The Shoebox by Alice Furse

I had this sensation of floating through space, as if I was… free.
—Tom, Big Brother UK (2000)

When you’re a kid they make you feel watched, they tell you about God and Santa and other imaginary creatures bigger than your own thoughts and now it’s not really viable that those things exist anymore they tell you that the whole world is watching you.

They told me that there are ten thousand cameras in London, that you take any route through the city and in one hour you’re captured on over a thousand of them. As they told me this I saw a camera in my mind’s eye, whirring to focus and swivelling its head, all the silent menace of a doll brought to life.

I was thinking that if I was walking through London I’d be seen by thousands of strangers, too, but then I tripped on an on/off switch and fell into the shoebox.

And once I was inside, all I wanted was to be outside, to not know what I knew, and it was a horrible thing not to be able to have both at once.

Society teaches us that everything is attainable.

In the shoebox there were a set of triplets in playboy bunny costumes, one yellow, one blue and one pink; Charlie, Billie and Frankie. Girls with boys’ names. They had the confidence of kids wondering around the business their dad owns, in that they had little idea what happened there but they belonged in a way that no one else could. It was easy for them to be confident when there were three of them against one of everyone else.

Their outfits were new and their sunbed tans and blond highlights were fresh. I felt like asking them why they’d bothered, when the roots would show by Week 2.

I was mean about them. I didn’t say a lot but I had a lot of mean thoughts.

I watched them together all the time, wearing each other’s hotpants and doing each other’s hair and I wished they weren’t competing as one because what I really wanted to know was how one of them would cope without the other two.

I was there with the playboy bunnies as in walked a stripper, a finalist for world’s strongest man, an architect, a princess from Swaziland, a former punk band frontman, a female Tory party member, a Sikh housewife, and a dairy farmer. Ten contestants. (The triplets counted as one.)

They were talking about CCTV on the sofas, the Tory party member started it because she’s older than everyone else and likes to have these kind of conversations. Frankie said, yeah, cos being in here is like, what’s actually happening in, like, life.

I wanted to nod and say, God, that’s so profound, just to see what she would do. She seemed to stare through me with her eyes and she exhaled slowly, I could see her chest heave and her lay hair in a smooth streak over her left breast and I knew she was thinking about how much I wanted her to seduce me.

I said nothing.

I bet she thought I would wank all night.

Later she was having a fag in the garden and I heard her say to Jas that she was bored already, and I was surprised.

*

Ages ago, I read a review of a play where the audience sit around the top of the stage and look at the characters from birds’ eye view. The audience, instead of being a fourth wall, become the pressure of modern living, bearing down on the unhappy characters. I thought, that’s a coincidence.

Maybe the producers read it too, because they’re doing this new thing, where Big Brother is mute.

Someone goes into the Diary Room for a little cry or a sly bitch, and there’s a piece of paper on the seat. All heartfelt emotions and confessions remain undivulged as whoever comes across it takes it out and reads it to the others.

This had had the curious effect of making people feel that they have to go in the diary room about twice as often as usual, maybe in the hope of getting an important note, or maybe in the hope of being the first to hear Big Brother speak again. Also there’s been a slight shift in behaviour, I can feel it, as they wonder whether they’re really being watched any more.

Con, the finalist in world’s strongest man, got it this time and he comes out shouting in triumph and holding it up with both hands, like a trophy. He perches on the back of a sofa while everyone sits round him like kids on the story mat, listening. There is a task, involving a costume. There will be dressing up. There will be a Disney theme. As soon as the words are out of his mouth I can see cogs whirring behind the eyes of everyone about how they can use this to their advantage.

They encourage dressing up because it helps to get into character, and they encourage making things because it’s about self-expression, and competence. Maybe.

The prize is always a luxury shopping budget, which means there might be some chocolate.

I have this thing for dark chocolate, and when I say dark I mean it, the darker the better. The 85% cocoa stuff that’s just meant for cooking is my favourite. I love the way it takes ages to melt and coats the inside of your mouth so you can taste it for ages. I also like having it with tea, putting a block on my tongue and then taking a mouthful of hot tea, and feeling it melt.

I told them about that in my application.

Perhaps that’s why I’m here.

I’ve thought a lot about the application process. The psychological tests had presented me with a problem because a lot of them are based around a simple trick that I couldn’t help but know and couldn’t forget, like the Milgram obedience thing, and Ash’s conformity test.



So I did what anyone would do, I tried to use it to my advantage. I pretended to be on the low end of the obedience scale so they thought I was trouble, and on the low end of the conformity scale so they thought I would go against the group and cause arguments.

At one point they lead about thirty of us into a big hall and got us to wear blindfolds and cordless headphones, and dance to the music.

It was obvious from kick off that the trick was, people take off their blindfolds one by one and the last one dancing looks utterly stupid. I didn’t know what the psychological significance of that was, so as soon as the game started I wondered how I could possibly win it.

To be the first to remove the blindfold would be foolish, since they’d decide either you knew the trick, or you were too smart. So I kept dancing. I didn’t know what other people were doing but I counted in my head until twenty minutes were up, and sure enough I took off my blindfold and faced a crowd of sniggering hopefuls, and then I did this great impression of someone who was fooled and knew it, who was so confused and then embarrassed, but gracious with it.

It was important to me that they thought they’d found an extreme personality.

There were a lot of hopefuls, a lot of interviews, a lot of screenings, a lot of psychological tests.

I had a job interview once when I was a student that was at eight in the morning on the wrong side of the city. It was for a chippy and the interview was informal and went well, so at the end I felt comfortable enough with the interviewer to ask him why he wanted me there so early when he didn’t open til eleven, and he said he always held his interviews that early to see who really wanted it.

And I almost asked him why you’d really want a job in a chippy, and almost corrected his wrong assumption about me, but I held back.

And the most pathetic thing of all is that despite everything, I am still surprised to be on this side of the camera.

When Con’s finished, I start pacing around. All of a sudden I feel very restless.

Moments alone are rare, both outside and inside the house.

I mean, I know that the house is engineered to be too small, there’s always at least two people in the kitchen, one cleaning and one cooking.

Charlie is slumped on the sofa, and I find I am far, far beyond smiling at the sight of her. I had known it wouldn’t last for long.

“I need fags.” Whenever she talks looking right at me, which isn’t often but always when she wants something, she puts her head on one side and fiddles with her hair, winding one silky yellow clump round her fingers over and over, and I know that she thinks I’m seduced by her in some way.

To get to the spot where she is now, she thinks that she had to do something really special.

*

It rained all day, I watched it running down the big windows between the main room and the garden. No one seemed to mind, they just started in on the task.

I couldn’t get into it: maybe it was the weather but I actually felt imprisoned for the first time. It was strange because I’m not the outdoor type at all, I can usually happily stay inside for weeks.

I can’t stop thinking about this fat guy I used to know at work who carried his stuff in an inside out Bag For Life. I asked him why inside out, and he said that he didn’t want to advertise for Tesco. Instead of pointing out that you could see the logo through the plastic, I went off and found my work mate Caz, and I told her and we giggled about him all afternoon, sharing more and more of the weird little things he did. I realise now that what I really should have done was ask him why he used one of their bags at all, if he hated them so much.

The next time I saw him I started smiling, right in his face and afterwards I felt like a horrible bully. It scared me that I was capable of being that nasty, for no real reason.

And now I have this terrible thing where I can see the incident in my mind’s eye, I can replay it over and over but never truly change it. I want to see it through a camera pointed at me, I want to witness my own ugliness so that I might be able to forget about it.

*

I want to beg Big Brother for a book. More than once I’ve imagined how the conversation would go.

I ask and the voice, the clipped woman, says, we cannot make special allowances.

I say, I won’t go out there with it. I’ll just read it in here, a few pages each day, and I’ll leave it on the seat here. I won’t tell anyone. Please.

The voice repeats about special allowances.

Please. It’s not really a special allowance when they’ve all got something in here they like, they can sunbathe and dance and swim and sing and scream and dress up and they’ve got each other. Please. I’ve got nothing.

And the voice says, Big Brother’s word is final.

And I can’t threaten insanity because it’d be like threatening a child by saying, if you do that, I’ll give you some sweets.

*

Every revelation comes too late for me.

My latest one is, by plumping for one TV channel, I’m missing out on all the others.

It’s unbearable. Did I say that, in my application?

Perhaps that’s why I’m… here.

Billie is the only one of the triplets who never talks to the cameras.

She doesn’t even look in them, only in the mirrors so she can do her make-up and her face goes all concave on the lens. Now she is adjusting a brown wig made of paper strips, she is meant to be Belle from Beauty and the Beast. I guess it suits her, though now she is pouting and posing, swinging her face around so she can see it from all angles, but she never really looks properly into the camera.

I read in a manual called How to Be Confident, a long time ago, when I still went out. One piece of advice was to not do anything alone that you wouldn’t do in company and I couldn’t believe that anyone could possibly do that.

It is still raining and Billie is still pouting.

Perhaps she is playing a better game than all of them.


Alice's debut novel, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, is coming out in October - think Annie Hall meets Charles Bukowski. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Kent, and was published in two anthologies for the best student work before completing an MA in The Contemporary Novel. She has worked in lots of places including a bitumen tape factory, a care home and a casino and is now press officer for a sports radio station in London.

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