Monday, July 19, 2010

The Blank Screen

Tommy was a solitary man. It was 1961, just before things took off. He was a man who, today, we’d call a geek or anorak. In those days he was just someone else at the corner of eyesight. Someone whom most people would simply see through, not even wondering what he did for a living as he stared into the TV showroom – cleaning his glasses absent-mindedly, with a hankie that put on more smears than it took off.

Tommy was a lonely man, his only colourfulness being the red hat he wore, but now I’m not even sure if it was red at all, as I strain to remember through the badly broadcast mists of my memory. Potentially, he would have been even lonelier without me following him around the streets intending, as I did, sooner or later, to befriend him, because I was lonely, too. Still am. All the lonely people. But I was more curious about other people than most people were in 1961 – a dowdy year that still had the soul of the Fifties in its grey bloodstream.

But Tommy stayed indoors most of the time. I knew he sat behind the drawn curtains staring all day at the test card on his TV. Nothing much was on in those days before the evening, except fifteen minutes of Watch With Mother or the odd rare special State occasion. How did I know he did this? Well, with much flowing under the bridge since then, I can safely reveal that I crept up to his window and – through a crack in the curtains – watched him watching the test card, watched him listening (just audible through the glass) to the relentless old-fashioned light-music that accompanied the test card.

There was a woman involved. Her name was Michelle or Claudette, I think. It was probably Claudette, though I’m sure, in my innocence, I thought the ‘dette’ bit of that name to be something you owed somebody, the power of that word (debt) later pervading the whole system of society today, underpinning the enormous complex of 24/7 broadcasting, the internet and mobile phones ... all of us riddled with debt, spiritual as well as fiscal. A reality crunch.

Tommy, on one occasion in 1961, entertained Claudette (or was it Michelle, after all?) in his sitting-room and, for once, thought to turn off the TV screen. Where he’d first met her was beyond even my close surveillance of his habits. It didn’t work out for him, though. I don’t think she liked being given tea in a plastic cup.

I eventually had a date with her myself – but that’s another, much longer story. One that stretches (or will stretch - or did stretch) fifty years into the future with or without her in it.

I know I don’t have a uniformity of tone. That’s me all over. One minute common as muck, the next as sophisticated as the toffest toff of all. I suppose that’s why I’m the only possible person who can tell this story. Someone who is a blank screen. Now and then showing a highly cultural documentary but, following another period of blank screen, showing the Big Brother reality show. Then blank again. Indeed, blank most of the time.

And that reminds me. One day, as I approached the crack in the curtains, I did not hear the barely audible onset of light music – and I saw Tommy sitting this time in front of a blank screen rather than the test card. But not purely blank. It carried a snowstorm of static. I have since deemed the migraine or hiss of static on the TV or the radio as a symbol of death. It is a Horror moment. A Horror trip. A Horror trope.

I turned and suddenly saw a distant church steeple in the sunny grey sky, one that I had seen on the horizon from Tommy’s garden as if forever, but without really seeing it. The thought of religion had never given me comfort. But I almost sensed, that day, a yearning to visit the church, even join its congregation. Sing its songs or soaring anthems. Then I looked down – as if my eyes were tugged by some sort of magnet – and there was a pigeon’s body at my feet. I had been too concerned with checking upon Tommy, accompanied by a growing sense of alarm that all was not well with him, and, therefore, I had not before noticed this highly charged symbol of death. Not really a symbol, however, because the pigeon was all too real. It must have been there, unnoticed, for several weeks. The ‘flowering’ of decay from a body in the form of reality’s debt to an erstwhile soul.

I turned from Tommy’s house as someone walked by. It was a young man whistling a tune, a tune that I would have easily recognised, a couple of years later, as a Beatles tune, if I had remembered it at all. And I still fail to think about how significant some insignificant things often are. Or what colour that young man’s hat had been amid the pervading greyness, if he had worn a hat at all. And indeed who exactly he might have been.

I heard the distant church bell ringing as I went on my way.


Written today by DFL and first published above.

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