|Paul has written screenplays, radio plays, and a script for a TV sit-com pilot. He is also the author of The Bathonians. He lives in Bath, England.|
© 2008 Paul Skinner
A crowd of media people was camped outside the central house of the Georgian terrace. The weak early-morning light showed the grubby, unshaven and sleepy-eyed results of an overnight vigil.
A polished black limousine approached and silently drew up outside the besieged house. A lithe, leggy chauffeuse in a black uniform jumped out and opened the rear door. She raised her peaked cap and her long blonde hair tumbled down as Segretti emerged.
After an awed silence, the reporters began shouting questions. Segretti raised his manicured hand but stayed silent as he pushed his way to the door. A stylish young man, who looked as though he was fresh out of school, slid to the edge of the crowd and pointed his stills camera. Segretti caught sight of him. They looked at one another, but there was no sign of recognition.
Segretti rang the doorbell and a face appeared at the window. The door opened a crack. He pulled a business card from his breast pocket and showed it. Inside, a phone started ringing.
Kate led him into the period furnished drawing room. His quick scrutiny of her, from shoes to hair, seemed to satisfy him: they both had an equally educated taste in clothes - and the money to express it. He silenced the phone by lifting and replacing the handset. As Kate went to speak he raised a monitory forefinger, made a quick search of the Regency tables, found the remote control, switched on the wide-screen TV and pushed up the volume. He went to the tall sash windows and drew the heavy curtains together.
He finally offered his hand. "Trust me. Your problems were over as soon as you phoned." The panacea had a faint Scouse accent.
"I just didn't know what to do. My instinct was to run. Then I remembered he gave me your number."
"It's not the end of the world. Nobody has died. Do you mind if I use this ... just to aid my memory?"
Kate looked down and saw the small recorder in Segretti's hand. "What about his wife? His children? What will it do to them?"
"Don't worry. You're doing just great."
But the tears were still running down her face. "I can't bear him being hurt. And because of me. Anything can trigger one of his depressions."
The phone started ringing again. He unplugged it. "What are you doing?" she asked.
He stared at her Pre-Raphaelite hair. "We stay in control. We talk to people only when we want to. We use the three Rs: rhetoric, rebuttal and -"
"How did The News of the World find out?" Kate went to an antique oval mirror and dabbed under her eyeliner. Her image was backgrounded by Segretti in front of the TV, keying a text message into his mobile. The TV showed the youthful reporter outside the house responding to his mobile as he backed away from the crowd.
"By tomorrow it will be an old story." Segretti spoke as though it was a well rehearsed speech. "Something else will be making the headlines."
"Once the tabloids get hold of a story like this they don't let go until -"
"You are not the royal family." He glanced at her freckled face. "This is just a comedian and his lover. The story has no legs. It won't run and run."
"They will find things. We must do something ... protect him ..."
"It's simple. Trust me. The secret is damage control. We respond. We don't react. I work out an overall message, then today's line, which I feed to them," he flicked his head towards the window. "Chopped up into easily digested sound bites. I'll do an email attack on the rest. The third R is for repetition, by the way."
She moved towards the phone. "I must try and contact him. I need to know how he is. He self-medicates his -"
"I forbid it. The telephone is not a secure method of communication. Especially your mobile: anyone with a scanner can listen in."
"Damage limitation means we must maintain control of everything. Telephones can easily be bugged. Rooms too. That's why ... " He jerked his head at the TV and its pumped up volume.
His recorder lay on a coffee table, its eye unblinking.
Another tape recorder was being held by the Joker. Middle-aged, bloated and balding, he stood listening to his own tinny voice. The impersonal hotel bedroom was only distinguished by the rust-coloured prints of the outback and gum trees, and photographs of aboriginal art. The TV was muted.
"'strewth. It was an enormous Alsatian."
After a phony silent laugh, he formed the face of a lunatic and made spastic body movements. He pressed the record button then spoke into the recorder.
"Take my wife ... please do. No, seriously, listen ... We've been married for thirty years and it seems just like yesterday ... and you know what an awful day it was yesterday." He grimaced and turned away from the full-length mirror.
Kate ran her finger over the gilded moulding of an oil painting and failed to find any dust. Segretti was crouched over his laptop. His droning voice just overrode the sound of the TV.
"With the overall message I'll give you the sound bite. 'It's over'."
"But will they swall ... believe it?"
"They will have to believe it. We keep repeating it. Quietly, insistently ... a whisper can travel further than a scream. And if you repeat something often enough people believe it. Remember this: when you are sick and tired of repeating it, it is then that they are starting to believe it. Now say it."
Her: "It's over" was weak.
"No. It's over. It's over. The affair is over."
"It's over. It's over ... I don't know if I can go through with this."
"You must. Again."
"It's over. The affair is over."
Segretti got up and moved towards her. She looked timorously into his eyes as though in anticipation of a comforting touch, but he moved straight past her to part the curtains and look out at the media pack.
"I so need to talk to him. To tell him I love him and can't wait for him to be back here." She looked longingly at the phone.
"No, it's impossible."
"To find out how he is." Her eyes moved a fraction and greedily absorbed a silver-framed photograph, a romanticized head-shot of the Joker. Her eyes shifted back to the phone. "He refuses to accept that drink exacerbates his depressions."
Segretti returned to his place on the sofa. "Is there anything else I should know about you?"
"Anything that would arouse the press - skeletons I mean"
"Come on, we all have them," he encouraged. He waited. Then: "Are you married?"
"Where does he live?"
"He disappeared in America. Florida or -"
He waited, then looked up from his laptop and noticed the tears. "Trust me."
"I don't see the relevance of -"
"If I'm to help you - and him - I need to know everything ... down to the last detail."
"I was once having a baby - with another man. That's why Nick and I couldn't give our relationship another go."
"I had a miscarriage. I'm sorry, I can't -"
"Fine, fine. We can finish this later. How about a bite to eat? That will make you feel better."
The Joker paced his room, totally engrossed in his telephone conversation. "I'm sorry ... I know, what can I - ?" He listened, face crumpled in pain, nodding and nodding. Finally, he found a gap. "I didn't mean to hurt you and the children. I love you - more than I can say." He took a handkerchief from his pocked and dabbed at his eyes as he listened. "It just happened. It didn't mean anything. She was there for me and understood how hard it was - having to be funny all the time. Scratching around for new material - " He came to a sudden stop, took the phone from his ear and stared at it in disbelief.
Kate and Segretti stood outside her front door, trapped by the horde of press and TV people with their cameras, sound booms, tape recorders, lights and shouted questions. As she spoke quietly, she kept her eyes on the prepared script that trembled steadily.
"His comeback tour is a great success and he remains happily married. The affair is now over. It happened. It was a mistake, a temporary lapse, and now it's over."
It began to spot with rain. Segretti looked up at the sky then took out and opened his umbrella to shelter himself.
A reporter shouted. "When did it finish?"
She looked up. "When he flew out seventeen days ago. I told him then."
She returned to the script. "For the sake of his family, I decided to terminate the liaison."
Kate came to the end: "It's over." She looked up again. "That's all I have to say. Thank you. It's over."
The reporters became clamorous.
"Will you be joining him in Australia?"
"How are you feeling, Kate?"
Segretti's raised hand finally quietened the mob. "She cannot take any questions. That's all ... for now."
Above his high, bright collar, a bleached-tooth smile spread across the face of the young reporter. "Awesome," he whispered.
Another reporter yelled, "Who pays for your flat?" as Segretti opened the front door and pushed Kate back inside. The door slammed shut.
The drawing room door opened and Kate came in, a tray of coffee clutched against her stomach so her free hand could open the door. Segretti continued keying into his laptop as she set down the tray and pushed the plunger of the cafetière. A rock video blasted from the TV. Stuck in the middle with you / Clowns to the left of me / Jokers to the right...
Leaning over, Kate shouted into Segretti's ear. "I must let him know that I love him. That the denial to the media is just to protect him and his family."
"It's okay," he intoned without looking up. "Don't worry." He lowered the volume of the TV.
"Please, Mr Segretti ..."
"Trust me. Do you think I'm no good at my profession?"
Kate gave a slight shake of her head.
"We in public relations sometimes get a bad press because we expend all our energies on our clients' images and forget about our own."
Her pleading look continued.
"Right. I have it all under control. What actually happens, the truth, reality, is immaterial. And ideas are a commodity, to be bought and sold.
"But I need to let him know -"
"Everything is a metaphor. Public perception is more important than the facts." He was now unstoppable, as though the keynote speaker at a PR seminar. "I have complex game plans with built-in fail-safes. I can reinvent public personalities."
He paused to take a sip of coffee and Kate jumped into the opening. "You must be joking. This is not some PR stunt. People's lives are at stake. How did the story get out anyway?"
He placed the cup in its saucer and aligned the handle to a ninety degree angle from him. "Everything is PR. We've just killed off the affair. Now I will reinvent him. The publicity will even do him some good. And what does him good does me good. We feed off one another. Symbiosis."
"I must speak to him. Tell him what we're doing."
"No. Trust me. It works. I know."
"Believe me. I am what I am today because I reinvented ... myself. My career was going down the tubes. From being known as 'a reliable source' I became known as 'a sieve'. Full of leaks? Nobody trusted me any more."
He was lost in a dream for a moment. "So I publicly renounced my past. I said there would be no more spinning or leaking from the new Segretti. I changed from being an opportunist to being known as a straight guy."
"Isn't opportunism known as intellectual flexibility in your world?"
She was ignored. "That Damascene conversion was the ultimate spin ... but seriously, since then, I do my damnedest to stay in the background. God forbid that I should become the protagonist of other people's stories."
The Joker, in a dowdy suit, was held in a single spotlight. "When I asked why she had taken an instant dislike to me she said: 'In order to save time'".
He raised his hands to still the laughter.
"And my time is up. If you'll finish laughing I'll leave." The laughter increased.
"No, seriously. It's over." The laughter continued then slowly died. He began to walk off stage and it started up again. "I can never leave the stage while people are still laughing, so please ... shush." He beat the air with both hands and started to move off stage in the silence. A lone hysteric started the whole audience off again. The Joker waited for the next silence then began to tiptoe off. The laughter was even louder and he made a run for it, out from the spotlight.
In the cone of light from an anglepoise lamp, Segretti instructed Kate. "All we have to do now is let him know your statement was a ploy to throw the media circus off the scent."
"So I can talk to him?"
"I have a man in Sydney. I'll get him to go and see him."
"What can I do?"
"Make some sandwiches." He plugged in the phone and punched in a long number.
"It's me. Don't say anything. I'm working the B for Bravo scenario. Understand?...I want you to talk to The Joker...I don't care. This is a twenty-four-hour society. Find him and tell him what's happening." He broke the connection, left the receiver off the hook and turned up the volume of the TV.
The Joker, tumbler in hand, watched the TV zombie-like. He suddenly paid rapt attention as a still photo of Kate came on screen. The newsreader continued: "She insisted that the affair was over. His wife and children are said to be in hiding. He has not been seen in public since last night's performance at the Opera House where - "
The TV suddenly went dark and the only light came from the dim bedside light. The Joker was still pointing the remote control at the set. He was motionless with shock. Then he took another drink and picked up the phone and started dialling frantically. He listened, broke the connection, dialled again then crashed down the receiver. The bedside table was littered with bottles and blister packs of pills and medicines. The Joker sat and stared at them.
Ten minutes later, he picked up the waste-paper basket, and, with a single sweep of his forearm, had transformed the drugs into trash.
He picked up his keys and left the room.
Segretti finished talking on the phone and again left it off the hook.
"Did you get through to him?" asked Kate.
"Yes. My man in Sydney just missed him apparently. Your pal had asked the night porter for the nearest nightclub."
Kate shrank deeper into her armchair.
As the night porter slept behind the reception desk, the Joker's silent, wraithlike figure crossed the hotel lobby and entered the waiting lift.
Up in his room, he sat on the bed and tried to phone but was too drunk to read the numbers on the pad. He went to the bathroom and splashed water onto his face. On the next try, he got through - to the engaged signal.
An hour later, he was staring through a crack in the curtains. Turning back to the room, his face was tranquil. He went round the room, tidying his clothes and making the bed. As he passed the full-length mirror he caught a glimpse of himself then rubbed his chin. In the bathroom he shaved and showered. Back in the bedroom, he took great care in dressing in dinner jacket, black tie and patent leather shoes. He rummaged through the waste-paper basket, identified and pulled out three blister packs of pills. He then lay in the exact centre of the bed and crossed his hands over his chest, as if composed for eternity. He then sat on the edge of the bed and started taking the pills and washing them down methodically with a tumbler of whisky. He stopped, then went back into the bathroom. A lavatory was flushed, then there was the sound of a running tap. He came back into the bedroom inspecting his fingernails. On the bed again, he swallowed the remainder of the pills. He dropped the empty blister packs into the waste-paper basket, put the screw top back on the Scotch bottle, finished the dregs in the tumbler, and then placed it in the exact centre of the bedside table. Noticing a ring of moisture from the tumbler, he wiped it away with a tissue which he disposed of. Then he lay back on the bed, smoothed the wrinkled duvet and again crossed his hands over his chest. He closed his eyes. The TV screen was still dark.
The blank TV in Kate's drawing room jumped into life. She sat alone, the remote in her hand, and watched the newsreader.
"... one of our best-loved comedians, was touring Australia in a successful comeback. He leaves a wife and two children."
She did not move for five minutes. Then she went to the phone. "Mr Segretti, please ... Stanley Segretti." The words needed all her strength.
Kate was slumped in an armchair exhausted after a sleepless night. Freshly washed, shaved and suited, Segretti stood at Kate's phone listening for a while. Without speaking he replaced the handset and went and sat next to her.
"It is still under control and can even be used to our advantage. Remember Elvis Presley's death? - a great career move. We have all your ex-lovers old TV shows on tape. And I made sure all his live theatre performances were videoed. There's a lot of money in video sales.
"You must be joking. How can you be thinking and talking money at this time?" spat Kate.
"He will be mythologized. A phoenix. I'm thinking of his family and their future. And you ..."
"But he's just killed himself because of you and your schemes." Muscular tension sought release in the tremor of her head.
"My scheme? No. And his death will be an accident. An accidental overdose. It's all arranged."
A moan. Despairing of further conversation, Kate went to the window and, parting the curtains, looked out at the media pack, still camped out on the pavement.
"It wasn't you who leaked the story, was it?"
"I learned all about betrayal way back at school. When I was just a teenager. I had a friend Andy -"
"Was it you?"
"Segretti is Italian for secret." He grinned. "Good idea though. If you ever want a job in PR come to me first. Promise?"
Outside the crowd had become excited at the sight of Kate at the window. The scene became increasingly bright with the camera lights and flash bulbs. She pulled back.
Segretti emerged from the front door. He carefully squeezed his way through the mob towards the black limo which waited in the middle of the road. The immaculate young reporter brushed up against him. He pushed a brown envelope into Segretti's pocket. And then he was gone.
All work is copyrighted property of Paul Skinner.
© 2008 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved