when you hear this sound
She was a girl, but she looked like a boy, and when that twat Roy Chalke called her Danny, you knew it was with a Y. She lived across the bridge by Stutter’s Lane, where our streets split into separate kingdoms; England on TV, England on your shoe. There was a fridge on her garden lawn that might have been Anglo-Saxon. I only knew her name by chance. They called for her on the college tannoy while I was standing at reception, trapped in Mike Hype’s hypnotic gaze as he banged on about Faith No More. She wore her contempt as she stomped through the hall; was she alone because she never smiled, or was the truth in the reversal? I didn’t care. We were young; smiling was a lost art, a Samizdat underground.
Mike was always one for drowning out the world. I saw no value in his outlook. Surely life was best lived with the crusts on. I wanted the unknown treasures that lay at the rim of the world. I wanted Danielle McTavish and the rough promise of her swollen lips.
It started at the end of the day. I was kicking grass across the football field when I saw her at the gates wrestling for her bag with 'Heartless' Rowan Arkless.
I didn’t know Rowan, but I knew his type. Flawless skin, fairytale pecs, pretty but not weak; you’d never land a blow on him and he’d never end up flicking matches in the White Lion. He probably thought he had a right to the bag; the privilege of the crown. Danny had him in a headlock as I hurried up the hill, much to the amusement of the crowd at the bus stop.
Rowan was struggling, gaining traction, but his downfall was insurmountable. There is no more willing witness than a bratty teenage shithead, and no one more powerful in all the world. He pulled free and readied his fist, but the damage had already been done.
‘Hey,’ I shouted, as the bus line looked away, ‘what the hell are you doing?’
It took him a moment to regain his composure, and to work out the proper amount of his true nature to reveal. He grabbed her wrist, twisting it roughly while his finger jabbed the air. ‘She’s fucking insane,’ he said. ‘You can have her.’
He pushed her roughly and sent her sprawling to the pavement. I felt myself tense as he motioned to pass and bent down to retrieve her bag. Made sure to ask that stupid question that never seems to work like it should. ‘Are you okay?’
She stood up, brushing herself for dirt. I told her I liked her jacket. It was a shabby military looking thing, mutilated further where she’d scrawled band names in Tipp-Ex. I didn’t know any of them. She looked good. She looked like she’d been wearing the same clothes for ten thousand days.
‘My jacket?’ she snorted. 'Well thank god you think so.'
I nodded. Any drag in the conversation could have led to permanent exile. I told her my name, suggested meeting up some time.
'Why would I do that?'
My mouth was dry. I searched for a way to define my appeal and came up with this. ‘Because,’ I said, ‘I have exceptional human abilities.’
‘I don’t know. Ask me.’
‘Could you do the tape?’
I stared back; open-mouthed, incredulous. The bus line fell silent.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I could do the tape.’
She swung her bag around her shoulder as the bus chugged into sight. ‘I’m not joking,’ I called after her. ‘I can do it.’
She leaned into the sun and flicked at a half-plucked eyebrow. ‘Tape first,’ she said, ‘treats later.’
‘Congratulations mate,’ said Mike, spooning sugar into his mug. ‘Of all the things you could do to impress a girl, this has to rank as King Mad-Mental.’
Mike’s house looked like what it was; the smoke-stained, gin-soaked parlour of an aging bohemian. Everything smelled of wine or dust. You could imagine the young, dopey looking Jagger waking up there, his mind awash with boozy recollections of joss sticks and dirty talk.
‘You’re not listening Mike.’
He looked up from the mug. Mike Hype was less chubby than puffy, enlarged all over like a balloon filling up with air. Nobody gave him stick for it. There was something about him that was not to be crossed, and it did not lie in the physical. All the same, he was crossing a line. 'Jesus,’ he said. ‘I just – what do you want to go out with her for anyway? She’s weird.’
‘She’s not weird Mike. She’s just not rich. Neither are you, remember?’
He tore at a piece of toast and babbled through the crumbs. ‘Yeah, but I’m not a pikey either.’
We winced in unison as his mum called from the kitchen. ‘Michael.’
He held up his hands. When your parents are perfectly preserved hippies, rebellion becomes a matter of contradiction. ‘Alright,’ he squealed. ‘God, why don’t you just go and look like a twat then?’
‘I will then.’
We drank tea that looked like liquid sellotape and held our ground in silence.
The book wasn’t much to look at. The last borrower had been a total chud. Entire pages were missing, with more scribbled over. Decades of stains formed an archipelago on the cover.
It was called The Tale of the Tape. The author was Lesley Henwood. The librarian looked me over as she stamped the date. ‘You’ll be wanting to talk to the man then. You won’t be getting anywhere near that bloody thing without his approval.’
The Caulfield twins were outside when I left, hunched like vultures in their woolen coats.
‘First dead man this year,’ said Owen, licking his minging lips. You could sweep him with the Hubble telescope and see nothing but grime through the glass.
‘Not the first,’ said Bayan, ‘What about the tramp at Moan Pond?’
Sorry lads. Got to be somewhere.
Owen rose up in front of me, like some Poundland Gabriel. He smelled of glue and liquorice and asked me if I was in love. ‘Probably think that stuff will save you.’
I pushed past and smiled, sensing his pleasure at my effort. ‘Maybe if it comes with realistic kung-fu action.’
I felt sorry for the two of them. My mum used to say that they were too young to be kind, but I knew that they never would be. They were frightened of brunch and broadsheets, and the grey lanes of marriage. It seemed like a thing to be sad about.
In 1983, Dwight Myklebust, a baker of some renown, watched Truxham Town F.C. pit their hungry under-18s team against the dominant shadow of the Wendley Grasshoppers. They were not successful. The golden boot of Kedward Wylie laid them low within minutes, providing the sole moment of drama in what is still assumed to be the most tedious game of football ever played.
No one knows what caused such a theatre of misery. Some blamed the coaching staff. Some claimed toxic crud in the half-time oranges had led to diarrhea and night terrors. Others accused the rain, or the lacklustre crowd, even the honking of sadistic geese. The field was an empty bed, and each man played alone. All the lines led nowhere, and all the nowhere led to Dwight.
He’d been an unofficial chronicler of the team for some time, doing the same for their adult counterparts. Dwight Myklebust wasn’t much of a gambler, so he watched men gamble with their hearts. Sometimes he scribbled in his notebooks and sometimes he mumbled his own commentaries, and sometimes he brought his wife along, to cheer and salute, and pretend that for a miracle ninety minutes that the toll could be paid in grit.
There were no miracles on that wet November morning. Only the hushed click-start of a Walkman Pro and the implacable echo that followed.
None have encountered the resulting tape and walked away unscathed. Even Les Henwood, a historian with the will of a marathon runner, could not transcribe more than five minutes without immediately turning to the sexed-up records of the Swiss chard festival. They say he tastes ashes in every meal now.
To suggest Myklebust lacked pizazz would be an insult to that ludicrous word. Unrealized dinner parties surf the night tide in limbo, such was the rigor of his company. And when two black holes merge, any distortion in the individual shape is only flattened out further, creating an impenetrable, unknowable pool of suck. In this case, the tape.
It had only grown in legend since then. Pete Gerber told me that a library assistant once used it to prank a volunteer, an act of such malice that it can only be related in bawdy folk ballads. Said volunteer had since featured in thousands of medical texts and one Palme d’Or nominated documentary, The Man Who Couldn’t Wake Up. The tape waited in the stacks, stinking of boiled sweets and rotten towels. Shining like a melancholic pond.
And what about Dwight Myklebust? He died of course; of shame, of despair, of the tectonic shudder of gossip.
A day later I was in the canteen, sticking knives into a mystery meat effigy of Rowan Arkless. I’m not proud of that. Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.
Danny came to the table wearing shredded jeans and a filthy baseball cap. She had a copy of King Lear wedged under her arm. It was a complex message at best.
‘You worried then?’ she said, nibbling at my chips.
‘Worrying is like anger,’ I said, pushing my plate across the table. ‘It’ll give you cancer. You’ve got to have faith in these things.’
She mangled her sneer into a crooked half-smile. ‘Just like that huh?’
‘Well that’s why it’s called faith.’
‘No, its called faith ‘cause it’s not nice to say stupid, childlike delusion.’
‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit Danny.’
‘Faith is the lowest form of hope.’
I imagine it was like American Gladiators.
I made a show of cracking my knuckles while she pulled down her cap, shuffling to avoid our latest visitor.
‘Can I just ask?’ said the girl, in mush-mouthed Amberley meter. ‘You really doing the tape?’
A baggy charcoal hoodie had struck a decisive blow in the territorial dispute for her body. She’d probably have been deemed overweight by the acolytes of Loaded, but I found her quietly provoking. My body had buzzed with an awkward energy ever since I made the pledge.
‘Yeah, I’m doing the tape,’ I said. ‘Got a plan and everything.’
She stiffened and stared into space, long enough for a pack of wandering townies to quit their slap-fight and listen in. Somewhere across the room Candace Mitchell moaned aloud, baring her tiny goblin teeth.
The girl began to giggle maniacally. I'd wound her up and released the key. I looked around, at the open mouths and the blank expanses, and wondered if I had made a mistake.
A tray hit the floor to a chorus of jeers. Thank you Bananaman. I shall pray extra hard tonight. The one good thing about this place? There’s always someone as dumb as you waiting around the corner. You never notice this common blood of course, because it’s all over the windscreen of the car. Somebody cried out in the backdrop, Danny made him do it!
She got up and left the table.
Definitely, definitely not a mistake.
Rowan gave me the finger as I passed through the corridor. John Wrigley made it two. Stoners avoided my gaze, dragging themselves away like carcasses at sea. Within a few days, I’d become terribly and precisely known.
Sometimes I saw Danny waiting in line. We didn’t talk. The girls around her would point and laugh, whispering when her back was turned. It never leaves you, a thing like that. You learn to measure your shit on your own scale, or you teach yourself to forget.
I threw a tissue in the bin on my way to English Lit. Alex Townsley retrieved it a moment later and placed it delicately inside a gilded leather pen case.
I did my best to reacquaint myself with the flat plateaus of boredom. Repetition became my trade. My mum was delighted when I volunteered to clean at the restaurant. At night, I kicked my heels in the kitchen, watching rags form tiny islands inside dumpy soup pans. Wondering what would happen if I called one of the numbers etched beneath the peeling fuchsia paper.
By day, I sought lectures on Dutch economics, grinning like a madman as my free period ticked away. I bugged Leila Pierce to prescribe me polynomials, and asked Mike about his video game triumphs. I learned about moths. I learned about barrels. I watched people play while I worked. I set the video to tape daytime TV and made a loop of Henry Kelly’s android mouth. I helped my dad pick out bathroom tiles and changed my mind when we were done. I complained about traffic all the way home and asked him about his favourite composers. I thought about opening a bank account in a town without a cinema. Slowly and obnoxiously, I became a tribe of one.
A week passed. I was trudging through the Neck, hopped up on bok choy and witlof after a visit to Mike Hype’s.
The Neck; a catch-all term for the red-brick labyrinth at the north crust of town. We had friends there when I was young, near the black iron gate of Moan Pond. I’d play in the garden while the oldies complained about the black bag pandemic or the skaghead trolls or the endless vilification of the poor. They were smarter than we gave them credit for. Turned out they were human too.
I was lost in thought as I came up on Danny at the Tesco, lurking in the car park beneath a dirty smudge of moon. She was sucking the life from a six-pack of Coke and tossing the empties behind a hedge.
I asked if she was busy. She shook her head. Jammed her hands into her pockets.
‘Oh, I'm sorry.’ You could tell she was enjoying that smirk. ‘You were hoping for a bit of playful chit-chat yeah?’
‘Actually,’ I yawned, ‘I'm about fifty/fifty. I'm fucking knackered.’
Was she laughing? ‘How goes the training?’
‘It’s good,’ I said, standing very straight for some reason. ‘I’m either Jesus of the tennis courts or Hitler reborn. It’s all about the contradictions. Like 1984, but with bigger rats and less chance of a shag.’
I watched her face, hoping it would change. She kicked up the dust from a mound of brick shingle and danced away across the concrete. I called after her. ‘You don’t think I can do this, do you?’
She made his fingers into pistols, marking me with sparks from her esoteric stock. ‘You still worrying about faith?’ she said.
‘I’m worrying about all of this.’
‘You’re worrying that I didn’t catch that bit about having a shag.’
The door of the supermarket opened with a dry hiss, revealing a humming forest of bright, identical products. Ambassador, with this indomitable timing you are really spoiling us.
A young woman emerged from the light, followed by a pallid toddler in miniaturised Dior. She slapped the kid across the face with undue force and called out for somebody named Mercedes.
Mer-ce-dees. ‘You’re fucking pissing me off!’
I winced and looked away. Not Danny. She stared into the drama as though it were some antediluvian flame.
‘I can do it,’ I said. ‘I don’t know why you want me to do it, but I can do it.’
She shuddered, stripped for a moment of her ain’t-the-night-dark schtick.
‘Because I’m a dickhead,’ she said.
omething hung between us like a comic book POW. Who was it who said that life was a wheel and not a ladder? Jesus, I bet he’s not rich.
Mike was still at it as we waited in the library – ‘So what if you fancy her? She’s crazy! Sometimes scissors beats rock!’ – but I’d made up my mind.
‘Hey,’ he said, ‘would you just think about this? It’s easy to make mistakes okay? How many years did I think Metallica were a group of edgy, streetwise rebels?’
‘Jesus Mike,’ I was angry, and full of sugar. ‘Do you ever listen to yourself? All these psycho bands and lunatics, they’re not – they’re not real, you know that right? Living in the gap, that’s how you’re gonna die. Trying to be one way and the other all the time.’
‘Oh?’ he smirks, ‘And who’s your hero?’
‘I – Billy Wilder. And Philip K. Dick.’
‘Well that’s hardly a moral stance is it?’
He sighed, wrapping a bone-crushing arm around my shoulder. ‘Man was not meant to touch the sun,’ he said. ‘We’ve learnt this much from Icarus, and the Iron Maiden song, Flight of Icarus.’
His words were slurred, privately satisfied. I held his hand and swallowed another sweet breath of life.
Les Henwood was a singular man. White shirt draped over pallid, puffy skin. Silk tie, velvet waistcoat, hilariously Dickensian facial hair. The folk of the Neck would have said he was asking for a kicking.
‘I hear you’re trying to impress a girl,’ he said, as we passed through the crystalline stillness of the reference library and into a boxy room out back. ‘Let me guess; she won’t take you seriously unless you’re bogged down with angst and dubious morality?’
There was fear and disapproval in his voice. I felt my heart skip a beat as he took down a plastic tub and began to dust off the tape player within.
‘On first hearing The Abduction from the Seraglio,’ he said (I couldn’t help but imagine that he was enjoying this on some level), ‘Joseph II told Mozart that it was “… too beautiful for our ears.”
‘He also said there were too many notes.’
He frowned and retrieved the cassette. It looked entirely mundane. ‘Some things are beyond our comprehension, he said. ‘We think we are ready for them and we are not. They defy simple description, so we turn to idle chatter and lore.’
‘I read your transcript,’ I said. ‘I read all sorts of – ’
‘I don’t need to impress anyone,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to warn you.’ He turned in the doorway, the balance of shadows lending weight to his years. ‘But I can’t stop you. That’s the lovely thing about libraries isn’t it? Any bugger can poke his nose in.’
I sat down at the desk, lifted the headphones, and began.
Myklebust had a cold. A drowsy, melancholic sickness that made him sniff between sentences and lent him the air of a drowning man.
‘There’s Roy Stephens walking up to the line. And he is wearing red today, as I suppose he does during every game. Everyone else also wearing red, apart from the other team. And the rain is driving, driving down.’
I heard tired boys call to one another across decades of notoriety. Myklebust said something about a game of two halves and wondered aloud about soil erosion. I fought a yawn and figured I could concede the occasional goal to Morpheus.
‘At the end of the day,’ said the voice on the tape, ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it.’
I took out my pen and began to transcribe.
I stared at the wall as he described Wendley’s offense, the tiniest footfall brought to light in appalling detail. It was a voice without music, without passion or drive, a machine recording the futile game of the last men alive on earth.
‘And now Kedward Wylie has scored,’ he said. ‘He literally left the defender for dead there. And now there’s a bird, some kind of big bird on the pitch. And now it’s gone. And this early on – this early on you have to admit it really is anybody’s game.’
My top felt tight around my neck. I felt the dizzying stupor of queue time, of classroom time – deeper than the sunken roots of creation. I saw that I was beginning to drool.
‘John Tighe,’ said Myklebust, ‘now cleaning his boots with a bit of stick. And he straightens up. And, uh, and the ball is moving very slowly now.’
I thought of the parents affixed on the line; arms wrapped around sodden bodies, disappointment on every face. Nobody here would break free of the mold. None of them would live forever.
I saw the boys pacing in the drizzle, wondering how they’d come to this place. I saw their blank starving eyes and their impotent fury and the years stretching out like a long grey carpet. I wanted to tug out the headphones and run laughing across Barry Park. Continents were shifting and oceans were falling and the sound of it all was blah, blah, blah –
And now Wendley has the ball. Mark Onstad to be precise. And he is waiting for the attack. Waiting. Waiting still. A step to the left, and another. And now he is waiting again and waiting for what – ’
Something broke in his voice, cutting through the clouds like a sword of holy fire. I clutched at the desk, momentarily alarmed by the chairs bunched up around me. My eyes opened; everything hurt.
Myklebust’s voice trailed away, until all that remained was the soft thrum of rain. I looked around the little room and shivered. I was alone, infinitely alone. Everything was temporary; what I felt could never be held and was already a thing beyond me.
Well maybe that shit flies at Valley, but not at fucking Bayside.
I gripped the pen and set my shoulders for a fight. What Henwood forgot and
Myklebust forgot and Danny McTavish was likely manipulating was this: a wounded romantic is more dangerous than a cynic.
‘Andrea,’ said Myklebust. ‘Christ. Look where we are now. Everyone talks about beauty so much; you’d think ugliness was rare. Bloody rain. Bloody shit tea.’
I leaned in towards the recorder, unsure of what I was hearing. Had he left the game? Who was Andrea?
‘David Corke has the ball now,’ he mumbled, ‘and, uh, he has to be going somewhere with it.’ He kept saying that. He has to be going somewhere with it. He has to be going somewhere with it.
‘You’ll never listen to this will you love?’ he said. ‘I’ll slink through that house and pop back out again and you’ll never know that I had any words inside me.’
I covered my mouth with my hand. His voice seemed to be coming from a place deep within me. ‘I feel like a knot of old rope. I've lived in this place with its little dreams and its little pities every day of my life and all the grass has turned brown behind me.’ I began to shake, my body given to over to something else, some hollowing drone from the outer dark, ‘I hope you hit fifty ten grand in the hole and eight stone heavier with that poor little girl nowhere near you. Sod your bloody programmes and sod your dodgy cakes and sod that wally who thinks he can sit in my chair. And on that note, sod your taste in men. I hope I get hit by the 8.39 from Ore. Bloody fool.’
My finger tickled the stop button. I was far beyond Henwood’s notations now. I felt sick and guilty, like some glad-handed ad exec sifting the past for new product.
‘If you’re listening to this – if anybody’s listening to this – don’t let it ruin you. Open a shop, paint a picture, do anything but give your bloody heart away!’
I thought of Danny and saw how the loneliness of her position could only be amplified by my own and felt like some wretched accomplice to the dark. We could dance on forever and never diminish the difference. Our little lines, our orgiastic slips, opening nerve after nerve until we saw that the barrier between us was as simple a thing as the bridge between two different kingdoms.
The room swelled like a magnolia lung. It was me and Myklebust forever ‘til the end –
‘We were supposed to be at this together,’ he said. ‘We made a vow. You, me, and Danny. That’s what you said it would be.’
Danny. I thought of Danny. Just red blood cells. White blood cells. Meat for barbecue. A hotplate that made itself weary. We had 129 metres of death around our necks. I’d come out swinging with my fabulous plan and been hooked on a line too thin to see. I held my breath and started counting. There was nothing for a while but geese in the rain.
There was nothing.
‘Saw a dog in the park this morning,’ said Myklebust. ‘I think his leg was broken. Probably got hit by a car – ’ He paused. ‘Corkey back on the line there – and he’s gonna starve or die of an infection... Called the Blue Cross, but no one’s gonna want him. No one’ll take him home. I wish you would come back love. I know it’ll take magic. I wish I had some magic.’
Dwight Myklebust, human at last. My heart split like a rotten peach.
‘This is me Andrea. I’m real. You can’t just throw me away. I’m coming back for that girl. I’m coming back to give her a life. Because I love her.’
The worms were in me now. I felt myself twist in the chair, spitting and kicking, clawing at the dark, thrashing screaming beating my fists taste the bile collapse the lungs full animal power against the dark –
Danny. I thought of Danny. I thought that it was a better life by far, to be unperplexed and opened and never yearn to be complete. I wriggled and I screamed and I realised –
She woke me up with a nudge to the gut and asked how I was doing. She was hesitant, tremulous; as though I were part of some very delicate recipe. I squirmed on the floor and tried to read her face. ‘I didn’t know,’ I said.
A silence descended. A perfect silence in the breathing room.
‘I was just…’ she said. ‘I didn’t know what he’d say.’
‘I tried to write it down.’
Danny nodded. Her chintzy earrings caught the last rays of sun.
‘He’s gone now isn’t he?’
‘It was an accident,’ she said. ‘I don’t remember much.’
‘He seemed nice.’
‘Yeah. Boring old sod though.’
I laughed and nodded, and felt the tears of Dwight Myklebust, dismissed for so long, trickle down my cheeks.