by Ian Green
The walls of Tim’s flat were thin and only a day after he moved in he heard his neighbour sing for the first time. The brick was enough to dull the sound so he could make out no words - only melody and emotion. For a week Tim was unusually quiet, and he listened. He chopped vegetables with great restraint, he did not turn on his radio or his television or his hi-fi - he sat and he read and he ate soft foods that wouldn’t crunch too much, and he listened.
It was a girl. A girl, who lived alone, a girl who filled her life with music, made up songs, la-la-la and doop-doo-bop all evening. Sometimes she would listen to the radio or her stereo and she would sing along over the recorded sound. Sometimes she would be silent. She sang guitar solos, drum fills, bass lines, and counter melodies. She sang while she cooked, formless words punctuated by the sound of chopping, of boiling, of pans and pots and movement. Tim adopted his new silence with ease. He unplugged his phone, and when he got home in the evening the first thing he did was take off his shoes. The girl was always alone, and she was almost always singing. It affected him. Tim went to work, and he worked hard, and he called his mother during his lunch break every few days. In the evenings, he ironed his shirts and made his dinner and read, quietly, listening.
After two weeks, Tim bought four hundred pounds worth of audio equipment. He bought a shotgun microphone with a rotating stand, headphones, an old cassette deck, and a bulk pack of two hundred blank cassettes. He bought rolls of duct tape and thick curtains. One Saturday when he was sure the girl had left for whatever she left to do all day, he moved all of his furniture to the wall opposite her flat. He taped up the thick curtains on this opposite wall to dull the muffled footsteps and murmured voices of other people. He set up his armchair facing the wall between their living rooms, with a coffee table in front of it he could rest the microphone stand on.
Every evening Tim would come home from work and prepare his dinner, so quietly, and then he would sit in his armchair and he would put on his headphones and point the shotgun microphone at her wall, and he would listen. For the first few days he held a book in his hands, but he would never make it to the end of the page. His dinner often went uneaten. With the microphone, a whole new depth of sound came to him. Not just the singing, which he assiduously recorded on the cassette deck, but phone conversations and movements. He could tell where her bathroom was, and would point his microphone out of the window toward distant birds or planes when she went in there. There was no prurience. He was not a pervert. He just appreciated. On weekends, sometimes she would sleep late, sometimes she would go out. He went to visit his family, reluctantly, or he bought magazines on sound recording. He looked longingly at expensive headphones and boom microphones in specialist shops.
Tim was in love. He did not know what she looked like - their flats shared a wall but had different street access. He did not even know what house number was hers-he would not snoop in the street. That would not be proper. The distance of their proximity was maddening, but he could not bring himself to intrude on her life. To further this in any way, he would have to behave in a way he felt was improper.
After two months, Tim would have admitted that maybe his interest in her audible activities could be considered, perhaps, creepy, but he knew it was harmless. He had no ill intentions, no sexual or violent desires, only, only… a longing to listen to a voice. He had tapes, dozens of tapes now, and notebooks with references to times in the tapes, with dates and the weather and what else he had gleaned about her day that day. His favourite was track 1 of side-B of cassette #72, where she sang disconnected snatches of ‘La vie en rose’, the Louis Armstrong version, for ten minutes. She mumbled the melody almost inaudibly to herself late one Tuesday night as a hard rain fell outside, and the world seemed to be washed away. For the trumpet solo, she made trumpet noises, a child imitating a cartoon elephant. Tim listened to that tape every night as he fell asleep. He made a back-up copy of it, and then a back-up of the back-up that he kept at work locked in a drawer.
Tim was in love.
In the fourth month, there was a tonal shift. A more mournful note entered her songs, a minor key where before there had been nothing but major. For days she sang; she sang ‘La vie en rose’, but it wasn’t the Louis Armstrong version with the trumpet noises. It was in French, Edith Piaf- the original. When the girl sang it, the song became a dirge. The wistful longing in her voice he had recorded weeks before was gone. Tim didn’t speak French, and the combination of her desolate intonation and the queer syntax left him hollow.
When the girl was asleep or when he was at work Tim looked back through his notebooks and listened to the cassettes over and over, trying to understand what was wrong. Every night, she would go to sleep, and he would lie in his bed with his hand pressed to the cold brick of the wall and he would listen to track 1 of side-B of cassette #72. He wanted nothing more than her happiness. For several days in a row she did not sing. She did not sing. He could hear her cooking, eating, watching television, talking on the phone distractedly about mundane things, turning pages in a book, washing dishes - but not singing. Tim forgot to shave, and at work was reprimanded for his crumpled shirt and lacklustre tie.
He began to conjure plans. After the girl was asleep, when he could hear faint breathing and a rustling of bedclothes if he turned the sensitivity up to its maximum, he would turn off the microphone. Now he listened to the old cassettes obsessively, trying to find something, some excuse to make contact hidden in the hours of sound or a clue to the weight in her heart. He made scrupulous notes and spent hours sitting still, eyes closed, contriving situations in which they might meet, in which he might help her. He forged elaborate narratives in his head as he lay endlessly awake - explanations for her sadness that always seemed so easily remedied by the presence of someone there who understood.
He could be that someone. Tim could listen. Tim would listen. He began staring at women on his street, and then on his way to work, and then even at work, trying to discern from the way they moved if they were the singing girl. It was useless. The girl sat in, alone, and sang sad songs to herself, or didn’t sing at all. Tim listened and recorded. When she sang in French he couldn’t stand it- he would go to his room and listen to the older tapes and reread the notebooks.
One night he did not come home. He went to a bar with work people and drank and listened to music, and conversation. Josephine from marketing tried to kiss him at the end of the night and he almost let her. When he got home and pressed his face against the cold brick of the wall he could hear nothing, nothing at all.
One evening, late, the girl started crying, quiet sobs he could only hear if his aim with the microphone was unwavering. He took off his headphones and turned on his dusty radio and tuned it to a station full of serious talk by serious people, and he turned it up loud. The intangible grief of others is a great burden. Still, though, even when he tried not to use the microphone of an evening, even when he went out, even when he forced himself to watch television or read or drink or eat loud foods, he knew she was wilting behind a layer of brick, and every night he listened to track 1 of side-B of cassette #72 and pressed his hand against the wall where he imagined her to be.
The first solution Tim thought of was to sing. He would sing to her, and she would love him as he loved her, for a purity of emotion and melody unfettered by looks or intellect, a direct contact of souls. After a few experiments in the shower and in empty lifts, Tim confirmed his fear - he could not carry a tune. His tenor was wobbly and flat, deeply unimpressive. He had no memory for melody, and even less of one for lyrics. Tim could not sing to her.
The second solution was to knock on the wall, and shout through it, and ask her to go outside. She might go outside. Yet what would he say? She would think he was mad. Or she might not go outside. She might call the police. She might move away.
The third solution, then - press the speakers of his hi-fi up against her wall, and play music very, very loud, until she had to seek him out to make him stop. He would smile at her, and apologise, and contact would be made, and he would be charming, and romantic clichés would swarm the room, and she would take him to her home and he would sit on her floor and she would sing to him, forever.
Tim took the day off work to prepare. He arranged his flat like a normal flat (except for the hi-fi speakers pressed against her wall). He went to the supermarket and stocked up his fridge with healthy, normal food, and expensive wine, and import beers in case she didn’t like wine, and fruit juice in case she didn’t like beer. He took the box full of cassettes and hid them in his cupboard with the shotgun microphone, and left the headphones on top of the hi-fi. He ironed his favourite shirt and brushed his hair and sat, and waited. Then he heard her keys jangling by her door, and her voice. She was singing, outside, she was singing outside!
Tim stood and went to the hi-fi and turned it on. His finger hovered over the play button. In the hi-fi was a mixtape, a tape he would play very loudly, but every song on it was something he had heard her sing more than twice. She would be annoyed, but she would not hate him. Still she was singing, singing, was it Bohemian Rhapsody? He had never heard her sing a Queen song before. He did not want to interrupt. In fact, he began to curse himself for hiding the microphone and the cassette-deck. He should be recording this.
Then he fell to his knees, and grabbed at his head and started to moan. She was singing, but there was something else - it was another voice.
Not her faltering alto. This was a tenor, no, no, this was a bass. He could hear the low vibratos of a broad chest, the voice of a man. The alto and the bass sang back and forth, the bass out of tune, and then they stopped.
They were laughing. They sounded drunk.
She sounded happier than she had in weeks. Fighting tears, Tim ripped the mixtape from the hi-fi and threw it at the wall. He went to his bedroom and picked up the other tape, his favourite tape, the tape he listened to every night before he slept. Tim went back to the living room and put the tape in the hi-fi and with shaking hands pressed play: track 1 of side-B of cassette #72, from a wet Tuesday a lifetime ago.
- sank to his knees
- closed his eyes
- held his hand against the bare brick
- pushed against the wall
- turned up the volume until the world was nothing but the sound of her voice