Have you ever watched a TV soap? I mean really watched one, day in, week out, never missing an episode? What is it in these open-ended domestic-dramas that attract more viewers than any other kind of show? They dominate peak-viewing slots and instil in their victims a strange mesmerising compulsion to follow every episode. And who knows what lasting effects they have… who knows what they do to a four-year old kid in a one-parent family on a council estate, a kid who's routinely shoved in front of the TV to keep them quiet and out of the way?

Melanie was such a kid. She had an older dominant half-brother, and two younger sisters… and mother, well mother was either looking after baby sisters or, as Melanie grew older, out at work - leaving half-brother in charge.

By the time she was six Melanie had her own TV. To keep out of her brother's way she would sneak up to the bedroom for hours and watch game shows, sit-coms, adventure films… and soaps. There were so many soaps that they outstripped all other shows. Soap after soap Melanie watched, so that by the time she was seven she was permanently hooked.

Soon Melanie lived her whole life in soaps. She played little with other kids. 'No time, no time,' she'd cry as she rushed home from school to catch an early soap. The dreamy, unreal haze of school and the drabness of her domestic life never even approached the zany overcooked glitter and zap of the soaps. Nothing could rival the frequent displays of extravagant aggression, flaring tempers, expressions of hatred and bitterness, acts of revenge, spitefulness, backstabbing and countless other horrors. These were hardly balanced by the occasional show of exaggerated joy. Indeed, the extremes of intense theatrical expression and embroidered reactions, became far more real and attractive to Melanie than the dreary semi-conscious fog of everyday life.

And so it was that Melanie, unknowingly - and while continuing to watch ever more soaps - integrated more and more of soap mentality into her own nature. After all, in a household that left her on the sidelines and from which she would have preferred to escape, how else could Melanie indulge in the intricacies of home and communal life? She learned that a good turn always expects reward, or else; that no indiscretion or error goes unpunished; that any opportunity to swindle must, like vengeance, always be taken (or at least planned); that sincerity exists only in anger; that everyone is essentially self-centred… and on and on. All that was decrepit, degenerative, offensive, loathsome, indecent and corrupt in life was promoted and elevated, while all that was creative, uplifting, worthwhile and agreeable was crushed or admonished. Such concepts as generosity and forgiveness, tolerance and compromise were virtually outlawed; these issues were hardly appropriate to mass-media drama - they were not what viewers demanded. If producers failed to submit to this fact, viewing figures would plunge, advertisers would bail-out, and the show would fold: an extremely rare event.

By the time she was twelve Melanie had scrutinized and consistently adopted the soap response to almost every situation. The key word was 'conflict'. She observed the winning character's pious self-satisfaction while the loser seethed with rage, and the whole bathed in a charge of fear and recrimination that left the viewer feeling stirred and even sometimes vividly alive and riding that crucial 'high' they constantly craved for.

Scriptwriters, under instruction from their advertiser paymasters, were ruthless and thorough in their work. Only scenes portraying strong emotions were allowed; and the bulk of these had to involve aggression. Weak or easy-going characters were either cut or beefed-up by the producer - if they ever escaped the editor's stringent net.

Moreover, for several years, Melanie practised on her half-brother and sisters, so she was able to consolidate what she had learned. She had become remarkably proficient in emulating the exaggerated emotions, the outbursts, the sulks, the lies, the scheming… the infusion of drama into a whole gamut of otherwise banal, ordinary everyday exchanges and events. In short, she had mastered the art of the soap.

Unrealised by Melanie, the problem now was that she could no longer distinguish between her real self and her soap self. Indeed, these had become essentially the same. Her whole life: thoughts, deeds, conduct and demeanour, was now one colossal act, a fabrication, a show. Whatever happened, whatever her situation, Melanie's behaviour shadowed an invented soap character, an amalgam of the most objectionable, the most vibrant and the most exaggerated. Whilst she remained within her circle on the estate where she lived, she would receive soap-like responses - this was because most of her contacts had also been reared on soaps, and because the provocative nature of her actions would incite an appropriately provocative response. This served to reinforce her fantasy and further emboldened her subconscious pursuit of the sham she had unconsciously adopted.

As she grew older, her relationships, like those of a soap character, swung from confrontational to passionate, and back again, sometimes moving through several cycles in a single day… or even, on occasions, within minutes. If she was to maintain a friendship for more than a few weeks, her friend would need an uncommon level of tolerance or to have grown especially attracted to her.

At fourteen, the soap-way was all she knew. Her thoughts, moods, her whole mode of living, had become now an emotional roller-coaster. This did not trouble her; for Melanie it was normal. Acquaintances who responded with surprise or inappropriate kindness would puzzle her, but she soon found ways of taking advantage of any strange weakness and so eventually to gain a response that she understood and desired.

Furthermore, with appropriate soap-arrogance, she refused advice out of hand; on any issue at all she refused even to listen. She would take, steal or wheedle anything she wanted, give as little as possible, care for nothing, lie compulsively… she had become, like so many soap characters, outlandishly vain, conceited, shallow, selfish, belligerent and greedy.

She was also charming, flirtatious, strikingly attractive, well dressed and groomed, and created a highly agreeable aura. Had these latter qualities solely been prominent, she would doubtless have become the most popular girl in town, surrounded by many friends. As it was, she showed only these traits at rare intervals, when a situation demanded - when, for instance, she was broke and her mood would 'just happen' to swing that way for reasons that no-one could fathom - until, captivated by her sudden charm, she would leap in and sting them with a request that would normally have evoked astonishment and rejection, but which nearly always yielded the result she sought.

What can it be like to exist in this condition, with the foundation upon which your mind is based comprised of little but the content of soaps, with their trite insanities, their irrationalities, inconsistencies and extremes of emotion? And what becomes of an individual stuck in this unenviable mindset?

Had it not been for her constant need for instant gratification - another adversity from early experiences - Melanie might have embarked upon a fulfilling career. Instead - like a soap - she lived from one day to the next. When she was 20 Melanie acquired a job selling insurance by telephone, and lived in the attic room of a pub near the railway station. At first, any new acquaintance, unaware of her oddity, would naturally warm to her. For someone who met her only occasionally it might take a few weeks before something amiss would become dimly apparent. By then the new 'friend' would have become at least slightly attached to Melanie - whose charisma and outward manner, as has been noted, could be exceptionally appealing - and in the event of a dispute Melanie would invariably gain the benefit of any doubt; feigning hurt and bewilderment she would shame her companion into compliance.

Had she been plain or ugly, as well as seeming a little odd to those who vaguely knew her, people would have said she was a born loser, and would have avoided her. It hardly needs to be said that she was utterly untrustworthy and never kept a promise (of which she made many). Nor did she ever return a loan - unless threatened with violence - so only new acquaintances risked lending to her. And those who refused her, she scorned vehemently, throwing every abuse at them she could muster. But her positive qualities meant she always retained one or two friends. Generous and malleable people could be persuaded to initially forgive her rashness; then, to those - especially men - she recognised as particularly vulnerable to her beauty, she would use her eyes to issue unspoken teasing promises of rewards to come. If the victim seemed to acquiesce and soften under this spell, she would hit them with further outrageous requests for money or whatever favours she sought - which, on the strength of an insincere pledge, would always be granted. Eventually, a debt might become so huge that Melanie would be forced to extricate herself from her victim by 'vanishing' - which meant avoiding them and answering her mobile-phone only to favoured callers. If a victim somehow caught-up with her then Melanie had recourse to an immense mysterious power, a kind of hypnotic charm that tended to immobilise anger - and once re-softened, she would again sting her prey in the familiar fashion.

If she sensed that a victim's anger was beyond her control, Melanie would respond according to the doctrine that the best form of defence is attack - and would launch at them with such conviction and fervour that the shocked victim would be instantly overwhelmed and at a loss at how to respond. At first strangely plausible, Melanie's 'logic' would quickly fall apart under scrutiny. In the cool light of reason, the victim - horrified at their own gullibility and intellectual lapse - would then blame themselves for failing to spot the speciousness of Melanie's argument. Feeling fleeced, and not wanting a distasteful confrontation, they would typically let the matter drop, vowing never to be caught-out again. But, inevitably, except for the strongest and most resolute of her victims, the magical effect of Melanie's personality would lure once more the unfortunate dupe into her trap.
It is true that some of her promises would be made sincerely, but if other self-interested priorities emerged then any undertaking would go to the wall. She soon gained a wide reputation for being consistent only in her unreliability and dishonesty. Inevitably, this also led to friendships that were fleeting and which ended in indignation and animosity on both sides - precisely as is written in the soaps. Did Melanie retain a vestige of a real self somewhere inside, or was she by now entirely made of soap?

Soaps were so-called because they resembled prolonged versions of the domestic storylines in TV detergent advertisements of the 1950s. But soap, like poor Melanie in our story, happens to be slippery, slimy and pleasantly scented. It is also cleansing, and tends to dissolve away in time. The question is: if the soap in Melanie were to dissolve away like this amidst the constant daily conflicts of life, then what would be left? If her persistent deceitfulness outlasted her charisma and attractiveness, then what? Would the abrasions and general turmoil of everyday life that most of us experience, eventually smooth and tame her ostensibly-feigned heightened emotions? After all, who doesn't mellow with time? But again, what would be left for Melanie if she was all soap?

Well now, perhaps it is time for me to reveal myself - author of this tale and analyst of our anti-heroine. But I do not aim to judge; merely to understand. Throughout my life I have brushed with the Melanies of this world, and once or twice have unwittingly befriended them. Without a shadow of wistfulness at separation, and apparently without the briefest reflection - the difficulties traversed, the sacrifices, favours and the occasional delights of mutual appreciation and affection - they have, to both my relief and chagrin, walked out of my life.

What am I to make of this? Where does it leave me? Was it all a great act? At times, they frequently displayed the traits of a psychopath; but now I would question: were they truly psychopaths or was it a charade? Many characters in soaps wear their scripted inner feelings on their sleeves, behave like psychopaths who spring into aggression at the slightest pretext, and parade the highs and lows of manic depression as if to suggest that all these conditions are normal and even desirable. But to those who are weaned on such a menu, whose lives are otherwise spent in blank pictureless rooms, whose contacts, if any, are shallow and dull, what choice do they have but to absorb and cherish this material.

I had avoided soaps all my life, judged them as trite melodrama, unreal and focussed on absurdities, pure entertainment for those who, like peeping Toms, wish to spy on a fictitious community at constant war with itself. At times with those 'Melanies', I inadvertently lived in a soap myself, Melanie's soap, liberally sprinkled with little but what can be gleaned from the monstrous narratives they had absorbed over the years. Did they perceive their life as living in the hell of the soap, and occasionally in the heaven, as their life often appeared to me: several minutes of torment followed by one of bliss? Or is it all the same to them - just so long as there is drama, sudden unforeseen change, massive swings of temperament, always a potential or real conflict in the wings with the off-stage simmering of trapped steam poised to explode?

Melanie is the last person I would blame for her situation. In fact, she is the real victim in all this. As a result, she lives on the surface, all show. Her idol is the mirror, always the mirror, posing, grooming. Everything is appearances. When her looks fade, what then for poor Melanie? As for me, the secondary victim, I am bemused. I fell for the charm, the looks, the youth, the acts - as they surely were - of fabricated charisma and affection. No, I don't believe it was all fabricated. There were times, I am convinced, when they did occasionally live in the real world. Largely, though, they obeyed the soap scenario. Could it have been the soaps I so disparage that in essence I fell for when they were dished up in the real world through them? Or was it those occasional flashes of the real thing that I perceived and latched onto? To Melanie, who is undoubtedly a performer and a natural when it comes to acting a part. And for me, a mere innocent spectator, swayed and jostled by a key afflicted player drenched in scriptwriter mania, was I after all merely victim to an immense sham? And will I in time escape those hideous Acts and, with all the mush of soap distilled away, learn to retain only the magical and beautiful essence of turbulent times?

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