Author Idol (1)

As far as we knew, it was only ever advertised on lamp-posts in and around town.  No proper advertisements or even trailers on the radio station which it was due to be broadcast on.  The notices went something like:

KNOW YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A WRITER?DON’T WANT TO SACRIFICE THE PRIDE, DIGNITY AND EFFORT TO GET A CONTRACT? 

CALL THIS NUMBER…

That number had a pre-recorded message with no option to leave one of your own.  A stern female voice ordered you to take a short example of your best work to an office (which turned out to be a portakabin in the park and ride car park) the following Thursday evening.
 
I arrived to see a queue of about a dozen people filtering out the door.  Arty types with unnecessary scarves, frumpy dresses, floppy hair and sniffs.  I joined onto the end, a cursory nod to a young chap in front of me, smoking violently.  There was a small notice on the door saying the project was part of a new local reality radio show: Author-Idol.  I assumed the best, or worst, or both would be subjected to some airplay.  The small print said the format was similar to other reality talent show.  Small talk kept to a minimum, paper plonked on desk, an extract read and a verdict given.  Ten minutes passed and nobody had joined the queue behind me.  There probably wouldn’t be too many rounds.

I leant against the railings and listened to my personal stereo, clutching loose pages of what I hoped might be passable attempts at fiction.  My intense looking companions stopped amusing me and I became bored, looking at the bleak car park, a smattering of ordinary cars and the busy A-road just off it.  It was only when the chap in front of me shuffled forward that I realised they’d started taking people in.  Me and the chain-smoking chap were left when my battery died and he finished his seventh cigarette.  “NEXT!” A haughty voice, similar to that of the answer phone message beckoned.  We exchanged raised eyebrows, he entered and I stuffed tangled leads into my inside pocket. 
 
Then I became aware that I hadn’t seen any of the previous people come back past us.  Were they hoarding them in a room in there?  Were they showing them out the back?  Was there a back?  Were they brutally maiming and killing these poor, hapless people for their futile shows of ambition?  Should I cut my losses and run?  Should I just take a quick peep round the back?  The portakabin wasn’t that big – we’d had bigger temporary classrooms in school.
 
“NEXT!”  Wow, I thought, he must have been really good or really shit.  He didn’t walk back past me.  I stepped over the threshold and obeyed a handwritten sign pointing right down a short, narrow corridor.  Five paces led me to a door, ajar, with the word PANEL taped on it.  I knocked.  “COME!”  It creaked as I pushed it and I felt my pupils dilate or contract or whichever it is when you’re hit by sudden bright light.  I narrowed my eyes anyway.  Through them I made out a PANEL of three figures sat at one table at the end of a bare, but surprisingly large room.  There was a door marked OUT.  Phew, relief.  Or maybe a dungeon?  I looked at the central figure, a teacherly like lady, not unattractive but of the sort that looked like she’d probably eaten men.

“Hello,”  I said.  They all smiled weakly.  The other two members of the PANEL: an old man smoking a pipe – in the opposite fashion to the young chap in the queue – he looked like he could smoke it when dead: it just looked effortless and right.  He wore a cardigan too of course.  The other man flanking the lady was a younger man of around forty: big jumpered, sharp eyed, but not floppy haired.  Both of the men looked tired and worn, as if there’d been a queue of hundreds.  Not about ten.  She, however, was upright, professional, moody,
 
“Work!” – and apparently not into pleasantries.

I curled my bottom lip and widened my eyes in a -wooh! scary, sort of way, before extracting my work from the back pocked of my jeans, folded once lengthways.  I shunted the stapled paper into the air and it floated onto the table between us.  The woman sniffed disapprovingly at the delivery, then eyed me like I was a turd to be stepped around.  Then she looked down.  The old man adjusted his specs and leaned in, as did the other man.  The woman had that irritating habit of half whispering every word she read with her mouth with the resulting spspspspspspspspspsp sound.  It made me sniff that outward sniff I get when I’m shocked to find something amusing but it’s not worthy of a full laugh.  She ignored me.  The spspspspspspsp became intermittent – which I didn’t know whether to read as a good sign or not.  It’s normally one of the most paranoia inducing things, having people read your work in front of you and, you in turn, trying to read their reactions.  Are they trying not to sneer?  Are they just going to be polite and uncommitted?  Was that smile genuine or were they laughing AT me? 

After a minute they leaned apart and straightened up.  The old man fingered his pipe with more tobacco, nodded gently in no particular direction.  They glanced at each other but didn’t speak, eyes widened and narrowed.  I felt something shimmer up my back before she looked at me.  She gave me a card with a phone number on it, followed by a pin number. 
“Thank you Mr. Milner,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I said.  She pointed at the OUT door. 
“I, I, er, I left my car out the front,” I said, lying, and walked back out the way I’d come. 
But you can’t…!” the younger man trailed off.  But I did, glad I’d distinguished myself in some way, if only by not falling into some strangely devised trap. 

I walked home fast, annoyed that the battery in my stereo had died.

The next day I shaved across my face with the card she’d given me the next day at work.  It was blunt, being cardboard and everything.  The time was just gone half four and the half senile geriatric I shared my office with had gone home.  Should I carry on with this whole charade?  Could it be dangerous?  What if they were all lunatics?  As far as I knew none of us – assuming that the other contenders were all alive and well – had any proof that they were who they said they were, or at all affiliated with that radio station.  Pondering all this, I looked out of the office window and over the train platform.  A couple of depressed looking commuters in raincoats curled into themselves. 

I picked up my receiver and dialled the number, hesitating slightly before the final digit.  One and a half rings, then the message cut in.  The woman’s recorded voice:

“You should have a pin, dial it.” 
I dialled it.
“Congratulations Mr. Milner, you have been selected, along with four others to proceed to the next round.  Be at our offices again tonight at Seven o clock.”  Bollocks, why should I?  I thought.  Signing away work to some group I know absolutely nothing about.  I mean, why?

I never managed to answer that question but dawdled towards the ‘offices’ at the designated time.  A small group of about half a dozen stood in the car park looking at their feet, most smoking, looking troubled.  Two women; one young studenty, another friendly looking, cuddly, housewifey.  Smiled meekly at them, the housewifey lady mirrored the expression, a couple looked up, raised eyebrows, sniffed, exhaled smoke, looked down.  I arrived around five minutes late.  The last one.  The door of the portakabin opened and the severe looking lady appeared.  We all looked up at her.

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