals.”

Now that he had gauged the answers, Connor wanted to speak. He didn’t want to be last to do so either. There was always the chance that Zimmerman might ask a follow-up question.

Rhys got in before him.

“I’m Rhys. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is hug my mum and dad.” Rhys had said the first honest answer of all the boys.

Connor seized his chance.

“My name’s Connor. When I get out of here the first thing I plan to do is ask my mum to make me her chicken curry.” This wasn’t strictly true, but Connor hadn’t wanted to copy Rhys’s answer.

Alan and Stephen both now started speaking and in an unusually strong display of character, it was Alan who talked Stephen down. Once he had everyone’s full attention, he started again.

“I’m Randolph Alan but, please, just call me Alan. It’s what I prefer. When this is all over, I think I’m just gonna disappear for a while, maybe just vanish forever. They all hate me back there.”

At this, Zimmerman stopped writing, lifted his feet from the desk and sat upright in his swivel chair. The boys watched as he leaned his elbows in front of him and brought his hands up, cupping them and allowing his chin to rest between them. He peered over the tops of his glasses again.

“Interesting, Alan. Interesting.”

The professor returned to his notebook, scribbling noisily. The scratching from his pencil was the only noise in the room. The boys either side of Alan – Reilly and Harrison, drew him a surprised look then returned their gaze to Zimmerman. He looked calmly at them, silently allowing the next boy to speak.

Stephen spoke next.

“I’m Stephen, but you can call me ‘Hasthtag le gingembre!’ Stephen followed his opening remark with a little snorted laugh. “When I get out of here…” he looked around knowingly, gurning at the others, “The first thing I’m going to do is have a party and invite all the girls who’ve been messaging me since I got here. Har har har har!”

He snorted alone into the silent space around him. Connor cringed. He was sure he wasn’t the only one. The professor allowed the last of the guffaws to peter out and indicated that the next boy should speak. Silence followed. He ran the sharpened point of the pencil down his page of notes.

“Let’s see…six, seven, eight…yes, we have one more still to go. Who shall it be?”

Zimmerman looked directly at Harrison and smiled. Harrison leaned back at his desk, one arm draped behind his chair, his legs crossed and stretched out to the side in front of him. He pulled what was almost a sneer from his curled lip then sniffed, wiped his nose absent-mindedly on the back of his hand and maintained gazing somewhere into the middle-distance.

“And what is your name, sir?” Zimmerman squinted from his desk to Harrison, trying to read his name tag on the front of his shirt. Either he was too far away, or his eyesight was too weak, or a mixture of both, for Zimmerman was unable to make out what the white blur said.

Silence still.

Reilly and Alan looked across their row to Harrison, who failed to acknowledge them. He continued staring beyond the ends of his feet at the floor. Zimmerman by now had stood up and was walking between the desks. He arrived at Harrison and read his shirt.

“Mr Harrison. Pleased to meet your acquaintance. And does Mr Harrison have a first name, by chance? Or is your name really Harrison 3?”

There was a muffled snigger from somewhere at the back. Harrison steadfastly ignored him and it.

“Or does Mr Harrison perhaps have an idea of what he’d like to do first once all of this is over?”

Silence still.

You had to admire Harrison’s steel. Zimmerman seemed nice enough, but only an idiot wouldn’t think this whole scene wasn’t playing out on a screen behind a wall somewhere else within the building. Connor, still smarting from his meeting with the man at lunchtime, found himself wishing, hoping that it would be Harrison, with his petted lip and stupid haircut who next felt his wrath.

Zimmerman was back at the smartboard. He tapped at a keyboard and ‘The Elements’ logo spun forebodingly on the screen.

“Boys. You and I will see a lot of each other over the next weeks and months. We will meet here every afternoon. In this classroom we will work on your mindset, on building positivity in each of you, on making you the best person you can be. There’ll be some lectures where you will be encouraged to take notes. There’ll be some practical group activities where you will be expected to contribute to the success of the task that is set. There’ll be individual tasks where you will be pushed to your limit, challenged to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. All of this will help you approach ‘The Elements’ in the best possible mental state. Do any of you have any questions just now? I appreciate all of this is new to you, so I’m happy to answer anything I can as we go on.”

He paused.

“No questions?”

The room was silent again. Calm.

“Okay. Well if anything jumps to mind as we’re working, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Turning his back to the boys Zimmerman scribbled on the chalkboard. A website, a user ID and a generic password were scrawled in spidery white-chalked letters.

“Boys. Please open the laptop on your desk and access this website. When prompted to sign in, use the information I’ve given you here. After that you will have the option to choose your own username and password. It’s important you do. We’ll be doing a little IQ test. Nothing scary, certainly nothing to worry about. We’d like to measure your intelligence as you progress through ‘The Elements’. We fully expect that, as your body gets fitter and stronger, so too will your mind.”

Lab rats’ thought Connor. ‘That’s all we are to them. Cheap entertainment for the masses and a scientific experiment for everyone else.’

Connor logged on, followed the instruction and found himself at an Elements-branded website. In the centre of the screen pulsed a huge cartoon brain. Multi-coloured mechanical cogs, lightbulbs and question marks expanded, shrunk and expanded again inside it. A button read ‘Take IQ test now’ and was begging to be pressed. Connor resisted temptation until Zimmerman had given them the go-ahead to do so.

“Are we all in, yes? Andy? Stephen? Lewis?”

The boys nodded in affirmation.

“Alan?”

“Just about….” There followed a quiet, forceful tapping as his forefinger prodded the relevant information onwards and he gave a definitive thumbs up towards Zimmerman.

“Everybody else? Connor? Rhys? Mr Harrison?”

Harrison failed to acknowledge Zimmerman’s response again. Zimmerman waited, smiling. Harrison sat in standoffish silence. A small amount of tension crept into the room and licked around the boys’ shoulders. Rhys peered across to Harrison’s desk. He could see the same cartoon brain on Harrison’s screen. Zimmerman waited, still smiling. Rhys was desperate for Zimmerman to look at him, so that he could signal that Harrison was in fact logged in and the atmosphere in the room could return to normal. The others were unsure of what to do, but no one pressed the button on their screen. Zimmerman spoke.

“If you have successfully logged in and can see this screen…” The professor clicked a mouse and the Elements logo gave way to the cartoon brain. “…feel free to begin when you feel ready. Answer each question as best you can and take as long as you need. There is no time limit on this.”

As he finished, fingers began stabbing at touchscreens and at least eight of the boys busied themselves with the task in hand.

The screen looked confusing at first, with a series of coloured boxes, all containing lines, shapes and dots inside, laid out in three rows of three. The last box in each question was blank and Connor was asked to click one of four possible options that would complete the pattern. Once the answer was submitted, a new puzzle appeared. It took Connor a handful of seconds to make sense of it all and, after his initial bewilderment, he was able to click through the first few quite rapidly. As he progressed, the logic behind each answer became harder to work out. The coloured boxes gave way to number sequences, which in turn gave way to number calculations involving ratios and percentages, which in turn gave way to a set of dials and arrows that required to be mentally rotated before the correct answer from the four options became clear. At one or two of them, Connor ended up guessing an answer, hoping that he’d done enough in the rest of the test to offset any wrong answer here.

After twenty questions, there was a 5-minute break where Connor was encouraged to put on the headset. A short, unrecognisable piece of classical music played soothingly and once finished, the laptop’s screen instructed him to continue.

The assessment changed from number logic to word logic. A series of word substitution and word recognition diagnostics followed. As before, these began easily enough but rapidly became challenging and, eventually at the last two or three, impossible, when Connor found himself guessing the answers. Once finished he was instructed to take another short break with the headphones again. This time, the familiar sweep of a Vivalidi tune filled his head. It might have been from the Four Seasons, Connor couldn’t quite remember, but he could see himself back in his art class, working his oil pastels into a good-quality piece of cartridge paper, Mrs Scott offering up encouragement at his side.

Connor was brought back to the present when the music stopped and Zimmerman’s voice cut in. Looking up, Connor could see the professor was talking into a small microphone connected to his own laptop.

“Boys, I don’t really expect many, any of you to have finished….but has anyone finished already?”

Connor thought he might have been until he noticed a third set of puzzles on the screen in front of him. The music had made his mind drift to the point where he hadn’t been aware of the laptop screen changing. He looked around. The other boys, even Harrison, were giving Zimmerman their full attention. It looked as though no-one had finished.

“If you’d like a longer break between sessions, please feel free to take something from the library at the back. There’re all sorts of books in there – classics, new fiction, explanatory manuals, comic books, there’s something for everyone. I don’t mind if you want to take a time-out from the online stuff. It can be tiring on the eyes as well as the brain. I don’t mind too if you’d rather just get on with it until you’re complete. There are four sessions in total, so that should give you an idea of how much you still have to go.”

Zimmerman pushed the microphone away from himself and went back to whatever it was he was doing. One by one the boys’ heads focused once more on the screens in front. No-one seemed brave enough to stop for a time-out just yet.

The next session facing Connor was a series of reaction tests. A traffic light sequence appeared, and Connor had 10 rounds at clicking a button as soon as it turned to red. At the end, an average speed of his reactions was calculated. Connor’s average was 0.3344 of a second. He had no idea if this was a good score or not. Next the whole screen went black. He had to click the mouse as soon as the screen turned white. Again, he did this ten times and again he was given an average time. The tests continued; stop the speeding ball in the middle of the circle, click when the number 9 appears, click when the sun turns into the moon, all sorts of fairly random stuff that generated an average time after each one.

The session concluded with another short dose of classical music on the headphones, designed to relax the participant before the final round.

The last test was something called the Harrower-Erickson Rorschach Test. Connor was shown a symmetrical image, similar to the effect of a piece of paper with a grey blob of paint on it being folded in half to leave a mirror print of the blob. The image on the screen  looked a bit like a bat with thin, narrow wings spreading out from its sides. It also looked a bit like two mice dancing face to face, their tails curling out behind them. ‘Memorise the given image’ the screen said and when the next page was opened, 10 options appeared. ‘Choose what would be the best description of the image you just saw and mark it in the column “1st”. If there is a second description that fits well too, mark it in the column “2nd”.

For the first image, Connor selected ‘bat’ as the best description and, for a second description, ‘mice.’ The other options – ‘x-ray image’, ‘human skull’ and ‘bear’, amongst others, seemed like strange options to him. Once submitted, a new image appeared. Connor studied it, clicked to turn the page and selected ‘flower’ and ‘ladies dancing’ from the next set of options. Once he’d submitted his answers, another image appeared. Connor did this multiple times, clicking on variations of ‘dancers’, ‘rats’, ‘flowers’ and ‘x-ray images’ until all images had been viewed and compared. Finally, the test was complete.

Connor was unaware that he was stretching and yawning until the professor spoke to him.

“Connor, I imagine you have finished by now, yes?”

Connor nodded, slightly embarrassed that Zimmerman had caught him yawning. This class was anything but boring.

“It can be very tiring, staring at that screen for so long. Why don’t you join some of the others in some light reading to help you unwind.”

Connor looked around and was surprised to see a few of the other boys already bent over books and magazines at their desks. He’d been so wrapped up in the testing, he’d failed to notice others finishing around him. Amongst the readers was Harrison, who sat engrossed in a big book.

Connor flicked through the bookcases at the back of the room. The professor had been right – it was a well-stocked library. Connor came to the magazine section and rustled through the shelves until he’d found something which caught his fancy. He went back to his chair and read quietly until Zimmerman broke the silence thirty or so minutes later.

“Boys. I believe we have all finished the testing. It wasn’t so bad, was it? I can see from my laptop that everyone completed every section, so well done for your attempts. Your answers will now be analysed by my team and myself and recorded for our records. We will have your individual scores ready within the hour. Until then you may choose to continue reading or, if you wish, you may use the laptop to visit your social media profiles and update your status and suchlike. I know how important these things are to the success or otherwise of your time here.”

At that, every boy discarded their reading material and started tapping away again on the touchscreens in front of them. Connor couldn’t believe his luck. His phone might be with the man right now, but he’d be able to access all his accounts from here. He was already formulating his next status update in his head as he typed in the detail required to access his ‘Elements’ account.

‘Hi everyone,’ he would write. ‘I’m having phone issues right now, so I’m probably not going to be as active on here as I’d like to be.’

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

The message across the screen was bold, blunt and not in the least expected. Connor stared at the words in front of him. Well, of course his account was suspended! The man was always one step ahead of everyone. He’d probably suspended Connor’s account even before he’d demanded his phone from him earlier on. Fruitlessly – maybe he’d entered incorrect details, he tried to convince himself – Connor re-entered the information and tried again.

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

He tried Olé.

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

He tried Babble.

‘ACCESS TO THIS ACCOUNT IS SUSPENDED’.

Connor felt a surging mix of shame and anger rise in him. He looked around. Everyone else was hunched over their laptops. They were online, updating statuses, cropping and editing selfies, creating memes, adding pictures of themselves from this very room, interacting with the only people who could save them. Connor was locked out of the party.

Somewhere nearby, in a room the boys would never know about, the man sat back in his swivel chair, staring with interest at the LCD monitor showing pictures of the boys in Zimmerman’s classroom. He clicked a mouse and a close-up of Connor’s upset face filled the screen. The man smirked, quiet satisfaction etched on his face, Cameron and the three girls at his back.

Back in the classroom, Zimmerman spoke to Connor.

“Connor. Problem?”

“Yeah. No.”

“Come speak to me.” The professor pulled a chair to the side of his desk and beckoned Connor to sit.

“What’s the problem, Connor? I watched you becoming quite upset there. How can I help you?”

“It’s nothing,” said Connor unconvincingly. “It’s just….my phone was confiscated earlier on and when I tried to log into my accounts, they were all blocked.”

“I see,” said Zimmerman with a quiet nod.

“So, I can’t get online to update anything or share a picture or reply to comments. Right now, I don’t exist. Everyone else is gaining popularity and followers and I’m quickly being forgotten about.”

“Hmmm,” pondered the professor. “May I ask why your phone was taken from you?”

“I was caught texting my mum. I tried to call her too. That man, whatever his name is, he took it from me at lunchtime. I don’t know when I’ll get it back….if I’ll get it back.”

“That seems quite harsh punishment, given the circumstances. However, he makes the rules. You must earn his respect and trust that he returns your phone quickly.”

“But what do I do until then? I can’t get online to say things, see things, share things.”

“As hard as it may seem,” said the man, “you must accept this. You cannot change what has happened. You can only learn from it and use it to make you a stronger person. We must find positives in even the most negative of circumstance. Remember that.”

The professor looked at Connor with a smile and finished.

“I must get back to these results. May I suggest you continue reading for a few more minutes and shortly, class will be finished.”

“Thanks Professor Zimmerman.”

“Arty, please.”

“Thanks, Arty.”

Connor returned to his desk feeling no less sorry for himself, but a bit more enlightened for having had the one-to-one conversation with Zimmerman. He flicked distractedly through the magazine in front of him, all the time aware that those around him were gaining valuable headway over him online.

A short while later, Arty asked the boys to stop what they were doing, to log off and power down, to return any reading material back to the shelf where they got it. This they did with no complaints or fuss. Within 30 seconds of speaking to the class, every boy had a tidy desk and, Harrison included, a posture that told the professor they were ready for what he had to say.

“Boys. Your results are in and analysed. They make for interesting reading. It would be unfair of me to share your results with your peers so, shortly, I will make the point of giving you your scores individually.”

Somewhere nearby, in the room the boys would never know about, the man stood up to leave.

“Before I do this, I’d like to explain some things. The IQ test that you began with sets a baseline score of your intelligence quotient. We will use this baseline to plot your intelligence as ‘The Elements’ progresses. What we hope to find is an upwards curve as everyone’s brain adapts and grows to the challenges faced.”

The man, followed by Cameron and the three girls, walked quickly and purposefully through the stark white corridors.

“An average IQ score is usually around 100, so anyone scoring above that will be considered above average. Within this group, I’d expect maybe 2 or 3 of you to score over 100. Perhaps 1 or 2 of you will score less than 100 too. That is nothing to concern yourself with for the moment. What I will say though is…”

There was a brief rap on the door and the man entered, Cameron immediately behind him. The three girls loitered at the door until the man told them to come in. Suddenly the classroom felt smaller.

“Professor Zimmerman. Contestants.” The man took control of the room. “Cameron, girls, please find a seat, thank you.”

Zimmerman looked first at the man, then the girls as they sat down, then Cameron, then the boys, then back to the man. He was not impressed.

“Afternoon sir,” he said. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

The man ignored him to an extent and tapped a login on the laptop. The screen changed and a spreadsheet of data appeared.

“Contestants. These, I believe, are your test results from this afternoon. Now, I’m no data expert, but from what I can tell, I’d say we have some pretty smart contestants here, and a few that have more than a little way to go to meet the standard required.”

Zimmerman visibly bristled at his desk.

The man continued.

“Let’s see.” Tap, tap, tap. “Yes! Mr Harrison. I believe you are our top scorer! How interesting! IQ of 118! Excellent analyst although emotionally unstable. Sociopathic. Unreliable. Your Rorschach test was quite the thing.”

Zimmerman stood up, leaning at his desk.

“Sir, this is highly unethical.”

The man ignored him and continued.

“And Mr Alan. Who’d have known?  IQ of 116. Expert logician. Also emotionally unstable. Antagonistic. There are some serious issues you need to overcome.”

“SIR! PLEASE! ENOUGH!”

The man turned ninety degrees to look at Zimmerman. The atmosphere in the room, already rapidly cooling, was now positively cold.

“Sir.” Zimmerman caught his breath before continuing. “Sharing this information can have untold detrimental psychological and emotional effects on the individuals. I ask you to consider this.”

The man turned to face the boys. He continued speaking.

“Mr Campbell. The scientist. IQ of 112. Methodical. Precise. Slight schizophrenic tendencies.”

There was a clatter at Zimmerman’s desk and a jarring scrape as his chair was pushed behind him. Zimmerman was up and out. He pushed past the man, an unruly mess of outraged hair and lab coat tails following him out of the room.

The boys watched on in awkward silence. Connor felt for Zimmerman. In the professor, he thought, lay something of an ally against the man, but now he saw that Zimmerman was no more powerful than the boys themselves. At the front of the class, the man continued speaking.

“McPherson. Dear oh dear oh dear! Narcissistic. Highly sociopathic. IQ 85. Work to be done, there I’d say. Fowler. IQ 92….less than average…” Tap, tap, tap. “…emotionally unstable.” The man raised his eyes towards Fowler, who sat shame-faced at his desk. He continued tapping and muttering to himself. “Burgess…98. Inflated ego. Stewart…109. Attachment issues. Anderson…100. Slight neuroticism. Reilly…100. Jealous, insecure.”

He looked at the boys, eyeballing them the way he had done in the gravel car park on the first day.

“Quite a lot of work to be done, eh? What’s that phrase? ‘No-one’s perfect’. Well, that’s certainly plain to see. You all have much to learn before we start properly.”

He looked at Cameron, who rose immediately from his chair.

“Girls!”

As one, the three girls stood.

“Accompany the boys back to their rooms. You may have some R&R time, contestants, but please be ready for evening meal at 1800 hours. Thank you.”

With that, the man and Cameron left, perhaps on the war path for Zimmerman, perhaps to take some R&R time for themselves.

 

(more to follow in the future)

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 8

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

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

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

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 8

 

It was the clarinets or oboes (he could never tell them apart) that stirred Connor from his slumber. He recognised them straight away. Igor Stravinksy’s Rite Of Spring. He’d a teacher at school who played classical music during art lessons and while they drew or painted, the teacher, Mrs Scott, used to give them little informal lessons on the music that was soundtracking their scribbles. Rite Of Spring was one of the most-recorded pieces in classical music, she’d said. Stravinsky had denied it, but he’d stolen much of the melody from traditional Russian folk music. It wasn’t Connor’s favourite piece of classical music, but today, with its familiar dissonant jarring and wonky time signature, it brought him alive and well into the new day.

“Good morning Connor Stewart. It’s 6.30am. Please be ready for 7.15 prompt. You must wear your combat layers and trousers today. You may select your own choice of footwear.”

Connor rolled over and was aware of something hard at his shoulder blade. He reached underneath the blanket and pulled out his mobile phone. He was brought fully awake by the notification of three missed calls from his mum. Annoyed with himself, he checked the details.  She’d called at 10.16pm, 10.19pm and 10.28pm. He’d slept through every one of them. There was a text too.

Hi Connor,’ it read. ‘Pick up your phone! Dad and I are so happy to hear from you. We’ve been watching you on YouTube. You’ve had your hair cut! It suits you. I wish you’d answer your phone so we could hear your voice. We’re missing you. Give us a call when you get the chance. Love you, mum and dad xx

Connor was kicking himself for falling asleep so quickly. With some alarm, he noticed too that his battery was severely undercharged. He’d fallen asleep without plugging his phone in. He hoped he wouldn’t regret this error. He briefly considered sending a text but his conscience got the better of him. He’d ask Pamela later about phoning home. So far, she’d seemed approachable and reasonable.

In a mood, he set his phone to airplane mode – it charged faster this way, right? – showered and dressed, putting on his new ankle-height boots, fixed his hair and prepared for what would be another interesting day at Kimble.

When Pamela rapped on his door at 7.15, he tried not to let his foul mood show.

“Hey hey hey!” she beamed, flashing one of her polar white smiles.

“Hiya Pamela, hiya Stephen,” replied Connor. “Gimme a sec.” Connor unplugged the barely half-charged phone and stuck it in his pocket before joining the other two and Rhys as they squeaked along the corridor towards the dining area. As the four sat down, the man and Cameron made their presence known at the front of the room.

“Good morning contestants.”

Connor picked up the subtle change in vocabulary. Until now, the man had referred to them as ‘boys’.

“Today is the first day of training. It will be intense. It will push many of you beyond your limits. Please, encourage and motivate your team-mates. They will appreciate all the encouragement they get and you will too. Training will take the form of two parts; physical and mental. You will undertake the physical training first, so it is important to eat a full breakfast. You will need energy to carry you through until lunchtime. Enjoy this hour, contestants. I expect it might be the only hour of the day that you do enjoy.”

With that, the man and Cameron sat at a table far away from everyone else and started spreading their toast.

Already in a stinking mood, this was the last thing Connor needed to hear. He ate sullenly. The conversation flowed around him, excited chatter involving Babble messages and hashtags and memes and the likes. Stephen was clearly the most popular of the three but Rhys either couldn’t see this or wouldn’t concede to the fact. In his funk this morning, Connor hadn’t even checked any of his accounts. He briefly worried if this might’ve been an error on his part before quickly checking himself for being so caught up in the game. He stared at the table, his toast going cold and limp in his hand.

“Are you OK, Connor?” asked Pamela, genuine concern in her voice.

He looked up, his toast bending unappealingly.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just a little homesick, I think.” Seizing the opportunity, he asked, “When are we allowed to call home? I’d like to check in with my mum and dad if I can.”

Pamela smiled. “Soon, Connor, soon.” Looking at his toast she added, “Now, eat! Make sure you have the energy required for the day ahead. You heard the man. It’s going to be a full-on day. Stephen! Rhys! Make sure you fill up too!” The subject had been changed.

Full-up, they followed Pamela into another new room. It was large and square, its bare concrete walls painted with a watery whitewash. Wooden benches ran around three of the sides. Behind a jutting part of wall at the far end was, Connor presumed, the shower block. On one of the walls was a large, old-fashioned black board, currently blank. On the wall facing it was a large, lifeless flat-screen TV. In the corner at the far end was a pair of closed red doors, next to them the same metal key-pad that was on each of the boy’s own doors. The boys stayed in their groups of three, uneasy and unsure of what to expect. No one sat. Connor, still in a mood, studied the other boys. Grayson was his normal relaxed self, laughing at something Fowler was saying to him. Alan looked worried. Drawn and insular, his clothes were ill-fitting, and with nowhere to hide in this room, he appeared self-conscious. One or two of the others were doing basic stretches, bringing their heels up to their buttocks and the likes. Most of the boys though stood around awkwardly, checking the zips on their combat trousers or trying not to catch the eye of anyone else.

Harrison was different. He stood out, and not just because of his hair. He was like a caged animal straining at the leash. His head and chin jutted forwards and backwards with jerky nervousness, the cords on his neck lean and prominent. He wasn’t wearing layers like the others. With his t-shirt tucked tightly into his trousers Connor could see he was athletic. His eyes ablaze with determination, he looked this way and that, eager for something to happen. He settled on tightly tying and re-tying the laces on his boots. Was he chewing gum? It looked like it, even if Connor couldn’t remember seeing gum in the vending machine. Boots tied to his satisfaction, Harrison jumped up and down on the spot, exhaling loudly and quickly with each jump, expelling some of the nervous energy that was flowing through him. Harrison was clearly ready to go, almost possessed.

Cameron entered behind them and spoke.

“Good morning everyone.”

Given the authority he carried, his thin, child-like voice seemed very out of place.

“This is the changing area. This room will become very familiar to you over the course of ‘The Elements’. During training, you will meet here after breakfast every day. You will have a briefing with the coaches who will then lead you through that morning’s physical activities.”

He smiled knowingly.

“I hope you are prepared for our first session.”

The man entered next. His voice alerted the room to his arrival.

“Thank you, Cameron. Apologies, contestants, for my tardy arrival.”

Beside the man stood someone new. A triangular mountain of physical presence, he was at least six and a half feet tall. Dressed head to toe in military green and wearing the same ankle-height boots as Connor, he cut a totally imposing figure. His shoulders were broad and powerful. Muscles bulged in all directions. A whistle hung around his neck and lay flat, small against his massive chest. At the top of his left arm, just below the sleeve of his khaki t-shirt, Connor spotted a faded tattoo, an eagle in flight, its talons stretched out like jagged knives. Above it was a flag or a ribbon, inside which something was inscribed in Latin. At the top of his right leg, strapped and concealed in a holster was a gun or a pistol of some sort, its dull wooden handle poking out the giveaway. The man, the most powerful person at Kimble, the one everyone was afraid of, looked small and insignificant beside him.

This was theatre. The man had been intentionally late. It was all ceremony for the benefit of the TV. Right now, hidden cameras were picking out the boys with the most visual reactions to this giant of a man, hidden microphones recording the supressed gasps and mild swearing.

“Contestants. This is George. George is ex-military. He has served your country in Afghanistan, Syria and the Gulf. He has seen things….done things……that I hope you never need to experience. He is trained in the arts of combat and survival and right now is the most important person at Kimble. Do as he says and he will help you develop and improve as a person.”

The man didn’t need to continue speaking, but for the benefit of the TV ratings he did.

“Do otherwise, cross him, defy him, disobey him…. and George has my authority to punish you as he sees fit. Am I clear, contestants?”

A murmur of affirmation rose from the nine boys.

George stared at each boy individually, sussing them out. He recognised the ones with the guile to see this through, the ones who’d do well. He wasn’t interested in them for now. He’d break them later. He looked Alan up and down with contempt. Flared his nostrils at Reilly. Stared for longer than necessary at Stephen’s haircut. He knew the ones who’d give up, answer back, quit. He could tell that number 3 was worth keeping an eye on but he knew too from experience that the most difficult of recruits could also be the most changeable.

George spoke.

“Contestants. Let’s get this clear from the start. I don’t like petty criminals. I can’t stand teenage waywardness. And I absolutely abhor disregard for society’s rules and standards. You lot,” he stared at each of them individually, “are petty criminals, am I right? You are all wayward teenagers, is that correct?”

Connor would not be thirteen for a couple of months yet, but this wasn’t the time to bring that technicality up.

“And none of you what-so-ever has any regard AT ALL for how we should conduct ourselves in society. Am I right again?”

He paused then continued speaking in a patronising sing-song voice.

“Yes George, you’re right George.”

He leaned towards them and stared the boys down, the whites of his eyes growing visibly larger, the cords on his neck making Harrisons seem like fine thread by comparison.

He spoke again, daring them not to speak.

“Yes George, you’re right George,” he sing-songed again, staring wildly at the boys.

“Yes George, you’re right George,” came the muted, fumbled reply.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yes George, you’re right George,” the boys answered again, louder this time, but loose and not together.

“WOT?!?”

“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!” the boys shouted in unison.

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

“YES GEORGE!!! YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!!!”

The boys shouted louder, throats tearing, the walls vibrating. The man stood to the side, arms folded and smiled his smile.

George looked at the boys, this non-verbal action enough of a cue to silence them.

“Right. Now that we’ve established that George is always right, we will always listen to what George has to say, because whatever George has to say is the most important thing you need to hear, isn’t that so? ”

“Yes,” came the half-hearted reply from two or three of the boys.

“I THOUGHT WE’D JUST GONE OVER THIS YOU IDIOTS!”

The group of boys visibly shrunk. Connor gulped and spoke up. “Yes George, you’re right George.”

George turned his attention towards Connor.

“Oh look, everybody! We’ve got a right little teacher’s pet here!” George let that hang in the air. Connor squirmed. Every boy looked at the linoleum floor.

“…but I like teacher’s pets. Thank you for answering correctly…” George looked at Connor’s shirt. “…Stewart. I need more students like you in my class.”

Connor regretted speaking. He was on the good side of the coach, but had now isolated himself – or, at least, George had isolated him – from the rest of the boys. Divide and conquer. The oldest army trick in the book.

George addressed the group once more.

“My job here is to make you fit and ready to participate in ‘The Elements’. Do as I ask and you will become as fit as a finely-tuned athlete. The physical strength needed to take part in this competition cannot be underestimated, am I right?”

“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!”

“You want to be the very best you can be, am I right?”

“YES GEORGE, YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!”

“Work hard, stay focused and push yourself beyond your limits and you will succeed. AM I RIGHT?!?”

“YES GEORGE!!! YOU’RE RIGHT GEORGE!!!”

Grinning, hands on hips, George lowered his voice.

“Then let’s go!”

The boys parted to allow George to pass. He punched a code into the door and it opened outwards. The boys followed behind, with Cameron and the man at the back.

They stood in a field, bordered on all sides by low hedges. In the background were tall trees and hills. No landmarks or scenery gave Connor any clues as to where they might be. Laid out in the middle of the field was all manner of exercise ephemera; medicine balls, wooden boxes of different heights, cones and markers, skipping ropes and boxing gloves. At the far end of the field there was a tall wooden wall with three coloured ropes hanging from the side. In the middle of the field stood a tower, also wooden, with a pointed roof covering what appeared to be a small viewing gallery.

The boys surveyed the scene with trepidation, standing in a rough semi-circle in front of George. There was a slight breeze which made Connor feel cold despite the blue skies overhead. He was aware of his shorts flapping coldly around his thighs. The sun in their eyes made the boys squint slightly as George spoke to them.

“We’ll take it easy to begin with,” he smiled, swinging his whistle in his hand. “We’ll do a little warm up. A lap of the field. Just a light jog, nothing fast. You! Number 9! Teacher’s pet!”

Connor’s stomach dropped again.

“Take the front. Lead your team for a lap. No one breaks out, no one gets left behind. You start as a team and you finish as a team. Let’s go!”

Connor looked at the others who stared back at him indifferently. He ran off in an anti-clockwise direction, closely followed by the other eight boys. By the time they’d reached the first corner, some of the boys were already panting quite heavily. The group was quite tightly packed and travelling as one. Then there was a bit of a disturbance just behind him. Connor lost his footing, recovered, felt an elbow in his side and conceded the front to Harrison who’d bulldozed his way through the pack. By the second turn, Harrison had kicked ahead, a cloud of pollinated grassy dust puffing up with each pounding step. The boys were no longer a pack and they were beginning to thin out into a stretched line. On either side of Connor were Grayson and Reilly. Number 6, Burgess, was just ahead of him. The wind was in their faces now as they ran along the back straight. Connor could hear George’s shouts carried by the breeze across the field, but it was impossible to make out what he was saying. Harrison was far ahead now, already rounding the third corner of the field, followed closely by his brown cloud of dust. Further back, the boys had stretched out in an ever-thinning line. By the time Connor and the boys around him had reached the third corner, Harrison was in the home straight, 50 or so metres from where George stood, still shouting. As they headed into the last corner, Connor could see Harrison, hands on hips, pacing back and forth at the end of his lap. Grayson now chose to push. He eased his way past the frontrunners. Steady, measured breathing and a strong kick ensured he was able to pull away, first from Connor and Reilly, then gliding past Burgess, the distance between him and the others widening. The pack crossed the line half a dozen seconds behind Grayson who lay on his back, legs bent at the knees, hands behind his ears, panting and coughing. A few of the others flopped to the ground. Connor stayed standing, his chest ready to cave in, his wheezy breath taking an eternity to return to normal. In the distance, not yet at the third corner, was Alan. He walked, hands by his side, with no urgency in the slightest.

George was straight over and in Connor’s face.

“You were told to lead from the front! Let no-one break out! Start as a team and finish as a team, that’s what I said!”

Connor could feel flecks of George’s spittle coat his hot cheeks. It was quite cooling in the circumstances.

“You let your team fall apart, didn’t you?”

Connor, still trying to control his breathing, looked up at the coach. He looked at the other boys who, realising George’s mood, had begun to stand. Harrison stood off to the side, hands still on hips, a cool spray of sweat coating the brow beneath his still-gelled spike. George leaned even closer to Connor.

“Let’s try it again, shall we?”

Connor groaned internally. He wasn’t certain that some of his groan hadn’t made it out of his mouth. He looked up at George. Surely he was joking. He wasn’t.

“Round up your team – even fat boy there – and get them going again. No one breaks out, no one gets left behind. You start as a team and you finish as a team.” Turning, he shaded his eyes and looked in Alan’s direction. Alan was still to reach the final bend.

“You! Fat boy! Move!”

Alan broke into an approximation of a jog. He was slow. Bits of him jiggled comically but under the circumstances no-one laughed. Connor felt for him. They all watched in pained impatience as he wobbled his way towards them, his purple face twisted in agony.

“Shift it, fatty!” George turned to the boys again. “What’s this girl’s name?”

“Alan, sir,” came the staggered reply.

“ALAN! GET HERE NOW!”

Alan arrived, his steps short and useless, his toes leading first and into the ground. His arms were bent thin at the elbows, his hands up by his neck. His layer had pulled up and a wobbling white belly rippled nakedly above his shorts. His hair was stuck to his face and neck. He wheezed. He said something. He fell.

“DON’T STOP, SON!” shouted George. “WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN! GET UP!”

Alan looked up from his position on the grass. He couldn’t speak, his eyes doing all his communicating.

“GET UP YOU LAZY CHUNK! ALAN! SEVEN! SHIFT!”

Clumsily, Alan forced himself to his feet again. He was not in a good shape.

“There you go, see? A little bit of encouragement is all you needed.” George addressed the group. “We go again. Stewart leads. We stay together for the whole lap.”

Connor looked at the boys. They were as unwilling to do a second lap as he was. Connor looked at Alan.

“I can’t do it, mate,” he said between heavy breaths. “I can’t”

“You can’t do it, yet, mate,” said Connor. “But we’ll get you through it. Come on.” Connor stood, waiting. Alan shook himself down, patted his chest and with glacial pace joined the others who stood together.

Slower this time, Connor set off. Alan was already falling behind so Connor slowed even more. The others, even Harrison, fell into line with him. When he thought he might be out of earshot of George, Connor spoke.

“It’s like this,” he said between gasping pants. “Unless we finish together, he’ll make us go again and again until we do. I say we go only as fast as Alan can go. If that means we walk this lap then that’s what we do. We all need to be in this together though. No one cutting ahead. Alan? Can you run?”

“Not really, no,” came the instant reply.

“Then we walk. Agreed?”

They jogged slowly onwards. No-one spoke.

“C’mon guys! I didn’t ask to be the leader here but it’s on my head if we don’t finish together. If Alan can’t run, we walk. He never said we had to run the lap, did he?”

“He said jog though,” came a voice from behind him.

“Then we walk most of it and jog over the line for the last part. Are we in?”

Silence again.

“C’mon guys!” Connor pleaded. “Are we in, yes or no?”

A light ‘yes’ rippled through the group and Connor immediately slowed to a walk. The others did likewise.

“Thanks guys,” said Alan. “Really.”

They walked the field. George watched but shouted nothing. As they neared the final bend Connor said, “Can you run for a bit, Alan? Just this last part?”

“I’ll give it a try, yeah, but just don’t go too fast, will you?”

Connor broke into a slow jog, followed by the others, Alan included. As they approached George, Harrison pulled out to the side and sprinted past. It didn’t matter. George was smiling.

“Excellent, team!” he beamed. “Great work! A team is only as strong as its weakest link. You identified that and adapted accordingly. Well done Stewart, well done team.” He looked at Alan. “You hurting, big boy?”

Alan couldn’t answer.

“Take 5 everybody. Hydrate. Refresh. Recover. Prepare for the workout. That was just the warm-up, remember!”

The nine boys sprawled out on the grass. A container carrying nine numbered water bottles had been placed at the side and taking their relevant bottle, the boys quenched their thirst. As they sat drinking in exhausted silence, Connor watched Harrison take his phone from his pocket before switching on his tough guy face and snapping a quick selfie. His fingers blurred across the screen as he fired the image out and onto his social media pages. In a matter of seconds every other boy was doing the same. All three of Connor’s pages had thousands of notifications, none of which he had the time nor inclination to read and he’d barely uploaded the selfie he’d just taken when he was informed of many more new interactions. He wasn’t sure which might tire him out more, George’s fitness regime or the constant need to update and interact on social media. Connor stuck his phone back in the pocket of his shorts and lay back, letting the breeze freeze-dry the cold sweat on his face.

“Right! Contestants! Let’s get back to it again. Follow me, please.” George marched off without checking that the boys were following him. He knew they were. “We’ll do a circuit of nine activities, three-minutes at each one. Watch me, please.”

The boys watched, squinting into the sunshine as George demonstrated burpees, crunches, curls and bicep dips. He skipped furiously, criss-crossing the rope for added effect. His huge muscles bulged and flexed as he raised and lowered the kettlebells. Controlled puffs preceded his jumps from a standing position to the top of one of the wooden boxes and back again. He plunged and planked, lunged and launched, doing everything with a smile on his face and no sweat on his brow.

“Your turn!”

He allocated each of them a starting point, blew his whistle and watched as the boys tackled their activity with varying degrees of skill and fitness levels. Any sign of weakness was immediately sprung upon by the coach who’d bawl loudly should they even consider resting during those intense three minutes. The gap between each activity was nowhere near long enough and by the time the boys had completed their nine activities, all were totally spent. They lay spread out across the field looking for all the world like massacred victims in some terrible war. There would be no let up.

“Contestants! Into your teams of three, please! Now! Vamos, vamos!”

Connor ached in places he never knew existed. His legs had seized up. His guts felt agonisingly tight. He dragged himself into the centre to find Stephen and Rhys. Stephen looked different with his matted hair stuck to his forehead. Rhys was purple and couldn’t speak.

“Straight ahead, contestants, is the wall. Simple task. First team with all members up and over the wall win. The last team is given a punishment by the winners.”

Connor looked at the wall. It was high. Even to grab a hold of the bottom of the rope required a jump. He didn’t think he’d get either of his feet off the ground. Getting over it would be tough. At the top was an overhang, designed for grabbing hold of but also an added obstacle to clearing it. Rhys and Stephen looked equally shattered, but he took joy in the fact that he wasn’t in Alan’s team.

“Campbell, number four, you are the leader of the green team. Fowler, two, you’ll lead the red team.”

George scanned the remaining boys.

“Harrison.” George recognised a winner when he saw one. “You’ll lead the blues.”

Harrison stepped forward showing little in the way of tiredness or unwilling.

“On my whistle the first boy will go. As soon as that boy reaches the top of the wall, the next can go. When you get over the top of the wall you should let go. There are crash mats behind to break your fall. It’s quite safe.”

The boys considered this as he continued to speak.

“…and just to keep it interesting, the spectators up there in the viewing tower,” George pointed to the man and Cameron, high up under the pointed roof – Connor had forgotten all about them until now – “will be dishing out some extra encouragement.”

Before any of the nine boys could ponder exactly what he meant by this, he’d blown his whistle.

Rhys and Fowler were off quite quickly, but this was nothing compared to Harrison. He sprinted on the whistle’s blast, screaming a banshee-wailing “Aaaaaargh!” as he tore up the field on his approach to the wall. At the sound of his scream, all eyes were upon him. With a gliding leap he had control of the rope and had shimmied half-way up the wall before either Rhys or Fowler had even reached it. With impressive ease Harrison reached the top, flipped himself over the edge and with another wail was over. Reilly raced off next, leaving Alan alone as the last member of their team to go.

Rhys and Fowler both took a couple of goes before securing hold of the rope. Fowler seemed to be doing better. His technique was good; backside jutting out at right angles to the wall, climbing with hand over hand, pushing himself up by the toes as he climbed. Fowler was slower than Harrison, but not by much. Rhys though was dead slow. He lost his footing at one point, swinging from side to side wildly until regaining control. As Fowler neared the top there was an unexpected crack from the tower. Instinctively the remaining boys turned to look at it. Cameron and the man had a pair of rifles! A second crack confirmed this. They were firing bullets towards the boys on the ropes at the wall! There was a third crack and a muffled whoop from the tower as the bullet lodged itself into the wall close to Fowler.

“It’s only rubber bullets, lads. Just a bit of fun. Should help your team-mates get over the wall quicker though, eh?” George was laughing. “Go on Fowler,” he shouted. “Before he hits your backside!”

A burst of static and feedback came from the tower. The man was speaking through a megaphone.

“Campbell, number four! You have ten seconds before I start firing at you. Ten….!”

Even from this distance, Rhys’s fear was tangible. He scurried and scraped, frantically trying to get up the rope.

“Nine!

Eight!

Seven!”

Fowler beside him had reached the top and was now half-way over. George spoke to Grayson.

“It’s you next, man. Come on!”

“Six!

Five!

Four!”

Grayson understandably hesitated before letting off a Harrison-style banshee scream and started running full tilt at the wall. He was at the rope while Rhys was at most three quarters of the way up.

“Three!

Two!

One!”

Rhys stopped climbing. A sitting duck, he braced himself for the worst.

Peee-ooow! went the bullet from the rifle. It lodged into the wood a good couple of metres away from Rhys’s left leg. With terror, fear and unknown strength, Rhys somehow dragged himself to the top, just as a second bullet splintered the wood where his backside had been seconds before. Reaching up and over the top, he let out a manic cry before dropping to the mats on the other side. Had he actually been shot, wondered Connor? As he worried himself with this, he was annoyed to see Stephen burst across the field. This meant Connor would be last to go for his team. He’d have the most ground to make up and he’d have all the attention from Cameron and the man and their two rifles.

Going up his rope in the middle of the wall, Grayson was good. Even when being fired at he kept his cool, hand over hand, pushing up and out with his feet, and he was catching Reilly who had stiltedly made it to the top. Next to Grayson on the other side was Stephen. He wasn’t too bad either. Further behind the other two, he wouldn’t make up ground but nor would he cause Connor’s team to fall further behind.

With Grayson over, Burgess was last to go for the red team. Taking his cue from the others he approached the wall full pelt and screaming his lungs out.

Alan was next to go, anchor man for the blue team, ‘encouraged’ by George and the man with his megaphone.

“Alan, seven!” he shouted through the megaphone from the tower. “Make me proud!” Cameron was already lining up the crosshairs of his rifle. Last to go was Connor. He quickly made ground on Alan, passed him and with superhuman effort had grasped a hold of the rope that dangled above him.

The dull thud of bullet into wood reminded Connor that he was unwilling game in a sport of two sides. Mentally trying to block the bullets out of his mind – which proved impossible to do – Connor dragged himself up the rope. The muscles in his shoulders burned as he gripped and pulled. He felt the skin tear from the palms of his hands. His legs had no feeling anymore. But he was

Thud!

Making progress. The top of the

Thud! Thud!

wall was almost within reach. One more

Thud! Thud!

push and he’d

Thud!

be there.

Thud! Thud! Thud!

The bullets from the tower were close – very close – but Connor dragged himself over the top just in time. He’d no time to decide if he wanted to drop from this great height or not. He let go. His stomach disappeared into his throat and with a sudden unexpected slap he landed on the thick crash mat. He breathed again, noticing a grinning Harrison who’d filmed his whole ungainly drop on his phone. ‘That’s one I owe you,’ thought Connor as he lay back, allowing himself time to recover.

On the other side of the wall, Alan had a grip of the rope but was swinging slowly from side to side and making no upwards progress. He cried, tears of frustration, tears of rage, tears of hatred at the people who’d put him in this position. The man laughed into his megaphone.

“Move it, Alan, you useless lump!”

Peee-ooow! went yet another bullet from a rifle. It struck the wall just above Alan’s head. Had Alan been a quicker climber, it might have taken his head clean off.

George was at the wall now, barking words towards Alan.

“Come on son, you can do it. Don’t be the only failure in your team. Your team has no place for failures!”

Alan was somehow higher up now, a combination of plain fear and hatred pushing him upwards.

Thud!

Another bullet. Not close, but a reminder that he was being shot at.

Thud!

This time, Alan felt the rush of wind. His sticky hair stirred around his right ear as the bullet whizzed past and lodged itself in the wall.

“That’s it!”

Was George actually encouraging Alan? To Connor it sounded as though he was.

“Yes! One hand over the other. Now, kick your legs. Come on, mate, you can do it!”

He was. And it was working.

Thud! Thud!

With an extreme burst of lethargy, Alan found himself at the top of the wall, its lip standing between him and failure.

Thud!

This bullet was the closest yet and, in fright Alan jumped, letting one hand go of the rope. He swung wildly to the left, grazing his knees across the wall, his rope arm and hand burning in pain, the free hand frantically grasping for control.

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

How they missed he’d never know, but from somewhere deep within, Alan found the required strength to get both hands on the rope and drag himself to the lip of the wall again. With his face squashed hard against the wood, Alan daren’t look down. He could hear shouts of encouragement from both sides of the wall. George was still barking positives his way and the boys who’d already scaled the wall began shouting when they’d seen his leg curling over the top to their side.

“Just let go, Alan!” shouted Harrison, eager to see the large boy flop from a great height.

“Drop!” encouraged Reilly. “It’s easy!”

With both legs now over the top, Alan held on with his elbows at his chin. He gulped and pushed himself back, dropped and crashed with great force onto, into, the mat below. There were scattered cheers and claps as he rolled off the mat and onto the grass. Once there, Alan burst into uncontrollable tears.

George quickly rounded to the boys’ side of the wall. He was excited.

“Excellent work, contestants. Number seven – Alan – that’s what I mean when I ask for 100% effort. You excelled yourself there, son. Amazing stuff!”

Alan wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his sleeve, nodding with a weak smile.

“Reilly! Fowler! Grayson! Spectacular! All three of you!”

He looked at Harrison, yet to appear in any way dishevelled or exhausted.

“Number three! Harrison! That was one hell of an outstanding effort, young man! Where did you learn to climb ropes like that?”

“I dunno,” shrugged Harrison, slightly aloof because of the appraisal he’d just received.

“Keep it up! And the rest of you – watch this boy and learn. Outstanding! Harrison, you will unfortunately be aware that we had a deal at the start of this event. The deal was that the first team over the wall would choose a punishment for the losers. It won’t escape your notice that, despite your sterling efforts, and those of Reilly too, your team nonetheless came last. I am almost prepared to say that, due to your awesome effort, I will let this go, but I’m afraid rules are rules.”

Six boys groaned internally, Connor amongst them. He’d forgotten about this. He didn’t think he could raise himself for anything else again today.

“Reds! Fowler! Anderson! Burgess! You three were first over. What’s the punishment to be? Dodge the bullets? Dangle from a tree?”

The three boys in the winning team huddled together, away from the others.

“I reckon we get them to do the wall again,” whispered Grayson.

“That’s just sick, mate! What about another lap of the field again?” answered Burgess.

“Nah,” replied Grayson. “If they’d won, you know they’d be giving us a hard thing to do. It’s not our fault they were last. What about some of those circuits again? They were agony.”

Fowler spoke.

“I reckon we get them to do another lap, but…”

Fowler waited until he had the attention of the other two.

“…we do it with them. Say to George that it’s either everyone or no-one. Show a bit of solidarity here. We walk it like the last time, take as long as we need. What d’you reckon?”

“No way, mate! Are you mad?” said Grayson. “I’m not doing one thing more! It’s not my fault they can’t climb the wall.”

“Some of them could climb the wall though…” pointed out Fowler, looking him in the eyes. Grayson knew what he meant. Alan had been so far behind it was embarrassing. The other two were probably just as quick as anyone on the winning team.

“Pfffttt.” Grayson let out an agonised sigh.

“I think you’re right, Andy,” said Burgess to Fowler. “It’s everyone or no-one. Agreed?”

“Yep,” said Fowler “Grayson?”

“Come on, guys! Think about it!”

“Agreed?” Fowler looked at Grayson again. Grayson had no other option.

“Agreed,” he said with a huff.

Burgess raised his voice so that George and the others could hear him.

“We, well, Fowler, had an idea.”

Fowler cut in.

“It’s only right that if there’s any sort of punishment we all do it together, all nine of us.”

George hadn’t expected this, but he looked pleasantly surprised at the suggestion.

“So you’re telling me that, even though you won, and even though some of these boys weren’t last, you should all do the punishment, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes, sir, that’s what I’m saying.”

“Well!” George looked at the others, laid out in various states of exhaustion in front of him. “I’m OK with that.”

There was a grumble and a groan from the boys who thought they’d avoided this. Connor couldn’t believe they were going to have to do another punishing regime.

“What’ll it be, then? What’s the punishment?”

“Another lap, sir, of the field. Starting as a group and finishing as a group. No breakouts. No-one left behind.”

“Alright then. Lads! You heard the man. One more lap of the field. No breakouts. No-one left behind.”

With little to no enthusiasm, the group forced themselves back onto their feet and stood in an unwilling huddle, daring one another to go first.

“Fowler! You’ll take the lead this time. One last burst of effort from everyone, come on!”

George rounded up the boys the way a farmer might herd his uncooperative sheep, sweeping the stragglers at the back with a sweep of his massive arms, using his bulk to manoeuvre the group. Grayson and Alan were the last two to comply. Together, reluctantly, the group of nine walked across the middle of the field to its perimeter. At a slow, measured pace, they shuffled off.

In the viewing tower, the man and Cameron eagerly reloaded their rifles.

“Whose idea was this again?” moaned Campbell.

“Fowler’s,” answered a sullen Grayson.

The boys were barely above walking pace by the time they’d rounded the first bend.

“You OK, Alan?” asked Burgess into thin air.

“Not really,” came the broken reply.

Rifles ready, the man spoke to Cameron.

“Wait until they’re in the last stretch. Aim for the ground just behind them.”

The boys were walking now, not even managing to talk. Connor’s lungs felt as if they were on fire. His legs were leaden, his arms heavy knots of useless flesh and muscle that could do no more than hang heavily by his side. The dusty grass kicked up around them. Little grains of dirt stuck to the thin film of sweat on their necks, blown by the wind that now gave a cooling respite to the torture that endured.

George stood at the end, legs astride. He was shouting things again, his voice lost to the wind.

“Can I fire now?” asked Cameron.

The man signalled to be patient.

The boys had at most 100 metres remaining when Cameron’s itchy finger squeezed the trigger. Peee-ooow! went the bullet as it exploded in the grass to the side of the boys. With thoughts of what had happened at the wall, instant panic broke out. The faster boys elbowed their way through to the front of the group, never more eager to reach George. Alan at the back was suddenly isolated, the others going as fast as their beaten legs would allow.

“Aim for the fat one,” said the man as he picked up the megaphone, a jarring screech ringing out across the field as he powered it into life.

“Alan! (Screeee!) Seven! Get those knees up, you useless lump! (Screeee!) Move it!”

By now the rest of the boys had reached George and were standing recovering in a tight circle, unsure of what to do. Beside them, George laughed.

“Come on, Alan! Nearly there! One last push!”

By now, Alan feared for his life, he really did. A part of him wanted to give up there and then, to turn and face the tower and tell the man and Cameron to do their worst.

Thud! Thud! Thud! went the bullets as they sprayed into the ground immediately behind him.

In the tower, Cameron laughed hysterically and continued to fire.

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

Alan continued his tortoise-like wobble to the end. Now he could hear the shouts of encouragement from George and the other boys. They helped. Determinedly he kept going, almost now at a full chest out and arms swinging jogging pace.

Thud! Thud!

Thud!

The last of the bullets exploded around him as Alan fell on the grass at George’s feet.

 

——————————————————

 

George led the boys back to the changing area. There, Pamela and the other girls met them and took them back to their rooms. They had an hour, the man had said, until they’d meet for lunch. Connor flopped on his bed, reluctant and unable to move. Eventually, he forced himself to undress and tossed the grimy clothes he’d been wearing into the laundry basket before standing under the shower. It felt terrific.

Lying on top of his bed wrapped in a towel, Connor checked his phone. More notifications. On Babble, there were over 20,000 comments underneath the selfie he’d snapped after the first lap of the field. He’d been tagged into one of Harrison’s ‘The Elements’ posts and was astounded to find 128,000 or so likes, loves and reposts for the video of him falling from the top of the wall. Harrison, or someone, had edited the video so that the frames of him slapping onto the crash mat re-re-re-re-repeated multiple times. They had gone so far as to add corresponding slapping sounds too. Ignoring his own feeds for the moment, Connor started scrolling through Harrison’s. He had a similar number of followers, but Harrison had been far more active. Today alone he’d posted over a dozen pictures of himself in various poses, from tough guy pre-training with George, to still-tough guy afterwards. He, or someone, had created a meme too, taking a shot of Harrison way out in front on that first lap of the field and adding the tagline, ‘Boom! Harrison shoots to number 1!’, a crass reference to the guns being fired from the observation tower but also an acknowledgment that currently, Harrison was the most popular boy (or ‘contestant’) at ‘The Elements’. There were also video clips of him running full tilt at the wall and of him zipping up the rope. Every photo, every video clip, every meme was accompanied by thousands upon thousands of comments and emojis.

Connor turned his attention back to his own feeds. On Olé someone had clipped short videos of him at the various circuits. Kettlebells, box jumps, burpees; all were accompanied by a screen after screen of comments. There was one rather disturbing clip of Connor struggling at the top of the wall, bullets ripping into the wood as it splintered around him. A look of genuine terror was etched on his face, captured forever by a cameraman unknown. It all made for good theatre though. And it helped to add followers, important if he were to maintain his place at the right end of the popularity scale. Watching back with the benefit of hindsight, Connor was certain that the man was playing with them – if he’d wanted to shoot any of them, especially Alan, he no doubt could have. This was merely the starter, the amuse bouche, before the main course to follow.

On ‘The Elements’ app, there was a whole thread running with people discussing how honourable he’d been to insist that the group walked that first lap. It made Connor feel good to see that he had the public’s support.

On and on the comments went. Scrolling and stopping at random, Connor couldn’t find anything negative. Those comments would be there somewhere, but the good stuff far outweighed anything nasty that folk might be saying.

There were private messages, page after page of them, and as Connor made a mental reminder to post something generic before going to lunch, his attention was drawn to one message in particular. It was the user-name that caught his eye: @christineandrobertstewart – his parents had taken his advice and set up an ‘Elements’ account.

Connor read the message, hearing their voices in his head.

Connor. We’re terribly worried for you. They were shooting at you! You must leave immediately. Tell whoever is in charge that you’d prefer to take your punishment in the Northern Shires. As soon as we can find out where this awful TV show is being made, your father and I will be coming to take you away. Until then, stay safe and don’t give anyone any reason to put your life at risk. We love you very much, mum and dad x.’

Great. This was all Connor needed. He immediately regretted telling them to set up an ‘Elements’ account. This wasn’t a safe place to be at all, but there was no way he was going to be allowed to leave. The only way he was getting out of here was by keeping his wits about him and by ensuring he remained popular on social media. He returned a quick, “Can’t talk now – I’ll message later” reply and then, with thoughts of his burgeoning popularity in mind he typed up a generic ‘thanks for your comments’ post, attached a picture of him with his hair still wet and sent it out on his three social media accounts. He was suddenly famished with hunger and was relieved to hear the familiar rap at the door as he changed into clean clothes.

Sitting at their usual table, the three boys discussed the morning’s events; Harrison’s feral determination, Alan’s hopelessness at the wall, walking that lap, the potential for George to be a decent person, everything, really. The three skirted around the subject and none of them came right out and said it, but it was clear they all expected Alan to be the first to leave. As some fruit was brought to their table, the man made his way to the centre of the room and raised a hand. Cameron stood faithfully at his side. Quickly, the room fell silent.

“Contestants! I trust you are not in too much pain and that you are suitably refreshed after what was quite a rigorous test this morning. I was delighted to see the camaraderie and solidarity you displayed towards one another at times. I asked you to encourage and motivate your team-mates and you most certainly delivered. For that I am thankful. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public either. Most of the messages sent across our social platforms today related to the team spirit, fairness and sympathy you showed towards one another. Ratings, contestants, ratings! Our advertisers and sponsors demand high ratings and already you are delivering. Keep it up!”

The man smiled, a glint in his eye preceding his next statement.

“There were too, thousands upon thousands of requests for both myself and Cameron here to use live ammunition in our rifles from now on. It appears that a section of ‘The Elements’ audience is fairly bloodthirsty. If ratings demand it, maybe we shall have to acquiesce.”

He broke off to scan the room, the atmosphere taking an uneasy turn. He addressed Alan’s table.

“Some of you will be hurting after this morning, and not just physically, but mentally too. ‘The Elements’ is unforgiving – and it needs to be.”

He paused for dramatic effect.

“Adjust…or fail.”

The room was silent. No-one, not even Cameron, knew if he was finished. Connor was desperate to get into the fruit that had been left in the middle of the table, but he daren’t start.

“Now, this afternoon…!”

The man’s mood was brighter, lighter again.

“…you will have a session with an analytical thinking expert. You need brains as well as brawn in ‘The Elements’, so although this afternoon’s session will give your body a rest, it will most definitely work your mind.”

He made a show of looking at his watch.

“Shall we say thirty minutes in the meeting room? Take time to enjoy the rest of your lunch, freshen up and be ready to begin again at 1400 hours. Oh, and Stewart, could I speak with you for a minute once you’ve eaten, thank you?”

Connor’s appetite instantly drained, along with the colour in his face. Rhys and Stephen turned to him. No words were exchanged but their sympathy was genuine and tangible. The boys, urged on by an unusually quiet Pamela, quickly finished eating and got up just as the man arrived at their table.

“Pamela! Campbell, McPherson. Nice lunch? Raring to go again?!”

The boys nodded an awkward nod, clumsily pushed their chairs under the table and left with Pamela. Connor sat at the table alone. The man pulled up a chair and sat side-on to him.

“And how about you, Stewart? Raring to go again?”

Connor looked up from his empty plate and turned his neck to face him.

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it.” He had a fair idea of what the subject of the conversation would be about, and he wished the man would quickly get to the point and get the conversation over with.

“Are you enjoying your stay here so far? Is there anything we can do to help? Is your room comfortable? The food?”

“Yes, no, it’s all very nice, thanks.”

“Made some new friends?”

“Yes, Rhys and Stephen, eh, sorry, Campbell and McPherson are OK. We all get on well.”

“Are you enjoying your new-found celebrity status yet? That’s quite the following you have already.”

“It’s a bit weird, to be honest,” said Connor. “But I’ll get used to it.” Using his forefinger, Connor focused his attentions on picking a bit of hard skin around the nail of his thumb. He braced himself for the reason he was being spoken to.

“Missing your parents yet?”

There it was.

“Yes. And no. I mean, of course I’m missing them, but we’ve been so busy since we’ve got here, I’ve hardly had time to think about them.”

Connor instantly regretted saying this. The man knew there’d been text messages. Of course he did. Connor had even anticipated this moment before he’d sent the first message home.

“You haven’t had the chance to call them yet, I believe. Have you?”

“No.”

“Hmmm. You see, here at Kimble we try to discourage that sort of to-ing and fro-ing. Maybe once you’re more settled in, we can relax that rule a bit. Until then, we feel it takes your focus away from what you’re really here for.”

The man looked Connor in the eyes, reading him.

“Being so busy, you probably haven’t even had the chance to text either, I expect?”

Connor searched in his mind for the right thing to say. As he weighed up the pros and cons of telling the truth and lying, his mind was made up for him. The man stretched out his arm and opened a soft, pink hand. A gold cufflink reflected dully on the empty plate as he did so.

“May I have your mobile device, please, Stewart?” The man smiled. There were probably half a dozen cameras, hidden in the walls and ceiling, filming this right now.

Stewart inadvertently felt for his phone in his left pocket.

“Phone, please, now. There’s a good fellow.”

Connor didn’t want to give him the phone, but there was little alternative. The man leaned in, close enough for Connor to smell the remnants of lunch on his breath. He hissed a low threat.

“Phone. Now. Or the next time it’ll be real bullets.”

Connor continued to pick away at the hard skin on his thumb.

The man’s hand remained outstretched, his reptilian smile etched on his face. He leaned closer still, whispering with a seething rage.

“Give me your phone you little shit or I will destroy you!”

Connor conceded and handed his phone to him. The man tapped in a sequence of numbers (‘They can access our phones too!’ thought Connor) and swiped through the screen to find whatever it was he was looking for.

“A-ha!” He held up the text conversation between Connor and his mother, showing it to Connor like a prize. With fat-fingered jabs, he deleted it, then jabbed some more, muttering all the while to himself.

“Mum….mum….ah, there we are. Three missed calls!?! Tsssk! Block caller…yes…confirm…. Delete number… hmmm. And…yes. There we go. Gone.”

The man looked at Connor once more, still holding onto his phone.

“You will have no contact with your mother from now on, understood?”

He didn’t wait for or acknowledge Connor’s weak nod and went back to stabbing at the screen.

“Babble….yes, uh huh… I see… Olé… of course…of course! ‘The Elements’! A-ha!”

Finding the recent message between his parents and him, the man shouted triumphantly.

“More messages! Oh! Delete….confirm….block….yes….confirm…and there we are.”

The man held up Connor’s phone, tantalisingly just out of reach. Connor wanted no part of this game. He just wanted his phone back and to get away from the table.

“I think I’ll be holding on to this for the time being, Stewart. There’ll be no social media for you for the foreseeable future. No chance to update, no chance to interact. No chance to contact anyone….”

His voice went quiet for the final time.

“…and no chance of progression. Watch your back, Stewart.”

The man upped and left. Connor remained at the table, confused and angry.

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 7

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 7

 

“What you have to remember boys, is that the eyes of the world are on you constantly. Even if a question hasn’t been directed at you, don’t think you don’t need to behave appropriately.”

The man was standing at his podium, film of the morning’s press conference playing behind him. Connor was pleased that he’d confirmed the need to be always ‘on’ but was equally annoyed as he felt that, until now, it might’ve given him some advantage over the others.

“Look at this boy here.”

He tapped into a keyboard and an area of the screen pixelated before enlarging.

“Number 5. Reilly.”

The boys laughed as Reilly absent-mindedly picked at his nose.

“And this boy. Alan, seven.’

Alan was laughing internally and rolling his eyes at something; a question from a journalist perhaps, or another boy’s answer. It didn’t really matter.

“Mr Alan. This little expression has already been clipped over 1000 times and is currently doing the rounds as a meme. You’ll no doubt find it in your down time later.”

The boys continued to laugh, each grateful that it was someone else being highlighted.

“And Harrison, number 3.”

On screen, Harrison could be seen muttering something under his breath. The man tapped at his keyboard and the image replayed multiple times, each time zooming in on Harrison’s moving lips.

“Mr Harrison. I’m no lip reader, but I have a fairly good idea that in this clip you were saying unsavoury things about someone. Would that be fair to say?”

Harrison shrunk into his seat.

“Hmm?”

Harrison remained silent.

“That someone being me, I believe. Would I be correct?”

The frivolity in the room had dissipated, the atmosphere immediately tense.

“Luckily, here at ‘The Elements’, we do have lip readers to hand, and let me tell you boys, let me remind you Harrison, of what it was you said, shall I?”

Harrison brought his knees up to his chin, heels on the edge of the chair, his arms around his knees keeping him tightly packed together.

That bastard is going to get it. That’s what you are saying in this clip, is it not? That bastard is going to get it.

Harrison remained in the same position, angry tears of frustration making slow tracks down both cheeks.

“Quite how this bastard is going to get it will be an interesting spectacle to watch, I’d wager. I’d be more worried about this bastard getting you first, Harrison. Don’t forget our little chat, thank you.”

Any fun that had been in the room had evaporated. The film continued to play silently for a moment as Cameron and the man busied themselves; the man at his keyboard, Cameron writing with a stylus on a tablet.

A new image appeared, this time of Stephen’s carrot-coloured spiky hair. Stephen’s stomach dropped instantly.

“This,” said the man incredulously “is apparently the number one trending subject in France! Mr McPherson’s hair! Currently something of a phenomenon, the French girls can’t get enough of it! This has put Mr McPherson (number one) at the actual number one in the popularity stakes…and you don’t need me to tell you the importance of popularity if you’re going to survive this show.”

The man continued, lowering his voice.

“Boys. Take notes. Your image is all-important. The public is vain, by and large. They don’t care about how good you are at chemistry or what books you’ve read or how nice you are to your mum at the weekend. They just want something nice to look at.”

He hesitated, looking first at the image of Stephen on the screen and then at Stephen himself.

“…even if that ideal of ‘nice’ might be subjective.”

Stephen really wasn’t sure what the man meant by this. Was he being complementary? He didn’t think he was. But maybe he had been. Still, he was number one in the ratings. That was all that mattered.

“So! I have arranged for a hair stylist for each of you. They will take the mop you currently own  – McPherson excepted, obviously, although you too will be given a stylist – and transform it into a public-pleasing look. Following that, there will be a photo shoot. We will produce a series of shots of all of you in the various clothes you selected yesterday. They will be sent out to the media for promotional purposes. You may wish to choose an image or two for your own social media platforms.

As you have seen, your public image is everything. Make the most of this opportunity.”

The man led the boys into a new room on the other side of the corridor. Around three of the walls were placed dressing tables with large square mirrors, the mirrors bordered by bare lightbulbs of the sort you’d find in a theatre dressing room. A team of stylists were already there, a mixture of men and women, standing around in the middle chatting idly. One or two filed their nails. Two of the men sat apart from the group, engrossed in their phones. All immediately ceased activities when the man entered.

“Afternoon all,” he said light-heartedly as the boys filed in behind him. “Here are your clients. As we have already discussed, do as you wish.”

He happened to catch sight of Grayson and his near collar-length highlights, and as an afterthought he added, “Take as long as you need.”

The team of stylists spread out amongst the boys.

“You must be Connor Stewart,” said a male voice as Connor felt a tap on his shoulder. “I’m Gerry. Pleased to meet you.”

The pair shook hands and Gerry led Connor to one of the dressing tables.

“It’s a bit weird this, isn’t it?” said Gerry. “Boys your age tend not to have stylists, really. Who normally cuts your hair?”

“Eh, it’s a guy called Dave. Dave the Shave he’s called. My dad calls him Shaky Dave because his hand shakes now and again.”

“When he cuts it, do you tell him how you’d like it?”

“Not really, no. I’ve always gone there. He just cuts it the same way every time.”

“And are you happy with how he cuts it?”

“I think so, yeah. I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Would you mind if I tried something new with your hair? Nothing radical. We’re not talking totally shaved off or bronze highlights or anything.” Gerry ran his fingers through Connor’s hair. “But you have a good head of hair here. I could give you a style that’ll look good but would be easy to maintain.”

“I suppose so,” said Connor. He’d never, ever considered that hair might need maintaining.

“Trust me,” replied Gerry. And with a swish of the sharp blades between his fingers, he set to work.

A short while later, Connor was in possession of a new haircut that didn’t look too different from what he normally had. A bit longer on top maybe, a bit better shape, a less-obvious cow’s lick, but he was still recognisably Connor. Looking around the room, most boys looked pretty much the same as before too; smarter, shorter, more shine maybe, but no-one looked noticeably different. No-one that was, apart from Harrison. He’d opted for a full-blown into-the-wood buzzcut but had left a tiny circle of dark hair at the front. It had been gelled up into a jagged point.

Harrison had taken the opportunity to adopt the full-on teenage psycho look. Instantly, he looked intimidating.

After a long and drawn-out photo shoot which Connor found incredibly boring; ‘look here….and up there….point….serious face….more serious….smiling now….look tough…tougher…yes…now in the subzero armour, thanks…’ the boys sat at their evening meal. The talk was naturally of the day’s events. The general consensus was that, no matter how this was dressed up, ‘The Elements’ was essentially an extreme punishment camp for boys who had erred to varying degrees. Each of the three boys had spoken in hushed tones about what they’d done to end up being sent here. Pamela, despite her presence and authority, didn’t intervene. In fact, if anything, she promoted the conversation.

“Connor,” she said with a smile. “Is it true you’re only here because you stole a magazine?”

The other boys looked at Connor, mid mouthful. ‘You know fine well!’ thought Connor to himself.

“Uh huh,” he said nodding, his mouth still full of food.

“And Stephen. You’re also here because you have a habit of stealing things too, is that right?”

Stephen looked in turn at the three of them.

“Yeah,” he said. “I stole money from my gran’s purse.” He flushed. “It was a terrible thing to do. No excuses.”

Everyone turned to Rhys.

“I pocketed chemicals from the science lab at school. I was trying to make my own hallucinogenic drugs.”

No-one, perhaps except for Pamela, expected that answer.

Connor spoke next.

“So, however you look at it, we’re all here for stealing things. What about the others? What are they here for? I know Grayson vandalised his neighbour’s garden. And Alan…Randolph…he…”

Connor stopped himself saying it out loud. The man had seen to it that everyone there already knew what he’d done.

“What d’you think the others are here for?” asked Rhys. “Do you think we’re, like, the stealing team. That lot over there are the vandals and Alan’s team are the really bad ones, the ones who’ve done terrible things to other people?”

All three plus Pamela looked at the table where Randolph sat. Number 5, Reilly, the nose-picker was busy shovelling heaps of mashed potato into his sharply-featured face. Alan and the girl were in conversation, he talking and she listening. Beside her, Harrison sat in silence, an empty fork in his hand, a storm on his brow. He’d been an insignificant presence until the press conference, but now, coupled with the menacing haircut, he had all the classic characteristics of someone who might tip over the edge.

“What d’you think Harrison’s here for?” said Stephen, his voice even lower than before.

“He’s probably murdered someone,” said Rhys matter-of-factly, a mouthful of spaghetti snaking into his mouth. “Or set someone on fire, like Alan did.”

“Boys. I think we should leave the speculation for another time. Remember, the eyes and ears of the world are watching.”

Somewhere nearby, in that other room that the boys would never know about, the man and Cameron sat on a pair of leather swivel chairs watching and listening.

“Nice work, Pamela,” said the man, reaching out and touching ‘her’ on the LCD screen in front of him. “Nice work.”

Cameron wrote silently onto his tablet as the man leaned back and swivelled.

After eating and freshening up, the boys were given some free time in the R&R room. Once Pamela and the other two girls had brought them to the room, they’d disappeared, leaving the boys on their own. For the first time since arriving, all nine boys were permitted to mix together. The arcade machines were in use, colourful explosions lighting up the faces of the boys at the controls, the bleeps, bloops and retro whooshes travelling far into the middle of the room. The vending machine dispensed chocolate and other confectionary. Connor was amazed to discover that none of it cost anything. You keyed in your room number, followed by the product number and whatever you’d selected dropped promptly into the tray. The large video screen at the far end of the room was showing YouTube footage of the day’s events. A couple of the boys were sat on the couches they’d dragged in front of it, their legs dangling over the side as they ate crisps and watched themselves. The tell-tale clack of pool balls and the click-click-click of the ping-pong ball transported Connor straight back to the youth club at the scout hall. He wondered, suddenly, if he’d ever get to spend his Friday nights back there again.

The R&R room was a bit over-stimulating, truth be told. Connor had hoped for something a bit more relaxing where he could gather his thoughts from the day, maybe check out his social media updates. He’d wanted to change his profile picture, maybe use one of the professional ones that had been taken earlier. He was curious about the YouTube footage, how he was presented and so he dragged a couch to the side of the boys and sat down to watch. They nodded a short acknowledgement before returning to the screen. On it, a bare-chested Stephen was singing into his mirror. The sound being low and the added stimulation of the noise from the arcade machines, as well as the pool balls, ping-pong balls and general buzz as the boys talked made it difficult to hear exactly what it was Stephen was singing. His eyebrows arched as he strained to hit a high note and he collapsed onto his bed in a fit of fake hysterical laughter. Stephen, it seemed, was trying a bit too hard. De la Cruz appeared as a talking head, intercut with various segments of the day’s activities. Below the images, Connor studied the information that would come to be something of an obsession with him.

 

 

As the film continued, Connor switched his attention to his phone. More notifications. He opened ‘Elements’ first. Another ‘50000+’. He scrolled quickly, stopping now and again to read. None of it was of any substance. It was all drivel. ‘You’re the best’, ‘You’re gonna win’, ‘I like ur new haircut’, all that sort of stuff. Pretty vacuous. The private messages were no different. He changed to Olé. More of the same. A meme showed him sniggering at something at the press conference. Across it in white letters had been added, ‘when your bro goes to the cookie jar but you already ate da last one!’ A blur of hashtags and emojis whizzed past as he scrolled, stopping randomly to look at the sharply-filtered photos of himself. He came across the official ‘Elements’ shots from the afternoon’s photoshoot, found a couple he liked and saved them to his phone. Switching between the three accounts, he uploaded his new profile picture. On Babble, he wrote another message for his followers.

Hey everybody! Thanks a million for all the messages and comments again. Hope you like the new profile pic – this is supposed to be my tough-guy look haha! We start training tomorrow so maybe by the end of the week I’ll have got a bit more tougher. Signing off for the night, Connor.‘’

Connor copied the same message into the other two accounts and turned back to the YouTube highlights playing out on the screen. They were showing film of the photo-shoot, cringe-inducing stuff of the boys being forced to pose unnaturally. No-one looked comfortable, least of all Connor. Then Harrison appeared, psycho haircut and thousand-yard stare. At one point, the camera seemed to stare down into the depths of his very soul and Harrison, oblivious to the hidden camera, stared straight back. Cut between the stupidity of Stephen singing and de la Cruz’s slick TV act, it was chilling.

Connor needed to get away from all of this. The screen was too big. His own head looked gigantic every time he appeared. It was ridiculous. The noise from the room was overpowering. His phone was constantly reminding him of the need to interact and engage with thousands of strangers. There was nowhere he could escape to. He could maybe find his way back to his room but he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to. Would doing that earn him a post-meal meeting with the man? He wasn’t willing to take the chance. For the first time since arriving, Connor missed his mum and dad. He wasn’t sure he could call them. Text them even. He had his mum’s number, the only number now in his phone, but no-one had given him permission to contact her. He daren’t call without being given the go-ahead. Lost in his thoughts for the time being, Connor looked at the screen but took nothing in.

“Connor! Yo! Connor!”

It was Grayson. He was with Fowler. Both looked happy to see him.

“Andy, this is Connor. Connor, this is Andy.”

Each acknowledged the other with a smile, bonded by their mutual friendship of Grayson.

“Pretty crazy this, innit?” said Grayson. “Not just this.” He nodded back into the body of the room. “But all of this. The clothes, the photo shoot, that press conference…..’The Elements’. What’s that all about?!?”

“I know,” agreed Connor. “Did you think you were signing up for this? ‘Cos I wasn’t.”

“No chance, mate.”

“I’m liking it!” said Fowler. “The rooms are great, the food is awesome and this place rocks!”

Connor looked at him wearily. He wanted to be upbeat but found it impossible.

“S’OK,” he replied. “But it’s a bit much. At the end of the day I think I prefer a quieter space.”

“Suit yourself, man,” said Andy. “Grayson mate, d’you fancy a game of pool?”

Grayson looked at Connor and smiled a weak smile before bouncing off to the free pool table, where Fowler was already racking up the balls. Connor’s thoughts turned once more to home. His mum in the kitchen, cooking at the stove. His dad at the sink, sleeves rolled up, foamy washing-up liquid halfway up his arms. Connor at the table, flicking through one of his magazines. Magazines! His sudden, overpowering feeling of guilt momentarily blotted out the buzz of the room before his thoughts were once again swallowed up by the chaos around him.

Somewhere nearby, in that other room that the boys would never know about, the man and Cameron sat on a pair of leather swivel chairs watching and listening. The three girls stood behind them, each focused on a different screen.

“This boy,” said the man, manipulating a joystick until Harrison’s face appeared on one of the screens, “Number 3, Harrison. An interesting young man. Worth keeping an eye on, eh Rebecca?” The girl behind him nodded in the affirmative.

“And this serious young chap…” The camera picked out Connor sitting alone, staring at the big screen. “The only boy so far that has had the foresight to have all the cameras and microphones deauthorised in his room. Very smart. He is not permitted to call home just yet. Is that clear, Pamela?”

“As a bell,” replied Pamela, a smile appearing on her face.

“It’s an interesting experiment, I must say,” said the man, swivelling to talk to the three girls. “Already we’re seeing signs of comradeship, loneliness, rage and anger, stupidity… The real stuff starts in the morning though.” He closed down the LCD screens with a click, asked Cameron to print him the daily report and double-checked his watch. “Time for bed, I think.”

The three girls returned to the recreation room. None of the boys paid much attention to them. Games of pool and table tennis were in full flow. There was a huddle around the arcade machines. The screen still showed the YouTube highlights, but by now, no-one was sitting watching them. From somewhere a switch was flicked. The screen shut down instantly. The two arcade machines went black and dead. A groan came from the huddle and the faces turned to complain.

“It’s lights-out time, boys. 2200 hours and no exceptions. It’s a big day tomorrow. Day 1 of training. You’ll need to be fresh for that.”

The girls led their respective groups back to their rooms.

“I’ll see you all in the morning,” smiled Pamela. “Bright eyed and bushy tailed! Sleep well.” She left them at the top of the corridor, allowing the three boys to walk the last part on their own.

“See you in the morning,” said Rhys as he arrived at his door.

“See you,” said Stephen and Connor in unison.

“Some day, eh!” said Stephen. “Can’t wait for tomorrow now!”

Connor wished him goodnight and entered his own room.

“Good evening Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice. “Lights out is at 2200 hours and no exceptions. Your alarm is set for 6.30am. Would you like to change that time?”

“No,” said a weary Connor. “Thanks.”

Midway through brushing his teeth, the lights cut to black. Connor stopped, wiped his mouth on a towel and felt his way back to his bed. He lay in the dark. Despite the tiredness that had swept over him, he was restless and unable to sleep. He was tormenting himself over the idea of texting his mum. He’d been here two days now and had no contact. She would no doubt be getting worried. Even if she’d been watching what he’d been up to on YouTube she’d still want to talk to him, to hear his voice. Connor felt likewise. He held his phone under the covers and manipulated it in his hand. He wouldn’t dare call her. But he could text her. Would anyone find out? Maybe. Possibly. This place knew everything. They’d find out. Maybe not immediately or the next day, or even the day after that. But at some point, they’d find out. And, at some point, Connor would find himself invited to a post-meal meeting with the man.

He texted anyway.

Mum. It’s Connor. I’m missing you and dad so much. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to call you, so I’m texting instead. This TV show is not what it seems but I’ll be OK. We have to do a series of challenges before we can come home. I’m not quite sure what they involve yet. Some sort of running and swimming and stuff. The other boys seem OK. We’re well looked after. Our rooms are nice. The food is tasty. And we have a room full of video games and stuff too. We start training in the morning, whatever that is. As soon as I’m allowed to, I’ll call you, I promise. Love you both, Connor x

His face was bathed in pale green light as he re-read the text. Happy with it, he paused, reconsidered the consequences then pressed ‘send’. Off it whooshed.

He lay back, wishing for an instant reply. His mum was usually quite quick at replying, but not tonight. Connor had an idea. He texted his mum again.

Mum. It’s me again. I know you don’t really bother with social media, but you should download Babble and Olé. ‘The Elements’ app too. And YouTube. You’ll be able to see what I’m up to at any point in the day. Everything we do is put online. You’d be able to message me too, so even if I can’t phone or text you, you can get me there. You can even comment on any pictures of me. So download Babble and Olé and ‘The Elements’ and get yourself on YouTube as soon as you can! Connor x

Connor waited, willing his phone to light up in reply. Nothing. He couldn’t fight his tiredness any longer and felt his heavy eyes closing on the day just gone. That night he dreamt of a street of people all going in the same direction. Connor was in the middle of them, trying to head the opposite way and being buffeted aggressively by those around him. He felt panic at his inability to progress on his journey.

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

The Elements

I Want To Be A Paperback Writer

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book….

I’m always writing. Music columns in the local paper, rhyming stories for school purposes (the best of which, The Wrestlers, is an illustrator away from a best-seller), an as-yet unfinished novel about shoplifting and addiction and betrayal where I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac, ran out of steam and left 40,000+ words in two-thirds-still-to-go flimsy-plot limbo.

It’s tough writing a novel. You can have all the ideas, all the time, all the energy, but the constant redrafting and nit-picking, rearranging and forever changing is mentally tough, especially when juggling an actual job and a family and everything that goes with it. You write a thousand words one day and read them back. They sizzle with unrestrained potential and you can’t wait for others to read them. You go back to them a week later and they’re as limp and flaccid as last week’s lettuce.

I was chatting to my fellow Irvinite John Niven about it. His novels – Kill Your Friends, The Amateurs and Cold Hands amongst many others – are proper page-turners full of plot developments, twists and turns and the golden touch of a well-chosen phrase or visualisation. He’ll routinely rattle off a couple of thousand words, he tells me, before the school run, and it’s only after the 5th or 6th draft of a new work in progress that he’ll feel comfortable sharing it with his publisher. His editor will then suggest further changes and the story goes through a spin cycle of rephrasing and refinement until, by the 9th or 10th draft it’s considered ready for publication. When you consider all that, it’s quite the thought to turn your ideas into print-ready reality. There’s ironing to be done and bins to be emptied and a never-ending pile of dirty laundry that’s needing dealt with. To drop everything and start tapping out key words and phrases whenever the writing muse strikes isn’t always easy to do.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a young adult novel. It’s about shoplifting (again) and residential reality TV and social media and goodies and baddies and zips along at a pace I think the target demographic will enjoy. Like almost every writer on the planet, I managed to punctuate it with its final full stop – “and dat’s de end o’ dat!” – during the first phase of lockdown. With John’s advice ringing in my ears, the story underwent much editing and rethinking along the way. Parts that had initially seemed essential and well-written were swiftly chopped and swept aside like a home-made lockdown haircut. All the unnecessary fluff was shaved away, revealing a fast-paced story with identifiable characters, plot twists and turns and an ending that might perhaps hint at a (cough) follow-up. I think I’ll try and get this published, I thought to myself around May or June. And that’s when the hard work really began.

As it turns out, it’s not as simple as emailing Harper Collins or Penguin or any of the publishers whose logo you might fancy appearing on the cover of your novel. No. Publishers don’t talk to writers until they really need to. You need an agent. An agent is the portal that will open publishers doors for you, direct your novel into the hands of a sympathetic editor and see your hard-fought hundred thousand words into actual print. An agent will know which publisher is looking for which genre of book. If they like your work, they might just take you on. If they already have another author who happens to have written a young adult novel about shoplifting and residential reality TV and social media and goodies and baddies then forget it, they might like what you’ve written but they won’t represent you. If it’s taken you a year and a half to write a novel about shoplifting and residential reality TV and social media and goodies and baddies and stories like that are no longer on trend then forget it, you’ve missed the boat. Agents, it is now clear to me, are the most important element in getting your work published.

I’ve written synopses, I’ve written one-line pitches, I’ve written bloody bastarding bite-sized blurbs, but I can’t get an(y) agent to bite. To put it simply, my novel is unloved. I’ve been through the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, I’ve respectfully emailed every Tamara, Tabatha and Thandie and all I have to show for it is upwards of 40 pleasant-ish replies. Some are standard, some are a bit more encouraging and personal, but all are unified in their final line. Sorry, not for us.

I’d given myself the target of Christmas time to see what happened. Some agents can take up to 12 weeks to reply, if they reply at all. In my experience, about 60% of all the agents I got in touch with replied, and most of them did so quickly and succinctly, but I respected the 12 week thing in any case. Right now, according to my carefully curated notes, I have no agents left to write to and no replies forthcoming. I have exhausted all avenues. One publisher gushed forth about the novel and its potential and offered to publish it…for an admin fee of a few thousand pounds. If you thought it had that much potential, I suggested in my ‘no thanks’ email, you’d surely be happy to publish it without the need for me to pay you. You can, after all, self-publish on Amazon for nothing. So, my race has been run. I’ve come to the end of the line. My chips have been cashed. I have a novel that no-one wants to publish.

I’ve decided instead to serialise it here. Serialising of books is nothing new – Charles Dickens did it with The Pickwick Papers, Stephen King’s Green Mile was serialised half a dozen times before being published as a novel and Hunter S Thompson’s Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas was published in Rolling Stone over a number of issues. In no way do I align myself with these titans of writing, but my faint hope is that someone somewhere picks up on this and maybe, just maybe, offers to publish it. Until then, I’ll feature a chapter or half a chapter or something of readable length perhaps once a week – how much can you realistically read on an iPhone before it becomes unbearable? – until the whole story is out there. I’ll refrain from editing and rewriting as I go, unless I spot something truly horrendous. What will appear is exactly what I’ve mailed to every relevant agent across the UK. If they don’t like it, why should you? I’m not offended if you think it’s rubbish. Just don’t tell me if you do. All positive comments though are very much encouraged.

 

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 1

 

Connor stood just inside the musty door of Mr Szczęsny’s shop. A handful of people gathered around the till area, engaged in the sort of conversation that only ever happened in corner shops on wet Tuesdays. Connor’s attentions were focused on the row of magazines in front of him. He found what he was looking for, peeled it from the shelf and, with a furtive glance towards Mr Szczęsny behind his counter, rolled it up and walked out of the door in one swift, well-practised move.

“Yes, I sink zis rain is to last all… STOP! YOU! CONNOR STEWART! BRING ME MY MAGAZINE BECK RIGHT NOW! ELLA! ELLA! QUICK!”

Heads turned, but Connor didn’t see them. He also didn’t see Mrs Szczęsny. Arms folded, legs apart, all five feet of her stared him down, barring his exit. Connor could’ve pushed her aside, pushed her over even, but he wasn’t that sort of boy. So, he stopped, shamefully handed the magazine to Mrs Szczęsny and, on her unspoken instruction, followed her back into the shop. The small group of people who had come for their milk and their cigarettes and their tittle-tattle stood in a semi-circle, tutting disapprovingly as Connor was led through the multicoloured strips behind the counter and into a small room that he never knew was there.

Then the police arrived and his parents arrived and the tears arrived. Big, snot-filled gloopy ones. The sort that emphasised just how sorry he was. The sort that you only cried if you’d brought real shame on your family. The sort that promised never to do it again.

“Ve haff you on zhe See See Tee Vee, Connor. Zis is zhe zhird time zhis veek. You must know, I let zhe first one go. Boyz vill be boyz efter all. And I ignored yezterday too. Connor, I like you. I em reminded very much of me vhen I look et you. But enough iz enough. Zis,” he said, sweeping his arm around in an arc, “iz my whole life. I can’t haff you stealing from me. You are taking me for a fool and I em very much not a fool.”

Eventually, a court case arrived.

The judge was a wizened and yellowy, beaky man with a sorry sweep of hair across the top of his liver-spotted head. He had no sympathy for boys who liked YouTube and xBox and petty crime. His own father hadn’t fought in world wars for that, he said. He offered Connor a choice.

“Connor Stewart.” His soft Scottish burr echoed across the near-empty courtroom. “I am a fair man and I am a believer in second chances. I note from our report into you that you have had no previous convictions from this judiciary. That, young man, is your lifeline. If this were to be your third, or maybe only second appearance in front of me, well….”

The judge’s voice faded away as inconspicuously as his suit and tie. 

“…So I will offer you a choice. An unusual outcome, perhaps, but one that will allow you to determine your own fate. That is fair, yes?” The judge wasn’t looking for a reply from Connor, who stood shaking uncontrollably from head to toe.

“The usual sentence for this sort of crime is six to nine months hard labour with the Department of Enforcement. I will give you the option of eight months with this Department, working from their Northern Shires depot. You would be taken there today and expected to begin work tomorrow.”

The Northern Shires were over 300 miles away. At this time of year there would be snow and ice and cold, cold winds. Connor was 15 seconds at most away from crying.

“Alternatively….”

The word hung tantalisingly in the air. Caught in a shaft of sunlight that had sneaked in through a crack in the curtains, small specks of dust formed around it, swirling like tiny planets suspended in time.

“Alternatively, I will offer you a progressive, modern sentence. Should you accept this punishment you would have the honour of being my first such recipient. There is a brand-new television show in the making and I believe they are looking for boys of your calibre to take part in it. It is filmed in a studio far away from here. You will receive food and lodging but you will also be expected to take part in all activities asked of you. It goes without saying that you would not see your parents or your friends until filming is over. Filming can last anything from a month to a year. So, Connor Stewart, I put it to you – eight months labour in the Northern Shires or up to a year filming a new TV show. What shall it be?”

Connor, who had been expecting the worst, lifted his head. He realised his shaking had calmed. He looked at his sobbing parents. He looked at the judge. He looked deep into himself. Connor, who had never been on TV before and quite fancied the experience tried to answer calmly and not too promptly.

“I will accept the option of taking part in the television show, your honour, sir. Thank you.”

It wasn’t the first mistake in Connor’s 12 years of life, but it was, to date, the biggest.

(more to follow in the future)