Ten Of Hearts
When I saw the Ten of Hearts lying on the top step of my doorstep I should’ve been suspicious. The card was placed meticulously with the intent of perfect asymmetry. Live in the city, particularly the city, and you’ll see and become indifferent to all the kinds of litter there can be; from the generic and easily disposed kind, to the rarer oddities. But even I was struck by a solitary playing card; one of fifty-two, on its own, with no sign of any other nearby. As usual I was in a rush, so I didn’t dwell on it.
So the connection wasn’t made, until now, as I lay here; my extremities asphyxiated by a coldness that’s both disquieting and melodic, my head numbing with a deflating and shrinking sensation coming from the inside out, and my chest attempting to convulse out the sharp metallic intruder that was repetitively, but finally, plunged into causing it all.
You often imagine the end arriving at an age where pre-emptive thoughts of death’s inevitability provided a resigned acceptance. Provided lucidity was in play, at that moment I could think back to the version of myself that was best. Only now do I realise the cruel and pitiful folly of such an immediate notion, as the blood draining from my mouth into my eyes blinds me into focusing on how reliant I’d become on the gluttony of hedonism. I embraced a horde without charm or wit, gave a dying man his insanity and watched, with the sanguinity of impassiveness, the world slowly eschew the theory and evidence of its harrowing predilection for chaotic immorality. I needed to be a woman, a man, a woman again, all within minutes of each other, when in reality I was another carcinoma consciously inciting delivery of altruism’s decay, whose truth only the tyrants and despots of purest aspiration could use constructively. This was my chosen path, and I can have no complaints that it ends in this way.
Today’s trope is absentee parenting, or rather we’re focusing on the victims of it, who have willingly destroyed themselves, and are now seeking the clemency of pluralist absolution so they can continue to do so with a residual modicum of self assurance. One of our ghastliest writers, a diseased discipline of heat magazine red top journalese and journalism, albeit with a trenchant streak, Eddy – which he recently changed to two D’s, to represent his favourite cup size – was at it again. He and his cohort gang were now firmly ennobled by editorial changes imposed on me from above and informed by the surrounding atavistic zeitgeist. I now dreaded our editorial meetings, as they exchanged the kind of ideas and intellect that belonged in a Paul Dacre-esque wet dream from the early eighties. Barely had we sat down and Eddy had already seized the silence.
‘We need to find a way, I mean, shit, no, wot, yeah, thanks, no, ta, see ya. Sorry bout that, Yeah, right yeah, I was saying, gotta find a title that’ll encourage ‘em to see crap parents the same way as benefit claimants. Yeah?’
Katy, my new producer, my third in two years, slowly jotted down a note and nodded her head indifferently. I replied with the implied knowledge, that even a show like ours, needs to diversify,
‘Edd, this isn’t about benefits, scroungers, or whatever they’re called. And we’ve done too much of that recently.
Katy looked even more unenthused now, no doubt realising that’s something she should’ve said. Eddy, however, was bright eyed in his insistence,
‘Yeah, yeah, I gettit, gettit. But, people like watching them, dint they? Politicians, like that bald fella, keep cracking on about it and people listen, just give’em what they want’
‘How about “British parenting – all it’s cracked up to be?” piped up Corner Chris, so dubbed because that’s where he always sat.
‘Oh yeah, brings the drugs thing into it and all, dun it?’ ‘Dem junkies are box office.’ There was some muted laughter lead by ringleader Ed, or, sorry, Edd, that tailed off into a nervous silence as they recognised mine. But I couldn’t think of a topic title that didn’t belong to the safe and mundane, the two things a show like ours couldn’t afford to be. We’re a show that appeals to a growing enclave within bourgeois culture, populated by snide simpletons of intellectual abdication, or those who allow themselves to become inescapably domiciled. The sort of people who have never been encouraged to, or wanted to construct an independent thought of their own. We are the comforting means of quarantine; by placing droll proles on screen we enable these people to believe they’re less ignorant than my contestants because of their material affluence. Combine this with the reverential apathy of their superiors, like me, and it gives people like Eddy free reign to decide what they should believe.
‘How about – “Bad parenting put me on benefits”?’
‘Well they are on benefits’ Kat confirmed, rather eagerly, after a moment’s pause she continued, ‘Perhaps we should change ‘me’ to ‘them’, okay? She addressed Eddy rather than me, the cunt. Everyone agreed before Katy’s eyes last sought my approval. And so it would be granted by a sulking smile, that would be interpreted as a wince by a more adroit and personable mind. Chalk up another one for Eddy. He first came to my attention when he provided the tagline “Fat, and we’re fucking fine with that”. By then the energy to vehemently protest against such a pointless vulgarity had long since passed me by, as I realised the cultural malaise was a wave I alone couldn’t rebuff. ‘Fucking’ was removed, or rather the initial compromise of ‘*’ was suggested by Eddy to replace all the characters after the ‘f’. Eventually sanity, namely of the pre-watershed variety supported by my then editor Gary, who has moved on to better things, prevailed and the word was removed long before it sent to and then okayed from above. This was four years previous, when, after an autumn ratings dip, we once again turned to our old faithful – demeaning fat people. Or to be more specific, parents, who were American fat, making their children even fatter than them and Americans. Such an absence of self respect, ambition and hope never fails to elicit a gawking vindictiveness. I can be vulgar, but descending to a level where Katie Hopkins, and the like, dwells, just to vindicate their existence, made even me recoil, or it used to. I insisted they, and I use ‘they’, as they are of a different species, be treated without such obvious disdain, condescending pity, yes, fine, they deserved it. Later, on my drive home, I saw them gorging their faces in the McDonalds half a mile away from the studio, only two hours after we’d finished shooting. The multiple forms and layers of hypocrisy attached to this scenario sank me, and it was the day any vestige of constructivism in tabloid media, or my place in fomenting it within it, was finally crushed.
There was now a crushing sound, caused by a commotion, frantic and imbalanced, the best I could tell, around me. There was shouting, screaming, none of it from me; paralysed by the pain and the fear of it increasing. Someone was talking to me, loudly, or they were very close, possibly both, but I couldn’t decipher exactly what. It was replaced by a heavy thud married with unified shouts, and then there was nothing.
There was nothing to be said as I entered the cafeteria. I had the acting chops to fool the fools, but not most of my own staff. It was coming, and I had to act like I had no clue it was my birthday, never mind that a surprise party was in the offing. Hideous bloody things they are. Rosey, my runner turned assistant, the change in title was superficial, but the change of pay not, relented when put under the pressurised questioning I subject my on air subjects to. She reminds me of myself twenty years ago, wilfully idealistic enough to relinquish it, with that beautifully unblemished skin she sensibly hasn’t defaced with sun-bedding or those garishly hideous tattoos that are now in vogue. She was taut in all the right places without any effort required to maintain it as so, the cow. Rosey had also yet to be fully immersed and immured by the vagaries and realities of the industry. She had started on that path, observing, remembering and therefore becoming immune to plenty, but she hadn’t been fully corrupted by having to make decisions that produce ghastly outcomes. In declaring her admiration for me, after only three glasses of wine, she revealed herself as a feminist. That’ll need to change to meet her ambitions, as mine did.
The cake was impressively sculpted and included filling made using the finest dark chocolate, so producing genuine surprise came effortlessly as I expected something cheap and garish that would ultimately reside with the seagulls, pigeons and rats. Privately I had hoped for a cheap cake, getting under ten stone for the first time in five years, and sticking it to the Twiteratti trolls in the process, I was in little mood to eat. Nobody celebrates turning forty-five, especially when they have to blow out forty-five candles, but everyone else loves to see you do it, especially when they’re younger. It’s a fleeting opportunity to make their relative youth count for something, a delusional moment where they can achieve parity with someone like me. Some of today’s guests were milling around the cafeteria. They always stood out, even when they sit in their group, willingly adhering to provincialism, of the tired, distressed, pallid and gray. If they mingle the disparity becomes striking, they make even the less glamorous members of my staff, with their meagre and derisory forms of largess, look colourfully enriched. After I’d finally blown out the candles Nina declared that she had procured a large kitchen knife for the purpose of cutting the cake, it was the only kind on the premises that would ‘get the job done’, apparently. After half-heartedly searching for it, she declared it has gone missing, or more likely she misplaced it, so we had to make do with a normal table knife, and the cake’s structure suffered upon segmentation.
It’s the strangest thing, but I turn on the television every weekday morning and watch my own show. Nobody else knows and I always say, when asked, that I haven’t watched an episode in years. In this media age maintaining secrets, however minor, that belong to you, and you alone, is an achievement. But it’s not. Exposure and adulation initially bread vainglory, and confidence, and a contrarian shameful reluctance to admit to flaws of any kind. So much of what constitutes you retreats within, after a while this separation solidifies, and eventually normalcy asserts its recalibration over this change. You happily become two different people. But this compartmentalisation is over now. Tomorrow, there will be no show, and so I won’t be able to watch it, not that it would air, at least not on television anyway. It had happened only one time before, ten years ago, when one of my guests, without prompting, slashed her own throat in front of a studio audience of over three hundred. We were on hiatus for five months, and the production company and network combined to hand out millions in compensation to those in attendance who were ‘traumatised’ and even more to her family to make it go away for good. This was when my popularity was at its height. I was seen an asset to be protected and so I survived, even if, in some quarters, I was heavily criticised by the right-on clique, who are just as intolerant as those they relentlessly persecute, for my unsympathetic, badgering line of questioning. Business truly is the art of cynicism, when a product is distressed or in difficulty it gets renamed or reformatted, but many others connected with the show perished as a result of the episode. It was described as a real life Howard Beal moment, and reality being just as strange as fiction, upon return, my ratings spiked. However, it didn’t last.
As clichés go today’s first guest was only slightly repulsive – an unemployed twenty-five year old man ‘only’ ‘currently’ on methadone, with three children, soon to be four, by three different, squalid women, whose weathering belied their years. My guest had somehow procured a fewer number of jobs than children fathered since he dropped out of university ‘to find himself’. He blamed his insufferably selfish middle class parents for not providing the environment he needed to embrace a contented direction within the generic middle class stability he was genetically predisposed for. I blasted him for his reductive sense of entitlement that has instilled laziness, and in response he started grunting, as a sullen fourteen year old would after any kind of rejection. The segment ended with me deriding him for his own failings, and blasting his parents for being glib and soft, with the tacit approval of the baying crowd. Who said social mobility was becoming more difficult? Albeit this kind was of an unfathomable trajectory. However, I shall not be accused of lacking awareness of how things truly are; you cannot have winners without losers. Not everyone can have their own show, and when I lose mine, and I surely will, there’ll be no way back. Just ask Esther Rantzen.
The second was a nineteen year old man called Tony McVern, whose mother, a manic depressive, had committed suicide and whose father had died of alcoholism six years ago, a result, he says, of the nature of his mother’s suicide and how it occurred. He refused to go into detail over the phone, the various interviews or the pre-show briefing, too painful for him apparently. Now he was struggling, claiming he was left emotionally and physically destitute, crippled through the prism with which he now viewed the world’s repulsiveness – my more erudite summation – and how it had brought mental anguish to his parents, suffering that he, as a legacy, had now assumed. Your typical sob story really. Our researchers found little on him, according to them, he didn’t seem to exist until three years ago, and therefore some were convinced he was a hoax. If so it would make for an engrossingly grisly spectacle on set, the more reprehensible they were the better. Still, let’s be fair and consider Tony’s decline into the realm of call-centres and a perpetual litany of dead ended zero-hour contracts as asymptomatic of the political doublespeak uttered by politicians, especially when they harp on about the difficulties and realities many young people face today, the kind of people they, and I, have no intention of helping.
Tony walked on stage with a precariously gaunt gait that only belongs to the malnourished and stared at me with pessimistic intent as he sat. It was a glare that I’d only attempt to interpret if he was more attractive and his demeanour held some level of intellectual capability. He had a mediocre bone structure, exacerbated by the elongated oval latitude of his head, eyes that were too small, sunken, blackened, and so close together, that he verged on being disconcerting to look at.
The cameras rolled and I did my segment intro; the usual trite overview to dress up the tawdry narrative set to unfold, and then I turned to Tony. After some gentle buttering up, he started to open up, his button voodoo doll eyes saturating incrementally just as water engulfs the tap in a sink. He then stood up, suddenly and calmly producing a Ten of Hearts from his front jean pocket. He held it out with a stiffened arm aimed in my direction, the effort of his action so demonstrable that eventually his hand began to rattle with fear and rage. I visibly waved off the security, until they retreated, too enamoured by this developing opportunity to resurrect myself and my show through YouTube. It was my second mistake of the day, and I wouldn’t make a third. I became transfixed by the playing card and he remained silent for ten seconds or so while I studied it. It was bespoke, with a jagged lightning-esque strike running through each heart almost severing it in half. Eventually his locked jaw cracked open and his voice, high pitched, comically so, akin to that of a spoiled cat perpetually fed from the table now being offered dried catfood, offered its explanation; hearts, because his was broken; ten of them, for every year that his had been broken since. Then it fell into place. He had changed his surname, so we, and most importantly I, wouldn’t know, too arrogant to assume my culpabilities could haunt or hurt me.
He produced the kitchen knife, from what appeared to be the small of his back. He was no less than three feet away. With his card hand he grabbed me by the shoulder, still holding it, and pulled me towards him, with a strength belying his meagre frame, into the knife, already primed in position. He retracted it from my gut, and punched me with it again, this time further up, and once again, still higher. He made sure I fell backwards, and then he aligned perfectly the Ten of Hearts on my now saturated stomach.
© Niall Cullen (2014)