The CRASH seemingly came out of nowhere, spiralling out of the darkest corner of the room with such velocity that it made tiny chunks of rock crumble from the walls.
The cameras panned to him. Tony sighed.
“Oh my God!” he said without any trace of conviction, spinning slowly on his heel to face the source of the noise. “What the hell was that?”
The source of the noise, as it happened, was a member of the production team tipping over a table. Tony knew this because when he was facing the corner where the noise had come from, he was staring the guy straight in the face. The production worker, whose name was Dave, was grinning at Tony cheerfully; he’d only had his job for three months and clearly, the novelty of being part of a world-famous TV programme hadn’t worn off yet. No matter how many times Dave was downtrodden by his boss, he was the only member of the crew who always seemed genuinely happy to be there. Tony envied him.
“Did I do good?” Dave asked eagerly. “Did it sound like a ghost?”
“Yes David, for God’s sake, the noise was fine,” said the exasperated producer, a middle-aged man with a face like a slightly overcooked ham. “But I told you to take that fucking Hawaiian shirt off. We can see you on camera.”
“Oh.” Dave deflated slightly. “Sorry.”
As Dave plodded into the allegedly haunted bathroom to get changed, Tony couldn’t help but grin to himself; this wasn’t the first time the producer had told Dave to change his shirt, and he doubted it would be the last. The new production worker seemed to be one of those people who never remembered what he was meant to be doing.
“Tony!” the producer bellowed, snatching him away from his train of thought. “For fuck’s sake, you’re being terrorised by fucking ghosts! Try and put in some effort with the acting rather than going through the goddamn motions like a stage-frightened six-year-old in a school play!”
“Sorry,” Tony fumbled awkwardly with his watch. “It’s just, you know, I’m not actually being terrorised by ghosts. The only thing I’m being terrorised by is Dave’s ridiculous shirt, which I have to stare straight at as he pretends to be a ghost. If we weren’t faking everything, then maybe-”
“Jesus Christ, I know there aren’t really ghosts here, Tony, but as long as you look terrified in front of the cameras I really don’t give a shit! The only genuine realism our viewers need is the ‘haunted’ house we’re in!” The producer made the quotation marks gesture with his hands as he said the word ‘haunted’, making it adamantly clear that he did not believe in ghosts.
“Your job, Tony, is to act. When we get to the haunted house, you and the others are meant to react to every little noise you hear or weird thing you see, which we create for the show, and dress it up like it’s a genuine paranormal experience. The only people that even watch this programme are daft idiots in tinfoil hats that believe every word we say anyway; we could literally put David in a white bedsheet, for Christ’s sake, and everyone watching would still believe it was a ghost.”
Tony took the opportunity to step backwards, deciding not to bother informing the producer that tinfoil-hat wearers were UFO enthusiasts, not ghost enthusiasts; it probably wouldn’t matter anyway. If he’d ever known his boss’ proper name, Tony had completely forgotten it; he referred to him simply as ‘the producer’ because he’d wanted to return some of the disrespect the guy liked to treat him with.
“Tony, just do your job. You’re at the fucking haunted house, so now all you have to do is pretend you’re seeing fucking ghosts. If you see ghosts, then all the fucking dumb ghost enthusiasts watching you will see ghosts as well! And if they see ghosts, they’ll lose their shit in fear and make me...“ He paused. “I mean, make us money. Everyone wins!”
He strode off briskly, pausing only to lecture the cameraman about keeping Dave out of frame (including at least three iterations of the word ‘fuck’ in his speech) and sat down in his chair at the back of the room with a disturbing creaking sound. Dave hurried back into the room right on cue, wearing a slightly darker blue version of the shirt he’d been wearing before.
“Right!” the producer boomed, like a politician addressing a crowd of thousands, to the three people in the room. “Bump in the Night at Ledgely hospital. Scene eighteen, take five. Tony, straighten your fucking sleeve. Action!”
Bump in the Night had been Tony’s favourite TV show ever since the age of seven. He’d sit in front of the television from four till five each Wednesday, transfixed on every move of the show’s stars: three paranormal investigators who would explore haunted locations looking for ghosts. The idea of the existence of ghosts had always both energised and terrified him, especially as a child, and when he was in bed at night he’d jump at every little sound he heard downstairs and sit straight up in bed, convinced their house was haunted. Sometimes Tony would pretend to be a paranormal investigator and sneak downstairs to investigate the noise, torch in hand, cardboard box ‘camera’ at the ready, only to find his mum making a midnight snack and reminding him there was no such thing as ghosts. These habits of his were nothing if not childish, but had actually been carrying on throughout his teenage years and into adulthood; in fact, he’d been living with his parents until four years ago, when they’d physically had to kick him out. He’d always been awful at looking after himself, and despite the fact that he was now thirty-three, nothing much had changed.
It had only been after Tony had managed to get the job on his favourite TV show (the other guy must have quit, but obviously the producers had played it up as if he’d been murdered by ghosts) that he’d realised it was all fake. Every bit of poltergeist activity was orchestrated by the production team; every ghostly ‘communication attempt’ was just a guy yelling into a voice modulator or knocking on the floor. It wasn’t Tony’s job to be a paranormal researcher, as he’d been secretly hoping; he was an actor, employed to play to the cameras. The two other people with whom he shared his job (the other ‘investigators’) didn’t even believe in ghosts, but Tony always had and he still did. He could have sworn that, when he’d visited various ‘haunted houses’ around the world, he’d seen things before that he wasn’t supposed to be seeing; heard things he wasn’t supposed to be hearing; felt things he wasn’t supposed to be feeling. Tony had had experiences on the job before that he knew couldn’t be scientifically explained, but, of course, everybody else always ignored him. That, as far as he was concerned, was fine.
While the camera crew were still setting up at an English rectory they’d been filming at, he’d gone exploring and heard a blood-curdling scream, but when he’d been upstairs to investigate the noise, he’d found nobody. Last year, when they’d been doing a Halloween special in an insane asylum in Italy, the producer had flown into a temper because a stone had broken off the wall and fallen onto the top of his head; Tony hadn’t said anything at the time, but he’d been the only one watching as the stone was lifted off the floor and hurled from across the room. Instead of bothering to try and convince the producer (or anyone else for that matter) of what he was seeing, Tony always preferred to watch from the sidelines, trying hard to suppress laughter. To be honest, Tony had never blamed the poltergeists for targeting the producer; if he’d been a ghost he probably would have done the same.
The crash sounded out again from the corner, but Tony was too distracted and bored to say his line again. They were filming an episode at Ledgely Infirmary, a derelict military hospital whose paranormal history Tony had been fascinated with since the age of twelve, but instead of searching for anything of actual interest he was being forced to act frightened of an underappreciated production worker tipping over a table. Luckily for him, he’d still been able to see a few things of actual interest from right where he was standing; about an hour ago, for instance, one of his colleagues had accused him of throwing a bed sheet at her, even though he’d been ten feet away from the beds at the time. He would have taken credit for it anyway, had it not been for the fact that he’d been laughing too hard as she tried to disentangle the sheet from her hair.
The producer signalled to the cameraman to stop filming.
“Cut! Tony, what the fuck? You were just standing there frozen like a rabbit in the fucking headlights. Tony? Hey, I’m talking to you!”
Tony still wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy watching as the producer’s mug (printed with ‘I’M THE EFFING BOSS’ in fluorescent letters) began to wobble on the flagstones. Slowly, it tipped onto its edge, hung motionlessly in the air for a full three seconds, and then fell onto its side, spilling coffee onto the producer’s white canvas shoe.
“Tony? Tony!” The producer waved a hand in front of Tony’s face, laughing when he didn’t respond. Nobody laughed with him; the cameraman looked awkwardly at the ground and Dave continued to fidget with the hem of his shirt.
“What the... oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” said the producer as he looked down at his ruined shoe.
Whilst Tony attempted to re-submerge himself in his daydream, the producer stomped over to the mounted camera, shoving the operator out of the way.
“Look, he looks like he’s actually seen a ghost. You know what? Fuck it. Let’s use it. Tony, you’re frozen in fear. Got that? OK, let’s move on. Pack up, everyone! Oh, and David?”
“Yes?” said the production worker, hurrying up.
“Get me a fucking clean pair of shoes.”