Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Chas Smash

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

And yet, and yet…

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

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

Chas ‘n DaveAin’t No Pleasin’ You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 15 and 16

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

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

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

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapters 15 and 16

 

 

Chapter 15

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

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

 

Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, without further ado…”

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

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

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

Reilly.

McPherson.

Stewart.

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

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

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

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

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

“…Stephen McPherson!”

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

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

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

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

The man stepped out from behind the lectern.

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

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

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

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

The man softened his voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man didn’t wait for an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

He eyed the boys again.

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

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

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

The man paused, enjoying the audience reaction.

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

The boys sat in sniggering near-silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Decimal!” said Fowler.

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

“Decathlon!” interrupted Grayson again.

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

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

“How many events in a decathlon?”

“Ten!” someone shouted.

“Yes! How many years in a decade?”

“Ten!” came the answer again.

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

“Ten?” replied Alan hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man took control again.

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

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

“Alright?! Jeez! Who died?”

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

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

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

“Follow me, everyone!”

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

 

Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Heavy Shit Goin’ Down

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

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

Fela KutiExpensive Shit

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

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

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

Fela KutiZombie

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

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

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

  

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

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

The Elements

The Elements Chapters 13 and 14

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

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

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

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 13

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 14

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

Fowler smiled a sad smile.

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

Fowler looked cautiously around the room and lowered his voice.

“I think it was the man!”

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

“Was it sore?” he asked.

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

Connor looked on.

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

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

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

Fowler let his quietly whispered words hang in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fowler looked on, wide-eyed once again.

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

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

“The man and Cameron!” whispered Fowler.

“It has to be,” said Connor.

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

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

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

“How’s voting going, Cameron?”

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

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

The man considered this then spoke.

“But that can change, yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes were now on Harrison.

“Reilly. Anderson. Alan.”

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

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

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

“You.”

He turned and pointed.

“You.”

He turned again, jabbing his forefinger.

“You. And you. And you too.”

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

“You.”

Jab.

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

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

He stared them down for a good few seconds.

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

Harrison made his exit. The room collectively breathed out.

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

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

Hope.

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

 

 

(more to follow in the future)

Get This!, Live!

Bible Belter

There was a film shown on BBC4 recently, a restored print of Aretha Franklin‘s astonishing take-me-to-church Amazing Grace concert. Filmed over two nights at the start of 1972 in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it captures Aretha at the absolute peak of her spiritual powers.

The accompanying album would go on to be her best-selling album ever but on film it’s even better. Originally intended to be packaged as a double bill alongside Super Fly, new technology (and the death of Aretha – she was against its release) has enabled the film to be dusted down from the archives and completed in all its intended glory. I was lost, but now I’m found, as the song goes. A-men to that.

In this little church, Rev James Cleveland leads the worshippers through condemnation and contemplation, the good book instructing all in attendance with its life lessons masked in metaphor and moral. Dressed head to toe in their Sunday finery, the audience whoop it up, amen-ing and thank the Lord-ing with increasing fervour. By the time the Gospel according to St Aretha is in full swing, the tiny room is a hootin’ and a hollerin’ free-for-all.

The cameramen can be seen in nearly every shot. Respectful of both location and occasion, they squat in the aisles, hide behind the choir, hunker down in the front row. There are numerous unflattering shots of Aretha angled from below – you know those double-chin selfies you take because you can’t actually take a selfie? Those. Miles of electrical cable wind their way around the feet of everyone in attendance. It all adds to the sense of you, the audience, being in the eye of the holy storm.

At one point, one of the guerilla cameramen swings his handheld across the front row and picks out a giddy Mick Jagger, all tousled, shoulder length hair and pout, eyes closed and lost in the heavy holy vibes. You can almost reach into your TV screen and hold it, it’s that powerful.

Aretha FranklinHow I Got Over

Ghosting in on a rolling piano riff that over-keen Name That Tune contestants might name incorrectly in 5 as Otis Redding’s Hard To Handle, How I Got Over runs the whole gamut of ‘Retha’s religious celebration. Electric organ and finger poppin’ Fender bass bring the immediate groove, dragging an excitable drummer and a smokin’ hot gospel choir along for the ride.

You know that way that the human voice, like a finely tuned racing car engine has to warm up a wee bit before it can go full pelt? Well, How I Got Over comes mid-set, so Aretha is well warmed up by this point. She starts up here…and ends waaaay up here. It’s an extraordinary vocal, sweat-soaked, calling and responding to the heavenly choir who sashay their way from start to finish in a riot of spontaneous handclaps and octave-climbing hysterics behind her.

Aretha goes all-out freeform, fucking with the unspoken rules of how secular songs should be sung. This isn’t the stuffy mid 70s Scottish church of my Boys’ Brigade past, with a meagre crowd of withering simperers mouthing the words over a creaky dust-blown and cobwebbed organ, this is mid 70s California; black, soulful and uproarious, all-out communion with a crack rhythm section flung in for good measure.

Aretha is on fire, ripping it up the way she’s done already on Rock Steady and Respect and all those Atlantic Soul benchmarks of perfection that have gone before. Live, in the house of God, she’s turned up another notch – from ten to eleven (to heaven?) – a full force gale, gritty and dirty one moment, feminine and sweet the next. Heck, if it wasn’t for the words she was belting out with wholy holy abandon, you might forget you’re actually listening to a gospel record at all.

Amazing Grace is more a truly great Aretha live album – songs of found love and acceptance rather than lost love and rejection – than the religious curio you might be forgiven for thinking it is.

It’s church music, Jim, but not as we know it. Seek it out.

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 12 (Part 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.

All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 12 (part 2)

All three boys fell asleep. They were sheltered and safe from the weather and found it very easy to drift off. So asleep were they, they failed to stir when a family of squirrels approached cautiously, before scurrying away into the dense undergrowth. So asleep were they, they failed to stir when a crow squawked and flapped suddenly in the treetops directly above them, startled by the man and Cameron who’d taken up position nearby. The three boys were well within firing range and the man’s trigger finger was itchy. He was a fair man, but he was getting impatient. So asleep were they, the man and Cameron began to wonder in whispered voices if they shouldn’t wake them up themselves. They yielded, rationalising that big game hunters needed to be patient.

Connor dreamed of home. He was at his kitchen table, his father sitting opposite. His mum had a slice of toast in her hand that she hadn’t yet bitten into. It hung limply from her hand, drenched in yellowy butter, half a second from a slow collapse. She was angrily waving a football magazine in Connor’s face. In his dream, Connor couldn’t hear what his mum was saying, but he knew how upset she was with him. His dad stood behind his mum, one hand on her shoulder, the other covering rifling his hair in frustration. Connor now realised that the kitchen table was covered in magazines to the point where none of the varnished wood of the table-top could be seen underneath. Suddenly Mr Szczęsny appeared in the kitchen, walking through the same multicoloured strips that separated his shop from the little storeroom where the police officers had spoken to Connor. Mr Szczęsny was shaking his head at Connor and throwing magazines at him until quickly there was a mound of magazines piled accusingly in front of him. As they collapsed under the frictionless hold of their glossy covers and began tumbling onto the floor, Connor woke up with a gasping start. Confused, he looked around and immediately remembered where he was and why he was here. The other two boys slept nearby, Stephen still wearing his backpack, was curled into a foetal position and out for the count. Rhys lay flat out and motionless save the slow and steady rise and fall of his chest. Connor scratched, rubbed stray pine needles from his face and automatically reached for his phone. As he photographed his two sleeping teammates and updated his profiles, he heard the sharp snap of a twig. Or, maybe he hadn’t. He sat for a moment, telling himself he must have imagined it. He turned his attention back to his phone.

Nearby, under cover of the luscious undergrowth, the man elbowed Cameron and nodded encouragingly at him. It was his turn to “freak the boy Stewart out.” Cameron coughed. A low, quiet, throat-clearing cough, but a recognisable human cough all the same.

Connor’s heart missed a beat. He froze. It had been a snap. And now a cough! Someone was nearby. Maybe it was one of the other teams. As he tried to convince himself that somehow, a team had wandered so off-course they were now travelling to the flag in the same direction as them, there was another snap of twigs, followed closely by a rustling in the bushes. His adrenalin kicked in, but he had no idea what to do. Scrambling on all fours, still wearing his backpack like a giant, petrified tortoise, he reached Rhys and kicked his feet.

“Rhys! Rhys!” he hissed, quietly but loud. “Rhys!”

Rhys stirred, turned on his side and, with a wet smacking sound from his lips, went back to sleep.

“Rhys! Rhys, man! Wake up! I think there’s someone there!” He kicked him again and moved to Stephen.

From between bushes and bracken and low-hanging branches, the man and Cameron watched, supressing their laughs as Cameron repeated his actions at Stephen. The man rustled the undergrowth in front of him and made a hooting, owl-like noise.

By now Connor was beside himself with fear. Stephen had stirred immediately but wasn’t yet properly awake. Connor shook him by the shoulders and stage-whispered in his ear.

“Stephen! Wake up! Stephen, please! There’s someone out there! Listen!” He shook him again and Stephen sat up, rubbing his eyes and squinting as Connor came into focus.

The man and Cameron, watching everything from their hideout, took it all in. “Patience, Cameron, patience!” said the man under his breath.

“Stephen, man!” Connor whispered, eyes like saucers. “I heard a cough. Noises! Twigs snapping! And the bush shaking! Someone’s hiding nearby!”

“What?!” said Stephen in surprise.

“Shhh! Just wait and listen.”

They waited and listened. There were no further sounds. For now.

“You’re imagining it, mate,” said Stephen in a normal voice. “We’ve been out here walking all day and your mind has started playing tricks on you. You just need a decent sleep, that’s all.”

Connor considered this. He’d been having that weird dream when he woke up. Maybe it was all imagined after all. Maybe he…

…snap!

This time it was Stephen who lost his cool.

“F…Woah!” The two boys were on Rhys in a shot, shaking him awake.

“Rhys! Rhys! Wake up, for God’s sake! Someone’s hiding in the bushes!”

Rhys was awake quickly this time and sat bolt upright. He was suddenly instantly alert.

“Somebody? Where!”

“Just wait,” said Connor. “And listen.”

In the undergrowth, the man nudged Cameron. He coughed again.

The three boys looked in surprise at one another, none of them exactly sure of what to do. Rhys turned this way and that, trying to establish where the cough had come from. Stephen and Connor looked at one another for some sort of reassurance. There was another snap of a twig, quickly followed by more rustling of the bushes. Rhys stood up and walked in the direction of the noise.

“Rhys! Rhys! Don’t be daft!” hissed Connor loudly. But Rhys ignored him.

“Whoever’s there, make yourself known, please.” His voice was assured and confident. As an extra measure, he raised his hands in the universally recognised ‘I come in peace’ manner.

Deep in the undergrowth, thirty or so yards away, the man, bored of this game, keen to show off in front of his protégé and take things up a notch, cocked and loaded his rifle. The loud click that emanated from it was unmistakable. Rhys froze in his tracks. Stephen sat rigid with fear. Connor thought he might wet himself. The man took aim at a tree above and beyond Rhys’s left shoulder. He squeezed the trigger and instantly the bullet fired from the chamber with a loud airy crack. By the time the bullet had lodged itself in the tree behind Rhys, the three boys were scattering frantically through the forest. The man offloaded another bullet. And another. Each shot was designed to scare rather than kill, and, boy, was it working. Involuntary strangulated yelps rose from the three boys’ throats as the bullets whizzed past them and landed with a woody thunk in the nearby pines. They ran together, in the same direction, faster than they had any right to run with their heavy backpacks on.

The man spoke to Cameron, louder this time.

“Aim for Stewart, but don’t kill him. Aim to maim!”

Cameron stood under cover of the undergrowth, legs apart, the barrel of his gun pointing firmly towards the running boys. With one eye squinted shut he carefully followed Stewart’s crazed path and, when confident of a clear shot, squeezed the trigger.

The metal clang of bullet against metal informed Connor he’d been very lucky. He didn’t know it yet, but the bullet had put a hole clean through the pot that dangled freely from the bottom of his backpack. Without the pot there, he may well have been shot on the behind. The three boys ran on, faces scratched by low-hanging pine branches, ankles turned on uneven ground, arms flailing wildly in front of them, clearing nature’s objects that hindered their frantic escape.

The man took aim for one last shot and fired lazily into the trees beyond the three terrified boys.

“Leave them for now, eh, Cameron. We’ll see them again before they reach the flag.”

The man and Cameron stood, watching as the boys ran off and out of sight. Never once did they look back and never once did they stop until they were certain that the gunfire had ceased. Coming out from their hiding place, the man and Cameron surveyed the abandoned scene. A water bottle and a phone lay lonely amongst the brown pine needles. The man picked it up and instantly recognised the familiar dinks and scratches on its case. He had Stewart’s phone once again. He put it into his pocket, unsure yet of how best he could use it to manipulate events. He tossed the water bottle to Cameron and the pair of them headed back to the jeep.

Half a mile away, the boys lay sprawled on the ground. They were worried that they’d been tracked here, too scared to talk, too scared to breathe, even. Connor was convinced his beating heart could be heard by the others. They lay in terrified silence, looking back in the direction from where they’d just come. It was a good twenty minutes or so before any of them dared speak.

“I think they’ve gone,” whispered Connor.

“I hope so,” replied Stephen.

“Who were they?” wondered Connor aloud.

“Probably snipers,” said Rhys. “I bet there’ll be others as we get closer to the flag.”

Connor’s heart sank even lower at the thought. Stephen looked nonplussed. The three sat up and huddled closer together. Connor and Stephen greedily glugged down water.

“Any chance of a slug, anyone? I think I’ve left my water bottle behind,” said Rhys.

Connor handed his bottle to Rhys and watched as his teammate did his best to take a drink without pressing his lips to the bottle before handing it back with a thanks. As they so often did, they instinctively reached for their phones. As the other two opened their social accounts, Connor patted first one pocket, then another, then back again.

“I’ve lost my phone! I don’t believe it! I’ve lost my phone.” He felt physically sick. The others barely looked up from their screens.

“It’ll be in a pocket, surely,” said Rhys. “We left in a hurry back there. You’ve probably stuck it in a different pocket without thinking.”

Connor knew differently though and, annoyed at his blasé reaction, instantly wished he hadn’t given Rhys the drink of water. He frisked through the pockets of his trousers and jacket, even his rucksack too, but he knew he wasn’t going to find it. He cast his mind back. He’d had his phone out. He’d been taking pictures of the others sleeping, he’d heard the noises, he’d wakened the others, all hell had broken loose and somewhere in the melee he’d lost his phone. His first thought was that he should go back for it but, for one, he’d never find it and, two, the gunman might still be there, or worse, making his way towards them. The thought of having no phone – again – was the worst possible thought. Connor sat, a black mood enveloping him, with nothing to do but keep watch for the rogue gunman and look at the other two swiping freely through their phones.

“Where even are we?” he asked to no-one in particular.

“Dunno,” admitted Rhys. “I think we’re off the track though. We’ll need to find it again.”

“I’ve been looking at the others,” said Stephen, “but neither team has uploaded anything since the last time we looked. Let’s check where we are though, eh?”

Connor’s enthusiasm for the task had waned but he retrieved the map from his rucksack and Rhys went through the process of checking their coordinates on his phone. He checked back and forth between phone and map until he was certain of where they were.

“We’re here,” he said, circling the map. “We were here when the gunman – or gunmen, perhaps – opened fire on us. We haven’t strayed too far from the route, to be honest. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get back on track.”

Connor’s heart sank once more at the thought there might have been more than one gunman. He was sure Rhys had just said this for effect – and if he had it had worked – but there was no way of knowing for sure.

“How far have we walked now?” asked Stephen. “We must be more than halfway by now.”

Rhys studied the map, plotting their current location with the felt pen.

“We’ve done, let’s see…” He whispered quietly to himself as he counted the miles. “Eight, four, four….two….uh-huh….then three…and two there……I reckon we’ve walked twenty three miles, although we’re maybe a mile off the route. So, yeah, I think we’re at least halfway. Well done team!”

Between the tree-tops, Connor could see the sky deepening to an indigo blue. One or two stars were already shining. Dusk was falling.

“Would this be a good place to stop for the night?” he suggested, hoping the others would say yes.

“I think we should get back on track first, before it gets too dark,” offered Rhys. “It’d be good to find a river spot too. We can wash our feet in it, maybe even use it to drink or cook with if we’re too far from a water station. If we leave now, we should be able to pick up the path in fifteen minutes or so. That’s doable, even if we are shattered.”

“But what about the gunman, gunmen?” asked Stephen.

“Nah. They’ve gone, mate. They’ve gone. C’mon, let’s go.”

So, once more the trio got on the move, more careful with their footing in the failing light, still nervously checking behind to see if they were being followed or not. They picked up their route again, stopped to check for any nearby water stations – “this way!” ascertained Rhys and they walked grudgingly for a further twenty minutes. They arrived in the twilight at a clearing. A stream made itself known between the trees. Stephen and Connor left Rhys to find the water station and, with great effort, went about setting up their tents.

Stephen gathered kindling and set up a small fire in the middle between the three tents. The three sat, drinking from shared bottles and eating through their supplies. Connor had somewhat grudgingly loaned his ‘Juicebox’ to Rhys and Stephen. Their phones fully charged, there was no likelihood of dying phones midway through the next day. Uploads were made to social media and, once finished, Stephen passed his phone to Connor.

“Here y’are, mate. Log in and you can update your profiles.”

This gesture lifted Connor’s spirits somewhat and he enjoyed getting back online, reading comments and checking out the others’ statuses. Team positions were checked, and it was agreed that all teams had stopped for the night. Rhys wanted to discuss strategies and tactics, but the others were unreceptive to serious talk such as this. It would have to wait until the morning. A good night’s sleep was required, but in the event, none of the boys slept particularly well. Connor drifted in and out of dreams, waking with a start and convincing himself that he could hear things in the dark. There would be woodland creatures somewhere out there, but he thought it best to try not to imagine what might lurk beyond the canvas walls. The glowing embers of the fire might help to keep unwanted animals away, he reasoned, but maybe not gunmen.

He awoke properly at 6am and exited his tent. The fire was no more than an ashen charcoaled spot on the ground. The others were still in their tents. Stephen was snoring loudly. Connor stood tall, stretched, and scratched the back of his thigh. It hadn’t been a great sleep, but he felt alright, all things considered. The early morning sun came through the pines in hazy shafts of light. It was misty, womb-like and quite magical. He wandered over to investigate the stream that ran through the trees. As he sat lost in thought, he became aware of a small kingfisher, bright blue and orange, sitting on a low-hanging branch over the water. He was quite sure the bird could see him too, yet it hadn’t flown away. Connor was scared to move, lest the bird flew off, and wished he’d had his phone to take a picture. He was cruelly reminded then that he’d left his phone behind yesterday and for a brief moment his mood turned for the worse. Watching the bird lifted his spirits though. It opened its wings, preened its feathers and then majestically darted to the water, its wings tucked close to its body. Connor waited in anticipation for it to reappear from the water with a fish in its beak but when it bobbed back to the surface, it had nothing. It flapped its wings, took off once more and flew further downstream where it continued preening itself again. Connor watched it happily until the kingfisher flew off for good.

He busied himself with the cooking gear. He’d make a breakfast of some sort for the others, probably a cup-a-soup with a tin mug of tea and a cereal bar on the side. Looking at the bullet hole in the pot that had been hanging from his rucksack when they’d escaped the gunman (or gunmen, he internally corrected), he replayed the scene in his head. It was the most terrifying event to happen to him in his young life and, with only half this journey gone, and another four Elements events ahead of him, he began to wonder if he’d see his next birthday.

Intentionally noisy, Connor hoped that by clanging pots and rustling wrappers, the others might stir themselves awake. He was filling the kettle with water when Stephen appeared. By the time it was boiling, Rhys had joined them. The three sat around Connor’s makeshift kitchen, Rhys and Stephen watching as he poured three tomato cup-a-soups from the one good pan they had left.

“Here y’are, everyone. Tomato soup. The perfect breakfast!”

The three slurped the soup and Connor was congratulated on his improvised culinary skills. Rhys wanted to get down to the serious business of strategy and so over cups of strong black the three once more weighed up the pros and cons of a long walk with long break against shorter bursts with shorter breaks. They all agreed that they should walk for as long as possible, or at least until something – no-one wanted to hint at what that ‘something’ might be – hindered their progress. Checking the socials, it looked as though the other teams hadn’t yet stirred. Stephen leaned over with a ‘hur hur hur’ and showed Connor a repeating meme of Harrison chasing after a tumbling map. The comments below were interesting.

There were loads, all lambasting Harrison. Was this good news for everyone else? Did it mean that if Harrison’s team came last, he would be voted out for being the most inept, or would the public chose to keep him in because he was entertaining for all the wrong reasons? The three debated this. You couldn’t second-guess the public, theorised Rhys, and they all agreed to focus on coming first, or at least, not last, in this task.

They packed up, cleaned up, refilled their water bottles and doublechecked they’d left nothing behind before setting off. They strode with a spring in their step, smug at the thought of the other two teams still sleeping and either gaining on Grayson’s lot, perhaps even extending their lead over the both of them. It certainly looked to be a two-horse race between them and Grayson’s team for first place, but things might change yet. Another ambush from a gunman, for example, wouldn’t help anyone’s progress. Allowing for breaks and fatigue, Rhys had calculated they’d get to the flag by late afternoon, sometime between four and five. That seemed a long way off, but when he showed them how far they’d come and how many water stations were behind them compared to how many they had still to get to, it helped make the journey seem shorter. Zimmerman’s class really had been good for instilling a positive mental attitude and it was proving invaluable in the conditions.

The going was much like the day before, with tall pines blocking out the sun and a carpet of fallen needles cushioning their feet as they walked. After an hour or so, the group had thinned out into a fragile line of three, again headed by Rhys and again with Stephen at the back. It began to rain too, infrequent light drops at first before eventually becoming heavier. It dropped through the trees, drenched their hair and dripped down the back of their necks. It was futile to consider drying themselves until the rain had definitely abated and there was no point in stopping until then. A not unpleasant musty smell rose from the forest floor and, cold and miserable, the boys plodded onwards. They ascended tree-covered hillsides, slipped carefully down the other side, fought their way through impenetrable bramble bushes and crops of thistles – proper big, purple, jaggy ones – as they ate up the miles.

Around midday the rain eased off and the boys finally took a break. Connor took off his jacket and hung it to drip-dry from the branch of one of the trees, a move that was copied by the others. He towelled himself dry with a spare t-shirt, relieved on opening to note that his backpack had remained waterproof. He sat eating a packet of dried fruit and chewed as the sweet strawberries and apricots bled life into his dry mouth.

“The others are on the move,” said Rhys. “There are lots of photos and clips up on their socials.”

Stephen spread the map on the forest floor and Rhys began plotting points on it.

“This is us, round about here,” he said, inking a circle. “We’ve got about 10 miles left to go. We’ve come about three quarters of the way. It’s not far now. Grayson’s team is about….”

He checked his phone then the map.

“….here.

He drew a circle and wrote a capital ‘G’ inside it.

“By my working out, they’ve got about 12 miles to go. We’re a wee bit ahead of them, but not by much. Harrison’s team are…”

He checked his phone again.

“…about here. He drew a circle, adding a capital ‘H’ inside it. They’re further behind. I reckon they’ve still got the best part of 16 miles to go. It’s between us and Grayson’s lot for first place. As long as we don’t muck anything up, we should be safe from elimination.”

The boys walked on, upbeat and positive, determined not to drop their lead. Trees, streams and open marshland came and went quickly as the miles melted away. By early afternoon there was a sense that they were going to do it, they were going to finish first and nothing would get in their way.

A few miles away, sitting in their jeep, the man and Cameron listened in to Rhy’s conversation and plotted their next intervention. They had settled themselves less than half a mile from the tall, red flag. Even from this distance it was unmissable. If they’d followed their maps correctly, the teams would have no trouble in locating it. At the base of the hill where the flag fluttered, Cameron had covered each of three pits dug by a digger, making it look to the unwitting eye as if nothing untoward had happened there. Then, they’d both climbed the pines using the rope ladder that had been installed for them and took up position in a camouflaged treehouse. Looking down, it reminded the man very much of the viewing tower on the training ground. They’d had plenty of practice there with rubber bullets. Today he and Cameron busied themselves by loading live ammo into their high range shotguns. They went back and forth, up and down the rope ladder, carrying all the ammunition and artillery that they needed. The man’s target was Stewart, but from this position they’d have a clear view of all teams approaching the flag. It would either be Stewart’s team from the south or Anderson’s team from the west who arrived first. He hoped very much that, should Harrison’s team finish last, the boy himself was kept in the process. But that was to worry about later. Right now, they were armed and ready for any team who reached the flag first. All they had to do was wait it out until nearer the time, leave the comfy seats of the jeep and climb up into the treehouse and spot themselves some moving targets.

By three in the afternoon, they were down to the last four and a half miles. They agreed on a short break to allow for refuelling ahead of, as Rhys called it, ‘the final push’.

“Look at the map,” pointed out Rhys. “This is the last water station on our route. We’re expected to finish soon.”

The others crowded around the map, marvelling at the water stations and stopping points they’d left far behind on their journey. It had been a truly phenomenal walk, from the team bonding and improvised cooking to the kingfisher and the serious issue of being attacked by a sniper, a quite remarkable adventure for boys barely in their teens, or, in Connor’s case, not yet there. As they ruminated on this, Stephen had been checking their rivals’ media feeds and Rhys was aghast to discover that Grayson’s team was somehow nearer the flag than they were.

“I don’t understand! I don’t think I’ve made an error with my calculations, but it is possible, I suppose. Maybe they’ve found a shortcut. Or maybe it’s been all downhill for them.”

“Or maybe no-one’s popped up and shot them yet,” volunteered Connor. “Either way, if we want to be first, we need to get a move on. Pack up, clear up and move out!”

Within two minutes they were pounding the path again, focus and fire in their eyes. The land ahead curved steeply upwards, bordered by yet more pines. It took concerted effort to reach the top without stopping but when they did, the boys allowed themselves a 360 degree view of the landscape that stretched out in all directions.

“Look! There!” said Stephen excitedly. “Is that the flag?!?”

The others followed his finger to the horizon where, flapping briskly in the wind was a flag on a tall pole. From here it was impossible to identify as ‘their flag’ but Rhys, with the sat nav app opened on his phone confirmed that it was.

“Woo-hoo! Yeeeeeeah!” shouted Stephen, quickly followed by the others.

Back in the jeep, the man jumped angrily in his seat as the unexpected piercing shriek split through his earpiece. This had him in a rage and he couldn’t wait to take it out on the unsuspecting victims.

Connor dug his heels into the side of the hill and ran down, in spite of the backpack and aches and pains, carefree and full of life. They were near the end, so close that they could for the first time see it. From somewhere he suddenly had a second wind and a renewed strength in his legs. With the others right behind him, they jogged onwards, towards the flag, towards Grayson’s team, towards trouble.

From the opposite direction, Grayson and his team had also spotted the flag. Burgess had seen it first, much to the annoyance of Fowler who, as the team had discovered over the course of the two days, had to be first with everything. With unobstructed views – there was a heavy clump of pines on the horizon where the man and Cameron would shortly be, but with wide, open marshland between them and the flag, they too started running. They also sensed victory.

The man and Cameron shimmied their way up the rope ladder and into the treehouse.

Connor led his group onwards. They laughed as they ran. Edgy, excited, expectant.

Grayson and his team closed in on the flag. It was half a mile away at most, the most beautiful site any of them had seen in months.

“Remember,” said the man to Cameron. “Aim below the knee! Aim to maim, is that clear?” Cameron responded with a thumbs up, his left eye already peering in anticipation through his rifle’s sight.

“That’s the flag,” shouted Rhys excitedly, still running. “It’s red. And it’s got a black Elements logo on it. Can you see it?”

“Aye! replied Stephen, picking up the pace.

Grayson and his team were near the foot of the hill now, coming at the flag from a different angle to the others. They were going to be first, they knew they were. As they reached the foot of the hill though, the ground beneath them suddenly gave way and they went tumbling into one of the holes that had been dug out earlier that day. It was a shallow hole, not quite two metres deep, and they landed on a bed of straw, but the surprise paralysed them.

In their treehouse, the man and Cameron roared with laughter at the sudden disappearance of Grayson’s team. With them out of the running for the moment, they turned their attentions to “that boy Stewart’s lot”.

They too had reached the foot of the hill, with Stephen a good few steps ahead. Without warning, he too vanished below ground level, screaming as his backpack caught on the lip of the hole and jerked him back in an awkward ragdolling movement as he tumbled inwards. As Connor and Rhys skidded to a halt, Stephen screamed more than one expletive. He lay on his back in a trench that was about eight metres wide. He groaned in pain, still wearing his backpack which he’d landed on. Straw and bits of grass and earth covered his body in places, and he looked to be bleeding from his elbow.

“Watch your footing!” shouted Rhys to Connor as he stepped forward for a closer look. “You don’t know where the trap starts!” Connor froze, looking carefully at the ground to see where it had been tampered with. Between the groans from Stephen below, he could hear the flap of the flag in the wind. They were so close…

In the other hole, the three boys asked one another if they were OK. There were no injuries it seemed, but they were sore, and getting out of the hole would be a challenge. As Grayson jumped up to pull on the lip of the hole, the ground gave way again, pulling clumps of the soil and grass away in his hands.

“D’you have a good view of the boys?” inquired the man.

“Yes, both of them,” came the answer.

“Below the knees, remember. Below the knees. On my say-so, fire at Campbell. Stewart is mine.”

“Copy,” said Cameron.

Connor could see that the ground had been disturbed. It stretched either side of the hole Stephen was in by several metres on each side. If they could get him out quickly, they could make their way around the edge of the hole and then get up the hill to the flag. He was just about to suggest this when the first bullet whizzed into the ground near his foot. Instinctively, both boys hit the ground. By the second and third bullets they were face down, terrified once more. There was nowhere to hide except in the hole where Stephen was.

Back in the other hole, Grayson was alert to the new sounds. “Surely that’s not gunshots?” he asked the others. They stopped trying to get out and listened. Crack! Crack! Crack! Goodness! It was.

“Are they firing at us?!?” shouted Burgess to no-one in particular. “Are they?!?”

Cameron and the man were expert marksmen, but rather far away. Their shots were close and terrifying, but they failed to hit their intended targets. Connor and Rhys shouted to one another between the gunshots.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

“I think we should get in the hole alongside Stephen,” shouted Connor.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

“No way! We’ll never get back out. We need to distract the gunmen somehow. Give them a target to aim for while the other gets up the hill and snatches the flag.”

Crack! Crack! Crack!

Connor processed this plan, quickly working out what was happening. He was supposed to be the gunmnen’s target while Rhys ran up the hill and won the flag? I don’t think so!

“No way, mate! No way! I’m not being a target for anyone. Get in the hole. Sit it out until the other team have the flag. We’ll be second. I’m happy with that.”

“Well, I’m not,” shouted back Rhys, and he was off and running up the hill.

The man kept his aim on Stewart. He fired a couple close to him, letting him know he was still there then turned to Cameron.

“Follow him. Let him reach the flag. As he gets to it, shoot him.”

“Below the knee?”

“You can’t help it if you misfire though, can you?” The man looked at him knowingly before returning his eye to the immobile Connor on the ground.

In the other hole, Grayson was holding onto Fowler’s ankles. He’d volunteered to peer over the top of the wall and work out what was happening. There were gunshots all right, but they were trained exclusively on the other side of the hill.

“I think it’s safe….listen to me! The guns are firing at something, someone else on the other side of the hill. It might be another team, I dunno, but I can’t see anyone. It’s worth the risk, I think. If you can punt me back up, I’ll help you both out.”

Grayson’s team set about getting themselves out of the hole.

As they did so, Connor was flopping himself into the hole beside Stephen. He intended to stay there until being told it was safe to come out. Rhys though was running for his life up the hill. In the angle of the hill, the top of the flag had disappeared for a few seconds, but it reappeared, closer than ever, flapping wildly in the wind. It was almost within touching distance.

Cameron kept his rifle trained on Rhys’s shoulder.

By now, Fowler had emerged from the other hole and, satisfied that the bullets weren’t intended for them, had begun hauling out his teammates, Grayson first and then finally Burgess. The three of them charged their way up the hill, six eyes on the prize. They weren’t even aware that the gunfire had ceased.

Rhys made it to the top of the hill first – Crack! Crack! Crack! – but just as he stood up, he heard the clatter of the swinging metal pots that dangled from the other boys’ backpacks and was dismayed to see three heads appear on the opposite side. Crack! The four boys ran like hell towards the flag and, even though Rhys had a hold of the rope that would lower the flag, the other three had no qualms in wrestling it from him.

As the boys scrapped violently, Cameron in the tree house struggled to find a decent view of Rhys. He fired a wild shot – Crack! – that flew above the boys’ heads. It was enough to make them momentarily stop. In the gap of opportunity, Rhys once again had the rope, and the flag which had been halfway down the pole was now at head height. At once he was submerged by the other team’s limbs. He was kicked, punched and scratched in a frenzied attack that was so unlike any of the boys who were dishing it out.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

As Grayson and Burgess continued to beat Rhys, Fowler triumphantly unhooked the flag and was rewarded – Crack! – with a stray shot from Cameron to the shin. He howled in pain, and crumpled to the ground, dropping the prized flag. Before any of his other teammates had had the foresight to cease battering their opponent and grab a hold of it, the flag was swept onto the side of the hill.

Rhys had to get away from this battering. The two boys on top of him were more interested in harming him than retrieving the flag. Rhys kicked back, wriggled, scratched, bit one of the two at one point. This caused the bitten boy to roll aside in shocked pain and when he did, he saw the flag blowing horizontally across the side of the hill. As Grayson held Rhys down on the ground, the pair of them watched as Burgess chased after the flag and caught it.

The game was up.

The two boys fell aside. Burgess appeared draped in the flag and he and Grayson hugged an embrace before going to check on the injured Fowler.

Rhys was distraught. All the effort, all the bravery, all counted for nothing. He’d had the flag in his hand! If Stephen hadn’t fallen into the hole, they’d have won. He lay back, unaware from his position that the man and Cameron were bouncing across the open ground towards them in their jeep. He was alerted to the fact when he heard the megaphone burst into life.

“Contestants! The game is over! We have a winning team!”

In their hole, Stephen and Connor sat upright.

“Congratulations to Fowler, Burgess and Anderson for an excellent display of teamwork and skill. Commiserations to Campbell, McPherson and Stewart. You were very unlucky not to have won. We await the arrival of Harrison, Reilly and Alan. They may be some time yet. We will make sure the six of you here just now get some food and shelter for the moment. When the others return we will begin our journey back to Kimble.”

The man paused for effect.

“By vehicle, just to be clear. By vehicle!”

Stephen and Connor flopped back into the straw and waited for someone to get them out.

(more to follow in the future)

Football, Peel Sessions

The Twelfth Men

This great picture of young Celtic fans storming the Hampden Park barricades and getting themselves into the big match is a real look back in time, to an era when showpiece games at the national stadium weren’t always ticket-only, when brass neckery and opposable thumbs gave you and your pals just as much right to take your place on the ash and pish-coated terracing as anyone else.

This picture has everything; it’s in colour, so it’s not that old. It comes from an era in football somewhere beyond rollups and rattles and record attendances, from a generation deeply entrenched in brutal tribalism and Rangers Ends and Celtic Ends (check out the wee scribble of casual sectarianism graffiti in the picture), with the EBTs and biscuit tins and the Big Two’s unfounded entitlement that they win everything not yet quite in full view.

The clothes would suggest very late 70s or the early 80s. I vividly remember my mum asking me if I wanted ‘flares or drainpipes‘ when she was ordering my new school trousers from the catalogue. “What are flares?” I asked in all innocence, before, once she’d shown me the picture, I very quickly ensured she ordered drainpipes, and only drainpipes. In an era of 2 Tone and Madness and, yes, Baggy Trousers, if you wanted to avoid merciless slaggings and a lifetime of misery, drainpipes were the only obvious choice.

The wee guy side-on at the front, in his grey Harrington and grown-out suedehead is, I’d imagine, no stranger to the back catalogues of both the Nutty Boys and The Specials. His pal, a dead ringer for a young Roy Aitken as it happens, in the home-knitted Celtic jumper has pulled a proper ‘whityegauntaedaeabootit?‘ sneer on his face, purely for the benefit of the photographer, a gaffer ensuring every one of his troops makes it safely over to the other side. Wee bams, and brilliant with it.

The Hampden terracing was quite the place. For someone small like me, it could be exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Glimpses of the pitch, let alone the actual ball, could be few and far between, the abstract and abrupt swearing, the aw ayes and aw naws providing you with the necessary running commentary in lieu of the actual game. “Great ball Souness that’s shite!” is the one I remember the most, remonstrated from the North Stand during a Scotland V Wales qualifier sometime around 1985. The smell of cigarettes and alcohol and piss hung heavy in the nostrils while your feet hung hopelessly in the air. From first whistle to last, the Adidas Kicks would rarely touch the ash. If there was a goal – and in the 80s, when Scotland fielded teams of world beaters there were always goals – there’d be a massive surge; a tidal wave that started from front and back and all sides simultaneously, and you’d be swept along in its soup-stirring free-flow, down ten or more rows before being jarrred swiftly to the right or left or both then back again, like a giant man-made spin cycle that always, always, returned you to where you’d been standing (floating) before the goal had been scored. You might lose your pals temporarily, but everyone’s your pal when Kenny Dalglish has just swerved in Scotland’s third of the night v Spain.

By the mid 80s my pals and I were going to Hampden ourselves. I say ourselves, but the truth was, Irvine Rugby Club ran a minibus to Hampden and, organised by someone our dads knew, we’d get to go to the game on the bus with them. What our parents never knew was that the bus would park somewhere near the Church On The Hill pub, and while all the men nipped in for a quick pint before the game, we’d get all gallus and, visibly growing a couple of inches, swagger the mile or so to Hampden by ourselves, take in the game then swagger back along the shadowy streets of Glasgow’s southside to the bus again. Semi-free small-towners from the Ayrshire sticks, we’d never have had the nerve to loup the wall like those boys in the photo. Let’s not kid anyone on here.

One particular game (v Romania possibly) stood tip-toed on the North Stand is memorable not for the box-to-box penetration happening on the pitch in front of us but for the ball games happening behind. “Stephanie, Stephanie…c’moan, it’s ma turn!” said the guy in the tight Souness perm, moustache ‘n all, as he and his two pals took turns at disappearing down the ash path and behind the stand with a young woman wearing a tartan scarf and a Crombie and quite possibly nothing else.

He shouts, he scores, to paraphrase.

Like those wee boys in the photo at the top, or or those wee blue disabled cars behind the goals, not the sort of thing you’ll see at the football anymore.

Echo and the BunnymenOver The Wall (Peel Session 22.5.80)

From a similar time and place, here’s Echo and the Bunnymen‘s Peel Session version of Over The Wall. Del Shannon via The Doors, filtered through era-defining hair and total self-belief. A bit like that Scotland squad of the times…and the wee guys in the picture at the top.

The Elements

The Elements Chapter 12 (part 1)

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 12 (part 1)

 

Connor was awoken far too soon. Abruptly too.

The music of choice this morning was Ride of the Valkyries, Wagner’s barnstorming battle cry for heroic Viking warriors and, seemingly, teenage petty criminals whose sole aim for the coming day was to stay alive. As it built to a crescendo, Connor stretched an arm outside the blanket, yawned externally and laughed internally at whoever it was who chose the daily alarm music. They certainly had a sense of humour.

“Good morning, Connor Stewart,” spoke the unseen voice with quiet calm. “You will be collected at 4.45am. Please be ready with your bag packed at that time.”

Dragging himself in and out of the shower, Connor dressed for the day ahead. He was midway through checking his social profiles, amazed to find that people were active on his pages even at this early time of day (although he shouldn’t have been, he realised later, as it was a normal time somewhere in the world) when the familiar rap on the door told him that Pamela was outside waiting on him.

He was greeted by her usual dynamite smile and a rare, whispered “Good morning!” A bleary-eyed Stephen stood slumped by her side, his backpack hanging awkwardly from one shoulder. He looked like he hadn’t slept more than a few hours. Connor nodded a brief, curt ‘hello’ to the pair of them and they walked in silence to collect Rhys. He answered promptly and was all go, backpack on and ready for whatever the day ahead might throw at him.

“Alright Connor? Alright Stephen? Y’ready for this?”

“I will be after I’ve eaten,” murmured Connor, his stomach making him keenly aware that it needed filling.

They sat at their table, the four of them for the final time. Despite the early hour, the food went down easily, the boys mindful of the possibility that this might be their last decent meal for a few days. As they ate and grunted and made occasional small talk, it became apparent to Connor that they were the only team in the dining room.

“Where’s everyone else?” he asked Pamela. The others looked up from their plates and looked around at the normally full tables.

“One team has left already,” explained Pamela. “The other isn’t up yet. You are all to leave at different times in different transport.”

This unexpected turn of events was processed in silence before the trio returned to their plates. Did this mean the first team to leave had a lead on the others already? Were the three boys here better placed than the team still asleep in bed? Who was the first team to leave? Connor began to wonder if he’d ever see some of these boys again. Grayson and Alan, the first two boys he spoke to on the train – separated by that creep Cameron, a voice in his head reminded him – might’ve become close friends under different circumstances. There was a strong social bond between all the boys, an unspoken ‘we’re in this together’ camaraderie that would be difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate. Ever since the others had kept the #wheresconnor trend from him, Connor had decided that it was going to be every man for himself, but by creating three opposing teams, the TV people had made this an easier decision than it might otherwise have been. In a game where only one team could win, former friends were now firm foes.

The boys were herded into a large 8-seater taxicab. It had no livery or logos to identify it as such, but that’s essentially what it was. The driver was a small balding man with hairy forearms and smelly underarms.

“Stick yer backpacks and what have ye in the spare seats there,” he said. “But leave some space for yer food parcel.”

As Connor and the other two pricked their ears at the mention of a food parcel, the man stepped out from the building to hand them a fourth rucksack, smaller than each of theirs but chunky and heavy looking all the same. Whose job would it be to carry that?

“Inside this pack is a selection of protein bars, multiple packets of freeze-dried food and all the implements you might need to cook in the open. There is a small gas canister. Matches too. None of you will starve, I hope. Also in the pack is an ordnance survey map. You may find it helpful should you lose your way. Before you leave, I want you to install the Elements Sat Nav app on your phone. It’s essential if you want to locate the flag before the other teams. Not only can it help you track your journey, it’ll help us to track you too. Should you require emergency assistance – if someone needs medical help, for example – tap the ‘Mayday’ button and help will duly arrive. Do not, under any circumstances, abuse this function.”

The man leaned in to show them the app on his own phone and suggested now was the best time to download it for themselves. As the boys waited for the app to download to their devices, the man continued his speech.

“When you arrive at your destination, Pamela will give you this envelope.” He held a large manila envelope up in the dawning light. “Open it, read the instructions carefully and from then on, you’ll be on your own. Good luck boys and may the best team win. I’ll hopefully see some or all of you in a few days’ time.”

The man turned on his heels and merged back into the shadows of Kimble. Connor wouldn’t miss him in a hurry, despite what may lie ahead.

The journey was long and strangely silent. Whether the driver and Pamela had been instructed not to talk to the boys, or perhaps it was due to the early hour, but none of the adults engaged in conversation. The boys made small talk amongst themselves before a mixture of tiredness and boredom took over. Connor tried to remain alert, to work out where they were going, what direction even they were travelling in, but eventually he too succumbed to tiredness and flopped half-asleep with his head rattling against the window.

When the car eventually pulled to a stop it was after half-past seven in the morning. They’d been travelling for over two hours and in that time the sky had lightened, the birds had risen and the still air was alive with birdsong. They were in a clearing, somewhere, surrounded by trees. Pine needles lay softly underfoot. It smelled fresh, clean and vibrant, a million miles away from the sterile and mainly windowless ambience of Kimble. The driver unloaded the bags from the cab, and they sat now in a large pile between the three boys. Pamela stood to the side, wrapping herself in a long woollen cardigan against the early morning chill.

“I must give you this,” she said, holding up the envelope that the man had given her back at Kimble. “Read it carefully and it should help you find the flag before the others. Even if you don’t get to it first, as long as you’re not last….”

She let her voice tail off and handed the envelope to Stephen.

“It’s been great to get to know you boys,” she said with a wry smile. “I’m gonna miss you, I really am. I’ll be following you three more closely than anyone else on your social channels and I really hope we get to meet again at some point. Good luck, Rhys…Stephen…Connor. See you somewhere down the road.”

The driver turned the ignition, Pamela got back in the cab and they drove off. The three boys and the four bags were now very much alone.

They sat on a clump of mossy, felled pine trees and looked around at their environment. Connor had no idea at all where they were. Birds chirped, trees creaked and apart from that, they sat in silence. It was Rhys who spoke first.

“We’ve still got a phone signal and some 4G, so that’s all good. We can’t be too far from civilisation. Shall we read what’s in the envelope?”

Stephen ripped it open, annoying Connor who’d have taken more care to do so properly. He pulled out a one-sided A3-sized aerial map. Unfolding it, he laid it as flat as he could on the bit of trunk he was sitting at and the three gathered around to look at it. On first glance, the map looked like every bit of generic ordnance survey map Connor had ever seen, which admittedly wasn’t all that much. It was mostly green with coniferous tree shapes printed on top, unsurprising given their surroundings. Contours and lines narrowed and widened at various points on the page, signifying steep hill climbs and shallow valleys. Veiny blue lines threaded their way through here and there, indicating little rivers and streams, so insignificant that that they were unnamed on the map. A couple of buildings, identifiable by brown squares, were dotted occasionally around the edge. The bulk of the area though was green. Half a dozen blue dots had been inked by someone on top and according to the addendum on the legend at the side of the map, these were hidden water stations. At the top right-hand corner was a hand-drawn red flag. This was their goal.

“Right. We know where we’re going then, but we need to find out where we are.” Rhys had taken charge of the situation and, for the moment, neither of the others minded. Rhys continued speaking, more to himself than the others.

“Grid co-ordinates…eastings 83796….uh-huh….northings 241389….”

He tapped into his phone, studied what he was looking at, looked back at the map and back to his phone again. He held his phone out in front of himself and turned slightly away from the others, who watched him closely. He continued muttering.

“We are here. Due north….is here…”

He leaned on the map and squinted at the legend in the corner.

“1:25 000 scale… righto. So, yes, that’s, let me see….” He placed his hand span across the map, diagonally from bottom to top. “…40-ish, 45 maybe miles.”

At this, Connor’s heart sank.

“Okay,” announced Rhys, holding the map up with both hands. “We are here!” He held a forefinger to the bottom left hand corner. “And the flag is here, obviously.” His forefinger travelled up the map to the drawing of the flag. “By my reckoning, the flag is about 45 miles away, maybe a bit less, in that direction.”

Rhys pointed towards the trees. There was no magic parting of the pines at Rhys’s announcement, no shaft of light from a friendly celestial finger, no heavenly choir to suggest confirmation. No discernible path showed at all.

“If we walk at a steady 3 miles per hour, allowing for rest and some sleep, we should reach our flag about this time tomorrow morning. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, I can’t see how we’re expected to be out here for two or three days.”

Neither Stephen nor Connor doubted Rhys’s calculations, but Connor was cautious.

“Remember what the man alluded to… unexpected things to keep us on our toes…medical assistance…creatures… – remember those guns at the climbing wall! I reckon you’re spot on with your calculations Rhys, but I think we need to expect the unexpected on our way.”

“Yeah, good point Connor. As long as we’re prepared though – whose backpack is full?”

The truth was, they all were. All three of the boys had packed extra clothes and bits and pieces ‘just in case’. They were well-prepared.

“We’ll need to split the food rucksack up between us, or maybe take turns at carrying it. What d’you think?”

Connor knew that his backpack was jammed full. He had little room. He had little desire to lug around a second pack either. Stephen spoke first.

“I’ve no room in my backpack. It’s totally full. I didn’t want to discover I needed something that I’d left back at Kimble. I know I’ve got too much stuff, but I don’t want to take anything out.”

“I’m the same, Stephen,” said Connor.

“Yeah. Me too,” said Rhys.

Stephen picked up the fourth bag and opened it. Unzipping the top and tearing aside a strip of Velcro, he began unpacking the supplies that the man had given to them that morning. The others watched in anticipation as each new item was pulled out.

“Dried pasta…three-pack of cereal bars….box of powdered cup a soups…vitamin supplements, whatever they are…tea bags…more pasta…noodles…air-dried bacon – eugh – more cereal bars…some more cup a soups…even more cereal bars.”

How tasty they’d be was up for debate afterwards, but there was enough sustenance to keep them on their feet until they reached the end. The hidden water stations were a welcome idea. At least if the food was rotten, they could stay hydrated. Stephen continued pulling items and announcing what each thing was, even though the others could see for themselves.

“Metal water bottle. And another. And another…..one each! A frying pan…pot…kettle…pack of three sporks…another map – this one’s much bigger, look – extra-long matches…5kg of propane gas…..jeez! No wonder this backpack is bulky. A toilet roll!”

Laid out flat on the bed of pine needles, it was a lot of stuff.

“Well, I think we should split it up,” said Rhys. “We all get a water bottle each and we take either the pot or the pan or the kettle. They’ll all hang below your rucksack, so they won’t even need packed. One of us can surely find some space for the gas canister. If we split the food up, we can shove it into the pockets of our trousers and jacket, wherever we can find space. The food will disappear as we walk anyway, so by the end of this we really should have only the cooking gear left.”

The boys busied themselves with dividing up the contents of the bag. Connor volunteered to take the gas canister, squashing it down the side netting of his rucksack so that it was easy to get to. When they’d finished, all three had extra items and heavier bags, but a little more team spirit. The mood was upbeat and light-hearted.

“Before we set off, I think we should consider our strategy.” Rhys was in charge again. Connor and Stephen hadn’t considered such a thing as a ‘strategy’. They were more than prepared to walk in the direction Rhys had identified and keep going until they were too thirsty or too hungry or too tired to continue.

“Looking at the map,” said Rhys, “there’s a water station nearby. We should fill our bottles before we leave.”

Rhys laid the map flat once more and the three peered at it. Connor was just getting to grips with what he was looking at when Rhys announced with certainty that the water was located to their left and got up, pointing towards a clump of bushes as he walked. Stephen and Connor followed behind, apprentices to their master and on his say-so, began pulling back branches and shrubbery and undergrowth in the hope they’d find something that looked like a water station.

“A-ha!” exclaimed Rhys. He was standing nearby, his foot keeping pressure on the undergrowth to stop it from springing back up. Peeking out between the brown and green of the forest floor was a large clear blue cylindrical tank. A white tap stuck out of it about three quarters of the way down, covered for the moment in clear shrink wrap. By the time the other two had got there, Rhys already had the plastic wrap off of the tap and was filling his metal water bottle. He stood aside, drinking, and let the others do likewise. When all three had filled their bottles, drank some then topped up once more, Connor covered the tank and the now-empty rucksack that had contained the food with the surrounding shrubbery, hiding it from who exactly he didn’t know, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

They sat back on the same logs as before. Stephen pulled a cereal bar from his pocket and began to eat. Connor was about to tell him not to waste the food so quickly until he saw Rhys open a bar too.

As Connor unwrapped his own bar, Rhys led the discussion.

“We need to decide if we want to walk until we drop then sleep for a bit before carrying on, or whether we walk for, say three hours at a time then have a twenty or thirty minute break before continuing again. We have no idea where the other two teams are in relation to us. I’d imagine though that the flag is in the centre of a very large circle and while we walk north, one team will be travelling south and the other approaches from the east or west. We could try and second-guess how those teams will travel and aim to beat them that way, but I think we need to come up with a clear idea of our own, right now, and stick with it no matter what happens.”

He looked keenly at his teammates.

“Any thoughts?”

“I don’t think I could walk all day without the chance to sleep later,” said Stephen.

“But the opportunity to sleep for as long as you want will come at the end,” said Connor. “We’re all fit here, the three of us. We’re all able to keep at it for a long time before fatigue sets in. I reckon we walk for a few hours then stop for a bit and keep doing that until we arrive at the flag.”

“I could walk for hours,” answered Stephen, “but I’d still need somewhere to sleep at the end of it.”

“There might not be anywhere to sleep though,” pointed out Rhys. “Where we are just now is fine – it’d make a nice camp for the night, but we don’t know what lies ahead. The map suggests more of the same, but we won’t really know.”

The conversation between the three continued, with the various merits of walking and resting versus a long walk and an ample sleep debated. In the end they compromised. They’d aim to walk until 3pm with minimal rest. If Rhys’s sums were right, they’d have travelled the best part of 20 miles by then – about half the distance. At that point they’d make a collective decision on whether to have a decent recharging rest or whether to press on.

Somewhere, in a room far, far away that the boys would never know about, the man sat wearing over-sized headphones and listened intently to everything the boys said. He had no visuals, but the wizardry that the lab boffins had managed to embed in the Elements Sat Nav app meant that, so long as there was a phone signal, he could listen in to any boy via their mobile phone. The boy Campbell stood out for him. He had all the makings of a very good leader. He’d be keeping a close eye – or ear – on him over the duration of this first event.

With their strategy in place, the boys took a few minutes to update their social media feeds. Stephen filmed the scene and added a mock commentary of the situation. Rhys jabbed silently at his screen. Connor placed his phone on a trunk and the three got together, huddled close gangsta style and hammed it up for the camera. Adding some text and a couple of hashtags, Connor tagged in his teammates before sending the picture out and into many thousands of followers’ phones. As the first hundred or so responses bounced back to him, the boys were already walking in the direction Rhys had pointed out a short while ago. Their journey, their participation proper in the first Elements event, had begun.

Initially, the walk was fun. Spirits were high, the terrain underfoot springy and carpet-like. Little streams ran here and there. Bubbling water and loudly chirping blackbirds and bullfinches sound-tracked their trip, punctuated by a hearty laugh or the occasional echoing snap of a twig as it broke underneath the Elements-issued walking boots. They made good progress. The weather was mild enough that all of them at various points removed their jacket to tie around their waists. After just over a couple of hour’s-worth of solid walking they had travelled almost six and a half miles. Rhys seemed satisfied with this progress and encouraged his teammates to maintain this effort. A little later, they arrived at a clearing in the trees. To their left, a silvery stream burst between the pines and gurgled its way downhill. Hills and fells ran across the horizon in the gap between the trees. Rhys stopped to check the sat nav on his phone, comparing what was on the screen with what was on the annotated map.

“This is where we start to climb, boys,” he said. “Going by the maps, I reckon we’ll be going up and over those hills that’re through the trees.”

“Those aren’t hills,” complained Stephen. “They’re mountains!”

“Let’s take a break here,” suggested Connor, and without waiting for approval, sat himself down on the bank of the stream. The others joined him, removing their backpacks. Connor tapped on his phone.

“I wonder where the other teams are.”

He scrolled through Grayson’s social feeds. There were plenty of pictures of him with the rest of his team, hanging from trees, goofing around next to a water canister the same as the one they’d uncovered where they’d been dropped off, drinking open-handed from a stream before splashing whoever was filming him. It didn’t look as though Grayson and his team were taking things very seriously. Nor did the others. You could be forgiven for thinking that, with his threatening haircut and tight-fitting camouflage, Harrison was the most-likely to succeed out here. He had posted multiple selfies, no team shots, of him in the forest, a determined look on his face and plenty of cliched statements accompanying each shot. Reilly and Alan though had uploaded some short video clips of Harrison holding the map and arguing with himself over which direction they should be heading in. His two team-mates stifled off-camera laughs as it focused on the edges of the map flapping in the wind. They’d turned one of the video clips into a meme with ‘He’s holding it upside down!’ written across the bottom in large white lettering. It had been liked and shared thousands of times. Connor was confident that his team was the most focused of the three. Rhys, who’d been looking through the socials on his phone, suddenly spoke.

“Location services! Turn them off!”

The others looked at him, confused.

“Have you taken any pictures here?”

“Just one, of the river there,” said Stephen.

“Let me see it, give it to me, quick!” said Rhys.

Stephen handed him his phone with a puzzled look. Rhys took it and found the most-recent photo in Stephen’s camera roll. When he clicked on it, a series of co-ordinates showed where the photograph had been taken.

“Have you put this on your feed?”

“Not yet,” said Stephen, “but I was going to.”

“Well don’t!”

Connor, who’d been watching and listening carefully, was trying to work out what this was all about. As it started to make sense, Rhys explained.

“The others can work out where we are by checking our social feeds. If we have location services turned on, they can track us every time we post an image. Look!”

He pulled up one of Grayson’s photos, tapped a couple of times and the co-ordinates popped up on the screen.

“If I check the map, we should be able to work out where that photo was taken.”

Stephen produced the map and the three huddled around it. Even though he suspected Stephen would have no idea either, Connor didn’t know what he was looking for, but he wasn’t going to admit that to the other two. Rhys was proving to be an indispensable leader. Rhys traced his fingers around the edge, looking at the numbers that ran along both axes. He looked back at Grayson’s image on his phone, double-checking the co-ordinates.

“Those co-ordinates aren’t on this map. Where’s the bigger one?”

Connor raked through the inside pocket of his backpack and pulled the large ordnance survey map from it. Opening it fully on the ground, Stephen placed each of their backpacks on a corner. Connor kneeled on the fourth corner to stop the map from flapping about and Rhys leaned over his shoulder, looking for the co-ordinates that would give up Grayson’s team’s position. It didn’t take him long to locate them.

“They’re around here,” he said assuredly, his forefinger circling an area of the map on the right. “And we are here.” He placed his other forefinger on a totally different section of the map, near to where Connor’s knee was. “We’re travelling north from the south. It looks as though Grayson’s team are travelling west from east. The red flag is here…look.” Rhys pulled the smaller map on top of the bigger map and pointed out the identical features.  “So, Grayson’s team started way over here….” He pointed to the small map again, but far to the right of it, onto the ground. “When was that photo uploaded to Olé?”

“9 am,” confirmed Connor.

Rhys checked the time on his phone.

“And it’s now nearly 11 o’clock. If they’ve not stopped walking, they’ll maybe be as far as here now.”

Rhys moved his forefinger along the map showing how much further the other team might have travelled. It was clear to see that, although there was a long way still to go, Grayson’s team was closer to the flag than they were. Rhys looked up at his team-mates.

“What about Harrison’s team? Can we find the most recent upload from them? Hopefully we can take the co-ordinates from that too.”

The three of them busied themselves with finding something, anything, that might give Harrison’s team’s location away. It was Stephen who came up trumps.

“Reilly updated his feed twenty minutes ago. Check out the picture of him and Alan on the big boulder at the edge of the trees.”

Photo found, Rhys pulled the co-ordinates from it and cross-referenced them with the large map. It was he again who pinpointed the location of the photo. He pointed to the top left of the map showing where it had been taken, drawing an invisible line to the flag.

“I reckon they’re about the same distance from the flag as us.”

“How come Grayson’s team is closer when they’ve been mucking about? And how come Harrison’s team are about the same distance away as us when none of them can read a map?” Stephen’s question was a fair one.

“I dunno,” admitted Rhys. “But I think if we were all dropped off at different times, it’s logical to assume we were all dropped at a slightly different distance from the flag by way of compensation. That way, when the last team was dropped off, they were the same distance to the flag as the first team dropped off was, even although the first team had been walking for maybe an hour already.”

It was a plausible theory and probably the best they could go on for now.

“But turn of your location services. That way, we can still upload pictures, but no-one will be able to work out where they were taken from. If we can keep checking the others’ photos, we may have an edge over them.”

Rhys began tapping at his phone again, closely followed by the other two.

Somewhere far away in a room at Kimble that the boys would never know about, the man spoke to Cameron.

“This boy Campbell has excellent leadership qualities. Let’s put them to the test, Cameron, shall we?”

Oblivious to the notion that their phones might be tapped in some way, the boys marched on through the trees and into the hills. Somewhere back at Kimble, Cameron was packing a jeep with exactly the sort of equipment designed to put the very best leaders under the most intense pressure.

The boys, under Rhys’s direction had agreed that they’d walk for a further two hours and then check their rivals’ social feeds. If they had gained distance on Harrison’s group and closed the gap on Grayson’s, they’d maybe stop for a longer rest, dependant on how wide or narrow the gaps were. As they approached the fens, the trees began to thin out. As did their cover and, with the wind whipping up a cold breeze, each of the boys untied their jacket and put it on. It was amazing just how quickly the weather could turn. It had been close, balmy even, under the canopy of the pines. Out on the exposed moorland it was unseasonally cold. There was nowhere to shelter here, nowhere to take cover and so the boys ploughed on. The walk had become less of a novelty now and aches and pains were beginning to make themselves known. Stephen complained of a sore back. Connor internalised his grief, but these new boots had started to rub on his heel and pinky toe. He was looking forward to getting them off, giving his feet a good scratch and readjust his socks to help ease the discomfort.

The shape of the boys’ travel had changed too. Where they had been together and three abreast, now they were a thin, fragile line, stretched out over 100 metres or more with Rhys ahead at the front, Connor somewhere in the middle and Stephen way at the back. Connor wanted to slow down, to let Stephen catch up, but he knew Rhys wouldn’t, and he didn’t want to risk losing sight of their leader as he led them over the fens to whatever waited on the other side. This stretch for the most part was tortuous. The wind howled into their faces. Despite the sunshine it was freezing cold. At points, the solid ground gave way to a peaty, marshy bog and they found themselves sludging ankle deep through goo for parts of the way. By the time they’d negotiated the uneven terrain, Rhys had stretched further ahead of the others and Stephen had clearly slowed down. By the time Rhys had reached the top of the fens, Stephen was perhaps a kilometre behind him. When Connor arrived at Rhys, Rhys was sheltering against a huge volcanic rock, his back to the wind and his eyes looking towards what was still to be conquered. Stretching below them was thick gorse bush and shale, not the easiest of terrains to negotiate from the top of a hill. Beyond the gorse and shale was another pine forest, dark and foreboding, but welcome shelter from the exposed moorland they’d soon be leaving behind. As they waited for Stephen, they calculated they’d walked in excess of 12 miles in total. The small map was with Stephen. The large map would have blown away in the wind, so until they were back in the lowlands with shelter from the elements, they couldn’t be more exact. There was no phone signal here either, so none of the others’ positions could be worked out.

“The sooner we’re back down there,” pointed Rhys to the pine forest below, “the better. We’ll check on the others, work out our own progress and decide if we can afford a rest or not. I’m thinking that Stephen might have slowed us down a bit.”

The pair looked back down the hillside and watched as their team-mate slowly zig-zagged his way up the hillside towards them, a dot becoming a matchstick person and finally a full-sized Stephen. As he approached, they stood up and adjusted their backpacks.

“Aw man!” I need a rest, said a clearly knackered Stephen.

“Five minutes then, mate,” agreed Rhys. “It’s all downhill from here.”

Gratefully, Stephen sat down and leaned against the large rock, still wearing his backpack.

“My back’s killing me. My feet too. These boots aren’t the comfiest.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a nutri-bar, washing it down with a slug from his water bottle.

“I’ll need to refill soon too,” he said, tapping his fingertips against the metallic side of the bottle. “Not got much left.”

“Yeah, I’ll need to refill as well,” acknowledged Rhys. “When we get down to the trees there, we’ll get the maps out and locate the nearest water station.”

The boys, together again, cautiously made their way down the side of the hill. The shale made it very slippery underfoot and each of them at one point or another had to grab a hold of jaggy gorse bush to stop themselves careering down the hillside. They stopped several times, both to catch their breath and ease the adrenalin that would rush each time they wrongfooted. Unscathed but not unnerved, they made it to the bottom.

The welcome underfoot carpet of fallen pine needles told them they were on the outskirts of the forest again. The light darkened, the wind dissipated, and it immediately felt more tranquil and sheltered. They walked on, eager to find a suitable spot where they could stop and pinpoint water and see where they stood in what was a very different sort of race. Were they first? Were they last? Were they somewhere in the middle, gaining on the leaders or being caught up by those in last place? No one knew. All were desperate for a proper rest. They’d agreed on 3 o’clock, but that was before they knew they’d be traversing fells in high wind and unpleasant conditions. None of the three wanted to suggest breaking for a while here and now, but all three thought it. Connor checked his phone as he followed Rhys’s lead. Grayson, Fowler and Burgess all had pictures up of them cooking around the small gas canister. He checked Alan’s feed. There was a picture of him eating a metal bowl of something, the words ‘At last! Foooooood!’ below.

“Guys. Going by their latest pictures, it looks as though both of the other teams have eaten. I say we stop soon and rest for a bit.” Being the diplomatic sort he added, “I think we could all do with a good rest and something warm to eat.”

“Amen, brother!” shouted Stephen in response.

Rhys didn’t need much convincing either and so, as they walked, they kept their eyes peeled for an ideal spot where they could rest. They didn’t need to walk for long. The happy sound of a running stream and a small clearing on its bank made for a makeshift camp. Rhys took immediate control.

“Stephen, you get the cooking stuff up and running. Connor, you get the food. I’m going to check the maps and see where the nearest water station is. When we’re eating, we’ll try and work out where the others are.”

Without waiting for an answer, Rhys emptied a handful of foodstuff from his pockets to the ground before busying himself with the two maps and his phone, cross-checking as he went. Stephen and Connor added some of their food to the pile then untied the pot, pan and kettle from the three rucksacks and got things going with the propane gas. They used the last of their water to boil up some tea and some chicken-flavoured noodles, pouring three milkless and sugarless teas into dull metal cups and emptying the contents of the pan into three small metal containers.

“We’re here,” said Rhys between sporked mouthfuls of noodles. The noodles, if that’s what they were, weren’t the best but they were warm and welcome and quickly washed down by the bitter tea. “We’ve walked roughly sixteen miles, maybe just a wee bit more. We’re more than a third of the way there.”

Rhys let that fact hang in the air for a bit. He might’ve said ‘only’ a third of the way there, but thinking back to Professor Zimmerman’s class, he was mindful of the positivity that the power of carefully chosen words can have in a difficult situation.

“We’ve walked almost non-stop for about six hours. In a couple of hours from now, we’ll be halfway there. That’s not bad going at all.”

Taking a black marker from his pocket, he drew a snaking line from where Pamela and the driver had left them that morning, leaving an inky splodge on the part of the map where they were just now. The others looked at the distance travelled….and the distance still to go. Framed as Rhys had done, it didn’t seem so bad, but there was a sizeable distance ahead of them. If they walked continually as they’d been doing, they’d get to the flag sometime in the middle of the night. They couldn’t sustain that though, all three of them knew within themselves that this was an impossibility. At some point they’d need to stop and get some sleep. The halfway mark seemed like the logical choice.

“Let’s see if we can work out where the others are.”

“Already done it,” said Stephen, pulling up an image on his phone. “This is Harrison ten minutes ago. It was taken at 845369 and 257033.”

Connor watched as Rhys’s fingers ran along both axes of the large map before meeting at a point somewhere in the middle.

“It’s hard to say for certain, but I’d say they’re a good bit further away from the flag than we are. I think we might have stretched further ahead of them. What d’you think?”

“We should’ve marked where they were the last time we checked,” said Connor ruefully.

“Already done it!” said Stephen again. He pulled up the ‘Foooood!’ image that Alan had posted. It had the same coordinates as Harrison’s photo. He then found the video clip of Harrison holding the map upside down and read out the co-ordinates to Rhys. He traced his fingers back along the map.

“So, since the upside-down map clip, that team has walked only three or so miles to where that latest picture of Harrison is. They’re going much slower than us. That’s good!”

Stephen busied himself with his phone again before holding it up to show a picture of Grayson.

“This was Grayson splashing in the river.” He read out the coordinates and waited for Rhys to mark them on the map. “And this is Grayson 20 minutes ago, eating his lunch at the camp.” Rhys traced the co-ordinates and marked a new spot along the same trajectory.

Connor, feeling that he wasn’t contributing enough to the team, searched quickly for a recent picture of somebody, anybody from one of the other teams. He found what he was looking for and shared it.

“Here’s a clip from 2 minutes ago!” he shouted, far louder than he should have. In the clip, Burgess and Fowler were knee-deep in a narrow stream, each kicking water at the other, their trousers rolled up to their thighs. Off-camera, Grayson’s voice could be heard laughing and encouraging them for the benefit of the camera. “This is happening right now!” He read the coordinates and Rhys verified that the clip was taken at the same spot where Grayson’s team had stopped for lunch. They’d been stationary for at least 20 minutes, and probably longer.

“I reckon we’re gaining on them, what d’you thinkl?” asked Rhys. He’d marked Grayson’s team’s first known position and their current known position, showing a narrower gap between the two points than the gap between their own plotted locations.

There was a decision to be made; eat up and move on, hoping to close the gap with every step or rest for a bit and regain some much-needed strength. Connor made a suggestion.

“I reckon we take another ten minutes or so here. Locate fresh water. Maybe ease our feet – I’d love to dip mine in the stream there – and aim to walk until four in the afternoon. At that point we reassess our position.”

Stephen wasn’t so keen, but Rhys was, so the majority vote meant that they’d be packing up and moving out shortly. While Rhys set about locating the closest water station, Stephen and Connor packed up the cooking gear, washing the sticky pot in the running stream as best they could. While at the stream Connor took the opportunity to dip his feet in the cold water. It felt good to feel the water clean between his toes. He scratched the soles of his feet by rubbing them back and forth across the gravelly riverbed. Once satisfied, he dried his feet on the grassy riverbank and wiped off the excess water with the outside of his sock before putting his socks and boots back on again. Just this small act made his feet feel cleaner and healthier and ready for the next two hours of walking. Rhys pointed ahead and slightly to the right.

“We need to head this way. There should be a water station ten or so minutes from here.”

The boys looked in the direction of where he was pointing. Stephen sighed then led the way.

They found the water station easily. Rhys had proven to be an excellent map reader, an invaluable leader for the team. As they drank and refilled their bottles, an hour or less away sped a jeep. Inside was the man and Cameron. They aimed to be at the midway point well before Connor, Rhys and Stephen.

The boys walked on; through the forest, pine-fresh and silent, following narrow paths where possible, making their own when they needed to, crossing little streams either by leaping from one side to the other or navigating across natural stepping stones if the stream was too wide. Jackets were tied back around waists, conversation was minimal, the focus very much on marching through the miles. Endless trees loomed on the horizon, then brushed past their shoulders before slipping behind as the boys continued their determined push. At one point, their sat nav led them across a main road that split the forest in two. There were no cars on the road and tempted as they had been by Stephen’s suggestion that they hung about to hitch a lift if it could get them any closer and quicker to the flag, they crossed over and entered the next section of forest. Had they waited a quarter of an hour, they’d have seen the jeep carrying the man and Cameron speed past on its way to its intended location, a mile or two up the road.

By four in the afternoon, the boys were extremely tired. A combination of backpacks, bumpy ground and breaking in boots had take its toll. They were all desperate to rest for a reasonable length of time and dropped as one as soon as Rhys suggested they do so. Connor lay back on the bed of pine needles, backpack acting as a pillow, and watched contentedly as a dozen or so crows wheeled high in the air above the canopy of the trees. He had closed his eyes and must have fallen asleep, for he was brought back to the here and now by Stephen’s voice.

“Has anyone checked where the others are now?”

Grudgingly, Connor rolled over and up. Stephen dug into Connor’s backpack, returning with the big map. Rhys and Stephen were busily tapping on their phones, comparing social media posts for the most-recent ones they could find. All three teams had been on the move, but it did look as though the team of Rhys and Stephen and Connor was maybe ahead. It was hard to tell, given that the three teams were approaching the flag from different angles, with different obstacles behind and still ahead of them, but it was encouraging all the same.

“Let’s take a decent break here,” suggested Rhys, to absolutely no objections.

 

(more to follow in the future)

Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

New. Order.

In A Lonely Place first appeared on the b-side of New Order‘s debut release, Ceremony.

New Order In A Lonely Place

Unlike its flip side (a great introduction to a brand new band, but essentially (perhaps) Joy Divison’s Transmission given a fresh coat of paint), In A Lonely Place is a headswim of swirling, Hook-piloted bass and womb-like ambient atmospherics.

Continuing where he left off with Joy Division, Stephen Morris plays all manner of unexpected, inventive drum patterns; regimented and military-like in some places, free form and skittering in others, but always with a tectonic, glacial pace that might, when I stop to think about it, make him the lead instrument on the track.

Icy laters of synth coat the whole six and a half minutes in a sheen of glistening permafrost, with the warmth of a blown-in melodica and Morris’s cymbal splashes adding the requisite colour.

Turning the filters up from stark monochrome to an off-white sepia, a still-reluctant Sumner on vocals goes full-on Curtis, downbeat, downtrodden, down down down, grinding the gears of this New Order to a juddering, rumbling, fading halt. It’s bleak, it’s spacey, it’s elegant.

Caressing the marble and stone
Love that was special for one
The waste and the fever and hate
How I wish you were here with me now

Written by Ian Curtis and rehearsed by Joy Division, In A Lonely Place could well be Curtis’s eulogy to himself. In reality though, the song takes its title and subject matter from an old noirish Humphrey Bogart movie. The plot has all the ingredients of a classic pot-boiler; a down-on-his-luck writer, a murdered actress, a hard-boiled, finger-pointing cop, and presciently, as the movie poster says, a surprise finish.

It’s a year since the passing of Andrew Weatherall, and to mark the anniversary, his brother Ian has joined with Duncan Gray under the moniker IWDG to record an elegiac tribute to him. They’ve taken New Order’s In A Lonely Place and updated it for the clued-in and open-minded amongst us.

More uptempo and lighter on its feet that the original, it is nonetheless respectful of the source. The melodica is still there, dubby and ethereal. The vocal, when it chooses to appear, is synth-like and robotic, its ‘how I wish you were here with me now‘ refrain taking on new meaning. And New Order’s imperial engine room, the star of the show on the original version, has been shunted sidewards, replaced and replicated by a couple of anonymous chrome and silver machines. It’s a really great version…

(It’s four really great versions, in reality.) Spread across the other three tracks you’ll find mixes by Weatherall associates David Holmes, Keith Tenniswood and the Hardway Bros. From the brief snippet you’ll find online, that Tenniswood one, all 17 downtempo minutes of it, sounds incredible. The EP is both reverential yet forward-thinking. I think you’d like it.

If Weatherall is your kinda thang, you might want to head over to Bagging Area where you’ll find Adam and his always-authoritative take on all things Andrew.

A digital release is out now, with a vinyl release to follow in June. You’ll find more details at Rotters Golf Club.

 

 

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)