That one sound is different.
So many sounds at this time of year. I have noted twenty-seven. That of Father’s footstep before he opens the front door. Lighter as the holiday nears. His stair-step, dragging when it’s been a long day. That of his slippers, the furry scuff towards the tinkle of the whiskey decanter, and then the slosh in the glass. Mother’s gait: quick in the dark of the morning, changing, a touch heavier after lights-on. The drum-roll of her heels, in and out. And that queer weightlessness, the pent-up breath of her step before she enters the bedroom. I won’t try and list the child-music. The scamper, right to the blown tip of her hair, when off to school. The skip at the gate. She dances to herself, at times, in her room. Tap and turn. Her laughters. Stuff my ears and I can still tell you of seven sorts. They ripple across one’s skin.
There are, of course, the sayings of the house. When the heating clanks on or the rain dribbles. The flushings, the wince and quease (how would you put it?) of the stairwell. More door-voices than there are registers of wind. Warmth has its sound when it slides under the kitchen door. I know them all. They prickle my scalp. But this one is different.
I may be in error. Exceeding care is in order. Like that of the rat-catcher, arched and knit to hear the faintest creak, the cut whisper in the roof-beam or trestle. Error would be unforgivable. Come Christmas, sounds mix and multiply. And are shot through with smells. The shiver of the dwarf-pine with its green smell and hiss of needles; that of the post lurching through the slot in the door, heavier now with the waxen sound and scent of the glossy brochures and catalogues; the crackle of wrappings and the whole house chiming, like the chandelier. Even the lone light in the attic sounds crystal gay. But here I must be prudent. Not only the candles in the window and on the mantelpiece give off a savour of felt and old copper; so do the electric bulbs, hung with pine cones and holly, and on so much longer during these short days. One inhales sound and smell at one breath. Confusions may arise. (Days too soon I muddled the tide and ebb of voices from the schoolyard – Penny does not have far to go in the morning, ‘Not far to drop,’ says Father, at which she pretends to flinch – with that of the carollers.) One cannot be too precise. I may be in error.
Yet that sound is different.
When did I first hear it?
I don’t remember exactly. Not exactly, that is. To which uncertainty blame attaches. Is my memory weakening? It has been formidable. Not a whistling in the street or in the house that I ever forgot or confused with any other. Last spring’s early thrush, the show-off, crotchet-semi-quaver-crotchet and the rubato on the trill. Ask me when Father bought the new wellies, the lined ones, or Mother burned the roast with the guests – I caught Mr Blakemore’s rancid breath, those dentures, even before he banged the door-knocker – with the guests (did I already say that?) at the front steps. Ask me about Penny’s mumps and their hot smell in the room, and the time (it was years ago, wasn’t it?) when I heard her at the top of the landing, without slippers, passing her fingers and then her braids through the moonbeams, trying to count them one two three, sing-song, in her nightdress. With its odour of camphor, meaning start of school and leaves falling. Ask me. I will call up memory. How, then, is it that I don’t recall, not exactly, the first time I heard the sound?
Could it have been when Mother was looking after her aunt – bronchial flu, was it? – and was away for the weekend? There are such sharp holes in the air when she is out of the house. Father and Penny had been to the movies. Four steps on the gravel. But then only two and the key fumbling in the lock. Because he was carrying her into the house, skipping, laughing. Penny was laughing too. And there were chocolate éclairs for tea, which Mother thinks bad for our teeth. So I was sworn to secrecy. ‘Hi-ho the gang,’ said Father and put rum in the tea. Only a drop for Penny and, at first, she wrinkled her nose and wouldn’t. But then she sipped and coughed and giggled. The taste hung on our breath like warm gold. After which Father put on his favourite cassette, the Pirates of Penzance highlights, and he danced his hornpipe and knocked over the delphinia. So we were sworn to secrecy again and had raisin slices on top of the éclairs. Do you know what he did then? Put the raisins and bits of walnut to the edge of his lips and blew them out, in a high arc, telling Penny to catch them in her mouth. But they fell on the carpet and I was quicker. ‘O Daddy, Daddy-O,’ hummed Penny, spluttering and rounding her mouth. ‘Daddy’s duck,’ he said. And she asked again when Mother would be back and why Auntie May had no one else to look after her, and couldn’t Mum come home tonight. ‘She would smell the chocolate éclairs,’ said Father, basso profundo, and we would be in serious trouble, ‘mucho serious, Ducky.’ Which made Penny giggle more.
Could it have been that night I first heard that sound?
Or was it at Nubb’s Point?
I do detest picnics. Those ants; drawing-pins in my ears. But could it have been there? Consider the broad daylight. The herd of people about, squealing, snoring, licking wax-paper, huffing at one another, flying kites and screeching after them. Consider the loud slap of the lake against the piling. And the transistors. In all that squelch and flailing one can scarcely hear oneself sleep. True, there is the tunnel of shadow and of mildew behind the boathouse; and that odd thick spread of high grass and scrub downwind, away from the benches and the ices. But even there children swarm and couples cling (why else do they go on a picnic?). So it could not have been there, the sound I mean. Or could it? The time we dozed till twilight, till the early chill came off the water and Mother got up shivery. To pack the hampers, to shake the sand and dead grass out of the bath towels. Which was just when Father looped the beach ball high and challenged Penny and me to the chase; beating us to its first bounce and punching it again with his fist so that it arched into the late light and over the tea stand. Where I lost them. There was muck in my eyes. I could hear them racing, breathing loud, and laughing. ‘Penny for your thoughts, sweets for a penny,’ Father’s voice sliding away. I don’t think it was then. And how could it have been, with Mother calling and starting towards the car park? Revving motors and klaxons confuse me, like the yawp of gulls. I did say that I loathe picnics and the candy-drops underfoot.
I find myself asking. Asking myself. Which is a muddle. Have I been imagining it, as I might certain smells? Does fear really have that scent of sodden cardboard? Is it in my head? I have seen old men tweeze out their hearing-aids and shake them bitterly, forgetting that the bat’s piping is inside their skulls. It could just be, you know. I don’t claim to be as sharp as I used to be. Other sounds, yes: twangings after the heavy winds, scratches as from somewhere behind my teeth, trills when I’m very thirsty. I might muddle or imagine those. But not that sound. It is too … Too what? I do have an especial ear. Too other. I don’t know that that makes sense. Other. Like nothing else in earth or air. And there might just be something in the word other which is like the shape and shadow of the sound. The ‘O’ at the outset, the soft thud and the rasp. I can’t have imagined that soft scratching, like a hand through stubble. Night-beings, they say, move to that sound. Broken bits of us loosed to the air when the moon is down.
But does it matter? I mean, does it matter where when I first heard their sound? I am hearing it now. Now.
What a day it has been. The house caught in a bright wash of bells. The doorbell: deliveries. A registered parcel – the annual smoked ham from Father’s cousin in York. Bells pealing on the radio and at Evensong, on the box, out of some vaulted nave, and those white voices of little boys chiming Latin. ‘Bluebells, tinklebells, twinklebells, Santa’s a-coming.’ And the bird in the oven, crisping, crackling, simmering like handbells in the far wood. If only the house wouldn’t ring so. It makes it hard to be certain. The door being shut.
Daddy dancing the evening long. Not literally, to be sure. But walking, turning, standing as if always on his toes. Taking the stairs at a bound. Whistling away the whiskey on his breath. Not leaving me be for even a minute. Calling, rubbing his hot cheeks against mine. ‘Old King Cole’, off-tune, incessant, making the sitting room rock. That ‘merry old soul!’ over and over and over and Daddy-O slurping at me: ‘Merry! Do you hear me, you sad brute, merry! That ole King Cole, a goner, high, on the trip of his boozy life. Jinglebells, mon ami. Heading for our chimney. Merry! The soul of him bursting like grilled sausage. You don’t understand, do you, mon ami, with your sad old eyes.’ I do hate it when he speaks to me in French. Dancing. I tell you the man was treading air. And those stage-whispers: ‘No peeking, Katkins. Off with you. Upstairs, Penny and I have business. Wrappings to wrap. Ribbons to tie. For a certain special little lady. Off with you. I’ll keep a weather-eye on the oven. Not to worry. For all manner of things shall be well. But nooo peeking, Slyboots. Not till tomorrow morning. Mummy’s Christmas. Mummy’s own very special Christmas. Right, Penny?’ And Father swung Mother around the settee as if she were a child. I heard the light-switch clicking off as she went upstairs. But the darkness wasn’t dark. You understand, don’t you? It pulsed, somehow. There was no stillness in the silence. After he and Penny had trimmed the tree, I mean, and put out Mummy’s gifts, the chintz housecoat, the acacia plant, the toiletries in their starry mantles and tinsel. The darkness just wouldn’t go quiet. You do know what I mean, please.