HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

In C

Martin Nathan


Martin has worked as a labourer, showman, pancake chef, newspaper seller, fire tester engineer, train technician and communications engineer.


In my writing I explore the limits of language, and the rift between language, thinking and being.
HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Daniel had a compilation tape in his pocket. It kept banging against his keys, reminding him of its presence. Cassette. A word that had passed. He hadn't made a tape for a long time, but in his father's room there was a tape player. So he made a tape. The music selection had been problematic. His father had never been particularly keen on music. Maybe a bit of light Radio Two stuff. Whether he liked it or he just preferred something to fill out the silence, Daniel did not know.
He had had the idea a couple of nights before. He'd been to a concert at the Wigmore Hall. Messiaen. Quartet for the End of Time. Prison camp music. That long, long melody on the clarinet that felt as if it would last forever... Immediately afterwards he became suspicious. It wasn't a proper prison camp, more of a work camp. The End of Time? Not really. Just an interlude.
Why did he feel the need to undermine....?
'I'm sure he'd like some music,' said the nurse encouragingly. 'We only have four tapes here and two of those are Lloyd Webber.'
Daniel had been thinking he should put some Lloyd Webber on the compilation, it being the only music he had ever seen his father actively choose to put on, but he couldn’t do it. Anyway he didn’t own any.
It was a long walk from the station to the hospice, but he hated waiting for the bus and the succession of mutterings and chit-chat as people got on the bus. He was too urban now. He had no time for their social interaction.

So he'd ended up forgetting about what his father might select and chose what he wanted. Or what he might want in different circumstances...
'You're here to see your father?' The receptionist had a plump beaming smile as if every social encounter brought joy into her heart. 'You know where he is...'
But his father wasn’t there. The room was empty. The bed made up for a new occupant. He stood there in shock for a moment. Surely he couldn’t have…. ?
'Sorry,' said a nurse passing by. 'We had to move him. There was a leak.' She nodded up at the ceiling. There was a bulge from the damp.
She led him down the corridor. It was a sunnier room.
In the room his father was curved in a long 'C' of pain. He was tense and thin, taut in a way Daniel had never seen before.
A woman pastor was bubbling around. 'He's fine. Doing okay today. Yes, he’s not bad at all…. He’s good… ' A poster on the wall advertised the delights of Crete. A man dived in to blue water, arms stretched wide. '…aren't you?' she said, leaning down over his father. There was no discernible response.
'Hello Dad,' he said. 'How are you?'
His face was shrunken and taut. The whole shape of it had transformed, become elongated, vulpine. His breathing was soft, barely moving.
'He does hear everything. Even if he doesn't respond.'
It struck him that someone who believed they were the earthly representative for the great transcendental uber-consciousness was not the most reliable witness.

'I've brought some music. I thought he'd like something else...' He put the tape in the player. The Messiaen came on. Instantly he felt embarrassed. He turned it down. If it had been a CD he would have skipped the track…
She scowled. 'It's a bit mournful isn't it? I think he wants something more cheery than that, don't you?'
It would have been hard enough to get his father to respond on his musical preferences when he was in his prime. Now that he was pumped full of diamorphine a response definitely seemed unlikely.

As he'd listened to the Messiaen he'd pondered the strangeness of the piece. What kind of music would he produce if he were to compose in a prison camp? It would not have the activity of the Messiaen. It would be slowed down, without event. LaMonte Young. Music for another century. LaMonte Young lived in house with the same note playing for weeks on end. Pieces that unfolded over months. But that was the sixties. There was more time then.
The pastor began to hum along, adding counter melodies.
'He can hear you know. Can't you Mr Eckstein? Just talk to him as normal...'
Daniel sat in silence.
'Really. He can. I often see in his eyes.... I often see him responding. Almost laughing. ' He wanted to say, 'But this is how we talked. The long pauses. The occasional word, instantly regretted.' But instead he made some stilted attempts at conversation, fading into an embarrassed silence… the arms wide. Come to Crete. There's always a welcome.

And then he was on the train, returning to life, settling back into his book, thoughts undisturbed. A girl got on, with a prison tattoo on her fingers, with a tall boy shuffling behind her around her. She was holding a can and sat opposite the boy his grey hood pulled tight round his face. She put her phone on the table in front of her, playing rap with annoyingly tinny tones.
Something in the shouted rage, the rhythm kicking, growling, banging as they sailed through the South Downs filled him with anger. The moment built. Something was going to explode…
Normally he endured. These sounds were just a part of the environment. But now… he was fired up, outraged at humanity, inhumanity... just outraged. Pointing a finger… accusing…
He stood up, drawing to his full height, pointing at the phone. ‘The noise…. ?’
She looked up, annoyed, then puzzled, then hurt. He thought she would explode but her face creased into a sudden despair. 'I’m sorry,' she said unexpectedly.
But her friend was up in an aggressive stance, jabbing finger in the air towards him.
'You got a problem mate? What's your problem? Can't you hear it properly? You said you want it louder?' Spit curled from his lip onto the seat. He turned the music as loud as it would go and put it on the table in front of him. 'You couldn't hear it, did you say?'
Daniel looked at the youth, with what he hoped was a pitying sneer.
The girl reached for the phone and turned it off.
'Fuck off.'
'But he....?'
'Fuck off.'
The boy sat down, twitching angrily, about to leap up, then settling, like a dog dreaming of chase. The girl looked right at Daniel. She began to rant. 'I'm so fucking riled. So fucking angry. I said to them... I don't care. I'll go to fucking prison. I don't care.'
Daniel looked back at her. He did some kind of grimace. He didn’t know what his gesture meant. 'Sometimes you've got to do what's right. That's all. What's right. They're taking the piss. So I'll do it and then it's done. Do you know what I mean?'
Daniel smiled pleasantly. He still wasn't actually sure if she was addressing him, although she was looking right at him as if she recognized something.
Her friend swung round at her. 'What are you talking to him for? He doesn't want to know your stuff.'
'Sorry, am I shouting? I'm always shouting. It's ‘cause I'm going deaf. Do you know why? It's all the shouting. Everyone shouts. My mum, my sisters. We're all shouting. We're all going deaf. Still at least then I'll have some peace and quiet.'

The train drew into the station. Her friend got up and she stood behind him at the door, twitching, agitated. As the doors opened it seemed she would follow but then she changed her mind, leaving him on the platform. As the doors closed he stared at her open-mouthed… gesturing... She came and sat down again. 'He's such a dick.'

On his compilation tape all the songs featured the letter 'C' prominently. He'd only noticed as it played. 'Nice selection,' said the pastor. She meant that the current track jarred less than the previous one.
'But he never believed in any god. He hated religion,’ Daniel wanted to say. 'And now the witchfinder general is here, scrutinising my musical selections and directing our conversation. So Dad, having loathed the merest mention of drugs all your life, how are you finding the heroin, now you're really giving it a go?'

'I'd be better off dead.' She began to cry. 'Sorry, this isn't your business.'
'I guess we all would. From some perspectives.'
'From all perspectives.... From all fucking perspectives...' she sniffed loudly. 'Sorry. So have you been somewhere nice?'
He noticed she was looking at his suit. He'd felt a compulsion to wear it. His father had never quite believed that you could be doing a proper job and not wear a suit. He had defiantly avoided suits but on this visit he'd dug out his dark suit and worn it. On the train down he realised he'd never actually worn it for work. Only for funerals.
But she associated him with the opera crowd heading for Glyndebourne who travelled on this route. Fancy summer hats and dinner dress.
'No. Not really.'
She was shaking a little.
'Have you got any food? No... don't worry...'
'No, I haven't....'
'It's just I'm diabetic... I'm a bit hypo... hyper... hypo what's it.'
'I'll... if there's a trolley?'
'Don't worry.... My friend right... she was at a party... she had a row with her boyfriend... she took a load of pills... got back together with him... sicked them all up... sends me two hundred smiley faces on her phone... now they've told her she's got to have a liver transplant.... can you believe it? What's going on? I just got a text.'
He tried to imagine what appropriate emoticon was for liver transplant.
'So where've you been? You been for an interview? Or court? Have you been to court?'
For a moment he was tempted to make up a much more glamorous life for himself.
‘Jesus… Something’s got to change in my life.’ She began to pick at her hand with the nails of the other hand. The skin rose in long red lines.
He glanced at his newspaper. He noticed it was the ninth of September. 9.9.
'Do you remember 7.7?' he said. 'I was in Canary Wharf then. I remember as they evacuated the Isle of Dogs, people fighting for their space on the pavement, worrying about other people walking too close. And I thought… this is it. This is the end. Nothing can ever be the same again. We will never go back to how it was. And it was liberating. You're starting again. I got home to my flat and that was it. I wanted to pack things up but there was nowhere to go. Nothing was going be the same.
‘Of course a week or two later everything was pretty much back to how it was. But you can choose that liberation. Sometimes it takes a crisis. A parent dying... losing your job... divorce. It's a point of origin. You can just choose...'
For a moment he had an image of a poster that used to appear in teenagers' bedrooms. "Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life".
'These things are events. Not good things.... but important things. If you don't have these origins you just go on blindly. You need to step back and look and ask questions.'
She looked at him suspiciously. 'You're not religious are you?'
He shook his head.
'Cause I don't do religion. No way San Jose.'
'Not religion. I'm just saying you've got to think about the points of origin in your life and reevaluate them. They might be your family... your job... money. But you need to keep questioning...'
She grinned. 'My questioning's over. I'm going to prison.'
He wasn't sure if this was a joke. 'So why's that?'
'I've had too much of the talking. Too much talking... Community service interviews talking. Probation officers. I couldn't do it anymore. No more talking. So I said, let's just get it out of the way. Just don't talk to me. Don't expect me to talk back. So that's going to be a point of origin.' He nodded. 'I guess so.'
She was shaking; a soft subtle tremor and her skin had a sheen of sweat.
'Are you okay?'
She shook her head. 'I need something. So where've you been today?'
'I've been visiting my father.'
'Nice.... So....' She stared upwards.
'When two worlds collide they have a point where they meet... Not so nice. He's dying.'
She looked sadder than he expected. 'Is he in pain?'
'No. He's on diamorphine. Heroin... He's out of it. It's an irony... how much he hated drugs... people that took drugs, that he should depart the world so calmly...'
She looked sad. 'I'm not a drug addict you know. I'm diabetic. I just need something to eat.' She was sweating and the shaking was worse. They were pulling into a station.
He got up. 'Come on then. Let's get off. I'll get you something.'
She followed him without a word of protest through the station gates. Was that a knowing look the station staff gave him as he took her through the gates?
He took her into a coffee bar and bought her a tea and a muffin.
'I did him this tape. All this music. Beethoven string quartets... piano sonatas... Bach. And as I spoke to him suddenly I found words. I'd never spoken to him like that. This woman pastor was there... he'd never been religious but he was Jewish anyway... she was nodding... it was her... “good job" nod. Good job.' And the more I talked and the more the tape played, the more I realised this was not about his death at all. He didn't want that music. He didn't that nonsense I was talking. It was all about me.'
‘Beethoven….?’ she said.
Giacinto Scelsi composed many pieces consisting of one note played repeatedly. He was lost in a depression for a long time, and the only way he was able to draw himself out of it was by playing a single note again and again. Weeks becoming months, one note. The slightest of modulations, the pulse trembling. This is how it ends….
She tapped the table in a slow deliberate repeated rhythm. ‘I need something,’ she hissed. He stood up and tossed a fiver on the table. ‘Come on,’ he said, though he didn’t know where. He just wanted to be away from the eyes watching them. She stood up and stepped towards put her arms round him, very tight, as if she would never let go. Her body was taut and bony. She was still trembling and when her cheek briefly brushed his, she was cold, so cold. She held him. And then she released him and was gone.