Glock, the unsung hero, felt duped and unable to reconcile the various events. He had long since abandoned thinking about his life as a whole, the missed chances and the wrong turnings. He had realised that he needed a wholesome woman to take the edge off his selfishness - rather than the more opportunistic sex he once wreaked from the city streets. Idealism went out the parlour window with the rest of his ambitions. Today, his thoughts remained centred on the mundane: a day in the life, today, a single particle in the onward tackiness of reality, a victimised private in the forced march of Fate, simply today, merely that, or especially that.
"If Handel came back to life now, he wouldn't recognise his own music," said Clive.
"What do you mean? Music can never change, can it?" responded Rachel.
"Well, today's orchestra's different than it used to be, and the training of a singer's voice, too. The tone of modernity alters anything old. You see, even modern people themselves, and sexual morality, civilisation, everything in fact, would be seen through ancient filters we cannot even begin to imagine..."
The two speakers, a middle-aged couple, were skirting questions of art rather than discussing something far more personal to them. They sat in an untidy huddle, close enough to be unheard by anybody but themselves. They were in a concert hall: or what used to be a concert hall before the auditorium seats were ripped out and the platform replaced with a smattering of cafe tables - tables which, in turn, had been abandoned to the ravages of recession.
Events had come throughout the day in a seemingly random pattern, but when Glock reviewed them during the evening, whilst boiling milk in a saucepan, they created a meaning beyond their separate significances. Even the heaving milk formed frantic faces with the new-risen bubbles of its ambition to be a drink's drink.
Clive suddenly stood up, kicking over his chair in the process. The echoes clattered, causing Rachel to jump in her seat. She turned her neck, without moving her legs, a painful stance that proved time was taking its toll. She indicated that she had been startled by something else altogether - or thought she had. However, she belatedly tried to conceal her reaction to the effect of the invisible cause. She smiled through her own confusion, and said:
"Where are you going?"
"Only for a breather - before we talk about ... you know what."
She did know what but wasn't prepared to admit it. She could have denied her susceptibility to any implications he was trying to make. His words were traps, each with jaws sprung back for pouncing. Yet, as he would not leave, until she'd responded, she waved her hand which he took as think-nothing-of-it whilst she had really meant nothing-at-all.
That very morning, Glock had left for work and was accosted by a frantic woman saying she would soon commit suicide. He merely nodded and walked on. In the city, there were too many crackpots and he did not want to be mixed up in anything that disrupted the equilibrium of his day. On the bus, there were several middle-aged women who were apparently going somewhere together. One smiled unaccountably towards Glock: not a cursory glance, but a full turn of the head positively seeking him out. He had not dared return the smile, not because he feared used smiles could create more animosity than amiability but rather since he was entirely convinced that she mistook him for someone else. However, on departing with her companions, amid the gossipping gabble of rising speech-bubbles, she freshly looked at him as if sad at Glock's lack of reciprocation. In hindsight, she had indeed reminded him of someone he'd once seen either a short while before or many years in the past.
When Clive had departed, Rachel found herself listening to every sound that seemed to constitute silence. Here, in this hall, during her younger days, she had performed the toughest soprano roles - soaring to pinnacles of voice which other singers could only have reached if released from their own bodyweight.
As she day-dreamed, the sense of headphones and, even, eyepieces, closed in claustrophobically upon her narrow skull - and she believed that a version of Haydn's Farewell Symphony, in which the players of the orchestra continued to scrape and blow, as they walked, one by one, from the concert hall, was about to be performed. Or, rather, Haydn's Return Symphony which, to her knowledge, had never been composed.
Instead, Muriel flew in, as only women of her sleekness could fly.
At work, it being Monday, there were lots of temps newly arrived. Glock was sure that one of them was the cousin with whom he had once played, when they were both small. She had been a pretty little girl with a sweet smile. He had not seen her for years, since time often took its toll on those unvalued relationships of childhood.
He smiled at the temp in question, but she did not smile in return. Somehow, even her name had remained in the past. And, what was more, his cousin would be much older now than any of the temps.
During the lunch-break, which he often passed at the pub, there was a man with a clipboard who was measuring the tables and sizing up the decor. He even scrutinised Glock himself as Glock sat, minding his own business, eating an individual pork pie and slowly supping a tepid beer. Glock half-recognised the man, but with only half his mind.
"Rachel, where's Clive?" were Muriel's immediately instinctive words. Muriel was dressed as if she were about to perform in a Wagner opera, which she probably was, bearing in mind that she was long past the first blush of youth. She had indeed rushed here from a dress rehearsal, because she remembered something she had forgotten to do - or that was certainly the impression she gave Rachel. Her blonde hair was as rigid as a helmet - yet there was a softness in her eyes, an echo of other times which Rachel failed to remember.
"He's slipped out for a moment - to catch his breath." Rachel smiled, although a smile was the furthest thing from her mind.
"Have you decided anything?"
"No, of course not. You know him. Always dithering. He even got the strong characters he sung to look feeble, in his time. No wonder he's always been a has-been."
"Don't, Rachel," interrupted Muriel, "give credit where it's due. Clive did make a sort of living from singing, which thousands of others would've given their eye-teeth for. After all, it was you who encouraged him to get his voice trained. Before then, it had the power, but the charm, of a power drill!"
"Yes, Clive became a passable bass, Muriel, but that was no good (was it?) when he could only use his body like a countertenor's - or a castrato's!"
Rachel laughed at her own joke. She was intrigued by those eighteenth century singers who'd sacrificed their finer parts for what they thought were finer parts on the stage. Or had they been press-ganged into it by deep-browed, hinge-nosed surgeons who received the pay dirt of the era's musical patrons? Whatever the case, there was a grain of truth in what Rachel said about Clive. That deep booming voice was housed in a man that minced about the stage, instead of strutting. He could have stuck to wind-up or wireless performances, but his voice, although good, was, unfortunately, just one groove short of a record.
"Rachel, love is a fragile thing to keep unwieldy people together." Muriel grinned at her own turn of phrase. "You and Clive can surely sort something out and put the glue back in the supergun. And what about your children, Rachel? They'll end up in no man's land."
Muriel bit her tongue after saying that, but wasn't sure what, if anything, she should or should not have said. Furthermore, she was now confused, rather than pleased, by her own expressions. She glided from the seedy stage, nose high.
The last event of the day occurred on Glock's return journey from work on the 190 bus. The woman who looked like an older version of his long-lost cousin evidently used the same route home, not unlike the woman who had threatened suicide earlier in the day. At that precise moment, Glock really should have recognised the pattern in events. Coincidences could never be quite that coincidental. Synchronicity with a soul as well as buses.
Yes, Rachel's children. What about them? Rachel had been a child herself once and nobody had ever bothered to give her the time of day. There had been no tug-of-love where she had been concerned, when her parents had suffered what seemed to her small mind to be a global fissure. And neither her Mum nor her Dad wanted to look after Rachel, nor even have intermittent access to her. But why should they have done? To be born was never as certain as to die. What else did they owe her, beyond the tawdry gift of existence? No, her own children were side-issues. If they'd been birds, they'd've flown the semi-detached nest ages ago. This matter was purely between her and Clive. Even a bosom pal like Muriel was a loose cannon on the shifting storm-tossed deck of the good ship Marriage to which Muriel had never been party. But perhaps there was more to Muriel than met the eye. The missing link? Muriel and Clive. Tristan and Isolde? No, Muriel was Rachel's crutch. Hence Muriel's well-intentioned visit to this empty hall, this walled camera, this husk of hushes and ancient echoes, this deep throat...
Now, Glock kept watch on the saucepan, as the seething milk climbed its sides. He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and raucously gave voice to a song he had heard on the pub's juke-box that day. Yes, Glock himself had to be the missing link in the day's dark serendipity, he thought. He recalled another occasion, about a month before, which felt more like a premonition than a memory. An ordinary evening, other than perhaps spotting Concorde skimming just below the high clouds, its characteristic deep roar changing operatic tone, as it turned over on its side and disappeared, like a shark of the goose variety, across towards the Inner City. Glock knew its flight-path often traversed these particular skies, but this was the first time he had actually witnessed it. This brought to his mind a recurring dream where there were all manner of sky-craft cluttering the airways above the suburbs in which he resided. Some were modern affairs with inexplicable appendages fresh from some space extravaganza, lurching with a cacophony of engine tones ... in mind-boggling proximity to each other. Equally, some were similar to the old-fashioned war-time bombers and dog-fighters, with single- or double-decker wings and multiple propellers churning the clouds into milky curds: these, too, almost touching span to span, as they fish-boned the sky, emerging from the past into the present like angels upon splints. A couple did in fact clip wing-tips and they cartwheeled off to land with tympanic thuds in distant parts of the city.
Rachel did not believe that Clive had simply gone for a breather. Nor had he. He took a short stroll which grew longer, by default, the further he went without turning back. He did not realise that Muriel had awaited her cue to enter sinister stage left, as soon as he had walked from the once communal stamping-ground: that erstwhile echo-chamber that all three had once used as a sounding-board or, as it seemed at the time, a Tower of Babel. Clive missed the heady days of youth that he was beginning to replace with false memories, many of which excluded Muriel. Thoughts abseilled through his untethered mind, while he unintentionally reached a familiar suburban road - where he had lived with Rachel in their high-pitched hey-day - before their children were even twinkles in the Third Eye - when Muriel was simply just another best friend of Rachel's, instead of the catalyst she had since become in hindsight. Clive wondered who owned the streams of consciousness in his mind, because, at times, he was convinced he was tripswitching through the background hiss of Rachel's ether. It was a strange world when one didn't have the nous to own up to thoughts. Even these secondary thoughts of doubt were not necessarily Clive's own.
Glock questioned why normal individuals such as himself should be able to have dreams quite beyond their waking power of imagination. On that occasion a month ago, he had looked down at the pavement as he continued his evening walk towards the bus stop. It was covered at this spot by indelible coloured markings: arrows, numbers, mathematical designs, which he put down to workmen preparing the ground for the eventual skull-splitting surgery of their power-drills. He would not have noticed these, let alone remembered them, if it had not been for the fact that he was beset with some sense of strangeness.
Clive wanted to peer through the net curtains of the semi-detached house and see who lived there now. The exterior was remarkably in line with his recollection. He almost heard the same music as Rachel had liked to play in that very front parlour to which he was surreptitiously approaching in the orange dusk - stooping and staggering across the garden like a burglar who had never burgled before.
Squatting under the window-sill, he stole deep gulps of air, but not so fresh as the breather he'd hoped to take when first excusing himself from Rachel's presence in that erstwhile screech-hole, that hell-hall where guts were once scraped and inner throats rasped to cylindrical rashers of burnt bacon. Stagnancy enclosed the city, sticking to the roof-tops and plumbing the nursery chimneys for tenderer lungs to coat.
That month-old bus journey had been, however, uneventful, Glock recalled as he stirred the milk to force it back to the bottom of the pan. When he had arrived at the pub on that occasion, it contained a group of respectable evening-dressed people, some of the men in kilts, most of the women showing off the top of their boobs in dresses that seemed fresh from the Fifties, cut at the bodice like half-eight ravens, stiffened in the wings. These women, whom, in the hindsight of premonition or the foreshadowing of subconscious deja-vu, he should have recognised for their potentiality for coincidence, had coloratura voices in shrill counterpoint. They kept tugging up the front parts of their dresses, to retain some semblance of seemliness as far as their bosoms were concerned. Despite this, Glock could not imagine why such people should be congregating in a down-market pub. And kilts would never seem normal in Glock's neck of the woods, at the best of times. Such people must take courage in numbers, he supposed. To cap it all, after this group had asconded to the restaurant clutching wooden menus too big for them, a couple of real toffs in trouser-suits entered, so sharp-dressed Glock wondered why they had dreamt of coming here at all. The one who had a red handkerchief artfully peering from his top pocket carefully opened a bottle of champagne whilst it was still embedded in the crunkling ice tureen. It turned out to have more fizz than was good for it. They deliberately ignored the spray cascading in all directions, as if nothing had happened. It would've been undignified to make a song and dance about it. They offered each other a studied "cheers" and continued to share a ritual conversation which was created from inscrutable bubbly patterns of pub chat, small talk and business gossip. Glock had listened to them with a smile.
Clive shook his head, to free it from the unwelcome thoughts. Rachel could radiate herself even at great distances of synchronicity. Or was it Muriel? He could never be sure which woman was the culprit, which had the hot-line to the autonomous muse that some called God, others merely the breath of inspiration. He shook his head again. His attempts at mind withdrawal were even more ridiculous than the way the thoughts were reworded as new thoughts. In the same way as a sculptor's task was to release the ready-made sculpture from within the rock, composers needed to pluck the strung strings of vibrancy in the air, prise open the sprung jaws of cadency that many breathed without knowing it: to make songs and souls as one.
Clive caught the barely perceptible sound of music emerging from the front parlour: the sound of two people casting their voices to the the magic of an Elfin horn, reaching him from over the hills of dream. He raised his sound-box of fragile sculptured bone with its gristly appendages, just at the same time as the net curtains were snatched aside to reveal a face with folded nose surveying him from behind the smeared glass.
Glock had supped his beer, expecting there would be no other surprises left on this particular evening - after the champagne charlies had departed. Surely, eevents must eventually revert to norm. Life was not that strange. And he was right. Except, of course, on the way home, waiting for him at the bus stop was a vast hovering smooth-shafted jet-liner with huge round turbines at its rear. Without demur, he boarded it and was presented with the whole lighted panoply of the city and its environs, where he simply knew he must live, somewhere, sleeping, dreaming dreams, singing silent songs, perhaps stirring a saucepan of milk.
It was a delight to touch wing-tips with others. In the distance, he saw Concorde again, twirling to the sounds of Tchaikovsky like a young ballerina on her first stage. But as the vast giraffed fan of a beast glided fearfully close, he saw faces at the portholes, raising tapering cut-glassfuls of, not champagne, but what appeared to be milk. And then he spotted the target: an area of the city where the streets wound in on themselves, circles within circles, with the red-light district at its very bull. His sky-craft wheeled gracefully, aimed itself and fired off its turbines in pent hover.
Rachel, still in deepest solitary empathy, knew that a young couple sat in the parlour, a parlour where older people had once spent their time peering through a flickering square screen of monochrome with drooping eyelids. Instead, this pair of gentle people, who still lived out their tender years, absorbed each other's tiniest features of both face and dress. They held hands, as far as that was possible from their respective vantage-points. A black record fell upon the revolving pad and started spinning. They heard the sapphire stylus of an old-fashioned auto-change settle into a groove with the initial scratching, surging sound, leading into a width of sound that pre-stereo days rarely managed. It felt as if the identical ancient Plain Chant was inside each of their cathedrals of skullbone. Sounding as if it were being sung for the first time. Steeped in actuality.
One smiled knowingly, or simply the smile itself knew what to know. The other returned the smile, knowing that moods were simple echoes, without knowing how much each smile simply knew. This was love: stretching from beyond memory into a diffusion of memory that only the future recognised: a love that caused each party to forget their names. They leaned forward in unison - and kissed a kiss only two creatures of the female sex knew how to kiss, a new kiss which, if mediaeval lovers kissed, they would have recognised as a kiss they knew to be among kisses they knew.
Back home in the certainty of the present moment where dreams and memories were correctly pigeon-holed, Glock forgot the milk in the saucepan, while he retrieved the tape-measure from his top pocket and went to take the size of his empty bed. He then fetched the clipboard from his office brief-case with arcane figures and devices upon it, to see if he had really been minding his own business in the pub that day or whether he had indeed captured the significance of finding another version of himself outside the realms of a mirror. A man too mean to be me, he thought.
The young female couple were startled by a background hiss on the record. A hiss which hid the hiss of breath - from just outside the parlour window.
Rachel switched off her fabrications of empathy and emerged from the unpeopled past into an equally unpeopled future, trusting that the present could fend for itself. Old age was younger now than it had been in her youth, she thought. In her heart, she knew that the ancient concert hall tonight had been and was to remain empty - except for a solitary figure sprawled in an erstwhile cafe seat: a figure bearing one of her two stage names. She refused to cry. Truth was relative to belief. Only ordinary people were stars. She smiled and sung Dido's Lament quietly to herself. Then Handel's Largo.
Glock eventually decided, from all the evidence, that there was no option but for him to withdraw gracefully from the world.
As he filled the bed with a shape of self, he heard the gentle sizzling of the saucepan and then the even gentler hiss of naked gas, with the gentle angel-flames of blue having been doused by the seething-over of milk. Reality had received its offering, its sacrificial victim, its scapegoat, its wild card, its bribe ... so that it could continue on its straight and narrow flight-path towards its determination. But not exactly a bribe, more a reckoning without Glock. Sometimes, Fate faltered - but was never duped more than once. It may have all turned out differently if he had actually swept that distant cousin with the sweet smile off her feet and thus allowed both of them to live happily ever after. Something he'd nearly done all those years ago when they were both still young. Rachel was her name, he remembered at last. Into Amateur Dramatics or something like that. Tried to drag him along to rehearsals, with that awful female friend of hers.
Glock heard the skull-splitting roar of power-drills drawing near - to the tune of a song he couldn't sing - even in the falsetto of unmeasured man. Life was so fucking avant garde.
(published ‘The Zone’ 1995)