Bewildering Stories

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On Television

by Tim Thompson

Lisa's problems began at the age of six months. But nobody realised at the time. She was dropped by her mother in the rush to turn the television on; the nightly fill of soap was starting, the one with the wedding that every one was watching. Except her mother never saw it in the end.

The swelling was immediate, the large lump on her head and the bruise that was to follow, testimony to the place where Lisa had landed.

Her mother forgot the accident the next day. Even the local doctor, nothing more than a waiting-to-retire quack, gave her the all clear.

Life could have gone well for Lisa, very well, but that was not to be the case.

He left when she was four; the first few notes of her mother's favourite soap chiming into the gas-fire-warmed living room as he pushed open the door. He said he was leaving; he had tried to make it work, but now it was too late, he could take no more.

Lisa's mother began to cry as he turned and closed the door. But as the music from the television died and the drama began, she wiped away her tears and sat down to watch her evenings fill - there was time for mourning later.

What no one saw was the pain that Lisa felt. Even as a four year-old she had pieced together enough to understand, in her childish way, what was taking place.

But no one saw the change - who had time - they were too busy watching television.

She moved out when she was twenty, determined to make a go of her life. And after watching others flee the nest, she packed her bags and left her weeping mother behind.

She had not been a bright child; the fall had affected the wiring just a little, but she was bright enough, and sharp enough, to know that she needed three things in life: a room, a job, and a television.

As people knew Lisa locally, it was easy for her to acquire the first two. But as she sat alone that first night, the silence was too great for her to bear.

* * *

Mike her landlord was upset. She was the only one in the flat: four rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen to share. And when he did manage to rent an additional room, the income would cease within days, many of the tenants leaving without a trace.

He had managed once to ask one of the tenants why he had left so soon. But all the man would say was that it was the sound of the television; the walls being so thin that he could hear it whenever he was in the house.

And he added, as the car pulled away, "she don't seem to watch normal programs, they're never in the Tele guide".

Although he had a mind for business, the landlord cared. He had known Lisa all her life, and had been one of the few who had dealt with her fairly, offering her the room where she lived and a job in his bakery shop.

But then, business was business, and so he decided to spend a night in the flat - just to see if it was as bad as the man had said.

There was no sleeping for him, for as soon as Lisa came home from the shop, the familiar and irritating sound of the television began. And as the man had said, as he had driven away, he did not recognise either the theme tunes, or the voices of any of the people who spoke.

Mike took the television section from the paper he had brought for company and opened it, scanning the day's fare: it was the usual menu of fast food junk.

He looked at his watch and drew his finger across the day's choice, but it was as if Lisa was watching a channel that did not exist on the normal frequencies. And he was sure of one thing: she had neither cable nor satellite.

At two in the morning the church bell struck and the room quietened, the toilet flushed for the last time, and the flat was still.

He lay there thinking of his house; his wife would be in bed by now. And by the way she had tugged at his body she was in a mood for more than sleep. Cursing his missed opportunity, he packed his bags and made for the door, attempting to keep the noise to a minimum.

He had taken pity on her at first: giving up the money he could so easily make so that Lisa would have a home. But all he could think was that she was stealing from him, taking the money out of his wallet.

The phone rang and he pushed the thoughts away.

"...four rooms: cameraman, sound, makeup and assistant. The stars will be staying in the hotel down the road; we've just booked the rooms for six months. Interested?"

Of course he was interested, the rental they had discussed was more than he could have expected, and his wife was nagging him for another holiday in Spain.

They agreed terms, and Mike typed out the contract, signing his half and sending the rest to the TV company.

There was the little problem of Lisa, but he could sort that out. And, he told himself trying to justify what he was about to do, she had missed the previous month's rent - it was time she moved along.

He checked at the bakery hoping to catch her at work. But she was not there - had not been there for more than four weeks. Her fellow employees shrugged and said, "well, you know Lisa," before returning to their work. The lack of care shocked him, but then, they were talking about Lisa.

There was only one thing for it: he would have to try the flat.

She was in; he could hear a voice speaking, the sound of music marking the end of one program, a voice announcing the next.

He thought he could hear the theme tune of the nation's favourite soap, but the sounds of movement inside muffled the music. He raised his hand to the door; his knuckles ready to announce his presence.

Just as he was about to knock, Mike withdrew his hand and stared at the door, wondering whether he should fetch Lisa's mother. But as he stood listening to the garbled sounds of the television, he knew within himself this was nothing more than an excuse to put things off.

The thought of Lisa's mother reminded him of the nights of passion they had stolen before Lisa was born, the memories flooding back in a giddy rush.

He was about to step away from the door, but he knew that if he walked away, it would be harder to return, and he needed to deal with this tonight.

He knocked, hoping she would ignore him, but as he waited, he heard the voice of one of the soap stars saying, "I'll get the door Derek, pop the kettle on."

The door opened and he wondered if this was the same Lisa he had given the flat and job to. Her face was plastered thick with make-up, and bright lights filled the room behind her. In one corner he could just make out a video camera recording the rest of the empty room.

"Come in Peter," Lisa said, "Derek's making tea, he'll be back in a minute, I suspect you'll want to see him about Lisa."

"Peter? ... Lisa, it's me, Mike," but Lisa pulled the door wide, her face inviting him to enter.

He stepped in and looked around amazed, the room alien and sterile - a television set in miniature. Tables covered with props lined the walls, and another table held what looked like theatrical make-up. Bright light's washed the colour from the room and for a moment Mike wondered if he was dreaming.

He turned to look at her, but he could see that she was waiting for "Derek", whoever he was, and decided that it would be best to see what she did next before saying another word.

Lisa stepped past him and pulled off the blond wig, replacing it with a flat cap. Glued to it in the most amateurish fashion was what looked like black hair.

He watched her fumble in a grey box, and then, when she turned around, he could see that she had added a moustache to her soft face.

"Peter," her voice gruff, as if she had pulled her larynx across hot coals, "you shouldn't have come Peter."

"Look Lisa..." Mike said, hoping that using her name would break her delusion.

"Lisa, you want to talk about Lisa. You know she's yours don't you, you wife stealer. And now you try to come around breaking up the family. Do you want her to live with you? Is that it?"

"Lisa..." He tried again, seeing from the expression on her face that it was not having the desired effect.

"Is that all you have to say. I've got the court papers you know. She's yours."

She removed the hat and placed the wig back on her head, the moustache was neglected in the change, and he realised she was playing the part of the woman who had answered the door.

"How the hell can you justify wanting to leave her like that. Just getting up and leaving without a single thought for her."

Mike's mind raced to keep up with the lines; deciding that to play along was his only choice. If that didn't work..., he would have to think of something else.

"How do you know I'm her father ... Lis ... er Derek?"

He could see from her eyes that he had made a mistake. Lisa rummaged in a draw and pulled out a white sheet of paper, handing it to him as she slammed the door, sealing them both in the room.

Mike read the words hoping they were not true, and from the date written at the top of the letter he could see it had arrived five weeks ago. What it said he had suspected for the past twenty years - Lisa was his daughter. Her father, or rather the man who she called father, had written to tell her the truth.

"Look Lisa I'm..."

"What? Sorry Peter? No you'll be more than sorry, Derek's going to teach you a lesson you'll never forget, won't you Derek."

Lisa ran for the table that held her props; Mike ran for the door only to find it locked. And when he turned, Lisa was playing the part of Derek, the knife in her hand the only thing that looked real in the light drenched room.

"Look Derek," Mike said playing along with her fantasy.

"There really is nothing to say Peter. This is for Lisa."

As Mike slipped away he lay on the floor helpless, the pool of red that crept away from him greying as his body failed. His failing ears catching the constant stream of Lisa's elaborate script. And he knew she would get away with his murder. After all, they always did - on television.

Copyright © 2003 by Tim Thompson