I awoke sharply from a feverish dream, where I was standing with statuesque stillness and completely naked at a conference of dignitaries, each of them sour-faced and looking with disdain at my white, imperfect body. For most of the night, I had been staring at the ceiling with fitful breathes of panic but only in the last hour before dawn did my brain crash into the nightmare.
It was all my fault. I had applied to be a contestant on the TV program Shame Fame, at the time a little drunk and with a ‘what the fuck!’ attitude, just to dance on the wild winds of life without care for consequence. Shame Fame was one of the most popular TV shows around. Its premise was simple and a best-selling formula, the trade-off for fame was humiliation.
“Everyone is bored and afraid,” I told the director when he interviewed me, “the difference with me is that I am just bored. So let me in. I want the fame. I want to be noticed.”
He smiled a creeping smile and seemed to tick a box on a document on a clipboard. It had been such a long process since it began, when they turned up at my front door, just before I was supposed to leave for work. I had shuffled my suit jacket on and straightened my tie. I hated my job but I needed it, I needed the money, to pay for the house, the car, the TV. That was all. In retrospect, I had been probably more prepared than I had anticipated for that moment, but only in retrospect.
It all started yesterday morning when the presenter, Wacky Wally, with his white powdered face, jet black wig and red-painted lips, stomped through each room of my home in turn, rummaging through every drawer in the house with a frenzied gusto, throwing out the hidden bottles, inspecting my old tatty underwear, unravelling every scrap of my private writing. He was tearing up the cupboards like a home invader, which he was, but with a live TV camera tracking his every discovery.
“Haaa! Look-e-here viewers, this is a love letter… Awww… He kept it, from a failed relationship, the big sap! Ewww… It’s really mushy… Did she dump you?” and somewhere out there ten million people giggled and clutched their seats in awkward awe as he read it out aloud.
I blushed, smiled and tried to look indifferent. Then Wally picked up the phone, winked at me with a big bloodshot eye, and speed dialled my boss.
“What is it, Dan… Don’t tell me… You’re ill again?” I heard the gruff voice say, recognising my number. The clown grinned and started to grunt and groan with fake sexual, disgusting panting noises down the phone, until finally, with an exaggerated loudness he let out that trademark, devilish chuckle.
“What the hell has gotten into you, Dan? You know what, you’re fired, don’t bother coming in today, tomorrow or any day again… And don’t come in the building, I’ll put your things in a box and leave them at the door! That’s just disgusting, you’re an alcoholic, Dan, and you’ve gone too far this time…”
Wacky Wally’s grin widened as my, now ex-boss, hung up the phone.
“Oops!” screamed Wally in a high-pitched shrill note. From there it seemed to escalate. I knew I just had to take it, I was getting viewers to see me, people would recognise me. It would lead somewhere, it had to.
“Looks like you’ve got the day off, no need to thank me!” teased the ghoulish presenter.
Wacky Wally grabbed my hand like a school kid grabs a friend to run to a park, and skipped me out to the garden, the TV crew in tow.
He presented me with a crude specially made vehicle, which was perched on the road. It was a large man-sized pram that had a blue baby’s bonnet draped in the seat.
“Well…” he said laughing. “Go on… Bonnet on and get in!” He was dancing around the pram in a demented over-exaggerated way, a devil playing with a condemned mortal. The camera crew were stooping low for the best angles.
I hesitated for a long while. It was harder to do this than I had anticipated.
“Get in!” he yelled. “Or else…”
I knew what, ’or else’ meant, after all, I was a big fan of the show. I had no desire for ‘or else.’ I obeyed and felt my cheeks blush. My neighbours were staring from their windows, their faces taught and uncertain. Wacky Wally pushed me up the road in the pram, in full view of everyone, waving cheekily at the faces that were peeking fearfully behind curtains.
“Where we going to, Wally?” I asked, the nerves jangling the steadiness of my voice. I was trying to find my control, my acceptance of the ambush.
“Shut up, you big baby!” he retorted, his tone tainted with malice.
As people pointed at me, I realised they were not laughing. They were unhappy at the bizarre sight that was spoiling their day, bringing down their neighbourhood. It seemed ugly, unwanted, contrived.
“Not fans of the show, huh!” yelled Wally with his signature wave of a gloved hand. I listened to the patter of the TV crew’s shuffling footfalls behind us, eyes fixed to viewfinders, hands clutching the booms. It was a parade. A strange, weird morning parade.
At the end of the cul-de-sac were two large, surprising objects, a basic scaffold with a hangman’s noose and nearby it, a kitchen table with an opened bottle of Scotch and a single crystal glass.
I put my foot firmly on the tarmac of the road to stop the pram in its tracks, forcing Wally to nearly trip.
“Bad baby!” he yelled and stamped his boots comically on the ground.
“What is this Wally, you changing the format?”
“Babies can’t talk, wise ass.” He bowed as if it was the finest joke in the world, before revealing the setup’s purpose.
“This is a new game, baby… Five years ago, you had a pretty, sensitive and loving girlfriend. Am I right? She was a real catch!”
I froze. My heartbeat pumped faster in tempo.
“Hey baby, you know her name right? It was Angela. Well, we know all about Angela. Five years ago, you asked her to do something, didn’t you? She was pregnant but you weren’t ready to be a dad… So what did you ask her to do, Dan…Huh?!”
“No…” I blurted and ripped off the bonnet. “Just no… I didn’t ask her to do anything! I just said I didn’t feel ready, to be a… A dad…. That was it.”
“Oh… Don’t worry your little head… You have a chance to redeem yourself right here…This game is called, choose your future!”
At that moment, a long line of scantily clad dancing girls formed a chorus line in the road, pouring out of nearby alleyways as if they had been waiting in anticipation, and a sequence of spectacular fireworks exploded overhead – drawing more attention from onlookers. They whizzed and banged and lit up the sky in brilliant colours. A small brass band appeared from seemingly nowhere, dressed to the nines in red and white uniforms, and marched toward us in the road, the loud jubilant music filling the street. I stood transfixed and unable to process the scene fast enough to respond coherently.
“So, what do you think of all this, baby?” poked Wally.
I looked up at the neon blue, green and yellow sparkling explosions above me, and I smiled. I relaxed my shoulders, I decided it didn’t matter, it felt just like watching TV. My change in demeanour irked my host.
“Right!” he said, clearly irritated. “Let’s play, choose the future! The rules are simple. Pick one. Pick the noose or the whisky. You can win or lose with either, you just have to choose your future… And you know we like to mess with your head… Ha, ha… So choose carefully, baby!”
“She killed herself and the baby in her died… I’ve seen this show before… I know how it works, I know it can get dark… Is that what you are telling me, is that my shame?” I asked. “I did not know. I didn’t love her, that was the problem… But I did not know she hung herself with her unborn child. Obviously, she never told me…”
Wally stepped back, like I had caught him out. For once, he missed a beat, like no one had ever been ahead of the game. Complicity was standard for the show, no one dared challenge the crazy clown.
“Baaad baby…” he said slowly, dragging it out for effect. His teeth were yellow I noticed. A chain smoker. Smokers were rare today, a marker of a nervous disposition, a marker of non-conformity, a rebellious selection of self-destruction that was supposedly ironed out decades ago. A vintage sin.
“Are you full of shit, Wally?” I heard myself say. The main cameraman, I swear, he dipped the camera, unprofessionally, like he had witnessed something unimaginable. No one ever talked back to Wally like this. It was the agreement, it was in the contract I signed. I knew it would make me popular.
“Choose…Your….Future!” he said, his scrunched eyes fiery with rage, his palm outstretched as if to offer up the two choices in urgency.
He stepped back and looked directly at the camera with glee.
“Your challenge,” he explained, slowly this time, in more measured words. “Is to drink the whole bottle of Scotch in under a minute without puking or spilling a drop…”
It was a 75cl bottle, enough to kill someone if they downed it.
“What is the reward?” I mused.
“…If… And only if… You manage this challenge, you will need to apologise to Angela’s parents in person on live TV, they are here, waiting nearby. After you have done that, and only after that, we’ll pay you a whole year’s salary – at the rate of your old job… How about it, baby?! You’ll be able to buy all the booze you want, in one go!”
“I see, and what was the noose option? Just out of interest…”
“That was simple, we hang you by the neck for ten seconds whilst Angela’s parents watch. After that, if you survive…. The year’s salary… Personally, I think that was the easier choice… No apology needed, you see?” He smiled serenely.
“Penance for something I was never aware of…”
“Everything you do and say, it has a consequence. That’s the show, that’s Shame Fame, baby!”
The band began a new upbeat festival tune and the dancers ran over to me giggling, to escort me over to the table with the bottle of whisky upright in its centre. I sat down, taking my time as Wally urged everyone to quieten down, to create some suspense for the show.
I sat as composed as I could, and I poured a glass of the fine single blend into the clear tumbler, right to the top. It looked beautiful, I could almost taste its coppery colour, I could almost sense the relief it would give me as it hit the back of my throat. A whole bottle in under a minute. It would be madness. I would barely be able to stand, let alone apologise. I’d lose the money for certain.
“Remember, not spilling, and when you start you can’t stop…”
I smiled, I felt the eyes of the world on me, and when my heart slowed, that’s when I pulled the gun out from my suit jacket pocket. It had been in that pocket for days, waiting for my hand to hold it. It was a stubby little pistol but when I pointed it at Wally he knew that it was deadly.
“…Wait… Just hold on…” protested the presenter, his smile vanishing. The camera turned to him for a close-up, to see him crack. The chorus girls were running and a neighbour screamed something at me, a plea I think.
“Point the camera at me…” I demanded. “I am choosing my future…”
I stood up, with one free hand sipping the whisky, and with the other, I pulled the trigger to my gun and watched Wally’s head dent with a perfect red hole, before he stumbled back and comically slumped into the oversized pram.
“There are always consequences, Wally… Always…”
A guy holding a bull-whip nearby, who was the ‘or else’, ran at a sprint away to the cover of some shrubs in a garden. I listened carefully to his panic with satisfaction. The cameramen however, he was professional to the last, his camera firmly trained on me, to keep the live feed rolling. Ten million, twenty, hell a hundred million would see me now, I would be the most famous man on the planet, and it would be the most watched episode of Shame Fame in its twenty season history.
I hadn’t counted on what came after, and the prison cell was tiny and featureless bar a small horizontal letterbox-like slot in the steel door.
I rubbed my face as I sat up on the single mattress and a pair of blue eyes appeared in the slot of the door, studying me, but they were not unfriendly. They looked excited to see me there.
“Hey, buddy…That was quite a show last night!”
“What next?” I asked, not too bothered but with a taint of sadness.
“You know, I think they might even give you your own show after your sentence. How about that?”
“That’s exactly what I want. Thank you for telling me that.”
“No problem, buddy, I’ll see you to the courtroom. The reporters are going nuts out here! We had to draft in extra cops to keep them out of the station. Hey, can I get an autograph for my wife, maybe a selfie when we walk you out to court? There will be time.”
“Sure,” I said, “I can do that for you… I’d like to do that. Time, you’re right, there is plenty of that too.”
At last, I was a famous person, someone of note in the crowded world. I could be happy soon, I had been truly noticed and I would not be forgotten. For the first time in a long, long time, strangely, I didn’t crave a drink.