Two Channel by Tom Offland


PART ONE
Sometimes Joan sits and watches television. Its sound turned off, its glass screen blinking like a broken lamp. Who could say what she's thinking? I could reach out my hand, ask her, say, Joan what are you thinking, but it would be like reaching my hand into the sunlight. It would be like talking at the television.

We all used to watch a lot of television. We did. We all watched the top shows together, sat alone at our televisions. Everyone watched the big games, the breaking news, the family game shows, the landmark documentaries, the screwball comedies. Television was something to talk about at work. Something to laugh about. And laughter was a sort of language.

Joan and I used to get the channels from France and Germany. Sometimes Italy. And Joan and I would tune in and listen to the words we didn’t understand. Our favourites were the American shows overdubbed in other languages. All meaning of the original erased. Native Americans riding through the prairie, drawling gently to each other in German. Their mouths moving like puppets. We would eat our dinner to an international noise. That’s what we must sound like to the animals, I would tell Joan. And she would laugh at me as if I were joking.

Most televisions were made in Asia. I think they were built by children. I doubt that anywhere makes televisions any more. The stations keep broadcasting. Who can imagine why? Playing repeats. Television movies, live feeds of empty rooms. Joan said that television was a wild fire that we had accepted into our homes. She said it was something we summoned from the air.

Sometimes on live television you could see things go horribly wrong. Bungee jump cables break. Hooligans. Heart attacks. Only, the cameras would have to keep rolling. The presenters, talking. Everyone pretending that everything was fine. Sometimes people died live on television. Though it happened quite rarely. I remember the first words I heard that I didn’t understand. How they crackled like television static. I remember how frightened I'd been, how alarmed.

Satellite dishes still cling to most people’s roofs, looking like barnacles, all pointing in the same direction. They are the fingers aimed accusingly at the source of all our problems. They are growing over with mould and moss, speckled with bird shit. Occasionally I catch Joan standing by the window, peering out over the roof tops and television aerials. We chose this house for the view out of that window. When a view was something determined and predictable. Something scheduled like a television.

When a television is turned off it shrinks to a point of light. The picture puckers like a mouth. And for a moment after, there is an image burnt onto the screen. When the television is playing it’s hard to remember the colour of the grey glass underneath. But it’s always there. Lately there has been a droning in my ears. And it has been unending. Perhaps I have tripped a fuse in my head. Perhaps the droning was always there and is the sound of life inside of me, how the back of a television buzzes with electricity.

They would place televisions in hospital rooms to distract the sick and dying. Soap operas bracketed to the walls, home improvement shows. Each night the televisions would grow sick and die and each morning they would be reborn, new life springing from the test cards. People fled to the hospitals when they stopped understanding one another. When their words began to dissolve. I sat with Joan in A and E along with the rest of them. Holding hands, frightened of speaking.

Technical difficulties could occasionally force television programmes off the air, trees topple over, gales blow the scheduling astray. Older televisions do not turn on straight away, they take a while to muster the picture. Glowing, humming. Warming to the idea. Ours is like that, the picture appearing slowly on the grey screen, rising from within the set. If I hold Joan at all it is to prove to myself that I am still a man. Still a human. If I hold Joan at all, it’s like holding onto string and straw and metal beads. Like looking into flashing lights.

At the centre of a television there is a glass tube containing space. I feel hollowed out when I look at anything anymore. I do. It is wretched to look at people.



PART TWO
I do watch T.V. occasionally, you know. Now and then. More out of habit than anything else. We used to have a pond in the garden, Michael and I, and frogs would dive from the top of the rockery and into the weeds and water. Last spring we let the water out and filled it over with turf, and all summer frogs threw themselves off the rockery and onto the grass. Frogs lying on their backs in disbelief. I could turn the T.V. on now but it’s only coloured light. It’s good to watch now and then, you know, but it’s only coloured light.

Michael still tries to make conversation, and it hurts me when he does. Its hurts me to watch his neck wobble and his words fall out like teeth. I stopped trying to make conversation about the same time I stopped going to work. About the same time people started throwing their televisions out of their windows. Throwing their furniture and themselves out their windows too.

If you could step through the glass of your T.V., do you know what you would find? If you could get past the wires and resistors and the filthy dust? Past the hair lice and the salt crystals and the bacteria? You would get down to the worker bees, to the electrons. And you would find a sea of them humming with activity. You would find a thousand, a million individuals, working alone, connected to each other through light and air and invisible radio waves.

The only way I can describe what happened is, it were as though stage fright had become contagious. As though the stutters could be spread through eye contact and cold calling and text messages. Reporters would forget their lines, squint at their autocues, and wordlessness raged across the T.V. and into our homes. We would fumble our words. Sweat and fidget at the thought of speaking. I imagine the whole world watched the World Cup final together in silence, the one when all the footballers lay down on the field to nosey and nibble at the grass, when the entire stadium stood up from its seat and applauded politely and looked around at each other as though they were lost.

Some winters the bird bath in the garden freezes over and it breaks my heart to see it. Wood pigeons peering thirstily out of the bushes. Black birds skating on its surface. It breaks my heart. It does. Once I went out there with a hammer and tried to smash it up and Michael saw me swinging the hammer from inside the house and thought that I had gone crazy. Listen, Michael could be made out of sticks for all it matters to me now, made out of twigs and cables ties.

I don’t suppose you’ve ever stood in a television studio, seen how everything works from the other side? Not that you have the chance anymore. In a television studio no one is ever alone. Every person there has an ear piece in his ear and a radio strapped to his belt. When the cameras are off, the air roars with radio static. When the cameras are running, the whole set talk to one another in silence, waving their arms and clipboards like semaphores. It is a motion of people working alone, connected to each other through blinking lights and body language and short wave radio.

Michael used to say that even after everything there would be advertising. That it would be our legacy. He used to say that in the future they would re-enact the scripts from gravy commercials as though they were plays, that they would install billboards in the galleries and discover skeletons in the glaciers wearing sandwich boards. He wasn’t far wrong. Not really. Towards the end adverts were all that were on T.V., miracle cures and rehabilitation holidays and pay-as-you-go, ministries and government-funded infomercials, running on loop, trying to reteach people how to speak, how to read, to empathise with one another.

When I think about when I worked in T.V., it seems like a dream. It seems miraculous now. That there was a world outside made of more than rustling paper and pale clouds. I remember the way the presenters wore penny microphones buttoned to their shirts and battery packs strapped to their trouser legs and how they would sometimes talk quietly to themselves, into those microphones and how they would look as though they were praying. I remember how high the warehouse ceilings were in the studios. How they echoed. How even at its busiest there was a sense of emptiness. Now that all the studios are closed that emptiness must be overwhelming.

If I had one wish, it would be to run a pirate television station for the animals. Not that I can even find my way outdoors. I would wish to invade an empty T.V. studio, and wire up the microphones and replace the spot bulbs and make my own make-up from the rust. I would run a broadcast that would play for one hour every day. It would play in the early mornings, when all the humans were asleep and the animals were wide awake. I would direct all the cameras, and write all the lines, and design all the sets and each broadcast I would approach the camera and I would say, dear animals, we humans have forgotten everything. We have forgotten how to talk and the world to us now is made out of fairy lights and air. And then I would go on to describe to the animals all the things that I had done with my life, my regrets, my ambitions, my memories, and I would carry on talking for an hour, and I would know that every word I spoke was unintelligible, that every word was the sound of hot breath and cotton tearing and wet hands slapping against the mud.


Tom Offland lives in London. He keeps a blog at happyhealthynormal.tumblr.com.