Thursday night and I’m in Retros’ in Northwich. I remember, not for the first time, why Radio Free Europe is such a great song. There’s a line running round my head as I listen and it’s this, from Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor Press; “Music is magic, they’re twins.” This story is for those who were there and those who might have been.
The Silent Man
Every waking hour he told stories; gossip maybe or the latest football scandal. He talked. Everyone spoke well of him, of his good sense. His medium height cast little shadow and he had no particular figure. He was heavy of tread and thickened by time and gravity; wealthy enough by the measure of others. He knew the town and the town knew him. Whatever he touched was moderately successful and as others struggled something about him, if you believe in such things, drew good luck.
His wife was a small woman; tiny in size; unambitious. She was happy to follow him; treat him as the child that their late marriage had no time for. Their house on the not so new estate was tidy. She decorated in beige or sage and saved for things that kept the fashion. None of it was useful or beautiful, less still of it necessary. They were at one with the neighbours. Other men were jealous of his fortune; a good wife with an even temper and no overly awful habits. She worked for three fat, happy brothers at the bakery; just two days.
He never remembered his dreams. Sleep was empty. At home they kept odd hours, what with his job being what it was. Alarms woke them, television lulled them.
These days his work kept the dawn at the radio station, whispered the early risers into the day and talked the night shift to bed. A business in manipulating sound, the morning show to entertain. He brought pop music (the chart, the hit parade, the X factor finalists; call it as you will) into the everyday grind. Sugar sweet and easy high; worked it into the flesh of those that surrounded him. They were grateful for it.
On Monday morning, somewhere between the best of the ‘80s and the phone in requests he stopped. Just inside his head was a song, it caught his mood yet he couldn’t remember the first verse, just the opening chord. The resonances were bright mountains. After that there was nothing. It was the silence of loneliness and an empty room; it left him breathless and quiet. Lost for words. The airwaves fell to a faint white hiss.
After three more days of the same he had begun to plan for these silences. His neighbours called him the silent man and he looked away.
In his mind the world fell away in that quiet. No memory coloured it and he could not hear his heart beat. After two weeks he had a doctor’s note but no diagnosis. At home he kept house and annoyed his wife. He cooked with a passion she’d never had. They couldn’t fill the breakfast show vacancy and the town needed its sugar hit; the bakery became busier and she put in longer hours.
Each day in the house buried a little more of him, to escape he carefully carried down DJ equipment he’d buried long ago in the attic. It rested, reverentially, in the dining room. Each song brought a place, a face, that pint on the pier or a meal shared. Days passed and he would not allow her in there. Winter passed to summer and the curtains remained open; all day and all night. They began to slide from their rails.
Where there was quiet he lost his balance, where it continued he was physically sick; the yellow of fear. Words came to him rarely. The doctors did more tests. Scans, bloods, x-rays. There was an unidentified growth in his heart.
On his way home from the hospital the car stereo failed. He stopped. The rush of the river and the rattle of a distant lorry were not enough. Not for the first time he tried to think of a tune, he could feel the silence coming and would have done anything to escape from it. For the first time he succeeded. Inside his chest he could hear; the chord from the first time it happened, but then another chord, a repeat and a timing shift. It was enough. A journey. To go back through his past to work out where the silence began.
One song, that one that forced an end to the silence in the car. That guitarist. With YouTube running in the background he hunted it down. It was almost lost, like his childhood. Eight hours later and he had found the guitarist, still gigging, in the town the silent man grew up in. A mere hundred miles away.
That had to change. The silent man had to hear him where he lived now. It would only make sense in his home town, where he has come to be.
So he worked, like never before. And for a while he began to talk again. The concert, the civic hall, a bar, everyone welcome. Yes, even you. Local radio, posters, press; all of it. Leaflets with the three fat brothers in the bakery. The hope of one high to follow another, booked for one night only. Neighbours should bring the old folk, boys are to convince their older brothers. The people from the new houses will come out. There will be no danger in the dark that night.
On the edge of town he stood in his local as one last remaining cynic poured cold on the plan. Told of a high street not safe to be on. The youth weren’t what we were in our day. The landlady reminded him, without blushes, of the night they had sex behind the dairy, just short of his eighteenth. Of the fights on a Friday when folk had cash. He bought two tickets.
The silent man had filled a hall that’d not been full in years.
Each person sat, or stood, according to their whim. Music and words. Those minutes when everyone knew that the world turned and that they went with it. That they were part of the flow and it was beautiful.
Everyone felt the magic. Except the wife. She sat still in the front row.
Once the hall was cleared and the rubbish swept he told his wife that he was going to die. Left the hall after and went into work, despite the sick note, and through his programme he sat silently. First they fetched the doctors and next they fetched the police. He walked out. Along corridors heated by dust, out through doors that never closed, down along the river and past the derelict works and over the hill and they never saw him again. The sun rose.
Outside the civic hall around lunch time the brothers from the bakery started bringing blankets and the rain held off. School kids rubbed red uniforms in the green grass. The news went round. A second concert; it’s going to happen again. Picnics spread. It was difficult for people with tickets to get in but a path became clear and the hall filled.
When the guitarist starts to play at eight he does so with the doors open so the people sitting outside can hear as clearly as those inside.
The silent man sits on the hill above the town. Above the chimneys and the pylons there are no clouds. The wind brings the music. Two chords, then repeated and a timing shift. It’s enough. And it’s a journey.