Edward O’Dwyer is from Limerick, Ireland, and writes poetry and fiction. His most recent book, Cheat Sheets, was published by Truth Serum Press (2018) and features on The Lonely Crowd journal’s ‘Best Books of 2018’ list. His third collection of poems from Salmon Poetry is due in 2020, entitled Exquisite Prisons. The collection The Rain on Cruise’s Street (2014) was Highly Commended by the Forward Prizes, while the poem ‘The Whole History of Dancing’, from Bad News, Good News, Bad News (2017), won the Eigse Michael Hartnett Festival 2018 ‘Best Original Poem’ Prize. His story ‘The Man Who Became Poems’ was recently a Finalist in the London Independent Story Prize. He is on Twitter at @EdwardODwyer2.
The Woman Who Stayed at Home to Watch TV
A woman goes to work for many years. One day after another keeps going by until eventually the years become two decades. She never misses a single day of work through it all. Her numbers are exemplary the whole time, her value to the company undeniable. She has been named the employee of the year twenty times in a row.
Then one day she decides she is not going to go to work. She can’t explain it, even to herself, and so she doesn’t even try to. She has the urge to go to the electrical store and buy a TV, and so that is exactly what she does. She buys the biggest TV the shop has. It fills up the modest living room of her apartment, which has always been very bare and uncluttered. The woman has always been too practical and work-driven to give time and energy to the accumulating and maintenance of things.
She sits there all afternoon, then, watching TV. She doesn’t know what shows she likes because she has never watched any, never taken part in the chatter around the office about this show and that. The woman spends most of the afternoon channel-surfing. She cannot say clearly what the appeal is in it but nevertheless her finger keeps clicking onto the next possibility.
The first thing she watches is a talk show. A man is helping some people to solve very petty arguments, only he doesn’t actually seem to be helping them much. The woman suspects he might not really be trying to help at all and is, instead, possibly taking some private pleasure in making matters worse, which the audience can’t seem to get quite enough of, and so everyone cheers each time things become more tense and fraught and near to violence.
Later on that evening, the woman begins to feel bad about not going to work that day. She feels she has let everybody down. She didn’t even call to tell them she wouldn’t be in. She wouldn’t even have known the number to call, in fact, because she’d never once needed to before.
The next day she goes to work early and heads straight for her manager’s office. He is thrilled to see her, she can tell. It’s obvious. She just can’t fathom why.
“I’m really so sorry I let you down,” the woman begins to explain.
“Let me down?” her boss asks, still grinning massively back at her.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m so sorry for failing to show up for work yesterday. I assure you it won’t ever happen again.”
“That’s very funny,” her boss tells her, “very funny indeed.” He is shaking his head, but he is most definitely not angry. “The reports are in from yesterday,” he carries on, suddenly more serious, “and I can say that not only have you beaten your own record numbers, but you’ve blown them completely away.” He hands her a sheet of paper. “Here, take a quick look at the terms of your new contract,” he tells her. “I think you’ll find them very generous indeed.”
The woman is dumbfounded. Somehow she has put in the best shift of her two decades with the company. She leaves work at the end of her shift wondering if she had just imagined the huge TV in some work-induced hallucination, but then she arrives home and it is there. It is waiting for her. It is real.
The next day the woman decides to skip work again. Once more, she doesn’t bother to call, just tucks herself beneath a blanket and lays across the sofa in front of the TV, and watches mostly soap operas, as well as a few cooking shows.
The next morning she logs into the company performance records and sees that she has achieved even better numbers than she had on the other day she hadn’t gone in. She cannot understand it. Somebody who looks just like her is turning up to do her job for her, and she is doing it better. That’s the conclusion she draws. She can think of no other explanation.
The woman applies for several more jobs and gets them. She becomes a museum curator and the chief of the police. She becomes a fencing instructor and an archaeologist on an excavation in Honduras. She fails to turn up to any of the interviews, choosing to instead watch TV in her apartment. As she had expected, the woman received emails back confirming that she has been the best candidate of the many qualified and experienced people they had interviewed. Everyone is thrilled to welcome her aboard their team.
Payments keep appearing in her bank account and very soon the woman becomes a multi-millionaire. Her bosses keep sending gifts – cars, jewellery, vast bouquets of rare flowers – to her apartment. They are all so pleased with the job she is doing. They want her to know that the effort she is putting in is appreciated.
The woman keeps on watching TV. She has ninety-three jobs and hasn’t been to work in more than four years. Every year she is named the employee of the year at all of them.
One day the woman is watching a cartoon with a grey rabbit and a duck with a speech impediment. The rabbit is chomping on a carrot when the TV screen goes suddenly black, the room silent. The woman reaches for the remote control and presses the power button repeatedly but to no avail.
Then the phone rings very loudly. It is the first time the woman’s phone has ever bothered to ring. She has no friends to give the number out to. Employers have it in their files but they have never had cause to use it before.
It is her manager at the company she has been working with for twenty-four years. “Where are you?” he asks. “We don’t know what’s just happened. We’ve lost everything, everything. The company’s gone bankrupt. Everyone is out of a job. Where the hell are you?”
The woman hangs up. She wants to call a TV repairman immediately, but before she can the phone is ringing loudly again.
“You’re fired,” her boss at McDonalds shouts down the line when she picks up and says hello. “Clear out your locker by the end of the day.”
Eventually the woman is able to get a TV repairman on the phone, but only after having taken calls from at least fifty upset employers, all of them former employers by the end of their brief conversations.
“What make and model is the TV?” the repairman asks, but when the woman gets up from the sofa to check, it’s the strangest thing: the TV has vanished.
“I’ll have to call you back,” the woman says, hanging up. She looks at the blank wall where the TV had been. The woman can’t figure out how such a large TV can just vanish into thin air like that, but then she looks around the room and all her stuff is gone, all the gifts that have been sent as rewards for the fine jobs other versions of her were doing as she was here watching TV.
She goes down to the store where she bought the TV but that too has vanished. She is fairly sure she is still technically employed by the store, because she hasn’t gotten a call from the manager to explain that it would be closing down or that she has been fired. Nevertheless, now there is no evidence it has ever existed.
Instead there is just an Unemployment Agency. The woman goes inside for a look. She finds a security guard at a desk, watching a small TV. He is watching the same chat show the woman was watching that first day she bought a TV of her own. The host is making things worse again, and the guests are arguing more vehemently as a result, and the audience is chanting and cheering.
The woman sits down next to the security guard. She silently watches the TV with him. He turns to her and smiles. She smiles back. She feels more secure already, as though the universe might be righting itself.
“I have nothing else to do but watch this bloody box all day,” he says, and then he laughs nervously.
“Me too,” the woman tells him happily. “Me too.”