The Planet of Sound • Part 1 of 2

his station had been gutted and rebuilt in recent years, and Margaret still wasn’t used to it. An award-winning architect with a large budget, desirous of glorification, ambitious for the work. The old building was hollowed out, cleaned, sterilised. Reformed in attenuated curves and a preponderance of light. The walls were a soft white, strangely not running to grubbiness yet. Long windows the length of one side, sunlight streaming through. A quadrangular play of brightness and shadow on the cool tiled floor. A high vaulted ceiling, the camber of antiquity, elegantly arched over the length of platforms one through seven. A triumph, they declared it; an almost perfect amalgam of classical themes and a funky post-modern sensibility.•

Margaret clicked on her computer’s internet icon at her desk in the back office, hidden away from the loudness and activity of the front desk. She held a mild contempt for the people who availed of the information service. Their stupid, repetitive questions, misshapen bags thrown up on the counter-top. Their sheepish smiles as her colleagues parroted, ‘Have a nice day.’ That phrase irritated her almost as much. ‘Have a nice day’: phony and American. The computer dialled into its external server, that horrible birth screech, and Margaret wondered why head office hadn’t equipped them with broadband yet. She leaned back, swivelling the chair gently. Light and information zapping across the globe like a laser in a comic book, unimaginably fast, cyclonic and glowing, this latticed membrane.

She listened to the faint babble outside, enjoying the annoyance a little, feeding off it, then typed in the address of a news website.

(i see between the layers of these things i squeeze through like blood from cut skin)

hings were still moving. Damien fidgeted in his seat, moulded plastic uncomfortable against his back. He shut his eyes tight, squinted at the dancing orange spots, opened them. There was no change – things were still moving.

He had dropped acid two or three hours earlier – he couldn’t place the time exactly – but that wasn’t the bad idea. The bad idea was an embarrassingly public shouting match with his girlfriend outside the station, which resulted in her walking off into the traffic and the sunshine. Christ, what a dumb, ridiculous excuse for an argument. He had bought the tabs for both of them, but Marissa hadn’t wanted to do it so early in the day, and was not pleased to discover that Damien had. ‘The champion of breakfasts,’ he had declared, grinning extravagantly. It had sounded funny under the circumstances.

Now things were moving and he had to deal with it on his own. Two more hours to his train and a long wait in store. No hallucinations, really – a weak brew, he smiled, relieved and aggrieved simultaneously – but gentle oscillations everywhere. He glanced over at a random fellow traveller, a fat woman in a sweat-soaked blouse: she was moving. Her head blurred from side to side, focusing and dissolving, like the fluctuation of a tuning fork. Hummmmm… Damien looked down the nearest platform: that was moving, the stone and iron vibrating, the movement rising, calming, reviving.

Normally he would relish an experience like this, an insight right into the core of things, the subcutaneous, the heart of all matter. But not on his own. Marissa was his rock, the devil of sense and balance on his shoulder, and she wasn’t here. Damien tried to focus on his watch, and felt miserable; it was going to be a long afternoon.

o, no, no. I don’t care. Progress my hole. They should have left it.’

Charles Charles, being possessed of the same first and last name, was one of those people who, as the old saw has it, like to get in their retaliation first. His parents’ woeful decision to lump him with such an absurd appellation had condemned Charles to a life of mockery and constant, tiresome explanation, but with one advantage: it had forced him to become assertive. More than that: obnoxious. Wearied of the jibes and questions, and particularly the sympathy, Charles was a conversational bully, loud and forceful, an intruder on others’ personal space. He bellowed his point first and at length, and tried not to listen too much. He did not give pause for reply.

‘It’s the beauty of old buildings,’ he continued. ‘You can never replace that, or build it up again. This, this…renovation. This abomination, if you ask me. They should have left it.’

His business partner, a bird-like, quavering man whom Charles referred to as Major, attempted a half-hearted interjection. ‘Yes, but you see, you see, the thing…’

‘I don’t care, I tell you. It’s a national bloody disgrace. Like touching up the colours on the Mona Lisa. The station was perfect before. That ruination, the old crumbling walls, cracks in the ceiling, dust and cobwebs. And those stained-glass windows…ah, the windows. Beautiful. And now, look, look…’ He swept an imperial hand around the station. ‘Modern. Spotless. Coherent. It’s disgusting.’

Charles hefted his suitcase onto a seat, brushed grit off the one beside. His considerable weight slammed into the hard plastic. He grimaced, a scrunched-up little boy face. Major stood before him, nervous, braced for the next instalment.

‘That’s the real underhistory, don’t you see? Do you not understand that, Major?’

Charles shook his head softly, and thought of a place he had visited once in Berlin, a few years after the Wall came down. On the eastern side of the city, around the corner from an Irish pub. Fantastic, fantastical: a walled-in wasteland, a whole block that had been bombed to hell by the Allies and never rebuilt. He supposed the Communists hadn’t had the money for it. And it was fabulous. People lived up there, in the husks of old buildings. Artists, hippies, probably criminal types; youngsters with beads in their hair. This carpet of golden powder, ruined buildings on all sides. And an airplane, its tail sticking up at a sixty degree angle, scarcely believable. Half-buried in the ground – it must have crashed right down out of the sky, and they just left it. People would pay good money nowadays for something like that – some modern art monstrosity… But this was organic. This was living history; generations piled on generations. Graffiti, scorch-marks, a film of dust settled on everything…

‘Fuck it,’ Charles said. ‘You wouldn’t understand. You’re like the rest of this mob. With your…’ The same regal sweep. ‘…modernising. Progress. Tsch. Progress my hole.’

cat flicked its eyes from side to side. It blinked, licked its pale-pink lips and yawned, its eyes rolling wildly towards the back of its head. The animal was marmalade in colour, white tufts under the chin and on the paws. It was a stray, but looked well-fed and healthy. The charity of a soft-hearted retiree with too much food in the house, or a child living in a fourth storey flat. The cat carried the natural wariness of the stray in its aspect, a sort of pre-tensed readiness, but was calm and unafraid. It slinked through a gap and hopped onto a low wall in the station yard, balancing there, settling itself into gravity and measurement, the languid Zen movement of its species.

It yawned again and gazed indifferently on a small man in worker’s overalls. He was hunched over, pulling on the heavy zip of a canvas hold-all, working it through a catch, grunting quietly with the effort. Finally the zip closed. The man stood and looked around, slowed his breathing. He met the cat’s gaze – patient, ancient. He smiled and threw a loose stone at the animal, calling, ‘Go home, cat. Go on. Home, home.’ The cat watched the stone sail past. It waited a few moments, establishing its dignity, then hissed and leaped away into oil-stained undergrowth.

(i see between the layers of these things i squeeze through like blood from cut skin this small event is a travesty a waste a fucking tragedy)

histles sounded, brakes squealed, the wheels and track slowed the tempo of their circular duet, but it still didn’t feel like a proper train journey for Claire. She clutched her bag tightly, checking again that the drawstrings were tied. She flicked a piece of food off the side, then untied the bag, making sure that her purse was safely ensconced inside, retying it, clutching the drawstrings once more. Claire glanced at her watch: her father would be late, he had called to tell her. Wait in the station for half an hour. Buy a magazine. Get a cup of coffee. She didn’t drink coffee, and wished she wasn’t on her own.

The train lurched towards journey’s end, jerky and uncomfortable, brakes applied and eased, that huge momentum grinding to a halt. They passed a grimy council estate, barricaded away behind high walls, and it looked the same as every other council estate Claire had ever seen. They always looked the same, with those peeling, stubby gates out front, black dust collecting in the pebbledash finish, rugged grass shooting out from cracks in the pavements.

A heavy middle-aged woman leaned across with a practised, reassuring smile and said, ‘Those estates probably looked nice once.’ Claire remembered her manners, replying, ‘I beg your pardon?’ The woman leaned closer, a cloud of perfume surrounding her, softly glowing pearls around her neck. ‘Those council estates. They probably looked quite nice once upon a time. You know, when they were built. Everything looks nice when it’s just been built, doesn’t it?’ She smiled again, conspiratorial, somehow ingratiating, and Claire couldn’t think of a reply.

She looked out the window, as the outer reaches of the station slid past her vision, looked down at her bag, at the pulled drawstrings. She could feel the mild burn of embarrassment rise through her face, like dyed-red thermometer mercury. Massive square transit crates, stacks of iron and wood, discarded pallets, a tiny administrative hut, overhead wires, the loose flotsam of a railway yard. Claire gathered her courage and looked back up, but the woman was gone. She had stood in a line between the seats with the other impatient passengers, waiting for the slow halt to finally end, their bodies swaying erratically like saplings in the breeze.

id you see this? The thing in Limerick. Weird.’

Margaret leaned back from the computer screen, rubbed her neck, glanced at Austin. He was her boss, though their relationship had evolved to one of mutual respect and, more importantly, mutual blindness. Austin had outlined it: ‘You don’t make any major fuck ups and don’t pay too much attention to the hours I might be keeping around here, and I don’t notice you spending half the day on the phone to your sister. How does that sound? Then we’re both happy.’ Margaret had willingly agreed. Now she called his attention to the current lead story on the news website she frequented, its bleached-green headline glowing across most of the top of her screen. Austin shook his head, annoyed, and pulled on a suit jacket, checking the fit across his thin shoulders.

‘Nah, nah, I haven’t the time. Read it out to me. I’m late already for the golf dinner. Go on, read it out.’

Margaret said, ‘“Six hospitalised in suspected gas attack.” That’s the headline on it. The story then, it’s basically, a quantity of poison gas was released into a café in Limerick city centre around closing time yesterday. So that was about seven in the evening. That’s crazy, isn’t it? The Guards haven’t said what kind of gas it was yet, it says here, but it was let off into an air-conditioning vent. Jesus.’

‘That’s it?’

‘No,’ she continued, ‘six people were sent to hospital “in a very serious condition”. I’m quoting that from the Guards. And then they found a note, taped to the underside of one of the tables: “This is no longer the planet of sound.”’ She looked up again. ‘“The planet of sound?” What’s that supposed to mean?’

Austin checked his tie in an ornamental mirror hanging above his desk, bared his teeth, tilted his head, his face a distorted, rubbery approximation of an Aztec mask. He nodded in approval and turned back to Margaret, saying, ‘So…what? That’s it?’

‘What do you mean, so what?’

‘So did they catch the bastards or not?’

‘No, they don’t have a clue. Look, I’m only telling you, Austin. Don’t get annoyed at me because the Guards don’t know who did it.’

Austin sighed heavily and shook his head, jamming a pack of cigarettes and a lighter into his pants pocket. He reached for his mobile phone just as it rang.

‘Yeah…? What? …Aw, what? …Fuck’s sake. Fine, fine. I’ll be there in five minutes.’ He hung up and angrily reached for a cigarette, then realised even more angrily that he couldn’t smoke in here anymore. ‘Considine wants me to stay on for a bit, the cunt. There’s some problem with the signalling on platform seven or something.’ Austin gave Margaret an imploring look; he seemed on the verge of tears. ‘Fuck it anyway. I’m already late.’

(i see between the layers of these things i squeeze through like blood from cut skin this small event is a travesty a waste a fucking tragedy i want a fist through glass or a car-smash a little yellow-fever or a night standing naked in cold rain)

gatha liked to visit the station on sunny days. It seemed more alive then, a happier place, the bustle and racket suffused with that golden luminescence. She would notice dust motes drifting through shafts of sunlight, and always smile at the fresh pleasure this gave her. That hazy rain of dust, its leisurely descent.

And the windows. So bright and expansive, the sunlight a point on every bow and corner, every lovely imperfection. She had read somewhere that glass was a liquid, at some elementary chemical level; it moved, incredibly slowly, the molecules melting down to the frame. Old windows were infinitesimally thicker at the bottom than the top. This thought was beautiful to Agatha, to a degree that surprised her. She sometimes gazed at the tiny bubbles frozen in the glass, the hairline darknesses in its centre, and smiled at the fact that nobody alive today would see these windows lose their shape.

She reached for her sandwich and carefully peeled off the wrapping, taking a small bite. Crumbs broke from the bread, a tiny avalanche down her chest, bouncing off her coat’s belt buckle. She smiled again and brushed them to the ground. Her hands were thin and bony, and she noticed liver spots she hadn’t seen before.

Agatha sighed and took another small bite, then replaced the sandwich inside her bag. That would do for the cat later. She chewed thoughtfully, her eyes wandering from the digital information boards to the gleam of cleaning solvents on the tiled centre floor to the scruffy youngster staring at his hand across the way. It was amusing: he stood, leaning slightly, long matted hair and a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Jesus loves you – everyone else thinks you’re a prick”, staring intently as he moved his hand back and forth, slowly, before his eyes. The youngster frowned, concentrating and confused, moved his hand again, in and out, tilting his head for a different perspective. He shook his head and closed his eyes, smiling ruefully to himself. He sat back down.

‘May I sit here?’

She looked up at a small man in overalls, smiling pleasantly and pointing at the seat next to hers. Agatha shifted position automatically, said, ‘Of course, of course.’ He sat and smiled in thanks, dropping his bag and pulling an orange from his pocket. Juice misted into the air as he cracked the peel, followed by a suffusion of the fruit’s sweet-tangy aroma. Agatha linked her fingers and sat back, contented in the moment. She stole glances at her neighbour: short hair, thick eyebrows, handsome if unremarkable. He had the sort of boyish face that looked younger than its years, punctuated by deep-set eyes that marked the true age. They sat together, not speaking, the noisy rhythms of a busy station receded to a distant burble.

The young man smiled and said, ‘The station is nice now, isn’t it? Looks nice.’

‘Yes, it’s lovely. Lots of light. It was very rundown before. It’s nicer to draw now.’ She stopped and smiled, a little abashed.

‘I’m not very good. I just, you know. It passes the time.’

‘No, that’s a good hobby to have. I’ve always liked art.’

Agatha chuckled, saying, ‘What I produce is not art. It’s far from art. Ach, it’s relaxing.’

The young man nodded in thought and said, ‘I like it when stations are empty. You know, at night, or very early. When there’s hardly anyone around. I like the quietness.’

‘Oh, yes?’

‘Yeah… I’m sorry, would you like some?’

He offered her the orange; she declined with a shake of her hand.
‘Mm. The quietness…that’s what I like. There’s too much noise in the world now. Look at that fellow over there.’

He pointed towards a florid-faced man sitting with a suitcase, bellowing at a thin, nervous-looking creature who stood before him. The young man said, ‘He’s too loud. Isn’t he? Roaring and shouting at his poor friend there. And about what? It’s all just noise. Pointless white noise.’ He turned back to her. ‘Did you ever think about how quiet the earth must have been before humans? Before we came along with our speech and our machines and cars and televisions. There must have been far less sound on the planet before the advent of man. A few animals howling, the wind, the rain, volcanoes and earthquakes…what else? There was hardly any noise.’

Agatha laughed gently. ‘You may be right. But I’m afraid I’m probably the opposite to you. It’s the babble and the movement I mainly come here for. I like it, the people milling around, all that life and business. It’s…’ She paused. ‘You don’t feel lonely while you’re in the middle of that.’

He stood and wiped his hands on his overalls, saying, ‘That’s okay. It’s okay to feel like that. I know what you mean.’ He stopped, looking around. ‘Listen. There’s going to be some work done here later on. Maintenance and so on.’

‘I thought you worked here, alright. With the overalls and the bag.’

‘Yeah, that’s right. Anyway, it’s, ah, there’s going to be a lot of dust and dirt and stuff in the air, lot of commotion, so I’d suggest you tip off home soon enough. Just for your own sake, like. Lot of, ah, pollutants and dust and things in the air, you know. Bad for the lungs. We’ll be clearing out the area anyway, but just for your own sake. Okay?’

He picked up his bag and smiled, nodding goodbye. Agatha said, ‘I’ll do that, thank you. Thanks for the advice.’ The young man moved away, his body leaning with the downward pull of the bag.

(i see between the layers of these things i squeeze through like blood from cut skin this small event is a travesty a waste a fucking tragedy i want a fist through glass or a car-smash a little yellow-fever or a night standing naked in cold rain my hands glow a sandy colour they are flecked with alien matter)

Part Two of “The Planet of Sound” is coming up next Monday

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