The Elements

The Elements Chapter 2

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

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

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

You can read previous chapters here.

The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only, there wasn’t a window.


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

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

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

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

  • Pack a small overnight bag. On arrival at the TV studios, clothing will be provided.
  • Bring toiletries and essential medication. Do not worry about running out.
  • You may wish to bring a spare pair of shoes.
  • You may bring a selection of confectionary for the journey.
  • Reading material is essential.
  • Mobile devices are essential but must not be used to call home.
  • This letter is your train ticket. Do not discard it. Bring it with you on the day.

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

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

“Hey! You! Converse!”

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

“Hey, You! Yeah, You! Mate!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grayson, mate. Sweet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What d’you mean?”

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

“Och. Eh, well,…”

Grayson interrupted.

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

“I set fire to a boy at school.”

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

“Jeez, mate. Jeez.”

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


They both looked at him as he spoke.

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

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

Grayson fidgeted with his phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright? Is someone in there?”


He tapped again.


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

Still silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People of Kimble, The

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

Natural order of things.

Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.

Not all will make the return journey, the

Consequence of failure should be obvious to


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

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

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


(more to follow in the future)

The Elements

I Want To Be A Paperback Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Elements

by Craig McAllister

Chapter 1


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


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

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

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

Eventually, a court case arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(more to follow in the future)