A short story by Kirsti Wishart
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Caller 27: – yes, I’m one of the most intelligent minds ever, I’ve taken a test, and I’m a close personal friend of Ruth Davidson and I’ll be contacting her and telling her exactly, exactly what I think of your godforsaken, fucking useless organisation, keeping me hanging on the phone for hours. It’s not even a freephone number, is it, costing me a fucking fortune and what do I get at the end of it? Eh? To be told it’s my fault I’m in this situation by some lazy, brain-dead useless meshuggener –
Operative: Wait, sorry, ‘meshugana’…? is that…Yiddish?
Caller 27: What…meshuggener? Yes. Yiddish, it’s Jewish…means like a crazy person. Someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Operative: Oh right…like…‘schmuck’.
Caller 27: Yes. Like schmuck…so…ah…where was I…um…yes, so you can tell your bloody stupid liar of a supervisor that I will be writing personally to Ruth to tell her exactly what I think – wait, fuck sake, is that…battery…is that beeping you or me – [call terminated]
I used to collect sounds but after Sarah left I turned myself deaf. Bought earplugs to wear in the flat and on the daily commute. I work in a call centre giving out debt advice. Listening to that constant refrain of worry, confusion and rage, my left ear growing warm under the headset as it fills with forgettable conversations with strangers, is like drowning in white noise. If I took what they were saying personally, I’d lose it completely. So I disconnect, keep myself numb, and when I put those plugs in at the end of the day, it’s bliss. Like plunging into a cool pool after being chased by waves of lava.
Caller 68: …
Operative: Is that you, Sarah? Is it?
Caller 68: …
Operative: If it is, you know you can still call me on my direct line. You’ll have more chance of getting me. There are hundreds of us here. Sarah?
Caller 68: …
It was sound that brought us together. I’d been DJing at this club night, playing tunes on my laptop while recording the chat going on around me, cutting it up, stitching it together, finding the beats and rhythms in folk’s laughter and in-jokes, broadcasting it back to them. I loved seeing the moment when they’d been nodding along then realised people were dancing to their opinion on Hibs’ chances of winning the league. Most of them laughed and if I saw someone getting touchy, huffing about their voice being ‘stolen’, I’d pump them up loud before switching to someone I knew could handle it. Because anyone getting humpty wasn’t getting the point, how it wasn’t about Them and Us, the audience and the DJ separated by the decks. It was a coming together, the energy looping between the music and the crowd, one shaping the other.
Sarah’s laugh was a tune for the taking. I kept noticing it, a bubbling, cheeky noise, completely natural, a pure expression of the fun she was having. To hear it felt like being given a gift, especially after the constant moaning at work. I repeated it all night, sped it up, slowed it down, a motif replayed, a hook that caused the audience to cheer and laugh louder each time it played. And every time it did Sarah laughed the hardest, until the evening ended in a cacophony of her happiness, set amidst the hysterics of everyone else, her joy in being the band-leader, the first violin.
I was packing up my laptop when she came over, told me with a sly look, ‘I’m even better company when I’m quiet.’ And suddenly I was desperate to hear that, felt almost a pain to capture it. Us sitting together, the silence you get when you’ve known each other for years. Words redundant, love insulating the gaps.
Back at mine, I hesitated before showing her my ‘recording studio’. Previously it had been make-or-break, a clear indication to whoever I’d invited round what a nutjob I was. But when she gazed around the walk-in cupboard lined with old vinyl, peered at the cassette tapes, marvelled at the reel-to-reel spools, her excited, curious smile meant I could breathe easy. Years of scouring charity shops, spending a drunken fortune on ebay, weeks living off pasta with butter because I’d bought the entire catalogue of some obscure German dance label, finally seemed to be paying off.
‘God…you weren’t kidding when you said you were a bit of a music geek, were you?’
I gave her some line about it being great pretending to be a DJ, how you could give full reign to your autistic tendencies and still be seen as cool and thankfully she laughed. Nothing in that tiny space had ever sounded sweeter. Yes, I admit I recorded the moment on my phone, have played it time and time again since she left. I’ve now started to hear what I was then too smitten to notice. The minor tone, the shorter laughter notes suggesting wariness. She knew then the sounds covering the walls could easily swamp everything, drown her out. I thought about the thousands of files downloaded on to my computer, the hard-drives used to back them up and realised I’d been searching years for a noise as perfect as the roar that filled my head when she kissed me.
Caller 16: So, yes, right, I’ve downloaded the forms and everything, filled them in and I’m wondering…I’m on your website now and I’m wondering, because I’m not very good with computers, I can’t seem to find…I can’t find the link to take me to the envelopes.
Operative: The…wait, sorry, I don’t…the envelopes?
Caller 16: Yes, you know, to send the form to you. I was wondering where you download them from the website. And will they have the sticky bit? Or will I have to…
Operative: Ehmm…you don’t…you can’t…you have to buy one. From a shop. An envelope, I mean.
Caller 16: A shop? Really? Oh…like…from the post office? And do you, do you know where I could find one of those?’
It was great to start off with. When we went out about the city I’d make recordings the way other folk would take photos; kids playing in the park, dogs barking, snatches of the films we’d been to see, chats in pubs, overheard arguments in restaurants. At home I’d mix them with some of her favourite songs or soundtracks, aural mementoes she could listen to on her commute. For her birthday I used samples from the Japanese cartoons she enjoyed when she was wee, jingles from adverts, start-up chimes from computers. Set them to this swoozy, mashed up 80s theme tune to some half-remembered American Saturday tea-time kids’ show. It was nostalgia you could dance to, what would play in a dream about your childhood you’d be sad to wake up from. Sarah told me she’d listened to nothing else for a week and after that week she moved in.
I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to adapt. I’d never lived with someone I’d been in a relationship with, had ended up moving out of flat-shares because of snoring through the walls, or the risk of a mixing session being interrupted by a knock at the door and someone asking if they could use the last of the milk. When I’d bought this place I’d spent money on soundproofing rather than proper furniture (used deckchairs instead) because I didn’t want interference distracting me from whatever I was working on.
Of course, I needn’t have worried. I didn’t want to listen to anything else. Sarah was the perfect soundtrack. The comments she made when watching t.v., singing to herself when we cooked together, later brushing her teeth, washing her face. I collected the music of her as others would rare birdsong or dying languages.
In bed her sighs, her little cries guided me, had me teasing up the volume, stroking along to the beat of her pleasure. One time afterwards, she cupped her hands round my ears, nose to nose on the pillow, her eyes closed, breath hot, almost feverish in my mouth and I didn’t hear but felt her say, ‘Playing me like a bloody violin,’ fierce and happy both, teeth sharp against my lips when I smiled.
Caller 205: Is this the police station? Are you the police?
Operative: Eh…no it’s –
Caller 205: Is it the hospital?
Operative: No, we’re –
Caller 205: The fire engine, are you the fire engine people? The fire brigade?
Operative: No, no, we, we’re a debt advice agency. Debt. Not…death. We help if you have money problems. Are you –
Caller 205: So not if you’re having a heart attack. You’re no help with that?
Operative: …no. Sorry, for emergencies you need to call –
Caller 205: Could you put me through to the doctors’ perhaps? The chemist?
I started to notice her behaviour changing about the flat, how quiet she was. The murmurings she used to make when she was reading stuff on her phone or the songs she’d break into when she was doing the hoovering, taking out the bin, making a boring chore entertaining, became less frequent. As if she’d put herself on mute.
I joked about getting her a wee bell, like a cat, to stop her just suddenly appearing. She didn’t find that funny, looked at me like I was being serious, snapped, ‘When I’m talking to myself, having a sing, those sounds are mine. They’re not meant for listening, I don’t want to hear them again, reminding me I’m a mad person.’
I tried to laugh it off but she didn’t join in, headed out instead to meet a friend. I went to my cupboard studio and thought about how different she’d been from those killjoys who hadn’t wanted their voices turned into a chorus. I blended together the noises of hers I’d been missing, transformed her into an orchestra, a sound big enough to shake the Usher Hall.
She left me after finding the folder on my laptop. She’d been going out more often to meet that friend in the pub after work, getting in later and later. I hunted down this app that could record conversations happening around someone’s phone, transferring them to yours. It didn’t feel so different to what I’d been doing in the club when we met. It wasn’t because I had any real suspicion she was seeing someone else. I knew I could trust her. I did it because I missed her, the recordings not enough compared to the ‘live’ experience.
I wanted to find out what she sounded like when I wasn’t around. Happy was the answer. There were times I didn’t recognise her voice, she sounded so cheerful, so glad to be in another person’s company. I’d have to take out one of the headphones I’d been listening to her chat on, it was too painful otherwise. Knowing the Sarah I heard every day wasn’t the best version I could get, instead some rubbishy remix playing on the wrong format.
She was easier to listen to when she’d had a few drinks and started complaining, talking about how she didn’t want to go home. That she loved me, had never met anyone like me but that I creeped her out sometimes. At least I recognised her, those tones. Set what she said to some Radiohead I’d stripped until her words matched perfectly the melancholy electronics.
I honestly didn’t think she’d mind. We’d been so close and she’d accepted so much I’d kept hidden from others. I thought she’d see it as sharing, me making something out of what would otherwise be lost forever. Perhaps that’s why I was so careless. Or it was self-sabotage. I wanted her to find it, used it as bait, setting a test.
I’d given her the password to my computer so she could play the latest stuff on it when I wasn’t in. She knew about the ‘Sarah’ folder where I’d kept the tracks I’d made from her. She didn’t know about the ‘?’ labelled folder inside it.
When I got in that night, ears still ringing from the concert I’d been to, her bags were packed in the hallway and the flat was filled with a loaded silence, the sort that could explode if the wrong thing was said, a trigger hit. She was sitting hunched on the couch in front of the coffee table with the computer on it. Her look stopped me in the doorway, she tapped the mousepad and out of the speakers blared her saying, ‘I mean, me sleeping? Who does that unless you’ve got a problem with them snoring? Even have to watch what I say when I’m unconscious,’ layered over some lullaby-like tune.
She paused it, pressed ‘Right-click’ and then, I could tell from the angry satisfaction on her face, hit ‘Delete’.
I protested, ‘No, Sarah, please,’ acting more upset than I was, knowing about the back-ups I had elsewhere.
When she left the worst thing was that it was done in silence. It would have been better if she’d shouted and screamed because I’d never heard her as mad as that, ready to kill. She was deliberately not giving me what I wanted, the contempt in her eyes as she brushed past saying everything she needed to.
I followed her out, pleaded with her, babbling on, making enough noise for the both of us and it was like talking in the quietest room in the world, the one that drives people insane if they stay there too long, every sound absorbed by its walls. She was deaf to me, my only consolation being that I managed to catch on my phone the slam of the taxi’s boot, the door, the chuntering of its engine as it carried her away.
Caller 108: …
Operative: Hello? Is that…Sarah. Is that you? It is, isn’t it? You can…things are recorded yes but you can still talk, you know? Sarah…
Caller 108: …
Operative: I can tell it’s you, from the breathing. Have you forgotten? I remember things like that.
Caller 108: …
Operative: Is this like…revenge or something? Calling me at work? Because yes, ok, maybe what I did was weird but it wasn’t done out of malice or anything. It was because I loved you. I didn’t think you could be this cruel, making me suffer.
Caller 108: ….
Operative: Sarah, please…you’re not…say something, anything, just…I’m sorry, ok? I didn’t mean to hurt you, I’ve not been right since you left, the flat…it’s horrible, I can’t –
Caller 108: [call terminated]
Operative: Sarah? Sarah. Please.
After the sixth silent call that week, for the first time since she’d gone when I got in from work I took out my earplugs and went straight to the laptop.
I’d been loading up calls from the centre on to a pen drive. A complete data protection breach but it wasn’t as if there were checks to make sure no one was stealing conversations. What weirdo would do something like that? Occasionally the door to the server rooms would be left open and I’d think about the thousands, the millions of voices they held, trapped, buzzing and humming away to themselves. Taking some of them away, releasing them, felt like opening a tiny tap in the wall of a dam and pouring out a tumbler of water, an amount no one would miss.
I copied the files over, opened up my ‘Sarah’ folder and got to work, digging around on the internet to find what I needed to get them all to hold their tongues.
The next day on my shift people commented on how cheerful I was, that they hadn’t seen me smile in ages. If my supervisor had decided to listen in to my calls my politeness would have made her suspicious. To the confused, the stupid, the irritable, my words were soothing and calm and when I thanked them for calling I sounded genuinely sincere.
At a minute to ten, just before my sanctioned tea-break, I stuck my phone on ‘Not Ready’, plugged in my pen-drive, installed the programme I’d found and let her loose. Sarah sent swimming along connections, sounding out across systems into any ear there to listen. She blended in with the voices of the callers, their whining and complaining, their shouts and whispers, laughter and cursing until it became absolute noise, a blazing static, a hundred jet engines taking off, volcanos erupting, nuclear bombs exploding, tidal waves crashing, planets colliding, Sarah singing over the top of it.
My colleagues reeled away from their screens, ripped off their headsets, tried to escape the babble, the ecstatic beat. I kept mine on, closed my eyes, imagined landlines and mobiles blaring out, their frantic owners trying to shut off the din they’d created, wondering if they recognised themselves as my love’s backing group.
Still it wasn’t loud enough. I turned the volume up until blood seeped into the foam covering my left ear, burst by the thunder of our first kiss, a deafening hush, the noise of a city struck dumb. I wondered if she’d hear it, and know that that cry from the heart came from me, tried to imagine her reaction.
But even in the peace, it was still there. She was still there, echoing in my head, giving a slow handclap, anthem of the unimpressed. No volume control to deaden the sound, to rid me of the memory of her. Then my fingers brushed against the sharp tip of a Bic on my desk. I smiled, realised how I could make the deafening complete. Picked it up, drove it into my right ear as far as it would go and the silence that followed was [call terminated].