217 Babel Street
The following pages are those written by Jeff Noon for the 217 Babel fiction website. Because this was a colloborative hyperlinked project created by four different writers, Jeff’s stories on their own will not always make complete sense. There are missing pieces. However, because 217 Babel is currently off-line, the pages are offered here as a partial memory of the project.
Was that the telephone? Julietta hurried through from the bathroom, dripping water onto the carpet. The ringing noise fell silent just as her hand touched the receiver. She tried 1471, only to find that the caller did not wish to be recognized. That was so typical of Tom, she thought, this incessant need for secrecy. Of course, it might not have been him; it could’ve been anybody. After all, not that many people rang her.
The living room seemed smaller tonight, somehow. Why was that?
Julietta went back into the bathroom to finish getting ready. This done, she poured herself a drink and settled down in front of the television. She tried to concentrate on the programme but the reception was bad, the screen covered in lines of static. A man’s face was scrambled, his voice cutting in and out. He seemed to be talking about the colour and shape of the moon and how it had changed over the last few years, but how could she be sure?
The telephone rang again. It was him. It was Tom. He said, “I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Do you have what I asked for?” She told him that she had. The phone went dead without another word. Nerves jumped in her skin.
The television was a small black and white affair, very old and very cheap. Julietta had bought it from a second-hand store. At first it had seemed a real bargain, with a good picture and clear sound. But slowly, over the next few months, the machine had started to play up. Sometimes it would change channels of its own accord, or pick up radio messages from the taxi cabs that passed by along the coast road. When this happened, she liked to stand at her window and look down at the seafront and watch the cabs as they drove along, thinking of lost destinations, of roads not taken, people she had left at the wayside and so on. Her husband, Alan, for instance. All gone now, all gone.
The sea stirred in darkness, in lines of white foam beyond the road, beyond the beach area.
Sometimes the television screen turned a speckled grey and picked up conversations, people talking to each other as clear as daylight. This was Julietta’s favourite; she could sit for hours lulled by the dancing grey flecks and listening to the strangers talk, wondering if they lived in the same apartment block as her, or whether they lived miles away; or whether they were ghosts, lost souls in the ether.
Harry drove a taxi cab. Usually he worked the night shift, but this evening he’d been forced to stay in on account of his wife’s sudden turn. Really, he should have called the doctor, but it was late in the day and last time he’d done this the doctor had been a bit angry, having found nothing seriously wrong. So tonight Harry had cleaned Margaret up as best he could, and made her comfortable. Now he read to her. Margaret liked crime novels best of all, especially those featuring the amateur detective Donna Townes. Harry soon lost his way in all the twists and turns of the plot, but his wife seemed to follow every move. She looked better now, her eyes brighter than before. Perhaps he would go out later on, after she’d fallen asleep. He could take the cab and pick up a few late night fares.
Harry liked being a taxi driver. He liked being his own boss, having his own car, being in charge of his own life. And you got to meet people. Sometimes there was trouble, of course, but he could handle drunken lads. Harry had been in security for a number of years. He could put on the manner. Trouble was, he was getting a bit old to be driving around all hours. But they needed the money, with Margaret’s condition not getting any better, and the price of things these days. Even bread, the price of it.
Tom Carson rang the bell and waited. He looked at the glass spy-hole in the door panel, knowing full well that he was being scrutinised from the other side. He smiled and kept on smiling. His mouth ached with it. Finally, the door opened.
They kissed lightly, awkwardly. Julietta offered him a drink, something to eat. He took the drink. Wine. It was cold, like pressing his tongue against ice. No flavour. All he wanted to do was get this over with, return to his own place, his own little bedsitter world. But now the woman was asking him to sit down. He hardly knew her, not really, just another person in the office. She held a plate of cheese and pickles out towards him. “No. No thanks.” He backed away. The shiny plastic of the couch squeaked under him.
Sometimes the world turns away around the sun without his notice, he feels he might be left behind. He can hardly see his own reflection in the mirror.
“Show me.” Now he took control, and Julietta nodded. She reached under the coffee table and pulled out the package. It was wrapped in brown paper. “You haven’t opened it?” he asked. She answered in the negative, but could he trust her? His fingers traced across the address label: Julietta Miles, Flat 15, 217 Babel Street, Blackthorn Sands, East Sussex. And he wondered how far it had travelled and for how many days, to get here tonight, into his hands.
Donna Townes is the heroine of a series of popular novels by S.J. Simmonds. The books combine the genre of Detective Fiction with that of Historical Romance. Donna is a scholar, a university lecturer whose researches into various periods in history always lead to the discovery of a corpse. To solve the murder Donna must not only deal with the criminals of the modern age, but also utilise her expert knowledge of the past.
To date, S.J. Simmonds has produced seven Donna Townes Mysteries: The Gordian Knot; A Blood-Stained Mirror; The One-Horned Goddess; To Fall from Babel; A Drink from the Chalice; Labyrinth of Sand; and The Crown in the Thicket.
Despite her worldwide success, S.J. Simmonds leads a very private life, refusing to do publicity or even have her photograph taken. This led to the infamous fraud case of 1992, when a woman called Elizabeth Young tried to pass herself off as the writer. The case was settled out of court.
217 Babel Street
Babel Street was originally known as Lower Bible Street. The change of name happened sometime in the early 19th century, for reasons now unknown. One theory suggests it coincided with the closure of the sailors’ mission at the street’s western limit.
Number 217 Babel Street was built in 1934. It was considered a most desirable place to live, mainly because of its location. Those apartments that overlooked the promenade and beach were especially valued. Nowadays however the place exudes an air of decayed glamour. It is a crumbling, off white, salt-eaten edifice. Lines of dirty orange rust stain the plaster below each of the balcony windows.
There are twenty apartments in the building, arranged on eight storeys. The caretaker lives in flat number one on the ground floor, next to the lobby and elevators. The next six levels are taken up by eighteen residential flats, arranged three to a floor. Flat 20 is the penthouse suite and roof garden, occupying the entire top storey.
A ghost is said to haunt the building, the spirit of a murdered child. The poor little boy can be heard sometimes in the stairwell between the third and fourth floors. His plastic ball bounces down the steps, one by one. Then he runs after it. His voice carries a message or song only to be heard properly in dreams, and then forgotten on waking.
Viv Gillis lived alone on the ground floor of the building. Her job was quite simple really: sorting out residents’ problems, doing little odd jobs around the place, changing light bulbs and plugs, unlocking doors when keys were lost, checking the boiler every morning. Things like that. Calling in the services for the more difficult problems.
Most of the people who lived here were private types; they kept themselves to themselves, whether single or in couples. Every so often there was a spot of bother that needed to be sorted out, a neighbours’ tiff for instance. The occasional late-night argument. Like the young unmarried couple in flat 8, they were always at it, either screaming at each other, or making wild passionate love. Dreadful. But Viv liked the job of caretaker. She was a very private person herself.
Her own flat was situated next to the lobby. She could see everyone who came in and out. She could wander the corridors at will and nobody would mind her. She could make copious notes on what she saw each day. She could wait until residents had gone out to work and then use a set of spare keys to enter their apartments. She could look around at will, opening drawers, reading letters, poking her fingers in. Viv was the secret eye of the place. 217 Babel. This was her realm.
Viv Gillis eyed Julietta suspiciously. “Are you trying to damage your own mailbox?”
“No. No, I’m sorry. I was just hoping for…”
Julietta couldn’t answer for a moment. She always felt uncomfortable in the caretaker’s presence, as though she were being watched, examined, judged even. “I’m waiting for a parcel. A very important delivery.” She thought of Mr Carson. He’d looked at her again today, at work. Nothing had passed between them. No words. Just the look, a nod almost, a slight movement of the head. It could mean anything. Anything at all. But then again, he had trusted her with this task.
“A parcel?” asked the caretaker.
Julietta nodded. “I was hoping it would turn up today.”
The caretaker smiled. “Something did come today. I had to–”
“It came? You never said–”
“I had to sign for it. You don’t mind that, do you?”
“You wouldn’t have got it otherwise, would you?”
The caretaker disappeared into her office. Julietta couldn’t believe it. The stupid woman had said nothing before, when she was looking in the mailbox.
“Here we are. Safe and sound.” Viv Gillis came out into the lobby, holding the parcel.
Julietta took hold of it. The packaging looked a bit worn, the sticky tape creased, layers of wrapping paper shredded her and there.
Had the caretaker opened it? Or tried to? Had she been inside, seen the contents, stolen something.
The two women stared at each other. One of them smiled.
Ring a ring a one step
One step and two,
Pick a peck of poison
A pocket full of rue.
Roll the ball down the stairs
Piggy set to pounce,
Roll the ball, baby…
Sing a song of silence
Three steps and four,
Piggy’s in a pastry
Baby cry no more.
Daddy’s selling cocaine
Half a crown an ounce,
Roll the ball, baby…
Tom popped the tip of his penknife into the brown tape, breaking the seal. A purchase thus established, he drew the blade along the seams, slicing the tape down the centre. The wrapping paper fell away. Now the two halves of the inner cardboard packaging could be pulled apart. This he did slowly and carefully, fearful of damaging the contents of the parcel.
Music drifted down from the room above, the wail of a saxophone. Julietta poured herself another glass of wine, and lit a cigarette. She took up a pen to mark the cigarette packet with a stroke of ink. Seven strokes all told. She was counting, trying to keep under ten cigarettes a day.
Finally, the last piece of white protective foam had been removed from the package, revealing the object within. Tom and Julietta stared at it.
It was a wooden box, about four inches cube. The sides were decorated with gold leaf, the pattern split by a complex array of darker lines. Tom picked the box up and examined it from all angles. There was no obvious lid, no opening, if it was meant to be opened at all. “What is it? Julietta asked. “What does it do?“ Tom held the curious object against his ear. Moments passed. “Is it making a noise?” Tom nodded. The faintest sound could be heard, as though grains of sand or dust were shifting their position constantly. The box breathed.
A labyrinth in the Cathedral of Algiers (324 AD) contains at its centre an array of letters. These form a labyrinth of their own, where the phrase Sancta Eclesia can be read in many different directions. In a word maze designed by Albrecht Wagner in 1758 the twists and turns of the narrative echo “the many hardships that man has been forced to endure in life since the Fall from grace“. Other labyrinths had a political intent, often showing public figures as being trapped within a polemical text, lost in words.
Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass depicts a world where the young Alice walks a labyrinth set out on a chessboard, each step leading to another adventure. Alice must reach the far end of the board, where she can be transformed into a Queen. In the 20th century, Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies features a group of travellers who lay out Tarot cards, telling stories from the various ways in which the cards intersect. George Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual depicts a French apartment block as a labyrinth of stories, and is a direct influence on 217 Babel.
The maze of words finds its most concentrated form in the work of Jorge Luis Borges. His story “The Garden of Forking Paths“ can be seen as a precursor of hyperfiction sites. The character Ts’ui Pên writes a book, and builds a maze. However: “No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.”
The box fell from Tom’s hand. It slipped away as he tumbled, as he flailed, as he cried out, his head hitting the wall.
The woman was bending down to him. Blood on her shirt, her hand. It blurred his vision, a misty red. Where had that come from? “It’s OK,” she said. “Are you in pain?” Tom couldn’t answer properly. Shock had set in, muting his senses. “I need to…I need…” He could not think of the words. The woman said, “You’ve hurt your head. I’ll ring for–” But Tom pushed her away. “Where is it? Where?” He was scrambling around the floor, searching, his hands reaching out. The woman told him to keep still. “My name’s Emma. Can you hear me?” Tom looked at her, he stared at her. “Tell me what I’m called?” she asked. Tom could not think. “I have to find it,” he said, “The box.” Emma calmed him. “Come inside. Let’s have a look at you.”
Tom let himself be led towards the flat. Apartment 8. A bland white fog had seeped into his skull. Why had he come here, to this strange building? For what purpose? He looked up the stairs. The light bulb buzzed. On and off. On. off. On. Off and on. His mind pulsed to the same rhythm as he followed the woman.
The box lay in the shadows beneath a radiator. It flickered with a light from within: soft, golden.
Alicia crept towards the front door. She took one last look at her mother, who was fast asleep in front of the television, an empty bottle of vodka by her side. Even the screaming of the contestants on No Exit could not wake her. The young girl nodded: her mother drunk, her father out with his friends or his latest floozy. Now was the time. She hugged her furry backpack closer around herself and then opened the door carefully, hardly daring to breathe. Alicia stepped outside.
The corridor stretched away into the distance. She walked past apartments 2 and 3, towards the stairs. Nobody heard her. No doors opened. Nobody cared, not really. The only person who ever talked to her was the caretaker, Vivienne. She told horrible stories about the people who lived on the floors above, stories that made Alicia shiver with delight.
Finally, she came to the stairwell. This was the second floor. She looked down, towards the ground floor. The front door to the building was down there; the doorway. Escape. But the young girl turned round. She looked upwards. It was the caretaker who had told her about the penthouse flat on the top floor, and the Very Important Person who lived there, in the dark, surrounded by treasure. Now she would find out for herself. Alicia started to climb the stairs towards the third floor.
She was one week away from her eighth birthday.
Alicia reached the second floor. She peered down the empty corridor past apartment number 5. All was quiet. She had heard the story of the ghost on the stairs, but of course she didn’t believe in anything like that, not outside of books. She was about to set off once more when a sudden noise startled her; it was the sound of a gunshot coming from number 5: CRACK! Gunshots, a scream, music. It was the television, that was all. Yes, that was all.
Half way up the stairs she heard a door closing from above. Alicia stopped and waited, until silence settled back into place. Perhaps it would be best to turn back now? How would she ever reach the top floor? But no, she had to be strong, strong and brave.
At the next landing she rested a while, thinking she could maybe have a little something from her backpack, an apple perhaps, or even the chocolate bar. Her hand pressed against the wall and came back stained a bright red. Alicia shuddered as darkness fell over the stairwell.
Something sparkled in the shadows. What was it? She bent down and pulled the object out from beneath the radiator. It was a magic box, a puzzle of some kind. A lovely thing, a treasure. The light caught once more, urging the young girl to continue.
She climbed up towards the next floor.
217 Babel Street
The box moved through the air. Past each floor in turn it fell. Voices called from within, from the closed centre. Whispers, fragments of sound…
…quiet ticking of a clock…the lonely wail of a saxophone…I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Do you have what I asked for…it’s still early, I thought we could…hiss of fat in a pan…put plenty of garlic in there. I’m catching a…roll the ball, baby…more to life than books, you know…bounce…bounce…
All the box had learned up to now, all the traces of human life it had caught and preserved…
…bounce…you’re at it, aren’t you…in the stockroom…slam of a kitchen window… sometimes life is so…so random…the light bulb buzzed…on and off…on…off…on… the rapid beating of a heart…busy night, love…not bad…not bad…creak of a bedstead…I thought you were asleep…that it had meaning, that it might reveal itself…contestants screaming on the No Exit show… soft footsteps…one…two…a young girl’s breath held in her mouth…three…
All the barely thought about, half forgotten words, the flow of sounds passing by in the days, the nights, passing by…
…four…crash of furniture from the floor above…I’m waiting for a parcel…I was hoping it would…keys turning in locks, doors opening…a very important person lives there…in the dark, surrounded by…like a dying star in the twilight…but Lordie, I almost broke a…
The box hit the ground. It landed on a small patch of lawn where it cracked in two, and two again, the various pieces scattering across the grass, the concrete.
(Harry enters. Margaret is sitting by the window.)
Margaret: Is that you? You’re early.
Harry: No. Just delivering. A fare.
Margaret: To here?
Harry: Yeah. Two women.
Margaret: Oh. Strangers?
Harry: I…uh…I found this?
Margaret: What? What’s in the bag?
Harry: It fell down.
Margaret: It what?
Harry: It fell. From the sky. Or from…from one of the flats. Just outside. Nearly hit one of the…one of the passengers.
Margaret: Let me see. What is it?
Harry: It’s broken. I thought you could, you know–
Margaret. It’s just come apart. Fallen apart.
Harry. I think it’s some kind of…
Margaret: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…
Harry: Some kind of puzzle. Like a shape, make a shape. Maybe you could…
Margaret: Shhh. I’m counting.
(Margaret counts to herself. Harry watches her.)
Margaret: …Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Did you get them all?
Harry: I know you like jigsaws, so I thought—
Margaret: You didn’t miss any?
Harry: That was all. All I could find.
Margaret: Maybe I could mend it. I could put it back together.
Harry. Uh…I was thinking that.
Margaret: So pretty, isn’t it. See, Harry? The colours, sparkling.
Harry: Sure. It’s…it’s lovely.
Margaret: Twenty pieces.
Alicia turned to see who was there. The footsteps ceased, and yet a shadow flitted across the garden. “Who is it?” she called. “Who’s there?” Silence, only the wind blowing through the tall grasses. Only the night birds crying. She walked back to the stairs, wondering if she would ever get to see the Very Important Person who lived on the top floor. Her feet dragged, her backpack hung loose from one shoulder. It was definitely time for a chocolate bar.
The lift doors were opening on the fourth floor. Two women emerged, one of them leaning on the other for support. They laughed together as a man stepped out from Apartment 11 to meet them. “Ladies, welcome!” he said. “My humble abode.” Alicia watched the three of them going into the apartment.
The third floor light was playing up again. She managed only one more step before it failed completely. Darkness clung to her. Quickly, she pulled out her special Harry Potter torch. The beam flicked here and there on the stairs as she descended, but the landing below seemed to be moving further away with every step. The air turned cold. And then a noise came from behind and she froze, and held her breath tightly. A red and white football bounced slowly down the stairs, passing her, before coming to rest against the wall below. Alicia dared to turn round.
A young boy was standing there, a few steps above her. His eyes glistened in the dark.
Extract from “The Labyrinth of Gold”
Donna Townes studied the labyrinth carved into the floor of the church. At the centre of the twisting circles was a group of letters, each line spelling out the same phrase, no matter in which direction the eye travelled: Sancta Ecclesia. The usual translation was “Holy Church”, but Donna also knew that Ecclesia originally referred to the Gathering of People into a city-state. From the beginning of this case she had felt that more than one person was behind the murder. Could a whole community be involved?
The knave of the empty church echoed with her footsteps as she walked on. In the vestry she found a chessboard laid out in the middle of a game. The position of the pieces was vaguely familiar. Next to the board lay a bound, typewritten manuscript and a brass paperweight in the shape of a decorated cube. It was heavy in her hand and speckled with red in one corner. It was certainly a useful blunt instrument with which to smash in the skull of a visiting Bishop.
She turned back to the chessboard. Now she recognised the game: it was the same position illustrated at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”. How Curious. Just then a door banged shut in the main body of the church. Voices sounded. Quickly, Donna picked up the manuscript and slipped out through the back door. Crows called to her from the bare trees in the cemetery.
Margaret slotted another piece into the puzzle. Even with her hands shaking so, she still had a sure enough touch. It reminded her of when she used to work as a sewing machinist. They were paid per item, not by the hour, and most of the women sped through the orders. But not Margaret, no. She had always prided herself on her handiwork.
Writing the letter last night had stirred such memories. Memories and regrets. Words said in haste; and worse than that, things left unsaid.
Her hands worked on, bringing together the simple cube. It hardly seemed like anything at all, and yet the colours did sparkle so, golden, golden like…Like what?
Golden sunbeams that day, filtering through Harry’s hair. Oh, lovely thick blond locks he had, back then. We were in the fields to the north of Merthyr, where the two rivers joined to form the Taff. The waters murmured and whispered and spoke to each other, as he lowered his face down towards mine and our lips…the first time…
Oh. What was she thinking? This would never do. Another piece slipped into place. Only three to go now, but these would be the most difficult. The box trembled. Music was playing, voices…
Sunlight. Sparkle. Must wash those windows. Get Harry to…what was it…that melody…blue dress, lovely blue dress…dancing at the ball, his hand on my side, gently squeezing…so tender…must check the…why did I never tell him about…
Margaret’s fingers clenched. The room stirred with darkness, with light.
Blue golden sunbeams that day, that hour.
Writing the letter. What? About…
Golden sunbeams, such memories. Memories, regrets. Oh, lovely thick blond locks he had in rivers falling on my side, gently whispering, now wash those windows. Tell Harry the letter. But not the river…not regrets…what?
Golden sunbeams bringing together, oh, such lovely letters…words…what?
Golden blue fields stirred such memories. A letter of last sunbeams that day, in the windows as the hour passes. But not sewing that day, no, but kissing, lips filtering through fields of blond locks to be with each other, paid for in regrets, said in haste. Words had a hand on my side, gently that day, filtering Harry’s hair, what? Oh, lovely the simple golden cube of hair as he lowered his face down sunbeams that day, through windows, through the waters, towards my lips. Bringing together the lovely thick locks he had, oh, not kissing by the hour, not him, not Harry, not paid for…
Sewing the blue dress, my handiwork…what?
Dancing blond locks of sunbeams that gently whispered and spoke in two rivers joined to always, that day, anything at all, in the fields with my handiwork, my Harry.
Writing the regrets. That day, that hour.
Words said in haste: two rivers…
Margaret can feel the waters flowing
Through her fingers
Where the channels separate
And she knows this to be wrong
There should be one river only, only one,
With cold aching hands she attempts
To sew the rivers back together
To weave the waters into one skein
Blue, and golden beneath the sun
Lips touch her lips…
My name is Margaret Beaumont. I have a blue dress made of water. I have sewed it myself, I have sewed the waters together, waters gathered from where the two rivers cross and flow and join together, as one, down from the hills of Brecon, the waters murmuring, whispering, the lips of water glancing, weaving together. I have made a dress of blue golden sunbeams and sparkling waters, I have danced in the blue dress, I am dancing, I am dancing now, still, away from…
The water flows freely away from her
The rivers part
The lips part
Harry had taken to just sitting there in the cab, waiting, hoping for a glimpse of the young lady. He was fascinated. It was the way she had smiled at him that first time, that first fare, tipsy as she was and fumbling with her purse and then dropping the coins everywhere. Just like Edna. Edna’s clumsiness, Edna’s lovely smile.
They had not seen their daughter for over seven years now. Every so often a postcard would arrive: Paris, Rome, Thailand, New Zealand, India. She was still searching for herself, whatever that might mean. He wished that she would come home, just long enough to see Margaret, before she…before she…
Harry sipped coffee from his flask. In the early days of the sickness he could hardly keep from crying; now he felt dried out, empty, although it filled him with guilt to admit so. He had never loved any other woman, only Margaret.
A figure moved in the flat’s window, and a few minutes later the front door opened. It was her. He watched from the shadows as the young lady walked by, and then followed her in the rear-view mirror until she turned the corner and disappeared. He was going to start to the engine when the strangest feeling came over him. He felt suddenly cold, shivery, aware of every beat of his heart. He could hear a voice, Margaret’s voice. The touch of her fingers on his skin, his neck. She was asking for him, calling for him.
Heston pressed his ear against the wall. They were playing that music again, some goddamn saxophone frenzy going on in there. The wallpaper throbbed with the beat. See, it was bad enough having a stinking corpse in the room, now he had to be serenaded at all times of the night by a crazy fuck next door. Not that he’d ever seen his neighbour, of course. Heston never went out onto the corridor unless it was completely devoid of all human life.
His feet itched, his hair was sticky with Marmite. Sometimes the patches of fur stood out on his body like a map of the country he was born in.
What kind of music was that, anyway? Was it Jazz? It sounded a little like jazz, like jazz that was being strangled at birth. Or was it rock-n-roll? It was sometimes boisterous, sometimes sad, and something the notes seem to fall softly like snow floating down on a summer’s day. It didn’t make sense. Was it avant-garde, cubistic, heavy metal, turbo-folk music? Most definitely, and yet sometimes it sounded with such a deep slow melody it was enough to make Heston forget he was a sorry pockmarked wretch upon this sorry pockmarked earth.
And the more the music played, the more the fur grew on his skin. Heston howled. He beat his fist against the wall. He slipped on a black banana skin and landed on his arse.
The corpse stared at him with jelly-like eyes.
The music played on.
Harry took the stairs two at a time, up to the second floor. He slowed as he walked along the corridor.
The more I worry, the worse it will be.
He stopped at the door. The lock turned easily, as on any other day.
I have knowledge of all the streets of Blackthorn and surrounding towns.
He called out his wife’s name as he entered. His voice sounded strange, another man’s voice trapped in his mouth.
I can drive from pickup to destination without any problem.
There was no answer to his call. He moved through into the living room. His wife’s chair was lying on its side. Music played gently from the radio.
I was aware of her ways, her crimes, from the beginning. But love dwells above such things, it has to do. There can only be acceptance. Only surrender.
Margaret’s body lay sprawled on the carpet, halfway to the little decorative phone table they had picked up at the car-boot sale that time. Harry froze.
Just another day. Just another love song on the airwaves.
He bent down to her, holding her, willing that she wake from this sleep. That she would clasp her arms around him and pull him down to her, as she did that time…
As she did that time, where the two rivers joined as one, that day…
Margaret lay cold in his grasp. There was no breath from where her lips pressed against his face, his wet face. No breath.
Shiny black flies were crawling around inside the bathtub. Heston climbed in and stomped them under his Doc Martins. He crushed their iridescent bodies, releasing the juices inside. Job well done. He turned to the mirror above the sink, rubbing his hand over a week’s worth of bristle. His eyes were bloodshot and glazed, as he stuffed big wedges of cotton wool into his ears. Anything to keep the corpse from speaking to him.
Walking back into the main room he popped a couple of happy pills and made himself a joint. He drank cocoa sweetened with treacle. He felt like one of those Japanese Hikikomori kids, who retreat to their rooms and lock themselves in. At least he was still getting the subscription fees for his website, www.202freakystreet.com. That kept him going, although sometime soon he would have to go out and brave the world.
The corpse grinned at him. Had it moved slightly, changed position on the carpet? Lack of sleep and his daily drug intake were playing havoc with Heston’s sense of reality. Amid the usual rabid hallucinations he sometimes had visions of himself as a clean man, a sensible man, a man in love even. These episodes lasted about ten seconds. His twenty-seventh birthday loomed and already he felt old, past his best. His skin smelled of toilet cleaner and fish. It was time. Heston pulled out a bed-sheet and started to roll the corpse inside it.
The doorbell rang.
Alicia and the boy looked at each other for a few moments. The boy’s eyes closed and opened again. “Would you like to hear a song?” he said. “I made it up myself.” Alicia gave a quick sharp nod, at which the boy began to sing in a quiet and tender voice: “Rock a bye, rock a bye, baby’s fallen down. Ten steps top to bottom, baby broke his crown. Subdural Haematoma are words I can’t pronounce: roll the ball, baby! Bounce, bounce, bounce.” Here he paused. “Do you like it?” Alicia nodded again. She was having trouble finding the words, especially when the boy came down a couple of steps towards her. “My name’s Alicia,’ she said at last. “What’s yours?” The boy smiled. “Andrew Mark Tavistock, Junior. Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.” And he bowed sedately and then moved closer still, until only one step separated them.
His hand reached out to touch at Alicia’s brow. It felt like a feather touching her, like ash, like breath on her skin.
“Did you trip?” she asked. “Did you trip and fall?” Now she could see the old scar on the boy’s forehead, which looked to be seeping blood despite its age. Andrew Mark’s face grew pale and translucent. His eyes narrowed and filled with a pain half remembered. The lights flickered above. And he answered: “I was pushed.” His hand seemed to pass through Alicia’s skin with a coldness she had never before felt.
At first all she could hear was the soft ticking of the clock on the bedside cabinet. Then the music started. It was always the same: every night she woke up just moments before it began. 3:17. The green illuminated numbers were the only light in the room. Natalie slipped out of bed and walked through into the living room, where she stood by the window looking out.
No sign of a moon. The twinkling lights of a ship far out, lost in the black expanse. The music louder now, notes tumbling from the saxophone and becoming lost themselves, lost in the maze of melodies. Sudden feelings, memories. There is a pleasure in the pathless woods. What was that? There is a something on the lonely shore. Rapture was it? Pleasure? Something like that. Byron, or was it Keats? Next line? There is a something something, la dee da da, where none intrudes, by the something sea, the blue sea, the deep sea. That was it. By the deep sea and music in its roar. And then the poem went on, beyond memory. It was the idea of the twists and turns of the music and the pathless way through the woods, through the dark, through life.
Natalie walked back to the bedroom and stopped in the doorway surprised, seeing that a woman was lying in the bed, the lonely bed where minutes before she herself had been sleeping. The music played on. Natalie looked down at herself, and smiled.
3:24. Natalie stirred. The music came softly to her as she lay there next to her husband. Strands of dream logic fluttered in her mind for a few seconds and she reached out to grasp at them, too late, too late. The darkness folded in.
She was fully awake now. The sounds drifted in from the next-door flat, a gentle music, soothing. It was not always so quiet, but Simon always slept through it anyway, sure in the morning that no such music had ever been played. But Natalie was easily affected by such things. It was her training, to be aware at all times of her immediate surroundings.
Now she slid out from under the duvet and walked through into the living room. She placed the side of her head against the wall and listened. The melody seemed to be calling to her. She imagined the brass instrument, the silver gleam of it lit by a single lamp; she pictured the notes forming in the air like vapour. The wall felt sticky and warm against her ear as the music came closer, louder. She pressed the fingers of one hand against the paintwork and kept on pressing until her hand started to push through into the wall itself.
Natalie was suddenly aware of her circumstances. She asked herself to remember this moment on waking: that on the other side of a thin layer of dust and pigment a saxophone was playing for her, breathing notes.
Harry was playing Ella Fitzgerald when the buzzer rang and he almost didn’t hear it over the sound of the orchestra. He spoke into the grille and his daughter’s voice answered him, and he pressed the button to open the downstairs door. These actions happened one by one, in the correct order, but they seemed to take place some distance from his body. He could not shake off the grey mist that had descended a few days ago.
Sophie came in. They hugged, and then backed away awkwardly. ‘It’s good…’ Harry started. ‘It’s good to have you here.’ Sophie smiled, and then stopped, not knowing which emotion to show for the best. ‘How are you?’ she asked finally and instantly regretted how stupid it sounded. But Harry nodded and said he was OK, he was holding up. But his eyes told another tale, one written in late nights and whiskey.
A little later they sat at the table, drinking tea. Sophie asked about the arrangements for tomorrow. Harry said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’ve placed your photograph in the coffin, you know, the one taken in Rhyl. It’s…it’s what she wanted.’ Sophie took his hand in hers. ‘What about Edna?’ she asked. Harry shook his head. ‘No. No news. Not yet.’ Sophie looked away. ‘Oh well. You know Eddie. I’m sure she’ll…’ Her voice trailed off as her father pulled her hand up towards his face and held it there tightly. He would not let her go.
One half-finished piece of knitting, red and white wool. Harry says: “She was unable to carry on, towards the end. Too fiddly. And then too painful.”
Jigsaw puzzles and crossword books.
Many photographs. One of them showing the younger Sophie with her friend Damien, holding hands, laughing in the hills. College days. Sophie: “Damien is living here now, in flat 14. Did you know?” Harry shakes his head. “Will you see him?” Sophie admits that she might have to. “Unfinished business.”
Personal letters. Love letters. Harry touching these, not daring to open them.
Several dozen detective novels, including the Donna Townes series.
One golden cube puzzle, almost completed. Sophie adds a piece, leaving only two more to be slotted in.
One pair of binoculars. One notebook, containing the comings and goings of the metal detector man. Harry: “I would bury little things on the beach for him to find. I did it just for Margaret. She used to sit here at the window, watching. It made her happy, I think.”
Jewellery box, containing a pearl necklace, five rings, several brooches, assorted trinkets.
Vinyl records: Ella Fitzgerald; Frank Sinatra; Perry Como; Tom Jones.
Baby clothes, old and moth-eaten now. Sophie takes hold of these, caressing them. Harry watches her. He prays to the Lord that she keeps quiet, just for now, just for these few days together, the ceremony. Just to be good, to pay respect.
From the Blackthorn Gazette
BEAUMONT — MARGARET. Suddenly, but peacefully, at home, on Friday 17th October. Loving wife of Harry, devoted mother to Edna and Sophie. Funeral Service at St Nicholas’s Church, Blackthorn Sands, on Thursday 23rd October at 11am, thereafter to Arcadia Crematorium, Birchfield Drive, to which all friends and family are respectfully invited. Dearly missed, forever in our hearts. RIP.
Harry stood in the middle of the living room. He was aware of the slightest noise: the water in the pipes, the fridge humming from the kitchen, the tick of the clock on the bookshelf.
Well, that is that. Over and done.
A small gathering.
Yes. Sandwiches, awkward silences, Uncle Bob’s slightly racy jokes. Well you have to, don’t you? Can’t let her go without a laugh. What she would’ve wanted, and so on. And so on.
Over and done with.
The caretaker woman turned up. Strange. One or two from the building, a couple of his fellow drivers.
But no Edna at the funeral. That was sad.
The room was cold. He should put the heating on, but he felt he couldn’t move, not really. Not yet. His body was not in his command.
Sophie leaving tomorrow. Must get Edna’s last known address from her before she sets off. Yes, must do that.
He felt the loneliness of these few small rooms in which he and his wife had made their life together. If only there was a further presence of some kind. All these collected items, each with their own memories. But no ghost. No Margaret.
He had in his heart already decided to leave, to leave 217. It was time.
The puzzle box lay on the table. Harry picked it up.
There were only two pieces left. The first one slotted in easily but the final piece refused to go. Harry couldn’t understand it. He pulled at the box in frustration. Soon the puzzle lay completely dismantled on the tabletop.
He would have to start again. It seemed important, that the box should be finished, the mystery solved. But no matter how he tried, the pieces would fall out of position, they jarred against each other.
He managed to fit seven of them together before giving up.
That night he dreamt of the apartment block. The twenty rooms. The various occupants. He saw the building as a series of parts that slotted together to make the whole. He saw the corridors and stairwells as pathways connecting the parts.
He heard a young woman crying in the darkness. He heard a saxophone’s refrain. He heard the heartbeat of a man sleeping. It was his own heartbeat.
Harry woke up then. He walked in a daze to the table and sat down there, his fingers picking up a piece of the puzzle. Within ten minutes he had slotted all but one of the components into position. He picked up the final piece, the twentieth piece, and clicked it home. The box shone with a soft yellow light.
He placed the strange object against his ear and listened. Margaret spoke to him, a memory roused by the puzzle’s conclusion.
He knew now what he had to do, and where he had to go to.
Everything that can change
Everything that can change, will change
Everything changes with time
Everything that can change
It was the wrong place. The view had changed beyond recognition, beyond memory, and where Harry had pictured fields and open skies, now a sprawling industrial estate dominated the scenery. A motorway boomed past. City noise, human noise. He needed to escape all that. To go further.
He got back in the car and travelled up into the hills, following the route of the River Taff as far as he could, taking the smaller tributary. He stopped at a tiny village that seemed vaguely familiar: nothing more than a pub, a shop, a few houses. His map told him that a number of footpaths crisscrossed this region. The pub was called the Pentecostal Lamb. Surely they’d had a drink there once?
So many years have passed. So many years…
Harry set off walking. It was a cold day, the land held down under low clouds. The river was black with dirt, the ground soft. He would not be able to go very far. But where am I going? All thoughts of keeping to Margaret’s wishes had fallen away. The world had changed, himself with it. He would do what he could.
Rain spotted his jacket, the sun disappeared completely and the hills were suddenly dark, threatening. Harry kept on awhile, taking another pathway, losing sight of the river. He could feel old ghosts burn inside his body, the only warmth, and now he stopped moving, standing alone in the wind and rain with a tingle in his bones.
He was being watched.
There was nothing to see, no living person but himself. And yet his skin moved with the feeling of being a subject, a figure viewed through a crow’s black-lit eyes for instance, or through the segmented lenses of a beetle. The trees bent their branches toward him. The fields shivered with life.
He pulled the small container from his rucksack. It was the simple plastic urn provided by the undertaker, nothing more. The lid came loose with a little effort. It was a time for words, he supposed, but his mind was empty. What was it Margaret used to say?
Everything changes, Harry. Everything that can change, will change.
Ashes drifted through the air, caught by the wind. They fell to the earth and moved through the grass. Here was the dust of a woman, a wife and mother. Here the dust of love, of tenderness, of pain and doubt. The dust of following, of wanting, the dust of forgetting. Dust within, dust without. The dust of fortune, of gaining and losing. And most of all the dust of regret.
It comes to this. All things descend.
There is a darkness that might be held safely within a poor man’s careful hand, until that hand was opened, thus, and the darkness released. Harry bowed his head. He waited in silence for a few moments longer, before turning and walking back down the hill towards his car.