Castaway -- 3. A lucky escape
The Velvet Roar -- Part 3
The lines on the tape deck’s waveform peaked and troughed like writhing worms. Stewart held his headphones close to his head.
Click – rewind – click – play. Ronnie Barker’s voice bellowed:
“Nah, fowkandles. ‘Andles for forks.” Laughter.
Click – rewind – click – play...at half-speed. Barker’s voice became an 80’s space villain:
“Naaaaw, foooowkaaanndddaaawwws. ‘Annnddaaawes ffffoooow foooowksss...”
He scrutinized the wave platform as the worms danced a slow foxtrot to the featureless roar of half-speed laughter. Its onset at the joke’s conclusion was immediate. This signified the audience's comprehension of the joke’s subtle irony. Five seconds in, a tailing off was visible, only to be hidden under a re-emerging laughter, more powerful than before, which gentle fell away to conclude one of the funniest, most referenced jokes in British comedy.
Stewart carefully noted down the findings, his eye line developing the pinched look of someone who's spent too long working up-close.
It’d been a fortnight since his date with Sarah; it’d gone well. They’d meet at Covent Garden after her slot on the radio show. He’d arrived to find her rooted outside the station, under-dressed for the weather, squinting into the sharp wind which channeled down Long Acre; her hair flailing like Basset Hound’s ears from a car window. He’d thought of the oft-affirmed myth – that men don't find funny girls attractive – and thought how it couldn’t be further from the truth. Comedy made her face was quirky; her green eyes edgy with intelligence, their every move unexpected, subversive... Her delicate nose and high cheekbones belied a true, classical beauty.
She was a 1980s Virgin Atlantic stewardess, with Salvador Dali's genius.
-- Less “difficulties”, more “teething problems”, I’d say Kirsty. We always knew we’d be together forever, no question. It was just a matter of... slowing the pace of our lives to find the TIME to get married, ya know? Both of us (but especially me I seem to remember..) were very busy with media commitments at the time. It was a while before we were both in a place where we could settle down...”
Stewart pulled off the headphones with a sheepish jump. Sarah was looking down at him, eyebrows raised.
“It’s OK, you can listen to the sound of laughter instead of me, that’s fine. Off to the record soon, but just popping to Londis, want anything?
“Oh, no I’m OK thanks. Preparing for the gig at The Wheat Sheaf tomorrow. Anxious face...”
“You’ll be fine. Just recycle the material from the set you did in front of Jules. When you get heckled, just imagine the bloke has undersized genitals... and then rip the piss out of his accent if he has one. Unless its Glaswegian, in which case leave it..”
“When What, hang on, WHEN I get heckled?”
“No offense, honey, but you’ll get heckled. It’s Friday night at the Wheat Sheaf, the biggest repository of inebriated wankers that Hackney has to offer. It’s fine though, it’ll make you stronger.”
“Any other advice?”
“Well I was thinking actually...”
She cut off, the ruffle of her shoulder bag against her waterproof anorak claiming the silence.
“Well how about you come along to the next record at the BBC Sunday week? I could get you on the call sheet as work experience or something. Might help you to see a live show, give you some ideas, get talking to the producers... they’re pretty good guys.”
“Really? I mean that’d be great, if you could. Could you actually do it that easily?”
“I’m the other side of the media door, sweatpea, I can do everything easily. I’ll say you’re a friend come to give me a lift after... Fanny’s your aunt, Bob’s your mother’s brother. Oh, and one thing – you cannot let them know we’re a couple."
“Um.. OK. May I ask why?”
“Just..you know... not a good idea in this media world. Wouldn’t look good.”
“So what you’re basically saying is I don’t look good..”
“Stop always bringing it back to you. And have pride; lacking it is unattractive.”
“I do have pride. Me and Myself have so much in common; we’re at the start of a lifelong romance.”
-- “Stop plagiarising Oscar Wilde. Right, I’ll make a call. And rememeber...”
She slammed her hands on the desk, elongating her body across it towards him; a tightly coiled vein springing across her eye like a filament in a bulb.
“Don’t tell anyone.”
She kissing him, taking his top lip between her teeth, letting it ping back in a blot of pleasant pain.
“Bye, pet piranha.”
The front door slammed. With her gone, he could spend some quality time analyzing the throbbing green image she’d planted in his brain the previous before: she’d mentioned her first boyfriend, and how they once did it in the hay barn on her parents’ estate in Gloucestershire. The scene lowered into his head like a stage curtain. He imagined her and her skinny-jeaned beau, fleeing from some pursuing mildly deviant uncle, climbing over styles and bounding across the fields, their hands braided together, before tearing off each other’s red college jumpers to engage in a session of unplanned, tectonic sex.
What would the barn look like? He found himself the unwilling director of the scene: an orangey ray of dusty sunlight would be filtering through a crack in the rafters; a piece of obsolete farming equipment would be brown an rusting in the corner, and Housemartins would chip in time to their soft 'nhs' and 'uhs' which would emit with increasing rigor from around the vicinity of their illicit hideout.
He wrenched his mind back to the present, and headed to the kitchen to make tea. The shower was running in the adjacent bathroom; the gushing of water accompanying the sound of nether regions being thoroughly sanitized.
Moving back in to Sarah's flat had been, overall, a painless affair: their shared mp3 playlist, “GroovyToonage”, had been happily plucked out of the Stewart’s Recycle Bin and restored onto the wifi network’s shared folder; the turquoise toothbrush cheerfully sat back in the sink cup next to its rightful blue-and-red partner; and the post-coital bog roll re-assumed its gallant position on the cluttered bedside table.
The downside with the Mudchute flat came in the form of Gerard – an unemployed film buff and clean freak in his early thirties - whose unannounced spates of nudism about the flat and regular requisitioning of the wireless central heating thermostat led to suspiciously elevated gas bills during the winter months.
“Well hello, Stewart.”
Stewart peered in the cupboard in search of teabags.
“Hi Gerard, how’s it hanginging...”
He turned round to see that it literally was hanging, a few feet from him.
Gerard gestured to his groin with both hands in the manner of a jeweler identifying a diamond ring to a wealthy customer.
“Firm and ready as ever...”
“Be gone, I don’t need to see that on a Sunday morning.”
A phone’s ring broke the silence.
“Stuart – I called our producer and they’re a runner down at Television Centre – in desperate straits. They asked if I knew anyone and I said you – get down there ASAP!”
“Hold on, wait, you said it'd be next week?
"But they're down one today!"
"Erm.. OK, but I don’t even know what I’d need to do..”
"You idiot Stewart, do you know what an opportunity this is..?"
"Well, yes of course, but I kind of wanted to emotionally prep..."
“It’s not rocket science, honey, trust me. It’s making tea and holding doors open for important people. But it’s your chance to see how things are done.”
Her voice was intent and breathless.
“OK, so where do I have to go?”
“No where do I have to go, dearest, not when do I have to go.”
“Oh, Wood Lane. Then tell the receptionist you’re there for “Loaded Laughter – suit 3059, 5th floor. Someone will come down for you.”
Stuart arrived at the studio breathless; a film of sweat coating his back like a layer of frost.
“Rupert? Paul Saunders, Producer...”
“Actually, it’s Stew...”
“Thanks for jumping in, Rupert. We’re nearly ready to go out live. If you could get tea and coffee orders from the panel guests...”
Where do I get the teas fro...”
“Cheers, Rupert. Guys let’s get this place cleared!”
Pacing round the reclining celebrities, each chattering with suave ease, Stewart realised for the first time, what impersonality meant. Not once was he met with eye contact; the orders flung his way at right-angles like a stick to a dog whose owner has got bored.
Scribbled paper in hand, Stewart made his way to the refectory via a honeycomb of passageways, and long curving corridors. The refectory was thick was bacon smog, which hung languid beneath 3 foot high letters - The BBC - You Make Us What We Are The order obtained, he headed back to the studio, a tray of lattés balanced precariously atop each hand, opening doors with an increasingly aching pinkie finger. A large “ON AIR” sign above the studio entrance greeting him on his return
The door was locked. Rather than place the excruciating balancing act of drinks on the floor to open it, he knocked the bottom of the door's window pane with his knee.
“Whoah, wait, wait””
The door shot open in his face.
“Alright, keep your fucking hair on, Rupert.”
“Ha ha, yeah; sorry, just thought I was going to drop it. s’OK, now!”
"Took fucking ages. You take yourself on a tour of TVC?"
"Actually I got lost, all the corridors were circular and looked the sam..."
"Dude, I don't want your story!
“We’re transmitting but you can go into the recording room, just be quiet.”
He laid down one tray and pushed the studio door open. It was eerily noiseless. The panel sat talking and sparring around a circular table, microphones zigzagging down from the ceiling on armatures like cobras about to strike; a green light in the centre of the table glowing on top of a small pillar. Propping the door open with one foot, he reached back to pick up the second tray. It'd be fine if he did it all slowly...
The presenter cupped his hand over the microphone, mouthing “For fuck’s sake just put it down!” red-faced in the silence.
It happened in slow motion. Stewart looked down as a red Costa cup leaning-tower-of-Pisa’d over the raised rim of the tray, vibrating with his own nerves as he observed it, before falling and sending a tongue of brown steaming fluid over the presenter's silver iPad. He watched in horror as the device flickered and died to the shill backing-track of the presenter's spitting tirade, and continued to tsunami its way towards the centre pillar and a spaghetti heap of important looking wires.
Stewart knelt onto the table in panic, lowing a damn-like hand to stop its progression only to send a second scorching cup flying, this time over the presenter’s own lap.
But Stewart had done that for them. Cutting off the present mid-line a small sharp pop – similar to a party popper at a birthday – issued from a box in the corner of the room, which soon began to eject wisps of grey, silky smoke.
“Oh God, oh God... Oh God. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry...Uh.. er-um, here, let me...”
“Get out, Rupert.”
The producer entered wide-eyed and headed to the smoking box, immediately joined by the crew filing in behind him. The room was now thick with smoke. A buzzer sounded.
Now on the periphery of the action, Stewart was surprised by how calm he felt. He was powerless, obsolete, pointless. There was nothing more he could do... This was surely the upside of being a nobody in this business. As the shouting and cursing increased, he managed to inch slowly backwards towards the door, snake his hand behind his back, and open it, giving himself just enough room to sidle out unnoticed.
Before beginning to run. Faster and faster, taking the staircase two, three, four steps at a time, past stagedoor, the reception, past the colonnade, the security barriers, past the bus stops of Shepherd’s Bush, through the ticket gates, and onto the Hammersmith & City line – the heaven-sent, reliable, nonjudgmental, wonderful Hammersmith & City line – as the doors closed, cross-fading the view of Television Centre between glass and steel, drawing him gently off down the anonymous, dark tunnels of the Underground.