I think it was Columbo
(Extract from the book)
You know, the little man in the scruffy raincoat. Mary and I used to watch him a lot. Evenings, when he was on. And mostly weekends; they put him on a lot at the weekends. Good detective stories. I always loved the way he would finish talking to someone, walk away and then turn round, full of apologies, put his hand to his head – usually still holding a cigar – and say ‘Oh just one more thing’ and often as not he would then accuse them of murder, prove it and wrap the whole thing up there and then. The murderer was always surprised and couldn’t believe how he’d been beaten by the innocent, quiet little man."It's Columbo, Peggy.” Peggy is a niece from Mary’s side and often drops in to see me. Sometimes we watch some TV together like now.
“That’s right Bill. I know you’ve always liked him, haven’t you?”
I’m sipping my tea so all I can do is nod, and we both go back to watching the programme. I think it’s nearly the end now. He’s unmasked the murderer – doing his thing with his hand on his head again! – and he’s getting in his battered old car and slowly driving off, talking back to the girl who had seen him out of the house and into his car. Waving backwards as he drives.
Peggy’s on her feet. “That was good. I hadn’t seen that one before. Thanks Bill. And thanks for the tea.”
She’s walking towards the TV, stretching out her hand towards the knobs to turn it off.
WHAT THE HELL IS SHE DOING? Is she not thinking? What IS she thinking?
“Don’t!” I can hear myself shouting, praying I’ll be in time. “Don’t! Leave it alone!”
Peggy’s just frozen, stopped dead, and she’s turned towards me, looking at me blankly. But is there a gleam of menace in her eye? Is she deliberately trying to kill me? They say your blood can run cold; mine is now. I wish I could tell you how I feel. I look again and I can hardly recognise her. An evil look. An, icy, evil look in her eyes. A cunning, furtive look. She knows exactly what she’s doing. “What’s up?” she’s asking, all innocently. “What’s the matter Bill?”
“Leave it alone.”
“Ok. I didn’t know you wanted to watch it. You just have to say so.”
“I don’t want to watch it.”
“But you don’t want me to turn it off?”
What can you say to someone who’s being deliberately evil? I’m so afraid I can feel myself shaking. “No.”
“You were reading your paper when I came in. We put the telly on together. I thought you’d want it back off again. But whatever you want.....”
“Ok,” I say, and I can hear my own voice rasping. I don’t want to say anything. Don’t want to put any ideas into her head just in case...... I can see from the furtive look in her eyes that she knows exactly what’s going on, but just in case she doesn’t, I don’t want to say it. Don’t want to make it real in the room between us. All I have to do is get her out of here and I’ll be safe.
I’m so scared, so on tenterhooks, that I can only quietly watch as she puts a few things in her bag, picks up her coat, just lays it over her arm, and walks towards the door. She’s looking at me, quietly. That look is still there. Keep going towards the door, I’m praying. Keep going. But she doesn’t. She’s stopped. Putting her coat over the back of my armchair and coming slowly towards me.
“Are you alright, Bill?”
“Of course I’m alright. Why shouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. You just seemed a bit .....well, funny ... for a moment there. Not quite yourself.”
Keep quiet. Say nothing. Say nothing.
“And you still do. Something’s bothering you isn’t it? Something about the telly? Are you sure you want it left on?”
“LEAVE IT ALONE.” I can feel my cheeks hot, wet. I can feel the water running down my face.
Peggy has dropped her bag onto the chair and come right up close to my face. “Ok, that’s it. Something’s really wrong and I want to know what it is. What’s troubling you?”
When I look now right into her eyes I can see straightaway that I’ve been wrong. There is real concern there, real loving care. I don’t know why I’d thought she was trying to kill me. I can see that she’s really concerned about me. Worried about me.
“Why are you crying, Bill? What’s up mate?”
I want to tell her. Maybe then she can make sure it never happens, that no-one ever tries to turn the TV off again. I can see my hands still shaking, but I know now I can trust her. “You were going to turn the TV off.”
“Yes. And you didn’t want me to?”
“What are you thinking of?” The tears are really running now, but Peggy’ll help me I know. “What on earth were you thinking of?”
“I don’t understand Bill.”
“I don’t know what would have happened. Do you know what would have happened?”
“I’m sorry Bill, I just don’t understand. Tell me what would have happened.”
“Well, if you’d turned the TV off.....” I don’t want to say it. Don’t want to voice it. Don’t want to hear the horror of it made real in the room, even by my own voice.
“What would have happened if I had turned the telly off?”
“WELL, WHERE WOULD I HAVE GONE?”
“I don’t understand. Where would you have gone? D’you mean what would you do next? Go shopping or something? I don’t know what you mean.”
“Where would I have gone? If you had turned the TV off, where would I have gone?”
Peggy is just standing there shaking her head, looking into my eyes. I suddenly realise that she is rubbing a handkerchief down my face, wiping tears away. This is so frustrating, I don’t know how to tell her what I mean. I mean, how can I tell her about something I don’t know about? How can I tell her what I don’t know?
“Where would I have gone?” I say again.
“Shall we turn off the telly and see?”
I can’t tell you the fear that’s gripping me. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. “What the fucking hell are you thinking of?” I guess maybe I shouted because she’s really jumped back, really shocked. She’s pulling my arm off hers and I realise that I’ve been gripping her arm, and from the way she’s pulling at it I must have been hurting her. I feel bad, guilty, and let go immediately. Now she’s come right up to my face, holding both my arms in both her hands but gently, kindly, and she’s looking square into my eyes. “Tell me what’s scaring you Bill. Tell me.”
“Well..... If you turned off the TV where would I go? Where does Columbo go when you turn off the TV?” Does he die? Does he go where dead people go, even for a short while? “Does he go to hell?” Can he still think when he’s .... gone. “Where do they go? Where would I go?”
Peggy’s looking a bit askance at me now. “I can’t make you out. You’re rambling a bit mate. Who goes to hell? Are you worrying about going to hell? I’m just getting fragments of sentences from you – calm down and get a grip for a minute.”
We look at each other for a bit.
“Do you mean that you think that if I turned the telly off I would somehow turn you off as well?” she asks.
“Sort of I suppose. Wherever they go I suppose I’d go. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to go away.”
“You’re having a bit of a funny moment here Bill. The telly’s just a machine. It just puts up pictures. It’s all make-believe. You’re real. You’re here. In this room. With me. You’re not the same as the telly. You don’t go anywhere when the telly goes off.”
That doesn’t make the slightest sense. I don’t know what to say though, so I say nothing. Mary always said if you don’t know what to say it’s best to say nothing.
“You’ve turned the telly off before,” Peggy went on. “Nothing ever happened did it?”
“Of course I’ve never turned off the TV before,” I tell her. “I’m not stupid.”
“You turn the telly off every night when you go to bed don’t you?”
“No.” At least I’m sure about that.
“Let’s try something else here. If I had turned the telly off do you think I would have gone away as well?”
That didn’t make sense, but can I explain it to her? “You’re not in there are you? I am.”
“You mean that I’m not in the television, but you are? You’re in it with Columbo? You’re where he is, and I’m not.”
“But we’re here in the same room Bill. How can you be somewhere I’m not? We’re here together so whatever would happen to you would happen to me. Wouldn’t it?”
I don’t know how to explain it to her. I can’t make a picture in my head of what I want to say.
“Let’s try this. Look at the telly now Bill. Look at it now.”
I look at it.
“Columbo’s not there is he? There’s an advert on now. A woman talking about shampoo. For washing your hair. So where’s Columbo now? Where’s he gone? And wherever he is, we’re still here. Both of us. Together. We’re here together Bill. Does that make sense?”
I’m confused. I know she’s wrong, but I can’t put my finger on why. I need to make a picture in my head of what I’m talking about and I can’t make the picture come. But somehow it all doesn’t seem so frightening now. “Doesn’t seem so scary.” “I don’t feel so anxious now.” “More relaxed.” Perhaps I exaggerated it. My legs feel week and I have to sit down, so I do. Keep quiet. It feels easier now. “Feels calmer.”
“Not so scary? Good. Are you ok now?” she asks.
“I am. Really. I am. I got a bit scared, that’s all. I’m ok.”
“I should get going Bill, but I can stay if you want me to.”
“No, I’m alright. I’m ok. You get going.”
“I’ll have a chat with Mikey. See if he can pop round later. Is that ok with you?”
“Oh yes, of course. I like to see Michael. If he can pop round that would be lovely.”
“Ok Bill. I’ll have a word with him. You’re really ok?”
“Yes. I’ll make myself a cup of tea and have a sit down.”
Peggy kisses me and leaves. The idea of a cup of tea sounds pretty good to me. I’ll pop in the kitchen and make one. I’m sure my kids mess this kitchen up when they come over; I can’t find the milk and when I do I then can’t find the sugar. The milk turned up in the fridge. Maybe that’s right; I’m feeling pretty tired to be honest. Maybe that’s it, I’m just tired. I’ve managed to get it all sorted anyway and I’m looking forward to sitting down in the living room and with my cuppa.
My paper’s on the table so I’m going to have a little read. Mary and I used to read the papers together. Oh yes, I’d been reading it before Peggy arrived hadn’t I?
That’s right. Of course, Peggy was just here wasn’t she?
Well it was nice to have that little break but it’s time for bed. And I can see that Peggy must have left the TV on when she left, silly girl. I lean over and turn it off.
She said Michael might visit didn’t she?
I went back to the paper for a bit. Perhaps Michael will come over and visit soon.