Magrittes and Circuses

At first, tonight will be like every other night. We’ll meet for dinner at this table at eight, enjoy the food over some light conversation and then, between ten and ten-fifteen, all of the guests will leave and we will go our separate ways. But by the end of tonight, when veins are thick with supermarket wine and my friends are stumbling out to their cars, thinking about every word they’ve said across the evening, I will be ruined.

It’s a common practice. Everyone follows the rules these days and on this particular night, it’s my turn. The dining room is just off the hallway, and four pictures that may or may not be original Magrittes hang at eye level, daring you to say something intelligent. The three-course meal waiting in the kitchen has occupied my thoughts and actions across the last few days. The camera sits in the top right-hand corner of the room, just at the junction of the ceiling and two of the freshly painted walls, streaming this meal to around five million households across the nation, although twice that number once tuned in. As a viewer, I enjoy the pageantry of these events and when I got the letter, saying it was my turn to host a get-together, I was very excited. I felt proud, almost nauseous with contentment, and across three days I ensured that every imperfection, every flaw, and every speck of dust was removed, turning my home into a suburban paradise.

Since then, circumstances have changed. Four of my friends are coming, and the one I’ve known for the shortest time texted me yesterday. The exchange began with normal small talk, so mundane there’s no point in repeating it. The last message was markedly different, and it completely threw me.

At the meal tomorrow night, they said, one of the others is going to degrade you. I don’t know how, but they’re going to say something that will destroy your reputation.

Usually, checking my phone is a conventional procedure, an insignificant part of a far larger routine. On this particular day, scanning through my correspondence had drastically altered the trajectory of my life. At this point, the messenger didn’t know that the entire evening would be streamed, and there was an awkward pause when I informed them that my social demise would be broadcast to eight per cent of the population. Those are the stats the government give and ironically, on most Friday nights I’m one of those people, the kind who quietly revel in the successes and failures of complete strangers.

The government presented it as a tool for community, for social values and unity, and it has worked. Thanks to these events, the homes of your friends become sanctuaries and the nature of get-togethers has changed. They’re no longer insufferable occasions, shallow encounters which only serve to keep up appearances. They’re pillars of our lives, high points of our schedules and the only thing that everyone seems to genuinely enjoy. For these reasons, I was elated when I found out that I was hosting a Friday night dinner party. But due to a set of unlucky circumstances, this has developed into theatre, a show of moral decline and ineptitude, the subject of which is my humiliation.

But this has all happened before. So although I’m inclined to beat my breast in shame and curse my hard luck, I remember the other spectacles the cameras have picked up. When you receive the notice, there is no way to get out of it. I once watched a particularly popular episode in which the host had the flu; their ailment led them to eject the contents of their stomach into a nearby bucket during gaps in the conversation. Then there was the time, an absolute classic, where a couple broke up over dinner; it emerged there’d been problems for years and both were incredibly unhappy. This kind of thing happens all the time and I am not unique, but simply one of a number of individuals caught between innovation and misfortune.

I don’t know the subject of this revelation. All I’ve been told is that I’ll be humiliated, forced into the gutter, and my standing will decrease across the space of a single evening. The fact that it’s going to be broadcast up and down the country isn’t helping as soon enough, everyone is going to have a stake in my embarrassment. If I hadn’t received this warning, I wouldn’t even be particularly stressed about the prospect of a large audience. In every way, I’m a victim of circumstance, and the world itself is as much to blame as my own folly.

I look at the room. In a fluke of mathematics, the table seems to be perfectly equidistant to each of the four walls. The glasses and plates and cutlery are all so well-polished that the light from the tasteful chandelier creates an eyewatering glow. I will encounter shame in this place, but at least it is one of order and refinement.

The first guest to arrive is early, joining me in the living room at half past seven. I haven’t known Matthew for that long, but he is the one who warned me of my impending fall. By now, I’ve accepted that I’m going to face shame in the public sphere. It will be a quiet death, but I can imagine it descending in a split second and being so uncharted, so unexpected, that even though I know roughly when it’ll happen, there’ll be no time to prepare or accept the pain it will cause. It will be quiet in every sense of the word, but there’s an acute violence to the ordeal that has made me feel nauseous. My low point will be open to all. The camera will give everyone who bothers to watch a unique opportunity to participate in my misery. My grief, the destruction of my human dignity, will serve as their Friday evening entertainment.

“How did you know about this?”

Matthew now witnesses my desperation. I’d assured myself that I’d stay composed, but such bold expectations are naïve and unrealistic.

“A group chat was set up and us four were added. It was from a pay-as-you-go. All it said was that you’re going to be shamed at the meal. Something embarrassing about you will be brought up.”

“Okay. Do you know who’s behind this?”

“No. And even if I did, they’ve ordered you to have a set number of guests. I’m afraid there’s no going back.”

“What should I do?”

“It might not be bad as you think. Do you remember that woman from Gloucester? Live on air, her so-called friend brought up the hostess’s drinking problem. It was in one of the columns the following day but after that, no one mentioned it again.”

“Why do they need to watch?”

“It’s an ugly coincidence.”

“It’s just a shame. They could’ve picked any other night, and they happened to pick this one.”

Richard, Anna and Ellen arrive across the next thirty minutes. When they come in, I only offer compliments and jubilations, because the camera is turned on from the moment all of your guests are present. I’m feeling hollow and blank, as if my mind has been stripped of substance and identity. It might be that nothing happens, and the humiliation that was promised is so insignificant I barely realise it has happened. It might be that these are my last few minutes as a normal member of society and by the time the evening ends, I’ll no longer fit into this world.

I track their expressions as we sit in the living room, talking about loft conversions and skiing holidays and the price of petrol. There are moments when I think I see premeditation, signs of a malevolent scheme, but then I realise that paranoia is setting in, and I don’t want insanity to ruin my last few hours of respectability. As we sit down at the table, I make a speech. This will be the last of the evening whatever the outcome because if everything goes well, I won’t need to talk again and if catastrophe sets in, I must fall into silence.

“I just wanted to thank you all for coming tonight. I’m so grateful to you guys for being part of this wonderful event, and I also appreciate everything you’ve done for me across the years, being kind to me, helping me, and just being around.”

We raise our glasses in a jagged five-sided pyramid. My rousing words might appease my condemner. Failing that, they might just convince the public that I’m virtuous enough to avoid shame. I bring out the first course, my palms sticking to the underside of the plates. My inner turmoil is masked by a look of happy complacency. A thought dominates my mind as we begin; my words, my behaviour and my potential loss of character will captivate millions of people tonight, more than I could ever hope to meet in a lifetime.

***

The kitchen is a place of labour and drudgery, yet circumstance has rendered this my sanctuary. I can hear them laughing in the room at a joke I just told. I am dividing the cake, a sweet and succulent gateau, pushing the knife through the viscous layers of sugar and flour, when it occurs to me that I could avoid this. Just as the knife fits perfectly through the cream and sponge of the dessert, it would break and enter my skin without too much difficulty. That would definitely end the worst part of this experience, the no man’s land between hope and pessimism, as I still fail to understand how such a cataclysm could emerge from a better than average evening.

The laughter from the other room would usually make me feel proud, the signature of a good host. This evening, it pierces my ears, the morbid and expectant howls of the front row of the audience. Everything they do could be a catalyst, a manoeuvre that urges me towards my nadir. My thoughts turn to the moment itself. How will I know when it happens? How will I be able to quantify the precise watershed, the split second where I turn into a different entity, one who is harangued and mocked and held up as the scourge of the human experience? It could be a single word, a single sentence, a syllable that alters the course of my existence. It could happen slowly, a gradual realisation among those in front of me and those across the nation that I am unworthy.

As I come into the room and serve dessert, Matthew, Richard, Anna and Ellen are still sitting at the table, acting as if this is just another night. Laying down each of their plates gives me a perfect opportunity to analyse their behaviour as in a final fling of naïveté, I still believe that if I can just give them what they want, I can avoid disgrace. Matthew is talking to Anna about a car he’s recently purchased; he’s clearly far more excited about it than she is. Richard is leaning into this discussion and saying something every now and again, as I believe that he’s jealous of Matthew and his material opulence. However, he’s maintaining another conversation with Ellen, who’s recounting the story of a person she knew at school who checked into a psychiatric hospital just days after hosting one of these dinners.

Someone at this table will say something. It might be a nondescript anecdote, a trivial comment. But then the cycle will begin. My behaviour will become property of the viewers, their friends and family, the media and the handful of politicians who are sticklers for morality, and my shame becomes the public’s story.

“The dessert looks delicious.”

“Thank you. It took a while and I hope it’s good.”

Ellen, who made the comment, smiles at my gratitude, and the other guests also nod their heads in appreciation. I can see some viewers, watching this at home and following my every word, remarking to one another that I seem to be a nice person who’s doing a good job. I can see other viewers, also watching this at home and following my every word, mocking this sycophantic host who has been slightly odd across the whole evening, manifesting an indefinable weakness. Much to my dismay, I believe the latter camp will be proved right by ten-fifteen tonight. From tomorrow, I can probably expect an influx of visitors, all of whom are uninvited.

“Was it difficult making this?”

“No. I mean, yes, but I kept to a schedule and in the end, it was actually quite enjoyable. I hope it’s good.”

“It’s very nice.”

Ellen leads the conversation. I wonder if this is a sign of guilt, but then I think about the silence of the other three and I wonder if one of them is too nervous to talk. They seem to be enjoying the dessert, and this is what I don’t understand. If one of my guests is going to shame me, smear my reputation in front of the whole public, why do it like this? I’ve never done anything to hurt any of these people but despite this clemency, one of them has planned to ruin me.

“Have you got any plans for the summer?”

Richard asks a reasonable question. I detect some hesitation before the words come out of his mouth but then again, Ellen hesitated before inquiring about my cookery skills. By this point in the evening, they all seem to hesitate.

“No, not particularly. I haven’t booked anywhere yet. I’m just going to see how things come.”

“How’s work?”

I look up. Matthew is looking straight at me, as if it’s been at the tip of his tongue from the moment we sat down.

“It’s okay.”

“Are you busy?”

“Most of the time. But the money’s good and I can’t complain.”

We return to our desserts. Normal dining, normal conversation. I hate that my last few hours of normality will have been spent at a bland social occasion, every moment as tedious and agonising as the next.

“These pictures on the walls – they’re very nice.”

“Oh thanks. I painted them myself. They’re in the style of Magritte, that French artist.”

“Didn’t he do the picture of the pipe?”

“Yes. That’s him.”

“So you painted these?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Four or five years ago.”

“Oh. They’re very nice.”

“Thanks.”

I clean my plate, pouring a glass of water down my throat in an attempt to purify my body. It won’t work. By the end of the evening, I’ll be tainted.

“What inspired you to paint them?”

“I was studying Magritte at the time, and I just liked the look of his art. I thought I could do something similar.”

I hear the sound of a zip. An inconsequential noise; it could be someone removing a jacket or accessing their phone in their handbag. I see a blur at the end of the table, and then the sturdy wooden structure beneath me shakes. Matthew has pulled a book out, a thick, hardback tome which has a colourful and eye-catching cover. I drink another glass of water.

“What have you got there, Matthew?”

He doesn’t speak. He’s sitting at the other end of the table and he props up the book, using his elbow as an easel, and he moves between four pages with dog ears in the corner. The guests have had the entire evening to look at these pictures.

“But…but you painted them.”

I decide to give a response. Either I do nothing, and I suffer, or I try to take back control of the event, and that could have the intended outcome.

“A Freudian slip. They must’ve been on my mind.”

“But you sold these, didn’t you? You once told me that these are copies, and the originals were snapped up for four thousand quid each.”

There’s nothing immediately unusual about Matthew’s words. They’re uttered like every other syllable that’s passed across the table this evening. But in the space of two sentences, he manages to destroy me, and my identity, my life and my being are completely defunct. The worst offenders in our society are plagiarists and hacks, leaping on the backs of others and draining them of their successes.

“It’s his early work. These are some of his lesser known pictures. Why?”

“I – I had to make some money.”

Matthew doesn’t smile as I answer his question. It’s almost as if this is an unpleasant duty, an obligation, a course of action which gives him no pleasure whatsoever. I look at the camera again, and think about what the viewers will currently be saying. It’ll be jovial hatred, biting laughter at this strange man who’s hosted a dinner party which has ended with the ultimate embarrassment. But there’ll be other viewers, those with too much time on their hands, who will also have hatred at the front of their eyes, and this won’t be so jovial.

The last course is finished. Every second at that table after the announcement was a pin in the throat, banality and awkwardness in the wake of total annihilation. Richard announces that he’s leaving, setting a precedent as the other three guests also get up. He shakes my hand and thanks me for the meal. He’s polite, and he says that he hopes it won’t be too bad, but his eyes fail to meet mine. Anna and Ellen are equally sympathetic, as if I’m an isolated coward who needs their pity for survival. Matthew is the last to leave but before he passes through the doorway, I have to say something.

“You shamed me in front of everyone. Why did you do it, Matthew?”

Matthew turns around. He doesn’t look particularly vicious or triumphant. Without the circumstances, he’s just a normal guest defending himself after a disagreement.

“One of my friends – I must’ve told you about them – was a writer. One day, they came to me and they were jubilant, as they’d finally had an idea for their novel, their magnum opus. They told me – it was a good idea. They died in a car crash the next week, and so did their idea. Their property, their silence. I’ve held my tongue ever since. There never was a group chat – they knew nothing, and they were as surprised as you are. When I planned this, I wasn’t aware it would be broadcast – that was an unfortunate twist of fate. But it’s just as the government say – it’s necessary, and exposing your dishonesty makes us better people. Goodnight, and thank you for the meal.”

I walk around the house, gathering up the plates and glasses and cutlery and stacking them in the dishwasher. I get out two bags and arrange my possessions. I’m not going to take much, because I no longer belong to this life. It’s time to leave in search of something different, some kind of respite in the wake of my defeat.

I’m inclined to tear the pictures to shreds and burn them into oblivion, just so no one ever needs to look at them again. But hubris lingers and although I’m nothing more than a fraud, they’ve become part of my identity, my work. I leave them up, even though it’s a signed confession of my shame.

***

This new life is one of anonymity, confusion and unpredictability. Fields, underpasses, shelters, populated by interlopers who will never even know my name. As I walk through the busy streets of town centres across the land with my luggage and signs of outdoor living etched into my face, people fall silent around me. It’s not their fault. They’re just products of our government, and I can just imagine what they’re saying about my transgression.

One day, as I’m resting on the patch of slate between the path and the curve of the bridge above, a man sits down next to me. He’s clearly been out here a long time and although I flinch when he first crosses my eyeline, I calm down when he starts to speak.

“What are you out here for?”

“I was shamed on one of the dinner party broadcasts.”

“Oh dear. Well, we’re all running from something, and you wouldn’t be the first.”

For no reason at all, the man gets out a book. It’s a thick brown hardback tome, the kind with columns of writing so dense and detailed that one needs to read a sentence five times before it’s understood. He spends a while quietly reading it and although I want to be alone, I don’t have the courage to ask him to leave.

“Can I trust you?”

“Of course.”

“You said you were shamed, so I’m assuming that you hosted one of those dinners and embarrassed yourself.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, do you know that no one actually watches them? The ones you’ve seen are all manufactured by the government. But the day-to-day ones hosted by normal people, such as yours, are only viewed by those who bother to turn up. Think about it. I’m sure you have acquaintances who’ve hosted one and despite their excitement, it doesn’t even appear at the back of the papers. Those cameras broadcast nothing.”

“Why would the government do something like that?”

“Why wouldn’t they? They want us to be living well, socialising and behaving properly. It’s a pretty good scheme.”

The stranger continues to read his book. For him, I’m just one of a number of people he’s spoken to that day, an insignificant aspect of another person’s life. I sit and think about his words, and about the words that were exchanged at the dinner party. If no one saw me and it wasn’t a public spectacle, then my shame is contained to myself and a small group of friends. It’s not the performance, the national tragedy, I’d thought it would be.

Then again, I copied those Magrittes. My logic was simple; these are sketches, unknown etchings that were the products of an idle afternoon, and the kind of buyer I’d find wouldn’t know enough about art to get suspicious. And I would walk away with a better reputation and more money. I thank the stranger for his words and then I walk away, leaving the few possessions I brought with me, because I’m truly unworthy of them. Even if the public don’t know what I’ve done, I know, and since I sold those sketches as my own, I’ve been tarnished.

Until I feel I’m expunged of my sin, I won’t allow myself to come back to this world. But far in the future, at a currently unknown time and date, I know that I will be better than this, this wilderness, this privation of everything, and I will be able to return.

Daniel Morgan is a student in his last year of school, who has penned over twenty short stories and several novels. He lives in the East of England and, when not writing, enjoys cycling and running.

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