Thursday, 3 May 2012

Strains - Friday Flash


To wean me off from being propped nightly over my mother's familiar heartbeat, my parents suspended a musical mobile over my cot. Rather than conduct me to sleep however, it merely set my gums on edge (later explained away as 'teething'), since its lullabies sounded nothing like the sweet harmonies of my mother. But then even when she sang while I clung to her stomach as we bathed together, that didn't sound quite how I was used to hearing her either. Perhaps it was the accentuating acoustics of the porcelain tiles. More likely it was because bath water couldn't replicate amnion as a modulating medium.

One of my toy dollies talked. If you depressed her soft, yielding stomach, out would come a limited refrain of sayings. When I put my hand to my own belly and spoke, the muscles there pushed against my hand and made the speech seemingly more urgent to emerge from my mouth. So I pressed my ear to the doll's waxy skin, hoping for her words to directly pour themselves into my ear. But she lacked for a skeleton or cartilage to reverberate, thus her faux skin yielded me no secrets. The repeated pressure vainly applied to the doll's abdomen, detached her voicebox and she refrained from speaking altogether. Subsequent talking dolls all operated with a pull-cord. Their reedy, hollow utterances were always preceded by the whirring of the retracting wire.

My Grandmother's personal heirloom to me was an old musical box. Its tinny tones had been muted by age, but on accidentally removing the cover and exposing its innards, the volume increased in body. However, I became more involved in the works themselves. I used to love restraining the revolving brass cylinder, my fingers contesting with the pent up tremulous energy of the motor. Better yet to impede the tugged teeth of the comb, dulling their plucked peal. The most satisfying was to let the tiny pins embedded in the cylinder, play over the pads of my fingers before they palpated the lamellae. Seeing the indented flesh and then watching it regain itself and the livid red pinpricks fade. The plasticity of my own skin accompanied by the box's anthem.

The trumpeting announcement of the ice cream van to our cul-de-sac signalled a rarer treat for me than the other kids. Yes the mangled tones of "Green Sleeves" or some other vaguely recognisable melody sputtered through the air like an old emphysemic tramp wheezing a tuneless whistle. But rather than the pitch, I was interested in the separation of the notes from one another. As if each one had to be hand-cranked from whatever apparatus churned the chimes out through the van's loudspeaker. So unsteadily wavering and imprecise were their amplitudes, that the sound upon the air couldn't in fact be located as emitting from any point at all, least of all the vehicle itself. And the distortion lingered there. Even on breezy days there seemed no dispersing them, rather they billowed like laundry on the washing line. The rapturous screams of the kids slipped into its shrill slipstream and took on its unearthly tintinnabulations. While I looked wistfully on from my bedroom window. Seeing as my mother had forbidden me from ever buying an ice cream from the van. Having heard that every two years or so, some child suffered from a food poisoning laid firmly at its door.

My first trip to the theatre saw me beg to retreat from our best seats in the house. My mother grudgingly acquiesced, but during the intermission as I licked my luxurious ice cream, demanded of me as to why. I simply replied that the actors had deafened me as soon as they began booming out their lines. She explained how they were merely projecting their voices to the back of the stalls where we ourselves now sat. That they trained themselves to speak from their diaphragms and stomachs in order to reach us. I remembered my own experiments pressing against my abdomen, but that had only served to cut off my breath. I respected the actors considerably more after the interval.

There was always a plethora of sound abounding when my mother was doing one of her keep fit videos in her perpetual striving to shed the weight of bearing me. The first was that the walls and door frames throughout the house shook as she pounded up and down on the lounge carpet. Then there were the squealing exhortations of the boxed and badly dubbed female voice from the TV speakers. She was fighting against the poorly syncopated beat (bass only) of the music there to keep the tempo. And finally mother's own grunts and other involuntary protestations by her body against its exertions. When each ordeal of a session was over, mother would shamble one-handed through her chores, clutching her stomach with the other, as if there was simply no wind left in her at all. She was like my wound-down music box.

And what of my father, a man who crept in and out of both the house and my life with barely a footfall? He brought me into his study, a room I had never entered. There were egg boxes covering the entire wall space. He explained these were a cheap way of sound proofing, which had been insisted upon by my mother for whenever he played his HiFi in the room. And they must have been remarkably effective since I never heard any sound escape into the belly of the house. I wondered whether they also protected his ears from her ground quaking gyrations in the lounge. He announced that he wanted to record my voice, on a wall mounted cassette deck he'd secured from a music studio that was being decommissioned.

He twiddled around with the recording levels and played back my test snippet. I was horrified by the hiss on the tape. It sounded like the pantomime audience jeering the baddy back at the theatre. Even though I only had an audience of one and he was concentrating hard with his own breath in abeyance. I protested my dread of the outcome. He purred that he could record with Dolby to minimise the hiss, but that its drawback was it compressed and flattened out all the recorded range too. I hadn't liked the sound of my voice on the test anyway. It wasn't how I thought I sounded. How I heard myself speak. He laughed and said that was because this was the purest version of my voice I would ever be likely to hear.

Again, as with the ice cream van, I couldn't pinpoint the precise location of the emergency siren. It was bouncing off the walls of the houses and breaking up horribly. Soon enough I could tell it was approaching from behind as I walked home. When it finally passed me, its bell almost shattered my eardrums. I saw it pull up outside my house. I sped up into a run. Apparently my mother had dragged herself along the lounge floor and managed to dial one handed, with her other hand clutching her stomach where a peptic ulcer had ruptured. My father was blissfully unaware, shrouded away in his study, insulated from her agonies by his egg boxed wall.

My voice has barely risen above a whisper since. I didn't want it to come into contact anywhere near my tummy. I only yearned to feel the pulse of my mother's familiar breath. Straining wordless secrets straight into my ear.

*    *    *

Available in the Kindle flash fiction collection "16FF" from Amazon


13 comments:

ganymeder said...

Lovely themed story, but so sad and wistful at the end! Love how you brought the ending back to the beginning.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Your work is always so rich and varied, and full of interesting imagery. Loved this line, "Yes the mangled tones of "Green Sleeves" or some other vaguely recognisable melody sputtered through the air like an old emphysemic tramp wheezing a tuneless whistle."

Steve Green said...

I have to echo Catherine's comment.

Quite a gripping story, and saddening at the end.

A very unusual and interesting concept.

Sonia Lal said...

a very unusual and entrancing story!

Louise Broadbent said...

I loved the part about the mother trying to work off the fat she'd gained in bearing the child. Really made me think...

Carrie Clevenger said...

You kill me with your words. I loved how the doll wouldn't produce sound throughout. Very ground and settling to the character's plight.

Tim VanSant Writes said...

This puts the song The Sounds of Silence in my head. [That's a good thing.]

Kath said...

As others have said, I liked how you brought this back to the comfort the 'child' felt at her mother's breast, in the closeness of her mother, and can never recapture once that becomes a thing of the past. I really felt for her as she has to learn to make her own way through the maze of noise that assaults him in her daily life. Really enjoyed the trigger that sound provides to memories here.

Alison Wells said...

I really like this, in particular how the different sources of sound evoke many associations and resonances about my own relationship with sound and also in relation to your characters. It's an infinitely interesting topic. I felt that the individual instances could each be explored further - perhaps a collection of Sound Flash!

Brinda said...

Beautifully written Marc - so poignant and tragic - filled with yearning of the child for her mother - which is present throughout from the start and we learn why at the end. I look forward to the anthology.

Jen Brubacher said...

There's some kind of unsettled madness in this one. I think it's brilliant. I'm surprised this person hasn't become a killer, with the sound of the world forever in their ears. Actually when the mother died, my first thought was that our hero had killed her.

Helen said...

I really liked the theme of this week's story, some of it bringing back my own memories like "The most satisfying was to let the tiny pins embedded in the cylinder, play over the pads of my fingers before they palpated the lamellae." I used to do that to an old music box my parents had. And the '"the mangled tones of "Green Sleeves" I so remember that, as the van came up our street every Sunday in summer.

The ending was very wistful and sad.

tom gillespie said...

Beautiful, elegant writing Marc.. Wow so many memories awakened by this story. I had one of those musical boxes and I remember trying to stop the little hammers from striking the drum.. It used to drive me crazy..

I love the flow from one memory to the next and the increasing sense of melancholia.. Nostalgia can be like that sometimes..Great piece..