sjhstrangetales

PLASTER SAINT

 “I would rather not be involved, if it’s all the same to you”.

 “Well it is all the same to me, Ray.  You have to be involved.  You were one of the last people to see her alive.  An important eye-witness to an historic event.  I’m afraid you don’t have much say in the matter”.

“Oh yes I do”, said Ray, longing for a cigarette “This is still a free country, although I notice we don’t seem to hear that expression much anymore.  I still have freedom of choice, and I choose not to be involved”.

 “Yes alright get off your soap-box”, Andrew, his Editor replied “You’re not Martin Luther King”.

 “No just another crummy tabloid photographer”, said Ray.

 “What’s the matter with you?  You’re a damn good photographer, everybody says so.  You’ve taken some of the most iconic pictures of the last 3 decades, and now here you are, going all neurotic on me”.

 “Neurotic??” Ray exclaimed “Look I don’t want to be involved in all this mawkish rubbish.  She was just a woman, like many other women.  A beautiful one, I admit, that’s why I liked working with her.  I always said, it was impossible to take a bad picture of the Countess”.

 “You watched her grow from a silly schoolgirl to a mature, sophisticated woman”, said Andrew “Your slant on all this is vital.  The tragic end of the legendary beauty.  A sad day for the country, all that stuff”.

 “Look she died!” said Ray “People die every day, and they don’t get this hagiography treatment.  It’s time we all moved on.  There’s too much looking-back in this country.  The whole bloody country’s going neurotic if you ask me.  We’re drifting around like a bunch of daft sheep in the middle of the road”.

 Andrew put down the photo’s he had been fiddling with, and leaned back in his chair, his glasses perched on his forehead.  He scrutinised Ray for a moment, like a psychiatrist analysing a patient.

 “This might surprise you, Ray”, he said “But I agree with you.  The whole country seems to have lost its way.  It bothers me too sometimes.  But our readers would be very disappointed if we didn’t pay tribute to the Countess.  They’re expecting it.  And we owe her, she sold enough papers for us.  You only had to put a picture of her on the front page and it would guarantee mega-sales.  There hasn’t been anyone like her since.  I doubt there ever will be again.  What’s so wrong with honouring her?  There are plenty less deserving who get bloody statues erected in their honour.  At least she never bombed anyone!”

 “What was your opinion of her really?” asked Ray “I don’t mean as a newspaper editor, I mean as a normal human being.  What did you REALLY think of her?”

 “Well …” Andrew thought for a moment “She was very beautiful, one of the most stunning-looking women I’ve ever seen”.

 “OK, we’ve established that one”, said Ray “She was a looker.  But as a person, what did you make of her personality?”

 “Did she have one?” Andrew gave a bark of laughter “Nah I’m joking.  Well I never agreed with all this She Was A Saint rubbish.  I think she probably meant well, in her heart of hearts, but an awful lot of it was also a publicity stunt.  Between you and me, I always felt sorry for her Ex.  She must have been a bloody nightmare to live with.  No wonder he ran off with old sheep-face”.

 “And yet you’ve done nothing but slate him in print for years”, said Ray.

 “That’s what the readers want”, Andrew held up his hands in a gesture of resignation “Beautiful Woman Rejected By Cruel Husband.  That’s the dark fairy-tale that they wanted”.

 “And the truth can bugger off out of the window?” said Ray.

 “Look Ray, we’re in the entertainment business here …”

 “Funny, I thought we were a news service.  Getting the important information out to the reader, not telling them what they want to hear”.

 “I can see I’m not going to get anywhere with you today”, said Andrew, with a deep sigh “All I want you to do is to select a spread of your favourite pictures of the Countess, and give the readers a little background to each one.  Tell them where you took it, what she was like on that day etc etc”.

 “So it’ll be just ‘here’s another one of the Countess in a famous location, putting on a brave smile to hide her inner torment’ load of guff”, said Ray “What else, same old routine”.

 “And also something about that fateful day all those years ago”, said Andrew “It might be mawkish to you, but the readers want to know what she was like at the end.  What her last words were, that sort of thing”.

 “I never heard her last words”, said Ray “They’d got her bundled into the ambulance before I had a chance to hear anything”.

 “Well then make something up!” said Andrew, in exasperation “Something along the lines of ‘take care of my darling children’, that sort of thing”.

 “Oh for fuck’s sake!” Ray got up and stormed out of the office.

 “And stop acting like a bloody big girl!” Andrew shouted after him.

 

 When Ray got back to his desk, he pulled up a file on his computer.  It was a private, locked file, which only he could access.  He hadn’t looked at it in quite some time, but over the past few days he’d found himself constantly going back to it.  He’d begun it to contain the sensitive pictures, the ones of various public figures that had not been allowed to be published at the time they were taken, for various reasons.  There was only one picture of the Countess in it, and it disturbed him greatly.  

 It was one of several he had taken of her a few days before her untimely death.  She had been holidaying on a yacht, belonging to one of her multi-millionaire friends, in the Caribbean.  Most of the pictures he had taken of her there had been deliberately staged by her.  All this crap about Press Intrusion … she had known exactly what she was doing.  She had even telephoned him beforehand to tell him where she would be and at what time.  People may not believe it, he thought, but she had been entirely complicit in those “intrusive” holiday snaps.  

 Except for one.

 It had been sunset.  Most of the rest of the press-pack had got bored after a long day snapping the Countess as she frolicked boisterously in the sea and on the beach, and gone off to find themselves a drink in a beachfront bar.  For some reason Ray had hung behind that evening.  The Countess had suddenly appeared on the main deck of the yacht, and had strolled up to the far end.  Ray had watched, silently mesmerised, as she sat down, in her stylish one-piece turquoise blue swimsuit, and started looking at her nails in a preoccupied fashion.  For once, she seemed completely oblivious to him.   Ray had picked up his camera and looked at her through the telephoto lens.  The close-up of her face shocked him.  He furtively took one picture, not to sell on, but just to prove to himself that he had seen it.

 “She’s insane”, he had thought to himself.  If anyone had asked him to describe how he had arrived at that conclusion, he would have found it impossible.  All he knew was that he had seen expressions like that on severely damaged people inside mental hospitals.  A sort of other-worldly preoccupation, not on the same level as anyone else.

 All these years on the photograph still disturbed him.  It was why he refused to join in all the endless tributes and celebrations the papers was planning to commemorate her death.  “The dear Countess, taken from us too soon”, “her good works will go on”, “we still love this beautiful saint”.   In the past few days emails and letters had been pouring into the paper from readers, who had resurrected their old hatred of her ex-husband.  “How could he!”, “What a bastard”, “A total pig”, “A cruel sadist”.  The poor sod was going to be put through the wringer again, thought Ray, all these years on.  He would never be free of the ghost of her.  Christ, we all make mistakes, but he’s going to be persecuted by his until he’s in his grave, and then some were still come and spit on it.  

 “All these years in the business”, he thought to himself “And all I’ve come out of it with is a feeling that I’m bloody sick of other people’s problems”.

 

 The media seemed to have nothing else to occupy itself with over the next few days.  At the end of each long hard day, Ray would flick through the TV channels and you could be sure there would be at least one channel maundering on about the dead Countess, and her poor motherless children (who were now almost middle-aged, but no matter).  

 “OK as a photographer, I take some blame for creating this monster”, he typed into his private diary on his laptop “If we hadn’t been so bewitched by her youthful beauty all those years ago perhaps none of this would ever have happened.  As Andrew said, we learnt early on that her face on the front page sold copies. The public couldn’t get enough of her.  But the truth was she was starting to bore people towards the end.  People can only take so much of that endless angst and self-pity before everyone starts moving on to something else.  That’s all been forgotten now though.  Her untimely death has wiped all that from the public consciousness.  A collective amnesia.  Now she’s a saint.  A wronged saint, taken from us too soon.  I swear, I absolutely swear, there are some people who believe there wouldn’t be all the problems there are in this world if the Countess was still around.  What fucking hooey!”

 Ray got up from his desk and went to a corner of the second bedroom which served as his home study.  It was occupied by a stack of dusty old box-files.  He pulled them out haphazardly until he located the one which had the date of that fateful Summer scrawled in black marker pen on the top.  In it were stored the newspaper cuttings of the photographs he had taken over the course of that few weeks.  They were heavily dominated by pictures of the Countess, as she lurched from one sun-soaked holiday to the next.  He remembered one of his colleagues – who had since passed away – going over them with him, and remarking in his distinctive plummy tones that “she’s a rather spoilt young lady isn’t she”.  Ray had replied with the rather snipey comment of “not so young these days”.  

 “Mmm yes”, Quentin had replied “Turning 40 is going to hit her rather hard.  I’ve already heard that she scans our pictures obsessively, looking to see if we’ve captured any cellulite”.

 “God help the girl her son marries”, Ray had said “Particularly if she’s a looker too”.

 He uncovered a cutting of the Countess’s sister, Gianna, taking part in her children’s school sports day.  It was an unremarkable picture in many ways, not one he was particularly proud of, and yet he liked the down-to-earth nature of it, far removed from the glamour shots he was used to doing.  Gianna was running along, holding onto an egg and spoon, her face fixed in concentration.   It had been a nice, harmless Silly Season picture … back in the days when the press still had a Silly Season.

 Gianna had found the whole thing very funny, and had sent him a note with the words “If I’d known you were going to be there Ray, I’d have worn a smarter outfit”.  He had always liked Gianna.  What he hadn’t anticipated was how furious the Countess had been by it.  She had telephoned him one morning and screamed down the line that “Gianna’s getting far too much attention.  For God’s sake Ray, no one would know who she was if she wasn’t my sister!”  This wasn’t unusual.  The Countess was prone to making vitriolic phone calls to the news office, if she felt particularly disgruntled by something they had done.  Ray got revenge by taking another picture of Gianna, this time of opening her local village fete, and looking very slim and elegant in a tailored lemon-coloured suit and flowery hat.  He cherished the thought of the Countess hurling the newspaper across the living-room of her luxury apartment when she saw it.  

 “I wonder what Gianna’s up to now”, he thought.  She had largely slipped off the public radar since her sister’s death.  She occasionally popped up in the public eye when she was heading a charity appeal of some sort, but other than that, no one saw her.  Shame.  He always thought she was the more interesting of the two sisters, but she had lacked the Countess’s beauty and dazzling charisma.  

 The Countess would be nearly 60 if she was still alive.  Ray couldn’t picture her at that age.  She was one of those people who would be permanently frozen in youth.  He suspected that his old colleague Quentin would have been right.  She would have struggled with getting older, with having younger women coming up and stealing her thunder.  She was a lady who was used to getting all the attention, and effortlessly she had.  He had once been behind her when she walked into a room, and witnessed the barrage of camera’s suddenly all clicking at once.  It was enough to blind a person, but she had coped with it with the kind of ease you’d expect from someone who got huge attention wherever she went.  She was a mega-star.  Had been a mega-star, he corrected himself.  He still found it hard to think of her in the past sense.

 

 “I guess I did love her, after a fashion”, he typed into his personal diary “It was hard not to.  Perhaps that’s why she also exasperated me so much.  It’s hard not to get angry when you see someone you love wilfully making a complete twonk of themselves, and she did that so much that last Summer.  She could be so wonderfully mischievous, on a good day, with a real impish sense of humour.  So sweet, so charming.  Flirty with us with those long eyelashes of hers.  ‘Hi Ray, glad you could make it’, she’d smile, teasing me at another gormless function.  Making the whole shebang worthwhile.  And then on a bad day, it would be as if none of that had ever happened, you were back to being The Enemy again, the one out to get her.  She should’ve just brazened it out. Said ‘come on boys, get your pics, and then leave me alone’.  But no, we had to have this stupid Tom & Jerry nonsense some days.  Hiding in doorways, and then peering out to see if we’d followed her.  Driving her car at breakneck speeds down one-way streets.  What a way to carry on.  I read someone once that a taxi-driver had had a go at her, when she tried to hide in the back of his cab, told her to start acting more dignified, and like a Countess should.  I think he spoke for all of us at that point.  It was getting ridiculous.  

 We didn’t hound her to her death.  I get so angry when people accuse us of that.  The same people who avidly grabbed every issue we sold with her in, snatching at it with their sweaty little paws.  Not one of them ever said ‘I won’t ever buy another copy of your rag until you say you’ll leave her alone’.  Not one.  They wanted to see her.  We gave them what they wanted.  And then they blamed us when she led us on one cat-and-mouse game too many.  Fuck this!  Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it.  Why can’t they just leave her in peace!”

 He got up and slammed on a CD of his favourite James Bond music.  It always had the ability to take him into another world.  One of real excitement and glamour,  where important things mattered, and he wasn’t a middle-aged man being ordered to make up more lies about a dead, beautiful woman.  

 

 “Ray?  Ray?  You’re in one of your Deep Thought modes again”.

 He looked up.  Lovely Rebecca was staring down at him, sitting as he was at his office desk.  

 Reb is one of the nicer elements of our team, Ray thought.  Unlike some of the other women here, who try to outdo the men to show how cynical they can be, or how much they can drink, Reb is just very down-to-earth.  She works on the Women’s Page, which is ironic as she hates it, and thinks that in this day and age a Women’s Page is an anachronism.  I think she’s right.  It belongs back in the 70s and 80s, when I first started out in this game.  Reb’s often made me laugh, such as when she describes their Miraculous Make-Over sections as “put a bird in a designer frock and get her hair done”.

 “Sorry”,  Ray cleared some space on the corner of her desk so she could perch on it.

 “What are you thinking of?” she asked, taking a sip from a takeaway coffee.

 Reb was very unusual like that, Ray thought.  Asking me what I was thinking.  Most people who come in here immediately start sounding off about their own problems, whether I want to hear them or not (which I usually don’t).

 “Oh just this special edition about The Countess”, said Ray, wearily.

 “It can’t be easy for you”, she said “Bringing back all those memories.  You were there at the time”.

 “So Andrew keeps reminding me”, said Ray.

 “He’s a complete git”, she said “I don’t see that there’s anything else to say.  Still”, she gave a sigh “At least it’s easy for me.  All I have to do is a spread on some of her dresses, and some waffle about what a style icon she was.  It won’t be anything people haven’t seen before, about a million times.  It amazes me they’re not bored stiff with it”.

 “Perhaps they are.  British journalism isn’t exactly in great shape at the moment”.

 She glanced over at the door, furtively, and then back to him.

 “I hope you don’t mind me saying this”, she said “But I always get the feeling you’re holding back on something.  That there’s something about that day you haven’t told us”.

 “There’s no important information I’m keeping to myself if that’s what you mean”, said Ray “Everything I saw got relayed at the Inquest.  There’s no cabinet of dark secrets.  Not from me anyway.  I saw a beautiful woman, in a distressed state, being taken into an ambulance.  That was the last I ever saw of her”.

 She looked at him thoughtfully.  Reb had a journalist’s true nose for a story.  She’s completely wasted on that poncy Women’s Page, thought Ray.  She should be snooping out top-level secrets.  God knows there are enough of them in this country.  

 “Do you know what my little nephew said to me the other day”, said Reb “He said he thinks the Countess is still alive”.

 “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”, said Ray.

 Reb looked startled.  It wasn’t the response she’d been expecting.

 “Don’t tell me we’ve got another Elvis situation on our hands”, she laughed.

 “What exactly did he say?” asked Ray “Your little one”.

 “Ray, he’s only 5”.

 “Humour me, I’m interested”.

 “He said ‘I think The Countess is locked up somewhere, dark and horrid.  They’ve got her trapped.  She’s lonely’.  He’s a bright little kid, but he is just a kid, Ray.  I thought you’d find it funny, in a dark sort of way”.

 “Oh take no notice of me”, Ray sighed “Sometimes I think I should be taking early retirement.  I’ve really had enough of this game”.

 

 “Pull yourself together man”, Ray was at his diary again “That’s what I keep wanting to tell myself.  Since that day, all those years ago, there’s been no limit to some of the daft theories I’ve heard about the Countess.  I had one nutter recently who kept bombarding me with his own photographs, said he was convinced she wasn’t one woman, but had been played by many different women.  Nutty as a fruitcake.  Couldn’t get it through to him that because a woman changes her hairstyle now and again it doesn’t make her a completely different person!  Oh but her face changed shape, he said.  Yeah, that was because she had a well-publicised battle with her weight.  Sometimes she was a lot thinner than others.  Sometimes she got so damn thin she was practically emaciated, like a Belsen victim.  It was heart-breaking to see.

 But I’ll tell you why this one is bothering me.  The day after she died, I was checking out of my hotel, and a woman came up to me in the foyer.  She was distressed, a lot of people were.  Said she wanted a quiet word with me.  ‘Is she really dead?’ she asked me.  I said she was.  She’d died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.  Fatal heart-attack brought on by the shock of the accident.  The paramedics had tried their damndest, but there was nothing they could do to save her.  ‘But I don’t understand’, she’d said, her eyes welling up with tears ‘I saw her at the other end.  They were helping her out of the ambulance, and a nurse was walking her into the hospital.  She seemed very shocked and dazed, and had blood on her clothes, but she was still walking.  She was alive’.  I said she must have been mistaken.  Got her muddled up with another accident victim.  ‘No I knew it was her’, she said, insistently ‘I’d have known the Countess anywhere’.  She’d walked away from me then, obviously thinking she wouldn’t get any sense out of me.   

 I’ve never seen that woman again.  I’ve no idea who she was.  Just an ordinary British tourist, who happened to be there at the time.  And yet I’ve never been able to forget her words.  

 Oh don’t be daft, man!  Enough bloody people saw her when her body was laid out in the hospital.  For hours afterwards dignitaries traipsed in and out to Pay Their Respects.  Her own family came to see her.  By all accounts, Gianna broke down completely when she saw her.  She wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t really been her own sister lying there.  There was a mad dash round town to find a dress to stuff her in.  The Countess, legendary style-icon, wearing a cheap, off-the-peg dress.  I remember thinking ‘she won’t like that’, when I heard about it”.

 

 “Ray!” Andrew’s voice snapped over the phone in it’s usual I Am An Emperor Issuing An Order manner “Get yourself over to Dreamland Castle pronto”.

 Dreamland Castle was the nickname they had given to the palatial townhouse, in one of the more exclusive London squares, where the Countess had spent her last couple of years.  They had called it Dreamland Castle because she seemed to live in an unreal state there, like a fairytale princess in her ivory tower.  Detached from reality, and – to Ray’s mind – becoming increasingly paranoid with each day that passed.

 “Why?” said Ray “What’s going on there?”

 “Remember that mountain of flowers everybody laid there in the days after she died?” said Andrew “Local florists can’t have ever had it so good.  Well it seems like all their Christmasses are going to come again.  They’re gonna try and recreate it”.

 “Who’s They?” said Ray “Last time it was a spontaneous thing by members of the public…”

 “Will you stop bloody arguing all the time and get yourself over there!” said Andrew “How hard can it be to take some pictures of a pile of smelly flowers?  I could probably do it myself!”

 “Why don’t you then?” said Ray, but after Andrew had hung up on him.

 

Ray snapped shut the hard metal cases which contained all his treasured equipment.  Well at least old skinflint Andrew could pay for a taxi for him.  He was buggered if he was going to lug all this lot round there on a bus.  Ray never drove in London if he could possibly help it.  Normally he went everywhere in the City by Tube, but there was no Tube stop near the Countess’s old pile, and he felt like being rebellious.  Being sent to photograph a heap of flowers, as if he was some photographer on a provincial rag being sent to cover a Women’s Institute extravaganza.  Jesus Christ, and when I was younger, and just starting out, I thought I’d be dodging bullets in a warzone, or risking life and limb to cover some revolution in South America.  

 It was a humid, overcast afternoon, with an annoying spattering of rain.  By the time he reached Southdown Square, a small crowd had gathered near No. 65, the Countess’s old home.  There seemed to be an abnormally large police presence for what was on offer.  In fact, it was fair to say the cops almost outnumbered the crowd.  The flower display was pitiful.  A few soggy bundles, dressed up extravagantly in cellophane and plastic ribbons, had been placed on the pavement in front of the iron railings at the front of the house.  At one point one of the cops lifted the blue barrier tape to allow a small child through, accompanied by her mother.  The little girl placed a bouquet on the pile, and was then ushered back out beyond the barrier again.  It all look oddly staged.  Why else would random people turn up in a London street on a weekday afternoon, conveniently armed with bouquets of flowers, to lay them on a pavement?  

 “Press”, said Ray, indicating the lanyard around his neck “I just want to take some pictures of the flowers.  My editor wants them”.

 “OK make it quick”, said the copper.  

 Yeah, like I want to linger in a rainy street taking pictures of sodding flowers, thought Ray.  At the end of the street he noticed a mobile van belonging to a news crew.  It was one of the numerous 24-hour rolling-news channels that were around these days.  They seemed to be already packing up to leave.  Move along now, nothing to see here.  

 Some of the crowd had whipped their phones out and were snapping pictures, presumably ready to be posted on Twatter or Instagrot, he thought.

 Suddenly a ripple of excitement ran through the gathering.  A large black car had stopped at the opposite end of the street from the film crew, and two people, each clutching a black umbrella, climbed out and came sauntering down the street, each looking like the cat that had got the cream.  The Hon Sir Rocking-Horse Face, and Lady Smug-Tits, as Ray often privately thought of them, the Countess’s grown up children.  The people who had been automatically bestowed with a holy aura the day that the Countess had died.  The Press had to be so careful how they referred to them.  Anything less than the utmost respect (which never seemed to be granted to anyone else) and wails of “how can you be so cruel to the Countess’s poor children?  They lost their dear mother, have some respect” would ring out.  

 Ray hadn’t liked either of them for quite some time now.  The Hon Sir Rocking-Horse Face had once tried to smash his camera, when Ray was photographing him lurching drunkenly out of a nightclub at 3 in the morning.  One of his colleagues had managed to snap Lady Smug-Tits sunbathing naked in full view of an entire beach once, and she had threatened to sue the arse of the paper if they didn’t hand over the negatives at once, claiming they had “invaded her privacy”.  Like their mother, both of them liked to flirt with the Press, whilst at the same time whining about their privacy entitlement.

 “Get back now”, said Mr Charmer, the copper, sticking his arms out and gesturing for Ray to back off.  

 “Why, have they got something contagious?” Ray couldn’t help quipping.

 He was busy packing away his equipment when a fresh movement in this strange, surreal little scene caught his eye.  A small party of anonymous people came out of the black polished front door of the house, carrying a motley collection of large sheets of cardboard and xeroxed paper, along with boxes filled with the kind of novelty gifts, such as teddy bears, balloons and ribbons, that you find in greetings card shops.  With great seriousness of purpose they began to fasten these to the railings.  Ray watched in bemusement until the railings became a gaudy montage of pictures of the Countess, along with half-baked sentiments such as ALWAYS IN OUR HEARTS, WE WILL ALWAYS LOVE HER etc.

 “Um, what’s going on now?” Ray asked Mr Charmless the copper.

 “The public are recreating the day of the Countess’s death”, Mr Charmless replied, as if reading from a script.

 “But the public aren’t doing it”, Ray pointed out.

 “Haven’t you finished here Sir?” said Mr Charmless.

 “I guess I have”, said Ray.

 As he was walking away he overheard the Hon Sir Rocking-Horse Face remarking that “back then the flowers covered the entire street”.  Doubtless that will be arranged by the end of the day, thought Ray.  

 

 By the time he got back to the office he was feeling thoroughly fed up.  He marched through the main room and into his little cubicle, completely oblivious to Reb waving at him for attention.

“Oh dear Ray”, she said, when she finally caught up with him “How was Southdown Square?”

“Bloody unreal”, said Ray, emptying his jacket pockets and depositing the contents on his desk “The most sanctimonious load of old bollocks you could ever hope to see.  What the fuck is the matter with this country?  I hope old Pig-Shit appreciates my pictures of the flowers, they might be the last ones he gets”.

 “You’ll feel better when all this is over”, said Reb “You should see the article I’ve just read in our Canadian sister paper.  I had to read it 3 times before I realised it was meant to be real, and not a parody”.

 “Go on, amaze me”.

 “I quote: she was an example of our higher selves, she believed in true love, she is up there with Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Freddy Mercury’”.

 “Stop!” Ray laughed “I can’t take anymore.  Sometimes I wish the bloody zombie apocalypse would come and put us all out of our misery!”

 “Have you got any pictures of her dress?” asked Reb.

 For one grotesque moment Ray thought she was referring to the off-the-peg dress the dead Countess had been kitted out in on the fateful day.

 “The dress?” he said, faintly.

 “The one Lady Smug-Tits, as you call her, was wearing today”.

 “Oh that!” he said, with relief “Yes, I got some.  I’ll show you soon”.

 “Thanks”, said Reb “I’ll need to enthuse over it for the Women’s Page”.

 His phone buzzed on his desk.

 “That might be Andrew”, said Reb “I’ll leave you to it”.

 “Thanks”, Ray sat down and picked up his phone “Yes?  Yes, hello Andrew, I got the pictures, all ready for the Saintly special edition”.

 “I hope you got the pictures of the display on the railings too”.

 Ray didn’t need to ask how Andrew knew about the display already.  Andrew was like God, he had a habit of knowing everything, sometimes before it even happened.

 “Yes I got them”, Ray sighed “Looked like the local playgroup had been hard at work indoors putting it all together”.

 “Let’s have no more of that, Ray”, said Andrew “I’ve got the headline worked out for your spread, ‘THE NATION MOURNS 20 YEARS ON’”.

 “No one was fucking mourning”, said Ray, but Andrew steam-rollered on unhindered.

 “Oh and check the Twitter trends”, said Andrew “I want a few tweets peppered around, showing how everyone still misses her all these years on, that kind of thing.  Bound to be a few”.

 “Why are we doing this?” Ray snapped “I mean, I know what’s in it for us, it’s to sell newspapers, but why are THEY doing it, her family I mean.  Why all this rubbish in Southdown Square earlier, what’s in it for them?  Why do they want their Dad publicly reviled all over again?  As far as I can tell, they get on well with him”.

 “Because it keeps the pressure off them”, said Andrew, candidly “As long as they always have their saintly mother to fall back on, the public can’t rise up and start criticising them for what they are, a bunch of useless parasites who should have been put to one side years ago.  She’s their insurance policy.  Cast your mind back a few months.  They were getting a lot of criticism for being workshy, for always being on boozy holidays in these hard times, for being no fucking use to man nor beast basically”.

 “Yes I remember”.

 “And what happened soon after that?  Suddenly we had them begging us to do some interviews with them.  Wanted to confess how they were still haunted by their dear Mother, how her death still grieved them.  And the public lapped it up”.

 “‘Those poor kids, the nasty press should be ashamed of themselves’”, quoted Ray.

 “Exactly”, said Andrew “They’ve been practically untouchable ever since”.

 “Andrew, just one thing”, said Ray “I understand all that.  But why are we playing their game?  Why are we playing along with them?”

 There was a brief silence at the other end of the phone.

 “Just get those pictures to me pronto”, he said.

 

 When Ray got back to his flat that evening, he found Selena, his neighbour, pottering about in the communal hallway, putting weed-killer on the plants which she kept around “to brighten the place up”.  Selena was what could only be described as “a loveable old eccentric”.  She wore a ton of make-up and hair extensions, seemed to live exclusively off gin, and believed every conspiracy theory going.  She liked to pump Ray for information, because, as he was a journalist, she was convinced he always knew more than he was letting on.  

 Sometimes she posted her thoughts in little YouTube videos.  Ray had watched a couple of them, and had found them curiously restful.  Selena had once been a teacher, and Ray could believe it, she was a natural communicator.  The only trouble was, what she communicated was usually totally potty.    

 “Have you been working on the Countess anniversary stuff again?” she asked.

 “Yes”, Ray sighed, fiddling with his keys.

 “I’ve put up a new video about her”, said Selena “You might like to look at it later.  I think she’s still alive and living in America.  I’ve got loads of photographic evidence to back it all up.  You must look at it …”

 “Selena”, said Ray, opening his front door “I’d like it if I never heard another bloody word about the Countess again for as long as I lived!”

 And he shut the door firmly behind him.

 

THE END

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