Clamshell by Dylan Foy
Imagined warmth can sometimes be better than real warmth. The TV glow gave me goosebumps. Placebo or not, it felt warm. But as nice as it was, the static on the screen proved unbearable. My twin sister and I tried our best to put up with the intermittent scrambled signal on our Philips CRT, but we didn’t have the determination. We couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t hear anything. And the screeching somehow hurt your ears more when you cupped them. One aerial would stand straight, but the other would always fall down. Eventually, Margaret and I took turns holding the TV antenna up after we finished our homework every night. We’d swap shifts after each ad break to give each other’s six-year-old shoulders a rest. Our bedroom TV’s antenna was cracked at the base, you see. One day it just dropped with no warning. No reason. Sellotape, stacks of math books, half-filled glasses of water… They all helped straighten out the rods, but nothing made the picture as clear as when one of us held it. We chalked it down to the steel needing a boost of electricity through the conduction of our skin. A human element. Or something.
We lost the back of the remote for the batteries, so they constantly fell out. Mam keeled over laughing the first time she saw Margaret hunched behind the TV, ordering me what buttons to press on the front of the set. Unless you were a Grand Champion at Twister, it was impossible to contort your neck in a way where you could peek at the 9” screen at the same time while supporting the antenna on top of our dresser. The harsh tinge of rust on the metallic rods would sting your nostrils when you stood behind the TV, but when you were back there, the CRT’s high-pitched frequencies wouldn’t scream inside your eardrums. A decent trade-off. Unfortunately, for whoever’s turn it was to hold the left conductor completely still, you may as well have just shut your eyes because the show essentially turned into an audiobook behind the TV. A not-so-decent trade-off.
Though we did get better at keeping still over time, even with someone holding it up, the signal was never completely clear. A hiss would talk over Columbo’s smoking gun, Father Ted’s missing punchline, some important character referenced off-screen… We missed a lot, but it never mattered. We were picky with what we watched. Well, Margaret was. Ad breaks offered brief respite to massage your triceps and refuel with a can of Coke. We grew up on the TV. We looked inside the VCR flap and got disappointed. We gained sentience while watching The Animaniacs. We’d get deflated at the sight of credits. We’d go to bed with numb shoulders. There’d be more buzz in our tiny wrists than the screen itself.
“Nothing’s good on TV.” That was the last thing Margaret would say before we went to bed each night. “Nothing’s good on TV.” With a sigh and a flick of the light switch. Every single time.
The tapes started three months earlier. Not long after our father closed up shop and left, we got an unlabeled VHS tape in the post. No return address on the bubble-wrapped envelope either. Mam screened it first—the audition tape for our approval. We were so young we didn’t know what was happening. I don’t even remember crying the day he walked out and apparently got a two-hour bus up to Dublin Airport. We didn’t know why his face clouded the 9” glass, or why we had no way of responding to his questions. We didn’t know why he didn’t wish us a happy birthday on the phone instead.
When we were a little older, mam told us we used to think he was a TV show. I hated hearing that. The first three weeks after we’d received his tape, we’d ask our poor mother to put the cassette in the TV every night. Margaret whispered the lines, like they were something from a Tarantino. The next year, another one came in the post too. Shocked, but just as excited. But I liked the space between us. When I was young, it always made it feel like he was off doing more important things. By the time we turned eight, the novelty began to wear off. Like a trilogy worn out its welcome. A routine only weird when the kids at primary school told us it was weird.
I overheard Ms. Byrne speaking to Ms. Donoghue on the school green at lunch one day.
“Did ye hear the twins’ da went to America?” Byrne snarled.
“Yeah.” Donoghue pulled from her smoke. “To do what?”
“Dunno. Just know the chap fucked off to LA.”
Donoghue scoffed. “LA?” She scoffed again.
And I don’t blame her for scoffing. No one from Wexford is famous, let alone Ireland. Everyone knows someone who knows someone ‘famous’ here—even Colin Farrell. They always feel like someone a little more popular than the rest. Someone you’ve heard about who eats lunch on the other side of the schoolyard. You know their name, but you’d never bother asking for an autograph.
Our antenna fell apart soon after the first VHS came through the flap in the door. “The fucker put a hex on that tape,” mam said, folding her arms.
The untitled recordings always started out like this: static buzz at first, and then a shadowy hand unleashed its grip around the camera lens. The figure pulled back to sit on a couch a few feet away. My father, looking disheveled as ever, clasped his palms together while he spoke to us for fifty-nine seconds. I know, I counted. And that was it, really. Just a leather couch, beige walls, and a wanting, bearded man singing a cover of “Happy Birthday.” Grimly lit, like some kind of hostage or snuff tape. Soaked in analogue fuzz. He licked his lips twice.
“Hope you’re keepin’ well, Ardghal,” he’d say, then comb his sausage fingers through his shaven head. “Mind your sister, yeah? And tell your mam I was askin’ for her, right?” He’d give a little spiel about the weather too, but nothing ever about him. Nothing ever about his life in America. Poorly written. First draft, every draft. In LA, the weather was always the same.
In the early days—when we were ten—our brittle arms would get so tired that we’d have to drop them during the ad breaks. Because our CRT housed a combination VCR, we had the idea to buy a stack of empty tapes to record the Big Big Movie every Wednesday. To watch them back later and give our arms a rest one night of the week. Our family was extremely tight for cash after our father left, but Margaret and I saved up enough pocket money from skipping school lunches to purchase a six-pack of blank Maxells. We ended up renting Hocus Pocus with the cash instead.
“Nothing’s good on TV,” Margaret would continue to say, flicking off our bedroom light every night. Everyone watches TV differently. Margaret would dig her toes into the carpet, rubbing the soles of her feet on one another like a fly cleaning its legs. She would pick at the dried skin on her bottom lip. She would laugh at studio applause with the arch of her eyebrows.
Our muscles kept up with our habits, and by the time we were twelve, we’d be able to go a full double-bill of The Simpsons without dropping the aerial. Sometimes it’d be so fun to hold the rabbit ears that I’d forget what shows we watched. I’d forget to ask so many questions. But soon enough, whatever programmes we’d watch wouldn’t be enough to satiate our eyes for the night. So, we took to holding the antenna up during the ads too. When you rewind your memories back to childhood, you don’t actually remember the movies you watched on TV when you were younger. You think you do, but what your mind carries with you are the blank spots. The negative spaces. The ads and who sat with you on the couch. The things you talked over. Time has a funny way of stretching out the meaning of things, like a worn-out jumper hung to dry for too long. Somewhere between annoying and nostalgic. The nasally Barry’s Tea voiceover, and how nice that tangerine liquid in the cup looked. The 90’s L’Oréal celebrity cameos, and guessing what films they’d been in before. They play up to your senses more than films do. Dreamlike. Commercial time chambers. During an ad break, you never knew what came next.
“I think I’m gonna audition,” Margaret said in the kitchen one morning, her seventeen-year-old face beaming.
“Seriously?” My spoon plopped into my bowl of soggy Rice Krispies. “For what?”
Margaret shrugged. “Just this minute-long ad for some dish soap or something,” she replied coyly, buttering her toast. “I heard it on the radio. All the best celebs start out in ads, y’know.”
The news shocked me and mam in the moment at the breakfast table, sure, but it didn’t exactly surprise us. I always knew Margaret was destined for something more. I could always tell she looked at the TV differently than I did. She would mouth the lines of rerun episodes. She would circle things with red ink on the TV guide. She had taste. At that age, I didn’t even have the concept that something on TV could be good or bad. I remember liking everything. But Margaret—three minutes and seventeen seconds older—had opinions. She could articulate. When we’d watch a ‘bad’ movie, Margaret would always tell me what she’d do to make it better. Film was everything to her. She’d go as some celebrity for Halloween every year, getting into their persona entirely. One year, I dressed up as a member of the paparazzi to snap flash photos of her on our porch before we went trick-or-treating. The light bounced off her blonde curls, like Marilyn Monroe. Fair City might be the top of the food chain for Ireland, but I knew it was a light lunch for her. A month after she told us her plan, the three of us got a Greyhound up to Dublin where they held auditions to be an esteemed extra. She got the part. I never doubted it for a second. I already knew the answers to questions I’d bug her with, but I just wanted to break her humble shell. I wanted to make her feel special.
“What’s your character’s name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you have any lines?”
“I don’t know!”
Though the digital world had long moved onto parsing through bonus features on DVDs, the tapes from our forty-year-old teenage father kept coming. Reluctantly, from the hand of our mother. Same station, same episode, same ghost. Every birthday, he’d ask the same questions. “Mind your sister, yeah? And tell your mam I was askin’ for her, right?” My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth when I watched him talk. It was like he knew what was going to happen to us. He didn’t deserve to be there, so clean and clear on the glass. It wasn’t fair that we didn’t have to hold up the aerial to see him. He didn’t deserve the quiet room that my sister and I gave him, as if he had something to say. I never understood why he’d ask us questions we couldn’t respond to—or rather, why he refused to listen. How did he expect us to react by the fifth tape? Or the tenth? And even when he poked his head out for us to see each year, he’d always look the same. The more I saw his face, the more alien it felt. Time paused inside the screen—crouched still, even. Salt and pepper beard but an unseasoned buzzcut. Lips twice-licked. Fifty-nine seconds. Well-rehearsed.
It was only when I was thirteen did seeds of doubt plant before the questions popped up. Why—in a birthday message addressed to both of us—was I the focal point? The narrative revolved around me, like Margaret was some character in the background. It didn’t make sense. Even I knew I was the quiet twin. Margaret was the bubbly one. Blonde. She was magnetic. Margaret was the one everyone talked about in the schoolyard. I wanted to nail a block of lumber over the letterbox in our door. I didn’t watch the birthday messages for my fifteenth, sixteenth, or seventeenth.
“Let’s just move,” said Margaret. “He won’t find our new address.”
“It’s not that easy,” I said, speaking for mam.
“It’s easy. Trust me.”
Mam tried to find out where the tapes were being sent from to try and stop them, but it was no use. She put those tapes in the bin, but I later took them out. I smelled the plastic shell. I don’t know why. They didn’t smell like him.
When Mam got her council job, she came into a decent bit of money for the first time since dad left. She bought us all a fancy flatscreen for the sitting room. Margaret and I watched it for a few years, but we eventually slipped back into old habits with our bedroom CRT. When we turned seventeen, we wouldn’t take turns anymore. We’d pick our nights on the antenna like a part-time job. One night, I stopped listening to whatever programme it was and just watched my sister instead. The flickers of light on her freckled cheeks. A different shot, orange. A different scene, white. I closed my eyes and listened to her raspy laugh.
Margaret died nine days after. I never got to ask her what her favourite film was.
The eighteenth birthday tape screened for one. “Mind your sister, yeah? And tell your—” I ejected the cassette and flung it across the room. It made a loud smack against the wall, but not loud enough. I had this stupid idea that they’d stop after she died. That he’d somehow know. Stupid, stupid. We never found out why he did it—his weird way of leering a hand over us behind the scenes. Even after contacting the Garda to try to trace where the tapes were coming from, they couldn’t help us track him down. Were they all pre-stamped envelopes? Were they recorded a decade ago? All on the same day? Was he still in LA? Was he even still alive? I used to theorize his recordings were all the same, but on that one I heard guilt dripping from his words. A standard VHS cassette holds about 1,410 feet of tape. One hundred-and-sixty-minutes’ worth of potential. Across twelve cassettes, I couldn’t find a single frame.
Mam and I ended up moving. We didn’t have a lot to pack. The house never felt the same without Margaret. Funny how it did without our father. Before we finalized the uprooting to our townhouse, I swore off secretly rewatching his recordings at midnight ever again. I still packed them up and brought them with me, with plans to bury them in the attic. I turned off my bedroom light for the final time. Margaret was right.
Right before we moved, Mam smiled for the first time. It lasted a total of four seconds on her quivering lips. I saw her reading a letter by the kitchen counter before school, eyes full of tears. A tear hung on her philtrum as she wrote down a time and date on the fridge’s magnetic whiteboard; a scene I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Two months later, Mam and I sat down for a night of watching RTÉ2 on our old CRT in my new downtown bedroom. What was airing on the channel didn’t matter. It was the first time I felt normal. I smiled too.
“Ardghal, would you mind grabbing me some Coke and lemon?”
On my way back from the unpainted kitchen, an unopened moving box caught my eye in the hallway. I sliced it open with my back door key and plucked out my father’s most recent tape, its black shell slightly cracked in the corner. Once I gingerly passed mam her fizzy drink in one hand, I fed the VHS into the TV with the other. I remembered to rewind it back to the start, but I didn’t hit play. We stayed tuned to RTÉ2, intently waiting for the ad break with a stale breath in our lungs. I let the tape sit inside until the time was right. I barely needed to touch the antenna that night; the electricity from my excited-nervous palm sweat was enough to conduct a crystal-clear signal. The static used to feel blank to me, but that night it felt full. Once 6 p.m. arrived, the Christmas special episode of The Simpsons’ episode ended. The credits finished. I asked Mam to hit record.
Dylan Foy is a Dublin-born writer, currently living in Victoria, British Columbia. He is working on a collection of short stories centered around nostalgia and technology.