We got our first TV when I was seven. The whole family used to sit in front of it, me on the floor close to the screen, the others on the couch and in the armchair. Every show ended with a written announcement, which I read aloud, “The End!”
We were all gobsmacked by this riveting new technology. Only my mother or father was allowed to turn on the set. We all believed the bulky box, standing in the corner like a shrine to Buddha, would shiver and fall if a child turned the dial. It took a minute to warm up, and at the end of the evening, when my mother turned it off, the picture got sucked into a white dot that glowed on for another minute and died.
My brothers hurried home from school every afternoon to watch the cartoons. I didn’t like cartons, or cartoon-like shows starring real people, such as I Love Lucy. I read a book instead. But I loved the movies that screened on Sunday afternoon at five minutes past two, straight after Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men (which I also loathed). I loved the serials, and Doctor Who and the Danny Kaye Show.
Our father once took us away on holiday. I was about nine. Before the trip, my brothers and I wondered what we were going to do without the TV. We were going to Waipaua for a week. This was a parental edict, not open to a vote or any kind of negotiation. What would happen to us without our daily dose of stories told in pictures? I imagined losing a limb at the very least. Or some secret part inside my head that only stayed alive thanks to the TV. Of course the holiday was our mother’s idea. She had nagged and threatened our father for years to make him take us on a holiday.
Our father drove us to Waipaua. As we rattled across he bridge that spanned the Waipaua creek, he pointed at the water and said, “Don’t play there or you’ll drown.”
Drowning couldn’t be a worse fate than seven days without television.
Two days into our holiday, we discovered that Seven, Brother 2, had made friends with the son of the hotel’s owner and went down to their sitting room every evening to watch TV. I was not surprised. Steven was a magician when it came to getting what he wanted. He would use anybody as a tool to gain advantage for himself.
After dinner, Brian and I followed him to the owner’s sitting room and sat outside, listening to the shows and hoping with unspeakable agony that Steven would come outside, see us and invite us in. Of course he didn’t. Steven never shared the bounty of his good luck with anyone.
On Day 5 of our holiday, after grumbling from sunrise to sunset about being away from home, our father fortuitously slipped a disc and we had to go back to Wellington. My mother couldn’t drive and Lynn, Brother 1, was too young to have his licence. So my father drove all the way, in great pain.
The worst thing about getting home was that my father was laid up for a week while his back healed. He needed complete quiet as well as bed rest and daily exposure to a red lamp and liniment. We weren’t allowed to play inside the house. He got up out of his bed of suffering to lean out the window and yell at my brothers for making a noise outside.
Every night my mother turned on the lamp that lived on the TV set but not the TV itself. My brothers lined up on the couch and I sat on the floor, staring at the blank screen. We weren’t allowed to make a sound.
After two nights of no TV, Brian and Lynn went off to do other things, activities that didn’t make a noise.
Steven and I remained in the sitting room to play Come Dancing, a show we found boring but that was fun to mimic. I fluffed out my full skirts. He tightened his butterfly necktie. He hummed a tune softly enough that our father couldn’t hear, and to that rhythm, we twisted and squirmed in front of the noiseless TV.
When I think of the best moment in my childhood, I think of that evening when Steven and I danced because we weren’t allowed to watch TV.