Updated: Aug 25, 2020
First published in A Catalogue of Failure
You always have to wait for ages at the traffic lights, before the roundabout, just south of the hospital. They hold everyone up at a patch scrubland beside some long-abandoned sheds. No one seems to go there, it’s just a place to go through on the way to somewhere else.
As I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, something flapping in the breeze caught my eye. A pink sheet of laminated paper, embossed with a phone number, spluttered “VHS 2 DVD” excitedly at the world. I thought of how quick technology changed, and how it only seemed to get exponentially quicker. Who even used DVDs nowadays?
I was only lost in thought momentarily, but it was long enough for the lights to change and the impatient hobgoblin behind me to thump his horn like it was a weapon.
I got on with my life for a fortnight, until I found myself at the same spot, contemplating the same sign. Maybe it’d be a nice thing to do for the family for Christmas, I thought. Nana has a bunch of tapes from when we were kids, of summer holidays and trips to the seaside. She’d like to see them again, I was certain. I resolved to pick them up from her.
“Hiya Nana.” I said as I walked into her bungalow, through the haze of smoke. “Still smoking those pool-cue fags? Not on the vapes yet?”
“Sometimes I think the fags are the only thing keeping me alive, Davie.” She called me by my brother’s name, but I didn’t bother to correct her.
“Ha, I doubt that, Nana.”
“Well, they say they are bad for you, but look at me. 92 and a half, still going strong. I reckon it’s one of those conspiracies that you read about. Like the moon landing or the earth being round. Round! Can you imagine, Davie? All the water’d fall off when it spun.” She jabbed her long-nailed, multi-coloured finger towards me as an exclamation.
Sometimes I liked to play along with her conspiracy game. I was never really sure if she was trolling me or not. She was the queen of deadpan.
“Listen Nana, I’ve no come for a chat about the lizards being in charge…”
“They are, the scaly bastards!”
“…I just wondered if you still had those tapes of us as kids?”
“I do, but I don’t have a tape player anymore.”
“Well, mibbes I could fix that?”
“Ooh, I’d like that, Davie. You were always the good one, not like your brother, Lewis.”
I made my excuses and left before I discovered whether Nana had got me and Davie mixed up, or just our names, and on the way home I called the number I’d jotted down.
“Err. Hi. I’m calling about the VHS to DVD services. I saw a sign on the side of the road.”
“Aye ‘VHS to DVD’, that’s right. So, you got tapes?”
“Sure, about 5 or 6.”
“OK. Folk usually want more than that, but OK. You know where the sign is? There’s some sheds around there, just pull up by the gate. Any time between 2pm and 10pm.”
I hung up wondering if VHS to DVD was really a code for drugs or guns or something, it was the guy’s manner on the phone, so I didn’t take the tapes round for a couple of weeks, not until I had managed to convince myself that I was just being paranoid.
One evening, coming back from work late, on a typically dark and wet winter evening, I noticed the lights on in one of the tumbledown sheds. I squeezed the car onto the muddy drive, and fumbled around on the back seat for the bag of tapes. As I did, a bright searchlight bathed my car and dazzled me.
Before I even had a chance to open the door, a hairy, snaggle-toothed orc of an old man asked
“I was just, um, it’s just, I called the other week about the VHS to DVD thing, dya still do it, I’ve got the tapes.”
I pulled out the tapes and showed him.
“These are actual tapes.”
“Well, what else?” I said, getting annoyed.
“Aye mate, whatever, I’ll do yer tapes for you. I bought the equipment a while back anyway, just in case. Can’t believe someone actually thought that sign meant what it said. And then even noted it down and called the number. You’ve made my day.”
I was going to ask him what it meant, but wasn’t sure how that would have gone down, so I just asked him how much it was going to cost.
“I’m actually not even gonna charge you mate. I dunno how this thing works, but it shouldn’t take long. Smoke?”
I skimmed though the discs when I got home, just to make sure that they worked. The first couple of discs looked good, I got a wee buzz of happy childhood memories. But then I played the third disc.
It started off as scrolling text on the screen, like in Star Wars. Lewis Johnstone, date of birth, place of birth, parents, grandparent, nursery attended, primary school attended, and so on, a bunch of facts about my life. I’d never seen this tape before.
After a while of this, pictures of me started popping up on the screen, usually pulling a face, accompanied by a nugget of information.
‘Aged two, crying because his piece of banana was broken in half.’
‘Aged 4, sobbing because his juice was in the wrong cup.’
‘Age 6, fell off bike, came home weeping.’
‘Age 8, made a girl in his class cry when he tried to kiss her.’
There was a lot of this, me crying or making others cry. But it was when it got to my teenage years it started to get weird.
‘Aged 14, tried to roll a joint, failed.’
‘Age14, smoked hash, vomited.’
‘Age 15, got drunk, wet the bed.’
‘Age 16, asked a girl out, got rejected.’
‘Age 16, failed Maths exam.’
‘Aged 17, failed driving test.’
This continued, and I couldn’t understand why my gran would keep a tape of it, or how it got made. I skipped forward, and it started to cover all the times I had been sacked, or fell out with a pal, or got dumped, or punched.
Times when I had been made to look like an idiot.
Times when I had been caught telling fibs.
Even covering things like all the times I had cringed, after responding “Thanks, you too” to waiters who had said “enjoy your meal”.
Times I had been nutmegged at football.
Times I had run for the bus and missed it by seconds.
Times I had not enough money for a taxi and had to walk home in the rain.
It finally got to the time when I when I woke up, hungover and covered in puke, only last month. It was a video diary of a lifetime of failures.
I pulled the DVD out of the drive in a rage, scoring a big scratch across it by mistake as I did so. I put in the other discs, and they were all family holidays and videos. But when I tried to play the disc of failures, I got a ‘disc error’ message.
I was beyond raging at this point, and jumped in my car and drove straight to Nana’s with the discs, hoping that her DVD player would read the disc, so someone else could see it and I could ask her what the hell was going on.
“Hi son,” she said, “back so soon?”
“Can I just see if your DVD player works?
“Ooh did you sort the tapes?”
I tried the other discs first, they all worked fine. When I tried the scratch one, it started to load for second then cut out. I hit the machine in frustration, and Nana told me to cut it out.
“It’s probably just the disc son. Don’t worry about it, looked like all the others worked fine.”
“Don’t worry about it! What do you know about those discs?”
“Just old tapes of happy times. What are you talking about?”
I waved the scratched disc at her and shouted “This!”
I told her what had been on it, and she told me flatly that it was nothing to do with her. She didn’t disbelieve what I was saying, her who disbelieves nothing.
I got back in my car and drove to the tumble-down sheds, just south of the hospital, to find the sky ablaze and the place surrounded by fire engines. I didn’t stop, but slowed down to gawp, and ended up driving aimlessly around the back roads, thinking of all my failure, this failure to get the disc fixed just being my latest, and an even deeper failure, the failure of being able to figure out if I would even want to.
I went back to Nana’s, head spinning and guts churning.
“Probably another one of them conspiracies, Lewis.” I looked up as she got my name right. “It’s more than likely that that internet’s to blame. I’ve heard they watch you, all the time, even when you sleep, even in the nip, even on the loo. Probably best to not think about it in the end. Probably nothing that can be done.”