I once worked out that I had watched more than two million hours of television. Television had been the magnetic pole of my life since I was an infant, since I first began taking notice of the outside world. Now, from my glorious summit, I can see my childhood self with perfect clarity – sitting on the floor with my fingers in my mouth, my spellbound face lit up by whatever image cavorts on the screen.
As a child I naturally preferred the multicoloured hysteria of cartoons and children’s shows, but as I got older I watched whatever was on when I turned on the set, from Doomwatch to darts, from ballroom dancing to Melvyn Bragg, from Blind Date to When Animals Attack. I was blessed with an uncritical, unimpressed mind. I watched it all: documentaries on cancer and rutting animals; costume dramas and chat shows; hip-hop videos and political philosophers; and adverts – millions of adverts. For razors, batteries, washing machines, cars, lipstick, insurance, charities, laser hair removal, microwaves, televisions…
It wasn’t the programme or the advert that mattered; it was television itself that fascinated me. I loved its antigeography of bizarre juxtapositions, gliding out to me through antenna terminals and wavebands, electron beams and phosphors. It had everything the outside world had and more, all conceivable sights and sounds, all of equal value: the experiences of a thousand lifetimes brought together in the screen’s perpetual day. It was always there, filling the void; a calming presence that gathered around itself, like so many dust motes, the aimless incidents of my daily life. I craved it when I was away from my flat, like a phantom limb. Walking home from the supermarket in the evening, I shot envious glances at sprawling bodies in blue living rooms. My skin prickled with impatience to get back to my own flat and slip into the same state; to peel the plastic film off my microwave meal and slump down in front of my own set. Then for me, too, the screen would miraculously compose parables of life out of a swarm of pixels, cocoon me in daydreams.
The screen emoted on my behalf. All I needed to do was watch and change the channel when I got bored. What a contraption – what a lifesaver! I pitied the hordes born before its invention, left to their own sad devices, nodding to each other every empty evening.
Then I got digital satellite television.
A dish was fixed on my roof, a technician lumbered into my living room to install the receiver (he was the fourth person to enter my flat in years, the first three being my parents and the boiler man). I had to admit it: the advert was dead right. With a large digital screen, access to an incredible selection of more than a hundred channels, the latest American drama and sitcoms, the best in sport, breaking news 24/7 and friendly staff, it was the best purchase I had ever made, and I kicked myself for not having made it sooner. It was as if the whole universe had opened up and were welcoming me with open arms. I enjoyed being among the first viewers to see the latest movie release, music video, nature programme, top documentary, cartoon, parliamentary debate, wrestling bout, kitchenware deal, travel destination and extreme sport.
The technology was a marvel of scientific advancement. Up there was the mother dish, speeding through space in silent geosynchronous orbit, reflecting transmission signals directly into my own dish, to be descrambled by my receiver and displayed on my 42-inch plasma screen with supernatural sound and resolution.
The first few weeks were the best, most voluptuous days of my life. But then something started to happen to me. I began to feel dissatisfied. I started to feel the burden of choice, of what to watch. Watching one programme meant missing others, hundreds of others. There was always something better on. I became a zapper: I couldn’t watch any programme to its conclusion. I could no longer sit in pubs with televisions without wanting to change the channel. Whereas before I had been the detached observer, lazily fingering the remote, letting myself be entertained, now it was as if the screen were making claims on me, attacking me with its endless parade of attention-grabbing images. When I learned how to use the system’s interactive functions and inbuilt video recorder, the possibilities of selecting, encoding and storing images overwhelmed me. I was assailed by a barrage of information I couldn’t control.
Until I discovered Cate Camino.
She was a newsreader on one of the 24-hour news channels (‘When it breaks, you’ll know’). I had been flicking through the channel range as usual, urgency writhing in my belly, when suddenly the image of her face filled my screen. I knew instantly she was the reason I had been led to purchase digital satellite TV. She was describing a coach crash in Macedonia that had occurred twenty minutes previously (‘We have just received news of a road accident in Skopje involving a busload of Dutch tourists’). She handled it with the aplomb of an expert newscaster, tilting and nodding her head every few seconds, emphasising the last word of every sentence, a look of earnestness and compassion in her large brown eyes.
I was entranced by her confident gaze, her bobbed hair, her soot-black eyelashes. When she moved on to a report of a dog that had just saved a windsurfer from drowning, I detected a subtle change in her expression, a mildly ironic, heart-warming air perfectly in keeping with the change of subject matter, yet mindful both of the tragedies she had just related and those she might at any moment have to relate. Such is the skill of a born newsreader! On she went, to the mobilisation of American and British troops at Syria’s borders (grave look); the formal plea of a paralysed drunk-driving victim to be allowed to ‘die with dignity, at the hands of his wife’ (tender pauses); and a story about the wife of a Hollywood tycoon who was suing her doctor for injecting her with dangerous doses of botox, ‘causing migraines and an inability to perform her wifely duties’ (eyebrows raised in mock surprise, a hint of amusement on her lips). I followed her delicate modulations of expression and tone with mounting admiration. What style!
I had never been interested in the news before, but now I waited for her broadcasts every day, and was desperate when she didn’t appear. Day after day I gazed at chirpy weathermen and square-jawed financial analysts, craving only the composed cadences of Cate Camino’s voice. I dared not change the channel for fear I would miss one of her appearances. When she came on, her image transfigured my living room in a flash. There she was, beacon of my screen and of my life, providing overview and eliciting trust, segueing from topic to topic, questioning reporters all around the world, and at last elegantly handing the viewer over to the sportsreader.
In return for my love she gave me the stability I had lost. She gave me focus.
Soon I had figured out her schedule: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. I recorded all her appearances and played them continuously when she was not live. I wrote unanswered letters to her network managers, imploring them to give her a more prominent role in their broadcasts.
Gradually she seemed to move into a realm beyond time and contingency. She was so far ahead of all other newsreaders that her image seemed to take on an independent existence, hovering regally in the ether. Nothing else was worth watching. I compared her to all the other images of women on her broadcasts and found them wanting. At any point in the day, I had only to think of her to feel a flutter in my stomach. I began bobbing my head when I spoke to people, like her. Under her inspiration, I started striving for the aristocratic life of a newsreader: in control, calm in the face of the world’s disasters yet subtly affected by it all on a ‘human’ level. For instance, when one of my neighbours told me her dog had been run over, I nodded, looked her in the eye, tenderly frowned and said, ‘I understand. And I am sorry’.
One day – a Friday, half an hour before her live broadcast – the image on my screen quivered and zapped and was no more. I paced my flat flicking switches and turning dials: everything else was in working order. Thinking the fault must lie in my receiver, I opened it and tinkered with its insides to no avail.
I sat on the windowsill clutching the back of my neck. If I didn’t act fast I’d miss her broadcast. There was no choice but to sprint to the nearest pub with digital TV and plead with the bartender to switch to her channel. After watching me beg, he relented, reaching for the remote with deliberate slowness. Everyone at the bar was staring at me.
I heard her voice before I saw her face. It was so familiar it seemed to come from inside me. I stared at her in my usual entrancement. She was relating a critical surge in oil prices, and I was marvelling that she was mine – my Cate! – when a tattooed oaf standing beside me remarked that I looked like I was ‘eating her with my eyes’, then volunteered a comment about her so foul I cannot bring myself to reproduce it here.
I looked at him and suddenly felt the abyss between the squalid world in which I lived and the crystalline world over which she reigned. There she was, framed by flashy news banners and the FTSE index, mistress of her material as ever – and there was I, standing in a reeking pub, red-faced and clammy, suffering my vision, the finest newsreader on television, to be lewdly slandered.
I moved to a chair in a corner and watched the rest of her slot in a haze, then walked home and sank into my sofa. Cut off from my only source of light, staring at my own reflection in the black screen, I was confronted by a series of painful questions: Would I ever be able to bridge the abyss between our worlds? Would I live out the rest of my days longing for a glimpse of a realm that would remain forever beyond my grasp? Where was my obsession leading me?
I called for a technician, and on the following Tuesday I was again marvelling at one of Cate Camino’s live performances: she was truly a professional, unflustered by late-breaking newsflashes and technical glitches. There was no doubt, we were worlds apart. And now the harsh truth began to sink in. Who was I to presume to understand or possess her? How arrogant I had been to think that she was mine, to send letters to the network bosses to try to influence her scheduling, to believe that I had discovered her independent existence… No, all along, I realised, it was she who had been mysteriously influencing me. I hadn’t ‘discovered’ her: I had fallen under her spell. As I watched her over the following days, brooding on this new insight, it was as if our roles were being insidiously reversed, as if a receptor terminal were being installed in my head, transistorising my neurons, and the screen were watching me through her eyes. How wrong that yob had been: it was her eyes that were consuming me.
I couldn’t stop watching her. I confess I was frightened for a long time after I grew to comprehend my own insignificance, but I know now it was meant to happen. I know that I had been marked out by Fate with a devotion I couldn’t understand or control, and which would lead me through my confusion.
Having entered the light of this new awareness, I clearly saw the path ahead of me. I saw I would have to make greater efforts to withdraw from all distractions. I sat before the screen (she was discussing a gas attack in Washington with a US correspondent), turned off the sound, and started repeating her name in loving contemplation of her face. At first all manner of irrelevant thoughts crowded my mind, but I meekly persisted, and soon a sweet silence stole over me. I stayed still and remained in this quietude for so long I seemed to slip off the leash of time itself. I knew neither hunger nor thirst.
Day after day – in the shower, in the supermarket, in my sleep – I mumbled my humble incantation until the world began to fade away and my mind was suffused with her name and her image.
One morning I awoke and knew with inexplicable conviction that I was ready. I walked into the living room, sat down before the television, pressed play on the recorder and drew up to the screen. I studied her face closely, closer than ever. I saw her face on the screen, I saw my face reflected on the screen, I saw our two faces superimposed on one another. Then my face moved back and I knew. I knew what people mean when they talk about compassion. I saw clearly what it was like to live in his world, and I felt compassion for him, mingled with joy at the realisation that I had found a way in. Cate’s grace flooded my mind like an undeserved gift. I understood that I had found my true home, that I had at last entered the mystery and left behind the wretched life of the flesh.
I saw what torment it is to be a prisoner of the body.
I still see him every day: our eyes meet and lock whenever he glances up at the screen. But the thin unkempt figure sitting on the sofa, scribbling his story in a torn notebook as if from dictation, is merely an automaton: its essence, its spark, is now one with Cate Camino, the finest newsreader on television.