The TV Show
Exclusive new fiction by Victoria Manifold
On the wall of the ward, above our beds, there is one heavy and large-ish television BALANCED PRECARIOUSLY.
With nothing much else to do we have taken to watching the same TV show at the same time every day.
The TV show is perhaps seven or nine hours long but time works differently here so nothing is ever exact. The TV show is a quiz show with a high stakes element. The TV show could easily be described as a complex marathon. But the TV show could easily be described also as a discounted ballet or a rewarding balloon ride or a delicate professorial endeavour. That’s the thing with using words to describe things — it’s very easy to do.
I am injured in a secret way. And my arms, my arms are nothing special. Fingers at the ends, as expected. There are four other people on the ward with me and each of them has their own secret afflictions to incapacitate them. The doctors and nurses arrive on conveyor belts or mechanical trollies or those roller-skates they issue at the school for doctors and nurses and every day it is a different one, never the same medical practitioner twice. They touch us only when absolutely necessary.
Through a flap in the wall we are given our daily meal: dry flakes of sustainable fish in tins, lumps of wet custard in miniature polystyrene cauldrons. Although it is barely edible we take what is offered to us, but why wouldn’t we? It’s only natural.
Beneath the television there is a long window looking out onto a hostile corridor. The new nurse holds up a sign to the window that reads REMEMBER TO STAY HYDRATED. The latest doctor places a hand on her shoulder. The sign falls to the floor. We turn our heads back up to the television. The TV show is starting and we cannot miss a second.
The TV show begins with the usual colourful graphics, animated finger joints and suchlike, accompanied by a smooth voiceover making the announcements. A giant clock — I mean absolutely huge — fills the entire screen and a clown’s laugh is followed by the catchphrase: “When the clock strikes [SHOW TITLE] it’s time for [SHOW TITLE]!” and then the gongs. Minutes and minutes of gongs. So many gongs. But it’s those soft and melodious gongs we haven’t heard since childhood and so our eyes swell with nostalgia.
The host of the TV show finally breezes in on a wave of adulation at nine minutes and thirteen seconds, lavishly blinking away the biodegradable glitter shower raining upon them. They’re wearing the red bustier and matching codpiece again, a favourite amongst us ward dwellers. They pick up this season’s megaphone and tell the audience WE CARE ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT. The audience screeches and we let out gentle whoops as the host twirls in their glitter, the sparkles biodegrading before our nostalgia-swollen eyes. I waggle the most useless parts of my body and the four others perform similar gestures with the disease-riddled parts of their own bodies. This is just a way we can demonstrate our arousal.
The screen fills with an army of assistants that the host of the TV show needs to fasten their 600lb wig in place. We’re loath to admit it but it is quite dull to watch this part — the various wooden props and wires and string that are necessary to wrangle it into place are made of such ugly materials, utterly incongruous with the rest of the aesthetic — so that we become absolutely sickened, often to the point of vomiting up our fish and custard. The TV executives must know this because lately, in what can only be described as a desperate scramble for ratings, they have begun plucking out members of the studio audience with oversized mechanical tongs and filming them flailing before setting them down to scurry off as the wig is leveraged into place. The whole segment lasts for around fifteen minutes and nine seconds and given the lack of any real action we use this time to talk to one another, although it is true that we have nothing to say.
We have each of us been here for an unspecifiable amount of time. When we try to recall our respective admissions it is impossible for us. We have learned to accept that this is simply how things are now. We see the doctors of course. And when we see them we ask them “How long have I been here?” and “How long will I stay here?” The first doctor was called Sack Cloth and Ashes, the second one This Year’s Tree Levy, the third one Unassailable Paper Stock and so on and so on, until the names just blurred into each other and we only recognised them collectively as The Cause of Our Pain. All of their teeth are heavily stained from the stresses of the job and each one retires soon after their first visit to our ward. They answer our questions with small bleached wooden sticks, with blunt injections and cool metal attached to rubber hoses.
All I knew was that it was the machinery that had caused my suffering. It always is. It had passed all the safety tests, there was a little yellow sticker to say so, and a man checked regularly, peeling off the sticker and putting another in its place. So actually, if I’m remembering correctly, it wasn’t the machinery as such. It was more that the cogs of the machinery had been coated in a lubricant derived from a specific fungus that grew in an almost non-existent rainforest and that this fungus, when mixed with human sweat, caused a PROFOUND AND PAINFUL reaction. And that as the chief lubricator of the machinery I was profoundly and painfully AT RISK.
I presume I was admitted to the hospital at some point between one minute to one year after the inevitable chemical reaction. What followed was an operation that was more like a prayer. Lying on the sterilised table as they chanted and lit candles, as they rubbed their talismans and burnt their incense. The peaks of their hoods were set in silhouette against a ceiling the colour of a prosthetic limb. It was here that it became obvious I must learn to keep secrets and that my pain must be present all over my face but never communicated beyond a faraway look in my eyes. And once I had learnt this I could be placed in the ward with the others and we could enjoy the TV show every day.
After an hour and thirty-seven minutes or so of the preliminaries, the contestants are introduced — blindfolded, plus bound and gagged, and then slowly unblindfolded, unbound and ungagged, by the host of the TV show. Then they are lowered inch by inch into the machines. The lowering stirs us up, really gets us going. We long to be lowered in such a way and we have all constructed in our heads our written applications to become contestants on the TV show.
You see from the ward it is difficult but not impossible to apply to become a contestant on the TV show and we five curiously afflicted ward dwellers are trying hard to bribe a nurse to carry our applications and supporting materials to the studio where the TV show is filmed. Unfortunately the TV show requires a multi-page written application, along with blood tests, stool samples, detailed Curriculum Vitae from all extended members of one’s family and etcetera. And alas we are rationed only one slice of paper per day and our various bodily fluids are squirrelled away as soon as they are secreted. Additionally it is difficult to bribe a nurse we barely know and will never see again. They never accept our bribes of licked clean polystyrene cauldrons but nevertheless we persist. We persist!
The machines squeeze the contestants until they are undressed. The first round begins. The boiling liquids are pumped into the arena below. They wash over the walls and floor, some might say relentlessly. Extreme strength and physical fortitude are required to control the machines and obviously not every contestant is expected to survive. My four comrades and I are metaphorically on the edges of our seats and literally in the middle of our beds in a building which may be one thousand miles from the studio where the TV show is filmed or perhaps right next door.
The physical element ends at around the four hour and twenty-two minute mark. After the bodies are cleared away the remaining contestants are handed sudokus of the most difficult level. No-one is allowed a pencil and eraser, only the most permanent ink. Swift action is taken if they make a mistake. No wrong number must stain the sudoku. Some contestants beg for a cryptic crossword instead but their pleas fall on deaf ears. This is something of a quick fire round, lasting as it does for only forty-seven minutes.
Next, balanced on a pole, the remaining contestants are each required to perform a demonstration of their UNIQUE TALENT. The host may, at any time and regardless of the quality of the performance, wobble the pole until the contestant topples. “Cling on, contestants!” we shout. The host tiptoes among the poles, sneakily pushing and pulling them and laughing lustily as the contestants fall. We cannot help but swoon. We should be tempted to recount our own unique talents to each other, anyone else would be. It would simply be a natural response to the things we’re viewing. But we are conscious that our unique talents are connected to our unique injuries and thus we stay silent and in this way we protect our swaddled bodies from one another.
The contestants have been whittled down considerably and they prepare to enter the next round: BAD COP BAD COP. They are strapped into the most sophisticated lie detector on the market and asked questions such as: “To win the TV show would you kill your spouse? Your firstborn? Your most treasured parent? Your dear old pet?” Hot lights are shone in their faces and they are forced to watch two bad cops perform a sort of middling pantomime. If they lie they are eliminated but if they tell the truth and the truth is they would kill to win they are also eliminated. Those left standing are declared PURE OF HEART by the bad cops. Beyond the window the corridor is darkening and the nurses are helping the doctors to cover themselves in glow-in-the-dark paint so we cannot fail to see them watching us.
It has lasted for hours and only a few contestants remain now. A large wet shoe filled with slips of paper is presented to the host and the contestants pull out and read various statements. “The contestant with the largest spleen is ELIMINATED.” “The contestant with the least attractive eyebrows is ELIMINATED.” “The contestant with the most uneven record of returning library books is the WINNER.” The crowd cheers. An unfamiliar and modern cheer such as we’ve never heard before.
The host steps forward to crown the winner, fitting onto their head an oversized foam hand of the sort you see at sports matches. They turn the wind machine on and watch the foam fingers waggle. The sun lamps are angled toward the winner’s face. The winner is truly basking. It is ending now. The men in their hazmat suits are waiting in the wings, ready to begin the clean-up. The mortuary assistant is poised.
Every day my fellow ward dwellers and I enact a tiny riot, refusing to believe it is over. The phosphorescent shadows of the doctors and nurses watch us throwing our polystyrene cauldrons and fish tins at the screen. The television wobbles on its metal arm, blurring the images for a second or two before it steadies itself. The outro music plays. Zigga zigga bam bam zigga bam boom.