A Tragic End
‘Good morning, all. Wotcha, mates!’ The familiar, fruity voice launched itself out of the studios of National City Radio and made its way to millions of listeners across the UK and beyond.
‘The time is nine o’clock on this fine Monday morning and this is your old mucker, Darren Tragic, with you on the air until midday. Yes, you heard it right: King Darren of the Tragic, back on the airwaves and back in action, playing the best music and taking your calls for the next three hours. The Prince of Chat lives, people. Let’s just say that reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated, because here I am, larger than life and even larger than that for anyone who wants to take a proper look. And now, while all you fine folk get up off the floor, dust yourselves down, take a few minutes to fish the spoon out of your breakfast cereal and get used to my sophisticated presence again, here are Dawn with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”. And by the way, this is especially dedicated to a certain Mister Byron Cringe!’
With that, Darren Tragic (real name, Colin), born sixty-three years before in Becontree, Essex, rocked back in his padded leather chair, stroked his newly trimmed cream mullet and began to laugh his head off.
It had all started five weeks before. Darren had informed his audience that he would be climbing Mount Everest for charity and would therefore be away for a while. This came as a surprise, not least to friends who had known him struggle to make it across the car park at Waitrose, but the world of entertainment united to wish him good luck and promise his good causes a fat cheque.
‘Why climb Everest?’ one slightly bemused listener had asked.
‘Because it’s there!’ came the doubt-free reply.
‘So is my husband,’ replied the listener, before being faded out in favour of a jingle.
Within days of the start of the ascent, there were reports that he had fallen from twenty-one thousand feet and could not be located. A week later, it was announced that the search for him had been called off and that he must be presumed dead.
For several days, the nation was plunged into mourning. TV stations and newspapers hailed him as ‘the Champ of Chat’, ‘the Baron of Banter’ and the ‘Cheeky Chappie next door who brightened up your day at the flick of a switch.’ There was an effusive tribute on the BBC, marred only by a presenter who left his microphone on and was heard to call out ‘Was he the arrogant twit with the silly haircut?’
A few critics were rather sniffier about his achievements when putting together their contributions. In particular, Byron Cringe, a bow-tied Old Etonian who once worked for The Times, hardly troubled to disguise the relish with which he laid into the D.J.’s career.
‘Tragic’, he wrote, ‘liked to portray himself as an ordinary man, just like you and me. Well, perhaps not me. In fact, he was a vain, bad-tempered multi-millionaire whose main accomplishment as a radio presenter was to elevate banality to an art form: Viscount Vacuous, to use his vernacular. If you are one of these misguided people who are determined to praise him, you could say that no one has ever made so much from so little talent.
Cringe’s comments caused a storm on social media and following a number of threats he was moved to a secret location and given round-the-clock police protection. A couple of days later, he wrote on his blog:
‘From my enforced hideout, I now realise that I have misjudged Mr Tragic. I used to think that he would be a pointless footnote in the history of entertainment. I now realise that he was a pointless footnote with many devoted, not to say homicidal, fans.’
The next day, he posted the following:
‘Of course, I do extend my sincere sympathy to Darren’s family, notably to his fifth wife under the age of twenty-eight and his many children, wherever they may be.’
After these remarks led to mass demonstrations in several English cities, during which effigies of Cringe were burned at the stake, some “serious” commentators weighed in on the morality of what was happening. Typical was Belinda Crampshift in The Observer:
‘Whatever the intellectual limitations of Mr Tragic’s radio shows – and personally he brightened up my day about as much as a final demand dropping in the letter box - the fact remains that a man is dead and his family should be left to grieve.’
Following this spurt of media activity, the whole thing calmed down for a couple of weeks. Byron Cringe returned warily to his Chelsea penthouse and the news moved on to more important stories, such as the supermodel who attacked her agent with a saucepan full of curry. Everyone presumed that arrangements would be made for Darren’s funeral (assuming the body could be found) and then for the memorial service, complete with sick bags.
But Darren Tragic was not dead, far from it. The official version was that he had fallen five thousand feet and had been rescued and nursed back to health by a reclusive ex-sherpa called Basil. Another version was that he had gone to a secluded villa in the Scottish highlands for five weeks, where friends who were sworn to secrecy catered for his every whim.
The first version was designed to elicit the sympathy of his army of fans, many of whom had recently been alarmed by some photographs of his unsteady appearance outside a night club at three o’clock in the morning. The second was a huge practical joke aimed at getting his own back on his many critics, notably Byron Cringe. In the post-truth world of modern celebrity, they would quickly become interchangeable, depending on who wished to believe which on any given day.
Until his reappearance on that fateful Monday morning, no one was any the wiser. While he was away, his old friend Barney Cuddle had been presenting his nine o’clock radio show, which went out from Monday to Friday. On the Sunday evening, Barney got a surprise phone call.
‘It’s Darren, Barney. Just to let you know that I’m back and that I will do the show tomorrow. Thanks for standing in for me, mate. And, whatever you do, don’t tell a soul. Everyone’s sworn to secrecy.’
Then, rather menacingly, he added:
‘And that includes you.’
Assuming that he was hearing the voice of a ghost, Barney, who had not been on the inside track at all, fell off his chair. Since it was a very high chair, of the kind favoured around their cocktail bar by his new six-foot three Swedish wife, he spent the night in A&E.
The staff at National City Radio were equally shocked to see Darren’s two thousand pound trainers stroll in the next morning, but when he settled into his seat at five to nine, it was as though he had never been away, which, in a way, he hadn’t.
‘I’ll get on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me…’
Even before the first record had reached its end, the news of Darren’s unannounced return had spread to all corners of the globe and the station switchboard was jammed with calls from his overjoyed loyal followers (‘Darren’s Dafties’ as they were, perhaps affectionately, known), keen to find out what was going on.
‘You know,’ said Darren. ‘I’ve discovered one thing while I have been away. It’s only when you’re dead that you find out what people really think of you. Usually, for obvious reasons, it’s too late to do anything about it, but in my case I have plenty of time to do something about it. And I intend to.’
Byron Cringe was already inquiring about another safe house.
For the next three hours, a stream of callers sung Darren’s praises, one saying that he was ‘up there with Maggie Thatcher and President Khrushchev’, without explaining why, while another broke into an endless rendition of the Dad’s Army theme song, which the great man finally felt obliged to join in with. Barney Cuddle, whose plastic smile screamed ‘this should have been mine’, was whisked from this hospital bed to be the special guest or ‘Darren’s Diva’ at eleven o’clock, at the same time as his agent was next door negotiating the redundancy terms.
By midday, Darren was signing off:
‘Thanks for listening. I hope I didn’t shock you, and even if I did, isn’t it worth it to have your old DT back? Alive and kicking, you might say, especially if Mr Cringe is around! Only joking, people; violence never solved anything, well not normally…No, no, don’t take me seriously; no one else does!’
Then, looking at the blonde woman in the next studio, he descended into his deepest purr:
‘After the news, I shall be handing over to the lovely Debbie.’
‘Angela!’ echoed a voice in his ear. ‘Debbie’s your wife.’
‘Oh! Angela, the station pedants tell me. Even better, she’s a vision of heaven.’
As his fellow presenter looked over disapprovingly, Tragic took off his earphones and chuckled in the annoyingly disarming manner which had enabled him to stay in work for the last forty years.
‘Whoops! Not very politically correct,’ mumbled one of the engineers.
‘Nah!’ said his colleague. ‘They all love that sort of thing.’
‘The audience. You know, the dafties. The people who camp out all night in the pouring rain for Royal visits, then blow-dry their sodden Union Jacks so that they can wave them about.’
Suddenly, on the stroke of midday, the light-hearted mood turned into a stunned silence.
‘Here is the news. Mr Bryon Cringe, the celebrated critic, has been shot dead outside his home in Chelsea. Police have arrested a pensioner, Mrs Mavis Biscuit of Hounslow, Middlesex, who was caught at the scene with a loaded revolver and was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Eat lead, punk’. As she was dragged away, she shouted, “I did it for Darren.” A police spokesman said that he expected to speak at some stage.’
Darren finally broke the silence and began to laugh.
‘Very funny, everyone. I must admit that you had me going there for a few moments. Still, you’ve had your little joke, so now we’ll meet in five minutes to run through tomorrow.’
As he made his way towards his office, no one spoke.
Before he had sat down, his mobile rang. It was his agent.
“Darren, its Julie. Look, apart from me being P-I-S-S-E-D off at not being told of your little escapade, things are moving fast. I just spoke to Cringe’s agent, who made a proposal. You know that we had fixed up a memorial service for you next week? Well, since you won’t be needing it any more, he wondered whether we could replace it with one for our dear departed friend Byron?’
‘What? Are you in on the joke too? Is that it? How long is this going on for?”
‘Darren,” said Julie, sternly. At this moment, the DJ saw all the staff at the door, led by the station manager. None of them looked best pleased. Darren realised the awful truth. He tried to compose himself.
‘Er, yes. Memorial Service. Yes, very good…’
‘Darren, the only condition is that you have to be the keynote speaker. You will say how much you regret what happened and explain that all the insults were just friendly banter. Cringe was a genius and a dear friend. Oh, and then you will cheerfully agree to be put in the stocks and have rotten tomatoes hurled at you for ten minutes.’
‘Never! Why should I do that?’
‘Because in return he will request that you are not prosecuted for incitement to murder.’
‘Is there a fee?’
‘Of course there bloody isn’t! It’s a memorial service. But never mind, Darren; think of the positive publicity: magnanimous gesture, reconciliation and all that, showing that you’re a good sport who can take it. And you can show off Debs, if she hasn’t walked out this morning.’
‘I’ll do it.’
‘And another thing: they need people to contribute to the Byron Cringe obituary. Not to mention, a TV documentary celebrating his life, and a book. Now there would be fat fees for those.’
‘All right, Debs, I like it.’
Darren Tragic rang off and swept past all his motionless colleagues.
‘Nine o’clock tomorrow. We’ll start with Mungo Jerry. Come on, people, grief is so yesterday. In the summertime, when the weather is hot…’
‘Actually, saying something is “so yesterday” is so yesterday, if you see what I mean,’ observed one of the engineers.
As Tragic waddled out into the sunshine, in his designer shades and lambswool waistcoat, a funeral procession was approaching. There was a coach and horses, preceded by an enormous wreath which read ‘DARREN’. As it drew nearer he noticed his brother Boris, his sister Babs and her weird son Ghastly, as well as three of his ex-wives who presumably didn’t have an appointment at the Botox clinic that day, all dressed in black and looking sombre. There was no sign of Debs.
‘We just wanted to give you a proper send-off,’ announced Boris, as the procession came up alongside him.
‘What are you talking about? I don’t need one. Didn’t you hear my show this morning?’
‘Of course we did, but that doesn’t mean you’re alive. It might have been a recording. They can do wonderful things with technology now.’
‘But, I’m here, in the flesh.’
‘But how do we know?’ asked Babs. ‘You might be a robot or a hologram’.
‘Well, so might you. In fact, I’ve often thought that your lad is…’
‘Don’t get personal. He’s just sensitive.’
‘I can assure you, my nearest and dearest, that I am very much alive.’
In that instant, Darren noticed that the sky had turned black and that it was almost completely dark, as if there had been a total eclipse. Under a weak street light, he could see the door of the coach begin to open. A hand seemed to be beckoning him in. Somewhere, an organ began playing a funeral march.
‘It’s not happening!’ he cried. ‘It can’t be.’
Then, to his horror, a face appeared through the coach door. It was Byron Cringe, wearing a clown’s costume.
‘Surprise!’ he yelled, as his red nose sprung towards Darren, striking him in the face.
All of a sudden, Darren felt himself falling, from twenty-one thousand feet. He had lost his foothold and was plunging into a ravine which seemed to go on for ever. As he tumbled into the darkness, he could see the altitude engraved on the wall: twenty thousand, nineteen thousand, eighteen, seventeen….’
Then, just as suddenly, everything changed. Instead of falling, he was heading upwards, as though someone had put a rocket booster under him. Now he saw eighteen thousand on the wall, then nineteen thousand, twenty, twenty-one, and he continued to rise, past the point he had reached before and up, up, up towards the peak. He rushed by rocks, snow, glaciers until the summit was in sight and before he knew it he was alone on the roof of the world.
And, in the moments before the biting cold and lack of oxygen would claim him, Darren Tragic, sixty-three years old, five times married and who had never understood what he was doing on Planet Earth, at last found contentment while standing on its highest point.
‘Because it’s there,” he sighed.
It was. And so was he.