“ – the dangerous words, the padlocked words, the words that do not belong to the dictionary,
for if they were written there, written out and not maintained by ellipses,
they would utter too fast the suffocating misery of a solitude …”
Introduction to “Soledad Brother – The Prison Letters of George Jackson”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
* * *
If you enjoyed this story, look out for 15 others that will be published on Kindle on May 16th in my new anthology "16FF"