Canterbury Tales: If Chaucer had done telly

This was a competition to write fiction inspired by the Canterbury Tales.

“How long? Five seconds? Are we ready? All set? Let’s go!”

And I run through the doors outside to where the crowd is cheering – bigger than last year, wicked – and it roars louder as the cameras track me and it’s time to speak to the world.

“Yeah, yeah, woo! Are we up for this? Listen, listen -“

They carry on cheering, too manic for silence, and I laugh, drunk on the rush of them.

“Okay! Okay! Listen! You guys all know what time of year it is, right? April, right? And you all know what that means – yes, you do! April showers, pretty flowers – woo, poetry there, alright, yes – no, no, seriously, birds twittering in their nests, all that nature stuff – and -“

I hold up a hand, stilling them for a moment, but it’s like holding back a flood, you can’t do it for long.

“And we get swamped by hundreds and thousands of hopefuls wanting to enter the I-Spy House! We’ve watched every tape – the sad, the bad, the dangerous to know – we’ve picked just ten contestants from them, and in a moment you’re going to meet them.”

The flood breaks as I shout into the mike and no-one hears me do the standard stuff I do every year about the cameras and the microphones and how they’re all going on a spiritual journey together for the next ten weeks in the House as they try to win the big money by not getting evicted. Everyone knows that stuff and for a few moments I’ve lost them as they watch the ten black limos pull up, eager for a first glimpse of the housemates, and they don’t care about me, but I’ll have them back in a moment.

Now, in fact.

“Alright! Alright! You’re brilliant, amazing, I am so excited to be here, woo! And you know what else I’m excited by? This guy, housemate number one – Baz!”

Baz unfolds himself from his car, six foot two of drop dead gorgeous brickie’s mate in an England shirt, and salutes the crowd while his audition video runs on the giant screens. Building-high Bazzes talk about how he and his army of mates have followed En-ger-land around the world, all the campaigns, all the qualification matches – France for Beckham’s madness, the playing fields of Flanders in Euro 2000, Japan and Korea for the nearly-but-not-quite World Cup. Baz is going to take some beating, I think, but he’s already disappeared into the House and now it’s time to introduce Cyn.

Cyn the personnel manager, Cyn the polite who never said anything stronger than ‘gosh’ in the whole audition process, Cyn with the perfect jewellery, Cyn who says what she’ll miss most in the house are her westies Sniffles and Snuffles and who is even now weeping over them as she says goodbye to her family. Go on Cyn, leave the dogs and get in the House. You won’t be apart long – the public will see to that. They’ll hate you. I know them.

But what will they make of Fenella, I wonder? Hale and hearty and – frankly – horse-faced, her audition video shows her features almost as red as her jacket as she stables her hunter, surrounded by leaping, frisking hounds. Her voice booms over the PA as she explains that even though she works for an auctioneer’s what she really likes is to cast aside the catalogues and books, get outside and live a little. Or a lot. I can just hear the lefty intellectual columnists sharpening their pencils now. I think we’ve found our house villain.

Closely followed by our House ladette, Kitten. Pretty as a picture – neck like a swan’s – cute little lisp when she chooses to switch it on – but I bet she turns out to have a wicked left hook and I’m dead certain she’s going to drink all the lads under the table on the first night. She works as one of those pushy, permanently cheerful, High Street canvassers who leap out on you with some sob story so you’ll sign away your last penny each month to whichever charity happens to be paying their beer money that day. Wonder if she’ll manage to work the viewers as effectively?

Ah – time to slow things down a little. Hello Matthew, surprised you lifted your head from your books long enough to even enter. What is it you’re studying again? Cognitive psychology and linguistics? Better hope you win the money, Matthew, ’cause with your head full of that stuff you’ll be unemployable when you graduate. Still, at least in the House you’ll get three square meals a day and no-one’ll care you only own three shirts and two pairs of jeans. What did you call the House? ‘The most intensive example of practical psychology and small-group dynamics imaginable’? Whatever. Me, I call it killer TV.

Anyway, move over Matthew, here comes our oldest housemate – and, who knows, maybe our wisest too. Rhoda’s a fashion designer, as if you hadn’t guessed from the astonishing red creation she made especially for tonight. She’s a maneater with a trail of – well, not broken hearts behind her, no. Rather a trail of contented men who look back on her with nostalgia and a secret smile and think ‘now there was a woman and a half’. She’s knows exactly who’s boss, lets no-one diss her, and when I grow up I want to be just like her. Only not so deaf.

What a contrast with Scarlett, the youth worker from the grotty London estate who’s modest to a fault. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who’s so obviously a ‘good’ person. Her audition video was made by kids in her youth group as a project and you can tell she’s a saint to them – although she clearly doesn’t see it that way. She’s there for all of them, all the time, and it’s obvious she’d fight for them whatever the personal cost. What a star, what an example – what on Earth is she doing entering this circus?

Oh! Time please ladies and gentlemen, time to meet big Trev the barman – a tub of lard with a head of solid bone that could butt its way through a barn door. His video shows him pulling a small truck on a rope in some charity fair thing at his pub, and later with his mouth hinged open like a trap door, hairy nose-wart quivering, as he laughs uproariously at some filthy joke he’s just told. A real fun guy to have around I’m sure, but I’ll tell you what – if I was in his pub I’d check my change carefully, I really would.

And now it’s Vijay, blinking nervously at the crowd from behind his glasses and his zits and a beard that would embarrass a 14-year-old. Vijay is a network administrator in some big company’s IT department and you just know from looking at him that he’s one of those creepy geeks with bad breath who can’t keep their eyes off the secretaries, love using technojargon that no-one else can understand, and let their mates have all sorts of cool software barred to the rest of us. Watch your back though – he knows all your passwords. Ugh.

And that just leaves Zachary, who says he runs an import / export business but gets cagey when asked what that actually means. My, but you’re an attractive specimen aren’t you Zachary, with your greasy yellow rats-tail hair and your staring eyes. I’ve seen your type before in shadowy doorways and dark corners of clubs with your packets and your wraps and your promises of heaven. If we could prove anything you wouldn’t be here – but we can’t, so you are, and with your honeyed tones and your flattering manner we know you’re going to make great TV.

And now you’re all inside the House and the cheering is dying down and it’s time for me to spring the surprise.

“I-Spy House this is Marina. You are live on national TV so no swearing.”

On the giant screens the housemates freeze in the middle of their greetings as my words come over the House tannoy. The reference to swearing makes Cyn frown and Matthew blush, but Scarlett smiles and the rest jump up and down, cheering. Outside the crowd is waiting, hanging on my every word.

“The Eye in the Sky has decided to set you a task in order to help you get to know each other. Each housemate will tell a story to entertain the rest of the group. When the stories are complete the Eye in the Sky will decide whether the stories have been sufficiently entertaining and well-told to pass the task. If the group passes, the Eye in the Sky will provide a gourmet supper tonight as a reward. If the task is failed, no food will be provided and the group will have to rely on basic rations.”

Pandemonium, then Baz is prompted into a tale of when he and a fellow brickie were on a job abroad, working in some compound, and both spotted this really fit local girl walking by outside – but I can’t be bothered to hear any more so I mentally filter out the chatter from the House. Even though the crowds are starting to drift away there’s still plenty of fans around to talk to, plenty of people who want their photo taken with me.

And quite a few who are all of a sudden watching the giant screens, where Trev – who’s already managed to hit the canned lager hard – is butting right through Fenella as she tries to follow Baz. He’s launching into some awful tale of someone’s wife who’s a right slapper and half the rest of the House are trying to shout him down but by the end they’re all in stitches. Apart, of course, from prim Miss Cyn who coughs delicately and hits back with a pious little story of what the auditors did to a secretary who listened to music on her headphones in the office, and after her Fenella gets her chance at last.

Boy, does she blow it – an endless tale of how chinless wonder friends of hers fell off their bloody horses. Eventually Baz cuts through the boredom and asks her if she’s got any funny stories about hunting. She hasn’t, and shuts up. I’m not sensing a House romance there, I’m really not.

In fact, I’m not sensing much love at all right now. Some people want Zachary to tell a funny story, some want him to sit down and shut up. He sleazes into centre stage, toasts them all in lager, and all but admits to being a pusher before telling a story of three clubbers who get themselves busted by arguing over a stash. If he doesn’t watch himself, the Eye in the Sky is going to have to give him a warning.

It’s getting pretty ugly in there but Rhoda brings some good humour back with a rollicking tale about what women want from a man, and the happy mood manages to survive a spat between Vijay and Kitten where she says techies like computers because they can’t deal with people, and he slags off charity collectors as parasites.

Matthew’s been watching quietly, and when his turn comes he tells a story he leant from an old tutor about all things coming to those who wait. Scarlett’s up last, and it looks like she’s got something pretty goody-goody planned and I so don’t want to know.

But really, I don’t know why I’m paying attention to that lot in the House. They can wait – they’re not going anywhere. And anyway, who’s going to be interested in a bunch of strangers telling each other stories to fill the time? I mean, in a hundred years’ time who’s going to care? Not me, that’s for sure. I’m in the here-and-now and I’m up for it. And what else matters but that?