March Short Story: Hysteria

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts (I know the graphic is incorrect) during March 2019 via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Hysteria

‘You’ve not heard, have you?’

Harry is the Senior Sub and my liaison since January. I was here to catch up with Connie in Lifestyle, returning her West Wing DVD’s, and he’s collared me by the vending machine.

‘I don’t look at social media every 10 seconds, what have I missed?’

‘Your favourite bonkers actress gave possibly the most honest post-Golden Globes interview anybody ever wished for.’

Looking at my watch it’s 3am in LA. Alice Hooper was a shoe-in as Best Supporting Actress for a remarkably subtle turn in ‘Surviving’, a World War 2 blockbuster. The win I knew about, because I’m in the same WhatsApp group as her publicist. We’ve kept in touch since graduating from Guildhall together: Pip and I shared a curry the last time she was in London. This turn of events is a surprise, and isn’t being spoken about privately as yet.

I know what Harry’s going to ask this freelancer next: the paper’s editor can spot a story half a mile away with headlights on long before anyone else. What needs to happen now is me at a workstation, firing up YouTube, in the hope this interview’s bonkers content has gone viral. Polly Acres has the footage on screen already, trawling it for comment, and is happy to re-run the three minutes and twenty three seconds in its entirety. The first thing that strikes is Alice isn’t herself: both hands grasp the award, working hard to keep a shake under control.

In two hundred and twenty three seconds she calls her co-star a misogynist devil, attacks the director for sacrificing historical accuracy over trite one liners and confirms the production company insisted that their CEO’s daughter be given a totally pointless walk-on cameo role. None of this is lies, if rumours online were to be believed, but they’d all been strenuously denied or redacted. For Alice to pretty much rubbish everybody she’d worked with in such a short space of time is an impressive show of defiance even for her, but that’s not the killer.

The final question comes from this paper’s Entertainment editor: what do you have to say to your fellow nominees? Alice stares straight at the camera, eyes full of tears:

‘You’re wasting your lives. Nobody cares about you, or what you’ve done. It’s time to change profession.’

The press room falls suddenly silent as Hooper extends her arm, before theatrically allowing the Golden Globe to fall to the ground, where it quite impressively disintegrates into several pieces. As she walks away, there is undoubtedly signs of a limp that wasn’t there yesterday.

I’ve interviewed Alice eleven times in twenty years. She’s never done drugs, remains proudly bisexual: last time there was a lover in her life was over a decade ago. Their death from a pulmonary aneurysm had profoundly altered both outlook and approach to the entertainment world. As the expert on Hooper in the room, Polly is told the facts: this woman will have drunk water all night, it isn’t prescription pills or drugs talking. No slur, eye contact with cameras the entire time. This is just her and utter truth.

The question we should be asking is why.

My phone ringing at this point would normally be a massive inconvenience, until I notice the caller ID: Harry’s eyes widen as I show him, before connecting to Pip. She should be asleep, but if the call’s being made now, I’ll be on a flight to LA before the end of business today.

I know what’s going to happen before it does.


Eleven hours on a plane and a small fee for internet is all I need to get back up to speed on Alice’s life to date. There’s an immediate red flag: an appearance on a US genealogy programme was suddenly cut a couple of months ago. Buried away in a Variety byline are the details, language which is quite obviously chosen by someone with a legal eye on proceedings. I had no idea such programmes even existed, and with time to kill there’s an opportunity via the flight’s entertainment system to watch an example.

Fourteen minutes into this particular episode, elderly male celebrity makes jokes as he’s asked to swab inside his cheek for a DNA test, and I’m curious. My mother used to tell me I was wasted as a journalist and would have made a fantastic policewoman instead. She was right. This would have been something Alice would have loved: history, romance and intrigue around her family who emigrated from Italy to New York in the 1880’s. What if that DNA test had flagged something serious, the knowledge of which had forced her to withdraw from this documentary?

I’ve not replied to Pip’s last WhatsApp message yet, details of when to meet Hooper when I get to LA. Normally we’d meet at the Chateau Marmont, but instead it appears I’ll finally get to see Alice’s home for the first time, which fills my tired mind with a measure of excitement. El Cabrillo was built by Cecil B. DeMille in 1928: a two-story, ten-unit Spanish-style courtyard apartment complex, which has a history as rich and torrid as the man who was responsible for it’s construction. It has featured in countless TV shows and movies across the decades.

It’s one of three homes in LA, originally owned by her last long-term partner Lucy Welles. It was generally accepted she never stayed there any more as a result, but she will be there at 9am tomorrow morning, waiting for me. Nobody else will be offered either invite or interview. I ask Pip via WhatsApp if she’s okay, expecting a generic response. It takes fifteen minutes, then a video arrives: she’s still in the outfit worn for the Golden Globes. She thanks me for my discretion and honesty, before bursting into tears.

Something is terribly wrong here.


There’s a man waiting outside the Complex as I get out of the cab the next morning. LA is surprisingly sullen and grey, sweater weather for most. I’m still too hot and suddenly nervous, uncomfortable at this man’s presence. I’d come fearing the worst: this serves as confirmation. He’s a care nurse, unphased I’m a reporter, explaining that Ms Hooper has left strict instructions for my handling. There is breakfast inside: I must wait until Alice wakes naturally. It is important not to disturb her. As he opens her apartment door, I’m left completely stunned.

The place is a shell: no furniture except my chair, full breakfast tray and Alice’s hospital bed, for that’s what it is. Surrounded by quietly bleeping and clicking machines is the woman who yesterday was very much upright and defiant. As the front door closes, eyes flicker open.

‘Good morning, Ruth. I hope you brought enough hard disk space for a sizeable expose…’


I wish now I’d taken a proper camera, looking at photos downloaded from my ancient and much in need of an upgrade mobile phone. Back now at the Hotel, they’ll tell this story regardless. Alice Hooper was diagnosed with Lichen planus eleven months ago: after the disease failed to respond to traditional medication she was sent for specialist testing. Then came the discovery that her immune system had begun attacking other organs, including liver, heart and lungs.

She provides me with details of a charity set up to fund research and promote knowledge of this new condition, using her personal fortune after she finally passes. It could be weeks, or hours from now. Nobody really knew. Death stood, waiting for a prompt she was ready to leave. Asking about the outburst at the Golden Globes, why she spoke brutal truth elicited the only real smile in her entire interview.

‘I was a lousy actress, never made a difference. However as a test subject I might end up saving lives. I really wish I’d changed careers far sooner.’

It’s impossible to transcribe any more of the interview, I’m crying too much. This woman is a personal heroine, and I will be the last person to have interviewed her. This legacy, gratefully received, will ensure devotion to her life and career ends on the most positive of notes. On the way back to LAX that evening four calls in thirty minutes go to my answerphone. Rumours are flying after Alice’s performance that this is way more serious than a spat with the production company. People want to know why I’m in LA: they’ll be told, when I am good and ready.

Once upon a time I’d have been hustling for a deal, playing one media outlet against the other. Not any more: what she told me, with brutal honestly over four hours has already had a profound affect on existence.

To be so fearless, that close to death… her greatest performance.


Alice Hooper dies when I’m somewhere over Newfoundland.

Pip’s message is two minutes of tears, trying to get words out: she doesn’t need to. A stewardess asks if I’m okay, only passenger in First Class Alice bought for my return trip. I tell the truth: a dear friend passed away.

February Short Story: Change

This story was first serialised in 28 daily parts during February 2019 via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Change

I can’t do this any more.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to you, with consideration. You know better than I do how the last year’s worn us both down to stubs, lead and wood slivers scattered across a professional landscape tainted with chaos.

At some point something had to give.

It might seem heartless to announce my departure in letter form especially as you’re half a world away, but that’s part of my point. The virtual paper trail is set. My phone’s off. You’ll see the blog post, and if there’s actual care and concern to read it, then the game’s afoot. Will you drop everything in Chicago when my answerphone is all you can contact? How long will it take to notice you’re blocked on all social media? Will you rush to the airport, desperate to make it back to leafy Oxfordshire, begging me to reconsider?

Fat fucking chance of that.

I became a useful scalp in your upward progression through publishing, and for a time… yes, you did love me, of that I’m certain. There was care, consideration and passion that would ignite wherever we’d inhabit, but… and there’s always one, I wasn’t enough for you to be sated. That voracious appetite. Drugs that made me uncomfortable. Random strangers via Skype. A slow drip of extra-curricular activity that prevented a long term commitment and then, when everybody else deserted your sinking ship, I was the lifeboat that never punctured.

Not any more. For the record, I was heartbroken the first time lies replaced what had been the most precious and refreshing honesty I’d ever seen. It’s still painful, uncomfortable feeling whenever your name comes up in meetings or on publications. I loved you once, now it’s officially over. I’ve paid this company a not inconsiderable amount to deliver this letter in person. You’ll assume it’s another contract or offer, that one of your many lovers is playing a game with you, and it is, after a fashion.

You see, after patching up my cracked psyche, I hired a lawyer. The one thing you’ve always been great at is deception, which fits nicely into that professional persona so carefully cultivated. It also means that there’s a couple of quite important people in your circle that would find any hint of public involvement with you quite damaging. Don’t worry, this isn’t blackmail. I was clearing out the flat, ready to move out and away from your horrible, damaging influence and found the bag you’d either hidden there because you thought I’d never find it, or were stupid enough to forget ever existed.

Either way, you lose. You already know what was in it, and now it’s been passed onto the police, because honestly? I was a complete idiot. You played me: I was stupid enough to think that actually, I mattered when that was quite obviously never the case. You’d call me your dependable port in a storm. Not any more, it’s game over. I’ll see you in court. Oh, and as I’m reliably informed by my legal team this letter is admissible as evidence, I look forward to you trying to prove this was some kind of entrapment or deception on my part.

Time to reap what only you have sown.

Mags.


The removal men drive away, battered blue van disappearing into wonderfully bright, blue Oxford morning. I never liked this town: too posh, full of self-righteous pomposity. Christopher fitted right in here, utterly in his tweed and brogue element. It was the right time to leave. His letter should have been delivered exactly as my life departed this town for good: I’ll have got him up at 4am, just as the sun is rising over his immaculate brownstone apartment in New York. He’ll think it’s a lover, probably Anton or Elizabeth, starting his day with a smile.

I imagine him standing there, immaculate white dressing gown suddenly far too hot to wear, staring at my words: more powerful than an any threat made, means by which this entire ridiculous charade will be shattered and broken for good. High time he ended up as the injured party. It is fair to assume his legal team will not simply be sharp but also extremely clever: good luck however if you even try to prove I faked those photographs or any of the video files stored on Chris’ memory stick. You won’t find a single fingerprint of mine on any of those items.

There’s pages of notes, history written up and ready to go. What I heard: lies and duplicity, playing other people off against each other whilst keeping multiple individuals in the dark. Under normal circumstances, none of this would have been of interest to the police, except… Sickness rises in an empty stomach: it’s time to walk the short distance to the station, waiting for the train back to London and my new life. No more breakfast in bed, staring across Oxford’s classical architecture, end to the late nights staggering drunk through narrow streets.

I’ve not touched a drink since the day Chris’ bag was discovered. No cigarettes either: time to go cold turkey from everything. There’d been suspicions over drug use, and now there’s documentary evidence that’s the least of his sins to consider… no, I’m not going to let him win. Hindsight is a wonderful thing: I got played, just like everybody else, except this time there’s no running away from the truth. I’ve offered myself as evidence, willing and ready to stand up in court, because there are points in life where keeping quiet is just flat out wrong.

Part of me is already considering how long it’ll be before the truth comes out.


In the end, it takes a week.

The Metropolitan Police arrest Chris quite literally running off a private plane at London City. He makes the Guardian’s front page, as publishing goes into meltdown. The sympathy garnered from my family is remarkable, who had initially been beyond disparaging at my relationship with this man, who was twelve years my senior. The biggest surprise however is how my employers firstly handle the revelations, before swiftly acting on consequences.

I am offered free counselling, plus a leave of absence. It seems only right to be up front with them over the deal with the prosecution lawyers and when I am, their understanding and support is an unexpectedly comforting surprise. It takes six months to work out their motivation. Chris is the father of my editor in chief’s six year old daughter, which only becomes apparent after a tabloid newspaper breaks the story. It’s news to everybody, including the errant father, and I’m very glad to be working in Manchester that week and not stuck at Head Office.

Trial is set to begin the week after I move into my own place overlooking Olympic Park in Stratford. The legal team are quietly confident of their case: I’m surprisingly nerve free the night before proceedings are due to kick off, using unpacking as a useful displacement activity. At 10.15pm Kim calls me, in a state of considerable shock. The lawyer’s been informed by Police that Chris has suddenly been taken ill, is possibly unconscious and that the trial may need to be halted as a result. TV news already reports that he’s been taken to a London hospital.

By the time I’ve been woken by my phone alarm at 7am, he’s been dead for three hours. Kim has no more details at this point than that, and is amazingly far more upset than I expected. Without an accused, there’s no trial, and the story of the man with many appetites will be lost. Christopher Eastwood died of a massive heart attack before his story of abuse, exploitation and considerable excess was ever publicly known. After the trial was cancelled an awful lot of people were left without closure, including me. My response on reflection is utterly perfect.

It took just over a week to write the story of my time with him; three months to interview everybody else involved, including my then ex-editor in chief. That final manuscript was rejected by my employers quite rightly on grounds of conflict of interest, but it wasn’t a problem. Nepotism might be unpalatable to many, but it was how Chris kept himself hidden for so long. My brother saw the manuscript and within a week, his TV company had mobilised one of the most famous scriptwriters in the country.

This story will soon become compulsive, must watch TV…

January Short Story : Whole

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during January via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Whole

It is very, VERY dark, down here.

There’s no idea how long ‘down here’ has existed either. There are no clocks to mark time, calendar to record moments. All that exists is the whole, then myself. Both are indivisible, immutably connected. This black with my might; here together. Am I sure that whole and me aren’t the same thing? That’s a really good question: right now, without a doubt we are two separate entities. I exist, within the whole. Inky blackness is absolutely not part of my essence. It and me, two different things.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the beginning, everything was the same. That lasted for the longest time, too, just being here, in the dark, comfortable with nothing except silence, motionlessness… is that even a word? I was motionless. Still. Just here, breathing, before sounds began and everything changed.

So many birds are up above me.

Chaffinches, blackbirds and turtle doves. Sparrows and robins, magpies… quiet in the night-time but active at dawn, except there’s never light this far down. I must be in a hole: the only logical explanation available within my particular conundrum. Listening to them now, pre-dawn chorus, eyes remember shapes. Ears connect calls to outlines, brain provides background details. Latin name, portrait drawn by unknown but accomplished artist. Identification, habits, voice, habitat, food… all that’s needed to identify species.

With the noise arrived final proof: I have a body. The brain exists within my head. My hands are at either side, torso and legs in the correct place, just… unmoving. It’s all here, body present and correct. Because this is a hole, I can’t move, but remain whole. Whole, in a hole. This should be frightening, but it isn’t, because there’s always hope. It’s always darkest before the dawn, that’s what Nanna used to say. Nan didn’t want to be in a hole when she died, but dust in the breeze, and so that what happened. Flying above, keeping time on bird’s wings.

I’m not dead, because then there’d be nothing. I remain whole.

The next problem is working out why I remain: once that’s dealt with? I’m assuming more stuff just becomes clear. That’s how it worked with the sounds, so logically it makes sense that other senses will follow suit.Except I don’t remember what those are. There’s feelings, then sounds and after that? It’s all a mess so maybe, possibly that’s a better place to continue investigating. Inside, not out. The thing in my head. BRAIN. Why did you forget all of a sudden? Hang on, that’s the problem.

A woman is singing, over there, bluebird’s lullaby making mind want to stop, ignore everything else. Rest now, go to sleep, easier and less painful than the alternative within. Dust swirls around my whole, sharp on skin. No, it’s harder, heavier… grains. This is sand, lots of it. Without warning, everything is amazingly, blindingly bright. From black to white, dazzle of brilliance: freshly washed sheets, school socks, favourite linen top with blue piping… and it’s gone, vanished into a space, same one the birds come from. Up, that way. Your escape route.

NO, I’m not going to sleep: movies tell you must stay awake, fight demons, don’t head for the light because if you do then hole is gone, lost to the other side: seaside, kids in the sea… breakwaters, traffic, roller-coasters. Seagulls, noisily circling around top of this whole. Concentrate on the light because it wasn’t just white: inside was definition, substance that can be deconstructed. Lots was really blue: cornflowers, bedroom wall, sky on long summer afternoons… warmth seeping through a fluffy towel, covered with pink elephants, marching in time.

A tiny hand wraps around mine: stubbier fingers, still growing and forming inside skin, held within me. ‘Child what is it you want?’ I ask, lying inert, darkness wrapped but he says nothing, just stands and there’s no shape to him: first deeper understanding we’re still one body. ‘I’m killing you,’ he replies without fear, simply presenting facts as if they alone are enough to explain why all of this is happening, joint whole naturally impermeable. There’s no fear presented only quiet statement, inescapable fact. An unformed life keeps me trapped within.

Finally comes context, past presented quietly, monotonic drone: words on the blackboard I wrote myself, explanation to the class. Pre-eclampsia, hypertension, oedema, caesarian. Then, with careful, smooth strokes of soft, blue chalk, each stage is eliminated, only one remaining. This wasn’t the plan. Holes didn’t feature anywhere. Everything organised and under control yet suddenly, inexplicably this last stage hasn’t happened yet. It was supposed to be on Friday and today is Thursday, or at least it was the last time I remembered who it was in the hole.

Well, this is undoubtedly progress, because now there are things that didn’t exist before. My unborn son’s heartbeat, strong and steady in stark contrast to what is clearly my own: far too fast and thready to be healthy. The pain in ankles, below my ribcage, weren’t there before. The sounds of clattering knives and forks, school cafeteria, sitting with the Year 10’s discussing K-Pop and how lucky they are to have the history of music at their fingertips. When I was your age it was just CD’s and Minidiscs, borrowing my father’s old albums as inspiration.

No, this isn’t dinner time, but exams: quiet hum of voices, walking from table to table, praying everybody remembers which quote is Twelfth Night and which comes from Much Ado. All those lives, dependant on my ability to teach, and I’m stuck down whole with no means of escape… That’s not true, because over there’s a sign. No angels, burning bushes or heavenly music. An actual wooden sign, floating in mid air, just at the right height to be easily read. Words are not what I’d like to hear (Don’t Panic) or what’s needed (You’re Safe) but statement: WAIT.

FOR WHAT? I’ve been here forever! Except there’s change: we’re moving. The whole glides, gentle drift; stick caught in a brook’s constant, bubbling stream. Hole begins to shrink, edges visible, inhale and exhale, space breathing in time with heart, less stressed with each beat. There’s a hand, wrapped around mine. Fingers are thick, strong: as thumb strokes my palm there’s memory of Nanna’s house. Grampy would do this, soothing upset when mam didn’t make it home before bedtime. The old man passed when I was fifteen: who’s this, impersonating that past?

A hand reaches out across School Formica dinner table. It’s neither forceful or confident, tentative hope that maybe, just for a moment, I’ll show him that there’s more to this than two colleagues parting after one gets promoted. He’s only going to the Grammar School after all… Five years together, concertina into a feeling; devotion. I’ve never loved anyone as much as Matt: care and respect unlike anything else experienced. Not just a gentleman but friend, lover, partner and absolutely superb cook. What I’d give right now for his Breakfast special…

… but this is better, just a cuppa, another night he slept on the sofa bed as I’m so large its impossible to get comfortable. Standing by the bed, little Roo then appears, carefully holding toast on a plate: brilliant, quiet care for the pregnant mum and wife…

‘Wake up, love.’

I’m not sure what’s just happened, whether it was a dream or a really odd fracturing of reality: the last thing remembered with any clarity was being at the beach with Roo. Sitting on a deckchair, watching him running, whilst Matt was digging the most enormous hole in the sand… I was supposed to go for a check-up tomorrow, our Doctor already warning me that body could be exhibiting the first signs of pre-eclampsia. It might be time to think about a C-Section and not a natural birth, and if so they’d want me admitted to Hospital at beginning of next month.

Matt’s telling me about how I literally wobbled and collapsed getting out of the deckchair before losing consciousness as we waited for an ambulance. Roo was calmer than he was, all the way from the seaside to A&E, and never once let go of my hand until being rushed into theatre. They’re still not sure why I passed out, but there’s no immediate signs of concern. Blood pressure and heart-rate are normal, protein levels in my urine have dropped plus swelling in both hands and feet is now barely noticeable. Dull pain in lower body can mean only one thing…

Looking to my left, a plastic cot on wheels holds tiny form, wrapped in yellow blankets. Matt goes and retrieves him, fetching fresh life: meeting our baby for the first time. Perfectly healthy, utterly beautiful; worth being in the dark for.

Our son, in his arms.

I am whole.