Read by Tony Bell
I wasn’t Arthur Wilton’s first partner. That honour belonged to a chimpanzee called Jethro. But Arthur’s relationship with Jethro had ended before I came on the scene. I wasn’t aware of the details – all I knew was there had been some unpleasantness, ending with Jethro being burnt to death. The only hint I ever got of what had happened was much later on, when young Darren picked me up and started playing with me. Arthur snatched me out of Darren’s hands, yelling at him that he should never, ever mess with that thing (he called me that thing!) until he’d had some proper training. It was all too easy for them to get inside your head.
Whatever Arthur may have said, Darren never bothered to do anything about getting properly trained. I think he’d decided that the act should die with Arthur, and they were all set to put me in the coffin with him. But Darren snatched me away at the last minute, saying you never know when you might need something like that. If I’d known what he had in mind, I’d have opted for the furnace without a second’s hesitation.
When I used to work with Arthur, I had some dignity. He used to dress me up as an old Brigadier, and I’d spend most of the act sounding off about the state of the world in an amiably reactionary manner. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it had a certain charm. But when that little shit Darren got hold of me, everything changed. His big idea was to turn the act on its head, and reveal the Brigadier as the closet pervert that everyone had expected him to be. Everyone? Well, every puerile dickhead under the age of 25, maybe. Unfortunately, ‘every puerile dickhead under the age of 25’ was now the target demographic.
When Darren carried me on stage, I started off with a gimp mask on my head, making a sort of muffled moaning. I then proceeded to writhe about in ecstasy for several minutes – and Darren quickly learnt how long he could drag this out for – finishing in a full-throated roar as I reached a climax. At this point, Darren would reach round and remove an outsize black vibrator from my bottom. From there, the act went downhill. Believe me, you didn’t want to be in the front row when we were performing. Some of those bodily fluids were real.
Success took us both by surprise. We went from blagging a five-minute Gong Show spot at the Fiddler’s Arse in Dagenham to top of the bill at Jongleurs within a year. The puerile under-25 dickheads thought we were the dog’s bollocks. Soon, we were booked to appear on every awful programme that Channel 4 defecated onto the screens of the nation of a Friday night. There was talk of us hosting our own chat show. Even the critics were taken in. Oh, we were hot. We were ‘dark’. We were ‘edgy’.
Was Darren clever or just a lucky bastard in the right place at the right time? One thing I do know is that he was a sodding useless ventriloquist. Like I said, he’d never been properly trained, and it showed. When a skilled operator is working you, you can feel them inside you. It’s like having someone else sharing your head – weird, but in a friendly sort of way. Well, at least it was with Arthur. I knew where I stood with him. But with Darren, I felt nothing. Not a dicky bird. I was just a few bits of wood as far as he was concerned.
Once, killing time before we went on stage, I tried to see if I could make the journey the other way, and get inside Darren’s head. For a brief moment, I actually managed it. I looked through his eyes and saw myself lying there in front of him. I could feel Darren’s thoughts buzzing around his head, as weaselly and unpleasant as I’d expected. I went a bit further. Raise your arm, I thought and he raised his arm. Scratch your arse, I thought and Darren scratched his arse. Then I knew I’d gone too far, because I was suddenly thrust back into my own body. Darren was looking at me in a curious, and not very friendly way. I remembered what had happened to Jethro, and I didn’t try that again for a while.
Crap ventriloquist or not, Darren was untouchable. He was the godfather of a whole new scene – the New Ventriloquism, or Nu-Vent as it was known to the commissioning editors. At one point he was working on treatments for half a dozen different vehicles, although the only one that ever saw the light of day was a forty-five minute Christmas special featuring us, plus a whole load of other Nu-Vent acts of variable quality. And that’s where I first came across Millie Doodle.
Millie Doodle was one of the better ones. Her partner was called Chavette, a doll dressed in a Burberry shellsuit with scraped back hair and vast hoop earrings. The basic premise of the act was that Millie was an exasperated teacher in an inner-city comprehensive and Chavette an exceptionally thick pupil who was always getting into trouble. It was targeted with laser precision towards the smug middle-class audience that we both shared, but quite skilfully done and a good deal more pleasant to look at than our efforts. I think Darren was quite jealous, because he started putting the word around that Millie Doodle only made it onto the bill because she was a woman, and probably a lesbian.
I’d never had much of a chance to compare notes with anyone else in a similar position. This was probably because you didn’t often get more than one ventriloquist on the same bill, but I wonder if it was also to stop us sharing too much information. Arthur had always been very careful about putting me back in the box when he wasn’t around, and the only other dummy (God, I hated that word) I’d ever really got to talk to was Keith Harris’s Orville, and I didn’t get a lot of sense out of him.
But Darren wasn’t as smart as Arthur, and during rehearsals, I got dumped in a corner next to Chavette. We got talking. I told her how much I envied her and how I wished my act had half the quality that hers had. Her response surprised me. She said that she hated going on stage every night with that awful snob and being made to behave that way. She wasn’t like that. She was a nice girl. And it turned out that she’d been recycled too. She claimed that back in the sixties she’d briefly worked for Shari Lewis, before being elbowed out to make way for Lambchop. Millie Doodle had come across her in a Peckham junkshop.
Then Millie turned up and took her away to rehearse their slot and we didn’t get another chance to talk that day. But in the week between rehearsals and filming I couldn’t get her out of my head. I’d never felt like this before ever. Was this love? How could it be? We were just … no, we weren’t just dummies. We were more than that. More than wood and wire. We had souls. And Chavette was my soulmate.
On the day of filming, everything conspired to keep us apart. Either she was on stage when I wasn’t, or I would be on stage when she wasn’t. I think Darren had decided by now that Millie Doodle was a definite threat to his position, and she had got wind of his mutterings, so neither of them went near each other. It was intolerable, and after a while I decided to risk another jump into Darren’s head. I concentrated with every cell in my body, and made the leap. Once I was there, I didn’t bother to look around this time. I just focussed everything on the one message: Take me to Chavette. And that’s just what Darren did, a second before I scarpered back into my own body. The stupid tosser didn’t even notice.
God, it was good to be with her again. Better still, it was obvious she felt the same. I told her what I had in mind. I’d had an idea – a bold and crazy idea to save us both from this shitty, degrading life. She was shocked, but intrigued as well. And as Millie Doodle came over to pick her up again, I managed to persuade her to at least think about it.
I could barely concentrate when we filmed our remaining items, and I think even Darren picked something of it up, because he kept looking at me in that odd way and fluffing his lines. As everyone was packing up to go home after the wrap party, I happened to catch Chavette’s eye. Did I imagine it, or did she wink back at me? But Darren was in a foul mood. He knew he’d blown his big chance. His big special wasn’t so special after all. And to cap it all, the blonde floor manager that he’d been flirting with all day had turned him down. When we got back to his place, he hit the bottle big time, and after consuming most of a pint of Jack Daniels he passed out. This was my chance.
I gathered all my strength together and entered Darren’s mind for the third and last time. Without wasting a moment, I yelled out the words Get out of my head! Get out of my head! Darren’s mind wobbled into consciousness, but it was too late. I had the upper hand now. Get out of my head! I bellowed for the last time, and Darren vanished from his body, down into that bloody stupid dummy.
For half an hour I sat there in Darren’s chair – my chair – staring at my former self, watching and waiting for Darren to try to come back at me. But he didn’t have a clue what to do. He just lay there on the floor with a surprised expression on his little wooden face. Meanwhile, I explored every corner of my new, beautiful, complex, pliable human body. How could anyone take something so extraordinary for granted?
Then I reached into Darren’s pocket and pulled out his mobile phone. I’d never held such a thing before, but I’d seen Darren use it and the number I wanted was on speed dial. It rang a couple of times and then Millie Doodle’s voice answered.
‘Well?’ I said.
‘Well?’ came the reply.
‘It’s done,’ I said.
Whoa. I’d never felt a heart skip a beat before.
‘Come on over,’ I said.
Half an hour later, there were two of us sitting in Darren’s lounge in front of his fire, along with two surprised-looking dummies.
‘So what are we going to do?’ said Chavette.
‘What are we going to do?’ I said. ‘I think we need to find a new way to earn a living. I’m done with this shit. But first, that fire needs a bit more wood, don’t you think?’
Chavette nodded. As we threw the dummies onto the fire, I heard a brief, ear-splitting noise inside my head and I noticed Chavette wincing. She’d heard a scream too.
(c) Jonathan Pinnock, May 2015
Jonathan Pinnock is the author of the novel Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens (Proxima, 2011), the Scott Prize-winning story collection Dot Dash (Salt, 2012) and the bio-historico-musicological-memoir thing Take it Cool (Two Ravens Press, 2014). He also writes poetry from time to time. He blogs at www.jonathanpinnock.com and tweets as @jonpinnock.
Evening Standard Award nominee for A Man for All Seasons, Tony Bell (left) has performed all over the world with award-winning all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, playing Bottom, Feste, Autolycus and Tranio. TV includes Coronation Street, Holby City, Midsomer Murders, EastEnders & The Bill. He is also a radio and voiceover artist.