Wednesday, 19 January 2011

From - a short story

The sky was purple-black, the bright harsh sun threw long shadows across the wide and empty thorough-way. Halbmann was walking to Carmillisenz hall, for the evening’s sound concert. He’d been looking forward to it all week. The wind whipped hard across the plain, blowing his longish grey hair back along his scalp. As he walked, leaning into the wind, he squinted down the road through a pair of large wraparound sunglasses.

Beyond the immaculate sunlit sprinklered lawns, across the irrigated fields, the large yellow and black warning flag was fluttering vigorously, visible for kilometres around. In the distance, Halbmann could see the machines obediently making their way back off the fields towards their shiny metal barns dotted along the far horizon.

There’d still be several hours before it got to be too dangerous outside, long enough to enjoy the sound concert and get to his son’s house in time for grandfatherly babysitting duties. Passing block after block of neat bungalows and perfectly manicured gardens, he reached his destination, the dome that served their small township as its main venue for sporting and cultural events.

Along with dozens of other senior citizens from the township, Halbmann turned up to enjoy a night of aural nostalgia. He walked up a few steps and entered the dome, joining the others at the central bar. He didn’t feel like talking much that evening, but felt that a glass of Universalis would enhance the evening’s experience. Familiar faces, nice new neighbors, he sat at the bar, smiled, nodded, but right now he didn’t want to talk business, answer questions or do anything but exchange simple pleasantries.

This evening, the dome at Carmillisenz hall was arranged as an amphitheatre. Large reclining black leather sofas were arranged in a semicircle around the sound system. Halbmann took his allotted place and sat down, getting himself comfortable. Backrest reclined, feet up… Soon, after the audience had all settled, the lights dimmed and the performance got under way. A few audio advertisements for local services were aired, and then the main part of the program began.

I have to explain here that the sound concert is an art form like any other, with its own conventions and codes. It aimed to convey listeners to places far away in space and time. The recordings had been made and edited with inordinate care, with the aim of being as universally significant to as many listeners as possible. Try as you might, you could not make out what language was being spoken, although you'd easily catch the gist of what people were saying. Nor could you spot any clue that could give away the specific point in history that the recording was referring to. The market for emotion nostalgia was so great that the owners of the dome would always do good business on nights when there was a sound concert for the senior citizens.

Halbmann chose not to put on the headphones. These would have given him better sound quality but would drown out all the sighs, the involuntary chokes of emotion, the sounds of fellow listeners’ responses to the sounds, their laughter and their sobs. It was this element - the audience reaction - that gave these sound concert events their poignant sense of communion with his neighbors and friends.

The first piece that evening was of someone walking across open countryside. Footsteps. A tuneless whistle, a sense of purpose. Wind in the trees. Wind gusting through the ripe late summer crops. Insects buzzing around. A couple chatting happily as they walked. Skylarks trilling, high overhead, a foot stumbling on a stone, a puddle, a laugh, a curse. Observations – pointing things out to one another. A creaky gate, dogs barking, far away. A stream gurgling under a wooden footbridge. Eyes closed, the listeners were transported to a time and a place so familiar, so wonderfully pleasant, that their faces reflected purest joy at the experience.

There was a short intermission for stretching legs and visiting the bathroom. The second piece developed into what sounded like a large family get-together. A lunch outdoors in a prosperous village. Spring. A warm, still day. Children running around. Food and drink being served. Laughter, chit-chat, expressions of surprise – more laughter. Voices of several generations. Tableware – that sound of cutlery on china, corks being popped, drinks being poured, glasses chinking. A sense of well-being and community, someone breaking into song, a mock-pompous announcement, more laughter. Halbmann listened enchanted, taken off to something that he'd often experienced indirectly – memories he’d had all his life but which he could not identify; something intimately close to him – and yet not something that had ever happened to him.

At the end of the two pieces, which lasted maybe three hours in total, Halbmann stood up, stiffly stretched, and returned to the bar for a quick Universalis before setting off to his son's house. Now he felt more chatty, a smile returned to his face. The audience were all full of emotions that they wanted to share. But everyone was also aware of the fact that it was time to go and to get home quickly. Dusk was falling. It would soon be dangerous outside. He’d missed twilight soup picnic with the family that evening.

Outside, the yellow and black flag had been replaced by a red-and-black chequered flag. Time to walk briskly. Less than an hour left.


Ryszard Wasilewski said...

Very, very nice Michael. A fine balance (for the reader) between "knowing" and longing to know more. Human lives, somewhat distant, yet still familiar and our own.
I look forward to more.

Anonymous said...

Good to see you putting your visionary and meditative fiction onto your blog - the perfect home for it. It was of course a distinct and happy pleasure to publish this story first in my painfully infrequent but piquant journal 'Through the Woods' back in the good old days of 2008.

Regards and a belated Happy New Year to you.

JW London

Paddy said...

I enjoyed reading this.