No More Mercy Street

For dinner, Jessica had Turkey Twizzlers, potato croquettes, and garden peas, followed by tinned peaches and squirty cream, with a cup of Earl Grey to wash it all down. Just like the English. Then she went outside to sit on the bench and wait for her show to begin – the first episode of the new season.

There was a narrow stretch of grass behind Jessica’s house that marked the boundary between residential and business. The realtors called it a park if ever they were trying to sell property in this area, but it wasn’t really a park. It was just one of those strange green spaces nobody’d ever got around to building on. Not even the studios.

Much of the land in this part of town belonged to the studios. That show about the paranoid schizophrenic detective? They filmed that just two blocks over. The sitcom with the two lesbians and their teenage superspy son? Those guys were always closing off the streets out here for their location work, usually at the most inconvenient times possible. Arnold used to kick up an absolute storm when they wouldn’t let him cross to the drugstore and he had to walk all the way round just to get new batteries for his hearing aid. And then there was Mercy Street. Arnold and Jessica had been following that show for two years before they found out where it was actually shot – just down the bottom of the realtors’ park. From Jessica’s bench, she’d often seen the actors sneaking out the gate down the bottom of the alley to head up into town, or burning down a cigarette together in the lot past the fence. It wasn’t till she overheard a bunch of out-of-town autograph hunters saying how this was the set for Mercy Street that she finally caught on who those actors might be. Her eyesight had been growing steadily worse these last few years and it wasn’t like on TV where their faces were right up in front of you. From a distance now, they all looked the same.

Later in the evening when the sun got round this side of the house, Jessica liked to sit in the shade of that random old beech tree and set her mind to wandering. She’d never been one for sun worshipping, and neither was her husband. That was one of the few things they had in common, towards the end.

Another was Mercy Street. It was the only show they both watched, the only one they watched together, even though Arnold watched it in the den and Jessica the kitchen, or sometimes the bedroom, the quilt wrapped snug round her knees. She’d given up trying to watch it in the same room as her husband; that was just all too frustrating. For a start Arnold always had the TV turned up so loud you could hear it halfway down the street (Jessica could mute the one in the kitchen and still follow the dialogue), but then he also had to have the subtitles on too, otherwise he claimed he couldn’t make out one word of what that Indian doctor was saying. Jessica thought that was just nonsense. Doctor Tesh had a lovely speaking voice, better than anyone else on the show. Besides, his accent was English, not Indian – as clean and proper as Laurence Olivier or Roger Moore. Arnold just didn’t like the Indians, not since he’d been stationed out there in the 50’s and had come back with a case of the squits that lasted him the entire summer.

On top of all that was the way he always had to shout at the TV.

“Garbage!”

“Go on – lay one on him! Put out his lights!”

“Leave that loopy bitch! Divorce her!”

“Are you a man or what? Are you a man?”

There was no getting round it: Jessica’s husband had turned into one of those crazy old coots who used to sit up in the box seats on The Muppet Show and holler comments down at the stage. He cleared his throat more than any other human being alive, sometimes in stretches that went on longer than the shows on TV, and he’d become obsessed with his poop. How often he went, how long it took, the size and shape and colour and consistency of it, how there was nothing felt quite so fine to a man his age as a really good evacuation. It was funny the things you missed when someone was gone.

Sitting out on that bench now, watching a kid kicking his skateboard out along in front of him as he moped on down the alley, Jessica realised she’d give anything to hear Arnold bawling out the actors on Mercy Street again, just one more time. The show simply wasn’t the same without him. He always had something to say once it was over, how it just wasn’t as good as it used to be, how the stories were getting more preposterous than ever, how nobody’d ever believe that Dirk Saddler’s long lost twin was anyone other than the real Dirk Saddler in a bad toupee… in fact, the only time Jessica had ever known him not have anything to say was after the last show they watched together, the season finale where Sylvia Portmanteau pushed Alexis Crutch off the balcony at the Seven Flags after that huge catfight over who was really married to Tyrone Hammer. Later, Jessica would recall just how excited she’d been that night, as the credits rolled. Going downstairs to see her husband, to hear everything he thought might happen next. Was Alexis really dead? What about her daughter, Devona, who everybody thought had been killed in the avalanche, but was now secretly blackmailing her mother about the true identity of her biological father? And what about Dr. Tesh? Did he really have Lou Gehrig’s Disease? Surely Dr. Tesh wasn’t going to die?

But Arnold didn’t have anything to say that night, and Jessica knew that as soon as she stepped into the den. He hadn’t muted the TV for a start, and Arnold always muted the TV when the commercials came on. He hated being sold at, and how much louder the commercials were than the actual shows. Arnold Sturges would never have left the sound up on the commercials. Still, at least he’d finished his dinner. The plates were stacked up neat on the card table in front the birdcage, and Arnold had cleared them all. Turkey Twizzlers, potato croquettes, garden peas. Tinned peaches and squirty cream. A cup of Earl Grey.

It was later that week when the rumours began. Mercy Street was to be cancelled following the next season. Some big dispute between the cast and producers. The actors who played Tyrone Hammer and Sylvia Portmanteau – they were holding out for more money or they weren’t going to renew their contracts. The big shots at NBC though, they wouldn’t be held to ransom by anybody.

At the funeral, Jessica confided in Jeffrey, their eldest, that perhaps it’d be a good thing if Mercy Street did finish now. That was his father’s show, it didn’t seem right if it carried on without him. Jeffrey didn’t understand and got angry with her for bringing it up. Her husband was dead, and all she cared about was a bunch of dumb actors. Carly told him to stop being so mean, mom was just upset, that’s all… but Carly didn’t watch Mercy Street either, and though she’d listen while Jessica kept her apprised of all the latest goings on during their weekly telephone call, she was always eager to move the conversation on to her job, her latest boyfriend, how she was never going to have kids because she’d seen what they did to your figure. No, since Arnold passed, Jessica didn’t have anyone to talk to about Mercy Street… it certainly wasn’t like the old days where everybody watched the same few shows every night. Back then you never had to worry about what you’d talk about the next day. Now though it seemed like there were as many different shows as there were people, and Jessica wondered if anybody watched the same ones anymore.

She was thinking this over when a man turned the corner from the tool shop end of the alley. He was a dark-skinned type (were you supposed to say that? Jessica was never sure, and she hated getting it wrong, even in her head) in a blue suit, with something silver on his collar, glinting in the sun. He walked on up the alley till he came to the fire escape where he turned his head and paused, looking straight at her.

“Are you all right, my dear?”

She recognised him immediately. Her eyesight might be going, but the ears had been solely her husband’s failing. The flawless English accent, the warm, compassionate tone – she’d heard that voice so many times over the years… Indeed, she now realised, it was probably the friendliest voice she knew.

He came closer, and at last she was able to match face with words. The deep blue eyes and wide, sturdy jaw. And that glinting silver? A stethoscope – a prop, surely, but it completed the image she always had of him. She didn’t say his name; she was embarrassed to. She knew how much they valued their privacy, these actors.

“I just… I only asked,” he said, “because you’re crying. On such a beautiful day as this… I hate to see anyone crying, especially a pretty lady like yourself.”

She felt herself blush and dabbed at the corners of her eyes with the tissue she kept in her sleeve. She had no idea where the tears had come from; sometimes this just happened.

She made an excuse about cutting onions for dinner – or should that be ‘tea’? Making French onion soup, just before she came out here. She didn’t like lying, but what else was she going to say?

“Oh,” he said, “that’s all right then, isn’t it?” His was a smile that had charmed both vixens and virgins, and she couldn’t quite believe it was favouring her now. “As long as that’s all. I’ll bid you good evening then, with apologies for the interruption…”

And with that, he turned on his way.

“Wait…!” Jessica called after him. Because there was something she had to ask. “Doctor… please… Do you really think it’ll end?”

She felt the blush return to her cheeks, but she carried on anyway. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to… it’s just, it said in the papers how… I’m sorry.” Stupid old woman, making a spectacle of herself like this – what would Arnold have said? “They said this might be the last…”

“It’s quite all right,” he said, crouching to meet her eyes. “It’s always nice to be recognised, my dear. You watch our show?”

“My husband and I… we watched it since the very first episode.”

“Well, then… I’ll let you in on a little secret, shall I? But don’t tell the papers!” He winked at the silly, giddy girl in front of him. Hands shaking on her lap, heart big in her chest, eyes still tightening with tears. “I myself just signed another three-year contract with the studio – so I think it’s safe to say Mercy Street will be around for some time to come. You can tell your husband to take that one to the bank, there’s absolutely no cause for concern there…”

Then he stood up straight and let out a groan, rubbing his back like a man far older than his TV years. She wanted to ask him more – did he really have Lou Gehrig’s Disease? Was Dirk Saddler really Devona’s father? Had Alexis Crutch really fallen to her death…? But she let it go, because it wouldn’t have been appropriate… and because even if those questions had been answered, there would always be more. Still, she thought, Arnold would want to know, when at last she saw him again. Maybe the kids… maybe he’d ask about the kids first, but if he did, it’d only be for propriety’s sake. What he’d really want to know would be what happened on Mercy Street, so the way she saw it, that was her duty now – to stay behind and watch that show. For him. Another three years then, at least.

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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