The CRASH seemed to come out of nowhere, spiralling out of the darkest corner of the room with so much force that tiny chunks of rock started to 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. Obviously, the cameras had cropped him out, but when Tony was facing the corner where the sound had come from, he was staring the guy straight in the face. The production worker, whose name was Dave, was grinning cheerfully at Tony in a manner that somehow suggested that standing in the dusty wreck of a shitty hospital ward was just how he’d wanted to spend his Saturday night. He’d only had his job for three months, and the novelty of being part of a world-famous TV programme obviously hadn’t worn off yet. No matter how many times he was downtrodden by his boss, Dave somehow always managed to keep hold of a few shreds of optimism, and Tony envied him for it.
“Did I do good?” Dave asked. “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 an 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 grinning to himself; this wasn’t the first time Dave had been told to change his shirt, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. The new guy was obviously just 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!”
Tony’s boss may have been the oldest person in the building by at least twenty years, but he had the emotional maturity of a toddler; talking to him was extremely difficult unless you wanted to be mocked or scolded.
“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 just faking everything, then maybe-”
“Jesus Christ, I know there aren’t really ghosts here, Tony, but as long as you look terrified for 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 didn’t believe in ghosts, and Tony felt a twinge of annoyance.
‘He’s such an idiot.’
“Your job, Tony, is to act. When we get to the haunted house, you’ve just got to react to every single bloody noise and shadow we throw at you, and you dress it up like it’s a genuine paranormal experience. God damn it, this shit isn’t hard! The only people that even watch this programme are daft idiots that want to believe everything we tell them; I could literally put David in a white sheet, for Christ’s sake, and everyone would still believe it was a real ghost.”
Tony took the opportunity to step backwards, deciding not to make a retort. The producer reminded him of the teachers who used to tell him off for being a smartass in high school, but with a lot more swearing.
“Tony, just do your job. You’re at the haunted house, so now all you have to do is pretend you’re seeing ghosts. If you see ghosts, then all the fucking idiotic ghost fanatics watching you will see them too! 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 (naturally 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, wearing a slightly darker version of the same shirt.
“Right!” the producer boomed, like a politician addressing a crowd of thousands, to the three people in the room. “Bump in the Night, Ledgely hospital. Take five, because Dave’s somehow managed to fuck up four times. Tony, straighten your fucking sleeve. Action!”
Bump in the Night had been Tony’s favourite TV programme since the age of seven. He’d watch it every single Wednesday after school (and then college, and then university), transfixing himself on every move of the show’s stars, three paranormal investigators who explored haunted locations looking for ghosts. The idea of the existence of ghosts had terrified and energised him, especially as a child, and he’d always jump at every little sound he heard at night and sit straight up in bed, convinced their house was haunted. Sometimes he’d 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 were nothing if not childish, but he actually hadn’t stopped before moving out of his parents’ house. That had only been four years ago, and he actually hadn’t moved out; he’d been physically kicked out. Tony had always been dreadful at taking care of himself, and despite the fact that he was now thirty-three, nothing much had changed.
It had only been after Tony replaced his favourite investigator on the programme, who’d quit after twelve years, that he’d finally realised it was all fake. Every scrap of poltergeist activity was orchestrated by the production team, every ghostly communication attempt was actually someone yelling into a voice modulator or knocking on the floor, and every mysterious shadow was just a guy messing around with a torch. It wasn’t Tony’s job to be a paranormal researcher, as he’d been hoping; he was an actor, employed to play to the cameras. The two other people who 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 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 knew that some of the experiences he’d had on the job couldn’t be scientifically explained, because he actually had a degree in life sciences, but he was still ignored by absolutely everyone else. That, in his opinion, was fine.
While the camera crew were still setting up at the last location, a ruined rectory in Wales, 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 filming an episode in a notoriously haunted Italian asylum, the producer had flown into a temper tantrum when a stone broke off the wall and fell onto the top of his head; Tony hadn’t said anything, but he’d been watching as the stone was lifted off the floor and hurled from across the room. Instead of bothering to convince his colleagues that he wasn’t going mad, Tony always preferred to watch from the sidelines and suppress his laughter as best he could. If he was honest with himself, Tony had never resented the poltergeists for targeting the producer; if he’d been a ghost he would have done the same.
The crash sounded out again from the corner, but Tony was too busy daydreaming to remember his line. He was standing in the most haunted part of Ledgely Infirmary, a derelict military hospital he’d been fascinated with for at least half of his life, 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, 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 at least ten feet away from the nearest bed at the time. He would have tried to deny the action, 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 in fascination as the producer’s mug (printed with ‘I’M THE EFFING BOSS’ in fluorescent yellow letters) began to wobble on the flagstones. Slowly, it tipped onto its edge, hung motionlessly in the air for at least 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 thoughts, 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?”
“Yep?” said the production worker, hurrying up to him.
“Get me a fucking clean pair of shoes.”