I would get in from school at about 4:00. Children’s Television would be allowed from 5:00, but at 5:45 it was switched off so we could sit down for dinner at 6:00. Tidying up at 6:30. At around 7:30 the television might be turned on for ‘Dad’s Army’ or ‘Are You Being Served’ but by 8:30 it was night time and I would have to go upstairs to bed. The 16 watt economy bulb on the landing would make my ‘Big Worry’ grow in my tummy, crawl up to my neck and finally bury itself in my ears. From downstairs, through the muffled TV banter I might catch Mum or Dad moving about or even better speaking. If there was a comedy on and he liked it, they would laugh. That was fantastic, a double helping of relief. Not only were they still there, they were happy. I knew the schedule. ‘World in Action’ at 8:30 on Tuesdays, The News at 10:00 every day, The Good Life, Thursdays, The Sweeney, News at 10:00 – Big Ben – bong, bong, bong announced a further half an hour during which my ears would be stretched open like the mouths of hungry birds. At 10:30 the TV weather forecast promised the most precious parade of sounds. The kitchen door opening and my Dad going to the outside toilet, taps running, doors being locked, lights being turned off and finally my Mum creeping up the stairs so as not to wake me. Then my Big Worry would let me off until the next night.
I had always had little worries. At six years old I heard a teacher in the school canteen say to another teacher that ‘I was the nervous one’. She may have gone on to say something like, ‘be gentle with him’ but if she did, I didn’t hear it because she whispered. The canteen was frightening and smelt of lamb and sick. My house was OK and didn’t smell of anything but my house was where my Big Worry waited, that is until my eighth Christmas morning.
In the living room our stove was lit, a Christmas treat and we had a tree with a dozen lights, but the biggest parcel in the pile was disappointingly light. I only liked heavy toys. Toys made of metal with gears and engines. I liked to think they were not really toys at all. This was cream plastic and felt like a toy. A length of skinny, plaited wire and two small cases with oval shaped gold painted grills buried in some crumbly polystyrene. It looked like the sort of thing other boys might want to get as a Christmas present – and those were always the presents I pretended to like but didn’t. I pulled the bits out of the polystyrene and read the instructions.
“Listen-in secretly from another room or even outside. The ‘Realistic’ Spy Intercom. Range 50 yards. Battery included”.
This was quite a bit better than it looked. It was a toy that did something. That worked. It was real. My Dad looked pleased, because I looked pleased, and my Mum looked relieved that whatever it was, I understood it and seemed to like it.
After Christmas dinner at 1:00 I carefully positioned one end of the Realistic on the table in the sitting room. I stood it up, like a family photo. I turned the golden grill toward the settee where they sat. Then I laid the skinny wire up the stairs, against the banister – so no one would trip. I couldn’t use sellotape because that would pull of the paint but the wire could be tucked and wound round things. They were pleased with me wanting to get it all set up so tidily. Anytime they needed me, they could press the lever and buzz me. No need even to say anything, just buzz and I would come. As Dad said, there was no need to keep the intercom switched on all the time and waste batteries. I could pop down in a trice. It took most of the afternoon to get it all just right but I was so pleased I showed them what I had done. After Christmas tea at 6:00 and Morecambe and Wise at 7:30 I was ready for bed. Armed with the Realistic I actually looked forward.
“Time for bed don’t you think” announced Dad. I kissed them both and strode to the living room door and up the stairs to the toilet. I got into bed, stretched out to full length reached over and gently rotated the dial to on. Keeping the volume as low as possible I lay under an eiderdown with a golden grill smiling at my left ear. I was amazed at how sensitive the ‘Realistic’ was. Even with the volume turned down it was able quite easily to pick out a gulp from a quiet burp or a slipper scuffing against a chair leg from the rustle of the radio times. With the ‘Realistic’ maybe you really would be able to hear a pin drop. It was important that Dad didn’t know I had kept it switched on draining the battery. I had to turn it off as they came up the stairs. I would be embarrassed if they knew how babyish I was. As soon as I heard mum tread on the bottom stair I switched it off, hung the ‘Realistic’ on its little brass hook next to my bed and rolled over, brave enough to face away from the 16 watts of dark confident that with the Realistic they couldn’t disappear. For 364 nights the Realistic and I slept soundly together. My Big Worry stayed away. That is until my 9th Christmas Eve.
On my ninth Christmas Eve I woke with the ‘Realistic’ on my pillow hissing. It took me a moment. Waking up in the middle of the night now seemed very unfamiliar, as if years had passed since the last time. I did not feel sick or need to go to the toilet but something was beginning to make me want to cry. For the first time since the Realistic I had missed hearing mum and dad come up the stairs. I had fallen asleep. The gold painted grill grinned at me caught by the 16 watts from the landing. No. Of course they were still downstairs on the settee watching ‘Panorama’. Thank you! I thrust my ear into the ‘Realistic’ and listened intently. Had I thought I would have known this was stupid. I knew the ‘‘Realistic’’ could hear a pin drop. It would hardly fail to hear a Bush television set at seven. Still I flattened my ear against the speaker. At first I heard nothing except the swirl of electronics. I raised the volume. I thought I heard something familiar very feint against the deafening hiss. No nothing. I closed my eyes and buried my other ear into the pillow to soak up any other sound. I listened. My hearing pounded. Again I heard a faint whisper. The sound of a breath but I couldn’t be sure. I wanted it so much I might have wished it. I wrapped the pillow even more tightly around my head. Time passed. Then the electronic hiss ceased suddenly allowing the fermenting sound to penetrate and reach my ear clearly. It was a breath. Held, and then another. One after another. In out, in out. It was relief. I lay face up releasing the pillow. I laughed. I could do something. I could listen really hard and the Big Worry would run away. And then another breath. Higher pitched this time. Loud and clear. A man and a woman perhaps. Surely Mum and Dad. Breathing, well, happy, still here. But asleep. Surely not. It was not likely. They slept in their bed from 10:45pm until 7:00am. They did not ever sleep anywhere else or at any other time. I stepped out of bed onto the landing and screamed. “Mum, Dad are you alright” and at that moment the ‘Realistic’ screamed back.
A deafening and absurd medley of theme tunes. The Golden Shot, Songs of Praise, World in Action, the Good Life shouted their melodies, fighting to be heard. I recognised them all. They were my lullabys. But they shouted and so did I. ‘Mum, Dad” I yelled against the shouting. They can’t hear me, the TV is too loud. Something is wrong with the Realistic. The 16 watts seemed darker than ever. It glowed dark. I reached for the skinny wire and ran it through my finger and thumb as I felt my way down the stairs. An ending was taking shape in my head and I needed to see it. I opened the living room door the noise stopped. The television was on and the room was cheerful with the Christmas tree lights. I saw it. Mum and Dad were not there.
I didn’t stay. I cleared the stairs to the landing in three stumbling leaps. “Mum Dad where are you”! Any hesitance had gone. I needed them to be back and screaming was all that I had left. I crashed through the door to their bedroom.
I had arrived. It had arrived. After years tucked up in a corner my Big Worry had slid in and now it filled me and my house. The worry spread through me, buried and chocked me down. The plot that had framed every day of my life up until that day was finally closing in and finishing. It was ending. I felt like I had when I had once wet the bed but worse. It drained down my pyjama bottoms and my stomach gulped and farted. Instinctively I strained to hold it back tugging on the closed curtain for support, preventing myself from squatting. The curtain pulled open and by the grey outdoor light I saw them.
They had not disappeared. They were on the bed side by side, absurdly symmetrically arranged. My white Mum and Dad lying on their backs, naked. The skinny wire could be seen trailing between them dividing the bed into two equal halves. Every 6 inches it was selotaped to the sheet giving the appearance of a scar expertly stitched. Their heads were meticulously presented on a pillow each. Their mouths were open. Open too far, stretched into a perfect oval. A gold painted grill caught the grey light. From the grill came a hiss. They were breathing. It was 3 o’clock exactly.