9 songs

In September 2012, Luca Veste and Paul Brazill put out an anthology of short stories called Off the Record 2: At the Movies. I don’t do many shorts, but I had a story in the first Off the Record, and was pleased to be asked back for the sequel. Together, the books form an admirable project, as every single penny of profit from both went to literacy charities, here and in the US. Luca and Paul are to be congratulated for putting so much work into something entirely selfless, and it’s a testament to their efforts and enthusiasm that so many writers were prepared to give them stories for free.

The twist with the second anthology was that, rather than song titles, all the stories would take their titles from films instead. I picked 9 Songs, and I’m posting the story below. It’s not crime. I don’t really know what it is. But I do know that I ended up quite pleased with it. I also know that both Off the Records are still available, that they’re priced cheaply, that they contain a huge number of excellent stories, and that buying them can only make the world a happier place. So, if you like 9 Songs, and want to read 84 more stories that are even better (for less than £3 in total), then you know what to do…

 

9 songs

 

1.

 

I can’t fall asleep to silence anymore.

When I go to bed, I set my laptop’s music library to shuffle, then pass out with one of my eight thousand songs playing in the background. And despite the size of my collection, I always wake up with the exact same song playing.

How is this possible, you ask?

I’ll tell you.

The first thing I do every morning is crawl out of bed and cross the room to the flimsy desk with the laptop on it. I have a cheap studio flat; it’s all I can afford. The room smells of the cheap green carpet, which is fuzzy and rough, and the air itches with dust. In summer, the heat is unbearable. But it’s mine.

The first task every day is to check the downloads. All eight thousand songs in my library are stored in a folder that the peer-to-peer software I run has access to. Many people have this software. You type in the title of a song and the program searches the online folders of other users until it finds a match, which can then be copied and downloaded.

The screen informs me that there were thirty-eight completed uploads last night. That’s the number of people who searched for one of the songs in my library, then copied it successfully over the Internet. The software’s anonymous, but it’s possible to send a message to the person you downloaded from, and vice versa. I click on the drop down menus until I reach my inbox, where a number of messages are waiting for me. I scan them without hope, which turns out to be the right thing to do.

What the fuck bro??!

Yeah thanx for that

Blocked!

FUCK YOU TROLL FUCK YOU FUCK YOU

Twelve messages in total, all of them similarly vitriolic. There are sexually-detailed threats to my bodily integrity, and pointed questions about my parentage. Twenty-six people didn’t bother to reply, but that doesn’t mean they were happy with the file they got; it just means they didn’t care enough to abuse me. It would be depressing, except that I experience much the same thing every day.

I sit down and, as best I can with my ruined hand, start typing.

That’s the second thing I do every day: add to my music library. I copy a file at random and paste it several times into the same folder, then patiently rename each one as something different. Scanning the charts helps. I choose whatever songs are inexplicably popular right now and title my duplicate files the same. Thank you the music industry, which provides a constant churn of material, each song barely distinguishable from the last. A production line of inauthentic emotion that, for some reason, people want.

I never run out of titles.

The whole time, the music player continues shuffling the songs in my library. Aside from a one second break between tracks, the soft music is unbroken. The same piece of music, of course, because every single file is identical. It’s the only one of Sasha’s compositions I ever managed to record.

Nobody wants to hear it.

I live in hope that one day I’ll get a message that says thank you or wow, that’s beautiful, but it never happens. This is the truth of it: people don’t want to know. It’s hard to get people to care about the things that matter to you.

 

2.

 

Sasha was my second love. My first was the guitar.

Standard guitar tuning for the six strings is EADGBE. If you strum those strings open, it doesn’t form a chord. The sound is ugly. It’s almost there, but the notes don’t fit together. You need to use the fingers of your left hand to fret a few of the strings and bring the notes into the same key. If you hold down a couple of strings at the second fret, for example, a strum gets you EBEGBE instead. Those notes align: you get E minor.

I can’t manage that one.

My left hand has only an index finger and a thumb; the other fingers are stumps. I can play the simplest chord with that one finger: E minor 7. EBDGBE. That’s about it. Appropriately enough, it’s the loneliest chord I know.

My first love, then. And it used to be a very good relationship indeed. That all changed when my friend Mark asked me to help demolish his front wall.

There was only the two of us, and I was skeptical, but Mark is very let’s-just-do-this and we-can-do-this and difficult to resist. He smashed most of it to pieces with a sledgehammer, the two of us snorting dust and leaping back from the falling debris like children at the edge of the sea. The majority of the pieces were easy to move to the skip, but there was a large one left: a hefty chunk of cement and stone. We thought we could do it – got ourselves in position; got ourselves ready – but Mark lifted before I was ready, and the thing tilted and pinned my hand against the pavement.

I remember the air going out of me, and that the pain was secondary to the panic. You must move now, my nerves told me desperately. This is far more serious than being in pain. You are damaged. For a moment, I couldn’t do anything at all, but then the rock toppled and the rough texture ground what was left of my fingers against the tarmac. Every bone was crushed, the digits mangled beyond repair. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but I sat down on the pavement – slumped there, really – my whole arm throbbing emptily, and then lay down backwards through a wall that wasn’t there anymore.

First love over.

We staggered on, of course, the guitar and me. For example, here are some things you can do. You can use your single finger to pin down one string and pick that and a few of the strings around it, gradually summoning the ghost of a chord. You can also tune the instrument more specifically, so that just strumming plays a chord. One finger barring down the neck can then play all the major chords.

I tried all this.

Relationships often end abruptly, but you don’t always realise it at the time. And like many a lover in denial, I attempted to make it work long past the point when I should have walked away. The more I tuned and altered the guitar, the more I realised I was limiting the instrument to fit me. It just didn’t work. Love, you see? Whether it’s a person or something else, you can’t change the things you love to make them fit you. Eventually, you have to let go of them.

It was different when I was with Sasha. Briefly, I came alive again. Since she left, though, there’s no point in playing. Sometimes I pick the guitar up and try, but it always feels incomplete. It’s a mockery, really, of how it used to be.

I don’t pick it up very much anymore.

 

3.

 

Carpe Diem is my hangout and place of work, more or less in that order of priority.

It’s a pub on a busy street, halfway between the city centre and the university, and pulls its evening crowds mostly from the latter. Inside, it’s old-fashioned: dusty stone floors and cracked red leather booths. There’s a small wooden stage at one end, and the walls are covered with photos from the gigs we hold on weekends. You’d know some of the names, but they’re mixed in rather than pride of place. Mark puts all the small local bands up regardless. They’re all good, he says. It’s just that some of them get lucky as well.

We’re running through tonight now. Mark’s behind the bar. I’m perched on a stool, civilian-side.

“First up’s Hairstreak,” he says.

“Hairstreak?”

“The name? Yeah, I know. Hipster fucks.”

He shakes his head. Leaning on the bar, his shirt sleeves are rolled up to reveal beefy forearms. Physically, he looks like a wrestler – or maybe a roadie: big and burly, with long brown hair and a fairly mad beard. Even though he’s the same age as me – twenty-nine – we couldn’t look more different.

“Female lead singer, anyway,” he says. “She’s very strong, so you won’t need to up that much in the mix.”

“Right.”

And so it goes on.

I do most of the work with the bands – helping to set up equipment, sorting lighting and sound – and help out with the bar when it gets busy. For that, Mark pays me a small wage that tops up my meagre disability, along with unlimited beer.

To be honest, most of the time I’m just sat on my seat at the far end of the bar doing very little, but Mark doesn’t mind. There are two reasons for that. The first is that he’s my best friend. The second is that he feels, and is probably correct to do so, that he owes me. While we waited for the ambulance after his wall destroyed my hand, he was sobbing and telling me over and over again how sorry he was. Time after time, he said it. I remember thinking: it’s my hand, you big fucking lump. Please stop crying.

Anyway. There are three bands on tonight. Hairstreak, Clown Around Town and The Ceilings. It’s two pounds in at the door, with a “who have you come to see” tick-sheet so Mark can gauge who’s popular and move them up the bill next time: refer them to other bars, and so on. In our own small way, we endeavour to swirl the local bands upwards, giving them the support they need but won’t notice. Why do we do it? Well, partly for the money, of course. But there’s not much of that. It’s also for the music, and our respect for the people determined enough to make it. Basically, we do it for the love. If you play in our bar and make it big, you don’t have to remember us. We’re proud of you anyway.

For tonight, the arrangements look straightforward.

“And Rachel’s coming by later,” Mark says.

I don’t reply.

“You remember I told you about her?”

“Vaguely.”

He met this Rachel in a club when he was chatting up her mate. Mark’s a gregarious force of nature. He’ll go out and meet hundreds of people, and many of them stream in here in the weeks that follow. He’s kept in touch with Rachel, and has said a few times that he thinks she’d be perfect for me. He does this a lot, like a cat bringing its owner a present. Despite the fact that I technically work for him, the damage to my hand has created this weird emotional power differential between us.

“You remember that I told her all about you?”

“Yes.”

“So don’t get too drunk this evening. That’s an order.”

I immediately resolve to get as drunk as humanly possible, and I inform him of this fact.

“Oh, just give it a chance.” He leans away. “That’s all. It doesn’t have to be amazing. You know? It doesn’t have to be anything. But sooner or later … you’ve got to get out there.”

I nod.

“You’ve got to come back to life.”

I nod again.

He moves away. Sasha is pretty much a taboo topic between us, but she’s often there anyway: the shape of her revealed in the spaces. Mark never liked her. Actually, that’s not fair. He liked her well enough, but he was my best friend and he sensed that I would fall in love with her, desperately and helplessly, and that she would end up breaking my heart. He was right about that, although he would never know how.

And he wouldn’t believe it if he did.

You’ve got to come back to life.

So here it is.

Drum roll.

Building chord – major, of course.

I turn my head and look at the empty stage.

 

4.

 

Sasha was the first act on that night. She took the stage nervously, tensely.

A healthy crowd was already spread over the stone floor. The audience was full of young men in hoodies with hard-gelled hair and earlobes stuffed with polished black discs, and young women in striped leggings and blue jean hot-pants. Checking the door sheet later, it turned out that none of them were there for Sasha. Even Mark wasn’t sure how she had found her way onto the bill. He couldn’t remember booking her.

“Okay,” she said into the mic. “Be gentle with me.”

There was the standard smattering of applause. She was attractive: long black hair and a pale, pretty face; dressed in jeans and a black jumper. She was also endearingly vulnerable, but with a wry half-smile that said she knew how nervous she looked, and that it was okay.

Sasha had brought a stereo with her, which I’d hooked up at the front of the stage. The CD had backing tracks for her vocals. She started it playing, then closed her eyes as the first delicate notes unfolded through the bar, the tension visibly lifting from her. Her whole body seemed to sigh, almost, like an alcoholic feeling that first blissful mouthful melting into her system.

And then she began to sing.

I don’t know to describe her material. The backing tracks were mournful and sad, laments of some kind, but they followed patterns and structures that collapsed as you caught them. Back in the day, I used to be able to play most songs after one listen; even now, I could still dissect them. That was impossible here. I could barely even disentangle instruments and timings. Notes would surface, riffs repeat, but although each piece was coherent and complete, the music was too alive to be analysed.

And then there was her voice.

It soared over the underlying music, occasionally dipping into the soundscape below, intertwining with the melodies there, then emerging bright again, shaking droplets of song away as it leapt. There were no recognisable lyrics, only hints of language: half-delivered words that dissolved before meaning could coalesce. And yet somehow there was meaning. It emerged in the gaps, emotion formed from the abstracts…

No. I can’t describe it.

All I can say is that I had never heard anything like it before. I don’t expect to again.

As Sasha performed, a light seemed to grow around her, like a soft white aura. I couldn’t stop looking at her, and my eyes kept moving imperceptibly, leaving ghost edges around her like an aura. That was how I explained it to myself at the time anyway.

It was only as her set was drawing to a close that I glanced at the rest of the bar – and the spell was broken immediately. The audience was distracted, not captivated. Some people had drifted away to the pool room at the back; most that remained had turned away and were talking amongst themselves. The ones still watching were doing so patiently, patting their pints politely by way of applause, obviously waiting for her to finish.

I couldn’t believe they couldn’t hear it.

When Sasha’s voice finally fell away, her eyes were closed. The music swirled slowly down and disappeared. I saw her eyes tighten slightly as it did. The tension seemed to return to her body. In fact, just for a moment, she appeared to be in pain.

Then she took a deep breath, opened her eyes and smiled.

“Thank you.”

The audience responded with reluctant applause, claps passed back through the bar like a tossed ball nobody wanted to catch. But my heart was thudding in my chest. Sasha picked up the player, giving me an awkward smile as she left the stage. Clapping’s not something I do well anymore, so I smiled back and mouthed wow at her. Her smile broadened – and then suddenly turned shy again as she disappeared past me.

I had to talk to her.

The next band had already advanced on the stage, unspooling cables and clicking open guitar cases, but there would be a few minutes before they were ready. I slipped out from behind the controls, determined to find Sasha before she left.

The musician in me wanted to hear that backing music again – wanted to tease out its secrets and figure out how it had been done. But the truth is, I hadn’t been a proper musician for a while by then, and really I just wanted to talk to her.

 

5.

 

“Mark says you used to be a musician?”

I nod.

The evening is done now, and we’ve ejected the last of the punters out of the doors of Carpe Diem. It was one of those nights where most people had come for the second band and left afterwards, meaning The Ceilings ended up playing to the walls. They didn’t seem to mind. Mark thanked them, gave them their cut of the door takings, and waved them goodbye. Now, he’s sweeping up around the corner, whistling to himself, leaving me to talk to Rachel over a lock-in beer in one of the booths by the door.

I say, “Guitarist, really. My parents got me one when I was five, and that was it.” I click my fingers. “I was in love as soon as I got hold of it. It felt right. It made sense.”

“Typical boy.” She smiles. “I can imagine you striking rock poses in front of the mirror.”

She has a nice smile, to be honest; it’s relaxed, and it takes the piss out of you the way old friends do. In fact – full disclosure here – she’s all-round nice: slim and attractive, with brown tumbledown hair that hangs in rough curls over her shoulders. She’s wearing an open velvet jacket with a web of several flimsy tops overlapping underneath, revealing a red birthmark at her collarbone. Black trousers. A tattoo of musical notes runs from the back of her wrist and disappears under the sleeve of her jacket.

“I’m guessing you’re a musician too?” I take a sip from my pint then nod at her hand. “From the ink, I mean.”

She shrugs off her jacket unselfconsciously, revealing a bare arm and the wiriness of her frame, as well as the full extent of the tattoo. The notes circle around her arm all the way up to her shoulder.

“Trying to be.” She ponders the ink, as though there’s something puzzling about it now.

I say, “If you’re trying to be then you are.”

“Yeah, but you know how it is. You have all these ideas. And then life…”

“Gets in the way?”

“Exactly. Don’t get me wrong, music’s still the most important thing. Still what I want to do – all I want. Not sure my life always agrees though.”

I smile. “Well, I’d like to hear you some time.”

“I’ve got a CD somewhere.”

She starts to rummage in her bag, and I think she has a CD on her. The musician’s equivalent of bringing a condom on a first date. I do want to hear it, but I can’t help being reminded of Sasha. She never did let me listen to the background music she’d brought to the bar that first night. It was only when I listened to it anyway that I understood why.

Mark arrives with a fresh pair of drinks for Rachel and me, and one for him, then slides into the booth on my side. I shuffle up to make space. On the other side of the table, Rachel matches me, edging over to stay facing me, sliding the CD over.

“How are you guys doing?”

“Good, thanks.”

“We were just talking about music,” Rachel says. “About Sean’s guitar poses.”

“Oh yeah, he was always … actually, no. I won’t joke. This guy.” Mark claps me on my shoulder. This is because he is horrifically drunk. “This guy right here, he was one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen. Seriously. The first time I saw him play live, when we are at Uni, I was blown away. It was like watching … Clapton. Not that I ever have. But you know: magic. An epiphany. I thought that’s my mate up there. I had no idea before then that he could do that.”

Rachel raises an eyebrow at me. “You were in a band?”

Mark slaps the table. “In a band? In a band? Well, yes, he was in a band. But he was the band. Do you know what I mean? When he was on stage, you didn’t watch anyone else. They might as well not have been there. He was a fucking … maestro.”

“Wow.”

Rachel sounds genuinely impressed, her eyes glittering as she looks at me. I smile awkwardly. Like I said, my first love. It was a good relationship. It really was.

Mark then runs through a list of my musical achievements – grade eight at thirteen; national competition winner at fifteen; reducing him to tears one night when I was improvising in a flat we eventually shared; etc; you get the picture – and I feel embarrassed. Not for me, so much, but for Mark. He’s blundering into a trap, and I’m sure he knows that because he often does this. On the surface, he’s trying to help by bigging me up, but these conversations always lead to the same place: what happened, and how it was his fault. Perhaps it’s a subconscious act of penance on his behalf, but I’ve never really wanted him to feel bad.

Rachel says, “So do you still perform?”

“Not anymore.”

“How come?”

As always at this point, Mark falls silent. He’s almost hunched over his pint, like a drunk who’s regaled strangers with a story of how much he loves someone, and has only just remembered that he lost them long ago.

And I don’t want him to feel bad.

But it is what it is.

“I can’t.”

I hold up my ruined hand. Rachel looks shocked, but I smile, and actually I mean the smile. Life gets in the way. Sooner or later you accept that. You adjust.

I put my hand down and take a drink.

“Can’t,” I say. “That’s all.”

 

6.

 

“I can’t ever have children.”

Sasha said it to me when we were lying in bed together one morning. We were both naked. I was propped on one elbow, facing her; she was lying on her back, one arm thrown back so as to rest her head on her forearm. I was staring at her face. She was staring at the ceiling, or through it.

I said, “Okay.”

“No, I can. But I won’t, is what I mean.” She closed her eyes and sighed, then opened them again. “I have a condition. It’s genetic and it’s very rare. It’s not the kind of thing you would want to pass on.”

“Okay.”

The bedclothes were tangled around our shins: kicked away for comfort in the night. It was still early, but my top floor flat catches the sun in summer; it was already simmering. We’d left the window open through the night, and from beyond the curtains behind our heads I could smell the fresh air. You could only ever hear the traffic below slightly – a constant, gentle rush. Although small and central, my flat can be sunlit and peaceful if you catch it right.

I said, “What condition?”

“It’s difficult to describe. It’s a degenerative condition. Parts of my body fail, if I let them. And it’s hard not to. It’s a struggle.”

“I don’t understand.”

“No.” She smiled gently. “You will though, eventually. If we stay together.”

“If?”

“Well, that’s up to you.” Finally, she turned her head to look at me. “That’s what I mean. This has been the best three months of my life, Sean.”

“Mine too.”

And it had. I’d always been someone who fell too quickly, so I’d been careful this time. Even though I hadn’t told her yet, I knew that I was in love with Sasha.

She said, “Which means it’s only fair for you to know. So you can decide whether you want to stay involved with me.”

Was she breaking up with me? I still didn’t understand. It was obvious she’d been thinking about this conversation for some time, and so it had the feeling of a confession: one she’d been putting off. But it had come out of the blue to me. I couldn’t keep up.

A condition.

Degenerative.

I can’t ever have children.

“Of course I still want to be involved with you.” I sat up. “Of course. What are you talking about?”

She said, “I’m dying.”

 

*****

 

I’m dying.

Of course, I didn’t understand that at first either. Or rather, I refused to accept it. Partly it was because, no matter how hard I pressed her for the details over the months that followed, she refused to explain.

“What is this condition?”

“It’s so rare it doesn’t have a name.”

“That can’t be right.”

“It doesn’t. I’ve seen specialists, and none of them have ever encountered it before. It’s unique to me.”

Parts of my body fail, if I let them.

“Can’t it be treated?”

“No. It can be … slowed down, I suppose. But it’s degenerative. I can’t get back the ground I lose. I can only lose ground at a slower rate, depending on what I do. How I treat myself.”

“All right.”

I pictured tiny boxes of pills, a different one to be taken every hour. Ones that made her feel sick and made life difficult and uncomfortable. Exercise, of course. Perhaps a strict special diet. A struggle. It was impossible to imagine a condition without a name that couldn’t be treated in those conventional ways, but she never seemed to do any of them, and when I brought up the subject of treatment she would only shake her head.

“But – ”

“There aren’t any buts, Sean.”

It was final on that first day, and it was always final afterwards. Sasha was perfectly resigned.

“No buts,” she said. “I’ve lived with this for a long time, and I’ve come to terms with it. I’m telling you because it’s only fair for you to know. So that you can walk away now if you want to. Maybe you should.”

“I’m not going to walk away.”

I meant it. Back then, I didn’t understand what staying with Sasha would involve and what it would mean for both us. She did. That’s why, in the end, because of how much she loved me, she had to leave me.

 

7.

 

Here’s a snapshot. A memory.

Sasha and I are in my room. I am sitting on the bed, playing my guitar, which I have tuned to D Major. She is cross-legged on the floor in front of me, singing gently. There are no lyrics, no words at all, but together we are producing music that feels coherent and whole and meaningful. Whenever I open my eyes, hers are closed; I imagine the same is true in reverse. For a while, we are both totally lost. All that exists is what we are together.

But then I realise that something is wrong with her voice.

It’s not that she’s out of key, or that her vocal is weak, or that the overall sound doesn’t work. It’s something I’ve never encountered it before, so it takes me a few moments to work out what it is.

Sasha is singing more than one note at once.

She is singing in chords.

Which is impossible. The voice is a single string; it cannot be plucked simultaneously on multiple frets. And yet that is what she is doing.

I stop playing, stunned, and watch her.

Still lost in her music for a second, Sasha continues singing, and I have time to confirm what I’m hearing before she realises my guitar has gone silent and stops. The notes seem to die one by one, making their existence even more obvious.

We stare at each other for a moment.

“Sasha – ”

“Did you like it?” There’s an eagerness to the way she says it, as though that’s the only thing she wants to know or talk about.

“Yes. Of course I did.”

She smiles at me. There’s happiness there, but so much else besides. It’s impossible to interpret. There are as many emotions in that expression as there were musical notes in her voice a minute ago.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was close to the end. It was just before I lost her.

 

8.

 

I found her again, obviously. By then, I had to.

At first, after she left me, I gave her a degree of space. Physically, at least. There were numerous texts and phone calls: long conversations in which I pleaded with her to come back to me and reassured her that I could deal with her condition. I told her that I loved her, and that whatever happened I wanted to be with her. There were emails where we each set our positions out at painful length.

I still have them, of course. Sometimes I read them back, and what strikes me most is that when I said I wanted to be with her, what I really meant was needed. It would be unfair to say I wasn’t thinking about her, but it was more about me. My second love had brought my first love back to me. So the main reason I pursued her – and it shames me now, to think I was so selfish – is that I needed her.

In the end, after she stopped replying to my messages, I traced her address online and went round to her flat.

When she opened the door, I was shocked by her appearance. It had been less than a week since I’d last seen her, but the face peering out through the gap was so pale and hollowed out that I hardly recognised her. Her condition had deteriorated. One arm, holding the door, was so emaciated that I could have encircled it with my finger and thumb.

We looked at each other for a few moments.

“Are you sure you want this?” she said.

“Yes.”

At the time – when she opened the door and let me in – I was arrogant enough to think she was concerned about me: what it would take out of me to watch her suffering.

Are you sure want this?

Afterwards, I understood how wrong I was.

And yet, at the same time, how right.

 

*****

 

Sasha died five days later, and I stayed with her until the end. But I’ll come to that.

In the period between, I looked after her as best I could. Her flat was dirty and uncared-for, so I tidied and cleaned. When she had trouble walking, I helped her move around. If I suggested calling a doctor, she refused outright. When it happens, she told me, you won’t be blamed. Don’t worry. In all other respects, she seemed grateful to have me there.

Sometimes, I’d notice her grimacing, as though her condition was very painful for her. Other times, we played music together and it was a relief to see the peace and tranquility on her face. With her eyes closed, her face relaxed, Sasha produced those impossible chords, and I complemented them as best I could. Together, we still created something complete.

She was happy in those moments, I think, and so was I.

 

*****

 

One day, Sasha went to lie down for a rest, and I was left alone in her ramshackle front room. I found myself searching through it, although I don’t know what I was looking for. Some insight into her condition, perhaps – or some clue as to what else I could do. What I discovered, buried beneath a pile of jumpers in the bottom of a cupboard, was the stereo she had brought to Carpe Diem on that first night.

The backing music. I remembered how it had affected me, but after the first few refusals I’d given up asking to hear it again. Now, I plucked the stereo carefully from the cupboard, wincing as the cable unspooled and the plug rattled against the wood. It was a transgression, I knew, like flicking through a diary. But I wanted to hear it. I plugged the stereo in and checked inside. The disc there was labeled with the date of her gig at Carpe Diem.

I turned the volume down and pressed play.

And…

There was no sound at all.

At first, I thought it must be an error. I turned the volume up as high as it would go, but heard nothing. And yet the red LCD display showed the track numbers slowly ticking upwards. The disc wasn’t blank. Sasha had recorded nine songs of silence.

That had been her backing music on the night.

I put the stereo away again, then went and stood in the doorway to the bedroom, leaning on the frame and watching her sleep. The covers rose and fell, conducted by her breathing. With each awkward out-breath, I heard the faintest trace of melody.

 

*****

 

“Do you know what I’d like?” Sasha said that evening.

“What?”

She smiled at me, but the pain she was suffering was obvious. Lying in bed, her body was skeletal and still, and her face was damp with sweat.

“I’d like us to play together. I think that … right now, that would be nice.”

“Sasha – ”

“And I’d like to record it.” She smiled brightly at that. “So the world has something to remember me by. So that you do.”

“All right.”

I gathered the necessary equipment together, connecting it all up by her bedside. Then I brought my guitar through, perched on the end of the bed, and we began to play, as we had so many times before. It was very beautiful indeed. When I looked at her, she seemed as happy as she ever had; it was obvious that the music eased her. I was beginning to accept the truth, but it was only afterwards, looking back, that I really understood. She was happy because she was making me happy.

It’s difficult to describe.

It’s a degenerative condition

“I love you,” she said.

As she spoke to me, the strange thing was not that she managed to continue singing. The strange thing was that it didn’t surprise me at all.

Parts of my body fail, if I let them.

“I love you too.”

I stopped playing and took her hand: hers, thin and weak; mine, broken and useless. I held it for a moment, staring at the peaceful expression on her face. Music continued to fill the room, louder and more complicated than before. The sun streamed through the bedroom blinds, even though it was dark outside and raining. The bedroom was aglow.

And it’s hard not to. It’s a struggle.

Sasha gave a gasp of relief, her body arching slightly, and I looked down just in time to see her hand as it disappeared from mine, dissolving into song.

 

9.

 

It’s late when I get back home, but I’m not quite ready for bed yet; the walk back in the cold has sobered me up a little. I toss my coat and bag onto the bed, get myself another beer from the kitchen, then sit down at my laptop.

Rachel’s CD. Before I left Carpe Diem, Mark had insisted that I listen to it fairly. He was very drunk and very adamant. You’ve got to come back to life. So I slide it into the drive and wait for my music software to load. Nine songs. As it begins playing, I automatically set the program to save the tracks onto the hard disk.

What is it like?

It’s okay, actually. Just her and a guitar, but her voice has a certain character to it that manages to differentiate the music from all the other girls with guitars out there. The songs follow conventional structures, but the lyrics are only superficially simple. She plays well, which is to say that she doesn’t play perfectly: the music has personality.

I like it. That’s all I can say right now, but it’s more than possible it will grow on me.

It’s something.

 

*****

 

The last thing I do every night is check the downloads.

There have been several while I’ve been out, and there’s a handful of messages waiting for me. I scan them: they’re all the same. These people came looking for the bland, the conventional, and got Sasha’s recording instead. They don’t understand, these people. They don’t appreciate the wonderful thing they’re hearing and what it means. But then, it’s hard to get people to care about the things that matter to you.

I shut the messages down, and look at the music player instead. Everything stored in there, whatever the filename, is that last recording of Sasha. Not of her music, but literally her.

Except Rachel’s tracks are there now too.

A part of me thinks I should delete them, but I don’t. Let’s give them a shot, shall we? They stand an insignificant chance of turning up on shuffle, but it’s not impossible. It’s not.

Eventually, I press [play], flick off the lights and lie down in bed. I don’t fall asleep right away, so there’s opportunity for Sasha to play over and over again in the room. It’s likely she will still be playing when I wake up, and that she always will be.

I close my eyes.

We’ll see.