Story for Issue 7 of The Read Horse: Silence, Obsession & Daytime TV.
Outside it is cold but bright, a perfect November, but inside it’s snowing sideways. White noise is coming from Dave’s wood lacquered TV set. It’s so old and swollen that the legs of the stand are buckled and it barely stays upright. Nonetheless, static snow is flaking outwards from the glass dome on a collision course for Dave’s face. The heater is on full flow so the heavy atmosphere captures each flake and the static moves slowly as if held in setting resin. Like the universe expanding; like Dave’s universe expanding.
In his half-sleep he sees white wisps brushing off the bulbous nose of the set like dry skin off an old man; an old man with a severe dandruff affliction. But Dave shrugs it off and falls asleep thinking of T-gel and scalp healing infomercials.
Dave dozes some more. His eyes open a fraction. In the crack between his lids he sees a horizon populated by nonchalant seagulls. Still, Dave can’t be bothered to get up and turn it off. Instead he turns over and dreams of the sea.
Time elapses. Dave’s half-sleep is perforated. The flecks are hovering toward him like an invasion of spaceships from a B-movie. They float over the stained cream carpet to reach him on the brown corduroy sofa. The aliens inside are calling to Dave. The doors of their flakeships open and unleash magnetic barbs that hook Dave’s skin and peel his eyelids up. Or it could just be the desiccating heat and the blaring noise. Whatever. He’s awake now.
The cassette has finished and the TV is demanding attention. It’s hungry and needs feeding. So Dave gets up. The holey blanket falls from his lap to the floor where it meets more holes. His head itself feels like a hole or it could just be that he’s dehydrated. Whatever. If Dave could elucidate the feeling in his head right now he might say it feels like a coconut husk scooped dry by the bare nails of starving savages, but he’s not so good with words. Instead he makes his way through to the kitchen to sup some milk straight from the fridge. Then he heads down the wooden steps to the basement. This is where Dave keeps the children. There are hundreds of them, all lined up in little rows, sleeping in their bunks. He’s unsure which one the TV wants to eat today. In fact, there are so many of them, Dave doesn’t care. So he grasps blindly at the nearest storage unit and plucks a VHS cassette from the shelves at random.
He returns to the lounge and feeds it to the top video player in the stack on the floor next to the set. Dave has three. You might be wondering why Dave doesn’t just download his programmes from the internet like everyone else. It’s not that he’s technologically incompetent; he does own a computer – afterall he’s not a complete weirdo. In fact, he’s quite good with machines. It’s just that he likes VHS. He enjoys the bulky feel of the plastic, the clunk-click it makes when fed in the slot, the sound of squiggles fast-forwarding, the smell of hot tape played again and again. Dave didn’t adopt DVD either. Too clean. Too precise. And he really didn’t like catching his reflection on the underside of the disc. He likes VHS precisely because the tape is dark, and mysterious and gets so worn that it warps. He likes it when the picture goes all grainy and female characters break into baritone or when macho characters make high pitched squeaks. It adds a new element to something he’s seen a hundred times before; it makes him laugh.
But more than this, VHS is integral to the completion of his life’s work. But more on that later, he’s too tired to think about that now. It requires energy and he’s flat out of that today. Instead he’s going to kick-back with his one true love: Murder, She Wrote.
He presses play. And he hears it: the clickety-clack of metallic keys hitting the typewriter ribbon accompanied by the hurdy-gurdy of piano keys. Dave could not be happier than right now. He slouches back, an inane grin on his face, and watches in silence.
Several murders and one clever solution later and Dave is suitably invigorated by what he’s seen to continue with his work. Anyway he wasn’t just kicking back, it was research. At 44m42sec – he made a note on the pad he keeps to the left of the sofa for precisely this purpose – he saw something unequivocally beautiful. Jessica’s relative has been vindicated of murder and the real culprit is being led away. The relative is thanking Jessica for her super-sluethery and they hug. They’re standing on the wooden harbour of Cabot Cove, the sun is high in the sapphire sky; the boats are bobbing on the clear Maine water and for a second the light hits one of the ripples, it catches Jessica’s earrings and – yes, he’s quite sure he saw it – a rainbow refracts into the camera. Now the credits roll and he rewinds excitedly to 44m42sec to see if he’s right or if the set is playing tricks again. It’s not; he’s right. He pauses through the image almost salivating at the 16 grainy frames of Technicolor glory.
This will be perfect for the final frames of Dave’s great masterpiece, his life’s work. He has been splicing clips from his favourite episodes in the hope that one day he will achieve what he feels is The Ultimate Programme (TUP). This is why he loves Video Home System (VHS) as a format. And when he’s diligently constructing The Ultimate Programme he appreciates the skill it takes to perfectly overlap two scenes. Pressing the record button at exactly the right moment, accounting exactly for the delay. It’s an art form. And it gives him a sense of pride that he, Dave, has mastered it.
He started with Murder, She Wrote not just because he loves it, but because its formulaic episode structure makes it easier and with twelve series of content to choose from, he’s confident he can create an almost perfect beauty. Of course Dave envisages himself going on to work with other genres outside of the detective field but this was a great place start and to learn his trade. And what’s more, he’s nearly finished. He’s excited about today’s discovery and the fact that’s finally, he’s nearly done. But he must contain himself, he still has to work on the credits. So to diffuse himself he sits down to write to his leading lady. But it’s not easy. He’s already knows her address from an internet forum it’s not that. It’s getting the words right, that’s the hard part. He picks up the pen and pad and scrawls a letter slowly, and as concisely as possible, each loop and tick releasing a concentrated inky fluid of pent up thrills.
Dear Angela Lansbury,
When you were named a Disney Icon I cryed more than at my fathers funeral. I always wanted you to be my grandma. We have so much in common Angela. Your first marriage was to an actor that the tabloid media smeared as bisexual. I am also bisexual and have always dreamed of being an actor. Your daughter Deidre was briefly involved with the Manson family: I own a t-shirt with Charles Manson’s face on it and have considered joining a cult but then I saw a documentary about Jonestown and it put me off.
I’ve so much I want to share with you. Like when you had knee replacement surgery in 2005 I hit my knee with a rock hammer just so I could feel your pain. But all in good time.
you’re Ultimate Soul Mate,
The doorbell goes. It hasn’t rung in so long he’d forgotten he had one. It’s the same with the phone. It hasn’t rung for so long he doesn’t know where it is. He looks through the letterbox to see who it is and groans. It’s Sally. It must be a Wednesday. He hadn’t realised he was due a visit. But he often gets so engrossed in his work that he forgets things of no importance like a visit from his keyworker. He opens the door and says hello.
“Hi Dave, how are you today?” She breezes in and annoys him further. “Let’s get these blinds open shall we?”
He smiles. Dave knows the blinds won’t open as he’s taped them shut, but he lets Sally try and pry them open anyway. Even if she succeeds, he’s got more tape.
He desperately wants to get back to work but he knows he must act normal so Dave asks “Would you like a cup of tea, Sally?”
“Yes that’d be great Dave, milk, two sugars please.” Dave grins again, as he’s sure Sally wouldn’t approve of his au natural policy on liquid drinks as well as his approach to washing up. He reappears with the tea just in time to see Sally making notes of her own.
“What’s that you’re watching Dave?
“Just daytime TV” he replies, he doesn’t want her to know about his work. The conversation continues in a question and answer format for longer than Dave can stand. She asks him what he’s been eating, if he needs help around the house, if he’s been washing himself properly, if he’s been getting out much. His eyes keep flitting back to the set. He’s so close to completion he can’t let Sally ruin it. So he sits on his hands and goes someplace else. And where else would Dave go, but back to the wooden harbour with the bobbing boats where he can feel the sun on his face, hear the gentle knock of the reef knots against metal masts and smell the steak from the nearby restaurant where Sheriff Tupper and Jessica are having dinner.
The door slams abruptly and Dave is back on his sofa once more, smelling upstairs’ burnt toast and staring at the white noise on the screen. Sally has gone and it’s now dark outside. He doesn’t remember her going, but he doesn’t care, he can get back to work. Perhaps with a few sleepless nights he can finally finish.
But Dave isn’t going to finish The Ultimate Programme on VHS or any other format. For as soon as Sally’s back in the office she makes an urgent phone call that will change Dave’s life forever. She picks up the receiver and asks to speak to the duty consultant psychiatrist. The ridiculousness of her words are lost on her. “I am seriously worried about Dave’s unhealthy obsession with Murder, She Wrote and am extremely concerned about the risk he poses to the safety of the actress Angela Lansbury.” Dave, USM, would have laughed, but he was busy being sectioned.