SHOOTING SCRIPT by Chris Green
The headline on the front page of The Independent, Shot Down in Downing Street came as a shock to Catherine Larsson. It was accompanied by a grainy picture of the Prime Minister clutching his shoulder. A trail of blood appeared to be trickling down his white shirt. Unaware that he was being scrutinised, Matt continued to turn the pages of his paper. PM Fighting for his Life, was emblazoned across the centre spread. This was big, big news. Assassination attempts on British Prime Ministers were unheard of. Why had it gone unnoticed? Catherine had heard nothing about the shooting on the news when she drove in to work, it was not reported in her tabloid, and curiously, no one in the office had mentioned it during the morning. Yet a story of this magnitude would be something that spread like norovirus. It ticked all the boxes for good newspaper copy, bad news, head of state, bloodshed and closeness to home. This was something you would expect everyone to be talking about.
Having only been briefly introduced to Matt earlier in the day, Catherine was a little nervous of him. His having possession of the newspaper with the dramatic headline seemed to give him extra charisma but also made him more unapproachable. She occupied herself with some desk tidying while she weighed up the situation. She was about to ask Matt for a look at the paper, or at least get him to clarify what was going on, but at that moment a call came in. When she had finished on the phone, Matt was nowhere to be seen. She had not noticed him leave. Having just started at Total Eclipse Events Management a week ago, Catherine was still finding her feet. She could not remember what position Matt held or where she might find him. She had never seen him around before. Perhaps he was just a visitor. She looked around for her colleague Maddie who had introduced them but now Maddie had vanished too.
Another call came in, and before Catherine knew it, it was lunchtime. Although she liked to keep up with current events, the attempted assassination of a public figure was perhaps in the big scheme of things not going to affect her greatly. It was only politics after all. And furthermore, she didn’t care much for the Prime Minister anyway. He was smug and mendacious. Since her divorce eighteen months ago, Catherine was more concerned with keeping her own boat afloat and making sure that her teenagers, DJ and Jessica were keeping away from the deadly new skunk parties she had heard were sweeping the country. All the same, it was very odd that news of this significance had not circulated more measurably.
Since starting at Total Eclipse, Catherine had begun to take her lunch at Gino’s, a small café around the corner from the office and down a side street. Here she could listen to jazz, enjoy a baguette and a cappuccino and generally chill out. She felt that it was important to put all work thoughts out of her head for a spell, so she usually went alone. She put in her order and took a seat. Miles Davis was playing It Ain’t Necessarily So. Miles was one of her particular favourites. She loved the melodic style of the muted trumpet and the way his quintet filled in the harmonies.
While she was waiting for her order, as she looked around at the jazz posters that hung on the walls, she noticed that Gino’s offered a range of newspapers. Curious once more, Catherine scrutinised them one by one for any news of the assassination attempt. To her puzzlement and alarm, none of them carried the story, not even the Independent, which instead led on the earthquake in the Middle East, with a feel-good picture of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Australia on the right-hand side of the page for balance. Catherine was not comfortable with things she could not explain. They made her head spin and gave her a feeling of nausea in the stomach. She did not touch her baguette.
During the afternoon, when she had a few quiet moments, Catherine zipped around the news sites on the internet. There was not a mention of an assassination attempt anywhere. Had the whole thing been a wind-up? But what would the motive have been? Surely there was no point in such an elaborate hoax, for her benefit. She felt too cautious to bring it up with any of her colleagues. She was the new girl and did not want them to think she was doolaley. There was still no sign of Matt. Had she imagined him too? She thought back to the moment when she had been introduced. There had only been a brief exchange. They had shaken hands. Her mind had misted over and she had felt dizzy, she recalled. She had thought nothing of it at the time as she was in the middle of some printing, and the printer had jammed. She could now bring to mind next to nothing about Matt, other than he was a large thick set man with, she thought, a trace of an accent. She could not recall what the accent was. He was wearing a grey suit, or was it jeans and a sweatshirt, or was it a diver’s wetsuit. She was not sure. It might have been any of these. She remembered only that their eyes had met briefly. This was shortly before he had disappeared. She recalled she had sensed a charge of electricity. Something strange was definitely happening.
As Catherine was getting into her Micra at 5 o’clock, she noticed a black BMW leaving the car park. Although the windows were heavily tinted, behind the wheel was a large shadowy figure. As he sped off, she noted the registration. It was a 68 plate with the first two letter area code being LK. A 68 plate!! But this was 2017. The plate would not be due for another year or so. She experienced that feeling of nausea again like she was slipping away.
‘Stanmore, London,’ said Devinder, in response to Catherine’s question about the plate’s origin. She had phoned him on her hands-free while waiting for the temporary traffic lights to change at the St Georges junction. ‘But 68 is impossible. You must have misread it.’
‘No, it was definitely LK 68 something,’ she said.
‘It is easily done,’ he countered.
Catherine was determined she had not been mistaken.
‘Would you like me to come over?’ said Devinder, sensing that Catherine was more than a little distressed. ‘I can leave Ravi to look after the shop.’
Catherine did not consider her and Devinder to be an item, but after the dating agency had matched her with a series of chain-smoking lorry drivers, balding insurance salesmen with paunches and sixty year-old thirtysomethings, she had found Devinder to be a breath of fresh air. She had taken to seeing him once or twice a week. She found him knowledgeable, witty, understanding and very good company, except when the cricket was on. Perhaps it was the lavish gifts he bestowed on them on occasions, or some under the counter activity that she was unaware of, but even DJ and Jessica seemed to accept him. Devinder’s biggest plus point, however, was his ability as a lover. No-one had understood her body and pressed all the right buttons like Devinder. It was as though he knew what she was thinking. But of course it was early days and she was careful to remind herself that her ex-husband, Hilmar had once seemed like the man of her dreams.
When Catherine arrived back at her flat in Cardigan Street, she found it empty. Perhaps DJ and Jessica were at the library. There again, more likely they weren’t. There were plenty more unsavoury places to hang out. What could you do with teenagers? Whatever you told them, they would be likely to ignore. They would negotiate their own terms of engagement with life’s great mysteries.
Devinder duly arrived and while Catherine expressed her confusion, administered much-needed comfort. Before long, they found themselves in an uncontrollable embrace. This seemed to happen every time they met lately. There was only one place to go. Afterwards, Devinder attempted to put Catherine in the picture about reality.
‘Reality is an illusion,’ he said. ‘Even the teachings of the Ten Gurus will tell you that this is so. For instance during sleep dreams seem very real, but upon awakening, you realise that they were just dreams. So it is with this world that we call reality. It is possible to wake from it too. Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian teacher, maintained that the difference between a dream while sleeping and the dream we call wakefulness is only of duration, one short and the other one long.’
‘So you are saying I did not meet a man called Matt today, who had a unique newspaper and a car from the future,’ Catherine protested. There had been she realised now something strange about Matt’s presence. It was difficult to explain; it was as though he was there but not there. Although he was broad, he was at the same time, insubstantial, like an apparition.
‘We never directly experience the world around us,’ said Devinder. ‘All we ever know are the contents of consciousness, the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations that appear in the mind.’
It was just after six in the evening. Dennis and Audrey Crick were enjoying Eggheads on TV, when they heard a loud knock at the door. Living as they did on a suburban estate, the Cricks quite frequently had cold-callers at this time of day, so they did not immediately answer. At their time of life, they did not get a lot of friends casually coming round and their own family had over the years spread out. Besides, people that Dennis and Audrey knew would always phone before calling round. This caller seemed persistent, so on the third or fourth knock, with a grunt of disapproval, Dennis got up and went to the door. The figures he was faced with across the threshold, a man and a woman, did not look as if they were representatives from a power supplier trying to get customers to switch or speculative callers on behalf of a charity. They wore dark blue quasi-military uniforms and had a grave look about them. The man introduced himself and flashed an ID card. Dennis did not have his reading glasses, so just took it on trust that it was genuine.
‘You may have heard that there’s been a nuclear accident,’ the man said. He did not give the impression that he was joking.
‘No,’ said Dennis.
‘We’re here to let you know about the arrangements for your safe evacuation,’ the woman said.
‘What?’ said Dennis, astonishment now mixed with perplexity.
‘We would like you not to panic, but to be ready with the things you need to take in one hour,’ said the man. He barked something cryptic into his chunky radio pack. The pack Dennis noticed had a bold stencil stamp on it, MKEF or something.
‘Transport is being arranged,’ said the woman. ‘We’ll be taking you to the closest reception centre.’
‘Any questions,’ said the man.
Dennis was too stunned for enquiry. His rational mind was dissolving. He stood on the step with his mouth open.
‘We’ve got other calls to make,’ said the woman. ‘One hour! Please be ready!’
Dennis closed the door and went back inside. Barry for The Eggheads had just won the Arts and Books round, having correctly identified that it was Picasso who had said, ‘he wanted to tear reality apart’.
‘Who was it, love?’ asked Audrey. ‘You’ve gone very pale.’
‘I think we’re being evacuated,’ said Dennis. ‘A nuclear accident.’
‘There must have been a radiation leak,’ said Audrey, applying a phrase she remembered from the news coverage of the French nuclear plant crisis.
‘But I don’t think that there is a nuclear power station within a hundred miles,’ said Dennis. ‘But then, I couldn’t be sure.’
‘Didn’t you buy a Geiger counter at the car boot last year?’ said Audrey.
‘No dear, that was a metal detector. I don’t think that would work. Anyway, it hasn’t got any batteries. I was meaning to get some.’ Dennis did not get out much since the rheumatoid arthritis had worsened. It was over a year now since he had been to a Milton Keynes Dons home game. He had not been since they lost 4-0 to Yeovil. The Don’s Montenegrin keeper had been responsible for all four goals in a nightmare game, but the following week he had played a blinder against local rivals, Stevenage in a narrow 1-0 win and even got away with a blatant trip on Stevenage’s Sudanese striker. Dennis found things had a way of working towards a balance. A friend of his was fond of saying, ‘go with the flow.’ Dennis found that this made a lot of sense and saved a lot of time and energy. You could not expect to get a run of green lights all the way to the superstore. And if you did, there would be road works on the way to the garden centre. Dennis attempted to adapt this principle about dynamic equilibrium to their present situation.
‘Shall I turn over to the news?’ said Audrey. ‘There’s sure to be something about it.’
There was no mention of anything about the emergency on the BBC News or Sky. The military build up on the Turkish border with Iraq and the floods in North America were the main stories and there was a report about a beached whale in the Outer Hebrides. Nothing anywhere about radiation. Perhaps security issues were involved, and the authorities wanted to keep it a secret. If this was the case, how could anyone hope to find out?
Dennis went round to see the Lockharts next door, knocked several times, and peered through the front window, but it appeared they were out. Perhaps they had already been evacuated, he thought. He was about to go round to see if the De Koonings had heard anything when Audrey called him.
‘I’ve just phoned Alison and she thinks that it is a hoax,’ she said. ‘Fake news, Alison called it..’
‘Is she sure?’ asked Dennis.
‘You know Alison pet; she knows everything,’ Audrey replied. ‘She thinks it’s pranksters.’
‘Bit of a rum thing to joke about,’ said Dennis.
‘Alison said that the Sintons had two nice young men round to tell them about the total eclipse of the sun. You would only be able to see it from high up, they told her. They went to the clock tower and waited, but there was no eclipse and when they got home they found they had been burgled,’ Audrey said.
‘Blimey!’ said Dennis.
‘Then there was the time they said on the tele that Big Ben was going to go digital,’ said Audrey.
‘But wasn’t that April Fools Day,’ said Dennis.
‘I still don’t believe it,’ Audrey continued. ‘What do they say on that show, It’s a Wind Up?’
‘Have we ever watched it?’ said Dennis. Lately, Dennis was finding the drawers in the cabinet where he stored his narrative harder and harder to open. The wisdom of age was, as far as he could see, a fallacy. You spend your life accumulating knowledge so that you can have facts at your fingertips, but the cruel irony being that when you are at a stage of life when you might benefit from this, you are already beginning to lose stock daily from this repository of information. Dennis’s consciousness was diminishing. Most days he and Audrey watched Eggheads, Celebrity Eggheads and perhaps EastEnders, then let the cat out, put their teeth away on the bathroom shelf and went to bed. Sometimes they would stay up to watch a drama. He was not sure why they watched these programmes. He could never remember the answers to the questions on Eggheads, usually lost the thread of the complicated plot lines in EastEnders and had no idea at all what was going on in the drama. There had been one on recently called Total Eclipse, which was so incomprehensible it might as well have been science fiction.
‘I’ll make us a nice cup of tea,’ said Audrey.
Dennis and Audrey settled down to watch Celebrity Eggheads, which had just started. The Eggheads were playing a team of celebrity chefs. In the Music round the TV chef with the double-barrelled name and the plum in his mouth had just guessed correctly that it was Bungalow Bill and not Caravan Carl or Penthouse Pete who had ‘gone out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun’, in The Beatles’ song. Pat from when there was a knock at the door. It was Lars de Kooning.
‘Are you and Audrey ready?’ he asked. He had his coat on and a large Team Blitz sports bag across his shoulder.
‘Audrey’s sister says that it is a prank,’ said Dennis.
‘Well, we’re all set,’ said Lars. ‘The children are really excited. They think we’re going on holiday. They’ve packed the playhouse. How much do you think they will let us take?’
‘I don’t know what to think…….What did they say to you?’ Dennis asked. ‘To be truthful, I did not have much of a conversation with them.’
‘They’re not allowed to say very much, are they? National security. Anyway, it’s probably one of the French nuclear power stations that’s melting down or whatever they call it after there’s been an explosion. The French have got hundreds of reactors dotted all around the coast, and the southerly winds that we have been getting would be blowing the dust over this way.’
‘You don’t think it could be a nuclear war,’ said Dennis. ‘We seem to be very good these days at upsetting other countries.’
‘Either way, there would probably be a news blackout,’ said Lars.
‘You never know what to believe these days, do you?’ said Dennis.
‘No hay banda! Nothing you see or hear is real.’ said Lars.
‘Come again,’ said Dennis.
‘Mulholland Drive,’ said Lars.
Dennis was none the wiser. Perhaps Mulholland Drive was a film. He and Audrey seldom watched films. Except for The Great Escape or The Railway Children occasionally on Boxing Day. Films today were much too hard to follow.
Pete Free was a television screen-writer by accident rather than design. He left university after his dissertation on ‘The Illusion of Reality’ had been poorly received by the School of Natural and Social Sciences. Pete’s research had been helped along by an eclectic interest in Eastern mysticism, string theory, Carl Jung, Monty Python and psychoactive drug use. The central tenet of his thesis held that contradictory statements could be true; Schrödinger’s Cat was as we know both dead and alive. Were we limited to a single outcome from our decisions, or might a number of outcomes be realised simultaneously, as in Borges’s ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’? Paradox was key to Pete’s argument. Which is better, he asked, eternal happiness or a tuna sandwich? It would appear that eternal happiness is better, but, he argued, this is really not so. After all, nothing is better than eternal happiness, and a tuna sandwich is certainly better than nothing. Therefore a tuna sandwich is better than eternal happiness. His frivolity and word play did not go down well with the examiners.
Pete had a loose circle of friends. He was a keen saxophone player and could keep fellow musicians, Bernie, Bazza, Frankie, Gooch and Ziggy, or Eric, Derek, Dolph and Mario entertained for hours with apocryphal tales, in the Jazz bar of The Blind Monkey, where they hung out. Jam sessions at The Blind Monkey interspersed with these exchanges could go on well into the night. Pete refined his stories over the years and his storytelling became more and more polished, until one day fellow saxophonist, Fats, suggested Pete should write for television.
‘TV drama is like painting by numbers,’ said Pete. ‘It’s so completely predictable.’
‘Granted most of it is garbage, but there are a few good things,’ said Fats.
‘One or two maybe. But the television schedule is so mindlessly conventional. The same programmes in the same order every day on every channel. It’s spoon-feeding couch potatoes syrup,’ said Pete.
‘You are one stubborn sonofabitch. Sometimes in life to get anywhere you have to compromise. Meet them half way. Look at it like this. The jazz world wouldn’t have been able to accept Charlie Parker if he had hit them with his virtuoso improvisations straight off. Even Bird had to establish himself as a player first,’ said Fats.
‘You mean I have to make a name with a style that doesn’t rock the boat too much,’ said Pete.
‘That’s right. You’re getting it at last,’ said Fats. ‘Once you’ve had one or two of your efforts screened, then you will be able to experiment. Take your cue from Miles. He started off filling in the harmonies for others. But, once he had made his name, he could make the music that he really wanted. He had the freedom to experiment. And of course, he went on to create some of the twentieth century’s coolest music. The point is he took his audience with him. He could get away with playing anything and they’d listen.’
‘So, for the time being, I stick to the banal plot line of the discovery of a crime, the plodding investigation by maverick investigator who has family problems and a battle with the bottle, moving towards the arrest of a perpetrator at the end of the episode,’ said Pete. ‘Is that what you are saying?’
‘Bergerac is not on anymore,’ said Fats. ‘Things have moved on a bit. They have espionage thrillers and all sorts these days.’
‘Still written to a formula,’ said Pete. ‘Disillusioned intelligence agent goes off the grid, defies authority, blows stuff up. Shoots a lot of people and single-handedly makes the world a safer place.’
‘And psychological dramas.’
‘Formulaic. Visibly unstable characters. Dark rooms with long shadows. Sparing dialogue with a lot of echo on the voices. Flashbacks. Bit of sinister music by Sigur Ros repeated throughout.’
‘I’m sure you’re allowed to throw in a twist or two,’ said Fats.
‘I guess I’ll have to,’ said Pete.
Pete Free’s success in screen-writing was not immediate. He had to send off numerous ‘spec scripts’ before his first was accepted, a fifty minute post-modern crime drama called Missing Link. Although it was screened at 11: 30 at night on BBC2, it was so popular with viewers that it was quickly re-shown, with just a few cuts, at a sensible hour on BBC1. It also caught the attention of producers at the corporation and Pete found himself working on the team writing for the top BBC soaps. This was not exactly what he would have wanted, he would have preferred the top BBC spy genre perhaps, but the money was good. He knuckled down and gave them scripts involving baby swaps, cot deaths and the annual torching of the pub in their flagship soap. These all seemed to go down well, but when Pete upped the ante and wrote Christian suicide bombers into the script, the producers baulked. Fortunately, people in television now knew his name and all was not lost, as a young executive recognised that Pete’s controversial themes would suit the experimental political thriller. Pete embarked upon a series of successful dramas in this genre, Double Take, The Beirut Diaries, Conspiracy, Total Eclipse, etc.
Following his initial success, Pete Free installed himself in a small but well-placed penthouse overlooking the Thames to do his writing and bought the latest ibook and software. Writing required solitude, but at the same time, it was important to be near the hub of things to provide inspiration. Surrey Quays provided both. He got himself into the habit of writing from 8 to 2 every day and again for an hour in the evening. His reputation developed steadily. His edgy thrillers Collateral Damage and Fragile both won awards, the latter compared by one critic to David Cronenberg, and it was suggested that he might move into films.
Pete was always meticulous in the way he presented his scripts, down to the last detail. He even put in stars and stripes logos where he thought the commercial breaks should be placed if the programme were sold to American television. He was certain that he had saved the document for his new script, Malice, correctly. He had updated it daily. Final Draft 10 was a piece of software on which you could rely. Nearly all screen-writers used it. But when he opened his document one day, he could not help but notice that a key scene from his story had disappeared. Pete was mystified.
He updated his firewall and virus checker, ran a host of malware checks and retyped the scene, as close as he could remember to his original. Fortunately, there was not much dialogue, as there were only two characters, Ron and Anne. Much of this section consisted of sluglines and action. As a further precaution set Final Draft to auto-save each document every two minutes. He also began to back up all his files on a data stick and also, for belt and braces security, on icloud.
Two weeks later he discovered that Bruce and Lee, the two Emergency Force characters from Brink had disappeared entirely from his screenplay. Every reference to them was gone. To his alarm, they had also disappeared from the all of the sequential copies of Brink on his data stick backup and from icloud.
Shane, the technician on the repair desk at PC World told him. ‘We’ve run dozens of tests. There have been no incursions into your hard drive. Your machine seems perfect.’
‘But its also gone on all of the storage backups,’ said Pete. ‘How do you explain that?’
‘The loss of data there is even weirder,’ said Shane. ‘It’s is all a bit GCHQ,’
‘Either that or X Files,’ Pete said.
Shane was not familiar with The X Files. He was from an X Factor generation.
‘There are measures we could take to find out where the data is disappearing to’ he said. ‘We could put a programme on that would track each byte of data.’
‘But doesn’t the Apple operating system do that anyway?’ queried Pete.
‘Well, it does and it doesn’t,’ said Shane.
‘Perhaps it would be a good idea,’ Pete said, ‘to start again from scratch.’
Fortunately, there was an offer on a top of the range iMac.
Shane readied the machine, and Pete was soon typing into the recovered version of Brink, putting in the passages that had disappeared from the original. It was a cracking script, he felt as he embellished the evacuation scene. Happy that he had made good progress, he went off to make a cup of tea. When he returned, to his horror, the new passages had gone again. In fact, the text of the document was disappearing before his eyes. The sentences were evaporating.
Soon there would be a blank screen.
Soon there would be no-one left in Milton Keynes. Peterborough and Northampton were being evacuated too. There would be burning and looting all over central England. There would be many casualties before order was restored. As he pressed keys helplessly and line by line Brink vanished, he was completely unaware of its far reaching consequences. How could he know? Nothing like this had happened before.
Pete also noticed that, minimised on the task bar, the screenplay for Shot Down in Downing Street was open. The assassin, posing as a reporter, was ready to strike as the Prime Minister emerged from Number 10.
© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved