The Planet of Sound • Part 2 of 2

ounds of an argument wafted towards Claire
as she walked along the platform. Her legs felt a little unsteady, that mild approximation of seasickness occasioned by the slalom of the train as it pulled in. Nausea settled in the hollow of her stomach, and she hoped her father wouldn’t be late.

The argument grew louder, a fog of soundwaves clarifying into words, pauses, emphases, and then Claire was passing them, two men in official-looking blazers. The heavier of the two was jabbing a finger at the other’s chest, vein pulsing in his temple, the glint of precious metal in a tooth filling. He said, ‘This is your responsibility. Yours. Not someone else’s. Yours.’ The other man shifted back a few feet, eyes up towards an advertising placard. He muttered something about a speech he had to give at a social function that evening. The heavy man raised a hand flat before him, the semaphore of “Stop.” He shook his head violently and said, ‘No, Austin. It can’t get done tomorrow. I don’t give a flying shit about your golf dinner, and this must get sorted out today. Now. So do it.’ The thin man bit his lip, defeated and sullen, eventually nodding acquiescence. His superior turned on his heel, calling back, ‘And don’t think this is the end of it. I’ve had it up to here with your fucking attitude, union be damned. You’ll be hearing more about this.’ The thin man waited until the other was at a safe distance, then contorted his face into a childish moue and recited, ‘You’ll hear more about this. You’ll hear more about this.’ He noticed Claire, and stopped; Claire noticed that she was staring, and carried on.

amien finished his cigarette, sucking the hotness from the butt-end, that cloudy burn, and returned inside the station. The strap of the rucksack dug into his shoulder-blade. He wriggled his shoulders, grimacing, trying to shift the weight of the bag, but it made little difference. He glanced at his watch again: forty-five more minutes to wait. The watch hands pulsed softly under the glass casing, in tune with Damien’s heartbeat. He smiled in appreciation for a few seconds, despite his annoyance. An announcement squalled over the tannoy, but all Damien registered was the fuzzy “bing-bong” at the beginning and end – the rest was just noise.

ill Gates is so rich, apparently – get this now – he’s so rich that there’s not enough dollars in the world should he decide to cash in his wealth. Hah? Not enough actual paper money to give him what he’d be owed. Now there’s a man I could admire.’

Charles was riffing on another rant, this one about the inequities of the tax system and the masses of whining socialists who had, he believed, infiltrated the proper political parties. Major chewed three sticks of gum at once, stepping lightly from foot to foot, nodding metronomically as Charles held forth.

‘But there’s you, Major, with your soft spot for the “underclasses”, quote-unquote, and your benefits and education. With your understanding. ‘Tis all a load of rubbish. I blame the religious; they were always too soft. Do you think the likes of that eejit over there appreciates what bleeding hearts like you try to do for him? The state of him.’

Major glanced over at a young man smiling giddily at his fingers as he wriggled them before his eyes, slow ropes swimming through the air. He looked around at other travellers, grinning dumbly, vague entreaties to share in the spectacle. Major sighed heavily and pulled a cigarette from the packet. He seemed about to speak, but nodded at Charles instead. He put the cigarette in his mouth, sighed, removed it and said, ‘I might…pop outside for a smoke, will I?’

Charles harrumphed and said, ‘Go on, then. You might as well.’ He turned and peered at the departures board. ‘Christ almighty. How much longer have we to wait for that bloody train?’

he display board was changing, digital characters, numbers and letters, their constituent points of light rearranged. One train had arrived, been checked and cleaned and refuelled, and was now ready for its outward journey. A message rolled across the top of the departures section of the board: the next train to Galway would now leave from platform three, twenty-five minutes later than planned, and not platform seven. An accompanying verbal announcement explained that station personnel were currently experiencing some minor signalling difficulties, and thanked passengers for their co-operation.

Claire looked away from the board, bored and tense. She bit her fingernail and sucked apple juice through a straw. Her father still hadn’t arrived.

(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 as our happy drama cycles round again bare spontaneous and violently loud)

ou’re late. You were meant to be here twenty…’ Austin stopped, taking a second look at the man with the bag, properly noticing him only now. ‘You’re not the engineer. The engineer doesn’t wear overalls.’ The man stood there, stocky, a passive expression, clutching a canvas hold-all. He didn’t speak. Austin frowned and said, ‘Well – who are you, then? Come on, dummy. Speak. Did maintenance send you down here?’

The man nodded and placed the bag on the ground. He said, ‘That’s right. Boss’ orders. Asked me to check out the, ah, the generator down here.’

“The generator? What fucking generator? …That fucking Considine. He’s only doing this to annoy me. That’s it. Here – hold this.’ Austin handed the man a slim manual and a torch. ‘We’ll fucking see about a generator.’ He took off towards the inner station, talking over his shoulder. ‘If you see the engineer, tell him it’s this platform, alright? He knows what to do.’

The man smiled and saluted. He waited a few seconds, then walked briskly towards a small stand-alone hut, twenty yards down the platform. He checked nobody was watching and ducked behind the hut, bending and reaching into a thick undergrowth of weeds and rubbish. The man felt around, concentrating on touch-information, and finally smiled. He had found what he was searching for.

argaret locked her office door, giving the key an extra wriggle for insurance. It was unlikely that someone would break into an office in a train station, but in these dangerous, unpredictable times, one could never be sure. Her sister had agreed with her, talking on the phone five minutes before: the world was gone to hell. She passed the front desk, nodding in greeting to the girl working it today, and noticed how much she was perspiring already. Margaret was significantly overweight. She knew this, and pledged to rectify matters as soon as she had more time. Weightwatchers, maybe, or that other thing, like yoga, the thing Madonna was fond of.

But that could wait. She walked towards the snack kiosk in the centre of the station, a functional, plasticky-looking structure, reminiscent of a fast-food chain. Another signifier of the encroaching Americanisation of the country, she angrily noted. Margaret was fumbling for change in her pocket when a tall, crazy-looking man in a profane t-shirt stepped in front of her, a rapturous smile on his face, his eyes looking beyond her. (more…)

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. (more…)