I don’t believe in miracles but I think we’re going to need one to get out of this mess – the landslide Tory victory, that mess. We’ve had them before of course – during the 80s when Maggie was at her regal peak and Labour was examining its navel, like now. But this could be even worse than then because now the press seem more virulently right wing than they were thirty years ago and many people only see the opinions they want to see on social media. I’d like to close my eyes and ears to the fascist claptrap and just get on with enjoying life, but it can’t be done. The fears about where we are headed keep bubbling up and it seems too few people are aware of the course we seem to be on. Why do so many ordinary, good, people go on believing the false promises of the rich and powerful? It happened in the USA and it has happened here. OK, May is not quite as mad and offensive as Trump (nor as rich) but in the space of ten months since she came to power she has shown herself to be a deluded, two-faced, megalomaniac who will only speak to those who agree with her and views all who oppose her as enemies of the state – her state.
Please excuse this rant and now let me entertain you. The fourth Jasmine Frame novel has been using up my creative juices so the next novella is still somewhere in the future. Here though is a short story I wrote some time ago for an assignment on ghost stories. I was quite pleased with it and even entered it in a competition – it didn’t win.
I didn’t go to the funeral. Presenters and editors were there, and his old celebrity mates, most of them looking like it should have been their funerals. It wasn’t really my scene. I saw it on the evening news though. Ron would have loved that – to be “on the box” one more time. It caused a stir when Graham turned up leading the mourners. How Ron managed to keep it quiet that he had a partner, I don’t know. All those years when he was the housewives’ pin-up; what would they have thought if they’d known he was having it off with a younger man? But I suppose that was the thing about Ron “the Box” Boxall; there was a lot going on behind the scenes.
I got to see quite a lot of him these last couple of years since he got shunted into regional breakfast TV. I’m the night duty engineer. I get into the studio first thing, check over all the kit, switch on the lights, cameras, monitors, intercom and so on. I’m in an hour or so before the editorial staff and usually the presenters come in later, but not Ron. He was there soon after me, making himself comfortable in his seat on the set, practising his expressions for the camera, sombre for bad news, a smile for good, a sardonic leer for the wannabe celebs. I suppose he just couldn’t get enough of it – being “on the box”. While I worked, he talked. I got his life story – well the life in broadcasting anyway.
He’d been in it from the start, the re-start that is, after the war. He was a runner on the broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Probably keeping Dimbleby fed and watered. He got his big chance in the sixties doing light items for the Tonight programme and national news. The seventies were his heyday, Nationwide, It’s a Knockout, That’s Life, a day-time chat show and his very own prime-time slot, “You’re on the box”. I remember it from when I was a kid – one of those hidden camera progs. They’d film someone conned into doing something daft then Ron would leap out and shout “You’re on the box”. That’s when he got his nickname. It was on for years but once it was axed it was a slow drift to obscurity for Ron – occasional pieces on the news, a stint on regional evening programming. He should have retired gracefully, years ago, but he wouldn’t. He had to be “on the box”. Who says broadcasting bosses have no heart; they could have let his contract run out, but no, they offered him the regional slot on the early morning news bulletins. Perhaps they thought it would be beneath him and he’d give up at last, but Ron took it as if it was a major step in his career.
There wasn’t much to do of course. Most of the input was pre-recorded reports. All Ron had to do was simply put in the links. That’s why the studio wasn’t up to much. One chair and desk, one camera, producer, editor, assistant editor, engineer (me) and a runner. Still, Ron treated it as if it was his big show and he was the star. Every morning he appeared dressed immaculately in suit and tie – a different one every day I think. Grey hair slicked back and make-up in place – he had to do that himself as our budget didn’t run to a make-up assistant.
So, each morning I’d fuss around getting things ready while he talked. He didn’t like the way TV was going – of course he didn’t, when they didn’t really need him anymore. He didn’t like these new flat screen TVs either, not the same as having a big box in the corner. He couldn’t see himself as Ron “on the wall” Boxall. If it was obvious I wasn’t listening he’d hum his old theme tune. “You’re on the box, on the box, da di da, Ron the Box, de dum.” It got pretty irritating after about the sixth time through. When everyone else arrived he’d do his stuff and as the closing credits ran he’d be up and gone. No hanging around chatting when his time on the box was finished. That was until about a month ago, a Thursday, it was.
The producer stopped him as he was about to leave and there and then, casually, in front of the rest of us told him that his bit of the show was being axed. The next day would be his last day on the box. He didn’t argue, just left, and next morning there he was as usual. He did his links, perfectly timed and phrased as always, but as the theme tune played he sort of slumped. When he left he wasn’t just an old man, he looked as though he had already died. I wasn’t surprised to hear a fortnight later that he was dead. Nothing suspicious about it, a heart attack, the news bulletins said, but I knew that he had just given up.
The next morning I was in the studio. No presenter now of course, so just the monitors and computers to warm up for the editor and his assistant to programme in the recorded bits. But as I was sitting in the editor’s chair watching the computer going through its boot sequence, I noticed that the spotlight on the set had come on. I looked through the window at the empty chair and desk in their pool of light and scratched my head. Then I saw that the studio camera “on” light was, well, on. I glanced at the monitor and had a shock. There was Ron. On the box. A sort of faint, transparent image of him sitting in the chair, hair as slick and suit as smart as ever. His eyes looking straight at the camera. I checked the video tape decks; no, there wasn’t an old tape of Ron playing. I went through the computer files, but there wasn’t any old footage of Ron running. He was just there, live, well, not alive as such. I flicked the microphone on and there amongst the white noise was that damned theme tune. “You’re on the box, on the box, da di da.” I switched it off and sat staring at the screen. Ron didn’t move; just stared back at me.
A few minutes later the assistant editor arrived and the monitor went blank. The spot went off. I didn’t say anything to her. What could I say – we’ve got a ghost in the studio. She’s a young switched on, going places, girl. She’d have laughed.
The next morning it was the same. When I switched the gear on, there was Ron, on the box. A bit firmer, more defined. This time he sort of smiled at me from the screen. And so it went on day after day, Ron’s image becoming more and more kind of real, and each day it would disappear as soon as anyone else showed up. That is until yesterday, the day of his funeral.
He was there when I switched on and this time he had that sideways half grin on his face which he reserved for people he had no time for. He was there on the screen for over half an hour before disappearing when the assistant arrived. Not surprisingly the running order for the bulletin had a brief piece about Ron’s funeral , a few words one of his old comrades had recorded. The time came, the editor cued the piece and the assistant pressed the play button on the keyboard. At the same moment the spotlight came on. The producer said something like “what the f—“, and reached for the switch.
The electric shock sent the producer backwards across the studio. His head thudded against the brick wall and he folded up in a heap on the floor. The others rushed to him but as I turned to join them my eye caught the camera monitor. There was the pale, faint image of Ron, smiling broadly.
The paramedics came and took the producer away and the others got back to work muttering to me about health and safety and wasn’t I supposed to check those things. I didn’t say that it was electrics that were my responsibility not poltergeists, but I decided that something had to be done. It would have been okay having Ron himself in the studio but the ghost wasn’t Ron. Ron didn’t know how to send an electric current back down the line to a switch or put a spotlight on remotely, he barely knew how to operate a radio mike. So that thing that sat in the monitor had to be got rid of.
This morning, I got in a little earlier than usual. Nevertheless, as soon as I switched the lights on, the studio spot lit up, the camera monitor flickered into life and there was Ron chuckling like I’d never seen him chuckle before. I tried switching things off but that didn’t work – he was still there grinning at me from the screen. I got a stepladder and set it up under the spotlight, then collected my heat resistant glove from my tool kit. It was needed now and again when bulbs blew and they had to be replaced immediately. I climbed the steps and unscrewed the bulb. Even with the glove it was bloody hot but I twisted it until the circuit broke and the studio went dark. There was a cackle of laughter and that infuriating song, “You’re on the box, da di da”. The bulb slipped out of my gloved hand and exploded as it hit the floor. My heart was racing and my temples were pounding.
I was careful getting down off the ladder now it was a complete blackout, and felt my way back to the control room. Ron was still there, on the monitor, and somehow still bathed in white light. I flicked the on/off switch on the monitor, still no response, and I couldn’t shut the sound off either so I had Ron singing his tune over and over again. It carried on even when I pulled the plug. Somehow Ron was drawing electricity to the monitor from another source. I took a few deep breaths. There was only one thing I could do. I pulled on a pair of latex gloves.
It was a heavy old monitor, a cathode ray tube, housed in a square metal box. I tugged it out of its supporting framework and set to work on the screws holding the housing together with my insulated screw driver. The back cover came away and Ron paused in his monotonous singing to bawl with laughter. I began to unscrew wires and circuit boards and pulled them out of the box. Still Ron went on giggling and singing. At last I could see the back of the tube. There was no way it should still be running but the phosphor screen flickered and the cathode glowed. I glanced at the front of the screen. Ron was there in the chair, not a hair out of place, still quite clearly “on the box”. For a moment his eyes seemed to catch mine and the grin slipped away. I froze. His lips moved but no sound came. Then his eyes moved away and he resumed his laughter and another chorus of “You’re on the box”. I breathed again.
There’s a big hammer in my tool box, kept there for real emergencies when subtlety no longer works. I picked it up now, raised it above my right shoulder while shielding my face with my left hand. I swung it down on the back of the CRT. There was an almighty implosion as the glass cracked and the vacuum was breached. The tube shattered, sucked in the air, and just then there was a puff of white. My first thought was that it was the phosphor powder escaping but perhaps not. The light in the tube went out and the singing and laughing stopped.
I was still clearing up the debris when the others arrived. They looked at the bits of the old monitor , the casing ,the circuit boards and the broken glass and wondered what I was up to. I told them some story about obsolete equipment, worn wiring, health and safety and anyway since we weren’t live anymore the old kit wasn’t needed. They bought that, and without further comment sat down at their keyboards and stared at their flat screen monitors. There were no more boxes for Ron to appear on.