March 12, 2012
by Roge Slater
I thought we’d have cashed in on the house as soon as it was willed to us; the place where we lived was plenty for me, Mum and Dad. They seemed to take a shining to it though, said they’d always dreamt of doing B&B and now they could finally do it. Truth be told, Dad was more interested in doing some detective work: my uncle had gone missing from the house years ago. Over a bottle of Scotch one evening my old man confessed he had more interest in unravelling exactly what had happened to his brother than cooking up eggs for backpackers.
Anyway, he never did find out, and now he and Mum have gone it’s all mine. Don’t know who I’ll leave it to, come to think. I’ve family of sorts, mum’s sisters both had kids, but we lost touch. Haven’t seen them since they visited many Christmases ago and I can’t say I’m bothered, either. I’m more familiar with this old collection of cracks and photographs than I’ve ever been with that lot.
The house is a real labyrinth, as though the guy who designed it just built it on a whim, bit by bit, without a clue of where he was going with it. Now I’m on my own, I just rattle around in it like a pebble in an old boot. Still, I could never leave. Far too many memories.
As kids, my pals and I loved the attic best. We could get away with anything up there. It was dark; there was only the one light bulb, and that was cloaked in dust and worked intermittently at best. All part of the mystique! If anyone did ever venture up there, to warn us, we rigged up some string that ran along the bottom of the banister and into the room, attached to two empty cans. It worked a treat, reacting to the lightest pressure on the old wooden staircase and making a right commotion if someone walked up.
About five years ago, I was decorating the bedrooms and needed some more rags to cover the floor. With nothing to hand and pouring rain making a trip to the shed uninviting, I made the trek up to the top floor, up that creaking wooden staircase to the attic. It was the first time I’d been up there since my childhood.
Oh how it made my old heart warm, hearing those cans chink together as I ascended! They must’ve been sat there collecting dust for more than thirty years, but there they were, on guard as always, warning the creepy crawlies of my imminent arrival.
Remembering the temperamental light, I’d equipped myself with a big old military torch, that my niece and nephew had bought me that Christmas, years ago at that last family get-together. It guided me to the light switch, same place as I remembered, just next to the stairs — though it seemed a little lower, perhaps. The weak glow was just as I remembered and I stood there for a while, imbibing the room. Memories flooded back: I could hear the excited whispers of my dear friends; see games laid out on the floor; feel the burn of a bare knee scraping on wooden boards. Got up to all sorts of mischief up here, we did, and not all stuff that I’d be proud to admit in the cold light of day.
Then I saw myself, all those years ago, running away from a chasing friend and falling hard against the wall near the top of stairs. Perhaps that was why my left shoulder ached with cold these days. The sound I could recall was a hollow one though, a sound that, as a boy, I’d not thought of as wrong. Now though, a lot older and a little wiser, it didn’t quite add up.
I wrenched myself away from the vision and turned to examine the spot of my impact all those years ago, my current mission completely forgotten. You’d think there would be plasterboard covering the bricks, but it didn’t line up with the walls downstairs; there, the landing was bigger and there was a laundry room, too. The house may have been strangely designed but it was beautifully done, too. This couldn’t have been an architectural oversight.
Eager to investigate and with less care than was sensible, I leaned forward to clear a few old boxes, slipped, and lurched forward. The natural reaction was to put out my hands to try and steady myself. Problem was, I was holding that big heavy torch. It was more than the plasterboard could take and my arm pushed straight through.
Recovering my composure — or at least as much as you can with one arm through a wall — the realisation hit me: my arm had gone right through, engulfed up to the elbow. Surely it should have hit something solid after an inch or two? When I pulled myself free I was faced with a fist-sized hole.
Peering in, I couldn’t see a thing. I tried again with the torch’s aid, but the stupid thing was so bulky I couldn’t get it and my eye close enough. I did see something glint, though, reflecting the torchlight. To discover what was answering my inquisitiveness, I’d have to make the hole bigger.
There were no tools up here, just boxes and books, and boxes of books, so I hurried all the way back down the stairs, through the house and out to the shed, without a care for the rain now. By this point excitement had well and truly triumphed over common sense. I located an old tree saw blade and my serrated diving knife, which had become one of the household tools since my Marine days were behind me. Snatching up both, I retraced my steps, more eager than a soldier on his first leave. There was I, a grown man, excited about making a hole in a wall. Too many ‘Commando Comic’ adventures in my youth, evidently!
So there I was, getting my knees grubby, jigging the saw in and out of the hole. Soon I was going at quite a rate, the plasterboard edges crumbling in front of me. It cut easily and I had soon done three sides of a hastily prepared door. It was only when I was cutting the last side that I noticed my hand bleeding. I’d been gripping the unprotected blade so tightly that the rough edges of the blade combined with the friction of the bare metal had made the skin on my hand blister and split, yet the adrenaline coursing through my veins had made me oblivious to the pain. Stopping for a moment, I dabbed at the blood with my handkerchief and then wrapped it tightly around my hand as a makeshift bandage, knowing that I could dress it properly later.
First aid applied, I finished the cut and the board fell away. Like special forces storming the enemy I was straight through the hole, torchlight rather than gunshots flashing from side to side as I tried to take in the entire scene in one go.
It was a room. Not large, probably about ten feet by seven, though it would have been bigger if the eaves hadn’t been boarded in. Smack bang in the middle stood a chair and a side table, and a little more to one side, an old Rediffusion television on stubby legs. Judging by the painted wooden finish of the cabinet, the pale grey wired speaker covers and the long, telescopic ‘rabbit ears’ aerial protruding from the back, I dated it around the late Fifties or early Sixties.
There was a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, just like the one in the attic, though this one even dustier. I managed to locate a switch on the wall. The bulb buzzed and the room flickered into full focus.
Re-examining the scene, I could see the chair was black leather. It wasn’t as old as the TV; probably late Sixties. The table had been white originally, like the walls, but both were now well streaked with the dust and grime that somehow finds its way into even a sealed room as the years tick by. On the table was a folded newspaper, April 1970 it said, the black print still in contrast to the white of the pages, probably as there had been no light to fade it. None of these items intrigued me as much as the television, though.
Its cabinet was massive, a big black box with a curved grey screen like Cyclops’ eye, peering out into the space. Set into the speaker panels on one side were two large black knobs: one marked ‘Tuner’ and one ‘On/Off’ and ‘Volume’. Intent on seeing if the thing still worked I nervously stretched out my hand. As I did so I noticed a mark just below the centre of the screen, as if something had run out from under the glass — some liquid that had later discolored and congealed as it had fallen to the floor. Whatever it was had left a stain about the size of a land mine on the floorboards.
I reached beyond the distraction and turned the ‘On/Off’ switch, more in hope than expectation. Yet, there was a faint crackle, then a hum coming from the back, and a white dot appeared in the centre of the screen.
I watched and waited for what seemed like an age, but aside from a faint smell of burning as the insides of the set warmed up, there was nothing. Disappointed, I slumped back into the chair, not really noticing the cloud of dust that I disturbed, as my eyes were still fixed on the eternal grey of the screen, with just that one pinprick of bright white.
When I’d almost given up hope, suddenly the white pinprick grew. It kept growing until it covered the whole screen. It reminded me of a dense blizzard, but beneath the snow there were shadows of shapes, people perhaps, moving. Then, through the hiss from the single monotone speaker, I thought I heard a voice.
I rushed over to the set and grabbed at the tuner knob, at the same time mentally grabbing at myself so I kept my hand steady and didn’t just spin it to some ethereal oblivion. I touched it, and cajoled it, and turned it really slowly, my eyes fixed on the screen. Turn to the left and the blizzard thickened, but turning to the right I suddenly got the black and white image of a room, a big table under lights, some people and, as the crackle and hiss dissipated, a voice!
Very serious and very concise, very Radio 4, my mum would have said. Quiet at first, it grew louder as if reaching out across the generations from a demure, well-spoken time. It matched the scene before my eyes perfectly.
I was struck by the realization that this television wasn’t just working, it was working with sound and image harking back to a world before there was colour. It wasn’t displaying a modern program in monochrome; the scenes in front of me were coming from a time long past, perhaps from the last time the set was used.
Welcome to London’s Victoria Halls for the final of the World Snooker Championship. London this afternoon is bathed in early April sunshine, but there is still a nip in the air. Inside these hallowed halls the players have entered the arena, sitting at opposite corners of the table, soon to commence what will surely be another epic battle.
So said the mystery man in his Oxford English, as the camera slowly — and with an occasional jump — panned around the arena. I saw a crowd at the edge of the space and then something caught my eye. It was a man, perhaps approaching middle age, looking right through the screen at me. It may have been just a trick of the light or the camera, but I’d swear he looked straight into my eyes; his eyes a window of fear and sadness. When it looked as if he was going to speak to me, there was a crackle and a jolt and the camera moved on. The man reminded me a bit of my dad. Probably just a bit of wishful thinking, caught up in the mix of emotions that this slice of living history had awoken.
Our two challengers today are both surely champions in their own right. John Pullman has been at the pinnacle of the game throughout the last decade, having successfully defended his title seven times up to 1968. Ray Reardon is relatively new on the scene, but holder of course of the inaugural Pot Black Championship, played up at the BBC Birmingham studios late last year. Let’s hope these frames reflect some of the explosive snooker we saw in that tournament!
The voice continued, describing the scene before my transfixed eyes: the crowd, the table and the two protagonists, as well as the Referee, hidden in the shadows. I scanned the people in the background, hoping to see that face again, but to no avail. The lights in the arena dimmed and the match began.
So, Ray Reardon is about to start this, the first frame…
The voice was no more than a whisper now, silenced so as not to disturb the concentration of the players.
…placing the ball as he has hundreds of times before, he will break from a position between the ash grey and the slate grey into the third and fourth dark grey balls, on the right hand side of the pack as he faces it.
He played his stroke and there was a single report as the cue ball hit its intended target, then continued its journey to the top rail. It rebounded across the angle to the side, then again to travel between the mid grey and the pale grey to the cushion on the opposite side, then onto the baulk cushion almost directly behind the grey, before settling just a foot or so from where it started it’s journey, now shielded from most of the dark greys by the slate grey.
Satisfied with the outcome, a quick glance up the table from behind the cue ball confirms that the dark greys, disturbed by the break, will not leave an early opportunity for Pullman, who is now striding forcefully to the table, the chalk in his right hand, gently caressing the cue in his left.
The commentator’s voice was melodic, soothing, almost.
Pullman then, stooping behind the cue ball, surveying the scene, aiming at the inside edge of the dark grey, which has broken away from the right hand side of the pack. He’s hoping to push it into the baize covered cushion…
Something about the way he said ‘grey’ then snapped my consciousness back to my surroundings. Everything I could see was black and white, or shades of grey; it wasn’t just the picture on the TV, it was everything in the room. My t-shirt was black, and so were my jeans, and my trainers were white. My dark hair was black in the light and the dimness of the bulb, mixed with the reflection coming from the ancient cathode ray tube, had given my skin a chalky tone.
Startled, I spun around to survey the whole room: black chair and TV; white table and walls, though both now looking ash grey through the accumulation of dust and the floor; the mixture of dust and dark wood at my feet almost slate in colour, save for the stain in front of the table, that now seeming blacker than anything else in the room.
…from where it will again take close order with its fourteen compatriots while the white spins away.
I heard the commentator’s voice but I didn’t really take in his words. My concentration was locked on this colourless space, looking for something, anything, that would break the monochrome spell that had engulfed me.
Will this be an opening for the expert long range potter, Reardon? He’s at the table now, legs braced some eighteen inches apart, not considering what appears to be a straightforward pot, but contemplating the side he must apply to the white ball.
I know he played the shot quite powerfully, as there was a reaction from the unseen crowd and then the crack as the cue ball struck the target. Then the white dissected the table, passing to the left of the ash grey and similarly the mid grey, almost stroking the pale grey on the way through — at least, that was what the commentary told me. My eyes were rapidly moving around the room, now desperately searching to find even the smallest speck of colour.
There was nothing.
…the sharp contact firmly forcing the dark grey as intended into the deep black hole of the pocket.
The whispered voice spoke again, this time in a ghostly tone. As he mentioned the black hold, I felt cold — not cold as if I had cooled down, not even cold as though a draught from some distant window had crept by, but an ice-cold, as if someone had opened a freezer door inside me. Just for a moment, though, and as suddenly as I felt it, it had passed.
I sat deep in the chair, confused, questioning myself and my senses. I had no explanation for any of this. Then, as I glanced across at the TV and its varying shades of grey, I saw him again. That same face, still looking at me, those eyes again locking with mine, just for the second that they were on-screen. Perhaps it was an image of a spirit from ages past, that somehow had become trapped inside this grey world. As the thought crossed my mind, so the image disappeared, the camera moving slightly as Reardon adjusted his position for the next shot.
Reardon again mentally checks his stroke then forcefully pots the back, the spin and recoil taking the white into the dark greys, before it spins off into the open space between the remnants of the pack and the side cushion. Smiling at the outcome after playing an uncharacteristically strong shot, he’s released several dark greys from the pack without blocking the path between the black spot and either of the corner pockets, so there’s a good chance of a high scoring break here.
The lack of colour around me forgotten, I was now completely transfixed by the screen. Nothing else mattered; I wanted to see that face again. There was a short silence, then the monosyllabic tone interrupted again.
The referee has carefully replaced the black, his white gloves in sharp contrast to the ball which was given a cursory wipe to clean the surface en route from pocket to table. Reardon settles again.
I heard the commentary, I know, and I must have remembered it as I can recount it now, but at the time I wasn’t listening. My eyes searched the most distant and darkest corners of the picture, searching for a face, that one face that I wanted to come forward from the shadows to tell me its message.
Probably his favourite position on the table this, again with a slight angle on the dark grey allowing just enough diversion on the pot to set himself, albeit on the other side of the table, to follow with another almost certain seven points–
There was a pause in the commentary as Reardon stood after a slight error, contemplating his options. The camera panned to a wider shot, but to no avail. I saw nothing except the grim darkness of the unlit arena, this time only shadows making up the crowd silently watching the battle unfold.
After a moment or two, the commentator rattled on, as if frightened by a protracted pause, as if he thought his viewers would go if there was nothing to grab their attention. I wasn’t going anywhere; I was now trapped, not by the broadcast or the game or the support of either of the two protagonists, but trapped in that past, looking for a fearful face that I was sure had a message for me.
The break came to an end and just as the commentary stopped, the referee in the background recounted the score to the silent audience: Reardon sixteen. The different tone startled me momentarily, but my eyes remained locked on the screen.
So, Pullman approaches the table after what seems an age. Stepping up, he’s looking around the table, thinking out his shot, and with four dark greys to choose from, there are plenty of options. Settling now, it looks from his position that he’s actually aiming for the left hand of the two dark greys that are close together in the middle of the four, so that means he’s probably going to stun the white. That should see him on the black, but if not — if the white stops too quickly — he’ll have a relatively easy pot of the pale grey into the middle pocket.
Shot played and the dark grey potted, Pullman stood as he prepared to take up his next position, but there was no chance for me to see the crowd as the picture flashed off. Then an age-old black horizontal bar shuddered its slow path from the bottom of the screen to the top, before repeating the process.
When the picture recovered, Pullman was well into his next stroke and the commentator’s whisper was again drifting towards me across the room.
He’s settling himself in now to pot the pale grey — and there it goes, the white with a slight screw just pulling back behind the spot where the pale grey will be replaced, and in perfect position for either of the two right hand dark greys, then a subsequent black. This break should really build from here.
As I momentarily forgot the face and wondered about the attraction of watching snooker without its usual brilliant display of colour, there was a pop and a crackle. Then, shapeless darkness. The picture and sound were gone again, withdrawn as if in anger at my thoughts, this time replaced by a single sheet of grey glass.
I stood and tried to re-tune, but as I did the dull, featureless slide was replaced with a white on grey banner.
With nothing to see on the screen, I glanced at my watch and realised I had been in this strange monochrome room for over an hour. Escaping to the relative normality of the rest of the house, I was so wrapped up in the mystery of this old TV set that I decided to take it with me. I’m not sure what my plan was, but I think I was anticipating connecting it up to an old video recorder to try and capture the images — but whatever, almost robotically, I turned off and unplugged the set and carried it out through the hole.
Clambering down the tight staircase was no easy task laden with this beast of obsolete technology, but I managed it, and set the box down in what I had laughingly called the study. It was a room among many not regularly used any longer, but it had at least become a prime area storage — and my desk, as I occasionally tried to work here in the evenings, comforted by yet more boxes of books and clothes and records that stood in file, like silent guards around a perimeter.
I placed the set on my old footlocker opposite the desk and plugged it in. When I brought it back to life, disappointingly I found that, perhaps due to my bumper car ride down the staircase, I had disturbed the tuning. The screen was again filled with snow, speakers hissing as they had earlier. Gently, I turned the knob, hoping to find the shadows and then the figures that I had unearthed previously. Nothing happened.
Then, as I wiggled it this way and that, the white on grey text of the banner vanished, replaced with a burst of colour like an exploding firework, accompanied by such clarity of sound it sounded like someone was right there in the study with me.
Snooker was still on — except this time it was highlights from a recent game — the biggest break or something, I think the commentator said. Looked like The Masters in all its bright and colourful glory; Ronnie O’Sullivan cruising to victory over a young Chinese lad, Ding. I was stunned. How could this relic from a bygone age show me a modern game?
O’Sullivan was about to record the hundredth point of his break.
He strides around the table having dispatched the last of the reds with some ease, his angle on the black just right to allow him to power the cue ball around the table. Back towards baulk and the yellow, the first of the six colours that he will dispatch to seal this quickfire victory.
I gawped at the set, just as I had when it had sprung to life in the attic. I was completely confused, now. O’Sullivan dispatched the yellow and quickly followed with the green, and there were no distractions for me in this crowd this time, all bathed in the arena lights and enjoying the contest. Then, just as suddenly as the picture had appeared, it was gone.
The grey screen returned, the pinprick of white in the centre the tell-tale sign that this was not a loss in transmission, but that the set had either turned itself off or finally failed. I flicked the switch and left it for a count of ten, then turned it back on in the hope that something had overheated, and in those few moments would have recovered. No such luck. Not a flicker of life, no matter what I tried.
I sat back, deflated, wondering if there was anything I could do to fix the set. I even considered calling out a repair man, though that seemed desperate, nobody would have the know-how to fix this old thing. Even if they did, could I — or would I — explain to them what I had seen, and why it was so important to me? I could just see the reaction in Dixon’s, me standing there, rabbiting on about a forty-year-old snooker match, a funny face in the crowd… I’m sure the men in white coats would have been close behind.
Looking outside, the rain had been replaced by a dense fog, the vista before me as grey as the unlit television screen. That spurred me on. I felt that it was some kind of sign, telling me to try and make this damn set work again.
In the back of the shed I had a few bits and pieces that might do the trick. I even had some old valves that I’d rescued from a radio. I never really knew why I kept them, I suppose it was just one of those ‘they’ll be useful one day’ scenarios. Well, today was that day. I quickly grabbed a coffee — black of course — then went out to the shed to rescue the bits and a bag of tools.
Back inside, I set to work. My hands trembled with foolish anticipation, making it difficult to even undo the screws that held the back cover in place. There was plenty of dust inside, coating the valves and cathode ray tube, but to my great distress — if not surprise — I could see nothing obviously wrong. Still, I tinkered and twisted, screwed and unscrewed, then screwed again, in the hope that I may work some magic on a mysterious faulty part.
I had nothing in my box of bits that even looked vaguely like it could possibly fit in the back of this monster and eventually, somewhat in despair, I stopped tinkering and re-assembled the set, ready to move it back upstairs, back to it’s tomb, and perhaps back to another forty years of darkness. Before I went I gave it one more go, plugging it back in and switching it on again with forlorn hope. Exactly as before though, there was nothing.
Defeated, I unplugged the set and took it up into the attic, back into the black and white room. There were distinct marks in the dust where it had stood previously, and for some reason I felt it imperative to put it back just as I had found it.
I even plugged it back in again, but resisted trying anything else. I sat back into the black leather chair with a sigh, desolate, resigned to never know how or why it had shown me what it had, or even who the face in the crowd belonged to. Then as if at some distance, there was a hiss. I looked over at the television and noticed that in the centre of the screen was a bright white spot.
I was elated.
I simply watched, too nervous to move as the spot grew. Then it faded, but soon grew bright again, before stuttering some more. It was as though there wasn’t quite enough power, or something was loose. I ran downstairs to get the tool bag and then, two at a time, bounded back up the attic stairs. Frantically I undid the screws on the back of the set, it’s screen still pulsing as it tried to return to life. I pushed and pressed everything I could, at the same time looking for any further progress with the picture or clearer sound, and gently turning the tuning knob from one end to the other in the hope of catching a signal.
After a few minutes the rhythmic modulation of the screen stopped and the picture settled. The shadows returned and the hiss had the faint note of a voice once again. I stopped touching and poking, then regaining my composure, as the very first time, I slowly turned the tuner to the right. The images on the screen became clearer and the haunting commentary returned.
So Pullman sets himself again, this next dark grey followed by the mid grey or better will see Reardon requiring a snooker if he’s to stay in the frame.
There in the background, for just a moment, before both image and sound faded once more, was that face.
I spun myself to the back of the set, happy now that it was tuned to the correct signal, as I wanted to make sure everything was in place. My eager hands ran over the varied surfaces, and then pressed on one component too many. I brushed the DC connection on the back of the cathode ray tube, and the jolt from the power caused an involuntary muscular grip, my hand closing quickly and tightly around the terminals.
I wasn’t shaking and I felt no pain, I just had this strange sensation of shrinking, as though I was being sucked into the very innards of the set. The room seemed to darken and I looked over toward the hole I had made, but couldn’t find it. Where I had made my entrance into this past era there was a wall, restored and complete, and as grey and dank as the others, with not a sign of my efforts.
Still shrinking I was now being pulled into the set, in through the back cover, as if held by some mystical hand, refitting itself, throwing me and the interior into sudden darkness. All my senses were in shock. Then, in front of me I noticed a small white circle of light in the centre of a grey panel. As i watched it, it slowly shrank, until there was just a pinprick remaining.
I felt drained, as though the very substance of my life was slipping away. I looked down; there, running out under the screen from the front of the TV, was my blood, as if being squeezed from a sponge. Slowly trickling in a thin line down the case, dripping and pooling on the floor just as my ‘lost’ uncle’s had, all those years before. Its redness was the only colour in the room, but as it splashed to the floor, even that faded to grey, too.
Then, as though with a final bright flourish, the pinprick of white was, like me, extinguished.
Forever Snookered by Roger Slater is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.