Tony slumped down on a sofa across from where Jean and Andy were sitting, wondering for the thousandth time how the hell they’d ended up working here in the first place.
He’d been called back into the studio in London two weeks after their expedition to the military hospital, because today was the day ‘the team’ had to meet up again for the pre- release briefing. Sitting opposite Tony on the largest sofa was Jean, a passive-aggressive woman who always glared at him like a serial killer with charcoal-ringed eyes. One half of her mouse-brown hair was so long that she was constantly throwing it over her shoulder, but the other half was shaved off completely, baring enough ear-piercings to make her look like human target practice. The third member of the extremely awkward trio was Andy, a man with the physique of a comic-book superhero, the hair of a boy-band member and the complexion of an overripe tangerine. Next to the pair of them, Tony looked depressingly ordinary with his lazy sprawl of brown hair and slightly smeary glasses.
Both of Tony’s colleagues, to their own confession, had never believed in ghosts for one day of their lives; Jean and Andy both regarded Tony’s belief in the paranormal as hilarious, and yet on-camera their ridiculous acting was fooling millions of viewers. Off-camera, they were mostly sidling off together, like a pair of teenagers, to a dark dilapidated room whilst everyone tried really hard to ignore them. Tony was convinced that Jean and Andy were a couple, but he couldn’t be completely sure because whenever the pair of them went off together, Jean came back crying.
“So, Tony,” Andy said, leaning back and extending an arm over the back of the sofa. “Catch any ghosts this time?”
Without looking Tony in the eye, Jean sniggered. She had an odd laugh which sounded like she was choking on iron filings.
Tony remembered watching the producer’s mug fall over. He’d been sure that nobody had touched it or knocked it, but he couldn’t be bothered to argue with Andy today.
“You know,” said Andy, obviously annoyed he’d been ignored, “I always thought that maybe you were a ghost, man. I mean, you speak about the ghosts like they’re all your friends, which figures because it’s not like you have any friends. You’re always staring dramatically into the distance, you never talk to anyone, and you’re always so... so... pale.”
“Better than looking like a genetically mutated pumpkin,” Tony muttered, not bothering to turn and face Andy. Jean let out a sound that was half a laugh, half a shriek, like the sound a cat makes when you stand on its tail.
Andy stood up, sticking out his chest like a threatened bullfrog. “You- “
“Good morning, everyone!” the producer interrupted as he strode into the room, ten minutes late as usual. He was followed by Dave, the new production worker, who was wearing a neon orange shirt and clutching a precariously balanced stack of papers that shuddered as he sat gingerly on the edge of an armchair. A twig in the blond bird’s nest of Dave’s hair was sticking up vertically and dark circles shaded his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept for weeks, but he still looked infuriatingly happy to be there.
“Right, so here’s what’ happening in the new episode,” the producer bellowed, waving his hands around in vague circles as he spoke. “We go into this haunted military hospital, which is haunted by the legendary spirit of Tommy the soldier who died from a gangrenous right leg or some such shit. You following me so far? Any questions?” He looked pointedly at Tony.
“Timothy,” Tony muttered in annoyance.
Dave looked up. “Huh?”
“Oh, nothing.” Tony went back to staring at the floor, but he could feel Dave’s eyes on him for a couple of seconds afterwards.
The ghost’s name wasn’t Tommy; it was Timothy. Tony knew because he’d been researching the hospital before they went. The producer had obviously just made up the name because he hadn’t bothered to ask and he apparently thought a person’s name was whatever he wanted it to be.
“Anyway, while Jean communicates using the EVP recorder, she hears a tapping sound and acts like it was the ghost telling her his life story in Morse code or something.”
Jean puffed up with pride, flicking the remaining half of her hairstyle over her shoulder.
“I made the noise myself by knocking on the floor,” she said. That much should have been obvious, but Tony was partly surprised that her three-inch false nails hadn’t rendered knocking impossible.
“Yeah, yeah,” the producer continued. “Anyway, after that we cut to Tony pretending to be scared of all the noises and stuff, and apparently at one point he gets so fucking terrified that he freezes in terror. Gerry, play the clip.”
The guy in the booth pressed play, and then suddenly a huge image of Tony’s face filled the screen. The camera was so close that you could practically see up his nose. As the ‘ghostly’ crash sounded on the film, Dave sat up slightly and grinned, perhaps convinced he was entitled to a round of applause for his effort, but nobody moved. Neither did Tony’s oversized face on the screen.
“Ha!” Andy’s braying-donkey laugh caught Tony by surprise. “He looks like a right idiot. I told you he was a ghost, right Jean?”
The look Jean was shooting at Andy from behind her fringe looked like a warning, but then she started to giggle. Andy looked triumphantly at Tony before opening his mouth again. “Oi, Gerry, play the part with me in it now.”
The screen switched to static for a minute before Andy appeared, wearing a white vest top that showed off his abnormally muscled arms; he had so many cameras strapped to every part of his body that he looked like he’d just robbed a PC World. He was grinning right into the camera, practically flexing, but suddenly he yelled “WOAH!” and threw his arms out in a ridiculously theatrical display of bad acting. Tony was pretty sure he was reacting to nothing, and he smirked to himself as he watched Andy regaining his composure on-screen and grinning at the camera again.
“Whoa, dude, what the ff... flip was that?”
“I was going to say ‘what the fuck’, but then I stopped myself.” Andy flipped his long fringe out of his face, acting like he’d just been nominated for an Oscar. Jean was acting rather starstruck, snuggling up to Andy like a lost puppy and looking up at him with baleful eyes. Tony felt sick, and in the corner of his eye he could see Dave raising one eyebrow. For a fraction of a second, the production worker’s eyes met his and he immediately looked away, unwilling to engage in any kind of conversation that wasn’t mandatory.
“So, anyway,” said the producer, sidestepping the cooing lovebirds as he marched across the room. “Get up, David, I want to sit there.”
Dave scuttled up, stood looking lost for a moment, and then sat back down next to Tony on the sofa. Tony was surprised when he saw that Dave had given him a smile, but he felt so miserable that he struggled to return it. Dave still needed to learn that everybody on the set of Bump in the Night hated one another.
“So, this episode airs next Thursday. Next Thursday at exactly 11pm, thousands of dumb fucks all over the UK will see our totally legitimate experience as proof of the existence of ghosts and they’ll sure as shit hang onto our every word like Jesus’ disciples. Any questions?”
Tony thought that even an eight-year-old wouldn’t fall for Andy’s clumsily apelike acting, but he said nothing. He was good at saying nothing.
“Next week, we’ll record our interviews for the new episode. Remember, all of you, act like genuine experts. Tony, you’ll be reading from a prompt sheet again. We’re going to have to- “
“Where are we going next?” asked Tony.
“What the hell do you care?” Just some old ruined house called Lansfield Hall. Anyway, we’ll get Andy to- “
He carried on talking self-importantly, making frequent use of his favourite swear words, but Tony barely heard him. Lansfield, the producer had said.
“We’re going to Lansfield Hall,” he muttered to himself, and a thrill of fear reverberated down his spine. Tony wasn’t quite sure why the name made him feel so apprehensive; he’d heard it a thousand times before. It was entirely possible that the fact that he’d heard it a thousand times before was the reason why he was so worried.
After the meeting had finally ended, Tony stood alone out in the corridor, fiddling with his biro. Jean and Andy had bolted out of the building as soon as they could; Tony guessed they were at Starbucks sipping low-fat decaffeinated coffee instead of eating actual food, as per usual. Tony had taken his lunch break with them once, when he’d first started working at the studio. He’d bought himself a sandwich, and Jean had stared at him in horror as he ate, as if he was devouring a live kitten. He’d never been back, preferring to eat his lunch alone in the break room or corridor. ‘Alone’, of course, was the operative word.
The producer was still in the conference room with Dave, yelling at the poor guy about something ridiculous. Tony caught the words “shit” (or was it “shirt”?), “immature”, and a whole lot of the word “fuck”. Tony had felt desperately sorry for Dave for the whole three months they’d been working together; Dave seemed oblivious to all the nasty things Tony had heard Jean and Andy saying about him, and if Tony had to pick one person at the studio he wouldn’t mind making friends with, it would probably be Dave. Then again, Tony was far too awkward to ever try talking to anyone, so he kept his mouth shut. It was his own fault he was always alone.
Tony was nervously flicking his pen backwards and forwards in the palm of his hand, but he’d lost the lid, so the nib was gradually covering his hand in blue ink. Then, he accidentally let go and the pen skittered across the polished wood floor. Tony ran sideways down the corridor and bent to pick it up; just as he was straightening again, the door to the conference room opened.
“-and God help you if you fuck this up, David,” the producer could be heard saying. Dave stumbled out into the hallway, looking like he was ready to make a run for the stairs, but he stopped when he saw Tony.
“Oh, Tony. Hey.” He gave a slightly defeated smile.
Tony wasn’t used to people initiating conversations with him.
Ok, don’t panic. Someone’s talking to you out of choice. Play it cool.
There was an awkward silence.
“I don’t know why he always calls me David. Guess he’s always mad at me!”
Tony didn’t argue. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Tony paused. So did Dave.
“Tony, you believe in ghosts, right?”
The question caught him by surprise. Dave had probably meant for the query to sound casual, but he ended up sounding a little desperate. Tony readied himself to deliver a withering look and one of the witty comebacks he’d been reserving for Andy, but when he looked up, Dave’s face was dead serious. He even looked worried.
“Yeah, I guess so. So what?”
“Well, I saw that mug fall over too.”
Tony stared hard at him in surprise. Dave broke eye contact and looked down again, at his own ridiculously jolly shirt. Despite all his daft quips, Dave was obviously just as socially awkward as Tony, if not more so.
“At the hospital we were just at, I saw the mug move. I’ve believed in ghosts since I was, I don’t know, thirteen?” Dave continued. “I took this job because I thought I’d get to, well, see some cool stuff, you know? I was so upset when I found out it was all smoke and bloody mirrors I almost quit there and then.”
Tony sighed. “Yeah, me too.”
“I didn’t quit, though, because, I don’t know, I guess I thought...” Dave’s words trailed off and he looked nervously at Tony through the strands of his overgrown fringe.
Tony was trying to be sociable, but still said nothing. If there was one thing he was good at, it was saying nothing.
Dave didn’t finish his sentence. Instead he said, “Did the producer say we were going to Lansfield Hall?”
Tony broke his silence with a simple “Yeah.”
“Is that the place with, you know, the ghost lady that was chopped up by her husband?”
“And then the husband hung himself?”
Tony managed a grunt. It came out sounding a lot more uninterested than he’d meant, which made him feel guilty. Honestly, though, he was shocked and secretly delighted that somebody was talking to him. The reason he wasn’t talking more was that he was still worried Dave was mocking him.
“They say it’s, like, the most haunted place in Britain, right? Didn’t it once send this one guy insane from fear?” Dave earnestly persisted. Dave was clearly trying to sound as if he’d just picked up his knowledge by accident, but it was obvious to Tony he’d been looking some things up.
Ok, he’s not mocking you. Be friendly.
Tony’s intrigue got the better of him, and he replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was a paranormal scientist who went insane. If we’re lucky, something similar might happen to Andy.”
Dave laughed nervously, glancing back at the conference room to check the location of the producer. Luckily, the door had swung shut behind him. He turned back to Tony and grinned. “I’m really excited about this. This could be pretty cool.”
Tony raised one eyebrow, then smiled back. “Yeah, me too.”
As Dave broke eye contact and hurried down the stairs, Tony found himself feeling a little less lonely than he’d felt twenty minutes ago. He smiled to himself when he was sure Dave was gone and tried hard to rub some of the blue ink from his palm, but only succeeded in making more of a mess.
For once, though, he didn't really care.