It wasn’t hot at Channel 8 studios. Sure under the immediate attention of some of the lighting the temperature jumped, but this seemed to be offset by a very prominent air conditioning system. Its prominence such that most those in the audience had goose bumps, though this in turn could be attributed to the anticipation that Walter Wallace was generating. What he did know was that despite any lighting/a/c produced artificial ambience, he was sweating like he had never sweat before.
A rushed looking girl with an awkward contraption wrapped around her head came up and stood in front of Walter. She smoothed out Walter’s suit while speaking rapidly, “You look great. Remember not to look directly at the camera. Speak with a strong but not too loud voice, OK? You’ll be fine!” Walter nodded vaguely and she furrowed her brow as she tried to mop up his leaking forehead. “A sweater are you? Don’t tell me that’s the secret to happiness. I just had laser surgery on my armpits.”
Walter furrowed his own brow, trying not to think what that might mean. Instead he paused for a moment and closed his eyes and settled himself naturally. He was as deep as he had ever been but didn’t feel out of his depth. He felt a natural calm begin to trickle through his body and realised there was no need to worry he would just make sure he-
“You’re On!” The rushed girl had pushed Walter out in front of the cameras and he stumbled slightly before checking himself and walking timidly over to the chair next to Tony Holdsworth. He had met Manny’s father only an hour ago. He was seated at a long table with four other important figures including Brian Smithwaite. The men took turns as they talked of how they would approach the situation. They spoke of respecting Walter’s predicament and ensuring he was safe and comfortable at all times. They spoke of the expectations of Channel 8 and the media in general. They spoke of the public’s expectations. And in the end they came round to Walter’s response to all this. The senior most of them leaned forward, “Obviously you are not bound to any duties, Walter. You are a free man just as this great nation promises us all. You are here only on invitation to which you have so graciously accepted. We are not suggesting that you have any obligation to us, or that we the people have any right to you; we only further extend our invitation that you chat with us and share with the world your...expertise in the field of happiness.” The men all chuckled while Walter smiled politely. It was not clear where it came from or for how long it had been there but Walter could have sworn there wasn’t piece of paper in front of him a moment ago. “We will make it well worth your while, Walter.” Tony Holdsworth was standing at Walter’s right shoulder, offering him a pen. Walter glanced at it and then at Tony. He had no idea what was going on, only that he was extremely uncomfortable. He took the pen from Tony and-
“Are you still with us Walter?” Walter started, as if he had just been dozing off. Had he been dozing off? “It’s OK to get a little camera shy Walter. Even the happiest man in the World would be a little intimidated by all this equipment at first. The audience laughed and Walter again smiled politely.
“Sorry, I was-”
“No don’t be, that’s perfectly fine. What I was saying was welcome to your new home at Channel 8 studios. And might I add that you look to be making it your own rather quickly.” Another laugh; this time Tony smiled broadly, he truly enjoyed himself. “Now let’s get to the nitty gritty. Everyone wants to hear it; I want to hear it, so tell us. What’s your secret? Is there a secret? Can it be wrapped up in 25 words or less? Do you need to draw it? Are you going to tease us with it? Are you going to hide it? What I’m trying to say is: Tell us the secret!” three in a row! The audience cheered and followed it up with a round of applause.
Walter had no idea, so that’s what he said, “Well I’m just not really sure. I mean, it’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve never really asked myself. It seems...pointless.”
“Mmm, OK. We saw a little bit of this last night with Manny. You had never heard of the machine before last night had you?”
“And you say that you don’t consider yourself happy or unhappy?”
“Well,” Walter spoke slowly, returning to his natural calm again, “like I said, I never thought to.”
“Well it is quite remarkable I must say. We racked our brains here at the studio last night trying to work out how we can unlock this secret that even you yourself seem unable to articulate. Perhaps we ought get to know you a little better first. How about a little questionnaire? What do you say folks?” The crowd cheered and Walter shrugged obligingly. “OK first question: How old are you?”
“What do you do?”
“Like a job?”
“I clean the toilets in the South West Zone train system.” There was a murmur in the crowd and Tony nodded, feigning appreciation; hiding disgust.
“For how long?”
“Do you have a tertiary education?”
“No. High school was enough for me.”
“Are you single? Remember if you feel uncomfortable about any of this it is fine not to answer.”
“No that’s fine. Yes I’m single.”
“My parents passed away around 10 years ago. I don’t have any siblings.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No that’s OK. They had a good life. They loved me and I loved them.” Walter was starting to feel confident. He had never had anyone this interested in his life before.
“Do you have many friends?”
“Well, not really, no.” The crowd was murmuring a little louder now. Tony made to summarise.
“So what we have here, if I may be so crass, is a man, 32 with little or no possessions; a man with no friends and family, no relationships at all it seems; and finally a man who cleans toilets for a living. Tell me, Walter, what do you do for fun?”
“I like crosswords. I read; listen to music occasionally, though I don’t have many books and I only catch the radio playing in my boss’s office occasionally. I like to walk around the neighbourhood, sit in the park and get some fresh air.” He shrugged and smiled honestly. He had stopped sweating and felt rather at ease. He looked at Tony who was giving an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders to the camera as if summing up the collective reactions of everyone around the world. He had a playful look on his face which was much different to the expression Walter saw back in the dark office when he had returned Tony’s pen after politely refusing to sign the document that had been placed before him. He knew something felt wrong and decided at the last moment to trust his gut. “You’re making a mistake, Walter! A big mistake!” Tony had lost his cool. All the men did; All except Brian Smithwaite. By now Tony was all smiles and cheer for the camera, but earlier, while he and the rest were standing and yelling and insisting and pleading, Brian had simply remained in his leaned back position smiling his horrible, slimy grin.
The thought of that moment brought Walter back down a notch from his primetime high just in time for Tony to send them to commercial. “And when we come back, ladies and gentlemen, we will throw the microphone over to the studio audience and have them ask Walter a few questions to see if we can piece together a little more of this intriguing puzzle.”
Notes on the Text