Ebook

Published: Lightning Books (April 2021)

ISBN: 9781785632693

Whatever You Are Is Beautiful

Richard Blandford

£2.99

A dark comedy celebrating difference

A mysterious illness, called HEROS, is sweeping America. It changes those afflicted, stage by stage, into super-powered costumed crimefighters.

Charlie was once one of Britain’s favourite TV personalities, known for sneering at the weirder members of society in his cutting-edge documentaries. But now, after a battle with cocaine addiction, he wants to go straight and show his caring side. A programme about this bizarre new disease may be a chance to get his career back on track.

As he films and interviews a number of people with HEROS, or Rosies, as they call themselves, Charlie gets close to many of them, perhaps too close, and starts to question his role as a neutral observer. This may well be a career-changing experience, but not in the way he imagined.

Whatever You Are is Beautiful is a dark comedy, which celebrates difference and explores the immense human capacity for intolerance. It is both cautionary and joyful in equal measure.

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Extracts

Not so long ago, I was sat on the side of a bridge, my legs dangling down. Beneath, a river flowed many times faster, it seemed, than the rush hour traffic behind. Next to me was a man in a silver bodysuit. Its reflective sequins caught the sunset, a rainbow of colours rippling across his body.

The man’s name was Bo, but he had lately taken to calling himself The Trout.

I explained to him that what had happened between me and his wife was a mistake and meant nothing, and my interests currently lay elsewhere, with people of his own kind.

Bo did not seem to hear me. Perhaps the traffic was just too loud. Or perhaps he didn’t want to. Or perhaps it was because he was wearing a heavy moulded plastic helmet that resembled the full head of a trout.

Within minutes, both of us would have fallen from the side of that bridge. This is the story of how we got there, and what happened next.

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Extracts

Not so long ago, I was sat on the side of a bridge, my legs dangling down. Beneath, a river flowed many times faster, it seemed, than the rush hour traffic behind. Next to me was a man in a silver bodysuit. Its reflective sequins caught the sunset, a rainbow of colours rippling across his body.

The man’s name was Bo, but he had lately taken to calling himself The Trout.

I explained to him that what had happened between me and his wife was a mistake and meant nothing, and my interests currently lay elsewhere, with people of his own kind.

Bo did not seem to hear me. Perhaps the traffic was just too loud. Or perhaps he didn’t want to. Or perhaps it was because he was wearing a heavy moulded plastic helmet that resembled the full head of a trout.

Within minutes, both of us would have fallen from the side of that bridge. This is the story of how we got there, and what happened next.


When I first met Bo, he was not The Trout. He did not wear a trout helmet and costume. He had no troutlike tendencies at all, as far as anybody was aware. In fact, there had been only one meaningful incident with trout in his life at that point. He was just an ordinary man, it seemed, living an ordinary life with his wife, Paynter, and his two small children, Mason and Skiff. They had a small house on the outskirts of the medium-sized, relatively affluent, town of Merriweather. His job in construction did not leave them financially comfortable, but at least they were stable. But Merriweather was not ordinary, and neither was Bo. Not anymore. Merriweather was one of several HEROS hotspots in the North-Eastern states of the US, and Bo had it.

Since the first appearance of HEROS (Heterogenous Enhanced Replacement Organ Syndrome) in a few isolated individuals a decade ago, the condition had fascinated and baffled the medical community in equal measure, as it had the world at large. With the sudden emergence of case clusters, or ‘hotspots’, in the past year, it felt as if we were perhaps entering a new, unsettling era.

‘Looks like we’ve found our Happy Place, Chas,’ Laura, my director, had said to me as we drove up on that fine summer’s day. We always needed a Happy Place in our programmes. It just couldn’t be so happy it was boring.

I looked out the passenger window. The sky was blue and the fences were white. It didn’t get much happier than this, in my mind. As we got out of the car, the smell of cut grass enveloped me like a blanket, and the squeak of a children’s swing sounded more beautiful than a choir of angels.

‘Hi! Great to meet you,’ said Bo, as he opened the door to me. I asked if he wanted us to take our shoes off, as I always did these days, after too many years of making a mess of carpets without a second thought. He pointed down at his own dirty crocs and laughed.

‘Is this it?’ he said, gesturing at the two of us. ‘I thought you’d have, like, a hundred people with you or something!’

‘This is it,’ I said.

Over the years, we’d stripped it down to the point Laura filmed all the programmes herself on a small handheld. Although it looked like something you could buy in a supermarket, it was broadcast quality, most of the time, and if the light wasn’t always great, then that just added to the authenticity. Throw in a couple of radio mics and we were a fully operational unit. I’d become something of a purist in recent years, passionate about truth, and it was important to me to capture my subjects living spontaneously. With just two of us, that was easy. Laura always told me not to get too hung up on keeping it real, that if we faked a bit here and there to make the programme go smoother, it didn’t affect its overall veracity, but I wasn’t convinced.

Laura caught the high heel of the towering boots she insisted on wearing on the doormat when we came in, and the camera was pointed at the floor at the crucial moment Bo shook my hand. I knew we wouldn’t be able to use the shot, and would have to stage it again later. She would have done that on purpose just to make a point. Every programme we made felt like a conflict between coming up with something that was honest and something someone might want to watch. It was my lot to be on both sides simultaneously.

I had seen a video of Bo earlier which Laura had recorded on recce, but I was still struck by how tall he was, with broad shoulders and a drooping hangdog moustache I presumed was non-ironic. ‘Chad, right?’ he asked, my hand still stinging slightly from his overly manly handshake.

‘Charlie,’ I said. ‘But Laura calls me Chas sometimes. We don’t really have that many Chads in the UK, to be honest with you.

‘Really? I don’t know much about Great Britain. Just what I see in the movies. You live near Buckingham Palace?’

I told him that I lived in London, but not the part with Buckingham Palace in, as he showed us inside. There was the lingering smell of an American breakfast — coffee, pancakes and sausage. It was the most wonderful smell in the world. He led us through to the kitchen. It seemed like a wholesome place, the perfect environment for a happy childhood. Only a well-stocked drinks cabinet hinted at anything wholly adult. It was here that I saw Paynter for the first time. She seemed content to stay in the shadows, moving constantly, making the family work, a blur of denim and freckles.

‘Can I get you anything?’ she asked. ‘You hungry?’

I longed for the coffee, pancakes and sausage that Bo and his family must have just had. ‘A glass of water’s fine,’ I said.

‘Water? Bah!’ said Bo. ‘Chad, I know it’s early, but seeing as you’re here now and not later, I have the most incredible Scotch I want to share with you. It’s from a small distillery in Fife. That near you? Hey, come on, have a drop. You look like a man who would appreciate it.’

‘Oh, I am, but I couldn’t really…’

‘It was a birthday present from Paynter, but can you believe it? Paynter doesn’t drink! Ever!’

‘I just don’t like the taste of alcohol,’ she said. ‘Never have.’

‘Well, I think that’s a damned shame,’ said Bo. ‘Because I don’t think there’s anything better than a fine Scotch shared. So, how about it?’

‘Oh, well, maybe Scotch and water, then,’ I said. ‘But heavy on the water, please. It is very early.’

The sound of children playing came from the small piece of lawn that was their back yard. Bo stuck his head out the window and yelled for the kids to come inside and say hello. They carried on playing.

Paynter beckoned me to sit on a high stool and handed me a glass. She gave Bo his neat. He thanked his wife with a full kiss on the lips. They were clearly very much in love.

‘Bottoms up!’ said Bo.

Even watered down, the burning in my throat was something else. This was a serious Scotch.

‘Smooth,’ I said, riding it out with a smile that was probably a grimace.

Bo asked us about our flight, where we were staying. And then, eventually, he said, ‘So, do you want to see it?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We want to see it very much.’

Laura gave the thumbs up.

‘Well, here goes,’ said Bo with a shrug.

He gripped the kitchen counter with both hands. He seemed to be straining slightly. And that’s all there was for what seemed like a minute, although probably just a few embarrassment-stretched seconds. But then, there was something. A vibration in the air. A pressure at the back of the skull. I glanced at Laura. Careful not to move the camera, she raised her eyebrows, a signal we had long established that meant, yes, the thing I think is happening is actually happening.

The sensation became a sound. Barely audible, but there. A rumble, somehow distant and close at the same time. Bo’s face was turning red, his lips sinking, following the contour of his drooping moustache, as if he were a child pulling a sad face. The sound got that bit louder, and I felt a tiny pain behind my eyes. A glass tinkled in a cabinet.

And then it stopped.

‘Well,’ said Bo, letting go of the table top. ‘That’s it!’

‘That’s it?’ I said. Did I sound sarcastic? However hard I tried to be sincere, a little drop of sarcasm always came out. Too many years of practice. Now it was ingrained.

‘That’s it. Something just happens in my throat and I make that really low noise, and…’

‘And what does it do, that noise?’ I asked him. Again, the sarcasm. Why couldn’t I lose it? It was a curse.

‘Not a whole lot,’ said Bo, laughing. I nodded, empathically, as I listened to the reply. That’s what I wanted to be known for now, instead of the sneer. An empathic nod. ‘It’s just that noise… sometimes it gives people a headache. As you heard, sometimes it’ll rattle a glass or something. But it hasn’t ever done any damage, as far as I know about, anyway.’

‘Tell him about the trout, Bo,’ said Paynter, laughing, from a corner of the room where it was too dark for her to turn up on camera well.

‘Oh, yeah, the trout! I did it near the river once…’

‘…and the trout jumped right out!’ Paynter finished his anecdote for him.

‘Yeah, onto the bank. Must have been ten of them. I guess they were spawning. You wouldn’t believe fish could throw themselves like that. Just lying there, flipping about. We had to throw them back in the water. Crazy.’

‘Maybe that’s really your thing,’ I said. ‘The ability to control trout.’

‘Well, maybe, Chad. Maybe you’re right.’

“ed, empathically, as I listened to the reply. That’s what I wanted to be known for now, instead of the sneer. An empathic nod. ‘It’s just that noise… sometimes it gives people a headache. As you heard, sometimes it’ll rattle a glass or something. But it hasn’t ever done any damage, as far as I know about, anyway.’

‘Tell him about the trout, Bo,’ said Paynter, laughing, from a corner of the room where it was too dark for her to turn up on camera well.

‘Oh, yeah, the trout! I did it near the river once…’

‘…and the trout jumped right out!’ Paynter finished his anecdote for him.

‘Yeah, onto the bank. Must have been ten of them. I guess they were spawning. You wouldn’t believe fish could throw themselves like that. Just lying there, flipping about. We had to throw them back in the water. Crazy.’

‘Maybe that’s really your thing,’ I said. ‘The ability to control trout.’

‘Well, maybe, Chad. Maybe you’re right.’

‘What you going to do with a power like that?’ said Paynter, brightly. We all laughed. It was then I noticed how joyful the sound of her voice was.’  

quotes

‘Imaginative, entertaining and thought-provoking, Whatever You Are is Beautiful is book with a heart, mind and enviably light hand’

Charles Lambert

‘Richard Blandford’s terrific novel fully embraces the absurdity of our culture’s obsession with superheroes. The result is a story that is fresh, funny, surprising and – oh yes – heroic’

John Higgs

‘Both brilliantly surreal and yet painfully real, Whatever You Are Is Beautiful will draw you in right up to the very last word when you realise that it’s morning, you haven’t slept a wink and you’re meant to be at work’

Tim Ewins

reviews

‘More than a new take on a superhero story: filled with humorous moments and sometimes laugh out loud, it’s a warm and poignant book that deeply considers what it means to be human’

Scintilla.Info

‘Rich, imaginative and entertaining’

Dr Alice Violett

‘Engaging, very intricate...funny and serious in equal measure and a very strong underlying message. The author has done a brilliant job’

PRDGreads

‘A comparatively short book but it has a lot of great ideas and plenty of parallels with current issues and some interesting ethical dilemmas. It’s quite different to my usual choice of book but I’m glad I branched out’

Intensive Gassing About Books

‘A touching, unique, thought-provoking and interesting book that I enjoyed’

Beyond the Books

‘A quirky book, full of intriguing characters, lots of dark humour and more than a few poignant moments, which reminded me of the TV series Misfits. I guarantee it will make you chuckle and give you lots to think about’

Brown Flopsy’s Book Burrow

‘This book looked quite unusual and grabbed my interest, especially since I love superheroes! I liked the characters and it’s a fun book with a different storyline. I enjoyed it’

Dee’s Book Blog

extras

ABOUT

Richard Blandford

Richard Blandford is the author of the novels Hound Dog and Flying Saucer Rock & Roll and the short story collections The Shuffle and Erotic Nightmares.

He has also studied and taught art history. He has written for the art journals Frieze and Elephant and is the author of the visual history London in the Company of Painters.

He lives in Worthing.

selected works

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