Until he got on the telly, Jim hadn’t much interested his father. The show was a game show called This or That? It pitched children against adults. At seven, Jim was their youngest ever contestant. Even John had to admit that was something.
He said as much to his in-laws: ‘That’s something.’
Jim’s mother Mary watched the show and knew that it involved answering difficult questions with 50:50 odds and, if you got one wrong, you could stay in the game by winning a coin toss. John tried to watch it and after five minutes he got up and went into his workshop. He felt every generation getting stupider than the last. It was like toothache.
Mary bought an encyclopaedia and she and Jim learned some facts. Jim learned to spell ‘encyclopaedia.’ He lay in bed projecting the middle of the word onto the wall—the bit that made no sense—and every time he got to the ‘a’ before the ‘e’, he tingled. Sometimes, he looked quickly at his bookshelf to check the letters were still in that order, then quickly looked away.
Every night after dinner, Jim and Mary commandeered the kitchen table. John made coffee and, while it brewed, he felt he should stand by his son’s shoulder.
‘Look,’ Jim said. He wrote ‘encyclopaedia’.
John nodded. ‘Isn’t that something?’
Before they left for the studio, Mary held Jim’s hands and told him, ‘You just do your best tonight, OK? That’s all you can do.’ She kissed his forehead.
The host’s face was the colour of Cheetos but Jim tried not think about that and to focus on the questions. The other contestants were an out-of-town dancer and a prematurely balding accountant. The host quickly established that the dancer had an eerie laugh, the accountant mumbled, and Jim kept looking into the camera. Once all three had a ‘thing’, the mood in the studio lightened.
By the commercials, the dancer was gone. There was a short break while the bit of set with her name on it was dismantled.
Mary turned to John and said, ‘Our boy’s doing well.’ John saw only brightly-coloured guessing. Not wanting to lie, he said, ‘he’s still in the game’, and put an arm around her.
Another break, another dismantling. Now was the all-important part. Most of the money was reserved for the final round and it increased exponentially.
On the third of six questions, numbers at the lower end of life-changing flashed onto a screen and John rose a few inches in his chair.
The lights dimmed for the last question, which was about Ancient Egypt. Mary remembered him making something pyramid-like out of cereal boxes and gasped. She’d done the cutting.
Jim said his answer.
‘I tell you, son, we’ve all been rooting for you here tonight’, said the host, stepping out from behind his podium and swinging his arm to indicate the audience. A collective groan of sympathy. Pointing down the cameras, ‘and the folks at home will be just the same. But…I have to tell you…that the answer you’ve just given me…that answer is…correct!’
Jim’s head was full of clapping hands. He couldn’t see the faces attached to them.
‘That’s more than college…’ John trailed off and Mary heard the rest.
‘But,’ said the host, ‘this isn’t called This or That for nothing! No, sirree Bob!’ Laughter. ‘Jimmy’s got one last choice to make…between keeping the money…’
The screen seemed to levitate into the air and, beneath it, a platform slid into view, carrying a big chocolate fountain, two chocolate figures of the Venus de Milo, and wheelbarrows overloaded with chocolate bars. As it moved, bars tumbled from the mouth of the barrows like a penny-push machine.
‘Or a lifetime’s supply of chocolate!’
Mary said, ‘I don’t remember this bit.’
‘What’ll it be, Jimmy?’
Jim stood, blinking. There isn’t a right or wrong answer anymore. Or, rather, there is, but I’m supposed to know it. He tried looking for them in the audience but the lights were too bright. Ok. Dad’s smart. What would he do? That’s a lot of money. But a lifetime’s supply of chocolate—think of all the chocolate you could eat if you sat there, eating it, without stopping. That’s what they mean? Lifetime’s supply — a lifetime eating chocolate. Just pouring into your mouth constantly. I can’t imagine it. That would probably cost more than the money. I think, I don’t know, but—mum always says how expensive it is—if you sold that much chocolate, you’d get a lot of money. Is that number that much money? It could be bigger— could fill up more of the screen. I can count it, easy, zero-zero-zero-zero-and-more—but a lot of money — enough to buy a lifetime of chocolate—surely, that number would be huge and confusing to look at, all the numbers mixed together, 69583, 3301289, 99957373,33.26, something like that. It’s a long number but I’ve seen longer ones, and there are lots of zeroes in it, which means — ? — can’t remember. Something Miss said. But there are bigger numbers. Miss said something then Billy said, ‘but just add one and it’s bigger’ — so if you add one to a number ending in zero, it gets bigger. So maybe it isn’t that big. I can’t see a lifetime of chocolate— that would be all the land made of chocolate wouldn’t it, whole hills, enough of it to run around, a bite here, a bite there, and keep running over, until you got old and died. Imagine how much of it before then. If you jumped in a plane, you’d fly over it and—whoah. They want me to take the money — but the smart thing, when you think, like I am, is the chocolate. Because you can buy chocolate with money but you can sell the chocolate for even more money. I figured it out, dad.
The next morning, John stood in the kitchen doorway staring at the back of Jim’s head.
Later, a chocolate bar came in the post. They heard it plop on the welcome mat. Mary said, ‘Not ’til after dinner’. John got up and left the room. They heard the door of his workshop open and close.
Another one came the next day. He couldn’t not eat it until after John had left the room and they’d had dinner. Jim’s face felt hot and he lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling.
John lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling beneath Jim’s bed.