To Each A Song

by Christopher Johnstone

The craft of the air always flew west, the direction of the war. They never flew back and perhaps this was because the wounded were sent back by train or perhaps it was because the great ships of the air were too desperately needed at the front. Audrey was not very good at following the news, and the starched, upright voices of the wireless tended to bore her into even deeper disinterest. It was, she supposed, one of their jobs, to cultivate disinterest in bad news, and this they did with remarkable efficacy.

But today is not a usual day for Audrey. Today, Audrey is not going to her library. Today, the library will not be open at all, even though it is a day that the small brass wall-plaque proudly states that the library ought to be open (10am-1pm, 2pm-4pm) and although Audrey often tells her few visitors that the hours writ on small brass plaques are holy words, wise and mad, always to be obeyed, although all this is true, she needs to attend to other matters today. Away in the city.

So there would be no books or poetry or soft shadows or Dickenson today. Instead she would walk to the village, and then to Little Gaddesden Station. And then a train ride. And then the bustle and crowds. A clammy, dank hotel somewhere. Lawyers and legal matters and things to be signed, declared, declined and attested.

A sigh.

By about ten o’clock Audrey realizes that she has scrubbed and rescrubbed the kitchen table and has done three rounds of tidying. Only after all of this does she slowly accept that she is avoiding the whole task, the trip, the lawyers, all of it. She says to herself, “sooner started, sooner finished,” and doesn’t believe a word of it. At around half-past ten, she gives up looking for more things to do, takes her overnight bag, and drops by on her neighbours to ensure they haven’t forgotten about feeding Keightly (they haven’t), and then she walks slowly towards the village. On the way she watches an aeroplane from its first manifestation as a white-gold speck, then as it arrowed like a dragon, trailing a long steam-white trail of cloud, and then, finally, as it vanishes away into the west.

Nearly to the village now.

But as Audrey passes the Green Chapel with its rotten slate and brilliant cobweb-encrusting of moss, she pauses, listens intently, and only struggles with herself for a moment before she pushes the gate open.

In her head, she calls them the songs of the damned, though she is not sure that the dead who sing must be damned. She assumes that they are, only because those who attain salvation are supposed to be at peace, and the songs that the dead sing are never restful.

No-one else can hear the songs, or at least, no one else has ever said as much, and no-one else walks the graves, head-tilted, eyes abstracted, breathing stilled and shallow… listening, listening. Which is what Audrey does. And she is fairly sure that she would recognize it in another.

She stops by the grave of an infant, nameless, marked only by the remnants of an iron cross paid for by the parish. She listens to the short song of twenty-nine days, in which each day is rich and full of the wonder of newfoundness, and now and then the child’s voice remembers somewhere warm, somewhere safe and oceanic, because the child did have only twenty-nine days, and so her song still recounts the days before she knew how to breathe or cry or drink mother’s milk. Audrey listens to the song of Old Radford who lived to a hundred and two and was still terrified by death the minute of its coming. She pauses by the soft and intertwined harmony of twins, one a suicide, the other dead of sadness within a month. She quickly passes the grave of an ancient foreign mercenary, quickly, for his song is full of violence and hunger, drudgery, marching, fear of death, fear of starvation, fear, and fear, and a rape that he remembers as a beautiful hour with a beautiful woman, but which Audrey knows was a rape because the woman is also buried in the yard of the Green Chapel and her voice sings a different, very different song about that hour.

The village clock strikes noon, distant and near-hidden beneath the smothering calm of the day. It is a rare place where the haze of frogs, cicadas and birds can almost erase modernity’s timekeeping, but in the churchyard of the Green Chapel this is nearly achieved. But not quite, never entirely, not even here. She is forced by the clock-bell to accept that she is now utterly, uselessly killing time, listening to the songs of the dead, and that she must be going. She hurries out of the graveyard and down the lane.

As she walks she thinks about how she tried to get permission to have her parents buried in the yard of the Green Chapel, and about whether she even wants to hear their songs, because you never know what your parents really thought about you or each other or even their own lives for that matter.

In the village she passes the library that must remain closed today, and tomorrow and the day after that too. She won’t be back until the weekend. She passes the old pub that is supposed to be named The Lion, but which every calls the Angry Cat, on account of a poorly painted sign. She passes the public square where the clock-tower stands. She passes some people too, Amy and Kim, the elderly Mr Muld, and then Joe Elston.

Joe is one of only three men of conscription age left in the village. He’s tried to sign up three times, and each time has been declined on grounds of poor eyesight. His glasses flicker in the sunlight, catching the bolts of golden white that stream through the trees-crowns of the Angry Cat’s front garden.

Joe takes off his hat when he sees Audrey, he falters, smiles and stops. “Good morning,” he says, then less certainly he adds, “I was sorry to hear about your parents.”

Audrey stops. She isn’t good with people. Not the living ones anyway. The dead ones who wrote books, the imaginary ones who live in books, the dead ones who sing, those are her dearest friends, but living people … the sort who think inscrutable thoughts about you behind their inexorable eyes …

She manages to say, “Thank you, Joe.”

There is an uncomfortable pause. Joe isn’t very good with people either. He’s one of the library’s biggest customers, and Audrey has always been happy that Joe wasn’t allowed to enlist. Partly this is because secretly, selfishly, she wants him not to have to go away to the front like all the other young men. Partly it’s a strange simple thing: his hands. Joe’s hands are a clerk’s hands, gentle and careful, and sometimes out of his control. They often flutter the way a butterfly flutters, and Joe seldom seems to be able to keep them respectably still. Audrey has always been quite sure that those hands would be poor hands for a rifle. A hard thing like a rifle would mark hands like those, and it wouldn’t be certain that the marks would ever come off.

Too late, Audrey realizes that she has been thinking and not talking, and that Joe has not been talking either. They both stare, dumbly and suddenly embarrassed. Joe looks at the ground, scuffs a foot, says, “Well, then, I should let you go. I’ve taken up enough of your time,” though in truth, he has barely said a word.

She wants for an irrational moment to say, “No you haven’t,” and, “don’t go,” and “come with me. Let’s hire a hotel room together. We can be dangerous and sordid and maybe poetical.” But she doesn’t. Instead she says, “Oh, um, yes. I should be going. Thanks, Joe. Bye.”

Joe smiles and says, “Bye, Audrey.”

She walks away down the street.

She isn’t sure when sleep came. Somewhere between Humble Briar Station and Acton Cross. She remembers the countryside whooshing past as the train speed along its iron highway. She remembers the churn of the engine, the lulling rattle of the carriage and the words that began to float on the pages of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Waking up was harsh. A jarring of noise, carriage doors opening and closing, voices and station whistles. Confused, still suffering from the dregs of dream, Audrey collects her book from the floor of the carriage and her overnight bag from the rack. There is a huge and sombre crowd on the platform, and the thing that strikes her as she emerges into it is the sheer smell of people. It has been so long since she was in the city. She’d forgotten, or maybe she’d never even noticed while she was growing up here. Perhaps it was just so pervasive and everywhere … but the smell. The smell. It isn’t awful or sickening, it is just so very human and so very thick and so very animal. The crowd smelled the way a flock of sheep smell like sheep and a wet dog smells like nothing else, not bad exactly, just powerfully alive.

A ticket man checks her ticket at the turnstile and waves her towards Blackheath Circus where she’d arranged a room for two nights in the Dorchester Hotel. The smells of people and burnt oil, fumes, stormwater and stale beer snap at her heels as she walks. They are like phantoms, unrestful, resentful of her absence. Like the voices of the dead, she supposes.

A bright smudge of colour among all the greys and brick-reds catches Audrey’s eye and she recognizes a candy-store that she remembers from childhood. Not a bit of it has changed, and for a moment she wants to tell her parents about it, and then she remembers the telephone call and the words of polite, bureaucratic condolence, and the news on the radio that night about an air raid, and her nightmares about bomb craters, huge and smoking and full of blackened stumps of childhood toys.

Audrey pulls away from the store window, so momentarily overwhelmed that it feels as if her head were full of noise. She is so distracted that it takes a moment to realise that her head is full of noise. She looks around. People are looking up with pale, frightened faces. There are sirens on the air, and she thinks, irrationally, that the name is wrong. She’s never heard a siren before, but she knows what it is immediately, and she thinks about how the siren song was sweet, alluring, charming, deadly. It was never this wailing shriek of warning. No, banshee would be a better name. It should be called a banshee.

Banshee. Banshee. A thought occurs to her. Banshee. Ghost. Ghosts …

Audrey looks around. There are people everywhere. If a bomb falls here, in the street, on the crowd … and suddenly Audrey is afraid. Not of death, not of being spattered with iron-cut shrapnel or peppered with blasted concrete. Those things seem starkly insubstantial to her. What she is suddenly afraid of is this: What will she hear if a bomb drops and dozens and dozens die and she does not? A bomb cannot take away everyone and everything, some people survive, and what if she survives. What will she hear? What do the dead sing about when they have just died, when they are still shocked, in pain, terrified, horrified, angry, hurt? What melodies would enmesh the chorus?

Efflux of life. Influx of song.

And what song?

What if she were trapped and it took a long time for the firemen to get her free? What if she has to lie for hours listening to song upon song upon song? What if there were dead people pressed up to her, on top of her, in deep piles?

At once Audrey understands that she has to run and get away. As she breaks into a sprint she thinks about somewhere safe, but to her safe does not mean a bomb shelter or cellar. She needs a park or vast square, somewhere people will desert when the bombs start falling. Voices yell at her as she shoves and struggles, they curse, someone hits her with an umbrella, but she does not care, the siren is screaming and she must get away, she must, she must, she must.

She sees nothing of the omnibus except for the silvery flare of reflected light on its grill as it bears down on her. She hears nothing except the everywhere-pervasive siren. She feels nothing except the sensation of being weightless. There was no impact or pain, there was no jarring distortion of flesh or impression of bone shattering connection with something heavy and fast, but she is sure that these things must all be happening, or perhaps they have happened, or are about to?

Audrey is aware, dimly, that she is stretched out on the hard, dimpled surface of an asphalt road. There are voices, both worried and angry around her, the siren seems to recede and it is moment-by-moment a more distant thing.

And then she hears the singing.

It is not the multitudinous voices of the newly dead that she feared. It is not the ceaseless chorus of a hundred terrified deaths. It is one voice. A single strand of consciousness blowing on the seas of death’s deep ocean. The song twists and spirals, it turns on itself and slowly, ever so slowly, Audrey begins to recognize the song. It is her song, her own voice somehow one-step removed from her and singing her life. She sings about herself and listens to the song and learns about herself as if she were dutifully listening to the life-music, death-music, hope-music, lost-music of a stranger. She is sad. The song seems so sad to her. It is a song of a person who has almost given up on their once-upon-a-time lust for life. The voice tells of years spent hiding away in the countryside, about a woman who thought she lived too far away from the city to visit her parents very often. She is always writing another letter, putting off her next visit. Next week. Month. Year. And then, without warning, an iron-cast, riveted, carefully constructed, production-line confected, fragment of obliteration takes her parents away and she hasn’t even seen them in three years. She listens to the song of this reluctant human being. She listens to the singer tell how she has been hiding from life and avoiding life. She listens to regrets, and the song wanders into fields full of love that will never be, and things that will never be done, and life that will never be lived … and none of this because of death, but because this woman, this creature hiding in her hole would never have walked those paths. She is terrified and alone, trapped in the words of her own song about her spent life and she cannot get out.

And then she opens her eyes.

At first there is nothing, and then there is a nurse. A sweet young thing, rosy lipped, bright-eyed, like every nurse cliché–but the thing about clichés is that they are reassuring and Audrey understands in her first moment of consciousness that this is doubly true when the cliché a kind and smiling nurse.

“Hallo, there.” The nurse leans over her, smiles. “How are you feeling? Awake are you? The doctors thought they’d lost you for a bit. How’re you feeling, then, darling?”

In the hours and days that followed Audrey learned that the air raid had been something of a false alarm. There had been a squadron of enemy dirigibles, but they’d been intent on a munitions factory outside the city, not the city itself. She learned that the bus driver had spotted her running onto the road in her blind panic, and that his watchfulness and prompt braking had saved her life. She learned that she had been clinically dead for two and a half minutes on the operating table. But also, she learned that she was expected to make a full recovery.

This last bit wasn’t quite true.

On the third day after the accident the first get-well card arrived, and it was from Joe Elston. On the fourth day she lies in bed, looking at the card, thinking over the words written on it, listening to the faintest echoes of songs that wander up from the morgue, down deep below, and rendered wordless by distance. She thinks about Joe and she thinks about life, living well, laughing well, eating well, travelling well, loving well. She thinks about how it’s not at all true that she’ll make a full recovery. The sound of her own song, her own life bare in all its naked detail has scored her too deeply for there ever to be a full return to herself.

And although she hasn’t quite decided, she suspects that she is about to make a decision. She suspects that it might involve Joe, and it might involve summer’s days or travel through a desert-land or a café full of fashionable thinkers or a salon full of dangerous ones, other things entirely. She has always liked stories that were imbued with the memory of the desert. So, yes, perhaps a desert will be involved. But she really hasn’t worked the details out yet. But what she does know is that though her body will eventually be finished healing itself, the song will never knit over with scar tissue or be ground away by time. The song will not leave her alone. She doesn’t want to hear that song again, not the next time she dies. So now, what she knows is that she will leave hospital and then she will really, truly live. And she will write for herself a different song.

One Response to “To Each A Song”

  1. Kat says:

    great story! thank you :o)

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