IT looked like it might once have been a bank. But then again it could just as easily have been a particularly upmarket haberdashery store back in the days of bone tape measures and black lace mourning shrouds.
Either way, its mosaic floor tiles, pale green marble pillars and frilly plaster coving were not, thought Merritt, designed with its current clientele in mind.
They were a sparse, subdued crowd hunched intently over microwave-blasted lasagne and pints of agricultural runoff-coloured lager. His friend was somewhere amongst this downcast throng, although exactly where amongst them was not immediately obvious.
‘Over here old chap.’
Larkin’s deranged gameshow host grin shone out from a dingy corner.
‘Come, sit. I’ve only just got here myself. I ordered you a green tea.’
Merritt pulled up a rickety chair, made a half decent stab at sitting down gracefully and sputtered out a bitter laugh.
‘You may well jest about such things, Larkin, but there are actually people like that out there at large in society. I’ve met some of them.’
‘So have I. Rodgers, for example. Remember Rodgers?’
‘The chap who bought that funny herb liquor off a gypsy on Watson’s stag weekend and ended up in a police cell for herding imaginary geese through Wenceslas Square?’
‘The very chap.’
‘Well, what of him?’
‘He’s all about the green tea these days, I’m told. Crazy about the stuff.’
Merritt let out a derogatory hiss that put Larkin in mind of an irritable house cat issuing its final warning before resorting to scratching and biting to get its point across.
‘Green tea, yoga, ultramarathons, monogamy. All sorts of joyless pursuits, so I’m led to believe.’
Merritt rolled back his head and stared up at the ceiling in disbelief. He hated hearing about friends and acquaintances going off the rails.
‘But listen, it wasn’t Rodgers’ disgusting perversions I wanted to talk to you about, Merritt.’
‘Oh yes. You mentioned it was something about your latest conquest. But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather it wasn’t. If I’ve heard one of your online dating stories I’ve heard them all.’
Larkin raised a condescending eyebrow.
‘This one, I promise you, is an altogether different kettle of fish.’
‘I have grave doubts about that,’ said Merritt. ‘You’ve told me them all before. Tell me their name, age and profession and I’ll save you the time and oxygen by telling you how the story ends.’
Larkin took an impatient breath and leaned forwards.
‘Hayley, twenty seven, marketing assistant.’
Merritt let out a low groan and shook his head.
‘I have indeed heard that one, and to be perfectly frank I’d rather not hear it again. That was the story which necessitated you giving me a florid description of what the term pegging means whilst we were eating beef in black bean sauce at Tang’s. I did so used to enjoy beef in black bean sauce too.’
‘No, no. This is an entirely different Hayley, twenty seven, marketing assistant. Most of the women on that site are called Hayley and work in marketing. It seems to attract a remarkable number of Hayleys, for one reason or another. I went as far as to email customer services to chance my arm for a rebate on my membership dues on that very basis. Spun them some yarn that my mother’s name was Hayley and it would feel a bit strange and, to be honest, downright incestuous to be giving a woman by the same name the bells of Shannon. They are yet to respond.’
‘Right, right but that peculiar anomaly aside, what was this particular Hayley’s queer fetish? They always seem to have a queer fetish.’
Larkin sat back, folded his hands and left hanging a dramatic pause.
‘Coronation Street,’ he resumed.
Merritt left an even longer pause, although it must be noted that it lacked the dramatic flair of Larkin’s performance.
‘You mean the soap opera?’
‘Yes. She absolutely adores it to the point of obsession. Watches the thing religiously, buys memorabilia, stacks of videos and DVDs of old episodes and spin-offs and whatever else she can lay her hands on, posts about it on fan forums night and day.’
Merritt did not even attempt to mask his contempt.
‘You’ve courted some preposterous women in your time, Larkin, but this one truly takes the biscuit. Her primary interest in life is a soap opera. A soap opera you have never, to my knowledge, ever taken any interest in. Yet, like a moth to the flame, you flutter once more towards yet another complete and utter bedlamite with which whom it will end in bitter, salty tears.’
‘Preposterous perhaps, bedlamite maybe,’ said Larkin, cupping his hands below his chin, ‘but a preposterous bedlamite with an absolutely world ending pair of…’
He jumped and quickly placed his hands flat on the table as a young waitress appeared at his shoulder, clumsily thumped a bottle of red down on the table and mumbled something about just letting her know if they wanted anything else.
An uneasy silence descended as she poured each man a glass and toddled off out of earshot.
‘Anyway. I start thinking about how to get my way with this Hayley bird without expending too much time and money. You know, a quick shock and awe job and then the number you have dialled is no longer in use before she knows what’s hit her.’
‘So what did you do, dress up as what’s-his-face, Ken Barlow, or something?’
‘I will admit that it did briefly cross my mind, Merritt, but no. I happened upon something even better.’
‘You learned how to whisper sweet nothings in French, but in a broad Manchester accent?’
‘No, even better than that. I found out that if you travel to Granada Studios where the whole thing is filmed, you can pay for a guided tour of Coronation Street.’
‘What an utterly ghastly thought.’
‘Well, quite. But in my mind, this was the equivalent of taking some Arab piece on a date to Mecca. A complete slam dunk. So I booked us in and bought the train tickets to Manchester without so much as a second thought.’
‘And she agreed to go to all the way up to Manchester with you? On a first date?’
‘Well, I kept it all suitably vague beforehand. Women love an air of mystery, you see. Meet me at King’s Cross at nine, we’re going on a mystery tour was enough to get her on the hook.’
‘You see to me, that sounds deeply sinister. It’s the sort of thing a person might say to try and lure someone into a situation where they’d be sold into sex slavery or forced down a cobalt mine in the Congo.’
‘I don’t think her mind is as wracked with suspicion as yours, old boy. Besides, I’m doing a sensitive, non-threatening face in my profile picture. Top up?’
‘Yes, I’ve a feeling I’m going to need it.’
‘But you are absolutely right, in a way. It fast becomes abundantly clear that she is highly suspicious about the whole getting-on-a-train-to-an-unknown-destination-with-a-stranger-off-the-internet element of our first date. I eventually manage to persuade her to get on board by telling her she can have her rape alarm in one hand and her phone in the other ready to call the police if either of my hands disappear from her sight at any point during the journey.’
Larkin relapsed for a few moments to inhale half a glass of red wine in one mighty gulp.
‘Anyway, after a rather tense few hours, we finally step out of a cab at Granada Studios. At this point the penny finally drops for her. She’s completely cock-a-hoop. Dog chasing its own tail levels of excitement. Within a matter of seconds I’ve gone from potential rapist to the best date she’s ever been on and I’m so caring and thoughtful and all that sort of soppy rot.’
‘So you’re in. The job’s a good ‘un.’
‘Well, provisionally. There was still the whole business of the tour to endure before I could gently raise the spectre of how late it was getting and how wise it would be to book into a hotel for the night.’
‘I can’t stand guided tours,’ spat Merritt. ‘It’s usually some ponce with a beard doing it and there’s always someone, usually a teacher, in the group who feels the need to ask a series of absolutely inane questions at every turn about how long something took to build or how much a vase weighs. I don’t envy you at all in that regard.’
‘Well, given the benefit of hindsight, the presence of just one solitary inane teacher on this particular tour would have increased my chances tenfold. Perhaps twentyfold. In fact, I’d have settled for an inane Religious Education teacher. Or even someone who once thought about becoming a teacher.’
‘Good grief, Larkin. That’s serious stuff. Now I’m absolutely sure I’ve never heard this one before.’
‘Right, so Hayley scoots straight off to the ladies’ and I decide to put this time to good use by sniffing out the tour guide. I flash the reception popsy a fancy smile and she points me in the direction of some queer, shifty looking cove hovering around the entrance. So I sidle up and, I won’t sugar coat this, offer him fifty pounds cash in return for making this particular tour a bit special for my lady friend. You know, introduce young Hayley to one of the actors, let her go into one of the fake shops or into the pretend pub, that kind of thing. Something that’ll make her the undisputed queen bee of the Coronation Street fans’ forum.’
‘I’m guessing he turned out to be some kind of fundamentalist Mormon and you were slung out of the place before the tour started?’
‘Not quite. He played it cool, refused the readies and said it would be a moderately special experience for us in any case because it was a quiet Tuesday and we were the only ones booked in. I tried appealing to him man to man, spelling out in no uncertain terms that a go on the young lady’s weather balloons was at stake but he seemed strangely unmoved by that. Probably a homosexual, now I come to think of it. He seemed to lack even the most basic grasp of the importance of what I was rattling on about.’
‘So you upped the ante offered him a hundred to give you the run of Ken Barlow’s house for half an hour?’
Larkin folded his arms abruptly.
‘What a person you’ve become for these sorts of suggestions, Merritt. I really do wonder at times whether the repressed, sex-starved nature of married life is giving you the distinctly dark and sordid edge you’ve developed lately.’
‘I’m not the one who meets odd strangers off the internet willy-nilly and leaves the possibility that I’ll be drugged, raped or sold in an Arab slave market in the hands of providence. Anyway, this tour guide of yours, spill the beans. I’ve got to be back in the office in twenty minutes.’
‘Well, the chap suddenly gets a strange, faraway look in his eyes, lowers his voice and tells me it’s his last day before he returns from his period of secondment at Granada Studios to his real job at the Pentagon. He then offers to, in his words, blow our minds if we promise not to tell anyone afterwards.’
‘The Pentagon, as in the US department of defence Pentagon?’
‘Yes. The whole thing struck me as being a little skew whiff for a tour guide too, but what was I supposed to do? Hayley was strolling back from the ladies’ looking especially bouncy. Bouncy enough, in my eyes at least, to deserve a place on the secret mind blowing Pentagon Coronation Street guided tour.’
Merritt replenished their glasses once more. ‘Do go on,’ he said. ‘You’ve officially piqued my interest.’
‘Well,’ continued Larkin, ‘It was all pretty unremarkable to begin with. We were trailed through a few dull television studios, sat in the newsreaders’ chairs, had a stab at doing the weather forecast and all that sort of nonsense. But then the guide suddenly stopped in the middle of a corridor and gave us the queerest of looks.’
‘He said it was our very last chance to go on the official Coronation Street tour before we got in the lift down to what he referred to as Sector 19. He said what we were about to be shown would change our lives forever and that we may see things that could never be unseen.’
‘Now that really does sound sinister, you must admit.’
‘I freely admit that. But by now young Hayley has formed the idea that Sector 19 must be the staff canteen and she’s going end up hobnobbing with her favourite actors over tea and scones. And, as mentioned previously…’
He cupped his hands below his chin once again.
‘So down you went?’
‘Yes. It really was incredible in a disconcerting sort of way. This place must have been about a quarter of a mile underground, judging by how long it took for the lift to get down there. Banks upon banks of television screens across a wall the length of an aircraft hangar. Hundreds of people monitoring them.’
‘Some kind of production unit?’
‘Well, not exactly. It was at this point the guide sat us down, poured us a stiff drink and spelled the whole thing out to us in no uncertain terms. I had a brandy and Hayley, I think, took a Tia Maria. The guide poured himself an absolutely stonking measure of vod…’
‘..I’m to be in a meeting in fifteen minutes, Larkin, so do stop beating around the bush, would you?,’ snapped Merritt.
‘Right, right. Well, to distil the whole issue down to its simplest form, the actors in Coronation Street aren’t really actors at all.’
‘Well, that’s hardly news old chap,’ scoffed Merritt.
‘If you’d care to cut out your facetious running commentary, Merritt, you might just make your blasted meeting. What I mean is, that the characters in Coronation Street are blissfully unaware they’re in a soap opera. They’re just people living what they believe to be their normal lives.’
‘Nonsense. The whole thing is set in one street. They all go home at the end of the day.’
‘The street is their entire world. They don’t believe anything exists beyond its limits. The producers rig their homes up with hidden cameras and microphones and edit the best bits into a sort of rough story a couple of times a week.’
‘What absolute and utter tripe, Larkin. Surely one of would have the curiosity to just wander out?’
‘I asked the very same question, old chap. But the guide swore blind that the cast members are brainwashed from birth into believing the realm beyond the street is the undisputed domain of a fire demon named Fotheringay. They sometimes rig up some pyrotechnics to really hammer home the point to them.’
‘Oh come on now. Why the blazes would they keep people captive like that? It hardly seems worth all the trouble when you could just pay a few fourth rate actors to read out scripts.’
‘Well, it’s like this old chap. At the end of the war a lot of…’ Larkin glanced around furtively and lowered his voice ‘…Nazi scientists were spirited into England to stop the Russians snapping them all up and gaining a technological edge. One such man was Erich Vormelker, some kind of big noise in behavioural science. During the war, he had an exact replica of a typical German street built somewhere in the middle of the Polish countryside. He sent in twenty five captive Jewish two-year-olds and then walled it all off. They’d throw food and supplies over the wall but the poor little blighters never saw anyone outside the street until it was liberated in nineteen forty five. By then they were terrified to leave the place because they thought Fotheringay would incinerate them. Apparently it took decades to de-program them.’
‘You mean to tell me the set of Coronation Street is a replica of a barbaric Nazi experiment?’
‘Precisely. Vormelker had it in his head that people whose world was made so tiny and insular from birth would become maniacally loyal to one another. Loyal to the point that if you told them their kith and kin were under threat they would fly into a superhuman rage and run through a hail of bullets without feeling a singular twinge of pain in order to defend them. The hope was that these schocktruppen would give us the edge if it came to a land war with the commies. Only it didn’t turn out that way. When the original cast of Coronation Street grew up, the opposite happened. They developed no loyalty to one another whatsoever. They just fought like rats in a sack, rattled each other’s wives, stole each other’s property and brawled with each other in the pub every single night.’
Merritt glanced at his watch. His meeting was in ten minutes. Larkin, however, remained in full flow.
‘But when the Ministry of Defence eventually came to shut the experiment down, they found that the staff monitoring the cameras had been splicing footage together into little stories to entertain themselves. Vormelker spotted the potential in this and promptly changed his name to Sidney Bernstein, founded Granada Studios and turned the whole thing into a commercial enterprise.’
Larkin stopped to catch his breath and drain the last of his glass. Merritt stared at him intently.
‘I suppose you do read about things like that happening during the war,’ he said. ‘But are you absolutely sure this fellow wasn’t just yanking your chain out of sheer spite? I mean, I don’t watch these soap operas but I do know they have a pretty regular churn of new characters popping in and out all the time.’
‘I dismissed the whole thing as complete rot to begin with too. I’m fully aware that it sounds like the ravings of a madman. But the thing that convinced me the guide was telling the truth was when he led us to another part of the facility and showed us what he called the birthing tanks. This is a huge chrome chamber where they grow new characters. Women, children, middle aged men, all shapes and sizes just hanging in suspension in these huge glass vats full of wires and chemicals. They’re kept there until the plot requires them. I don’t know how they do it, but apparently the scientific side of the whole thing was taken over and developed by the Pentagon in the early nineteen sixties for some kind of top secret advanced stem cell research.’
Merritt downed the last of his wine and sat back, lost momentarily in contemplation.
‘So did Hayley get to meet any of the actors she likes at all?’
‘She saw Ken Barlow floating in a huge vat of what looked to me like formaldehyde. His eyes were wired open in front of a huge screen showing footage of the Nuremberg rallies. She didn’t manage to get an autograph or anything like that. though.’
‘That’s a damned shame for her. I’m sure she got over the disappointment once you’d taken her out for a nice spot of lunch, though.’
‘We didn’t manage to get any lunch in the end. Some chaps in boiler suits started leading cows and pigs into the chamber and the guide muttered something about it being feeding time and started up again with his gibbering about there being certain things that a person cannot unsee. Then he grabbed us by the elbows and marched us about half a mile through lots of corridors and stairwells and then demanded we climb into a sort of rusty monorail car. It trundled along at an interminably low speed for the thick end of an hour through a cold, damp concrete tunnel. We found a door marked exit and it turned out we’d emerged from some kind of hidden entrance to the side of a hill somewhere east of a place I’ve since been able to pinpoint as Glossop. We had no choice but to hike for miles in the pouring rain until we found our bearings. We eventually came upon a road, flagged down a bus and arrived back to Manchester in the early hours of the morning via Mossley, Greenfield, Uppermill, Diggle and about half a dozen other stops I forget the names of.’
‘Did you get a hotel?’
‘Yes, but not the same one as Hayley. She said I seemed like a nice enough chap but felt there were no sparks flying between us.’
‘Gosh, what an ungrateful cow,’ said Merritt, sliding his jacket off the back of the chair and giving it a shake. ‘After all the trouble you went to she could have at least spent the night with you before she threw you on the scrapheap. It’s hardly your fault her silly television programme turned out to be a clandestine military experiment masterminded by a Nazi scientist.’
‘My thoughts exactly, old chap. The female mind really does lack perspective sometimes.’
© DH 2022