The kindness factor
Words by Laura Stewart
True kindness can be minuscule, and it takes you by surprise. It's someone seeing your need and doing something they didn't have to do.
"Just two more contestants to go, People," Felipe says, rubbing his hands on his thighs, "Then it's the big one, Red Rooster. All on alert!" "Why is he still talking in code, calling him Red Rooster?" Tash groans in my ear from the lighting box, "It's not like everyone doesn't already know who the celebrity is this week!" "Because he doesn't know what else to call him?" I say, gritting my teeth into a smile as the previous contestant's family squeeze past me in the narrow corridor. "Red-faced Knob isn't really appropriate to say on the set of a family show." I put my hand over my mouth in an exaggerated gesture for Tash's benefit, I know she can see me from the box and this will make her giggle. "Oops, said it anyway!" Celebrity guests bring out the extreme of producer Felipe's sucking-up tendencies, making him put everyone under even more pressure to have everything perfect, and this, added to the stress of waiting to hear how my mum is getting on at hospital today, is making me silly, almost hyper. Luckily, the contestant's family are safely past me and out of earshot, eager to hug handsome Mark-the-fireman-who-saved-a-puppy (who'll probably win today), and to congratulate him on holding it together in the face of Davina's questioning. He has just the right level of tears welling in his eyes as he picks up his daughter. I turn away from them, trying not to think about my brother and his little girl, who right now are in a dingy waiting room in a Leeds hospital, waiting to hear the results of Mum's brain scan, not waiting to hear if they've won a prize like this family. Somewhere over my racing thoughts I hear the voice of Davina herself from the stage, jogging me into action. "...And next on The Kindness Factor, we have our special guest! He's here to tell us about an act of kindness that will have everyone reaching for the tissues, so don't go away!" When the cameras stop rolling I take the opportunity to walk around the set and check the angles of the settee and the tasteful coffee tables haven't changed, and inspect the potted plants. One of the Dracaena's leaves has turned brown and curling, so I nip it off with the scissors in my tool belt. Then I walk over to the coffee table and wipe away a brown coffee ring that has mysteriously appeared (guests are allowed water only, for this very reason). Nothing is allowed to be unsightly here, for even a second, despite it being a show about kindness. Ostensibly we are all here to celebrate what is on the inside, yet more than half of us (the crew outnumber the audience at this recording) are actually here to make sure everything looks perfect, runs like clockwork, and that we remain the channel's highest-rated show. "Red Rooster on set!" Felipe yelps, and at exactly the same time the pink-faced, ageing TV star appears on stage, beer belly first. I've heard so much about his backstage demands, the decree that his room must remain undisturbed at all times (as if someone made him King of the studio!), not to mention the rumours about the girls that used to be 'sent' to him, that I can't look him in the eye. Why not him, I think, why not this boozy, ageing walrus, instead of my lovely mum? "IRIS!" Felipe warns, and for a second I think he's telling me off for such unkind thoughts. Finishing wiping the table, I move off the set to let the actor and his young make-up artist sit down and begin their prep. He is definitely sleeping with her, I think, seeing them giggle over his knees touching the coffee table, that rumour is definitely, inexplicably true. Here I am, working on a show about kindness, and I can't even think a kind thought! Why should I think I'm better than all these contestants with their stories of neighbours' fallen roof tiles, surprise retirement parties and pre-paid parking tickets? Still, in my cynical mood I am loath to even hear what the actor/Red-faced Knob will be saying about his supposed kind act. Everyone else who competes on the show at least has to be nominated, but celebrities just get booked by agents when they are doing the chat show circuit. But then again, the show is so globally huge now anyway that it's not unknown for people on the street doing random acts of kindness and asking to be nominated, or businesses putting their staff forward for five minutes of fame. What even is kindness, when there's a stake in it? Not for the first time, I have the uncomfortable thought that we, along with the other competitive reality shows, are making the world a worse place. Your 'kindness factor' is now a commodity, benevolence is a buzzword. Companies that used to sell themselves on their position on the stock exchange and lavish lunches now talk about 'corporate responsibility' and how much they have given to their employees' trek up Kilimanjaro, and banks tell us how much they care about our families and pets. Shut it, Iris, I mutter to myself, you're just feeling fragile today because of Mum. Fragile and bitter. I shake my head and turn away from the audience. I had told myself I wouldn't think about Mum today, and anyway I should stop complaining; this is the best job I've had in the business, and the biggest budget to work with, and it will open doors in the future (and so, says the fragile and bitter voice in my head, aren't you just here for where it gets you, like everyone else?). Suddenly my phone starts to vibrate in my pocket. I try to slide it out of my skinny jeans but realising I'll have to rearrange my tool belt to do so, I quickly start to walk backstage. When I finally wrestle the phone out, my brother's name is flashing on the screen, but just as I answer he hangs up. Secretly, I'm relieved; I can't handle hearing the news now. My heart is already squeezing in my chest with the worry of it all, and I'm supposed to be out there, watching Red Rooster schmooze Davina with his apparent saintliness, so I'll let him leave a message. But before I put the phone back in my pocket I notice there are already 12 text messages waiting. Opening the family group, I haven't even started reading the words before my eyes start swimming with tears. Unlike Mark the Fireman, I have no tap control these days and the tears are soon running down my face, down the back of my throat, and out of my nose. Christ, I need a tissue. I can't breathe. I try the nearest door and dash inside, choking yet also absurdly near laughter at my over-dramatic reaction to texts I haven't even read. I can barely see, but I locate a box of tissues next to a make-up box and take a seat. It feels like only seconds have passed- snotty, humiliating seconds- when the door opens and a tall red-haired figure appears. His eyes flick to the pile of damp tissues on the sofa next to me, the pile I now see, to my horror, is on top of a man's jacket. Shit. I could possibly get fired for this, I think, as the actor turns back to me again, and then his assistant and several of our crew members appear behind him, including Felipe, our Producer. "What the hell..." Felipe starts and then stops. The apologies tumble out of his mouth as he tries to squeeze past the crowd, all the while shooting me the evil eye. "It's alright," the actor says, holding up his hand and addressing the gathering crowd over his shoulder. "She's a friend who's had some bad news, let's just give her a minute and go get that coffee you mentioned." Then he closes the door, firmly, leaving me alone with my thumping heart. "How...kind," I say aloud. How unexpected. His eyes, a lovely shade of green I now recall, had been gentle. I start to scoop up the tissues and brush down the jacket, just in case, and despite the awfulness of the situation with Mum, I realise a smile is creeping over my lips. I wonder again what story the actor was telling in front of the camera. It suddenly seems he is a good soul after all, and I can't believe I was calling him a knob, but he must have told Davina a more impressive story than this, (for one thing how would you even tell this one?). I'm still thinking about the sympathy in his eyes as I make my way back onto set, switching my phone off so I can't be upset again, for now, and shoving it deep into my pocket. It was a tiny thing he did, almost a lack of action rather than anything, but one that saved my dignity and possibly my career. I want to tell Tash why I've suddenly got a bounce in my step, and why the tray of brownies next to the audience suddenly seems cute and thoughtful instead of half-baked bribery, I want to understand why this feels so special, why one moment can change your whole opinion of someone. Perhaps it's even better because it's not a good story. The kindness was in the detail, the assessment of the situation and a fast-thinking little move that won't ever win him any glory. But isn't that the true definition of kindness, I find myself thinking. It doesn't have to be something showy or big, a planned gesture that costs you thousands, true kindness can be miniscule, and it takes you by surprise. It's someone seeing your need and doing something they didn't have to do, and for a moment it makes the whole world seem better...
Laura is a writer and yoga teacher from North Devon. She has spent most of her writing life in the field of medicine and science writing, but is often day-dreaming of writing novels and tries to look for ways to be creative in everyday life, including through her yoga teaching. She is also a resident poet on the Funeverse, a collection of funny poems for children inspired by guest illustrators, and thinks she is one of the luckiest people in the world to be able share her joint passions for writing and yoga with others, and to use them as a means to spread joy and magic...
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