by Abigail Baker
as told to Paul Cornell
So, this is to explain why they recast my character, Kaley Cater, in the new box set of the Aliens Among Us audio dramas. It had nothing to do with the pandemic. Well, okay, it had to do with who was present, in my living space, during the pandemic. I mean, I was in her living space, but I didn’t want to be. I had the necessary recording technology on my phone, I wasn’t out of touch with the production company, and whatever they’re saying now, I wasn’t finding the schedule a problem. That’s just a euphemism. Or it may not exactly be a euphemism, grammatically, but it’s not the truth, that’s the point. The point, the wider point, the central point, is whose fault this is. Not mine.
This is all my mother’s fault.
My name is Abigail Baker. I am a serious actor. I’m getting larger and larger parts all the time. And being a part of the Best Fiction company’s audio drama range has been a great way to raise my profile, especially since they pay professional rates. But actually me getting bigger and bigger parts was what started all this… another thing that started all this, the point where it all started anyway, because my mother said: ‘Your parts certainly are getting bigger. I’m surprised you fit through the front door.’
‘Mum!’ I shouted. ‘Do you remember that conversation we had about body shaming? Did your trip to Jokertown teach you nothing?’ (I may be paraphrasing here.)
‘That trip taught me not to “body shame” those less fortunate,’ she said. ‘You’re not less fortunate. You’ve been eating all my cakes.’
For those of you in the future, I mean those of you who are just, through the natural process of time passing, are reading this in the future, not to bring time travel into this, because let me tell you I’ve had enough of that – anyway, in 2020 there was a worldwide pandemic. I ended up trapped with my Mum in Dorset, having just popped over for a visit. Dr. Tachyon’s research from back in the day of the Wild Card virus release had, we’d always been told, given the health authorities of the world a great basis on which to counter any naturally-occurring bug that came along. But it turns out nature has a way of biting you in the bottom and no amount of science fiction shenanigans in the 1950s can save one from future shock. Being isolated with my mother was definitely the worst thing about the viral apocalypse. For me, I mean. I’m not forgetting the enormous number of deaths. How could any of us? That, and the political response, was what made me wake up in the early hours, was what made me feel, at points in the middle of the week, like some absolute gaping emptiness I’d never experienced before was right in front of me and in my head at the same time. But enough about that. Moving swiftly on as they say in England. Because they so often want to. Another worst thing was also a great thing. I’m not being selfish, but all of the charity singalongs and theatre podcast relief efforts and shared experiences online, all for no pay, had left me feeling, as a freelancer who technically worked in the US, and so wasn’t up for any sort of grant, that I’d given all that I had to give. And a bit more. I could die of all that exposure. So the audio drama range had been brilliant. A lifeline. A lifeline I’m now having to do without. Oh God. Anyway –
‘Mr. Parkhouse from the Post Office was wondering if you’d take a look at these stories he writes,’ Mum was continuing, alarmingly. ‘About ace postmen. Post people. Not post-people, people who come after people, who transcend people, but not-sexist people who do the work of postmen. Anyway, what I’m saying is, he puts them up online. It’s all right, you don’t have to go near him. Though given how few people seem to be affected around here, you can’t help but feel it’s all been a bit overblown.’
I felt genuine anger at that. I mean, not that my previous sort of anger, my continuous background anger that, in my Mum’s presence, felt horribly teenage, wasn’t genuine. But I’d been hearing from friends back in Jokertown, and the story there compared pretty damn awfully to that in the leafy English shires, where social distancing was pretty much assumed at birth. ‘Mum,’ I managed to say, ‘three joker friends of mine have died.’
‘And that’s terrible,’ she said, ‘but it’s the way they live, isn’t it, all on top of each other and on each other’s sofas? Be thankful you’re out of that.’
I swore at her. She didn’t seem to hear, thank God. And I was thankful to be out of it, and I hated that I wasn’t there with them, instead safe here in paradise. They wouldn’t have wanted me there, of course. Though, equally, they wouldn’t have wanted to read Mr. Parkhouse’s stories. I’d checked in with my old housemates and with a couple of the companies I’d worked with, and with the School, and… there’s that ancient Pet Shop Boys track I’ve only managed to listen to once during the crisis, with that line, ‘some are here and some are missing’, which was originally about the last unevenly-distributed pandemic. I’d managed a couple of online chats with Croyd, who was on some dark web software that completely concealed his location. He assured me that he was very safe. He sounded older, though of course he’d never sound all of his years. He’d had it, he said, early, slept it off.
‘I ran into Mrs Parker when I was doing my socially distanced shopping,’ mother continued, utterly unshaken, ‘and she and George had it, after they came back from Provence, and they’re telling everyone about it. George showed such fortitude, it seems, and Mrs Parker said she lost all sense of taste. I nearly said something at that point, but I restrained myself. You would have been proud of me.’ Mother had taken her visit with me in New York, the one that had led to the unfortunate incident with the elephant, to have been some kind of personal epiphany, which had resulted in her talking about personal growth without actually showing much sign of it. Perhaps the dial had ticked round now to her meaning well. She had become furiously interested in the lifestyles of aces and jokers and now wanted me to represent slightly more than I felt anyone was physically capable of. While still making comments like the above. I wondered, at the time, how she’d deal with actually having to interact on a prolonged basis with anyone who had ace or joker attributes, anyone she hadn’t given birth to, that was. Irony was so coming for me. Pretty damn immediately. ‘Oh,’ she continued, ‘we’re having a visitor.’
‘It’s all right. He’s been completely isolated for three weeks. And it’s driving him batty. So I told him we obviously haven’t got it, or perhaps I had it, because I did feel a little peculiar for that one day when this all started. And after chappy from the government went and broke all the rules and got away with it, we’re basically allowed to do what we like, aren’t we? Anyway, long and short of it, he’s coming to stay in the spare room.’
I realised who this must be. ‘It’s him from your choir, right? The one you’ve been telling me about. The one who moved here last year.’
‘Yes, Anthony! Such larks! He’s been the highlight of this year’s choir, though while we have him as a star performer, the rest of them haven’t really been keeping up. They’ve all got a bit quieter and a bit off key. Maybe they can’t take the competition.’
I couldn’t resist raising an eyebrow. ‘And is he going to stay in the spare room?’
‘That’s entirely up to him. Unfortunately.’
Oh God. Mum was going to attempt to be alluring. And I might need to find a way to max out the volume on my headphones. ‘When?’ was all I could manage.
‘In about half an hour.’
Which was why, I realised, she looked and smelled like she did that morning. Part of me really wanted to march to my own room and slam the door. I refrained. I guess we’ve both grown.
Anthony turned out to be a smooth operator in those pink trousers which men of a certain age seem to think of as jaunty but which to me look as if they’ve been caught halfway between gardening and performing in the circus. He arrived with a small suitcase and a bunch of flowers. He had, according to Mum, the voice of an angel, and when he spoke it was like he’d walked out of a coffee commercial. ‘Charmed,’ he murmured, making a slight bow in my direction. ‘Namaste.’
I looked over to mother. Oh, she had found her soul mate. She was visibly struggling to not jig from one foot to another. Those sibilant tones were wrapping themselves around the corners of her architecture. I realised I should reply, so I turned back to Anthony, and opened my mouth to do so. And found that nothing came out. I managed a croak.
‘Dear, what is it?’ asked mother. ‘Are you experiencing a secondary mutation?’ Because of course the tabloids had all immediately wondered, in the first week of the pandemic, if this virus was anything to do with the Wild Card condition, and some ridiculous academic had postulated that powers and conditions might change, which had led only to a lot of pain and a lot of parents using language they’d learned from 1960s superhero movies.
I managed only another croak. I realised I could feel… oh, my power of duplicating another ace’s abilities without really controlling it, as if I’m picking up wi-fi, was on fire. It was kind of going… the wrong way round. Something was being sucked out of me. I pointed angrily at Anthony.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘I’m terribly sorry. This has never happened before.’ Which was, I suspect, a phrase he was not a stranger to.
‘Are you…?’ Mum moved a finger between the two of us.
I nodded. Furiously. Anthony must be an ace, and he was somehow draining my voice from me.
‘It’s, ah, a bit of a family gift,’ he said. ‘We’ve all been good singers because we sort of steal a bit of one person’s voice here, a bit of another there.’
‘Oh,’ said mother. ‘Hence the choir underperforming. Apart from you.’
‘But I have been helping them to catch up technically.’
I stepped between them, hoping I could take this discussion away from choir politics and back to the matter at hand. I pointed urgently to my throat. I had another recording session scheduled for that afternoon. Kaley Cater wasn’t going to fight a mental battle against Takisian dominance without me giving her voice to do so. Or that was what I thought at the time.
‘Your power must be interacting with his in some odd sort of way, darling,’ said Mum. And she explained a bit to Anthony.
He nodded along with luxurious concern. ‘A sort of feedback loop,’ he said. ‘I unconsciously reach out to you, you try to duplicate what I’m doing, to absorb my voice back, but instead you just emphasise what I’m doing to you. I think who lost what probably came down to who had the most experience controlling this.’
I raised a finger. No, not that way round. Though I was tempted. I got them to wait as I ran to every room in the house and garden and tried to speak in them. Reader, I could not. I finally stomped back to Mum and Anthony and pointed emphatically at first him, then the door.
But while I had been away, it seemed mother had made an ethical decision. If you could call it that. ‘Darling,’ she said, ‘Anthony was getting very frustrated on his own.’
I silently mouthed ‘you mean you were’.
But she just squinted at that and moved on. ‘Mental health is important. You always tell me. And I am learning. So I think it would be for the best if Anthony stayed with us until the current unpleasantness is over.’
I did make efforts to change her mind. I wrote stern messages on the kitchen whiteboard. I sent her emails. I drew diagrams involving my career prospects. But she was not to be budged. I tried to take my phone out into the wild to record. But Anthony’s power stretched a bloody long way. Also, turns out it’s hard to find a completely silent place in the countryside. Bloody nature, reasserting itself all over the place.
Which is why I can now only offer my congratulations to Nixey Foakes, the second actor to inhabit the role of Kaley Cater. I don’t think she sounds much like me, but I suppose the company had to do what they could with limited resources. As I write this, my availability has reached an all-time peak. If anyone’s doing an online mime piece for charity, let me know. I’m sure I can manage something while trying to physically and mentally block out developments in the bedroom next to mine. I continue to feel I should do my bit. We’re all in this together, after all.
But some of us are more in it than others.