When Iona woke up in the house she knew where she was straightaway, and she knew she was alone. There was none of that blurry intermediate state of semi-consciousness that people usually get when they’re in an unfamiliar place. Everything about the bed, the clean low modern furniture, the white painted walls, the angled light coming in through the edges of the blackout blinds – it was all crisp and distinct. She stretched and yawned and put her feet on the bare but warm floor. She was wearing her second-best sleeping shorts and some long-forgotten ex’s heavily faded Ramones T-shirt. It was a low bed, the kind that older people find it hard to straighten up from. But Iona was not old. Her mouth tasted fresh. She couldn’t smell her own breath, nobody can, but she could tell that if she were able to, it would smell sweet. The bathroom was en suite. She padded across to it and surveyed the unbranded but obviously fancy modern toiletries. Fine. She did what she had to do to be ready for the day. She checked herself out in the mirror. Good: as often when she’d just woken up, she had perfect bedhead. It was known to be one of her best looks.
The next question was: how to fill the day. What next? The others would be arriving before too long, maybe later the same day, maybe over the subsequent days, who knew? But soon. So this was her chance to have a good look around and explore the villa and mark her territory. Not literally, obviously. But a chance to get a feel for the place and to make a good impression. She was very aware of being watched the whole time – that was the entire point of this place, that you were watched the whole time, you are not just on show, you are the show – and that this was a chance to occupy all the space. For today, and maybe for today only, she was the sole and only and exclusive star. It was all about her. Well, OK then. She would be the star. Eyes to me!
The fitted cupboard was full of her clothes, except they seemed a bit cleaner, a bit newer. It was clever how they’d managed to arrange that. She opened it and studied it and performed complex calculations about how to play this, about what the audience would want and how to give it to them while acting as if she wasn’t thinking about them and their reactions. Act natural – always a tricky one. First thing, freshly out of bed and on her own: the call was probably for sexy casual, but not too casual and the sexy part mustn’t seem calculating. Also, the clock was ticking, she realised as she stood in front of the short wall of clothes. If she spent twenty minutes here and then came out looking like she’d just thrown some stuff on, the extended deliberation would contradict the intended effect. She wasn’t stupid. OK so it was Lululemon yoga bottoms, the same T-shirt she already had on, and flip-flops.
She hit the switch controlling the blinds. They slid silently up and light flooded into her bedroom. She would look amazing, dazzling, filmed from behind, she knew: a blazing angel. Looking out, she found that she was on the first floor. Outside was a well-kept Mediterranean garden with gravel paths weaving between flowerbeds, with a hedge about a hundred metres away, and nothing visible beyond. They must be in a high place, not overlooked. There would be a pool, Iona felt sure. It was a compound. She could see no way in or out. So perhaps this was the back of the house.
Iona headed out into the stairwell for a bit of an explore. This upper floor of the villa had six rooms leading off a gallery, with stairs running down one side and a skylight above and walls painted white. It was very bright. She knew without looking that the other rooms would be bedrooms, and that this meant there would be six of them in the villa. Three girls and three boys. She couldn’t see any cameras or mikes so whatever they did with them must be very very clever, super-clever, because she was certain she was being watched. Her consciousness was – had to be – double at all times: what she was doing, and what impression she would make by doing it. That was fine by Iona: she was used to it, she knew how it worked. She knew the rules of seeming. In accordance with them, she went and tapped briefly on the door of the room next to hers, waited a few seconds, and nudged the door open. As she’d expected, everything about the room was identical to hers. She didn’t bother checking the other rooms, not yet. There was no shortage of time.
Downstairs Iona found a hallway that opened out under the gallery and gave direct access to a huge sitting room stuffed with beanbags, a TV room, what must be intended as a boys’ room with game consoles and a pool table, a lovely big kitchen with a breakfast bar and dining table. Another huge room opened straight out to the – she’d been right – huge bright blue-green swimming pool, where there were six sunloungers laid out under umbrellas on one side, six laid out in the sun on the other side, and a pool house at the far end. It looked like, indeed was, a picture-perfect holiday pool. She went out, dipped a hand in the warm water, walked around, felt the colossal fluffy towels in the pool room.
All this time Iona was thinking hard. She wouldn’t be on her own for ever. No one would want to watch that. Nobody would pay to watch that! People might be interested in what she did with herself when she was by herself but they wouldn’t be interested for long, so it wouldn’t be more than a day at most. She must think of it as one day at a time. She must look composed, sexy, self-contained; mustn’t look needy and impatient for the others to arrive; must look like someone who can look after herself. While taking care at all times to act natural. What that meant in the short term was that she should make some breakfast. She hadn’t checked that the kitchen was stocked, but it must be – it would make no sense for it not to be.
She flip-flopped round the edge of the pool, crossed the room that led from the pool, crossed the hallway to the kitchen, pushed the swing door open, and almost died of a heart attack. A dark-haired woman was bending down and looking into the fridge. Iona’s scream made the woman startle and she hopped up and shrieked too, making a dissonant off-beat one-two of female distress. The woman put her hand on her chest and took a breath.
‘Jesus! I’m sorry,’ Iona said. ‘You startled me. I thought I was on my own. I’m Iona.’
‘Nousche,’ said the woman, who had the trace of an accent – French? Italian? That must be her name: Nousche. She was wearing a light, filmy top and clinging shorts. These looked carefully calculated in a sexy Eurominx style while also being fully deniable, as something she had just flung on in the morning without a second thought. Nousche’s dark hair curled round her face, a very sophisticated bob cut. Iona couldn’t tell why but she had been sure the next person in the villa would be a man. That was just how shows like this worked – girl-boy, girl-boy. Evidently that was wrong. If it was going to be a girl, though, this kind of girl was perfect: dark where Iona was blonde, petite where Iona was tall, classy-foreign where Iona was relatable-native. Maybe it would be all girls, carefully calibrated to be different, like a manufactured pop group. ‘I saw you down by the pool,’ Nousche went on. ‘I was just coming out to say hello but I wanted to see if there was anything to eat first, I’m starving.’
‘Me too!’ Iona said, though it wasn’t strictly true: she’d been too hyped and energised by the strangeness of it all to think about food. But it would make the wrong impression if she seemed like the kind of girl who was too up herself, too interested in being skinny, to admit she needed to eat. The calculations she was making about first impressions were all changed by the arrival of the second girl. She wasn’t creating an image of how she behaved when she was on her own, but giving a sense of what she was like to interact with. Very different. Now it was time for Operation Nice. Well, that was no problem. Iona knew how to do nice.
‘What is there?’ she said, bouncing over towards the cooking area. She noticed that the acoustics of the kitchen, indeed of the whole villa, were hard and flat – no soft surfaces, nothing to absorb noise.
‘Everything,’ Nousche said, opening the fridge wider. Something about the way she flung the door open – or pretended to fling the door open, because you can’t really fling a fridge door open, not without breaking it – made Iona see that she had a feel for drama; Nousche was one to watch. Good to know. Iona, playing along, peered into the fridge. It was indeed very well stocked, which was a good sign because it meant the others were coming and were probably coming pretty soon.
‘I could make us a frittata?’ Nousche said. Damn, thought Iona. So Euroskank gets to be the practical caring helpful one, while also avoiding carbs.
‘Super!’ said Iona. ‘You know what, while you do, I’ll just check the other rooms, because if you’re here and I didn’t realise, maybe some other people are here too, you know, and we can ask them down?’ This would serve the dual purpose of making her look caring and thoughtful too, while also getting her out of Nousche’s blast area for a bit so she could formulate a plan. It was always easy for an observer to pick up on overt bitchiness, snark, eye-rolling, and you didn’t need to counter it, because the cameras and mikes countered it for you. But this was much more subtle. Nobody would have seen anything yet. They wouldn’t know what was happening.
‘Unless they need a lie-in?’ said Nousche, counter-thoughtfulling. Oh, OK bitch, so this is going to be war.
‘Well, I’m sure your frittatas are delicious, it would be a pity if anyone missed them!’
Nousche did a weird thing closing her eyes and raising one shoulder. It seemed to mean something along the lines of: oh all right then, if you insist on flattering me so, please by all means go ahead. Iona went back to the main staircase and started heading up. Part of her wanted to change clothes, to signal to herself that the game was different; but that made no sense. In fact it would just look a bit mad: girl meets other girl in villa, changes outfit. No, Lululemon had got her into this, and Lululemon would have to get her out. She got to the top of the stairs and went past the door she had already checked to the one after it – and just as she was reaching for the handle, it opened from the inside and a man stepped out. Iona didn’t give a full scream as she had when startled by Nousche, but she did emit a squeak. The man had curly red hair, lots of it, and was of medium height and compactly built, a fact it was simple for Iona to verify because he was naked from the waist up. A gym bunny, it was easy to see. He was carrying a towel in his left hand, and now flung it across his shoulder to cover himself partly, like an impromptu toga.
‘Whoa,’ he said. Semi-posh accent, a bit like Iona’s own. ‘I thought I was alone. Harry.’ He held out his hand.
‘Iona,’ said Iona. ‘I thought the same thing. But you’re the third. And maybe there are more, I haven’t checked. Nousche is downstairs, making omelettes. No, frittatas.’ This was, Iona thought, so much better. While Harry wasn’t her type – nothing personal, she could see he was attractive, just not for her – there was no denying that this was much more like it. Balance and order had been restored to the cosmos. It would surely be half boys and half girls now, anything else would make no sense. On this terrain, she was sure she could prevail.
‘What’s a frittata?’ said Harry.
‘It’s an omelette that’s gone wrong on purpose.’
‘Cool,’ said Harry. ‘I mean, I’m allergic to eggs, but still, you know, cool.’
In that moment, Iona felt that she loved him very much.
Harry gestured back towards his room. ‘I’ll just, you know, clothes,’ he said.
‘Absolutely!’ Iona said.
So they had breakfast together. Iona ate just enough of Nousche’s frittata to show she was a good sport but left just enough to show that it wasn’t particularly good. Nousche did an I’m-French, I-eat-everything-and-never-put-on-an-ounce thing. Iona (caring, practical Iona) made Harry a bacon sandwich. They chatted about this and that, but mainly about when the others would arrive and who they would be and what they would be like. It went unstated that they would be attractive young people, because, well, it was obvious that that was the whole point. They talked a bit about what they did before. Harry was a model. Nousche was a ‘gallerist’, whatever that was. Iona thought about asking her but her instinct was that the query might not come out right – might sound like an attack, which was problematic, because of course that’s exactly what it was. So she would save that for later when the lie of the land was more clear. Iona told them she was an actor, because if she said she was an actor slash model slash influencer (‘classic triple threat’, according to her agent) that would make two models out of three and would thereby hand Nousche an advantage.
Just as they were finishing breakfast, Eli walked into the room. Iona had screamed when she saw Nousche and squeaked when she saw Harry, but honestly, when she saw Eli, she almost fainted. He was so far past handsome it was like they needed some other whole vocabulary for it. He had long black hair which was at risk of being cut by his cheekbones, dark brown eyes, and was wearing a white linen shirt which did an exceptionally bad job of hiding just how ripped he was. Best of all, he carried himself as if he wasn’t aware of any of this – just, you know, moving through his day, nothing to see here, it’s normal for girls to cross their legs and become unable to speak, I’m sure that was what it was like before I came in. Iona wasn’t sure how they got through the introductions and all that: all she could hear was the blood in her head. Crucially, she could tell he preferred her to Nousche. Nothing specific, she could just tell. Ha!
Eli was a photographer. Not a fashion photographer, the other sort. You know, warzones. Of course he was.
After breakfast they went for a swim and to hang out by the pool for a while. Iona was a very good swimmer – a very elegant swimmer – and had been looking forward to this being a point of difference, but it annoyingly turned out that Nousche was a star swimmer too. Still, Iona knew she was on strong ground with the impression she made in a bikini. She did a few laps, then got out and dried off in the sun on a lounger next to Harry. He was lying on his front to tan his back, but when she lay down he turned over and flipped his Ray-Bans down over his eyes.
‘Dude, gonna be honest, I could get used to this,’ he said.
It was too bright to open her eyes and too warm, in the direct sun, to think or speak clearly, so Iona made an affirmative grunty noise. The problem of how to fill the day, this first day, had been solved by the new arrivals, each coming as a pleasant surprise, unexpected to her and no doubt to the viewers too. Or maybe the viewers already knew? No – no point thinking about that too much. The trick for dealing with the viewers would be to have them in the back of your mind but not the front of it. If you were constantly trying to second-guess them, to see what they were seeing and finesse or manipulate it, you would go mad. And also you would be obvious about it and that would spoil the whole thing. You can’t be seen thinking about how you seem – fatal. Still, it was tempting to wonder if they knew what was coming, who would be next through the pool-patio room, who would be next to do the self-conscious walk, the self-conscious wave, to reach up and flick their long black hair out of their dark brown eyes, to pull off their white linen top and …
A tall black man came out from the house and stood in the doorway by the pool squinting over at them with his hand held up to shield his eyes from the sun. He was wearing a grey T-shirt and black sweatpants and he too was super-ripped, even more so than Eli and Harry, which Iona wouldn’t have thought was possible, but this guy was something else, it was like his muscles had muscles. Also he seriously knew how to make an entrance. He did a slow look around and then walked over towards them. Nousche stopped swimming, came to the side of the pool and draped her arms over it, the skank. He went towards her, crouched down on his haunches, held out his hand and said:
Nousche held out her hand in an unbelievably pretentious way, wrist up, palm drooping down, like she was the fucking queen or something. She said her name. Liam did a squinty smile and – this too was unbelievable and was all Nousche’s fault – briefly bowed his head down and kissed her hand. Iona felt she might throw up in her mouth. Liam straightened up, not without a lingering flirty smoulder towards Nousche, and came over to Iona. Get up, don’t get up? But if Nousche had done an I’m-a-duchess number the thing to do was go the other way. Iona hopped up off her lounger and walked towards Liam to introduce herself. Harry, nice manners, got up too. Harry was closer to Liam than she was so they greeted each other first, Liam offering a fist bump and a ‘hey man’ that couldn’t be more precisely calibrated to be Harry’s shtick. This new guy was a very quick reader of people. He came over to Iona and said hello and then, genius move for people-pleasing people-person, I’m super-pretty-but-I’m-so-friendly-you-almost-forget-except-not-really Iona, came in for a quick unsexy people-person’s hug.
‘Well, this is weird,’ Liam said. They all agreed it was weird. ‘Is everybody here?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Iona. ‘Six bedrooms. Five of us so far. Three boys. So I’m guessing another girl? But I don’t know any more than you do.’
‘I doubt that’s often true,’ said Liam, giving her a private smile. Iona knew enough about players to know how it works: you flatter the clever ones for being pretty and the pretty ones for being clever. And yet she still felt a complimented glow. Would it be so bad if it stayed at five in the villa, three boys and two girls? Would that be so very wrong?
‘I wonder when it’ll start,’ said Harry. ‘You know, tasks, whatever it is.’ He flexed his shoulders, thinking about tasks.
‘Me too,’ Iona said. ‘What did you do, what do you do, out there?’ she asked Liam, trying to guess: athlete? Not another actor, he was the wrong kind of vain.
‘Money,’ said Liam, with a smile. ‘I do money stuff.’ That meant banking or finance or something, and don’t bother your pretty little etc. Nousche had kept swimming, but she must have realised she was being left out of the chat, so she got out of the pool, wrapped a towel around her head and came over.
‘We’re just talking about when it will all start,’ said Iona, being the friendly one, because she could, in the patterns that she could sense developing, sense that that would work for her. ‘You know –’
But Nousche knew what she meant. She was nodding vigorously.
‘Tout à fait,’ she said. ‘I was wondering –’ and then she was interrupted by a loud female voice coming from the pool patio.
‘Wahey!’ it said. ‘Room for a small one?’ A tall strong-looking girl in a black tracksuit and baseball cap came bouncing, no other word for it, out of the villa and crossed to the pool. Iona instantly thought: here comes the noisy one, the extrovert, the catalyst. The new arrival came over to where they were standing and said:
‘Oi oi! I’m Lara but everyone calls me Laz.’ They introduced themselves in turn and, in turn, Lara/Laz came in for a full hug and double-cheek kiss, including with the still pretty damp Nousche, whose expression was that of a person having second thoughts.
‘Cor, you’re soaking!’ said Laz. ‘Mind you, I am too now. I should tell you, I’m mainly straight, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes like a bit of both!’
All the men suddenly looked interested. Nousche looked as if she might be about to burst into tears. Iona said: ‘Shall we go inside and have a cup of tea?’
They spent the afternoon wondering when the tasks would start, what they would be like, when the evictions would begin. The format is always that some time will pass before the first evictions, at least a week, maybe more. It might be two weeks or could even be as long as a month. Of course they would be watched and listened to, monitored and judged and assessed, all the time. It was the nature of these things that some of the tasks would be humiliating, physically or psychologically. Break the six down a bit, get a sense of what they’re really like. Or – to put it as an opportunity rather than a problem – give them a chance to show a bit of grace under pressure. Just as a hint about the nature of the process, the huge library of DVDs, which looked so promising at first glance, consisted exclusively of box sets from reality TV shows. It was the British Library of reality TV. Talk about a strong hint of what was to come.
The thing was, though, that the tasks hadn’t started. The housemates talked and talked and thought out loud and ran alternative scenarios about what might be going to happen to them, but none of it did. They were all wondering when it was going to start. Perhaps the problem was that they were too self-aware, too aware of the set-up; perhaps the problem was precisely that they were talking about it so much? It could be that there was a taboo on asking these questions out loud; it was making them seem too needy, too aware of the audience. In short, maybe they were doing something wrong. It was vital to think about the viewers all the time. It was also vital not to seem to be thinking about them. To Iona this was an interesting conundrum for the first day or two, but gradually more oppressive. She was having to work hard at it and could tell that the others were too. She had a theory, one she hadn’t shared with the others yet: that this was a new kind of show, one where there was no interaction with the producers or the viewers, no games or tasks or challenges or external organisation, no structure. They wouldn’t be told what to do. They would just be evicted, expelled, one at a time. It could start at any point. They were waiting for it to start, but perhaps it had already started. Just a theory, but it could be true, and if it was true, Iona had figured it out but was pretty sure the others hadn’t.
The pool was OK, because you could just lie there, or dive in when it got too hot. Her room was OK, a sanctuary, the only place in the villa where she felt she could just be herself, by herself. Though that of course wasn’t entirely true; they were all being watched all the time, and the moments when you were on your own could reveal a lot about who you were. You had to be particularly careful about the amount of time you spent primping and floofing. You didn’t want to underdo it so badly you looked like you’d been dragged through a hedge, but on the other hand you didn’t want to be caught seeming vain, taking too much trouble, pouting and striking poses. And there was also the fact that you weren’t winning anyone over while you sat or lay on your bed. Nobody changed their minds about someone because that person was sitting alone in their room. You need to get out there. So Iona did get out there.
It was the kitchen and dining room that were difficult. The issue she had noticed on the very first morning, about the noise, was more and more prominent. It was the flat hard reflective surfaces that caused the trouble. Iona’s father had been a poker player in his youth (a very good one, according to him), and he had once said that the best way of telling whether someone was telling the truth was to listen not to what they were saying, or even to the tone of their voice, but to the echo of their voice. As time went past in this sharply echoing indoor space, a cool room where they spent more time together than anywhere else in the baking-hot villa, Iona began more and more to notice the sound not of the other contestants’ voices, but their echoes. The voices would often be lifted, bright, happy, joking. The echoes sounded flat and angular and full of silences; full of holes, contradictions, meanings that weren’t supposed to be there. Positive greetings – ‘Hi!’, ‘How are you!’, ‘Love the outfit!’, ‘Looking good!’ – sounded like curses or lies. The echo of a joke sounded like an insult. The echo of a friendly question sounded like a jeer. The echo of a friendly comment dripped with loathing. They spent lots of time in that kitchen. And yet when you spent time there you came to think that everything about the villa was the opposite of what it seemed to be: that good feelings were full of hate, that friends were enemies, that laughter was violence, that there was no such thing as love.
On the morning of the seventh day, Iona woke early, a shaft of light from the corner of the blind catching her eye as she rolled over in bed. The spectacular Balearic light was one of the principal characters in the villa. In the morning it was slanted, yellow, insistent: get up! Show yourself! Act natural! It wasn’t the kind of light that made it easy to lie in bed. Nobody came out on top in a contest like this by lying in bed. The morning sun here reminded you of that. Then, as the morning wore on, the light gradually hardened. From midday through the early part of the afternoon the light was so bright it was almost metallic. It gave you thoughts of escape, because you knew there could be no escape. The sun was like a giant staring eye. There was no colour to it, just pure light. It was so bright, so hard, it was frightening. However much sun cream you put on, you could feel yourself cook. Getting out of the pool into the sun you felt like a lobster climbing into its own pan, fizzing and sizzling.
The way you could tell this part of the day was coming to an end was by seeing colour start to return. The white sky went blue, the blazing vertical light started to tilt and turn silver, then yellow, then, as the day turned to evening, gold. The colours of the garden and villa and the contestants and their clothes looked like themselves, only more so. Everything was lovely in that brief period of glow, especially the six of them, during that golden hour which here was shorter than an hour; but they were never more aware of being filmed, surveilled, watched and judged and assessed and ranked for popularity.
Allegiances and alliances were covertly forming. You couldn’t say anything explicitly, of course, but you could do a lot with body language and eye talk, with grunts and nods and even silences: silence of assent, silence of letting something hang there, amused silence, disgruntled silence, disbelieving silence, drawing-someone-out silence, silent disagreement and disobedience. Iona always got on best with intelligent people. That meant the person she should be getting on best with in the villa was Liam, who was clearly and self-evidently bright, and, it made her grit her teeth to think this, Nousche. But that didn’t work. Liam was a game theorist, an angle-player, a manipulator and reader of rooms, and to make it worse the person he got on best with – was always having tiny muttered colloquies with, side-of-the-mouth – was Nousche. As for Nousche, well, she was still and always Nousche, still her incredibly annoying, permanently calculating, dissembling, sneaky, undermining Eurosnake self. So the people with whom Iona would normally have clicked most easily were not only not her friends, but were in an unnerving alliance with each other. As for the others, Harry in a sense didn’t count. He was good-natured and weak and not very bright. They got on well but Harry was like a dog: he would get on well with anyone who petted and fed him (which incidentally was something they had to do, since Harry was the only person in the villa who never cooked anything; you wouldn’t trust him to be able to make toast). She was left with Eli, who was so good-looking it was distracting, and was one of those men who have never had to learn how to talk, because women are always fainting and falling into bed with them on sight. So he was off-the-scale attractive but also exhausting since you had to do literally ALL the conversational work. This meant that the person she got on best with was Laz. That would be a surprise at first sight, but it was much less so once you’d seen Laz at close quarters for a day or two. She was noisy and up-for-it to compensate for a secret self that was private and shy.
When Iona got downstairs to breakfast on that seventh day, Laz was already in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove.
‘Oi oi,’ she said, but quietly.
‘Oi oi,’ said Iona, also quietly. ‘What are you making?’
‘Porridge. “Keeps me regular,”’ she said in a voice which made it obvious she was quoting somebody, even though there was no possibility that Iona would know who it was. That was one of Lara/Laz’s habits and it meant that at times, for all her outgoingness and good nature, you couldn’t tell what she was saying, beneath the various layers of impersonations, special voices, ironies and mini-playlets. ‘No carbs for me,’ she now said in a different voice, one which could, just possibly, be an impersonation of Nousche, in which case Iona officially thought it was hilarious.
‘Moi non plus,’ Iona said, joining in the anti-Nousche moment, but not too obviously so, just enough that only clued-up viewers, and Laz herself, would know what she meant, if that indeed had been what she meant. ‘Are we the first up?’
‘Herself and Liam are doing laps,’ Laz said, making vague waving gestures with her arms, possibly indicating breaststroke. By using ‘herself’ to mean Nousche, it was clear that she was drawing lines. This was an escalation. Oh, it’s on! Iona came over to the breakfast bar and sat down at the counter. She was having a little think. The best move was probably to egg Laz on while not appearing to, while also sending signals that she was on the same side, but not coming across as too much of a mean girl. Bitchy but deniable.
‘Laps before breakfast,’ Iona said, her tone making it both a question and a statement.
‘Laps after breakfast. You know – bit of curd. A few berries. “Breakfast.”’ This last word in broad Australian. Iona didn’t roll her eyes but she flared them slightly, in on the joke but subtly so. ‘Fancy some porridge?’
‘Why not?’ Iona said. Laz put the saucepan she’d been stirring on the breakfast bar, then followed it up with bowls and spoons and sat opposite. She dolloped porridge into the bowls, pushed one across to Iona and started blowing on the bowl in front of her.
‘I vant some berries,’ Iona said in a German accent, for no other reason than that she thought Laz would find it funny, which she did, very.
‘Get your own focking berries,’ said Laz, also in a German accent. They snorted and giggled together and the noise (and entertainment) they were generating was enough to distract them from the arrival of Harry, who had come downstairs and into the kitchen barefoot and topless. In a villa full of good-looking, not-shy people, Harry stood out for his uncanny, almost supernatural body confidence. He wore a shirt in the evening, when the temperature dropped a few degrees, but in the day he wasn’t usually wearing more than a single garment on his lower body, most often shorts or swimming trunks. There was a shower room over in the pool house, and Harry could not be relied on to lock the door.
‘Guys,’ he said, as a greeting.
Iona held up the saucepan, offering the porridge Laz had made.
‘Um – yeah, cool,’ said Harry. He got himself a bowl and spoon and helped himself. His arrival threw the dynamics out a little, since he could be absolutely relied on to miss all the nuances about trash-talking and ganging up on Nousche while pretending not to. He didn’t speak while eating his porridge but gave little nods of appreciation.
‘Man, that was great. You could like, open a restaurant,’ Harry said when he finished.
‘A porridge restaurant,’ Iona said, giving Laz a look. But Harry, while slow, was maybe not as slow as all that, because he immediately said: ‘Is that funny?’
‘No no,’ said Iona, flustered, cornered, stalling. ‘No, it’s only –’
‘Because lots of restaurants do nice breakfasts. Brunches. People love it.’ Harry said this sulkily. The encounter was turning into a disaster. Iona and Laz were being turned into the mean girls, which was completely unfair – well, OK, it was a tiny bit fair, but they weren’t specifically being mean to Harry at this point, they’d just got a bit carried away over their bonding.
‘People love breakfast!’ Iona said, maintaining eye contact with Harry while as it were directing her mind at Laz, who was supposed to pick up on this new tone. ‘I just thought it was funny to have a restaurant that only did porridge, you know, like for the Three Bears or something. You could call it the Three Bears.’
Again, there was that thing with the echo. Her voice sounded normal when you listened to it, but if you paid attention to the echo, you would think you were hearing a soul in torment, pleading, angrily begging, for release. A terrible noise. Harry, though, had a ginger’s trained awareness for when he was being picked on. He didn’t say anything, just took his bowl over to the sink, washed it, put it on the drying rack. Iona and Laz looked at each other and Laz gave a tiny eye-shrug. This one wasn’t reparable, not immediately. Iona was thinking hard about how this would look, about what her next move or gesture should be, but before she could come up with anything, Liam, dripping slightly, came in from the pool with nothing on but swimming trunks. He was rubbing his hair with a towel. He had the air of a man who knows perfectly well that this sight is to be considered among the eight wonders of the world.
‘Sup,’ Liam said, not really making it a question, still towelling away.
‘The usual,’ said Harry, his tone neutral on the surface but, again, if you listened to the reverberation, it sounded different: it had a hissing, bitter edge. Liam gave Harry a look that showed he knew perfectly well what Harry was talking about. He nodded. Iona realised with horror that ‘the usual’ meant her and Laz ganging up, being the baddies, the bitches, the self-appointed alphas. This could only mean that Harry was already aligned with Liam and Nousche! They had thought they were being careful: they hadn’t been anywhere near careful enough. Oh this was a disaster! If that was how it seemed to the housemates in the villa, for the viewers it would be a hundred times worse. Everything would be magnified, blown up, replayed, commented on. It was literally impossible for this to have gone more badly wrong.
And then it did, because Nousche came in from the pool. Having done the look-at-how-little-I-care-about-being-seen-with-wet-hair thing on the first day, she was now a genius at always having her hair completely on point. Of course that style, the Louise Brooks thing, was easy to manage, but … Iona could feel herself getting distracted and forced herself to snap out of it. This was a crisis. She could die on a raft with Laz or she could maybe, just maybe, cut herself loose and float to safety. Groups of this sort often have an official scapegoat and outsider. New name for that person: Laz.
‘I wish I hadn’t had that porridge,’ Iona said, puffing out her cheeks, making a fat-person face. ‘Bloat city.’ Nousche didn’t stoop to answering that observation, not with actual words, but she did make a tiny little moue, a sub-pout, of agreed amusement. Iona thought: this could work. Don’t overplay it. Subtle. That’s how you crush it, in a situation like this – with subtlety.
‘Yeah, you sure don’t want to live there. Bloat city,’ said Laz, doing one of her silly voices, her cheeks puffed out the same way Iona’s had been, and Nousche laughed, and then the others laughed too, including Eli, who had come downstairs during all the breakfast drama without Iona realising he was there. Iona started to join in the laughter, even though in truth she didn’t fully get it, and then she realised that Laz’s silly voice was actually an impersonation of Iona, and she saw, with a feeling that the floor was sliding down from beneath her, actually physically sinking down and down and down, descending into the earth – she saw that all of them were laughing at her. Laughter, that was what it was supposed to be. And yet, if you listened to it in the new way, by paying attention to the echo, it didn’t sound like laughter at all. It sounded like the noise made by souls in torment; by beings undergoing torture; it sounded like screams of pain and anger, like nails on a blackboard but in physical form; it sounded demonic. There was nowhere to go outside this noise. The laughter grew louder. Iona moved towards Nousche and then past her and stood in the doorway to the pool and turned to face them. All the housemates were standing in front of her. Nousche was closest and the others were behind her. The light had taken on its harsh, burning, middle-of-the day flatness. The laughter had taken on its own momentum, they were still laughing, were laughing harder than ever. What did this mean, where did they go from here? What would the viewers think? How would this look? How would they be judging her? And still they kept laughing at Iona, all of them lined up, as the laughter and the sound of torture grew and grew, the sound of souls screaming in pain grew louder and louder, as they stood there, all of them – Iona, Nousche, Harry, Eli, Liam, Laz – and then with that feeling of dropping through the floor, free-falling, nauseous, the rollercoaster plunge in her stomach, the noise of torture in her ears, she got it: Iona, Nousche, Harry, Eli, Liam, Laz.
They could all see her distress, indeed they seemed to be actively enjoying it, but of all people it was Liam who broke things up. He came over to her and put a non-sexual arm on her shoulder. Nousche came further into the room. Harry moved out towards the pool. Laz was doing something at the sink, Eli had turned and gone back upstairs. The room broke up and, as with a shaken kaleidoscope, the old pattern had been permanently erased. Iona must have been imagining things, imagining the feeling in the room, and everything else too.
‘Hey,’ Liam said, his voice low, ‘you OK?’
Iona didn’t think she was, but she nodded. And in truth she did feel a bit better. The others were talking, not loudly and not consequentially, just chat, and it was helpful to listen not to the echo but just to the words, not the undertone but the tone.
‘It’ll begin soon, OK?’ Liam said. ‘The tasks and evictions, they’ll begin soon. It’s not as if this will go on for ever.’
She listened hard to his voice, just the words on his lips. The difference between forever and for ever: she’d been taught that at school. Forever, as in someone is forever going on about something. For ever as in endless, lasting for all time, continuing for eternity. For ever. She listened to what Liam was saying and felt herself believing it, they’ll begin soon, it’s not as if this can go on for ever. Nothing goes on for ever. Does it?