The compromise was fitting. It was dramatic. It was everything that made Channel 8 the sadistic media machine that it was – presenting the public with a shameless string of publicity stunts that borrowed from the most melodramatic novella and the most blatant current affairs program. Manny Holdsworth wondered how the people believed it, but time after time the ratings proved that this horseshit was exactly what they wanted.
After a relentless debate with his father, Manny had finally convinced Tony to let him perform his stunt on live television – but only if Tony was the host who interviewed him. It was the easiest sell in TV history: the disgraced son of the reformed TV presenter gives his apology interview to the man who ratted him out for cheating – his father. It was too perfect; too absurd. How could anyone buy it? And yet here they were in the familiar setting of the Channel 8 dressing rooms preparing to take another shot at ratings immortality.
Manny’s father had appeared uncharacteristically off colour as they were interrogated by Sammy Tank. The guy was smooth as silk as he politely asked their business but Manny held his nerve and played his part perfectly.
“So why would I let you back on the screen? You are a loose cannon, a liability, Manny. I usually deal with liabilities with less favourable gestures.” Sammy had said. He wasn’t so much holding the knife to Manny’s throat, instead handing it to him so he could do the job himself.
“Well I could say for the ratings. I could say for the chance to promote your anti-Walter propaganda – ‘It was his happiness that made me do it!’ – but to be honest I have no idea what your propaganda means or serves. It only serves to kill all the hard work we did on that show, but I’ll do that for you just to get to say sorry to my wife.”
“Sarah doesn’t strike me as the kind of lady to accept such a cheap play,” Sammy smiled.
“I’m not selling this apology to my lovely wife. I’m selling it to the lovely judge who presides over our impending custody trial. I want to see my girls grow up.”
The angle seemed to convince Sammy but even when they had left the room Tony was still begging him to reconsider. He didn’t want to trust Sammy for a second. But the special was quickly arranged, promoted and within a few days here they were.
There was a hint of nerves for Manny which was his subconscious telling him to switch on. Cruise control was for those stretches of highway that bypassed rural towns, but this would be a tricky navigation through an unfamiliar city. He needed all his talent flowing and he had no time to doubt that it wouldn’t be there for him – he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t an exceptional human being – flaws and all.
A knock on the door was followed by an intern poking his baby face through a small gap in the door, “Show starts in one minute Mr Holdsworth. Back from commercial in 5 minutes and you’ll be called on.”
Manny nodded, “Hey,” he called out as the kid made to leave, “Where’s Angela? Don’t tell me they let her direct this one,” he joked.
“Uh, Angela’s gone, sir,” the intern said, “well, she’s on leave but - you know...”
The intern waited by the door a moment, still developing that sixth sense of knowing when you’re no longer needed, then he left awkwardly. Manny gave a thought to Angela. He couldn’t imagine why they would let her go. She was a star on the Walter tour but in no way was she liable to cross Sammy. He also doubted she would leave on principle. She was young and loyal to her ambition. The idea that she was mistreated only fuelled Manny’s fire. It reinforced his will to derail this movement.
Outside he could hear the cheers from the studio audience. His father was speaking but he could not hear the introduction beyond the muffled vibrations hitting his door. He had muted the television in his room as well. He had his own script to the conversation which was no more than a scribble of dot points on a notepad. He was sure his father had a script as well, some direction of where the interview should head. They had both decided that reciting lines to each other would be false. The audience would need to be engaged and they would already have lofty expectations of the drama. The simplest answer was to let the natural emotion play itself out. That emotion was still real – only this time there was no need for physical violence.
His mind swung back to Angela. Not out of empathy or loyalty to the girl but instead to the fact that he wasn’t sure exactly who was running the show. He had assumed Sammy had fairly strict instructions but in terms of an actual director or producer he had not discussed much at all. Surely Tony was looking after all of that, but it was reckless for him not to have sought out the director beforehand. What if his father was still in Sammy’s pocket? What if the con was still lengthening?
No. It was too high concept; too many low percentage plays. And yet he had been strung along this far. Wasn’t the whole conspiracy behind Walter Wallace just a practical form of mind control? Given the right impulse anybody’s actions can be predicted and therefore dictated. It was beyond him to try consider this now, he could only try be true to himself and trust that was-
“Mr Holdsworth,” the intern said, poking his head in again, “we are in commercial. Thirty seconds.”
Manny stood and checked himself once more in the mirror before heading to the door. “How’s the audience?”
“Warm. They’re good.”
Manny held the kid’s gaze a moment, “I don’t need pampering, son.”
“Sorry, sir. No they are in but they seem a little icy as well. Kind of what you expect with the situation being so...uh-”
“It’s alright. You’re right, they aren’t here for a press conference apology.” Manny stepped past the intern, through the doorway. His mind gave one final thought to Angela. He turned back, “Hey kid. What’s your name?”
Manny gave a frank “Huh,” his mind seemed to be searching for an omen-like meaning to the coincidence, “Well at least I’ll never forget that one.
Walking through the tunnel towards the stage Manny’s mind seemed to clear. There was a traffic jam of thoughts trying to flood his conscious but he paid them no mind. Here was his element. His home. And there was his father.
From the wings he watched as Tony stood before the audience and the cameras and worked his magic. “Ladies and Gentleman. My son, Manny Holdsworth.”
Manny strode forth and took his father’s hand but they did not embrace. The crowd seemed mute but he knew that applause was not going to be the likely welcome. Some people booed, some gave obligatory claps and one or two called out but the reception was most notably silent.
He took his seat in a simple, lightly cushioned chair. The set was stripped back to bare basics. A typical look for what is expected to be an interview with substance. There was no need for plants and backdrops to distract the viewer. Tony sat opposite, the chairs turned at a slight angle to face outwards towards the audience. No desk separated the two, perhaps to imply that the conversation was on a level playing field; perhaps just to reduce the obstacles should they come to blows.
What was initially a weak applause to begin with died down and revealed an undercurrent of murmurs. Manny looked to Tony who was himself looking out at the audience with a toned down version of presenter’s optimism. The audience grew silent in anticipation and Tony turned to face Manny.
He gave a wry smile, “Well I don’t really know where to begin.”
“How about the apology?”
Tony was a little surprised, “You want to go straight there? OK, go right ahead.”
“I mean your apology,” Manny shot back quickly. There were a few stifled laughs from the audience, unsure whether he was being upfront or dry. Manny wasn’t sure himself but it was one thing to punch your father in the face on his front doorstep and another entirely to pull his pants down on national television.
“Well, sure, I didn’t expect-”
“Just for emotional support. Maybe give me a positive paternal role model for once. Just explain what you did, why you did it, whose pocket you’re in, and explain why you’ll never do it again.”
“I would assume I’ll never do it again because you’ll never cheat on your wife again.” The audience responded with a mix of laughter and nervous anticipation. Manny smiled, shaking his head. He had walked into that one and Tony had managed to take the sting out of Manny’s aggression by taking the first cheap shot. “But in all seriousness folks, my son is correct. What I did was a low act. I apologise. But this is your moment Manny. I’m here as your interviewer and as your father and under both those titles I ask you what you have to say for yourself.”
The audience clapped, still in an unconvincing collective, but they were fast morphing themselves into a midday talk show.
Manny found himself glancing sidewards and tearing at one of his fingernails. He straightened himself up. “Sarah,” he cleared his throat, feeling the emotion well up at the sound of her name in his voice, “I’m sorry. I know this is probably fucking worthless to you right now but I am truly sorry and I miss you. I miss the kids and I want to be with you.” He lifted his head, struggling to get it together. He was surprised at his sincerity but it was rudely interrupted by the condescending applause from an audience fast finding their groove. He found them false and patronising. Self righteous pricks.
Tony pandered to the sentiment of the audience – as any good presenter would – and let the moment linger. “I think we should go back to the start,” Tony said, trying to structure a narrative into this melodramatic mess, “where does it start for you?”
“I could probably trace this back to a number of different points in my life but I think it would be most relevant to start at what was a new chapter in almost everybody’s life – Walter Wallace.”
Tony nodded. “I think it’s fair to say we all agree there. We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be back to work through what Manny has been through and why he found himself in bed with Ms Blues.”
“Doctor Blues,” Manny said, before he could stop himself.
Tony gave a voiceless “Hmm?”
“I just said Dr Blues because she is a doctor and you said Miss.” Manny muttered, reminding the mortician where the nails were before he placed the lid on the coffin.
“Ah yes, you are correct,” Tony said, “in bed with Doctor Blues.”
The on-air light switched off and Manny tried to work the stress out of his forehead.
“Are you fucking insane?” Tony said, smiling politely for the audience, “you think she’s gonna fuck you again because you defended her fucking profession? Get a grip.”
“She’s a doctor, I don’t know why everyone says ‘Ms’ like it’s more important that she is a single woman for ratings. I know I shouldn’t have said anything but it’s always bugged me.”
“Who gives a fuck what I call her? You do realise why we are here. For shit’s sake I thought you were a professional.”
Manny was a professional but he had nothing on his father when it came to cursing through that relentless smile. “OK, I get it.” He sighed. “So we’re good with building up to the-”
“Uh-uh-uh,” Tony hushed him gently, “Everything is flowing smoothly. If you like you can pump up the hostility to me – they can’t see the shiner you gave dished out through this mask they put on me.”
“Maybe. I want to remain a little sympathetic still.” Manny leaned back and looked out over the audience. Faceless cunts. Who were they to judge? He used his bitterness towards them to regain his focus. Negativity was always the best motivator. The show came back on air.
“Welcome back ladies and gentlemen.” Tony began, “I am here with my son, Manny Holdsworth discussing the recent events that led him down an unfortunate path.
“You were hoping to start with Walter Wallace,” Tony led.
Manny nodded as he wound his mind back to those moments in his life. He had made sure not to relive them lately in order to keep the retelling fresh. He wanted this to feel real for the audience. “Well like many of us the Walter hysteria started before we even knew who he was. It was the build up to finding out who was the happiest person in the world, and it was extra special for me as I would be taking my career to the next level by holding the first interview.”
“That’s correct. I was doing the special and you were out on the field, meeting him at his house if I’m not mistaken.”
“Yes and to be honest I was as shocked as any when I saw his sad looking mug shot.” The audience gave a stifled but appreciative laugh. “Then I visited his apartment which was smaller than my laundry. He had almost no possessions and on top of that we learn he is a toilet cleaner on the CitaRail network. I thought to myself, ‘Great, here comes another spiritual less-is-more guru telling us to eat dirt for a smile.’ This time the audience gave a rare genuine laugh. “But when we finally spoke to him I was really blown away by his humility. He wasn’t choosing to live in poverty or experimenting with material freedom, he was just innocently oblivious. The whole concept of happiness was foreign to him. It changed me in an instant just to talk to him.”
“It definitely was a special moment for me also. Just talking to him he seemed to break down your perception of what is normal.”
“Exactly. I felt a rush of inspiration and I was convinced then and there that he was the real deal.”
“But did that feeling last?”
“Yes. Or at least when he was around it did. I didn’t get to see too much of him in person but I really wanted to talk to him again.”
You sure did get your chance.” Tony exclaimed.
Manny raised his eyebrows in agreement. “There is no doubt your misfortune tied into all this. I mean I received the call that I got the top job before anyone told me you had been hospitalised.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry to everyone who looks to me with any sort of trust or respect for what I did,” Tony said solemnly. “Especially to you, Manny. It isn’t fair that a father would put that pressure on his son.”
“But that’s what I mean. One moment I am awe-struck by this new entity that has been placed on a pedestal for us to worship and suddenly there are people committing suicide, trains crashing and you almost medicate your brain to oblivion.”
“How did that Newport Haven incident impact you.”
“We should be clear that we had gone out on the road here; doing the rounds in all the towns and counties. Basically spreading the gospel of Walter Wallace. I’m a wreck at this point, trying to reconcile my position with the fact that you could die at any moment. I had spoken to Walter plenty on stage and it was always a blast but the real conversations were the few we had off camera. He helped me deal with my problems and I helped him deal with his.”
“What problems did Walter have?”
Manny had inadvertently dug himself a hole. He didn’t want to truthfully answer this one so he went for a second truth. “He was uncomfortable on stage. Couldn’t be himself. He had advice coming from all over the place and it was messing with his head I think.”
It was Tony’s cue. It was a natural flow that he should lead Manny back on track, towards the train wreck. But he must have caught the scent. “Were those his only problems?”
Manny was pinned. He didn’t want to stall the interview with a dead end. He repositioned the moments in his mind, remembering the landmark occasions. “Well the train crash came out of nowhere; we’re postponed by some local disaster. We get to the station and it looks like a bomb site. Then Walter is seen exiting the inferno with a body. Just when we are doubting the legend of Walter Wallace he saves someone’s life. And it’s...it’s Lucy.”
“Quite the coincidence. Remarkable.”
“So we’re pretty savvy here in the business, we start pushing the hero angle; we get Lucy on the show and Walter starts confiding in me. He falls for her and he’s come to me for advice.” Manny was rushing through the story. He didn’t want to drag this out over two more commercial breaks. He wanted to get to the point.
“So Walter is telling you that he is interested in Lucy Blues and at this stage you are with her – or not yet?”
“No.” Manny sighed. “I had started to talk to her a little. I found her attractive but I had no intention to take it anywhere. But it’s like one of those things: you try and set up your mate with a girl at the bar and in the process she starts falling for you.”
“So she made the first move?” Tony was like a hawk.
“No I would say it was mutual,” Manny began to shift in his chair. He felt like he was being crucified.
“When did this begin. I mean, you must have been on tour for at least a month after that.”
“A couple weeks. I don’t know.”
“So a couple weeks flirting together; a couple sleeping together.”
“Look I’m not proud of what I did. I don’t think she is either. But being away from home and with all the stress, I just...I fell victim to a vice.”
“Would you do it again?”
“Of course not.”
“And what about Walter? Did you feel you had betrayed him?”
“Yeah- Yes but ultimately I could only think of my wife and kids. I was staying out and avoiding coming home because I wanted to be with Lucy. I thought there was something special there. Like she was some incredible woman but...well...she just wasn’t.”
Manny began to rub his eyes forcefully. “She created this machine to find this guy and for what? I would ask her and she would give the same responses she gave on the show. But you know as well as me what a rehearsed answer sounds like. I tried to dig deeper and I began to suspect she was delusional, thinking Walter was a saviour. Then I thought she was just a cold business woman who profited as much as anybody from this thing. She grew distant from there and I started to see her as an average person. She was weak and selfish like anybody else and once her pedestal was gone she found no use in me.”
Manny felt angry as he relived that time of his life. The unforgiving lament of shame. “I ruined my life over this woman. I’m fucking ruined because I chased my dick into a rose bush and got fucked by the thorns.”
There were some murmurs from the audience mixed with a few stifled laughs. Tony kept the tone dark, choosing not to reference the swearing and leaving it there for people to dwell on. “And you found this negative spiral, this pattern of degradation in your life closely linked to Walter Wallace? Despite the natural glowing ambience of his company you noticed an undercurrent of bad turns and crises in your life.”
“No.” Manny said, turning back to face his father. “You see that is the real lie. That is the deceit of this whole operation. How easy for me to pin this on some false Messiah. Will he forgive my sins as a consequence of his own grace and I am granted some entry into Heaven? I don’t even deserve entry back into my own house.” Manny sat up from his slouch. This is where he wanted to be. “Doesn’t any of this seem convenient? We are promised this saviour and when he ultimately fails to make us all happy it is his fault. It’s pathetic. Anybody who blames their unhappiness on Walter Wallace is pathetic.”
“So you disagree with the theories of Dr Sam Tank?”
“Look I don’t know this Tank character very well but he seems awfully happy with the millions of dollars he is making. He greenlit this show. He told you and me what to say. He started the technology and now he wants to make some money out of it. Walter Wallace is a good man and we have sacrificed him because we can’t face the fact that we are weak and sad fucking people.”
“They’ve gone to commercial.” Tony said in a lower voice. He raised it back to presenter, “We have gone to a commercial everybody. We’ll be back shortly. Don’t worry; this is all part of the script.” The audience laughed but they were still uneasy. Any unity they had found over judging Manny was now torn apart by his rant. Some would agree and others would not, but at least there would be no more patronising applause breaks.
“You sure we can stay out here?” Manny asked, unclipping his mic.
Tony looked uneasy. “Well the goons aren’t out to get us yet.
“Are you sure this is live? Cos if we are just talking to one hundred nobodies then we’ll be dead in no time.”
“It’s live. I made sure of that. But I still don’t know why he even let us go live in the first place. That’s why I’m worried.”
“Who is running this thing. There’s just the intern Nick and the camera guys. Where is the director?”
“I don’t know. But we’re back on. Just keep going. We need to protect ourselves to the point where disappearing would only prove us right. Start making it up if you have to.”
“Welcome back ladies and gentlemen. We seem to have experienced something of a technical glitch here, but all the vitals look to be stabilising.” Tony kept his broad smile beaming like a solitary lighthouse in a midnight siege. “Now Manny I think you were a little worked up before. You were saying?”
“I apologise for my language. I am not here to offend anybody, instead just to show the behind the scenes of what is happening today.” Manny was finally starting to feel comfortable. He felt like he had people’s attention and had caught the studio completely unaware. They had no choice but to let him ramble for the remaining ten minutes of television. Then Nick came out from backstage, walking confidently up to Tony’s desk. He handed Tony a card and winked at Manny before exiting the stage.
Tony looked as stunned as Manny felt. He automatically read out the card, at a loss for any other action. “We have a new guest, ladies and gentlemen.” His smile fell from his face, the lighthouse had been shattered. “Ms Lucy Blues.”
The blood drained from Manny’s face. The audience broke into gasps and a loud murmur, which in turn morphed into a round of applause. Manny looked backstage where Nick had briefly appeared and saw Lucy striding out. Her long dark hair bounced to the rhythm of her steps. She wore a business suit – jacket and skirt – which drew equal attention to her cleavage and to her long legs. She was as stunning as ever, but she did not look like the Lucy he had known. The innocent beauty he had loved so briefly.
She reached Tony and leaned in, taking a kiss on her cheek. She did the same for Manny but he reeled back instinctively, like a dog seared by a flame. She played it up and instead offered her hand. Manny shifted uncomfortably in his seat before begrudgingly shaking it. Lucy took a seat next to him in a chair that had arrived without his knowledge. She crossed her legs and the eyes of 50 million men across the nation – Manny and Tony included – shot down to catch a glimpse as her skirt rode up to within an inch of indecency. Lucy Blues had finally realised her greatest quality – better than her brains or her idealistic views.
The audience grew silent but not before a few anonymous wolf whistles. Lucy looked out and smiled. She stood up and spun around, prompting the audience to once again morph, this time into a construction site gathering. Even the women were responding to her. Who the fuck was this woman?
Eventually the show died down and Lucy was first to speak, “Well boys, thanks for having me on.” She was irresistibly flirtatious. “Manny, it’s good to see you again.” It was an act. Manny had seen her flirt before and it was not this; it wasn’t close.
“What is this?” Manny said, shaking his head. “Why are you here?”
“It’s only fair that I get to have my say, isn’t it? What did you say about me? Selfish, cold, delusional? Those are some harsh words. Shouldn’t I get a chance to defend myself?”
“Was I wrong? What are you then?”
“I’m just a doctor, Manny – as you rightfully pointed out – just trying to help people make sense of their emotions. We’re almost there by the way. Happiness is tangible and global happiness a real possibility. What if I told you we could provide you with happiness. For the rest of your life. Guaranteed.”
“I’d tell you to go fuck yourself – you’ll realise how empty your promises are.”
Lucy smiled. “I’m not talking about me. A relationship with me is as tiresome as any woman or man suffering from the disappointment of life. What I am talking about is a relationship with Walter Wallace.”
Manny rolled his eyes. He turned to look at Tony trying to get some support but Tony was lost. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned back to Lucy wanting to get on the front foot. It should be easy considering the woman held no moral standing. “So you have a relationship with Walter Wallace?”
“We all do. But I understand your question to mean a physical relationship like you and I held. Yes and it ended in similar fashion. I disappointed Walter. I do feel sorry for him because while any individual will be immediately drawn to him and he will reciprocate with his special ability to love, he will ultimately be disappointed by their shortcomings.
“But an immediate relationship with Walter, physically and emotionally is not the solution. Spiritually, for want of a better word, is what we are offering. You can have part of Walter’s spirit.”
“What?!” Manny was dumbfounded. “What are you going to do bottle it and sell it at a mild profit?” He said sarcastically.
Lucy smiled. “Would that be so bad?”
Manny stared at her, waiting for the punch line. She didn’t budge. “You’re serious. Is that what this is about? You’re trying to promote some bullshit to suck the money out of even more people.”
“It’s not bullshit, Manny. Look at me. I have run away from my job, lost my father, almost died in a train crash, I had an affair with a famous personality – tearing his family apart in the process – and been unceremoniously dumped by the happiest man in the world...and yet, I couldn’t be happier!”
“You’re high. You’re fucking insane.”
“Happiness is an emotion, not a chemical. It is not a drug. You can’t get addicted to it. It bypasses the chemical impulse in the brain. It is like “love at first sight” – the sensation is conceived from within. We all emit this emotional trigger naturally and likewise with other emotions. But Walter exhibits superhuman amounts of happiness. It is why those around him are so lifted by his presence without actually knowing how or when it happened.”
Manny was shaking his head unwilling to believe, but the tale was still captivating. The audience were abnormally hushed, drawn to Lucy’s radiance. Manny had been transformed into the mid morning presenter following the script as the sneakered-up former body builder flogged his latest juicer. “What about Walter?” he asked unable to find an accusation to cloak his curiosity.
“Walter agreed to this many months ago. He signed a contract but first he wanted to try to change the world through his television specials. He hoped to inspire them to live happily but he ultimately failed. Dr Sam Tank pointed that out recently with you, Tony, I believe.”
Tony stirred from his trance, “Uh that’s correct, yes.” Lucy smiled warmly.
“No.” Manny interjected, “Tank is a fraud. He’s a Citadel executive for fuck’s sake! He’s running this whole scam.”
Lucy furrowed her brow, “I don’t think that’s true. Dr Tank has been brought on in an advisory role as he did provide the initial research into the project before I took over. He has been very helpful, though I should add that he is rather the idealist, much like Walter. He hopes the people can discover happiness through an organic movement call the William Unston effect or The Band of Bill Unston.”
“You’re gonna lose your credibility if you start calling a suicide cult a movement.”
“The science doesn’t lie, Manny. These people voluntarily shed their unhappiness from the world. They also try to encourage people to avoid false idols such as Walter Wallace.”
“Walter isn’t a false idol. You are the false one. You and your fucking machine. You are just fucking with people’s heads. Walter is a prisoner.”
Lucy laughed. Walter accepted his fate and he will be handsomely rewarded. You mentioned a mild profit – mild would be a gross understatement. Harvesting Walter’s EE for one hour will make ten people happy for a week. Tweaking with Walter’s condition and it will serve a thousand, maybe more.”
“Tweaking?” Manny said, trying not to sound fascinated by this lunacy.
“The special trait that Walter possesses is the ability to recover from trauma and as he does that he emits unprecedented levels of happiness. He has agreed to accept controlled suffering in order to release enough happiness to serve the greatest portion of the population as possible. You may have seen the viral video on the internet of Walter’s sessions, but rest assured he is completely on board with the procedure.”
Manny was unfamiliar with the video, “What video?”
“You haven’t seen it? It was released on the viral website BullCit only a few hours ago. We want to be clear that we are perfectly comfortable with people knowing what is happening at Citadel Towers. It may be hard to watch but Walter is serving a greater good and is well looked after.”
Manny was lost. What sort of footage was on this video?
“I think that is all we have time for. Thank you for your help in explaining the product to the people, Manny I couldn’t have done it without you. Tony, you want to wrap this up?”
Tony had his head in his hands. He shook it without looking up. “God help us,” He muttered.
“Well you will be hearing more from us soon folks. The first release of Walter 101 will be available within weeks. Happiness is just around the corner!”
The light from the camera flicked off as the crowd applauded. Did they buy it? Were they planning on buying it? Manny looked up at their expectant faces and caught something in his peripheral. Four men, tall and similarly suited, fronted up on the stage. Lucy stood up. “Escort them to the trial labs. Keep it discreet. Go easy on the old one. Teach the other a lesson.”