Prologue

*Features adult language and themes.*


 

“Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
– Abraham Lincoln

 

* * *

 

“Are you happy?.”

Fraud.

“To be happy you have to accept and embrace your true self.”

Phony.

“You have to protect yourself from negativity.”

What does that even mean?

“Negative thoughts are roadblocks across your path to happiness”

I can’t believe how easily the words spill out of my mouth. They landed softly on the microphone to be amplified and projected at the audience.

Presumably the audience was still there. He couldn’t see anyone beyond the first three or four rows. The spotlight shone in his eyes obscuring them.

Oddly, he never got many walk-outs; he assumed plenty of people were listening. At this point, he didn’t care if the place was empty. The theatre was sold out, he’d got their money. He didn’t give a shit if they hated the show.

The rows he could see were full. Full of people hanging on his every word.

“There are many forms of negativity. You must become resistant to them. Eventually you can learn to process that negative energy and send it back to its source as positivity.”
They sucked it up so willingly. It was pathetic. Some of the crowd were perched forward on the edge of their seats, caught up in his words, so willing to learn the great secret that would make their lives better.

He decided to take a stroll across the stage. He’d been standing at the lectern all evening, it was time to wrap it up, time to give the people some sort of closure. Make them think the last two hours of their lives had been worthwhile and enriching.

In many ways he was an illusionist. Instead of trying to make them think he mutilated an attractive assistant, he used words. The people came into the theatre expecting knowledge, possibly enlightenment. They came willingly, and paid good money, to learn something that would improve their lives.

What they got was a guy on stage using a slideshow to tell them they already knew how to be rich and happy but for some reason they were stopping themselves.

He couldn’t believe he got away with it.

The power of a slideshow should never be underestimated.

The spotlight followed him as he moved across the stage. The change of angle meant he could see beyond the lights to the high vaulted ceiling of the auditorium. Beyond all of the lighting rigs and curtain ropes he could see the high arches of the support columns that ran down the side walls. He also saw people in the cheap seats at the back.

He reached into his jacket, feeling the clamminess of his shirt underneath. It was hot under the lights, it wasn’t nerves. He fished out a note and unfolded it. “Talking of negativity. I get a lot of cynical reactions to the ideas I share…”

Parts of the crowd started to boo. It spread as others joined in for support. He knew it was coming. He knew every beat of the routine. He had them precisely where he wanted them.

Holding up the piece of paper for the audience to inspect, he made a placating gesture with his other hand. “Now, now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, I can’t judge others that are lost on their own personal path to fulfilment.” The crowd settled down. “This is an email from someone calling themselves ‘Razor Sharp’ and that’s spelled R-A-Z-Zero-R-the number five-H-the number four-R-P.”

Says it all, really.

“Dear Mr Sampson. How do you sleep at night? You accept money from the unhappy and insecure in exchange for empty words and clichéd advice. You exploit stupidity and ignorance for personal gain. I can’t decide if you’re pure evil or a genius.”

He paused to let the insults sink in.

“I know exactly how to reply to these sentiments…”

Dear Mr 5H4RP. I sleep soundly in a huge bed with my wife, who I secretly believe no longer loves me. I want to thank you for your email, I couldn’t have phrased it better. In fact it saved me some time. I sometimes have to make up my own hate mail. Yours gratefully. Kurt Sampson.

“…I use five simple words.”

Kurt stretched out his hands, palms up, lifting them to the ceiling. The audience followed suit, with a disorganised rumbling, scratching and bumping of seats, they got to their feet placing their hands over their heads.

Every single one of them.

It made him feel powerful but not in a good way. He was like a creepy puppet master making them do something against their will. The will he’d slowly sapped from them through his incessant bleating.

It would be impressive if it wasn’t so depressing.

He wandered back to centre stage to lead the crowd in a final act of togetherness. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted someone sitting in their seat.

Maybe there’s still some hope?

The audience member was a man in his early thirties. The sort of age where you can look cool and mid-twenties or somehow, just past your prime late thirties. He wore a t-shirt with the slogan ‘I love Pi.’ You could just make it out above his steadfastly crossed arms. He stared forward intently, ignoring glares from the woman next to him who was imploring him to get up and join in. The woman turned, crossed her arms and said something. The man replied, still not looking at her. She gave him a sharp slap on the shoulder and resumed the position Kurt had suggested. The man rolled his eyes, gave a big sigh and lumbered to his feet, half-heartedly putting his hands up.

Shit.

Kurt waved his arms forward to punctuate each word as he chanted. The crowd echoed each one: “EMBRACE! YOURSELF! RELEASE! YOUR! JOY! Everyone cheered and clapped. Some people in the front rows turned to one another and hugged. Kurt held out his arms as though trying to embrace the entire theatre, a benevolent smile spreading over his face.

I’m gonna be sick.

“I want to thank each and every one of you for being here tonight. Remember, the only thing between you and your goals in life are the road blocks you build yourself. I hope to see you again. I’m Kurt Sampson, thank you for listening. Have a safe journey home. Goodnight.”

He took a few embarrassed looking bows and swiftly made his way off stage.

An assistant was waiting for him. Kurt was handed a glass of water and a towel. He gulped the water down and wiped the sweat from his forehead while the stage hand removed his microphone headset and power-pack.

Cheesy lift mu-zak played over the speakers as the audience began to shuffle out of the auditorium. There was a pleasant rumble and hum of movement, like cattle being herded back onto the farm after milking.

He found a dark corner out of sight to take a moment for himself. Kurt didn’t feel the thrill of a good performance or the contentment of helping others. He leaned against the wall and buried his head into the towel to utter a silent scream.

It’s almost over for another night. I’m nearly there. Just one more chore and I can drop the act.

He wiped his face again mopping up the sweat and a few tears then took a moment to gather his composure and settle back into himself. His public would be waiting.

He headed for the stage exit. A series of corridors would take him to the front foyer. By now his stage manager would have set up the trestle tables and stacked them high with his books, CD’s and DVD’s. The more ‘enthusiastic’ members of his audience would be queuing up to meet him for thirty seconds of smiles and lukewarm platitudes.

The backstage corridors were poorly lit and filled with the regalia of other, more legitimate, theatre productions. He navigated his way around bits of sets, racks of costumes, speakers and piles of rigging.

He knocked something with his shoulder and sent it to the ground with a dull clang. Instinctively he raised his hand to check his suit. It hadn’t ripped, but whatever he had walked into had deposited a lump of grease onto his lapel. Kurt sighed and began to search the floor for the culprit. A pulley laid on the lino at his feet. It had obviously been hanging precariously on a bit of rope waiting to attack an innocent passer-by.

Anger welled in Kurt’s stomach as he bent to pick up the guilty piece of metal before flinging it away down an even darker corridor that branched off the main thoroughfare.

“Hey, what the fuck?”

A girl stomped out of the shadows. She had a blonde bob-cut, a nose stud and stood as tall as Kurt’s shoulders. She put one hand on her narrow hips and gave Kurt the finger with the other. “What you looking at old man?”

She wore a vest top that showed off her midriff, a short skirt and a hoodie that had slipped off her shoulders and hung loosely down her back from the crooks of her arms. She had tatty converse on her feet and black and white striped stockings that gripped her thighs, leaving a tantalising gap of bare flesh up to the hem of her skirt. Tattoos peeped out from beneath her clothes, on her shoulder, neck and wrist. The whole effect might have been arousing to Kurt if she wasn’t so skinny and young. Her attitude and the way she was dressed suggested she was in her early twenties, her flat chest, short height and skinny frame made her look pre-pubescent.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” Kurt mumbled. He realised he’d been looking at the girl for too long before replying. He heard another sound behind the her and noticed one of the stage hands hiding in the shadows, stuffing something into his pocket. Kurt saw folded notes in the girls hand. He decided to make a quick exit, turning away and carrying on down the corridor without another word.

“Fucking perv,” muttered the girl, as she went back into the shadows to complete her business.

He made it to the end of the passageway picking and rubbing at the grease stain on his suit. He only made it worse. Then Kurt stopped with his hand on the door handle, head bowed and took a few deep breaths. Suddenly he snapped his chin up high and plastered a big cheesy smile on his face before opening the door and going out into the theatre foyer.

It had the unmistakable feel of a well used public building; brown carpets and pale yellow walls along with a musty smell of dust and feet. The tables had been set up so that Kurt appeared out of the doorway behind the stall. A line of people gave a pleased hum. A few of them nudged the person next to them and one in particular waved excitedly.

“Hi there. Sorry to keep you all waiting.”

A woman at the front of the queue hopped forward a step towards him and handed over a book she had already purchased. Kurt took the book in one hand and extended his other.

“Oh, Mr Sampson…”

“Please, call me Kurt.”

“OK… Kurt,” the woman blushed, which was a little unfortunate as the colouring of her face clashed with her bright red hair. “I just want to thank you for coming to our small town. We don’t usually get anyone famous here.”

Famous? There’s at least ten cats on YouTube more people have seen.

“It’s my pleasure. Thank you for coming out. I hope you found the lecture useful.” I hope you paid full ticket price.

Kurt realised that she was still holding onto the book and his hand. “Shall I take this?” He smiled. Then he recognised her. It was the woman in the front row that had berated the guy next to her to stand up at the end of the show.

“Oh sorry!” She let go of the book and Kurt’s hand then proceeded to turn a deeper shade of pink. She looked down at her feet, too embarrassed to look at him directly and spoke towards her shoes.

“The show was wonderful. Very insightful. To tell the truth I had to persuade my husband to come with me, but he really enjoyed it.”

Kurt took a moment to look around, trying to find the man he’d seen earlier. He wasn’t in the queue with his wife. He spotted him through the glass doors, standing outside. He was happily waiting in the rain. The man snatched a glance over his shoulder back into the foyer, presumably to see if his wife had finished yet.

That poor man. “Excellent,” Kurt gave the book a gentle wave. “Who shall I sign this to?”

“Evie, please.”

Kurt turned the book over to find his own, self-satisfied face smiling back at him. It was titled ‘Awakening Hope.’ He flipped to the first blank page, steadied it in his hand and wrote an inscription.

‘To Evie, I wish I could take back the last two hours I’ve inflicted on you. I’m a weak man who only wants your money. Kurt Sampson.’

“Can I just say, you have a very comforting presence. Your inner strength just shines through.” Evie was still steadfastly speaking towards the floor.

“Thank you, Evie. That’s very flattering. I can tell you’ve found your path to happiness, just stay the course.” With that he gave the book back to her and offered his hand again.

She took it eagerly, daring to look up at his face. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure was all mine.”

Evie walked away hugging her signed book.

I should be pleased that she buys into all of this. I should feel like I helped her in some way. If I don’t believe in what I’m doing does it make it any less important to her?

She was halfway to the exit when she stopped to open her book and check the inscription. Kurt had signed it: ‘To Evie, stay the course. Kurt Sampson.’

 

* * *

 

“Good show, Kurt. In fact it’s been a good run. So good we’ve been asked to extend the tour with a week in London.”

The signing had dragged on for longer than usual. It always did in these small towns. He didn’t know if it was because they were kooky or just short of options when it came to entertainment. It was an hour long blur signing his name repeatedly on his range of second-rate merch and posing for photos with menopausal women.

He’d persevered through it all with a smile on his face and the charm turned all the way up. He’d earned his reward. He sat in his dressing room with a towel around his shoulders and a tumbler of bourbon on the table in front of him.

The dressing room was pretty cheap, bare brick walls, mould on the ceiling and four bulbs missing from the mirror surround. Kurt loved the quiet little moments. The moments where he could go back to being himself. But he wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t quiet.

“Kurt? Did you hear me?” It was Alan, his agent. The man that took 15% of his income and 100% of the credit. He was a cocky loud mouth that people found charming. He was the guy that knew ‘the guy.’ Kurt had always found it surprising that Alan was such a people person. He was a short, fat, bald man that looked decidedly uncomfortable in his customary suit and tie. It was his tongue that did all of the work. Seeing Alan without a phone to his ear, or talking through his silly Bluetooth headset was like witnessing an eclipse; it only happened now and again, it had to be precisely the right time and place and most people had never seen it in person.

“Hmmmmm?”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Yeah, sure. London. Where are we now?”

“We’re in Ipswich.”

“Ipswich. Where’s that?”

“It’s the biggest town in Suffolk. Sort of like saying that Sneezy is the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs.”

“I thought Bashful was the tallest?”

“Bashful was one of the Seven Dwarfs?”

“Yeah, don’t you know their names?

“Course I do.”

“Go on then, name them.”

“Bashful, apparently. Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc…”

“Three more…”

“I give up.”

“Sleepy, Dopey and Happy.”

“Sounds like Snow White was slipping those three rohypnol.”

Kurt smiled. It was a relief to be talking about something so staggeringly unimportant. “Ever wonder why Doc is called Doc?”

“No, I can’t say I have.”

“Think about it, all the others have descriptive names. You can feel happy, sleepy, sneezy, bashful, grumpy and dopey, but you can’t be doc.”

“I always thought it was short for doctor. The dwarfs were miners, right. Maybe Doc was the designated first aider?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“You’re the Yank, I thought you lot worshiped Walt Disney and the Mouse?”

“Yup, that’s America. Home of the brave, land of the free. The only things we love more than Disney are baseball and guns. Damn, Alan, you Brits have such a stereotypical view of us. Remember when I first came over here? You were the one that told me UK audiences wouldn’t buy into all this self-help stuff. You said anyone with an American accent selling a short cut to happiness would be asking for trouble.”

“I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong. They fucking love you Kurt, they buy into the way your head works, and we’ve got the ticket receipts to prove it”

Kurt felt his smile fade. He drained the rest of his drink and poured a replacement.

You’re a walking, talking ATM to this guy. As long as you keep paying out he’ll keep coming back. As soon as you run dry, he’ll be walking past to the next one.

“I think I need a break. I’m not sure the extra shows are a good idea.”

“You what? It’s a great idea. Four or five more shows gives you a six figure cheque. That’s good maths.”

That’s not even math. Yeah, that’s right MATH!

“There’s only one sticking point. We have to sort out a few insurance issues.”

A way out?

“But I’m meeting with a representative tomorrow to iron those out. The insurance company has an office here.

Damn.

“Do I have to meet with him?”

“Her actually. I’ve been warned she’s a bit of a ball breaker. We might not get things all our own way.”

Yeah right. You’d wrestle a rabid polar bear to cash in.

“I’m sure you’ll get it done.”

“So you’ll do it?”

“Sure.”

SELLOUT!

“We also got an offer for the start of next year. A magazine column…”


Many thanks for reading. The story updates every Monday & Thursday. If you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to comment below.

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