Jack was sitting in the Green Room, slouched into a half-comfy chair. One ankle rested on his knee as his fingers tapped against the other knee. He stared at one corner of the room and a succession of images came into view. He was lounging in his bed with stripes of cold, winter light moving slowly across his bedroom walls; pulling shirts and trousers out of his wardrobe; phoning his mum to wish her a happy birthday; blowing steam off a cup of coffee; rubbing his hands together as he stepped out of his house; sweeping crumbs from the passenger seat of his car; misreading a road sign that he thought had said ‘Pet Bottom’; drumming his steering wheel in time to a song on the radio; feeling a sweep of nerves as he turned off his car’s engine. And then, as if from nowhere, he saw a face.
The head was surprisingly tall, with brown hair and a serious expression that occasionally erupted into a childlike grin. 1990s glasses, intelligent eyes, full lips. The man’s face was in motion and Jack noticed dimples on either side of his mouth. He frowned, trying to get an overview of the face away from these details. The man looked familiar and now, as he began to speak, Jack realised his voice was familiar too. The man said:
Many of my evenings in the theatre resemble a hen night.
‘Five minutes to go.’ Jack’s head snapped around to look at the Production Assistant peering round the door, her hand poised on its frame. Their eyes met, then hers slipped down to his chest, the top buttons of his shirt having been provocatively left open by someone in the Costume Department.
Jack cleared his throat. ‘OK. Thank you.’
‘If you need anything, now’s your chance.’ A twitch of a smile, then she swooped back out of the door again, closing it gently behind her.
Jack gave a long exhale, leaning back in his chair, and then forced himself to his feet. He jumped, short hops back and forth, and flapped his arms, trying to revive some interest in what was going to happen over the next hour or so.
‘What am I doing here?’ He thought, ‘This just isn’t my thing. I’m not going to be able to strike the right tone, to be sexy-and-funny, not sexy-and-creepy. How did I let myself get talked into this? I’ve come to this stupid industrial park in the middle of nowhere and wasted my whole day waiting around. What’s the point?’
Jack glanced over at a muted TV monitor in front of him, showing the mid-stages of the TV show. Andy, who he’d met briefly in one of the waiting areas, was undergoing a ritual humiliation in costume. Was that meant to be a barbershop quartet? The camera cut to a line of women, each stood at a podium with a button in front of them. The women were hitting their buttons, turning their spotlights off and signalling they were out of the dating game for that round. Andy was not doing well.
For example, I’ve walked through an office in the summer — not my own office — and a young man came in wearing shorts because it was hot. There were wolf whistles and people commented how nice his legs were and teased him in various ways. In another case, a female film critic wrote recently that the plot of a rom com made no sense because the male actor was so fat and ugly that no-one would want to go to bed with him.
‘OK, Jack, it’s time.’
Jack followed the Production Assistant down a corridor, his eyes following the line of her back and settling on a walkie-talkie that bounced against her hip. He was led into a large, open plan room filled with people criss-crossing, busily trying to look busy. Wires snaked across the floor. Jack was manoeuvred into a make up chair.
‘Beth! Over here a second…’ Jack saw a man, dressed entirely in grey, reflected in the mirror in front of him and watched the Production Assistant stride over.
‘Hello there. I’m just going to give you a bit of a dusting for the lights,’ smiled a young woman as she leant over him. ‘Close your eyes, please.’
Jack relaxed into darkness and let his mind wander.
When Jack opened his eyes again he glanced briefly at his reflection in the mirror, then took the opportunity to watch the scene playing out over his shoulder.
The Production Assistant was stood with her arms crossed, frowning, and Jack observed her properly for the first time. He noticed she had that knack of dressing in a way that was practical for hands-on work, while somehow making it look classic. Her hair was worn long and unfussy and she seemed at ease with herself in a way he couldn’t quite pinpoint. She was having a conversation — no, a disagreement — with the man dressed in grey. He was animated, gesturing his hands, while the Production Assistant watched him in silence. Jack could tell that the man in grey was her superior, and trying hard to persuade her of something. They seemed to reach a stand off, then the man in grey said something that made her raise her eyebrows.
Jack jumped at the hand on his shoulder.
‘Bit nervy?’ A young man smiled at him. He guided Jack into another room, his fingers hot and damp on Jack’s arm. As they walked together they avoided the intimacy of falling into step, causing the young man’s bag to bump uncomfortably against Jack’s side.
‘Here you go,’ said the man, ‘just stay here — on this spot. I’ll be right over there.’ He retreated to a glowing monitor, staring at it in silence.
Jack stood feeling very much in the centre of the room as a bead of sweat made its way down his back. One of the criss-crossing workers left a distinct smell of toast in her wake, and he realised with a twinge that he hadn’t eaten for hours. He concentrated on trying to catch someone’s eye as they walked past. Jack could hear a clock ticking somewhere but couldn’t locate it in the room. Time seemed to disappear.
The question is, are they made to feel uncomfortable? Watching that young man in the office I felt he was uncomfortable…
The TV show was starting up again below. Jack felt vibrations through his feet and could hear the muffled sound of laughter.
…I think the answer lies in the fact that female sexual responses are, in most cases, more benign and therefore they can get away with it.
Then, from below, the Host’s voice.
‘So we’ve got a space now and we need a new girl. Meet Elizabeth, a tele-marketing saleswoman from Sussex!’
More applause rumbled through the soles of Jack’s shoes. The young man raised his hand, pointing to the ceiling, then, after some minutes had passed, he counted down from five with his fingers.
Jack felt a judder as the circle of floor at his feet began to move down and now, as the seal was broken, the noise of applause and whooping from the floor below crashed into him. A wave of adrenaline travelled through his body, from feet to head. It started with his toes squeezed into newly gleaming shoes, rising through his legs, crossing his tibia, patella and thigh, moving past his hips, his shirt (still provocatively showing his breast,) travelling to his neck and finally his head, his chin, his long nose, his beady eyes, his dark hair with early shots of white at the temples.
‘So we’ve got a space now and we need a new girl. Meet Elizabeth, a tele-marketing saleswoman from Sussex!’ Beth felt the eyes of the audience sweep towards her and gave a wide grin. The Host walked over to her.
‘So, Elizabeth, you’ve got an interesting hobby…’
(‘Play nice, now,’) the man in grey said through her earpiece.
Beth looked around the studio, her eyes falling on a stripy top worn by someone in the audience.
‘That’s right — I’m learning to sail!’
The audience applauded as two of the cameras shuffled back for a wide shot.
(‘That’s the spirit. Now you can sit out the rest of the round. We’ve told Paddy to leave you alone…’) Beth’s eyes flicked up to the control room. (‘…I owe you a cocktail.’)
As Paddy walked away from Beth, she exhaled a mixture of anger and boredom. She had worked at Fremantle Media for three years and felt like she had flatlined — no change, no promotion. But up until now she had been spared the humiliation of actually appearing on the mediocre TV shows she had been working on. Beth looked along the row of women to her right: heavily preened, rehearsing the lines given to them by her production company. The level of artifice was extraordinary. This didn’t bother her so much — she was used to artifice — but this show had something extra that niggled. By presenting a line of women with a single man to observe and criticise it managed to be both subversive and utterly mainstream, both progressive and ultra-conservative. One step forward, one step back.
Paddy was busy setting the scene for the next contestant. Then: ‘Let the ginger see the nut. Single man, reveal yourself…’ And the man came down in the lift, his feet showing first. Beth watched the shoes she hadn’t noticed before as they appeared, followed by the legs she didn’t care about, the torso that had some slight interest for her and then, finally, the face of the man from the Green Room.
The man hopped out of the lift and gave an awkward strut in front of the row of women before retreating to his spot. Paddy clapped a hand on his shoulder and asked him to introduce himself.
‘Hello, ladies. My name’s Jack and I’m from Leamington Spa!’
Beth noticed Jack’s little gulp of nerves after introducing himself, which he tried to hide by smoothing his shirt.
After Paddy’s prompt, a cascade of lights turned off — women who, for whatever reason, didn’t like the look of him.
‘…Not a bad start, Jack,’ said Paddy. ‘Now, a few girls have turned their lights off so I’m going to get a feel for the mood out here.’
Paddy picked out various women and asked them why they had turned their lights off, or why they had kept them on.
‘I want a man to have less cleavage than I have!’
‘I like that you’re from Leamington Spa. It sounds exotic.’
Paddy passed in front of Beth to speak with a woman just to her right who had kept her light on.
‘He’s fit, isn’t he,’ she said, before collapsing into giggles, her hand in front of her face. Then, direct to Jack, with a note of apology: ‘I’m sure your personality’s nice too.’
A video played in which Jack introduced himself in a narrative constructed by the TV show producers. He spoke about working for the RSPB (prompting women to turn their lights off), was shown standing in a hide with binoculars, birdwatching (lights off), then eating a meal with his family. He was presented as a sociable man who was looking for someone to settle down with. Beth watched Jack as the video played and the lights went off around her. He was wearing that distant expression she had noticed in the Green Room. He seemed to swing between that dreamy look and self-conscious bouts of twitching, smoothing his shirt, touching his hair, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
(‘Wake up. Turn your light off, Beth.’)
Beth glanced again at the control room and clenched her jaw.
(‘Come on, stop playing around. This guy’s heading for a blackout, can’t you see?’)
Beth looked down at the button in front of her but it was too late, the video had stopped playing and Paddy was congratulating Jack on staying in the game. There were only two women left with their lights on so there was no avoiding it — he had to talk to her. He walked over with a curious look.
‘So, Elizabeth, this is your first round. Tell us why you’ve kept your light on.’
(‘Say it was a mistake.’)
There was a silence. Beth looked from Paddy to Jack and back again. Jack had that distant look, but then he twitched violently and his eyes fell on Beth.
‘Uh… I don’t know, really, there’s just something about him. How can I explain…?’
(‘For fuck’s sake, Beth. Say it was a mistake. Can’t you hear me?’)
Seconds dragged on. Paddy was starting to look bad tempered through his smile.
(‘Beth, I know you’re up to something. If you don’t behave I’m getting you escorted off.’)
‘OK,’ said Beth, ‘Can I ask him a question?’ Paddy nodded. ‘Jack, what’s making you so distracted? What were you thinking about in the Green Room?’
There was a mixture of laughter and stirring in the audience. This was not going to formula. Paddy looked out towards them. ‘It seems,’ he said, ‘these lovebirds have met before!’ Some whoops. He turned to the other woman with her light on. ‘Sorry, love, this is a bit awkward.’ Laughter. ‘Well, Jack, do you want to tell us what’s gone on between you two?’
Everyone in the room looked at Jack. He seemed to be making a dramatic effort not to twitch and tremble. Sweat could be seen beading on his forehead and running down his face through the make up. He opened his mouth to speak.
‘…Mark Lawson. On Radio 4…’
The Host frowned. ‘What was that, Jack?’
‘What was that, Jack?’ said Jack, in a mocking imitation of Paddy’s voice. Jack gulped and flapped his arms at his sides, hopping about like he was on hot coals. He tugged at his collar and snapped his head to the side. Again he opened his mouth to speak and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down but no sound came out. He shuddered as a single black feather drifted slowly to the ground. There was muttering and some laughter from the audience, then a single, piercing scream. Security guards appeared from either side, aiming for Beth, but at the sight of Jack they paused, uncertain. Jack continued to flap his arms vigorously, and as he did so his black shirt seemed to blur and distort, until suddenly it was obvious that his arms were in fact the wings of a giant, black bird. His head jerked and a beak appeared; his eyes became more beady and dark as he blinked away their whites. He doubled over in pain and the security guards advanced towards him, forming a circle, stepping tentatively. Then he sprang away from the ground, flapping his wings and careering at speed towards the ceiling. He crashed with a heavy thud into one of the lighting rigs and fell back to the ground, a leaden lump now, barely a foot long.
When Jack woke he winced in anticipation of a headache. He lay for a time with his eyes closed, gradually letting the rush of each sense wash over him in turn. The smell of toast, a sensation of gentle rocking as if he were on a boat, the cool feel of metal against his feet, the sound of voices playing from a radio. Then, slowly, he opened his eyes. He was lying in an unfamiliar room with long, grey cylinders running from roof to floor. Directly beneath him was a bed of words which, after some scrutiny, he realised was newsprint. Jack was having some difficulty understanding the distance between objects and everything seemed to be out of proportion. He lifted a wing to rub his eyes.
From a room nearby there were the sounds of movement and a woman humming. She must have turned the radio up because the words came to Jack now, clear and distinct.
Good afternoon, welcome to Weekend Woman’s Hour. Now, on the show this week…
‘Woman’s Hour!’ said Jack.
There was a cry of surprise from the other room. The woman from the TV show walked over to the cage with a smile. It was a kind smile, but for some reason it made Jack shudder. She was utterly grotesque.
‘You’re talking,’ said Beth. ‘How are you feeling, Jack?’
‘Feeling Jack,’ said Jack. He stood up and pressed himself against the bars of his cage, looking at Beth’s enormous form and the way her lips seemed to balloon from her face as she drew closer to him. She returned and held his look. From the next room the radio continued to chatter, and formed itself into that familiar voice again — the voice of Mark Lawson, a cultural commentator and a regular on Radio 4.
…Well, it’s a similar thing. Phyllida Lloyd referred to a hen night without alcohol. Many of my evenings in the theatre resemble a hen night with alcohol. In Viva Forever when the guy takes his clothes off there’s this huge whoop from the women in the audience; a similar thing happens in The Bodyguard when the same happens there. I’m mildly perplexed by this, what could be seen as a double standard…
Jack watched Beth frown as she shot a glance at the radio.
…For example, I’ve walked through an office in the summer — not my own office — and a young man came in wearing shorts because it was hot. There were wolf whistles and people commented how nice his legs were and teased him in various ways. In another case, a female film critic wrote recently that the plot of a rom com made no sense because the male actor was so fat and ugly that no-one would want to go to bed with him. Now, I just think it’s interesting that if in all those cases you’d reversed it — if you had a bunch of men whooping when a woman took her clothes off, if a male film critic wrote that about a leading film actress, if men in an office commented on a woman’s legs… These are things they’ve learned, correctly I think, not to do. So I’m just interested that there does seem to be a double standard in these issues…
Beth was still frowning, her attention torn between Jack and the words coming from the next room. Jack could see a deep frustration play across her face, mixed with sadness. As they considered each other her breath played against his feathers, ruffling them gently. Jack took a step back and tucked his head down, finding a comfortable position, and considered his predicament. He was aware that his life had undergone a great change but he was struggling to remember what had come before the TV show and waking up in Beth’s home. Strangely, it was a pleasant amnesia, a sensation like lying in a warm bath. He felt a great swell of relief: he no longer had to decide how to navigate his way through life, all decisions had been taken out of his hands. He felt a strong connection with the woman in front of him and a desire to know her thoughts on subjects that bothered him. He felt he could be happy here. He would practice his new voice and find a way of speaking with her and then they would sit together, in this room, discussing the world.
Jack blinked and cocked his head.
‘Such empty eyes,’ said Beth, to herself, ‘like black jewels.’