- Published: 1 September 2020
- ISBN: 9780143795643
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
Either Side of Midnight
WE INTERRUPT THIS BROADCAST
This stage is holy, and this is how we pray
Anonymous scrawl, backstage wall, Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne
You are going to die in the arse
Anonymous scrawl, toilet door, The Comedy Store, Sydney
If you’re going to do it, do it somewhere quiet, thought Beth Walters, watching her boss straighten his tie. I wouldn’t even chance it in a restaurant. I wouldn’t be able to do it in front of people. I’d do it in the parking lot.
‘Do you think he’ll do it? Or chicken out again?’ asked a cameraman, turning away from the lens. His fingers twiddled a gadget without looking. Muscle memory. ‘How tight in do you want to be?’
‘Tight enough to see the blood drain from his face,’ called an associate producer. ‘Fifty bucks says he pikes it.’
‘Keep your voice down,’ snapped Beth. Mr Midnight was absorbed at his desk, but if he heard them . . .
The cameraman, Geoff, now tuned back into his view-piece, ignored her. ‘I’ll take you for a hundred. If he’s going to ruin his life on national television, we may as well profit.’
‘Ruin his life?’ said the producer. ‘More like end it.’
‘Great modern attitude to marriage there, guys.’
‘Well, ain’t that something.’ Geoff leaned back. His chair was mounted to the same rig as the camera so he could swivel with it, like a machine gun turret. ‘You didn’t strike me as the type.’
‘Every girl likes a bit of romance,’ Beth fired back. ‘That said, a girl likes a free lunch even more. Hey Andy’ – the associate producer looked up from his iPad – ‘I’ll take your odds. Camera Two, can we zoom out a bit? If we’re framed like that in the monologue, we’ll lose the top of his head.’ Back to business. ‘We ready on the cue?’
The autocue operator was dressed in the classic stagehand uniform – all black, cap indoors, utility belt that put Batman to shame – and didn’t bother to look up from his screen. He flicked her a backhanded wave: Shoo, I’ve got this. Most people don’t have the confidence to swat their boss away like an insect, but stagehands aren’t most people. Beth could see from the reflection that the white text on a black background had flickered up on the screen. Good enough.
‘Hey, Midnight,’ she called. The host looked up at her from his notes. He insisted on having them, even though everything he said was rehearsed and cued up. He wanted to be taken seriously, he’d told her once, and shuffling papers meant the audience thought you were intelligent. Recently she’d taken to drawing a big dick and balls across them before she put them on his desk. The first time she’d almost got him, a wry smile leaking out mid-interview with a politician. Live television meant no second takes, and she was determined to crack him one day. Today, just because she was expecting him to be especially nervous, she’d added some extra spurts. She’d also written, amid the splatter: You are going to die in the arse. Sure, they were entertaining people at home, but she had to keep herself entertained too. She continued. ‘You good?’
He shot her a smile and a nod.
He’d wuss out, all right.
‘It’s going to be a big show tonight, guys,’ Sam ‘Midnight’ Midford called to the room. The last of the assistants scurried off the set. Sam straightened his back at his desk. The director cued the intro music, called for quiet on set, and handed the floor back to Sam, who rallied the troops a final time. ‘Let’s give it our all!’
The intro music swelled and Sam started talking. Despite a career in television, Beth was still struck by the dazzle of it. Sam Midford seemed to switch to Mr Midnight in a breath. Calm blue eyes locked forward on Camera One. Anyone would guess he had to be a bit of a wunderkind to host his own nightly television show at twenty-nine, and he delivered on that expectation. Warm. Charming. Everything about him polished and image conscious. He flashed a giant smile. His teeth were like American Republican voters: white and straight.
‘Hello, and welcome to Midnight Tonight! I’m your host, Sam Midford – you can call me Mr Midnight – and it is a pleasure, as always, to join you in your homes. Hello . . .’
At this, Sam paused and squinted. Andy raised an eyebrow. He’s nervous. Beth patted the air with her hand. Settle down, no big deal. Though she did think it was rare for Sam. It wasn’t a problem yet.
Sam straightened his tie and cleared his throat. ‘Hello, and welcome. I may have already said that. Just a small technical error there. But I guess I’m just so excited for tonight’s show I wanted to do it twice!’
The smoothness of a veteran, the only remnant of his nerves an agitated drumming of his fingertips. Every broadcaster has a tic: clicking pens, shuffling notes. Sam just had a nervy left hand. His little finger was shorter than the others; he’d lost the top of it as a child. But this tic wouldn’t cost her the bet. He fidgeted every episode. They’d had a production meeting to discuss reframing the shot, but Sam had insisted the audience see the top of the desk so they knew he had research notes. The director told Sam his fidgeting made him look like a drug addict. Sam told the director his face made him look like a fuckhead. That meeting was four hours Beth would never get back, and the shot remained unchanged. So the finger-drumming was par for the course.
Beth raised her hand at Andy and rubbed her fingers against her thumb. Get ready to pay up.
‘Let’s look back at the week that was.’ Sam spun into a quick recap of each of the week’s headline stories, followed by a one-liner. This was classic television monologuing. Politicians kicked off the roasting tonight, as they could always be relied upon to take a gormless photo in a public place. These gaffs were displayed in triplicate on the plasma screens behind Sam. Canned laughter followed each zinger on the broadcast, just in case the warm-up guy, by now jumping around and flapping his arms like a bird, wasn’t drawing enough from the crowd.
After the pollies came the celebrities, equally reliable for their divorce rates and loose social-media fingers. They were easy targets but more photogenic than the pollies. It also helped to have beautiful people on screen, because people channel-surfing often mistake attractiveness for interesting and dawdle on the channel change. If talking about a divorce, they always used the photo of the wife, for example. Bikinis helped. Sure, Beth was a feminist, but she knew what got ratings. The more beautiful or wealthy people they showed, the less it felt like punching down.
Speaking of, the next section was sports scandals, which Sam jovially introduced with, ‘Right, let’s check in with who’s been drinking their own piss this week.’ Behind him, a tacky 3D title – Who’s been drinking their own piss? – whirled onto the plasmas, landing with a shake and a rockslide of cartoon debris. In this segment, Sam would run through the headlines and decide whether a sportsperson’s revelry was better or worse than the guy who had been caught urinating in his own mouth. If it was decidedly worse, and Sam deemed it a ‘pisser’, he presented them an honorary golden trophy that had a little fountain on it. Beth had the pleasure of explaining to any international guests that, yes, the piss-drinking had actually happened, and, no, it wasn’t a typical Australian pastime.
Sam was halfway through the pissers when he faltered again. This time he reached under the desk with his right hand, fidgeted for a second. Then, barely noticeable on the screen and under his foundation, Beth saw the pall on his cheeks. He was fiddling with the ring in his pocket, she realised. And he wasn’t going to do it. Coward. Andy mouthed at her from across the studio, two syllables. Pursed lips, pulling back against teeth. Unmistakeable: ‘Pussy’.
‘Right.’ Sam was talking again, but the recovery was not as smooth this time. He looked down at his script, as if it might give him the support he wasn’t getting from the prompt. Beth felt a pang of guilt; he would have looked down to see her message: You are going to die in the arse. Just when Beth thought he was about to panic, he talked his way back into it. Only a millisecond of dead air, but in-studio it felt like a lifetime. There was a collective exhale. ‘Russia. Okay. Tonight we’re also going to send our special correspondent over to parliament house to find any secret Russian spies. And later in the program, I’ll be having . . .’
He was cut off by a scream, someone grappling with a security guard onstage.
‘I swear! I’m not Russian. I’m a New Zealander! Listen . . . Fish and chips. Sixty-six! Fish and chips!’
The actor was dragged off the stage. Once off camera he straightened up, patted the security guard on the back, and rushed off to get changed. The actor playing the security guard stayed in costume; he had another part to play later on. As simple as that, and they’d set up the running joke for the episode.
Sam had fought to increase their political content in recent months. Whenever Beth had reviewed a script with him and suggested that perhaps it would skew the demographics, alienate the younger viewers, Sam would raise his eyebrows at her. Screw the demos. And so political material stayed in. Tom Dwyer at Channel 12, Sam’s main competitor in the timeslot, would have baulked at paying two actors for a throwaway gag, but Sam always pushed for risk taking, and he had a penchant for theatrics.
No wonder he was going to propose to Celia on live TV.
If he proposed at all, Beth thought. An intern had started the whispers that they’d seen a ring in his dressing room, and that got them all buzzing. Beth had been sure it would be tonight. But Sam still looked pasty white. Man up, Sam, she willed him. Stop fidgeting with the ring under the table and just do it already.
He was nearing the end of his monologue now. Beth heard him crack a line about the newest Star Wars film and knew he was about to cut to ads and then they’d be moving to reset the stage. Rotate Sam’s seat to the left, bring in a guest seat on the right. She should go to the green room and check on the next guest. Some popstar, here to plug a reality singing competition. Screw the demos, huh? Even Sam couldn’t argue with the network on cross-promotion. She’d do it in the break. She wanted to see if Sam would deliver.
‘Well, before I throw to a break here, I just wanted to say something.’
Beth inwardly fist pumped. Mouthed a silent ‘fuck you’ over to Andy. He gave her the finger. Of course Sam delivered. Those goddamn theatrics.
‘Whatever he does, Geoff, keep rolling,’ she said, patting the cameraman on the back. Geoff nodded. Andy’s shoulders slumped with defeat. The autocue operator calmly scrolled the text along the teleprompter. The assistants knew something was up; they’d all lowered their clipboards and turned to the stage.
‘Celia,’ Sam said. His left hand was calm and flat on the desk now, his right lingering underneath.
Here we go, Beth thought. Her nails pressed moons in her palm. Hope it’s a nice ring.
‘Celia,’ Sam repeated. And then his right hand came out from under the desk.
He wasn’t holding a ring.
Beth’s brain was playing catch up. Only time for half a thought: Is that a . . . ?
‘I love you. Forgive me. Change the channel.’
He sat stock still for five seconds, as if counting it out.
Then the host of Midnight Tonight put a gun in his mouth.
And pulled the trigger.